NOTE: this post chronicles my first few days or so in Nicaragua, before I got stuck in Bluefields on the Atlantic coast, with my car, due to nationwide protests. For that crazy story – click here.
I left out of Choluteca, Honduras – as chronicled here – and got to the border at Guasale – which had a ton of trucks to navigate around (never get in line behind the trucks – drive on the wrong side of the road).
I said yes to a helper on the Honduras side, which probably wasn’t necessary. Also I think he might have scammed me out of an extra $10 just to let me on the wrong side of the road over the bridge between the two countries – in the weird no man’s land between each border. What happens if you commit a crime on that bridge? I have a feeling the guard would have let me go anyway if I asked nicely. There seemed to be some bad acting “show bribing” going on. As a general rule though if the border seems chaotic and busy, the helpers will come up right away and are probably worth it. If the border is super sleepy, there are no helpers and it’s pretty easy to navigate.
But my helper did get my Honduras papers cleared up and took care of my car and even paid for my Nicaraguan car insurance while I was waiting in line to exit at Honduras immigration. I broke my cardinal rule and gave this guy my original car registration – but it worked out. The one big scam I’ve heard about is at the Honduras is when a motorcycle rider gave a helper all his documents, then the helper said he had to “bribe” a guard $200 – who was probably his buddy. You lose all your leverage if they have your original documents. But it worked out for me this time,
The best thing my Honduran helper did was introduce me to a Nicaraguan guy who became my helper on that side – an older guy who led me on his bicycle across the border and to my first stop on the Nicaragua side. He ended up being absolutely worth it. He really perked up and started calling me “amigo!” when I had to change a $100 bill in order to pay one of the fees. We joked back and forth about it “Oh now I’m your good amigo?”
Nicaragua was the border I was most nervous about as I’d heard Nicaragua border agents will flat out ask for bribes. Also they will keep you there all day – if they’re having a bad day, or because they’re bored, or just plain mean. I heard some blogger stories about finding a totally empty border crossing, yet the agents just messed with them all day and it took like 8 hours to get through.
One blog I read had a story where his border agent was being really pissy in general, and really fussy about taking bills with even the tiniest tears in them (which they often do in many countries down here). So when she gave him his change, he got all fussy, mimicked her and looked over the bills, then tried to reject one and give it back to her. LOLOLOLOL. Aaaaaand then he got stuck there for 3 more hours. He’s not sure but his bill stunt could have caused the extra delay. Um yeah. You think? Pretty hilarious story dude. Was it worth it?
Nicaragua instituted a new policy that you have to download and email them a form at least 7 days before the border crossing. One motorcycle rider on the ADV forum took two days to get across the border because – supposedly because he didn’t fill out this form. But I met plenty of other people who got across just fine without the form. The form itself of course is really confusing. It starts like this:
Hereby, the organization or association (Legal Name) _________________________
under the legal representation of, ____________________________,
with identity card ______________________________________, requests the entry and exit to Nicaragua of_________________________,
Once you deduce the form, you have to email it to two random email address. Btw #1 = your name, #2 = your country, #3 = the word “Passport”, #4 = your entry and exit border station names – DUH!
Between me and 4 other people I know who sent in their form, no one got the same response. Some were asked for scans of passports. Some didn’t get a reply. I got a “thank you we’ll let you know if we need more” reply. When at the border of course no one had access to this form. But supposedly just showing that you tried to email it helped. My agent never asked for it, but I showed her my email and the reply I got. I have no idea it helped.
My helper somehow knew the best window to wait at (IE – who isn’t having a bad day) and led me back and forth on a dizzying scavenger hunt of at least 15 stops: go here, get this stamped, come back and have someone sign it, go back to the stamper and have them sign it, pay $3 (US only – no local currency), take your $3 receipt back to the first lady at the window to stamp, take that back to the person who signed in step 3, get your car inspected and VIN confirmed, etc. etc. etc.
One of the air conditioners didn’t work so it was hot as hell. People crossing and agents were spilling out into the sidewalk, along with their desks, to avoid the heat. The whole scene was pretty much the opposite of a normal buttoned-down border crossing.
I was really glad to have my helper. I know sometimes these guys will try to make it look like they’re doing extra stuff to pad their tip at the end. But I watched and every stop was real. Only one guy dealing with my car asked for a “propina” (tip). I smiled and told him I was already paying my helper guy who was standing there. He made a pouty face like an 8-year-old and just kept pouting. It was weird. But he signed my paper – which was literally all he had to do. Nice work for the tip their buddy.
The silliest part was when they asked me how many pieces of luggage I had. Well let’s see – if you count stuff like plastic totes and bags of bags – about 20? I didn’t think that was a good answer. Nor did I think zero was a good answer. So I said 2. Standard. I grabbed my regular suitcase and my backpack out of the car and brought it inside to be scanned.
