Hi All…I’m sorely past due on an update for all of you. I actually have some new stories to tell you as I just got back from a trip across/up/down and back in Nicaragua.
About a year ago a guest came to visit, a freelance writer named Elliott Woods, who has worked for a number of magazines and periodicals. He actually lived in Lebanon and reported on the Gaza conflict for some years before retiring back to Montana to get away from the violence and focus on a more peaceful writing career. While he was here visiting he pressed me for some ideas on subjects he could write about in Nicaragua…I suggested writing about the canal project. A few months ago Elliott contacted me and said that Outside Magazine had picked up his pitch and they were sending him down to write his piece…or at least do the research to write it. At that time he said he wanted to ride motorcycles across Nicaragua and then trace the canal route back, stopping and talking to people along the way. That is what we did. He offered to hire me as a guide/translator for which he would pay me $1000 for the week…plus he was to pay for the hotels, motorcycle rentals etc…. That’s when I got the wild idea to buy the motorcycles so I could rent them back to him for the project and essentially get a free motorcycle. I did so and it worked out great. I wound up buying three Chinese made motorcycles for about $2k each, they worked great for the trip and now I have the three here available for rent to guests. I was a little nervous about their reliability, but the bikes performed well (enough). While our schedule was hectic and our time more focused on work than play it was still a great adventure and gave me a look at Nicaragua outside of our common circuits. We wound up being a group of 4 including Elliott, Myself, Shawn Barylski (ex-cop in charge of security), and Jared Rosa (ex pat living in Nicaragua who speaks spanish, has a motorcycle and wanted to come…he was another valuable set of hands during the trip…and great company) ….and so we set off…
Feb 7: Day 1- Puerto Sandino (home) to Juigalpa (intended destination Rama)- 365k intended and 200k actually traveled
We got a later start than we wanted and planned on a 365k trip to Rama. As we lost light in the afternoon we realized getting to Rama would involve riding at night and that was not ok with any of us…especially since my high beams weren’t working on my bike. We stopped short in Juigalpa to rest and planned to make Rama early in the morning. We passed through some beautiful places on the ride…much of the land looks like Northern/Central california during the summer….rolling golden hills spiked with bursts of green. We passed a reservoir that was really really low (and this particularly reminded me of california;-). Traffic wasn’t bad except for in Managua…we were happy to leave the busy city behind for the more rural areas. Keep in mind bad traffic in Managua is about the worst in the world. The relatively easy traffic in the rural areas still involves jackass bus driver hanging turns on two wheels and passing you dangerously only to stop right in front of you again to pick up a passenger…you’re lucky if they have brake lights too. I’m sure it’s not making the ‘mommies’ out there feel any better, but rest assured we’re all aware of the shitty drivers and I took the lead to make sure our pace stayed reasonable….then again we did have one incident;-) Within the first half hour of the ride we came on a line of traffic stopped for construction. I peeled off to the right where the ‘bike’ lane is and proceeded up the line of traffic to get to the front. Another cut between two cars to enter the bike lane in front of me…I beeped my horn, passed him on the right and continued coasting toward the front. I glimpsed in my mirror just in time to see the rider had flinched, grabbed his front brake locking it up and BOOOM….he went down! The good thing is his head broke his fall. Shawn was coming up behind me and he stopped to see the guy’s helmet broken and his eyes swimming in his head. He came to after a moment and then Shawn stepped aside as the guy was babbling away in Spanish. He was up on his feet and traffic started moving again. The guys of course had to pay me out at the first chance they could for ‘making’ someone crash. I disagree.
