We stayed in a hotel the night prior to crossing the border into Nicaragua. We did this so that we wouldn’t have a bunch of life maintenance to deal with in the morning and could get to the border nice and early. Best laid plans… We hadn’t counted on finding a channel on the television that had movies in English. We were faced with the choice of arriving at the border early in the morning, beating the afternoon heat or watching Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Since one bad choice usually leads to another, we opted to stick around for The Terminator as well. As the Terminator was doing his damnedest to wipe out the human race, I was becoming more and more caffeinated and anxious about our border crossing. I finally asked Scott to just tell me how it ended so we could get on the road.
It was still morning when we left the hotel, but just barely. No problem, we were only about 20 minutes away from the border. Well, twenty minutes if your truck keeps going. Ours didn’t. We were two blocks from the hotel on a busy four-lane road when the engine died. She started right back up again only to die once more. We had enough momentum to pull off the road into a driveway. It was the driveway to the Federal Justice Department. It was a Sunday so they were closed but the nice man with the gun on his hip still didn’t want us blocking the driveway. We had wasted no time diagnosing the cause of our immobility (fried wires to the fuel injector) and knew it would be a quick fix. The security guard was pretty adamant that we not wrench on the truck right there. I asked him in Spanish for cinco minutos to fix the truck. Scott echoed my plea but asked for diez minutos. The guard looked at us very sternly and said, in English, “ten minutes”. Sweet! Two young men who were sweeping the driveway came over to help. They acted as nurses to Scott’s role as surgeon anticipating his needs, handing him implements out of our splayed box of tools. It was a frantic operation of stripping wires, twisting them together and adding a butt-connector to the junction (haha -butt connector). It only took the allotted ten minutes from start to finish. The security guard was on his way over to tell us to vamoose when Scott dropped the hood, shook hands with the nurses and we were on our way!
The Nicaragua border has a reputation for being really tough. We braced ourselves for surly officials, thorough searches and long waits. The toughest part turned out to be finding the border. There were semi-trucks lined up for miles in our lane forcing us into a nonconsensual game of Frogger with oncoming traffic as we wove around them. We followed another car down a wrong road only to be redirected by a man leading a train of horses loaded down with huge sacks of fragrant onions. Once we had navigated the gauntlet of trucks we had to zipper-merge with them onto a bridge that was only half constructed. I feared for our tires as we drove over a trench spanned almost all the way across with rebar. Somehow, we made it to the border with our tires intact.
Checking out of Honduras was a breeze. All it took was a visit to two windows, very close to each other. Stamp, stamp, scribble and we were ready to tackle Nicaragua. After a quick tire spritz from the fumigation man (wearing a respirator) we’re pretty sure we drove in the out gate and ended up parked in tour bus parking. Whatever. With all of the construction going on I can’t imagine that anyone knew where they were going. We were armed with printouts of the approval from the government we had applied for a week in advance as well as ten copies of everything we could possibly need copies of (we didn’t need any copies this time). The passport stamping went smoothly. It took two officials in glass cubbies, $24 USD (they only take USD at the border) and one roaming helper to get stamped into the country. Next, we needed an inspection. We found a guy with a badge who, in retrospect, probably didn’t work there. He led us to a lady in an official polo shirt. She led us to a guy in an official polo shirt. He led us to another guy in an official polo shirt who actually inspected our truck. The inspection consisted of a glance in the back, a glance in the front, and a lecture about not bringing drones into the country. They have fancy x-ray machines at the Nicaragua borders and were pretty bummed that we didn’t have any suitcases to x-ray. We probably could have come up with something to send through the machine but they didn’t push it. We stood around for about half an hour in the air-conditioned x-ray room waiting for our permit to be processed. It was definitely the most pleasant place to be. Once we had that in hand we just needed to find the ladies with clipboards to buy some insurance. They were hanging out in the shade near the truckers. All in all, it was not as traumatic a crossing as we had anticipated.
