NOTE: this post chronicles my getting stuck on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua due to nationwide protests, and my eventual crazy ride out.
For actual touristy Nicaragua stuff, see these:
“Nicaragua – where lead floats and cork sinks.”
On April 19th, while I was in Honduras, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaraguan government announced a new policy that would decrease the Social Security payout to retirees, and increase the amount young people have to put in. This made many people very angry. According to the government there isn’t enough money. The system is broken and needs to be fixed. According to the angry people, there should be plenty of money. But it’s been frittered away on government crony boondoggles to Ortega’s pals and flat out corruption. Hmmm that sounds a little familiar.
Here’s a good link about how all this stuff started: https://www.facebook.com/jarrettevanbrown/posts/10155889891643303
So what started as a small protest was repressed violently by the government and turned into a huge blowup. There were protests in all the major cities. 45-100 or more people died or “disappeared” – depending on whom you ask. In Leon a 14-year-old girl was killed by a ricochet. In Bluefields a reporter was shot by a sniper while delivering a broadcast. The sniper was never caught and the government disavows responsibility of course. There are reports and some videos that look pretty convincing of bandana-wearing “Sandanista Youth” attacking or lobbing tear gas at protestors – then retreating behind police lines for protection.
In Nicaragua – if you join the Sandanista Youth, you get free secondary education (high school) – something that is prohibitively expensive for poor people. Several of the hostels and hotels have charities to send the local kids to secondary school. I always thought Nicaragua had one of the best education systems in Central America. According to locals – “That is all a lie”. Of all the countries I’ve been to so far – Nicaraguans seem by far the most cynical about their government. From everything I saw there seems to be good reason for this.
Attempt #1 to get from Bluefields to Granada
I got my tire changed in the Flamingo Casino parking lot, and on the road to Nueva Guinea at about 2pm (here’s the previous story of how I got here). I made my way back across the construction quicker this time. I also aired down my tires to 20ps before the construction started.
I was having a nice pleasant drive. At one point near the end of a construction, I passed a truck as it picked up one of the highway workers. The two men in front were dressed in nice casual clothes. I assumed they all worked for the highway and maybe the two guys in front were bosses giving a worker a ride. As I rounded the corner to the intersection with NIC-71 and NIC-134, just before Nueva Guniea – I saw a lot of buses parked, and people sitting around. Uh oh. I was hoping this was maybe some kind of blockage or construction. But I suspected deep down it was a roadblock. I knew there was going to be some kind of protest on May 10th. So it wasn’t a total shocker.
I drove around a few trucks and got fairly close to the front. The highway worker truck pulled in right behind me. They got out and started walking to the roadblock. I figured I would wait and see what they did. Immediately after I parked, my car and US plates started getting a lot of attention. Every group who walked by would look at the car, look at my front plate, then look at me. If they stared a lot I’d wave, and they’d usually wave back. At all the roadblocks I’ve seen – foot traffic is allowed through. So the buses and collectivo taxis stop at one end of the roadblock, then people walk through the roadblock to catch similar transport on the other side. Or in this case some people might just have walked into Nueva Guinea – a decent-sized down just on the other side of the roadblock. So there’s a ton of foot traffic.
I saw the assumed highway workers get back in their truck and drive around me. At that point I was kicking myself for not talking to them as they were walking back past my car to their car. But my Spanish is still so crappy, and I was a little intimidated by all the attention I was getting. So I just sat quietly in my car. I assumed the highway workers had somehow talked their way through the roadblock and were gone, and I missed my possible chance to tag along with them.
At first I assumed it would be like the other roadblocks where they’d hold us for a few hours. Maybe until 8pm or something. I bought some ice cream from a vendor and asked him “cuantos tiempo”. He said “dos”. Ok 2 hours – that’s like 6pm. I can live with that. It sucks because I might miss hanging out in Granada tonight. But that’s the unpredictability of travel!
I tried to confirm the 2 hour estimate with the truck driver who was parked in front of me. He didn’t understand what I was saying and gave me an annoyed look as he said something I didn’t understand. It didn’t boost my confidence over trying to communicate more with people.
As day turned into night and 6pm passed, I started to think they may hold us until 8pm like the Oaxaca road block. Darn it. I decided to cook one of my freeze-dried “REI rations”. As I was preparing the dinner out of the back of my truck I saw a squat figure standing in the darkness a few feet a way, leaning on the front of his open-air bus/truck thing, which was parked directly behind mine. It spooked me a little. He said “La cena?” Yay something I understand – yes this is my dinner. He came forward and was very curious about the whole process. I was friendly and showed him how the boil-in-bag worked, and how you have to seal it and wait 10 minutes for it to cook. He seemed very bemused by the whole process. I offered him some but he wasn’t interested.
At some point his buddy came over. Of course with my crappy Spanish we struggled to communicate beyond basics. The squat guy got a big kick out of calling me gringo. He seemed a little drunk. I asked him how long this would take – he replied “cuarenta y ocho”. 48 hours?!? He nodded yes. Apparently the ice cream guy meant two days, not two hours. Argh. They said the roadblock went in at noon. By my calculation if my morning flight out of Big Corn hadn’t been canceled, I would have arrived at that roadblock right about noon. I might have just made it. Or I might have missed it by 5 minutes and been first in line – which would have been extremely frustrating.