Feb 8: Day 2- Juigalpa to Rama to Kukra Hill to Bluefeilds -270k traveled
We got an early start to make the 150k to Rama where you can catch a ferry to Bluefeilds. Along the way we met a random man named Tony who is from Kukra hill. He explained that the ferry from Rama to Bluefeilds took about 10 hours…a whole day lost. He said if we found Miss Nini in Kukra hill, she could arrange a fast boat to Bluefeilds that would take about 45 minutes. The only trick was we had to ride a 70km dirt road from Rama to Kukra hill. We had a beautiful morning ride from Juigalpa to Rama. The road takes you up over a natural divide and the temperature drops into a pleasant 70’sh…rivers meander through the mountains….light occasional showers brushed us…dropping down the divide you get views into infinity….the landscape leveling into, what we found later, were huge tracts of hardwood forests, often times cleared to make way for Palm plantations. We were a spectacle in these more remote parts…4 guys on brightly colored motorcycles with bags strapped on, motors winding up, shiny helmets with mirror lensed goggles on…many a head turned. We slowed in the villages to show respect for safety and tranquility but it went unnoticed, we tried to wave and smile as much as possible but we were still a spectacle. Once we got to Rama at about 10am we asked the police which way to Kukra Hill. We got a police escort to the gas station and then to the entrance to the road to Kukra Hill. The sign said 71km and we set off thinking we were going to make some time. I had missed an interaction at the gas station where one of our group spoke with a man who said that the road to Kukra hill was the worst road in Nicaragua. He was probably pretty close to correct. Our enthusiasm was beat out of us by ruts, bumps, rocks, bottoming out suspension and frequent stops to restrap our bags on as the vibrating caused them to come loose in surprisingly quick time. About 20k into the road we passed a sign saying Kukra hill 73km?! 3 hours and 83 km later we arrived in Kukra hill…a little worse for the wear. We found Miss Nini who turned out to be quite a character. A rather large woman with a thick carribbean accent, she was 73 years old and had lived in Kukra hill her whole life. She had 13 children but only 9 were living?! She seemed to be fairly affluent for the area, meaning she had a home made of concrete and not of plastic and sticks… and we visited with her in her house which was a construction site basically. She was able to direct us to a fast boat as Tony had promised and she offered to store our motorcycles on her property while we took off for Bluefields. While we visited with her we met some her grandchildren and a great grandchild. We also pet her three deer, her pet monkey and a couple of dogs as well….she was a true animal lover and showed great affection for all her ‘babies’ as she referred to them. With Miss Nini’s help it was just that easy. The boat ride to Bluefields was pleasant and smooth as we winded down a river that was lined with more hardwood forests, banana plantations, palm plantations and the occasional homestead build on or over the river. It was pretty common to see outhouses built over the river…where your proceeds dropped right in and were conveniently washed away. We didn’t swim in the river, but we saw people who did. They also washed their clothes in it, used it for cooking and cleaning and it was the only mode of transportation around there…no roads here. Taxis took people up and down the river and the most impressive of them were about 45 feet long and about 4 feet wide, carved out of a single tree. They had a 15-25 horsepower motor on them and the most crowded one we saw had about 40 people on it. We got into Bluefields before dark and checked into the MiMi hotel…not exactly 5 star…in fact it might warrant a half star, but it was home for the night.
Day 3- Bluefields to Rama Key to Bluefields To Kukra Hill To Rama- 300km by boat
We were up early to find a ride to Rama Key where the local indigenous people call home. Elliott wandered around taking photos while I procured a panga boat to take us out to Rama Key. I had to hoof it around Bluefields and wheel and deal to finally find a boat for $80…down from my original quote of $110. We left Shawn behind to do some recon for us and get some better straps made for our motorcycles…Elliott, Jared and I boarded the panga for a 40 minute ride to Rama Key through early morning fog. The water was smooth, but visibility was ‘nil…the captain knew his way pretty well although I did notice our ride back from Rama key was about 15 minutes faster than the ride out. On Rama Key we asked for the chief…literally it was like “take me to your leader”. Santos, the leader of the Rama was pretty articulate and intelligent and vehemently opposed the usurpation of his land. He was concerned about the environmental impact as well and spoke intelligently of what it could possibly do to effect the local fishing waters with it’s sediment and outflow. The Rama’s were pretty friendly and the bulk of who we met was drunk on chicha…a local brew made from corn and sugar. We partook of a bit, but it was pretty early and we all had empty stomachs. Not all of the Rama were drunk…many were industriously working on a housing project as well as seeing to the daily chores. They didn’t seem to notice us and I suspected it was because many and eco-tourist had been there before to snap photos of naked babies and their simple ways. We spent about 3 hours on the island, Elliott got his interviews and photos and then we jetted back to Bluefields. We were looking at riding the road back from Kukra Hill to Rama and I had the idea to ask if there was a fast boat available. Our captain hooked us up with another boat who offered to take us from Bluefields to Kukra hill in his boat…then wait for us to get our motorcycles, load them in his boat and then take us all, including the bikes up to Rama on the river. This did cost us $8000 cordoba or $300, but split 4 ways we found it well worth it to avoid that road! We had to spend some time with Miss Nini, to be polite and also Elliott wanted to get an interview and some video of her. She talked about what it was like before the road went to Kukra hill. Everything arrived by boat and it was a communal atmosphere. The family that grew rice shared their rice. The family that grew beans shared their beans. The families that didn’t have anything, still go their share. She blamed the palm plantations for spoiling their simple living…they paid way too low a wage and charged way too much for commissary goods….leaving the workers with nothing at the end of a months work. She was forthcoming with the fact that if it wasn’t for her hardworking children who gave her money, she would have nothing. She was a big flirt too and insisted on hugs and kisses from ‘al da hamsom men who com’ a visit Miss Nini!” smile emoticon I wondered if I would ever see her again as we rode away…I hope so and if I ever get out there again I’ll make a point to visit her.
