In this journal
a kitten meets a turtle
I bash on a hippe hostel
I got stranded in the rain for one night with just my phone
approaching Amsterdam, with classic canals and wind power generators
Call me a masochist, but I quite like sitting in economy seats for dozens of hours at a time. The feeling of being on the move, and the excitement of people on their way back home or to a new destination, make me feel the world is such a big family. After a flight from Quito to Mexico City, I continued to Amsterdam on a new B787 with AeroMexico. After landing, I cleared customs, and took the train downtown for a weed muffin, before heading back to the airport. That is the way I roll.
Amsterdam airport art gallery
Quickly, my 5 hours in Amsterdam was done, and I boarded my flight back to Mexico City on the same airplane. Was I tired? Sure. Was I excited? You bet your weed muffin I was! Normal people would never understand why I would fly 12 hours back to back for a pastry, but my therapist said she totally understands me.
Then, it was another calm flight to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, on a tiny Embraer 170. However, even the small plane seemed huge when there were barely half a dozen passengers. I slept most of the way, but was just in time to watch the sunset.
Managua is not an interesting city, since it is a “compromise capital” just like Canberra or Washington DC. Two cities struggled for the status of the capital, in Nicaragua’s case Leon and Granada, so they simply chose a location between these two as the capital. I spent most of the time resting up after spending almost 2 solid days on airplanes and in airports, and did not venture out too much.
UCA bus terminal
I quickly grasped the gist of the city, and set out the next day for a more interesting town, Granada by the famous Lago Cocibolca. The bus was insanely cheap, costing just 22 Nicaraguan Córdobas (1USD=32NIO) for the 1.5 hr-ride. The bus driver was very friendly to me, and asked me to sit in the front with him, while he blasted me with hundreds of questions.
welcome to the jewel of Nicaragua, Granada!
The kind bus driver took a small detour to drop me off right at the front gate of my hostel, angering the other passengers in the process. After checking in, I made two new friends, Léa and Shadi, and we decided to check out Volcán Masaya, an active volcano still spewing smoke as of now.
approaching Volcán Masaya, with smoke coming out
Traffic was highly regulated in the park, since there was little room for parking near the top, and the extremely harmful volcano exhaust comprised of sulfur, carbon monoxide, and hot steam forced the officials to limit the time each vehicle could stay near the crater. After waiting a solid hour, our tour van finally moved in, and I got to see an active volcano crater for the first time.
holy mother of earth…
The smoke was so irritating to my eyes and nose that I began coughing the moment I got off the van. It was unlike other volcanoes I had been to. The smoke here had no odor, so it firstly appeared harmless, but by the time you walked into the smoke clouds, your eyes would be burning like someone was scooping it out with an ice cream scoop. I now understood why they limit each person’s exposure to the smoke at 20 minutes, as I could barely endure 2!
looking into hell
For the next day we went to the famous Isletas, tiny islands scattered around the lake. Most of the islands were volcanic rock piles thrown into the lakes by eruptions, and now cost millions of dollars each. Thus, do not underestimate those who “only” own a house on a small island in Nicaragua, they might just be multi-millionaires!
house of the owner of Flor de Caña, Nicaragua’s world-famous rum
We kayaked around the islands with a guide, and reached a small island with 5 spider monkeys. Since we were the only tourist nearby, the monkeys were not shy at all. Shadi offered the moneys some bananas, and quickly they swarmed the trees above us.
here you go~!
our guide joined in himself
These monkeys were rescued by a vet, and he just let them loose on his island, and they could do whatever the fuck they want. After a fun lunch on one of the islands, we began our kayak trip back, since the season dedicated that there would be a storm in the afternoon.
it is always fun to kayak!
For the afternoon, I just wandered around the city, after waiting out the rain in the hostel. Managua is actually the oldest colonial town in the Americas, at least base on official registration. Most of the city scenes have not been altered since mid-16th century.
Parque Central, and Catedral
My hostel also happened to be right next to the oldest church I have seen in a long while. Iglesia La Merced was built in 1534, older than most of the surviving churches in Europe.