At one point the other guy in the bus – who was younger and taller – communicated via translate apps on our phones. I asked him if they would really keep us here all night. He said there’s no way to know but probably. He also asked me if I was scared to walk around alone. This unnerved me a little. Should I be? Nicaragua is a pretty safe country. But it’s not like there’s any law out here to come and protect you. You’re kind of on your own at a roadblock.
After a bit a couple of other people came and joined us. The squat guy kept calling me gringo, and making a lot of jokes at my expense – most of which I couldn’t understand. I know this is totally normal for this part of the world, so I wasn’t too worried. But maybe a little. One of the other guys in the group was young, tall and didn’t say much – he just gave me this blank stare. He made me a little nervous. At times people would walk by us, but other times there were big gaps where we the only people around. They kept looking up and down the road and I started to get a little paranoid maybe they were waiting for a big gap in people to mess with me. They were also leaning or sitting on my car and kept getting on all sides of me no matter where I moved. I didn’t like being surrounded like that. If my Spanish was better the situation would have gone a lot smoother. But I couldn’t reply to most of the stuff they were saying, and it just got nervous and awkward for me.
At one point I took this picture of the license plate of the bus. I posted it on FB with a cryptic message (I didn’t want to scare my Mom) and also sent it to some friends. My plan was if these guys did start messing with me – I’d let them know that people know their plate #. I didn’t think it was likely they were going to actually pull something. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to have an insurance policy.
At some point they wandered off to further back in the line. I walked up to check out the roadblock. Night actually gave me a little cover as I wasn’t recognizable as a gringo from 100′ away. The roadblock manners had been playing music out of a big speaker the whole time – also firing off what I thought were fireworks.It was a pretty festive atmosphere. As I got closer I could see a bunch of branches blocking the road – with a few people sitting on them. Except for a few guys with scarves covering their faces, it was hard to tell who was a protestor and who was a bystander.
I walked over to the other side of the intersection – which leads to Nueva Guinea just on the other side. This block was a lot more built up – with concrete blocks, logs and metal poles and more people sitting. I thought I might be able to film, but I really didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I walked back to the car resigned that no one was getting through that – not with a bribe nor some kind of Jedi mind trick. Also I saw the truck with the highway worker bosses. They had just pulled up to a closer spot. The disadvantage to being closer was that they got blasted with music all night.
Truckers had strung up hammocks all over the place. Some were sleeping in their cabs.
I slept in my car that night, with the AC running (FYI – 12 hours idle + AC = 4 gallons of gas). I felt a lot safer *and* more comfortable in my air-conditioned car. It was miserable and buggy outside. One thing that saved me is I still had a 3G signal on my cel phone. So I as able to google how to run my engine without the stupid daytime running lights (start car, apply emergency brake, turn car off and restart). In the Oaxaca roadblock I had no cel signal and couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t a big deal in Oaxaca. But I didn’t want to sleep all night with my lights on here and draw even more attention to myself. Another good lesson for overlanders – never drive w/o cellular data access. You never know when it will be a godsend.
At one point I realized the bed of my car was really hot. I figured that must be my engine heating up the pavement and reflecting back at me. So I periodically scooted my car forward or backward during the night. I slept in my driver’s seat and kept a nice gap between me and the truck and front of me – in case I needed to move in a hurry for some reason (hopefully because the roadblock opened).
At some point the guys in the bus behind me drove up to the front, pulled some kind of crazy turn-around maneuver, then stopped with their bus rear end at the roadblock. After a few hours of this they drove back to a spot further away from the roadblock than me, and pulled over into the grass. I have no idea what the first part where they pulled up to the roadblock was about. Just like the Oaxaca roadblock, I saw so many maneuvers like that which made no sense to me.
The sun comes up really early in this country – like 4:30. It’s weird that all of central america wants to be on central time (mountain now because of daylight savings). But if you look on a map – my location lines up with Atlanta. I decided to wait until 6am and if nothing moved – head back to Bluefields. I sat in my car and watched the truck drivers to see if they thought they might move soon. They kept intensely watching what was going on up in front – which gave me hope. But then when I got out of my car to look – nothing was happening. I guess if you’re bored you might a well watch something.
At one point the “gringo” guy showed up at my window. He was now saying 4 days, not 2. Argh. He asked what I was going to do. I mentioned Bluefields. He said Bluefields won’t work because of “rata rata”. Of course google translate offers no help and I had no idea what he meant. But it made me worried my way back to Bluefields would also be blocked.
About 5:30 it strarted to rain. This gave me some concerns for getting through the construction zone on the way to Bluefields – 30km of rocks and clay dirt that turns to ultra-slick mud when wet. It gets so slick you can barely stand up on it. One time I took a wrong turn off the highway and got onto some of that mud. Luckily it was totally flat so I made it across in 4WD. But when I got back on the pavement – all 4 wheels spun until the mud burned off. Is that what ‘rata rata’ means? Rain could make the construction zone impassible.
