The thermometer registered 95 degrees as we entered Nicaragua, and that heat followed us right through the country. Short fat trees squatted over very dry pastureland. We could see mountain ridges in the distance but here the land was flat, and the highway wide with smooth pavement and good signage. Bob felt relief from the constant curves and hills of Honduras and Guatemala. There were fewer cars, and far more wooden carts pulled by one scrawny pony or a team of burley oxen strapped together by a piece of lumber tied to their horns. With no suspension the two wheeled carts bounced contents and driver along the roadway. It did not look comfortable. There were cowboys on horses and many men on bicycle. We passed fields of sugar cane and some of banana, and one that looked like grapes. But the majority of land was pasture, grazed by herds of cattle and horse.
Travelling the Pan-American highway, we stopped for one night in León, then took highway 4 to the city of Grenada.
We booked into the Grenada Boutique, and were instantly charmed by its eclectic mix of furniture and its spacious rooms. The Dutch owner told us that it was 90 yards from the street to the back. Chairs and tables of stone, wood, or metal were spread throughout three main areas. First was the reception and restaurant, then a garden with walkways through flowering shrubs, and then a narrow tiled hallway led to a large open air pool with loungers. Near the pool, a darkly stained wooden staircase hugged one wall, and seemed strangely out of place. From the second floor we could look across a city of tiled roofs, to Mombacho Volcano, 10 kilometers away.
Leo the doorman directed Bob to park right in front of the hotel door. From the ever open doorway, he watched our car at night, stored our bicycles, and ran to help open our room door whenever the key would get stuck.
Situated on Lake Nicaragua, Grenada has a history of being invaded by pirates who sailed up the river and entered the lake. We walked the streets taking in the historic buildings and then toured the Centro Cultural Convento San Francisco museum. The convent was founded in 1529. There were archaeological and religious displays but we especially enjoyed the paintings by indigenous artists.
Taking a break at an outdoor restaurant, we met Luis. About seventy years old, he was born and raised in Grenada, but now resides in the USA. He returns each year for several months with the goal of providing funds for kids to play baseball. He told us about his life and shared his worry for his country. In Canada we had read about the unrest and the protests this year, which resulted in deaths, and were worried that we would not be able to travel through here. Luis talked briefly about the political situation but he acknowledged that it is dangerous for a Nicaraguan to speak out. With a dwindling middle class, the stretch between rich and poor grows wider, with little funds to support the social structure. We felt no reason to fear for our own safety, but throughout our time in Nicaragua we felt sadness for these beautiful people.
On New Year’s eve, we took a kayak tour of the islands that surround the peninsula on Lake Nicaragua. At one hundred miles long, it is the 9th largest lake in the americas. Although fresh water, it is notable in that it also has saltwater species like the bull shark, which jumps from the ocean up the rapids of the river, like salmon.
Our guide Frank was talkative and jovial. We paddled by many islands, now owned by wealthy people from around the world. Frank told us who owned it, or used to own it, and the purchase price. Not a surprise that some have dubbed this the real estate tour. As we paddled by an island owned by Canadians, Frank yelled to them from the kayak that we were Canadians, but that did not score us an invite on to the island.
On the taxi ride back to the center, the driver stopped to pick up Frank’s wife and two year old daughter so that we could meet them. What a sweet couple.
Through my sister-in-law Pam, we contacted ex Canadians Melanie and Greg who graciously offered to meet us for drinks and supper on New Year’s Eve. This amazing couple have literally made the world their home. Having lived and worked in many countries including Guyana, Uzbekistan, Tasmania, and Australia, they now live in Grenada but commute to work in countries like Haiti and Kenya. Along with their American friends, we enjoyed sharing travel stories while feasting on delicious middle eastern food, at a restaurant known as Pita Pita. Just before midnight Bob and I sat on the second story of our hotel and watched the fireworks heat up. At first it was mostly noisemakers and then at midnight, star bursts from homes all over the city. There were no official city fireworks so it was a mixed bag of a lot of smoke, booms and whistles. A celebration of sorts.
New Year’s Day we went for a bike ride along the beach. Half of Grenada’s 100,000 plus citizens must have been there. Swarms of Nicaraguan families were picnicking, swimming, and boating. Kids filled the playgrounds. There were older style swing sets with thick wood seats, lots of ancient teeter totters, along with modern style climbing centers and plastic slides. The beach goes on for a long way and most of the space between road and water was occupied by people. Food containers, plastic bags, bottles, and cups were strewn everywhere. At one point I needed to cycle passed a big policeman who stood with one foot on the sidewalk and one on the street. He saw me, but he did not move. Not wanting to veer into the bumper to bumper traffic, I had to stop the bike, get off and walk around him. What is that all about?
It was a short drive from Grenada to the pacific coastal town of San Juan del Sur. This is a tourist destination and as we drove around town we noticed many hotels, restaurants, shops and gringos. The one camping spot was full, so taking the suggestion from Melanie and Greg, we headed north of town toward the more remote beaches.
It was a backcountry road, winding passed small houses with large shady yards, and barbed wire fencing. A handful of unobtrusive hotels or hostels were tucked here and there. We found a good camping spot at the Mexican Villas, and parked on the grass near shade trees. It was very hot and windy. The friendly owners, Carla and Alex, encouraged us to make use of the facilities which included a small pool and palapa covered seating. One morning
Alex brought us his homemade Nicatamale, fresh from the coals. It was wrapped in foil and tied with a red string. Inside was a mix of corn meal, chicken, tomato, potato and rice. Like a mini casserole. I liked it. Bob was not a fan.
There are three beaches within a few minutes of the campground. Playa Maderas became our favorite. From camp, we rode the bikes down the road, pushed-climbed a steep hill, and then faced a very steep ride down. It was worth the effort. Big black rocks enclosed each end of the beach, leaving the middle section open for surfing.
Large breaking waves rolled in, and there were about two dozen surfers in the water. A few others wandered the beach and another dozen or so were sitting in one of the small patio restaurants that were nestled against the hill. No hawkers, no plastic beach chairs, no umbrellas.
Just raw beach. Hot sun. Big waves.
The first day we took turns on our boogie board, or sat under the shade watching the surfers. Day two Bob rented a long board.
As surfers we would be classified as pre-beginner. For us, it is hard work just walking out with the board. Each wave tries to force you back. Staying inside the rolling waves, we attempted to catch the frothy white force that spills out after the wave breaks.
At about waist deep we would see a wave coming, then throw ourselves on the board and paddle madly, trying to keep the board facing towards shore. When the wave picks up the board you feel it. This is the magic. There is a momentary lift, and then the board shoots forward. At this point you are supposed to stand up.
We both managed a couple of stands each, Yay us, but most of the time we were just trying to stay on. Sometimes you fall off sideways, sometimes the front of the board goes down and you flip head first. Like skiing, the ride is the thrill. But it is also hard on the body. I gulped at least two cups of salty water, jammed my knee, cut two toes and had my bathing suit rearranged a few times. When I did a butt plant on hard sand, I dragged the board up the beach to our spot under the tree, and we called it a day.
On the way back to our camp we finally saw howler monkeys in the trees by the road. We had been hearing their lion like roar since we arrived here.
The Plan. We are headed to Costa Rica for a few days. Not looking forward to the border crossing. On the beach we met Peter and Michaela who are from the Czech Republic but are driving a GMC van with Ontario plates. They want to share a shipping container in Panama and so for the next few weeks we will be planning that with them, by email.