And that was it. No one even poked their head in the rest of the car. To this point in my trip – no one has looked in my car carrier above the car. I could have literally smuggled assault rifles, wads of cash and bricks of cocaine all the way from Mexico to Nicaragua – in my $300 flimsy plastic car carrier. Probably the US too but I got the car carrier in Ensenada.
The funny part is getting out of Nicaragua at the world’s sleepiest border crossing with Costa Rica – they have a $multi-million machine that scans your whole car. But not on the way in, from Honduras, at their the busiest border crossing. Wouldn’t want to check for any guns or drugs coming out of Honduras. I’m starting to get the impression the Nicaraguan government is not a wise-spending, well-oiled machine.
I gave my helper a $20 – twice as much as the usual expected tip. He lit up like I just made his month. He was absolutely worth it and I was glad to help him.
I made my way from the border to León – an old colonial town which is very popular with tourists and ex-pats – about 2 hours away. One thing that fascinates me is how much each country does or doesn’t look different immediately upon crossing the border. US -> Mexico is different, but the US area right at the border looks like a lot like Mexico. Mexico -> Belize -> Guatemala is very different – due to Belize houses looking more like a Carribbean Island, and locals looking very different. Guatemala -> El Salvador was the first border that didn’t look very different – except instead of Gallo Beer or Coca Cola, all the little stores had signs sponsored by Aleve or Alka Seltzer. That’s weird. El Salvador -> Honduras wasn’t much difference at all.
Upon entering Nicaragua you immediately notice the lack of motorized vehicles. Instead of the Tuk Tuks and taxis that drive people to the border on the Honduras side, it’s human powered bicycle rickshaws – in oppressive heat. Also horse-drawn carts are more common than trucks. I wondered if Nicaraguans were really that much poorer. I found out later that gas is about $6/gallon (unless they ripped me off somehow). So that would also go a long way to explaining it. Honduras and just about everywhere else is closer to the US – $3.50 to $4 (before Trump decided to start messing with the Middle East anyway).
Other than that though the landscape was pretty dry – a lot like the nearby coastal parts of El Salvador and Honduras.
I got to Leon and went to a Hostel recommended by my friend Sophie – the Volcano Hostel.
One of the biggest reasons I could never entirely quit drinking – there are no new National Soda options to get excited about with each border crossing. And even if there were – “new country, new soda” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
People seem really serious about the Victoria vs. Toña debate in Nicaragua. My position as always is that I seriously doubt any of them could pick one from the other in a blind taste test – any more than an American could tell Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite apart. I ordered Toña because it was just easier to not be the oddball ordering Victoria. Unless you tell me the Victoria is 1 degree colder – then give me that. I do think Toña is closer to the 4.9% as advertised – vs. Honduran and El Salvador beers that seem more like 3.2%. I’m in Costa Rica now and Imperial seems back to the watery stuff. I swear I can drink 19 of them and barely get a buzz.
Apparently there’s a few party hostels on the main drag that go LOUD late into the night. Volcano was a few blocks off and more quiet. They had room for one car inside their garage – so that works. They didn’t have any AC rooms. He showed me a room with a nice big wall fan that was about 15 degrees hotter inside than the afternoon air outside. Hmmm. I said to myself – well it’s literally 100 degrees – which means it has to be a dry heat right? Dry heat places are usually nice at night. Even inside. Surely the room will cool down at night with the fan going.
I said I’d pay for one night and probably a few more the next day. Turned out to be a good move as the room never cooled down. It was frustrating because the temperature just outside the room was perfectly comfortable. But the rooms themselves have high ceilings where the hot air gets trapped and acts like a giant heat sink radiating hotness back into the room. If they just punched a few damn holes in the ceiling the hot air would rise out and suck in all the nice cool air. You’d think the Spanish would have figured that out at some point. I saw room chimney-vents in Antigua where it’s barely hot.
The fan in the room was strong – but it felt like a hair dryer. I got my fan out of my car, so now I had two hair dryers blowing on me. The bed of course was hot so I had heating radiating up from the bed and down from the ceiling. I opened the door to my room – and with much difficulty got the other half of the double door open. Then I moved my bed close to the door and slept there with the doors wide open spread eagle in my underwear. Privacy seems like a requirement, until it’s not.
Some of the guests and staff had been drinking all day and were basically having a loud shitfaced party in the seating area a few feet away and in partial view of me. I didn’t care, and I couldn’t hear them anyway with the sound of two hair-dryers going. I only found out later this was a one-off party and not some strategy for drinking until you pass out as a heat mitigation tactic. I did finally shut the doors to my room when the sun came up, as I didn’t want to freak out the housekeepers. Of course the room immediately got hotter. Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of heat lag thing where the room is cooler than outside for some part of the day? Are we literally on a Volcano and that’s how this place got its name?