As 6am got close, I realized no one was going anywhere and it was raining hard. I decided to head back. On my way out there were about 40 more cars and trucks in line behind me. Also they had put up a makeshift tree roadblock on my side of the road (going against the stopped traffic). I was able to drive around by going into the little ditch on the side of the road – one of many times having a high-clearning 4×4 helped me navigate around the a roadblock. It seemed like the main purpose of these roadblocks was to keep buses and taxis from driving all the way up to the front to drop people off.
When I got to the construction zone it was pretty wet and people were just showing up for work. I made it through pretty easily until a big steep grade towards the end of the zone. There a bunch of us waited while a road-grader and a bulldozer with a track took turns towing vehicles up the steep grade of slick mud.
People helping with the towing process were covered with sticky mud. One of them saw my car, said “quattro por quattro” and gave a thumbs up. Yeah. Glad I’m only going down. After a few tows up the hill, they picked my car out of the line to be the first one down. Cool! I made it down pretty easily although it did feel like sliding half the way.
This is not the grade, just a taste of what it’s like.
My main concern though was getting back up that thing later if the rains really set in. Could I be trapped on the wrong side of this? Do they just shut it down when the rains get too heavy? I guess they were trying to build a road from Rama to Bluefields. But in 2016 the rains started and never stopped. It somehow screwed up their road so bad they apparently gave up and decided to build a road from Nueva Guinea instead. This is the road all maps think exists, but isn’t there. So this is all going through my head. I asked the locals if they shut down construction. A couple of them said yeah but only for real rain. Apparently this isn’t even real rain. Argh.
Back at Bluefields
I got back to Bluefields and checked back into the Oasis/Flamingo. My plan was to stock up on water, gas, and food – and head back up the next day when hopefully the 2-day prediction would prove to be true. I walked down onto the pier to get something to eat. I was approached by one of the hustler dudes who sit around on the sidewalks. Basically these guys are friendly and either ask for a handout or try to offer some kind of service to earn a little change (I assume they could get drugs or whatever). They also speak pretty good English – since that part of the world is connected to the Carribean.
I told my hustler guy, a friendly older gentleman of Caribbean-African descent named William, that I need to find out the situation getting across the country. The bus drivers always know – and I figured he’d know them. Also he should know the panga boat drivers who go up the river to Rama. As we walked I saw a Managua <-> Bluefields bus parked close to the pier. He said that bus was stuck and couldn’t leave. I figured ok – no matter what anyone says, if that bus is gone it’s a good sign. If it’s still there, bad sign. Tangible confirmation is the best. He enthusiastically said he was on the case and he would find out everything he knows. Great, I have a man on street now. He guided me to a local place that has tasty typico chicken, rice and beans.
When I got out of the restaurant he told me what he’d found out. He didn’t think anything was going to move until Monday at the earliest, probably Tuesday. This was Friday. Argh. He said there was a nationwide roadblock blocking all transport between the two coasts. But boats might be still running to Rama. He also said all plane traffic was blocked too. Which I knew wasn’t true. So I wasn’t sure what to believe. We walked up and asked the boat driver just to see if there’s a chance to put my car on it. He said they weren’t going anywhere until Monday at the earilest.
William asked me for a few bucks to get something to eat. I gave him 100C – about $3. This became his daily rate for getting me the latest information on the transport situation. Best value ever.
That night I hung out in the casino lounge and worked on my blog. I also entertained myself with a beer volcano created by my hyper-cooled beer.
I got going about 10pm the next day – planning to hit the roadblock about noon, which would be 48 hours from when I was told it started. It was raining off and on and I was very nervous about making it up the big hill. The Managua/Bluefields bus was still parked by the pier. But I decided to try it anyway in hopes the original 2-day prediction turned out to be correct. I bought 4 gallons of water and filled my tank and two 5 gallon jerry cans with gas. I figured vendors will always be there for snacks. And I have a weeks worth of REI rations at least. I was prepared it wait it out an extra night or two if needed. or if they were letting people trickle through some how.
One thing I forgot that I was really kicking myself for is some vodka to make time pass quicker and make my car a little more comfortable. I can mix that with orange stuff and drink it w/o drawing attention. Beer would just make me the life of the party, which I definitely didn’t want to be.
Even though it was raining, the construction turned out to be no big deal. They had dumped a ton of rocks on the big grade. Driving up it was like a gravel road.
About 10km from the roadblock I passed a tricked out new blue pickup coming the other way. The guy standing in the bed was holding some kind of very large, serious military-grade rifle. I have no idea what was going on there. It was the only real weapon I saw in Nicaragua not on a car or cop.
I was worried the line of cars would be kilometers long this time. As I got closer and closer to the intersection where the block was – I saw no signs of cars waiting. I even aw little mini-roadblocks on the other side of the road, like the one I had to navigate around to get out the pervious morning. But no other cars or people. I started to get hopeful as I rounded the last possible turn before the intersection. Nope, there it was.
The line of cars and trucks had actually gotten a lot shorter than when I left the previous morning. I wondered is this a bad sign? Have people given up and go somewhere else? Or many they’re trickling through – which I had heard was possible at a lot of the other roadblocks.
