Somoto had a beautiful canyon that can be entirely visited if you take a six-hour tour,
which I did, not knowing what I was getting myself into. Indeed, the first two hours were about rock climbing, not very steep but still going up and down the rocks to walk along the canyon. The next two hours were about swimming down the canyon where the Rio Coco, Central America's largest river (originates?). Because I had been told I could take my camera, I did and ended up carrying my backpack on the top of my head holding it with one hand and swimming with the other one. That was ok for a few meters, but not for two hours. This was when I understood why the lovely planet mentioned that we had to be in good physical condition for this trek!
Fortunately, another group caught up with us and those ones were definitely prepared. They had proper shoes, life jackets and ... a little inflatable boat to keep their bags dry!
The following two hours were a mix of them both: walking on the rocks and swimming. There were a few pretty high jumps to do from the rocks into crystal clear water. I really had a hard time but a beautiful one at the same time (a bit like the hike in the jungle). At night, I got invited to a party by the people who caught up with me in the canyon. They were from Somoto and had been living in the States for the past ten years. It was great to hang out with a local family and discover more about the authenticity of Nicaragua. I got introduced to the entire town, the fishmonger, the baker, the banker, the hairdresser and felt like a movie star the next day walking around town with people shouting my name to say hello from every store.
As it was difficult to live a normal life being so famous out there, I moved onto the next town.
Esteli was an artsy place that played an important part during the Sandinista-led revolution and later the contra war. As now, it remains one of the Sandinista's strongest support bases in the country. This sentiment was expressed thanks to its beautifully painted murals all over town. On my way down to Leon, the country's original capital, I made a few more stops in beautiful misty and untouched villages further up the mountains, nerve centre for Nicaragua's coffee and cigars industry.
Leon was a volcanic and intellectual home to Nicaragua's best museums, oldest universities and finest churches, including the grandest cathedral in Central America. It was the hottest part of the country with daytime temperatures in the low 30C. Leon was surrounded by the Maribios chain, epicentre of one of the most active volcanic regions.
There were twelve distinct volcanoes, including San Cristobal (1745m), the tallest volcano in Nicaragua with streaming grey smoke from its smooth cone and Telica (1061m) which remains very active. Also right next to Leon was the Cerro Negro (726m...and growing), one of the youngest volcanoes in the world. It first erupted in 1850, and its pitch-black, loose gravel cone has been growing in spurts ever since. Three more recent eruptions in 1992, 1995 and 1999 have destroyed crops for kilometres around and opened three more craters at its base.
It was a steep, shadeless two-hour climb into the eye-watering fumes of the yellow streaked crater. Then, it was a faster way down if you go volcano surfing on sandboards! Which I did of course.
It was brilliant yet but very different from snowboarding. The gravels slowed you down (a bit like heavy fresh powder snow),
but if you went straight, you could still get a good speed and enjoy the views of the sunset while sandboarding down. Finding people to do it was not easy and as the tour required a minimum of four people, I had to wait a few days to be able to do it. I kept on enquiring, advertising, talking to people to do it and before I knew it, I was on my way to the volcano with four good looking Californian surfer dudes. I guess it was worth the wait.
In the meantime, I visited Leon and its churches, I could even climb on the top of the cathedral for spectacular views of the city and smoking volcanoes. I also had a stroll in the 'museo entomologico' with a large collection of insects, beetles displaying ferocious-looking pincers and heaps of butterflies and critters to peruse. The most interesting part of that museum was not what it was displaying but the fifty year old bubbly owner that was passionate about his job. I actually felt like being in the movie "the diner de cons" with this big well groomed moustache man frenzily explaining to me how he was picking insects, catching them, shipping them back, conserving them, examining them and displaying them. It was the type of discussion I have never had before in my life and have actually never thought I could have one day. In the end, as I knew very little about the Lucanidae insect of Nicaragua, he taught me a lot and just seeing how passionate he was about all those insects made it a refreshing experience.