Once we were free from our bureaucratic obligations we headed to our first Nicaraguan destination. The beach! Jiquilillo was the name of the town. We found a surfer’s hostel on the water that had a place for us to set up camp facing the beach. It was nice to get reacquainted with the Pacific Ocean again. We hadn’t seen her since we were in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. That was three countries ago! We set up our camp and set out for a long walk on the beach. It didn’t last very long. This time of year, there isn’t much beach to be had and since I wasn’t feeling excited about long scrambles over rocks we headed back up to the road. The sky was looking ominous as we turned back toward camp. We passed women carrying limp dogs whose bellies were covered with purple ointment, a cockfighting ring surrounded by men cheering on their favorite chicken, and young men batting baseballs in their yard. We could see our camp when the sky opened up and poured buckets of water down on our heads. Thankfully it was warm rain. We hid out in the space under one of the elevated guest rooms until the rain calmed enough for us to deploy our awning. We love our awning. It provides us with outside living space in all weather conditions. Or so we thought. In Jiquilillo we discovered that our awning is powerless against sideways driving rain. Again, thankfully it was warm rain.
The town was very sleepy. A combination of politics and weather ensured that we had plenty of solitude on that beach. We met one other guest. A young woman from Whitehorse, Canada. She had been there surfing for months and was very fond of the F-word. We also met Brittany. She tried to tell me that she was three years old but after trying to teach her to play sudoku it was clear that she wasn’t that great with numbers. She was always carrying around a tiny kitten that they had found on the beach. It was definitely the time of year for baby animals. The roadsides were populated with many chicks and piglets. Very cute.
After a couple of days on the beach, we were ready to move on. We had read about a hike that would take us to the rim of a volcano crater where we could see three countries at the same time. The real draw was that there was a 4×4 track that would take us about halfway up the volcano. We love driving on questionable roads. We went through the most thorough search of the trip on the way to the volcano. The police looked through all of our drawers, had me open our locked cases and photographed all the contents. They documented our license plates and took pictures of our passports. Police searches are stressful even when you have nothing to hide. Once they were done digging through our truck we were free to head up the volcano. We took a couple of wrong turns and with direction from some friendly farmers were able to find the road and get to the trailhead. The trail itself was not overly remarkable but the view from the top was stunning. We could see El Salvador and Honduras from the mirador on the rim. It was a gorgeous day with rain on the horizon helping to make the vistas even more beautiful. We didn’t linger too long as we still had some driving to do that day to get to our next camp spot.
We were headed toward another volcano. Cerro Negro (Black Hill). On the way, we stopped for lunch at a Pupuseria in the town of Chinandega. The pupusas were delicious! The couple running the place were super friendly. They were intrigued by Scott’s veganism and were hoping that we were staying in town so that they could make special vegan pupusas for Scott the next day. Could have been fun, but we were on a mission to get to our next camp. We arrived at Cerro Negro just after they closed for the day. They let us camp out behind the visitor’s center. It was so peaceful there. We were very excited to have a shower. The place we had camped at the beach had a serious water shortage so we didn’t shower. Add a hike up a volcano to that and we were at (almost beyond) our grody limit. While we were getting ready to shower, Ernesto, the guy in charge there showed up with two sweet coffees on a tray for us. We usually don’t drink coffee at 6 pm but the gesture was so kind we couldn’t resist.
The draw to staying at Cerro Negro was the opportunity to hike up to the top of the volcano and slide down the side on a very slick sled. It is a steep and unobstructed hill. Some people obtain speeds up to 100 km/hr. Most visitors partake of this activity with a guide service out of the nearby city of Leon. We chose to save a fistful of dollars and eschew the guide. We rented gear from Ernesto at the visitor’s center. The gear consisted of a little backpack holding a denim jumpsuit and goggles and a wooden sled. We got a quick demonstration of how to go fast and how to slow down and we were on our way! A big truck full of tourists had arrived just as we were heading up the hill. It was nice to hear snippets of their tour. A little unnerving as well. They were warning the group about high winds on the hill and how they might need to sit down to avoid being blown off the side. Also, that Cerro Negro is an active volcano overdue for an eruption that would mean certain death. Cool. They were moving slowly, as big groups do, so we were able to get to the top ahead of them and not have to wait for twenty people to slide down the hill. The hike up was stunning. Cerro Negro is a big black pile of lava rock against a backdrop of verdant green countryside. Add to that multiple steaming craters that become visible as you hike up. The hike was almost cooler than the slide down. Almost. I am not much of an adrenaline junky. The key to me getting down the volcano was to not think too much about what could go wrong. And to sacrifice the tread on my shoes slowing my descent. Scott went first. I watched him slide down, get a little wobbly, almost wreck and eventually achieve the bottom. I saw him wave, presumably all in one piece, and readied myself for what was potentially the slowest decent of Cerro Negro in known history. Luckily, since we weren’t part of a tour, there was not a man with a speed checking radar gun waiting for me at the bottom to confirm my lily-livered suspicions. Scott really enjoyed volcano boarding and I survived it so I will call that excursion a success!