There was a jacknifed flatbed truck blocking the path, this time the way around was also blocked with a bunch of branches. So there was no chance to drive up to the front. At first I thought the flatbed might have accidentally gotten stuck like that trying to turn around. But then I realized it was probably on purpose. I asked some guys near the truck if they knew when this would open. They said 3 more days. So Tuesday? Yeah. Ugh.
I walked up to the front. I saw the bus of the “gringo” guy. That’s not a great sign.
Then I saw the truck with the highway worker bosses. One of them was in his undershirt instead of his nice polo he was wearing two days prior. That seems like a real bad sign, If anyone could bribe their way though, I’d think it would be those guys.
I walked up to the roadblock. The mood was a lot less festive, but not super tense. Just tons of people standing around. It was impossible to tell who was in charge or whom you’d even ask to get through. There seemed to be a few more of the guys with scarves and plastic pipe things – which I figured out were rocket launchers that they were using to set off what I thought was fireworks the other night. This time it was clear from the way they were carrying them that these were makeshift weapons.
Even if I did talk my way through, I wasn’t clear how I’d get around the flatbed situation behind me. My plan at this point had mostly just been to wait it out. I still couldn’t really wrap my head around trying to talk my way through. How am I going to get through when the construction bosses in the nice truck couldn’t get through? It never occurred to me that foreign plates could be a key.
I walked over to the Nueva Guinea side. There were only a few cars in line. I assumed everyone was just in town waiting it out. So frustrating – like 100 feet between one side and the other. On the right side of the intersection – freedom to the other side of Nicaragua. On my side – trapped with my car. Straight ahead looked like a road, but was a big blank spot on every map I had. The left went to a few towns but otherwise seemed to completely dead end. And it didn’t matter because they weren’t letting anyone through in any direction.
I’d heard many horror stories of people trying to run these things or bully their way through. People had their cars attacked and sometimes were pulled from the car and beaten up. Don’t do it.
I started brainstorming and imagining stupid stuff like – could I get a helicopter to lift my car over this? I pondered the barriers on both sides on the intersection that i needed to get through and the fields around them, particularly the field in the quadrant between my two barriers. There was a path going into the field a few hundred feet down on NIC-71 – my trapped side. It seemed very likely that might connect up with NIC-134 on the Nueva Guinea side. I could walk the route in the day, then try to run it at 3am or something. One problem though is as soon as I put my car in gear, those daytime running lights come back on. I’d have to disconnect ever light on the car before trying this. Which could turn into a big mess.
About that time my “gringo” buddy showed up in the intersection. He was all cleaned up and sober and super-friendly. He had spent the night in a hotel in Nueva Guinea. A hotel was an option for me as well – but it would mean leaving my car completely unattended – in a place it was getting far and away the most attention it’s gotten the entire trip. I’d have find a good spot and really trust some neighbors to keep an eye on it. I asked the gringo guy what he thought of my plan to sneak around. He made a gun pantomime and rattatat sound. They’d shoot me basically. Ok not a good plan.
I did see one car let through at least part of the barrier. It was a land cruiser truck thing loaded up with people and many bunches of plantains – on some kind of official mission for the protestors I’m assuming. They had to argue about how to let the vehicle through the main roadblock towards Nueva Guinea. The group sitting on the main barrier wanted him to drive on the other side of the stop sign, where there were only sticks, but it looked real tight. Finally it was decided to move part of the main barrier, much to the chagrin of the guys sitting on it – who now had to help take it apart.
Obviously the weren’t letting people through very often if this was the process. There were even tons of motorcycles parked on both sides. Usually motorcycles can talk their way through at some point. The gringo guy was now saying 3 more days as well. Although he seemed to think that meant Wednesday, not Tuesday.
I decided to head back to Bluefields.
At this point I was still hoping to see Granada, meet up with the Belgian guys, and salvage my Nicaragua Pacific-side vacation. As I drove back, I got the idea that maybe I will leave the car, fly to Managua and check out Granada. Then I’ll fly back and get my car in 3 days.
Bluefields take 3
“The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude” (or so the quote on my home page goes)
When I got back to Oasis they just handed me my key. I’m like Clive Davis at the Beverly Hills Hotel – my room is always waiting.
I got online and bought a roundtrip ticket to fly to Managua the next day – $140. That night I sent an Instagram message to the Belgian guys in Granada to see where they were staying.
The next day I got up, checked out of my room for the 3rd time, gave the hotel some laundry to do and killed some time until my afternoon flight. At some point the Belgian guys got back to me, They said the situation was pretty bad and they were bugging out to San Juan del Sur. Great. I kinda figured. I decided to skip Managua and just make the best of it in Bluefields. I went to the airport to cancel my ticket in person. They said they could only change it, not cancel it. I had to cancel it online, which of course there’s no way to do. I may try to fight it somehow with my credit card.
When I got back to the Oasis, they had already put my clothes in my room all nice and folded. They knew I wasn’t going anywhere I guess. You can check out anytime, but you can never leave.