The next day I checked out the city some – lots of cool colonial architecture and street murals. Of course it was officially HOT AS BALLS. So I wilted after an hour or so and found and AC coffee shop – which I proceeded to know well for a few days and get massively caught up in my blog. I also found a hostel with a couple AC rooms and went for that. $25 instead of $14 at the Volcano. I’ll take it. Volcano still let me park my car for $3/night, so I went back and visited them frequently. Very friendly place.
Somewhere around all this is supposed to be a burnt out block from the riots a week prior. But I couldn’t find it. They must clean stuff up really quick.
The biggest excursion to do when in León is volcano boarding. Basically you ride a snowboard/sled-looking thing down the side of a volcano. I had been hearing about this for several countries. We also met a woman in Honduras who had torn her MCL doing it, by getting one of her feet caught behind her as she slid down. So I was a bit paranoid to avoid going to fast.
Eva, the girl above, was working in a hostel for the protests. She said it was pretty nuts. At one point they moved the mattresses to the back because they were afraid the rockets the protesters were shooting might break the glass. I guess all the tourists cleared out of town, but a couple of the major hostels stayed open. For the most part the days would be clear then everything would shut down and the protests would start at night. I kind of expected if anything flared up again it would be like this – night and maybe protests in big cities. This would turn out to be an erroneous assumption.
Our guide explained the technique. Basically you lean back to make it go faster, use your feet to slow down. Pull your feet onto the board if you really want to go fast. The sketchiest part was it got steeper about halfway through the ride. So the way it curved you couldn’t see a lot of the track, from looking down it felt like you just rode off a cliff. Things always looker steeper than they are looking down, and vice versa.
I’d go faster next time. Still really fun.
GoPro action shot of us passing cows on the way back
Even with the heat I stayed a few extra days in León – mainly because I was getting so much work done on my blog at my favorite little coffee shop – one of the few establishments in town with AC.
The next day I decided to do the other popular tour – the sunset hike out to a local volcano – Telica. Every volcano has some weird different features. This one was very photogenic.
On the way back from the hike I talked to the guy sitting across from me. He was from Bluefields on the other side of the country, where I planned to go in a few days. I asked him if there were many touristy things to do in Bluefields. He thought for a second, then kind of shook his head and said “not really”. You could tell he was proud of his hometown. But he also acknowledged it doesn’t really have a lot of tourist amenities to attract gringos. Ok well I won’t plan to spend too much time there.
The paragraph above is called foreshadowing.
After León I headed to Lake Apoyo – a big lake on the other side of Granada. I had heard about Paradiso Hostel on the lake and it did not disappoint. Rooms were a little stuffy, but they had fans. After the Volcano everything seemed more tolerable.
That night they had a trivia contest at the hostel.
I figured hey the team with the old guy should clean up here. Well we won but pretty much with no help from me. A lot of the questions were stuff like Beyonce’s kids’ names. But even the shit I should know I didn’t. The only answer I got that they didn’t know was Push It, when we were playing name that tune. Luckily my teammates carried me and we still won. First prize was a bottle of rum that I really could have done w/o the next day.
I hung around the next day pretty hungover. The comfy hammock and swimming in the cool lake took the edge off a bit. I felt a little like the creepy uncle as one of the only people there over 25. I talked to some of the young people I met the night before. I would describe them as tolerating my presence, but we weren’t exactly clicking or anything.
I did see a couple other dudes around my age. But who travels alone at that age and w/o a girlfriend or friends? Probably a sex tourist or something. I steered clear. 😀
The next day I was in a hurry to get on the road. As I paid my bill I got confused about the conversion rate of Cordoba to dollars. I glanced at the bill and saw morning bagel – which I did eat – once. So I just gave them my credit card. Once I got on the road I started thinking about the amount and thought hmmm that seems high. Then I looked at the bill.
Um yeah – that’s food for about 20 people over multiple days. Apparently I had two racks of ribs. Also wtf is a pineapple incident?
But also they don’t even have my room charges on there, so that helped. This bill is about $230 and by my calculation I should have paid about $130. I’m pretty bad about not checking bills and things. I can only think of two times it’s really burned me though. I bought a $24 jar of almond butter at Whole Foods, and now this. I’m sure there have been little ones here and there too. But maybe those even out with times I didn’t pay enough – I dunno. I know I have some friends right now who are going into anaphylactic shock at the idea anyone signing a ridiculous bill like that w/o looking at it. Heh.
I needed to get across the country to Bluefields. I didn’t think trying to call with my broken Spanish would be productive, also it would waste precious minutes and might cut out. So I decided to email once I got there. I procrastinated and didn’t sent the email until about a week later. I said I’m not mad as I should have checked the bill, but can you make this right? I also mentioned Trip Advisor in a non-threatening way. But still it was out there. Places like this are terrified of bad Trip Advisor reviews. They replied and asked me what items I thought were wrong. I replied – do you really think I ate all that food. I rattled off what I thought I ate and mentioned they left off my room charges. They haven’t gotten back to me yet.
Coming next – Nicaragua East