After we returned our gear to Ernesto we went into Leon for an amazing lunch at a plant-based restaurant. I had tempura cauliflower tacos and Scott had a veggie burger. Mine was better. Anyhow, after lunch we headed back to the beach to a hotel where we camped in the parking area. It pretty much rained the whole time we were there. Camping at the beach in the rain was not fabulous. There were a ton of mosquitoes and the restaurant was completely out of vegetables. If the weather was nice we probably would have had more fun there but we mostly spent our time hiding out from rain and bugs. We finally gave up waiting for beach weather and headed to a place inland on a lake that held the promise of nice hang-out space in the event of inclement weather.
Laguna de Apoyo. I want to live there. The crystal-clear lake is in a crater with thermal features that ensure that the water is never cold. It isn’t warm but it isn’t cold. Just perfect. We camped in the parking area at a hostel right on the lake. There were ample covered places to chill out and they had free kayaks and inner tubes to float on in the lake. Also, a dock anchored off the shore for lounging and jumping from. The lake had floating rocks. We would be out swimming and come across rocks floating along the surface. They are pumice type rocks with air trapped inside them. Very cool. The restaurant there was delicious and affordable and the Wi-Fi was sufficient to keep us feeling connected. I think we spent five days there. We kept deciding to stay just one more day. The rains that plagued us on the beach were absent. We just had gorgeous days to swim in the lake, kayak, run, drink smoothies and beer, sample most of the menu, and make new friends. We stayed up too late having beers with three people from the States who have bought a farm in Nicaragua. It was inspiring to hear their plans. We also met a couple that we follow on Instagram. They are traveling the Americas on bicycles. I don’t want to do that, but I love hearing about the special experiences they have using that mode of travel. Traveling in our own rig allows us to be more isolated if we choose. On a bicycle, you are out there no matter what.
Eventually, we did tear ourselves away from the lake. It was difficult but had to be done. Our next stop was one that was recommended to us by the nice man in the polo shirt who inspected our truck at the border. Volcan Masaya. This is where you can drive right up to the side of a volcano and peer into the crater at a cauldron of boiling lava. The thing about being so close to a portal to the belly of the earth is that it is really toxic. They recommend that you spend no more than 15-20 minutes near the crater because of the clouds of gasses billowing out. The key is to go up right after the sun goes down so that you can see the glow of the lava better. We went just before sundown, peeked over the side and then took a hike to look at an extinct crater while we waited for the sun to set. The wait was worth it! The sunset behind the steaming crater was beautiful and then to be able to see the lava roiling and spitting inside was out of this world. After staring at the lava for longer than recommended we drove back down the crater and camped for the night right next to the guard station at the entrance to the park. It was loud because it was right next to the highway but safe because of the armed guard nearby.
After a quick stop in the beautiful town of Grenada for some lunch, we headed south to the ferry terminal to catch a boat to Ometepe Island on Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua on many maps). Ometepe island is made up of two volcanoes and some surrounding farmland. There is a road that loops the two volcanoes forming an infinity symbol. From what I had read, sometimes you have to have a reservation to get a space on the ferry. Weather and politics made it so we could just drive right on the boat. We arrived on the island with an hour to spare before dark.
We found camping at a hostel near the ferry terminal that had a beautiful view of Volcan Concepción. The owner was from Barcelona, Spain and had lived on that island for ten years. We enjoyed the view from the second story of his hostel and also enjoyed watching the troop of howler monkeys in the mango tree right outside his kitchen. If it weren’t for the no-see-ums we may have lingered but I was hoping to find camping on the water so that we might catch more breezes and have fewer bugs.