I talked to my man on the street, William. He was now saying there would be a big protests in Bluefields on Monday and Tuesday. So maybe Wednesday I could get out. But more likely Thursday. But also nobody really knows. Awesome. He also said there were roadblocks just outside of Bluefields – which I know isn’t true because I just drove through that and didn’t see anything. So I never know for sure. But I trust William knows the boat and bus drivers. And the Managua bus was still there – so for sure he’d know if he could get through.
Around this point I started to realize I need to abandon my hope of seeing Granada, Ometepe and San Juan del Sur on this trip, and just focus on getting me and my car out of the country somehow. On the map there’s a much closer border to Costa Rica – which doesn’t involve going near Managua, Masaya or any of the other major problem areas.
Googling and talking to locals about that border was frustrating because many said that’s a boat-only border and the boat hardly runs. But I found something that said there was a bridge built in 2015. Still you never know in this part of the world. You might hear they shut that down with the protests and never reopened it. Only local locals ever really know.
Welp, might as well explore Bluefields, work on the blog, and make the best of of it for a few days. I actually came to love Bluefields by the end. My first impression was of a very gritty town that might not be 100% safe. But I met so many people there who love their little gritty town, including expats. It really grew on me. I would have enjoyed it even more without the stress of worrying about my car. I had to start thinking about if I had to leave it behind in a garage. Would it be safe? Would I be able to get it out later when it had well expired it’s 30-day permit? Supposedly you can get that extended to 60-days in Managua. But who knows how well that will work with all this other chaos.
Jerry and the staff at Oasis were incredibly helpful. I can’t say enough good things about them. They called a hotel in Nueva Guinea where I could stay. They let me park my car there for free when I was on Corn Island. I had to explain how my car would still be on the wrong side of the roadblock. Jerry also gave me connections for a garage where I might store the car. They lowered my rate too. I felt like family by the end.
I wandered around town for a few days – taking out cash each time. Some people were worried about the town running out of supplies. The Corn Islands get all their supplies through Bluefields. No boats or trucks = no beer. No beer = no tourists. Although I’m not sure how many tourists Corn Islands are getting with all the turmoil. But I never saw a run on groceries, cash machines or all important beer supplies. I’m not sure what the breaking point is, but everyone seems prepared to be cut off for a few weeks anyway. I think Bluefields has some kind of strategic beer reserve.
I went back to Marbella (where I had watched Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) a few times.
Best stick to the fried chicken – which is the only thing anyone seems to order
The next day was Mother’s Day. Unfortunately I had no minutes, but Mom and I managed to chat for a while online. William’s buddy kept offering to carve me something. So I had him carve me a Mother’s Day gift. I love you mom!
Dearest Martha, fate finds me still camped in Bluefields on Nicaragua’s sparsely-populated Atlantic Coast. Nationwide protests block all transport. With good providence, my predicament will clear up tomorrow day, or the next – hopefully long before I go mad from the preponderance of Ed Sheeran’s voice emanating from every dining and drinking establishment in town. I’m currently sustaining myself on copious rations of ice cold beer and tasty fried things. However should those become depleted, please pray for my soul.
— your loving Mateo
Other than Marbella and the Oasis lounge, I spent much of my time at the 3rd floor restaurant of Casa Royale – the hotel next to Oasis. Great food and really friendly people. The only knock on Casa Royale I can think of – is the of course their heavy, HEAVY rotation of Ed Sheeran.
I thought about trying to get out Monday or Tuesday and take my chances, but everyone was saying there would be protests in Bluefields. So it seemed like it might be a mess getting out. Neither protest ended up happening.
Given the deteriorating situation, I decided to make a run for it on Wednesday – during the first talks with Ortega. If the talks somehow went well the roadblocks might go away. But if they didn’t go well, which seemed likely, things could get real bad. I had heard in one offhand Facebook comment that foreign-plated vehicles and ambulances might be let through – which gave me a tiny ray of hope. But you hear so many things – and 90% of them turn out to be completely wrong.
That day I went around and got any supplies I could think of to potentially use as bargaining chips. I loaded my car with 2 cases of beer, many bottles of soda, water, extra gasoline, and vodka – to potentially use as bargaining chips. I also had cash.
After getting good luck from Clayberth and everyone at Casa Royale for my run the next day. I couldn’t sleep right away – so I went down to the casino. Where of course Ed Sheeran followed.
That day I posted my whoe plan on the Nicaraguan ex-pat forum to ask any more advice.
I woke up at 6am to an FB message from a Danish guy named Lasse. He and his Swiss friend Stefan were stranded in Nueva Guinea and wanted to know if I could help get them out. A friend of theirs had read my post on the ex-pat forum and alerted them that I might be their ticket out. I said sure – assuming I make it through the first roadblock just before Nueva Guinea. They were able to provide some local reconnaissance as well, which helped.
The staff at Oasis had given me the number of a hotel owner in Nueva Guinea who said he would go down to the roadblock to try to help me out. I sent the guys over to talk to the hotel owner, but they said he didn’t seem to know much. They said they were staying about an hour walk from the roadblock. I debated if trying to get through the roadblock on my own first was a good or bad idea. If I tried on my own first, could I maybe screw it up somehow? Would be better to get local help first? Given the hour walk I decided to try to do it myself.
