October 20th, 2016
We approached the HND/NICA border around 10AM. About a kilometre before even reaching the border, we encountered tractor trailers lining both sides of the road pointed in both directions; this was different. We learned later it can take a looooooong ass time for these guys to get across.
After stopping at Immigration on the HND exit side where they had us fill in an exit document, we went over to the Customs desk and handed in our vehicle permit – didn’t take too long. Then we drove over to the barrier which was raised as we approached on the left side of the road (we were on the right) and we were stopped and given some paperwork and asked some questions.
They sent us over to the fumigation tent where after paying $4USD, the underside of Tigger was sprayed. We then drove to NICA immigration and stood in short line and after paying $12USD each, Doug went over to Customs while Fran waited for our change (we handed them $40USD and at first they only gave us change equivalent to $6 so Fran had to wait a bit longer for the other ten).
The temporary import of the vehicle, again, was the longest part of this whole operation. We were second in a slow line and then the process began with the scanning of our licenses, passports, and vehicle docs. At least here they did not handwrite everything and in about 20 minutes, we had the document and were sent on our way. Upon arriving at the rig, we realized they had only given us a 30 day permit – we want to stay longer than that so Doug went back and was told we’d have to extend it in Managua, the capital city of this country. We’ll be there in about a week so we’ll look into that.
Nica requires that you buy vehicle insurance so after getting back into Tigger and driving to the final barrier, we were stopped, had to buy the insurance from one lady, show our new vehicle permit and our passports/visa to one guy, pay a $1 toll each for passing through the town, and then got to the barrier, where again we had to show our vehicle permit and passports. Talk about job creation!; so many different individuals involved.
Nicaragua is our fifth Central America country and is known as the land of thousands of volcanoes continuing the string of along the Pacific we have encountered since GTM. It is about the size of New York State and has a pretty turbulent history but the past twenty years of so have been pretty peaceful. Their infrastructure for roads anyway seems good; Doug is impressed. The roads we have travelled thus far are bordered by countryside with agriculture; there are many cows both in the fields and crossing the road as well as lots of individual horses tied to posts on the sides of the road grazing and we see a lot more people on horseback and with horse & buggy than in other CA countries. Nica also seems so far anyway, to be much cleaner that GTM, SLV and HND.
The currency here is the Cordoba – named after Francisco Hernandez Cordoba, a Spanish explorer and exchanges at about 29 for $1USD. The main beers here are Toña and Victoria and you can purchase them in one litre bottles for 75C in the bar which is about $2.5 USD. Gasoline is 27.13 Cordoba’s per litre = about 3.76US a gallon so a little more than in HND.
We stopped in the first town of any size to see about finding an ATM for cash and cell phone service – that other stressor when arriving in a new country. Josée and Joe bank with Charles Schwab like we do and she’d sent me a message that she was unable to get money yesterday when they crossed over so we wanted to see if we could and get it sorted sooner rather than later. We found a Banpro ATM and after trying three times and getting weird DOS messages on the screen, we were able to withdraw cash and actually had the option of cordobas or USD. Then it was on to Claro to get cell and data service. There was a shop near the ATM that had no customers so in we went and naturally, the clerk spoke no English and had a bit of a lisp to her Spanish. She then began to write things down and we could better understand what was going on. It seems the “paquettes” offered in Nica are for very short terms; calling is for 1 or 2 days only (unless you go contract) and the longest data plan you can get is 15 days. So after lots of haggling and interpretation, we think we got what we wanted/asked for. Only time will tell.
Our route plan was to head to the Somoto Canyon near the El Salvador border to at least see it and probably not do the offered canyoneering as we’d just done that in HND but it was raining pretty hard and Joe & Josée had advised that they too skipped it the day before for the same reason so we ended up driving to the first large city along the highway, Estelí. It was bigger than expected and we wanted to see the Museum of Heroes there anyway. When we got to town we saw a Burger King so we stopped for a fountain drink. When we got on the Wi-Fi we got a message from Josée and learned they were still in town as they’d just done a cigar factory tour. Nicaragua makes fine cigars and exports a great deal of them; we’d done such a tour back in Cuba years ago, so this was not on our agenda. They joined us at the fast food joint for a cold drink and we decided to join them at their hotel camping spot for the night. It was a little pricy at $15 USD a night for no showers so Doug went into the office and negotiated $12 ea for both rigs and we settled in. The Wi-Fi that crapped out overnight but we had company at least for happy hour . It had rained most of that day (except when we stopped in the previous town for cash and Cell) and the ground around our rigs was a muddy mess.
Our plan on Friday was to check out the Museum of Heroes and head to the beach on the Pacific while Joe & Josée headed to the hills to a ranch to go horseback riding and hiking. We checked out the museum after gassing up and getting water but were not too impressed. It was just a bunch of placards with the names, photos and short bios of a number of young men and women (all in Spanish) who had given them lives during the times of revolution in the mid twentieth century. While somewhat moving, not a must do excursion.
Our GPS said it would take 3.5 hours to get to coast so we figured five hours BUT were pleasantly surprised how good the roads were and we made great time – less than three hours!