Once we loaded the bikes on the boat it was smooth sailing to rama. It took a couple of hours, but we were relaxing having beers and watching the scenery instead of having death grips on our handle bars and sore asses from the kukra hill road. It was $75 well spent. At the Rama port we were bombarded with handlers who insisted on unloading our bikes despite our reluctance…and they insisted on getting paid for helping. I offered up the rest of our beers and food because I knew we were getting hustled. One man, the teetotaler pouted because he didn’t want beer. We flipped him a small tip and took off only to be stopped at the gate. Apparently there is a tax for transporting motorcycles on the river. The hitch here was the office was closed and the security guard said we would have to wait until morning. I was about to ride my motorcycle up the stairs and out the pedestrian gate when Elliott was able to swing a deal where we gave him the money and he gave us a receipt. I think we got hustled, but I was happy Elliott paid the money so we could get to a hotel. We had a nice dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river…fireflies everywhere, geckos chirping…us babbling about the adventures behind us.
Day 4- Rama to El Tule to San Carlos to Omotepe- 200k by bike and 100k by ferry
Once again we’re up early…it was getting a little old moving on so frequently, but we had an agenda and places to be. We backtracked from Rama to San Thomas where we turned south for a town called El Tule….there was a protest there the day before and Elliott wanted to get the scoop. We had our first bike issue when Elliott’s side cover for the front chain sprocket lost its screws…they had vibrated loose. We also noticed that our chains were really loose so we pulled into a shop and they had us fixed up in no time. We had to pass back over the divide and it was almost disappointing when we hit the thermocline and the temperature jumped up 10 degrees in an instant. The ride was really hot for the rest of the day. We made El Tule and basically passed it…it was such a small little town we saw the sign we were entering, we blinked and it was gone. I pulled over at a bus stop and asked a young man where El Tule was and he pointed behind us. Elliott thought to ask him about the protest and we found out that we had pulled over in front of the house of the leader of the protests…what are the chances? So we crossed the street and looked up the man and Elliott was able to land an interview with him. Now our goal was to make a 2pm ferry in San Carlos to take us up to Omotepe…so timing was tight at best. We decided Sean and I would go ahead to San Carlos, get tickets, try to hold the ferry and wait for Elliott and jared to catch up. I don’t like timing like this….I like to be early and or on time and we were in a hurry which meant Elliott and Jared were in even more of a hurry. To make matter more interesting I went through a rotunda and as I exited the rotunda I accelerated down the road only to find Shawn wasn’t behind me anymore. I doubled back to find him off the road in a field covered in grass and cow shit. He swears there was a pothole in the road that sent him off his line…I swear there wasn’t a pothole and just took advantage of the opportunity to make fun of him. The bike was fine and he was fine except for his pride and a small puncture on his biceps. We got back on the road while the locals stared at the two goons on shiny bikes. We got to the port at about 1:30 and It was 1:59 when the other two finally rolled up to the ferry dock where we were waiting. The captain was really cool and said we could pay our fees on the boat and to just get on quick so he could cast off….it had already been along day and now we were looking at a 10 hour ferry ride to the island of Omotepe on Lake Nicaragua.