Once again the roadblock coming out of Bluefields was non-existent. I really don’t think Bluefields’ heart was in this thing. The cultures and languages are so different that the Atlantic and Pacific sides are like two different countries. Even Spanish speaking Bluefields residents speak with a heavily slurring Caribbean accent that the rest of Nicaragua makes fun of. So it makes sense Bluefields might not be totally on board with the Pacific side’s war.
About 6 km before the roadblock, I saw an old farmer waving me down from the other side of the road. Normally I would be suspicious of something like this, but in this case I thought maybe he can help me somehow. Maybe I can explain my situation to him, and he can help negotiate me through. But then it became clear he couldn’t speak. He could only make gutteral noises. So much for that plan.
But other than that he seemed all there. He wanted a ride towards the roadblock. Ok sure why not. He got in, holding a big sack of something in his lap. He motioned to tell me that the block was coming. I said yo se – I know. He seemed to understand me.
I got up to the roadblock at Nueva Guinea, which had about the same amount of vehicles as the pervious time. This time there were 2 jackknifed flatbed trucks (I guess flatbed is good so they can still see over them if government troops are coming or something). There was a string of barbed wire blocking the way around the flatbed trucks – what was probably doable in a low clearance car (minus the barbed wire) but it wouldn’t have been fun. They were having a little party at the barbed wire spot – with a big speaker blaring Reggaeton.
I let the farmer out, he headed toward the roadblock but was walking very slowly carrying his bag, with a noticeable limp.
I waited a bit so I could park in a good spot between a lot of people.I didn’t want my car to be in the back behind a truck where no one could see it an it might be easier to mess with. I thought I might be gone a while – if I had to walk into Nueva Guinea to get help. I took a picture of my car – to show my US plates to whomever I talked to at the front.
I only took a few pictures from here on out for obvious reasons.
I walked up to the front. There were lots of well lived-in makeshift camps. Laundry was drying on the fence. Shirtless dudes were playing cards under a truck. I caught up to the mute farmer and said hi as I passed him.
When I got to the center of the intersection, I found a friendly looking guy who seemed to be with the protesters. IE – not just a bystander. Trying to hide my heart-pounding nervousness, I said hey, and he gave me a little fist-pump. I said I have plates from Unistados Unidos (yes I know now that it’s Estados Unidos – doh! – but they understood). I asked – can I pass – “Hay paso por favor?” Here’s where being obviously a big pele rojo gringo helps a bit I think.
He asked another slightly older guy in a little group sitting in a patch of shade, who I assumed was in charge. None of these guys had rocket launchers or scarves. I think they’re all local farmers. After a bit of back and forth – the second guy nodded I could pass. I didn’t ask twice. I always remember a quote from some movie with Elliot Gould – “Never sell after you’ve made the sale.”
I hustled back to my car. As I walked back, on person in line asked if I was going to be allowed to pass. It was one of the construction boss guys who hit the roadblock at the exact same time I did 6 days earlier. I said “tal vez” – maybe. I didn’t want to rub it in. I thought I saw the gringo guy’s bus – but it was covered or something. I never saw him. One of my subplans was to offer him $20 if he could get me to the other side somehow.
Now my biggest concern is how to remove that barbed wire and get around the jackknifed trucks w/o getting in trouble. What if they say no? I talked to the nearest person and attempted to communicate that I was being allowed to pass at the front. He didn’t argue and got to work undoing the barbed wire. As I was driving past, I stopped the car, got out and gave away a few loose beers to that group. This quickly turned into a happy mob scene with endless people running up to my car for a beer. I gave away about 8 beers and made a note – give beers away in blocks – no continuous loose beers. People were excited for the beer, but no one got pushy or tried to grab one.
As I drove to the front, they moved the first branch barricade out of the way. I was now in the middle of the intersection of NIC-71 and NIC-134. As I thought I was through, I got out of the car and pulled two cold 3-liters of Coke and a 12-pack of ice-cold beer out of my cooler and gave it to them. The beer again was a huge huge hit. I made sure to let my original buddy distribute it.
As they were clearing the last branches from my path – some younger dudes with their faces covered with scarves and homemade rocket launchers showed up and started saying NO. Great. I’m guessing the rockets are something like a big bottle rocket with an M-80 on it – but they could be more serious. I managed to get a shot of one on my second trip to the roadblock:
There was some arguing back and forth while I sat in the intersection. The crowd was swelling. Chaotic yelling seemed to be the communication strategy of the day. Think – “Hay ay ay ay AY AY AYYYYYY!!” The older guys finally won out and removed the roadblock. Where they were sending me though I have no idea. Instead of removing the roadblock on the right towards Nueva Guinea they sent me straight ahead down a road that google maps doesn’t know exists. I hoped it would connect over to Nueva Guinea – which I could see from there. But the road turned into a very bumpy cow field.
I reluctantly turned around and headed back. Some guys were waving me back towards the roadblock. I hoped they would send me down one of the side streets and not back through the main block. But nope, it was back through the main roadblock – with a giant log still in my path to the left – towards town. Standing right in front of the log, with his legs spread in an aggressive stance, was a scarfed guy gripping a rocket launcher. At one point he actually pointed the rocket launcher at me. But most of the time it was still pointed up. I have no idea if that thing would actually do any damage to my car. But obviously if it comes to that I’m screwed either way. There are multiple more roadblocks in that vicinity.