On my way to Granada, I hooked up with a bunch of people to form one happy big group of seven: an interesting combo of six girls and one guy.
We all shared a dorm and had a great time together. We even hooked up with some more people along the way and it was easy to share things, taxis, rooms and book tours or go places as a big happy family. Granada was very touristy as it was truly beautiful and had a lot to offer. I walked around town, climbed its churches and fort, hiked the steaming Masaya volcano, which was not an easy one because of the sulfurous toxic gases that you can smell and taste!
If you visit it at night, you can apparently see the lava. I also went to the crystal clear laguna de Apoyo, visited a ceramic school, and tried to make a vase but only succeeded in making a plate with a lot of help from the students. Last but not least, I got all my Christmas presents at the indigenous market of Masaya.
As a group, we moved onto the island of Ometepe that could come straight out of a fairy tale with its two volcanic peaks rising from the lake of Nicaragua and forming an hourglass of beaches and jungles cinched to a sinuous isthmus between them. The place we were staying at was a gem.
Right on the beach (or what was left of it after the rainy season), it had hammocks dispersed among a beautiful garden with little cabanas. We met two other guys who were actors and acted as such. Every night, they were mocking around, dancing and singing for us, it was magical. Out of the two volcanoes to climb: gently smoking Concepcion (1610m) and inactive Maderas (1394m), we did not pick the twelve-hour hike up loose volcanic stone of Concepcion but the eight-hour muddy slog through a misty cloud forest of Maderas. It was truly hard, but amazingly beautiful. Not only because of the views - except the view at the top as we were deep into the cloud forest - but because of the diversity of the climb. The scenery was changing all the time from big fields to deep jungle to cloud forest and rainforest.
The trek was made of simple walks to rock climbing, steep trekking, trees climbing. The surface was extremely slippery and as muddy as during the jungle trek but that is what made it challenging. The boys were singing and with the jungle noise and the peace of the mountain, it made this hike a magical time.
At night, we had the choice of going to bed early as extremely exhausted or partying as overtired. We chose option number two and the two actors made sure we had an enjoyable evening. The next day, we rented bicycles to drive around but seeing that the roads are very basic, it was more a trek in the dirt than a relaxing bike ride. It was all about hanging on the handlebars to go down hill riding over rocks and stones and pushing hard on the pedals to go up hill...over the rocks.
Apart from the road, the scenery was beautiful though with kids playing in the fields, old men waving hello sitting in a chair in front of their houses, women washing their clothes in the river and cows making up the pace of the ride. A well deserved hot springs swim into 'the ojo de agua' was literally needed after all this activity. I found it hard to have a better feeling than the one I had while swinging in the incredibly comfortable hammock having a foot massage after hot springs and all day intense exercise.
My last stop in Nicaragua was in the beach town of San Juan Del Sur close to the Costa Rican border on the Pacific side.
San Juan Del Sur was the most touristed destination in Nicaragua as the gateway to the most amazing white sand, excellent surfing and dry weather beaches. The town itself was a surf and party town full of amazingly good looking people from all over the world. I do not think I have ever seen such a concentration before (maybe apart from my trip to Sweden).
It looked like there was a beauty contest of some sort because everybody, boys and girls were absolutely outstanding, The surf vibe helped as well and it was common to come across a tall blond tanned girl with a perfect body, a surfboard under her arm wearing nothing else than a small swimming top and ...a thong. It was unreal, yet it was true. I was wondering what I was doing here and it was impossible to keep up, so after a few days and nights of enjoying looking around at the beauty of the beaches and the people, I took the next bus towards Costa Rica.
At the border, there was an amazing number of trucks stationed for about a mile before and one after. It was the first time that a chicken bus actually dropped me off right at the border. I was able to walk across in less than a minute. The Honduras exit and the Nicaragua entrance were 50 cm apart, so close that the Honduras officer gave my passport directly to the Nicaraguan one. The bus to the next main town is right at the end of the street. It took me seven different buses and a little under six hours to go from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Somoto, Nicaragua.