Iglesia La Merced
One thing I have to mention, however, is that the entire experience so far in Granada have been extremely commercialized. What I mean is that this does not feel like a backpackers’ destination, despite what the previous travelers’ I have met told me. Central America is supposed to be cheap, undeveloped, or underdeveloped. However, Granada proved to be none of those. My hostel has a full booklet full of tours that was overpriced, base on a backpacker’s budget. Most of the staff refused to speak Spanish with me, and if I asked them anything about going out, they would refer me to the booklet of tours.
hostel’s cat confused about hostel’s turtle
It was clear that the tourism industry here was very mature. Most of the other travelers in the hostel carried around suitcases, and most of them who I got to talk to flew straight from North America or Europe to Managua, before hopping onto a 60-dollar private transfer here. Most of them were simply on a vacation organized by an agency for less than 10 days. This was no backpackers’ hostel; this was backpackers-wanna-be’s perfect hideout. Some of these vacationers want exotic destinations without the usual downsides, and that is driving the prices sky high. My kayak trip was regularly offered at 10 to 15 dollars just a few years’ back, but we bargained hard to reach 20.
Numerous hotels by the lake had sprung up offering “morning yoga and inner chi training” for 150 dollars, and cheap food was hard to find in the center. Even the hostel was openly offering private transfers to San Salvador or Costa Rica for hundreds of dollars. It is an unimaginable amount of money for a backpacker in Central America. Just like what had happened time and time in Asia and South America, a new trend was taking shape: vacationers are desiring more and more “exotic” places, and backpackers are moving out. Luckily, I was heading away from the vacationers’ spots.
a chicken bus
On a rainy morning, I boarded a chicken bus from the muddy terminal in Granada, heading further south towards Rivas. A German girl sat behind me during the ride, yet I had no idea I was about to get to know her much better. Upon the last minutes, when the bus was about to turn off the Panamerican highway, I requested to get off. I had done my research, asked a few locals, and knew that I did not have to head into the city of Rivas to get to the ferry towards Ometepe Island, a place I always wanted to go. A few other backpackers were confused and stayed on board, despite me telling them they had to get off with me. As a result, only the girl and I got off, and we sat inside a taxi that was about to hail us to the dock of San Jorge.
“I would give you guys 5 dollars to San Jorge.” the driver quoted his price in Spanish.
“Nope, 30 Córdobas each.” We both replied at the same time.
on my way to Ometepe
That was how I met Cathrin. I initially thought nobody could do more research than I did, since I got words from locals that the taxi is standardized, and they should charge 20 Córdobas for locals and 30 for foreigners. I was rather surprised Cathrin would know about it too, and it turned out she was a regular commuter between Granada and Ometepe, because she had been a volunteer on the island for some time. The taxi driver was taken aback that his chance to squeeze a bit of coin was so swiftly defeated, and begrudgingly obliged.
We turned out to have quite a lot in common, and we chatted the whole way during the 1 hour boat ride to the island. Ometepe had always been a rather intriguing location that I wanted to discover. It is an island made of two giant volcanoes, in the biggest lake of central America, in a narrow land bridge. The island also seemed to have quite a lot of charm since it is relatively sealed off to the outside world.
looking across the lake
Upon arrival in Moyogalpa, I bid farewell to Cathrin, but fret not, our story continues. I had heard some good stories about a special hostel called Zopilote on the far side of the island, and I directly headed there despite Cathrin’s suggestions. 2 more chicken buses later, I walked 15 minutes to reach their property, a nice ranch secluded from the tourist actions.
up to Zopilote hostel
However, that was where the good things ended. I should have listened to Cathrin and stayed a while in the port town of Moyogalpa, since in Zopilote, everything was overpriced hippie trash. Trust me, for someone who grew up poor in China, I was all familiar with outhouses and mud. However, Zopilote gladly charges you 20 dollars for a dorm bed that has an outhouse a few flights of stairs away. And they apparently did not bother to clean up every day or so, since the “showers”, which were literally a water faucet surrounded by 3 sides of concrete (so anyone can watch you shower), was covered in moss and the bugs that come with it. Not to mention the possibility of finding a millipede in your private parts, just the moss made showering a trip hazard.