I very slowly rolled up to a few feet in front of him. I had both windows rolled down at this point, which I was starting to regret. People surrounded my car on all sides, leaning in the car, arguing and yelling stuff. I heard “International!” a few times. I noticed that many of the guys who were arguing most vociferously for me were holding the beers I had given them. Score one for beer.
The rocket launcher guy made his way over to my rolled down driver’s side window. He of course was saying stuff in Spanish I couldn’t understand. I can usually communicate what I need to. But I can never understand what these guys are saying. If I tell them ‘no comprende’, they just repeat whatever they were saying. They’ve never had to deal with gringos, so they don’t know dum dum Spanish.
Everyone was yelling at everyone. This was peak chaos. At one point I asked the rocket launcher guy “propina?” (tip) Nope. He didn’t want money. I couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what this guy wanted. Then he said “Tu arma?” which I actually understood. I’d heard it from the cops who pulled me over in El Salvador. They wanted to know if I was armed.
I said “No – yo no arma” and held up my hands. He gestured his weapon to say “Yeah, well I am armed.” Ok you’re the boss. So somehow I got the idea to just ask him what I had already asked the other guys, breaking my cardinal rule of asking twice. “Hay paso por favor? Placa de Unistados Unidos.” He paused for a bit then nodded and gestured that I could pass. I guess he just wanted to be asked and show he was in charge. What happens if he says no I have no idea.
A few of the crowd removed the log and I was on my way – a few 100 feet down to the next roadblock. A few more guys with my beers in their hands helped explain to the other road-block manners that I was allowed to pass and helped me back up and negotiate around it. After I cleared the second roadblock – my original buddy asked me for a few pesos (not sure why he said pesos, but that’s what he asked for). I gave him 200 Cordobas – about $6. He seemed happy. It was the only time all day anyone asked for money or anything else other than respect.
I spent a few frustrating minutes wandering around Nueva Guinea trying to find the hotel of my new buddies. (Really google maps – we’re gonna do this now?) I was paranoid someone with a rocket launcher was going to show up any minute and send me back to the roadblock. At first the hotel employees said the grngos went out. THEY WENT OUT??? But then it was determined that no, they were actually in their room.
They were completely shocked to see me through the roadblock so soon. I said “Get ready as fast as you can and lets get out of here!” I started moving stuff around in my car. They were back at the car, fully packed, in 3 minutes. Well done guys.
We piled in and headed down the road – aiming for the normally lightly traveled “other” Nicaragua/Costa Rica border at Los Chiles / Rio San Juan.
I knew there would be more roadblocks. But you have to figure if I got through Nueva Guinea, hopefully I can get through the others. We hit another roadblock maybe 20km down the road. We stopped and all got out. This one was mostly older dudes – no scarves or rocket launchers. They were super friendly and pretty much agreed to let us go immediately. I gave them some soda. I figured I might need the 30 beers or so I had left for more serious situations.
The roads were spooky empty. We agreed it felt like some kind of zombie apocalypse.
We saw maybe 10 cars for 100 km after Nueva Guinea.
We passed some women walking on the road who gave us the big “no go” sign, so we knew another roadblock was coming soon – at Santo Thomas up ahead. We tried to give them the “We know what we’re doing” sign, but that’s a little hard to pull off.
This roadblock was a lot more serious. Tons of guys with scarves and rocket launchers. This was at the intersection where you can first turn off to start heading back south to get to the border, or go straight towards Managua. The situation was very tense as we pulled up and hundreds of people started making their way towards us. We all got out. I told Stefan to let me do the talking, but back me up with your superior Spanish when necessary. I figured they’d think it was weird if the older guy and driver didn’t speak. Also I feel like I have a disarming presence that I hoped would do us well
They were really suspicious of us at first. I repeated my phrase “Solo quiero dejar el pais.” (I only want to leave the country).The tricky part is finding who to talk to. Basically I just looked for a sympathetic older face in the crowd approaching us, and addressed him. I think they understood pretty quick we weren’t dangerous or from anywhere near there.
When they saw my American plates, they starting asking me if I was a Contra (the US-backed group who fought the Sandanistas in the 80s). I know Ortega is a Sandanista. So I was thinking – do they want me to be a Contra? I have no idea if that’s good or bad. So made I don’t know gestures and tried to look dumb.
They wanted to check inside the car and were very curious to see in my car carrier on the top. I opened it up and they poked around a little. One thing that helped is we explained that we came from Bluefields and already got through Nueva Guinea. Also there was zero traffic coming from our direction as everything is blocked. So they knew we were probably telling the truth. Otherwise our appearance there made no sense.
Unlike the other road block where it seemed uncertain who was in charge – this one had a tall young dude with curly hair and his face covered who seemed to be clearly making the decisions. After some discussion, he nodded ok that we could pass. At that point I pulled out a full cold 12-pack. The dude I gave it to hoisted it on his shoulders like he was returning to his village with a magnificent kill. A gigantic roar went up in the crowd – up and down the street. Estados Unidos winning hearts and minds in Nicaragua. I wish I had the nerve to take video. But considering how much trouble some of these guys were going through to hide their faces it didn’t seem like a good idea.
