Central America doesn’t change, unsurprising really… you wouldn’t expect eons of culture to shift too dramatically in 6 months! Yup, my latest love affair with the United States has come to an end and I’ve returned to sunny Central America to continue another episode of cycling in a predominantly southerly direction. I’ve left the true onset of winter in snowy Michigan and New York to fly south, returning to hot and steamy Leon, Nicaragua and a reunion with Shermy and my bike life.
The heat in Leon hit square and hard in the face, rendering me a greasy mess for the first days of acclimatization My head still heavy with happy memories of special people in the US, I set about diligently cleaning and servicing all my camp and bike gear. Against the odds my bike had survived her 6 month ‘vacation’ stowed in the Quetzaltrekkers office. The premises had been broken into several times in my absence but amazingly I found myself only a couple of Leatherman tools and a bike computer worse off. So it was with immense satisfaction that I was able to clean the detritus of slumber off my panniers and tune the Shermster up to her shiny desirable best. A sense of unerring familiarity and satisfaction swept over me as once again I found myself in a cheap hostel room surrounded by airing camp equipment and losing hours to simply staring at the beautiful Thorn Nomad that I call my own.
A couple of evening rides and a loaded overnight jaunt to the beach had me ready and prepared to cycle out of Leon and re-start my tour in earnest. So on January 14th I slapped on the sunscreen, loaded my stead and headed out of Leon… or tried to anyway! Two miles in the wheels and literally right on the edge of town I was congratulated on my progress with the twanging sound of a broken rear spoke. Shermy, reminding me that I still wasn’t fully forgiven for abandoning her like I did. In record time I had her re-spoked, trued and we were rolling again, perhaps just a little heavier with fear the episode may prove a bad omen.
Taking the busy Pan American out of Leon was boring and a touch unpleasant, even including a chance meeting with Javier, an Argentine on tour to Mexico from his homeland. The chance to branch off onto the old, more southerly Leon to Managua highway was a blessing. The traffic disappeared, the road surface degenerated into a lumpy mess and I almost started to enjoy myself. Unfortunately my ability to relax into the riding was severely hampered by the combination of a new unbroken Brooks B-17 Imperial, the beating sun and a rather uncomfortable urinary tract infection. Still, two days from Leon I was where I wanted to be, in Granada, back in the swing of things and thankfully… near a decent doctor!
Next on the agenda was the island of Ometepe, a four hour boat ride across Lake Nicaragua from Granada. Ferries leave Tuesdays and Thursdays at 14:30 from Granada so I had a day to kill before sailing away. Ometepe, the largest fresh water volcanic island in the world (19×6 miles), has to be seen to be believed. It consists of two majestic volcanoes, Concepcion (1,610m) and Madera (1,394m) that rear confidently out of Lake Nicaragua, connected into one by a low isthmus. Unimpressed with the colonial ‘jewel’ that Granada claims to be, it was with reasonable relief that we slowly started to float south. Never happy to leave my bike out of sight I stuck with her until she was loaded as cargo, one among a few as the ferry was graced by four other cycle tourists; Scott and Emily who have spent the last 15 months cycling down from Seattle, Washington, and a young American who we came to know as ‘Freight Train’ (tedium dictates that apparently you can travel anywhere with enormous pleasure by jumping freight trains) and his long-suffering girlfriend who had just bought cheap bikes and planned riding around for a while. A great advert for the versatility and no rules apply spirit of bike touring. As we plodded through the water and darkness descended the twin volcanoes of Ometepe slowly came to meet us. It wasn’t clear from the boat whether there were any freight trains operating on the island, it seemed highly unlikely.. but still the hope persisted in me that maybe my new ‘friend’ might still get hit by one.
Landing in Altagracia I chanced upon a hotel that strangely already had a reservation for me. My Quetzaltrekking cohort from last year, Katie had arranged to meet me for a couple of days and without my knowledge booked me a room, by chance I had walked into the right hotel! We met and the next day hiked up Volcan Concepcion, the northern and larger of Ompetepe’s two volcanoes. Without a guide we easily negotiated the three hour climb up out of the sun and into the windy clouds. The only aspect of the hike that could have necessitated the advised guide was the summit… the crater comes up quickly and without ceremony; one minute you’re scrambling up loose rock and the next you’re perched on a warm sulphery precipice (or falling helplessly into it).
The hike found me out for fitness and the next day I had already started to ache when Katie hired a bike and we set off to tame the dirt road that skirts the southern section of the figure of eight shaped island. Dropping the majority of my weight off at the faux hippy hang out and supposed permaculture finca, El Zopilote, we set out early afternoon. The road was great fun to ride, although a little taxing for Katies hired aluminium framed ‘mountain’ bike. We had a little hiccup when Katies head decided to become better acquainted with the ground and cycled home in the dark, but it was amazing fun and stark reminder of how much I love to cycle.
Two of the other cyclists on the boat over, Scott and Emily (www.wegoslow.com) were staying at Zopilote too. So the next day, after Katies early departure and a morning of pannier repair, we teamed up and hit the road. The Go Slow Freedom Collective was formed. Our first outing was twenty or so paved and picturesque miles around to the ferry terminal at Moyagalpa, arriving in time for the 16:00 ferry to San Jorge on the mainland. Thankfully we were able to wheel our fully loaded bikes onto this ferry (unlike that out of Granada where we had to unload and carry our panniers by hand down a long jetty to the ferry) and were grateful for the shorter one hour crossing. That night Scott cunningly secured us a pitch in the back yard of an unsuspecting Nica family in Rivas… I’ll never forget the look on the face of their young teenage girl! Her jaw hit the floor in a frozen look of what could have been awe, wonder, lust or maybe just pure delight.
That was to be it for me and Nicaragua as on the morning of January 21st we survived blustery head winds and risky lorry traffic on the Pan American to cross into the 10th country of my trip, Costa Rica. Nicaragua is definitely a country I could have explored more but given the circumstances of my stuttering time there I feel I gave it its dues. Against the startling natural beauty and cultural richness of Guatemala it fails to impress on any level, but I saw only a small ribbon in the west of the country and unusually for me failed to get up into the highlands where the true beauty of these countries often resides. Nicaragua is a country ticked off as opposed to a culture discovered but the important thing for me is that I’m back on the bike and happy.