Ferry Ride- Lake Nicaragua is about 120 miles long and 60 miles wide…it’s a BIG lake. It’s especial big on a ferry that only goes about 5 miles an hour. We didn’t realize it, but the ferry had two stops before we got to Omotepe…both of these were towns we had passed on the way to San Carlos. We could have doubled back after El Tule and met the ferry 4 hours later…had a leisurely afternoon…and a 4 hour shorter ferry ride…ooops. The ferry was pretty big….about 70 feet long and that day there was no wind, which is a miracle for this time of year. We were just that lucky I guess. The only bad luck was they don’t allow beer or liquor on the ferry. Apparently on the long ferry ride the passengers were getting too drunk and thus caused problems and safety issues. On the short 1 hour ferry rides booze is allowed…as the passengers don’t have enough time to get drunk and even if they do…the ride is over pretty quick. We really wished we had a beer or two or ten at that point, but we sufficed with hot dogs and rehydrating with this thing called water. The ferry was scheduled to land at 12:30 at night and I found a spot to hang my hammock at about 9pm….I spent the next few hours pretty cold, but otherwise too comfortable to get up and put some more clothes on. As we approached the island the lights woke me up and I spilled out of the hammock to pack my gear up, strap it on the bike and make our way to a hotel. Luckily we were directed to a hotel that was pretty nice and would welcome us in the wee hours of the morning. The bar wasn’t open though.
Day 5- Agridulce Omotepe to Charo Negro Omotepe- 20km traveled
Up again early to get the gears lubed up…luckily we finally got a decent cup of coffee which makes all the difference in the world. Elliott had some tasks lined up which didn’t necessarily require our assistance. He wanted to interview the owner of the hotel we were moving to as well as get a lot of photos of the island of Omotepe…which is pretty spectacular. Omotepe consists of two volcanos, Concepcion and Madera. The overhead view of the island looks like an hourglass shape with Volcan Concepcion to the north and Madera to the south. Concepcion is 5,500 feet tall and it juts up out of the earth like god’s own sandpile at the beach. From anywhere on the island you have to crane your neck up to look at it. Plants struggle to grow up its sides…the soil is incredible rich because of its volcanic nature. Gravity and erosion are constantly trying to pull the volcano down and it’s sides are scarred with crevices that look like landslides taking a siesta. Boulders the size of buildings hang precariously on sandy slopes just waiting for the next rain to bring the boulders tumbling down more and more until in 10 million years Concepcion is a mere bump, just a reminder of the ginormous monolith it used to be. By then another volcano will have replaced it and will endure the same life cycle. Did I mention Concepcion is active? There’s a constant stream of vapors emitted from the caldera at the top. There are guided hikes up the Volcano…we opted not to do that;-)
We moved from our hotel to Charo Negro Hotel on the south coast of the island. There is a nature preserve attached to the hotel and the digs were pretty nice….about the nicest on the island. We were really happy to leave our bags behind and get on the bikes to go explore. We wanted to hit the ATM, get some lunch and then find something called Ojo De Agua…more on that in a minute. Our ride to the ATM was nice…it was a beautiful morning and the winds had returned helping to cool things off a bit. The road cuts through numerous lava flows and ash falls. We were surprised to find the main road that circumnavigates the island crosses the airport runway. We were riding along and voila! We were in the middle of the airport runway. I of course had to stop and take a photo, but apparently the security guard didn’t like that. We let him scream for a bit while we got our photos and then we moved on. How could you blame us for wanting to get a photo of a road passing right across a runway…we wished a plane would have been landing at that time.
We caught a quick bite because we wanted to get to the Prensa Ojo De Agua. The other thing that comes out of volcanos, besides lava, is water. The water that comes out is absolutely pure and when it naturally pools in the middle of a shady jungle it is stunningly beautiful. A tourist business has been built up based on the Ojo De Agua and we unfortunately ran into the busiest day, so the beautiful natural swimming pool was filled with tourists of every nationality by the dozens. It was still a remarkable site, but we were hoping for something a little more tranquil. We went for a swim, but didn’t stay long and opted to go back to our hotel where we could take cocktails on the veranda overlooking the lake. We did have a little hiccup when a man stepped into the road to stop us. He had a traffic cone and said he was the police and asked us where we rented our motorcycles. I explained that I owned them. He said that all rental bikes were subject to a tax for using the roads. I explained to him again that I owned the bikes and that he would need the police to get a tax out of me. He showed me a badge that said he was in the taxi cooperative, so I laughed at him and drove away. Another hustler…he tried to hustle the wrong gringo this time;-) We had a very nice time on the veranda at the hotel…we turned in fairly early and prepared for the next day’s adventures.