As we drove further down to the other side of the roadblock, there was a gas station in the no man’s land between the two ends of the roadblock. People had taken it over and were camped all around the non-functional pumps – very Road Warrior-esque. The curly headed guy walked down and told the next roadblock to let us through to the left – the way towards our border crossing. If we had wanted to go straight towards Managua that might have been a problem. It certainly wouldn’t have matched our story that we just wanted to get out of Nicaragua.
I knew to expect a few roadblocks. But I hoped at this point we might be done – especially when we went through a wide deserted highway intersection still manned by police. We got some wide-eyed stares from the half-dozen or so cops there. We waved and they still just gawked at my car like “What the hell is that and where the hell did it come from?” I thought – ok maybe we’re in government territory now?
We drove for a long way and were maybe 30 minutes from the border, when I saw some white things in the road ahead – and a sign for El Tule. I remembered there was supposed roadblock at El Tule. Damn. This one was pretty serious too. These guys probably seemed the angriest of all. Driving up and getting out was very tense – similar to the previous roadblock.
They were really confused as to how I got there. They were also really interested in looking in the car and in the car carrier above. I guess they thought we were trying to sneak someone out of the country. Nobody ever wanted to look in my locking trunk in the back though. Maybe they didn’t notice it. Or maybe they were looking only in spaces big enough for a person? I have no idea.
Once they said we could pass, I pulled out some soda and beer and finally got the balls to ask for a pic. At least the ones in this pic were more than happy to pose so I am going to assume they are in no danger. If anyone thinks they are please let me know and I will blur out their faces. These guys are mostly farmers and I don’t think they have anything to do with organizing stuff.
The weird thing on this one is that the other side of the roadblock was so far down the road, they had to put a guy in our car to run down to the other side with us – sitting on Stefan’s lap. Ok sure.
When we got to the other end our rider explained to the people on that end what was going on. They moved a log to let us through into the grass on the right-hand side of the road. We drove around some trucks then pulled through a gap to get back to the road. Once on the road I could see a long line of trucks and buses. This looked like the other end of the Nueva Guinea road block. All the stuff inbetween had hardly any stuck vehicles.
I thought ok – maybe that’s it. And it was. The rest of the way was smooth sailing over completely empty roads. My paranoid self kept thinking the bridge was going to be out or something, and we’d have to try to get all the way back through the country and dozens of roadblocks.
So when we got to the bridge over Rio San Juan, I’ve never been so happy to be questioned by grumpy (pre) border cops in my life. As long as they don’t tell me the border’s closed. We told them the story and showed them some pics of the day.
The Nicaragua border took like 2 hours of silliness just to get out with my car. They also scanned my entire car with some multi-million dollar-looking x-ray device. Brilliant use of taxpayer’s money there. Wouldn’t want to scan people at the heavy traffic Honduras border. No idea why people are pissed at the govt. At one point we got called into a little room for questioning – which I can see given our crazy story and the fact that we just met that morning. But still, between entry and exit – the Nicaragua border is the closest thing to the movie Brazil I’ve ever experienced.
Taking pics at borders is also not a good idea. But I snuck in a few.
We got to our hostel at La Fortuna, an hour and a half into the country – and I couldn’t find my passport. Awesome. The last guy who asked for it was the Costa Rica Aduana (immigration for cars). I had no recollection of giving him giving it back to me, and I was fairly certain he still had it. I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be to replace my passport, and especially ship my car with some kind of replacement passport. But I know it wouldn’t be fun.
I considered driving back at night, but decided to just get drunk instead and deal with it in the morning. The hostel was full of loud annoying drunk Americans, probably on blow. Holy crap was it a culture shock for all three of us after being the only tourist gringos in our respective towns for many days. We all agreed we missed Bluefields.
The next morning I got up at 6:30am, blisteringly hungover, and drove back to he border. I saw the same lady from the day before. She searched the Aduana guy’s office while I watched from the outside window. My heart sank when it wasn’t right there on the desk or on top of a drawer. She rifled through everything and it wasn’t there. We tried a girl at another office to see if anyone had turned it in. Nope. We tried the guy out in the office in the parking lot. He came back in and wanted to search the Aduana office again. I didn’t think that would work, but ok. He looked in the same places and couldn’t find it either of course.
We were about to call it when I saw my form in the drawer and a photocopy of my passport. I said – see I was definitely here. This is also how I knew I was probably the only car to pass through all day. Then in a flash I said “copier machine!” I remembered losing a document before, only to find it in my home copier tray a month later. They opened the drawer and there it was.
I let out a bunch of gigantic “YES!” yells that probably freaked everyone else out at the border. I imagine they don’t get that kind of jubilation too often. Like “YES! THEY DIDNT FIND MY DRUGS!!!!!” Pretty sure you would wait until a few miles down the road for that celebration.
And thus concludes the craziest 24-hours of my life. Enough adventure travel for now.