breakfast from ingredients cultivated in the ranch
Here is the kicker: everything else also costs money. The breakfast above costs 6 dollars, and their “chia seed energy booster” was a shot of liquid costing 5 dollars. That is enough money for a whole fucking roasted chicken with 3 side dishes in Granada! Oh hey but at least there is a free “nature yoga” session every day at 5 pm! Oh you did not bring a yoga mat with you? That is too bad, you can’t join. There was no electricity except in the bar, and there were no internet despite it was advertised. This is how the hippies go about their lives, since apparently they had nothing else better to spend their money on. People kept swarming here carrying suitcases, and immediately began taking selfies while tagging “#rusticlife #country #adventure”, before heading back the next day. I hated this so much. If I wanted to experience rural life, I would never want to be charged a fortune to do it.
on the way to the top of the volcano
I made a new friend Lena, traveling with another German, and thankfully they shared my opinion on this piece of overpriced bullshit. We decided to hire a guide to the top of Volcán Maderas on this side of the island, despite the fact that I wanted to go to Conception, the one on the other side, which was slightly higher and more challenging. However, it seemed like that all the hippies preferred aligning chakura (I kid you not, it is a 50USD/hr service there) than doing some real exercise, so if I wanted to go, I would have to hire a private guide for 150 dollars. Not a chance that I will toss more money to those greedy thugs.
admiring the view
However, the magnificent view calmed me down a lot, just look at that! A majestic volcano standing proud, almost piercing through the clouds, all the while sitting on a tiny island in the middle of a lake, that is half as wide as the landbridge it rests upon! Mother nature truly has a strange way of making things.
in the crater lake
The climb was gruesome, and involved ducking, climbing, steep descending, and crawling. It was not rewarding either, as at the end, the crater lake where we were supposed to have lunch were covered with a thick layer of mist. By the time we ended our 6-hour hike, I was covered in mud and soaked through and through. It was fun though! (except there was no way to get laundry done in the hostel, conserve water and alike)
kayaking in the flooded forest
For the final day, I decided to check out from the awful hostel, and went around biking the island, looking for a decent kayak place. After 2 hours down a dirt road, I reached a tiny wood shack by the lake, where they still charged me quite a hefty sum for a tour. However, since I was all by myself, it was not too bad.
waterfowl perched on the branches
It was a pleasant afternoon, as I slowly kayaked around the floating forest, looking for all kinds of birds and fish. Then deeper inland was the flooded forest, where mangrove trees provide shades for a good coconut break as I watched local fisherman catch fish using ancient techniques. For a split second, I almost forgot that this lake was big enough to support a very special kind of shark in its water!
As I rode my way back to the bike shop, it started pouring, and pouring, and pouring… It was the kind of rain I expected when I signed up for Nicaragua, and it happened in the most inopportune, and as it would later turned out opportune, time. My bag was still left in the bike shop, a few kilometers away, while I was trapped in a random hostel, with just my cellphone, my wallet and my charger. I was forced to check into this hostel, as the rain kept going on for 6 hours.
lunch by the beach
However, it turned out to be a unique experience. The hostel had only 1 guest: me. The room cost 5 dollars, and the señora was very friendly, cooking me delicious meals with almost minimal costs. I sat around listening to music, while watching the rain drops splatter as they hit the ground, scaring the newborn kitten snoozing under a drain pipe. An internet connection also meant I could communicate with Cathrin better, which certainly put me in a tranquil mood. I did not need my clothes, or my amenities, and I spent a great night away from all the material possessions. Just a good chat companion, a few good meals, and a bed, that is all I need.
breakfast for 3 dollars!
I figured that on my way back to the mainland, I should pay a visit to Cathrin, and see what she was up to. She worked in a tiny village of Los Angeles on the other side of the island, so I decided to take a chicken bus and asked them to drop me off there. After walking for a solid half-hour, I eventually reached her. The school she worked at had a bunch of adorable animals running around, and I gladly took up the invitation Cathrin offered to eat lunch with her prepared by the house mom.
no candle light needed!