Day6- Omotepe to San Jorge- 10k by boat and 10k by bike
We awoke again early to the sound of Howler monkeys…if you’ve never heard one it’s hard to explain. It sounds like someone trying to hawk a logie…but louder and longer…and it doesn’t stop. The quaintness of monkeys in the trees wears off after a few hours of listening to the Howlers. The only reason they howl is if they feel threatened and I’m sure there was a parade of tourists on camera safari that were causing the monkey to howl. Elliott had to finish some interviews and photography on Omotepe and so we set out to find accommodations in San Jorge. Our intent was to rent a house on the lake, have a big night out on the town followed by a lazy morning and then make our way to Brito where the proposed canal project will meet the Pacific. Elliott didn’t wind up meeting us as he crashed the motorbike coming down a trail and broke one brake lever and bent the other. It was pretty minor, he wasn’t hurt. We weren’t with him at the time so he had to handle the field repairs and then drive very carefully because he only had a rear brake…there wasn’t a front brake lever available on Omotepe…or not one he could find. We, in the mean time, got the ferry to the mainland and landed in San Jorge eager to find accommodations for the night. The contact we used was Jared’s barber, Alex. Alex was eager to help although I didn’t trust him. He was a barber with long hair and always said yes to everything. Of course he knew a house we could rent and he eagerly took off to find the owner. After some waiting and wondering he returned and took us to a house for rent on the beach. He didn’t have the key and said he would go get it while we waited. He returned again in a bit…apparently the owner wanted the money up front to give us the key….yeah fucking right!? I told him to tell the owner we wanted to see the house first before we paid anything…glad we did. Once in the house we found it was nice, except… it had no furniture…there were two beds, but no table, no sofa, no chairs, no dishes, no linens, no toilet paper, nothing…nada…nunca… Now the owner was trying to be accommodating…”we’ll loan you another mattress and linens”…meahhhhh…”I’ll lower the price for you”….meahhhhh…. I pulled the plug on the operation, told the owner thank you and told Alex the barber that we wanted a nice hotel. We took off down the beach and as we were exiting onto the road there was Hotel Gran Diamante. I honked the horn and diverted our caravan into the hotel’s parking lot. We found that $46 per night got us each our own room, AC, Tele and a nice comfy bed….in a particularly nice room with nice surroundings. The restaurant was on the lakefront with huge windows that blocked the wind, but not the view. Keep in mind the wind had returned to the lake…we were spared it on the ferry ride to Omotepe, but now the lake was “Victory At Sea”. On the occasions that they opened the door to the lake the table clothes and napkins blew off the tables instantly….we at one point had a full bottle of beer blown over…it was windy. Now settled we got some rest, we opted to eat at Tip Top, the local fried chicken joint and life was good. We opted for a quiet night and went to sleep at a reasonable hour.
We did not get up early the next morning.
Day 7: no movement
Elliott showed up in the afternoon with tales of his adventures of the last day and night including kayaking, waterfall, a motorcycle crash and a nice late night out with the locals. He told us these tales over a bottle of rum and then he promptly passed out. Our afternoon had been lazy at best, we got the oil changed on the bikes and we all had siestas but then rallied to have the night out that we had missed the night before. We had a nice meal at the hotel restaurant and then had a taxi take us to the hottest club in town. After what seemed like a three mile drive we wound up at a beach side restaurant/club about 200 yards down from our hotel. We could have walked there faster. It was Friday night and there were a total of 5 guests in the club….the three of us and two other ladies…and it was karaoke night. We weren’t going to let the lack of a crowed bring us down…plus buying rounds for the house was pretty cheap. We took turns doing Karaoke numbers and drunkely videoing them. Watching the videos in the morning proved we were not nearly the stars we felt like the night before….but there was no lack of effort. I did get turned onto my new favorite song called “knee deep” by Zac Brown. He’s a country singer and “knee deep” is a little ditty that reminds me of me…I highly recommend it to all.