The next day we drove around the back of the island with an eye out for good camping. We didn’t find it until we had driven about ¾ of the way around. We ended up camping for free in a gated park across the street from a trail to a waterfall. We shared the grassy palapa and picnic area with two tethered horses. Apparently, one had just received vaccinations and needed to take it easy and the other was there just to keep the one company. We enjoyed having them as neigh-bors 😉 for the night. There was an armed guard across the street keeping an eye on all of us. The next day we paid a couple of dollars for entrance to their waterfall and enjoyed a hike up through the jungle to the base of the falls. The cool mist billowing off of the falls was heavenly. We were perpetually hot and sweaty and any moment of relief from that condition was very welcome. When we arrived at the falls three people were just leaving so we got to have it all to ourselves. A double blessing.
After hiking the falls, we needed to find another place to camp for the night. I had read on iOverlander about a restaurant that might let us camp in their parking area for the cost of a meal. We welcome an excuse to eat at a restaurant, so that sounded good. We ordered some food and asked about camping. They told us it would be $3. Not free but that is not a bank breaker. The food was decent. It was a neat little spot to watch life go by on the lake. There were about ten stone piles out in the water a few feet from shore that were used as laundry/shower stations and each one was in use.
Also, it seemed that the restaurant we were staying at was the local source of Wi-Fi. People kept coming by and sitting at our table to stare at their phones like it was totally normal. The less bold would just stand around nearby to get their social updates. It was interesting. As we finished up our meals the owner of the restaurant came by our table and let us know that he was not going to charge us to camp for the night. He was a little drunk from an afternoon of entertaining some other guests. He shook our hand and indicated the best spot for us to park for the night. We were grateful for the generosity and kindness. Scott went up to the bar to pay our bill while I hung back and checked my email using the ever-popular Wi-Fi. That is when we had our first threat of violence on our trip. No, not from a Nicaraguan but from a very entitled, very large, very drunk man from Denver, Colorado. He perceived that Scott was hitting on his wife. Scott and I are still exclusive after all of these years so there was no funny business going on there. Just a mean drunk who liked to yell at people. He told Scott that they were about to have a problem because Scott was disrespecting him. Scott did a wonderful job of diffusing the situation and extricating himself. We moved our truck, set up camp, and tried to stay out of the line of sight of Drunk Denver who stayed up for about another hour verbally abusing the staff before he finally went to bed. We did not want to encounter Hungover Denver so we didn’t linger the next morning. Just packed up and headed out to continue our exploration of Ometepe.
We stopped at a little restaurant on the water for lunch and had quite a treat. There was a man from Las Vegas, Nevada there who had organized English lessons for the kids of the town. It was adorable. He had each of them come up, shake our hands and introduce themselves to us in English. That was about thirty little timid handshakes and only about ten of them were snot-nosed. Adorable. We definitely washed our hands before we ate. After the English lessons were over we chatted with him for a while. We were delighted to learn that he was a delegate for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries. We commiserated on the state of the revolution for a while and then bid him good luck before heading out to our next destination.
Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water) was our next stop. This was a delightful cool spring-fed pool set in the jungle. There were concessions sold there and nice comfy chairs to lounge about in. We spent a very relaxing afternoon poolside and spent an extra $6 to be able to stay the night in their parking spot. We enjoyed the company of a sweet dog with an adorable underbite. That night while we should have been sleeping we experienced one of the more torrential rainstorms of the trip. It is always exciting when the thunder and lightning are right over us. The next morning, we enjoyed a leisurely couple of cups of coffee as the next day’s pool visitors began to arrive. We were leaving the island that day and needed to get to the ferry so we didn’t pause to swim again.
The ferry back was just as easy to get on as the one out to the island. We grabbed some snacks from one of the shops near the terminal, drove aboard, and sat back watching Die Hard with a Vengeance in Español. The ride went quickly and before the movie got interesting we were back on the mainland and on our way to our final camping destination in Nicaragua.
We arrived at an ecohotel on the shore of Lago Cocibolca just five miles from the border. They had a really sweet spot and we were able to camp next to their cute cows and use the facilities in one of the guest rooms. We took a final walk on the lakeshore and prepared to celebrate our 7-year wedding anniversary the next day with a full day of bureaucratic fun crossing from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. How romantic are we?