For some reason, the meal costing 2 dollars was much better than the organic quinoa shake costing 7 dollars in Zopilote. Hmmm, I wonder why… This also reminds me that I still owe Cathrin the 2 dollars for the meal until this day. By the standard blackmarket loan interest rate, I would have been broke by now.
on the back of a truck!
After hugging Cathrin farewell, I walked back to the main road and started waiting for a chicken bus back to the port village of Moyogalpa. I knew it would take a long time, yet I still lost my patience after 20 minutes sitting under the sun. Suddenly, a local couple, about 50 years old, driving down the road flashed their lights at me, signaling for me if I want a ride. Fuck yeah! You do not have to ask me twice! I hopped onto the bed of their pick-up, and let the wind be my hair stylist.
After hopping off at Moyogalpa, I offered 20 Córdobas to the couple, who staunchly refused. Instead, they told me when and where to board the ferry, and offered me free lunch with their family… Sometimes I get baffled when people are so nice to me, such as when I had to haggle up the price of a banh mi in Vietnam. Maybe it is because too many of us are busy circling wealth and fame, we forget what truly is worth our while…
fishermen at the dock
I turned down the second free lunch I was offered that day, and instead chatted with them a bit. They told me I reminded them of their son, who left to Managua for work. However, before we could bond further, the ferry was about to leave, and I sadly boarded the afternoon ferry heading towards mainland, before catching a chicken bus back to Managua.
on Lake of Nicaragua
These were truly the carefree days, as I had no plan, no destination, and no connection to the outside world. Funnily, it reminded me of Antarctica. Nobody cares if you are rich or poor, pretty or ugly. As long as you treat others well, everyone else will treat you like family. Once I left that pretentious hippie hostel, suddenly Nicaragua opened up to me. Locals, along with Cathrin, welcomed me to join the Nicaraguan family, and they do not care if your chakura is aligned or not.
The flight to Mexico City was quite calm, as there were barely 20 people on board. It was mid-autumn festival, a traditional holiday in my culture for families to gather, yet I was alone, on an airplane across half a globe, thinking. I already started missing everything that happened in Nicaragua, for reasons that even I did not know.
approaching Mexico City under the full moon
I met up with Christine in Mexico City, and began our preparation for Easter Island. We met during our voyage to Antarctica, where she turned out to be one of the craziest people I have seen. She decided to join me for the trip to Easter Island, since she was also an unemployed disappointment to her Asian family. I knew everything would cost a kidney down in the most remote island in the world, so we left everything unessential behind, and stuffed our bags with spaghetti and canned food.
hello, Zocalo, we meet again
I have been to Mexico City before, so I let Christine look around in her own leisure, while I was busy buying cans and noodles. Eventually we went to the famous Anthropology Museum, a place I did not get the chance to visit last time around.
the original carvings outside Teotihuacan (please refer to WeekendInCiudadMexico 2017)
The various details the museum presented about the indigenous groups in Mexico were rather informative, while the Mayan inscriptions truly fascinated me. To some extent, Mayan felt similar to Chinese, where different, simpler characters come together to form new characters.
replicated Mayan temple
To end this journal about Nicaragua, I think I learned something valuable. To me, travel is never about fancy hotels and special services. Sure, they are a nice addition, but they should never detract from the new experiences, local culture, and new friends I would make. This trip just proves this point even more. When I left a place that has commercialized the experience, I immediately started feeling the warmth of the Nicaraguan people; if I chose to take the private transfer instead of the chicken bus costing 1/50 the price, I would have never met Cathrin; this is what I call “travel butterfly effect”, as one small decision can influence one’s life. I am glad I corrected myself in time in Nicaragua, and I will make sure the mistake is never made again. Ah Nicaragua, what a beautiful country you are! I felt honored, to meet the people I met, to experience the unique events I experienced, and most importantly, to choose the choices I made.
This country is like Flor de Caña, the sugarcane flower, rarely found, but so, so beautiful, oh and also, the best rum I have ever tasted, made right here in Nicaragua, shares the same name, and memories…
I would later spend new year’s eve with Cathrin during C.A.T. 17/18.