Day 8: The breakup- Shawn and I: San Jorge to home 200k – Elliot and Jared San Jorge to Rancho Santana- 50k
We had a morning meeting over breakfast and we had to break up the group. Jared had surf lessons to teach, Elliott had to get to Brito to photo the proposed canal outlet and interview some of the locals. At this point his spanish was so well practiced he didn’t need me as a translator. He had accommodation at Jared’s house…this left Shawn and I free to head home! We were excited to get home and get in the water. We set out at about 10am and made steady time. It was windy as we passed the lake and Shawn was commenting on it when we stopped for fuel. I warned him that the wind was going to get worse and to be ready. The road leads up to a town called Diriamba which is only a few thousand feet, but at the top the road is on the ridge and the lake winds funnel up regularly hitting gusts of 50+mph! Shawn, who was riding behind me, said that at some points it looked like I was leaning over at 45 degrees just to go straight. The only consoling thing is we were on the windward side of the road…so presumably if a truck got blown over it would blow away from us…hopefully. We were happy to drop off the ridge at El Crucero and head west toward the ocean. The wind dies immediately as you get below the ridge and the temperature rises quickly. We hit a coastal town called Massachapa and I took us on a short detour to Hotel Summer so we could have some lunch. I was pleased to run into some friends who were having a Valentines day brunch….we spun some tales and got them up to speed on our trip. It was hard to get back on the bike after a big lunch….we were more ready for a nap, but we shook it off and hit the road. We made it home in just under an hour from there and that was record time. With the bikes we’re able to pass easily and avoid traffic stops that hang up other cars and trucks. When we got home we found two new guests who had just arrived and we were so giddy we just started hugging them as though they were old friends….of course the story telling began and we spent the afternoon washing the dust off and catching up…we did go surfing even though the waves were pretty much crap…it just needed to be done.
Epilogue: Other than some sore muscles and a small infection in Shawns arm (apparently he got stabbed by a stick and it probably had cow shit on it) we were no worse for the wear. We haven’t been on the bikes since…in fact every time we get a little bored I sarcastically suggest we take a long motorcycle ride to no where. Elliott showed up the next day and buried himself in some video and photo editing. He had to take off to Managua on Monday for some last minute interviews and then an early flight out on Tuesday. I think he wanted to cry, but he choked the tears back when he was leaving…he hugged me repeatedly to the point where I had to ask him to stop. He told me to invoice him $2k for my services and motorcycle rentals… so there’s my free motorcycle….so I gave him another hug;-) He also was so sad to go he asked what else he could write on in Nicaragua. I suggested writing about the surf scene in North Central Nicaragua where we’re located…most of the surfing tourism is in the south and the central and northern reaches are somewhat forgotten…it might be a little self serving for the business, but I think it’s a good subject. We’ll see…maybe the story will get picked up…
The people of Nicaragua are very very friendly. We didn’t have any negative interactions other than the few hustlers trying to get money when it wasn’t due…but that could happen anywhere. Repeatedly people offered their assistance asking nothing in return which I think is why we were wary when people did ask for something in return. Of course the people that asked for nothing we were always very generous with. The people of Nicaragua are poor and often happy with their situation. I think they would be overwhelmed by mortgages, 401k’s, insurance, taxes and the fast pace and complexity of western life. Some see the Western world as the promise land, but many appreciate their tranquil life even if it is merely subsistence. The people of Nicaragua need help. They need this in the form of information not filtered through political biases. They need power to defend their rights against the government who doesn’t even need a strong arm to push them around. The people need less division of wealth, better health care and education…I mean what country doesn’t? In Nicaragua these lacks are up front like a bleeding wound that needs immediate pressure lest the patient bleed out. I think there is an ignorant hope that the canal project will bring jobs and prosperity. More realistically I think the canal project is an easy way for President Ortega to add to his fortune by taking Chinese investment…and when it comes time to actually dig the canal he’ll pull the plug on the project, walk away with another outrageous fortune and continue to extort his own country and it’s people like it’s his own private enterprise. Just another case of absolute power corrupts absolutely.
…all right….that’s the scoop for now…pretty long winded, I know but I tried to get into some detail for y’all to experience a bit of what we did. Anyone want to go on a long motorcycle ride?