The road to Leon from Estelí with volcanoes enroute
More than halfway, we got stopped at a temporary police check point (aka shakedown spot) where two cops with one motorcycle made us pull over and ask for our vehicle papers. This is not out of the ordinary at police check points but this was not a permanent one so we had our reservations. Our practice when we approach these check points (military, police or otherwise) is to turn on our security cameras and slow way down so they have time to engage. Fran rolled down her window and upon being asked, we gave the officer our vehicle permit and insurance paper. He looked at them, checked the license plate and then asked for her driver’s license. The officer looked at them then proceeded to tell us we had to pay a fine. “For what?” Fran asked. The second officer proceeded to tell us in Spanish and mime that she’d been weaving in and out of the lane. Doug pulled out our camera and to take a photo of them and let them know we had cameras on the rig. Fran looked perplexed and then he explained that she had weaved out of her lane to swerve around a cyclist! And for this he wanted to fine us. So she said she’d only swerved a little and that it was necessary. They spoke among themselves quietly and rapidly, we heard them say something about a camera, and handed back our papers and Fran’s license and wished us a good trip. This was our first shakedown; sadly it kind of leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth about the country.
We stopped in Leon before hitting the coast as our “change engine oil” light had just come on and we wanted to see whether our 5W30 oil was available. It was but that place would not do the oil change and tire rotation we needed. As the light had just come on, we weren’t in a huge hurry yet.
We passed through the city and carried on down the final 20km to Las Peñitas on the Pacific Ocean. Our Aussie friends from Antigua had stayed at a nice place on the beach here that we hoped to also enjoy. Again the road was in great shape and there was little traffic. We got to Hotel Playa Roca and there were no other overlanders there but one of the guys at the bar was Canadian (Colin) and we met two young men from Montreal who were backpacking and then we met a young couple on the beach, Matt & Marsha, from North Vancouver! We were told we could camp here for $6US pp per night and we had power. The hotel has Wi-Fi, bathrooms and both an indoor and outdoor shower and the restaurant across the parking lot was right on the beach. We plugged in and went to check out the beach. It was very, very nice; there are some good waves so beginner surfing takes place here and there are some huge rocks here and there along the shore but not so many that you can’t enjoy a swim. It’s quite wide and fairly shallowly sloped and you can walk about 2km in one direction and less than half in the other before you reach a bay which you might be able to cross at low tide as there is a large sand diagonally across the entrance.
The sun tried to come out before sunset but never quite made it but we did seem some red streaks across the sky. We saw horses walk across the shoreline everyday.
Saturday Fran went for a run on the beach and after breakfast we checked the weather forecast (for what that is worth) and learned that starting Monday it was going to rain everyday (tho not all day) for the next week. We wanted to take the chicken bus back in Leon to see it and especially the large cathedral. The roof top tour there is not offered on Sunday, which was naturally going to be the nicest day so we decided to go into town today while the weather was good.
We have now decided to go to the Caribbean side of Nica to see the Corn Islands – even though it’s still rainy season, we figure warm rain is not a big enough deterrent to not go while we are so close and flights from Nica’s capital city are pretty cheap. The Corn Islands are supposed to have some pretty impressive dive and snorkel sits. It’s also low season so hotel prices are reasonably inexpensive. So today we booked our flights and made hotel reservations for this coming weekend. We looked into where to leave Tigger and have two options we’ll check into when we get to Managua on Wednesday or Thursday.
Doug inquired at the bar about where and when to catch the local bus into the city and it was right down the street and in three minutes. So out we went and the bus came by right on time. It took about 25 minutes to get to the outskirts of Leon and then we caught a pedi cab to el centro. Leon is quite an old city like Antigua, GTM but smaller. It was built in 1524 but not in this location. The original spot is 24 kms inland but it was destroyed by an volcano in 1609 and rebuilt in the current location. It has many cobbled streets and colonial buildings, many of which are crumbling as in in Antigua either due to nature or wars. Interestingly, enough the cathedral has never been touched by any of these disasters.
This cathedral is the largest in Central America and took nearly 70 years to build starting in 1746. The story goes the plans submitted were not the ones that were used but the ones they did use were supposed to be for the cathedral in Lima, Peru. The large cathedral we saw in Mexico City is touted as the largest in Latin America. It’s all how you spin the story right?
This is a lovely bright church all painted white inside and outside and in with lots of domes in the ceiling and huge paintings of the Stations of the Cross.
It is undergoing some restoration (mostly painting) so parts of it were quite new looking and parts were covered in scaffolding. The highlight of visiting this building is being able to go up to the roof top (for $3) among the domes (which should not be walked on) walking without shoes and seeing the 360 views of the city, mountains and volcanoes. You are allowed up for about 25 minutes and since today was a mostly sunny day, the views were wonderful. It was pretty hot here in Leon though, above 90F/30C and we were quite thirsty. Usually when you walk around you see lots of tiendas (small shops) where you can gets snacks/drinks – today we were hard pressed to find one. We spotted a Mcd’s outside the church but the lineup was so long it didn’t seem worth it just for drinks. We finally found a kiosk outside the next church we visited that had cold water and we both chugged back a litre. The city is small and walkable but other than a few more churches, we didn’t do much more. The Iglesia Dulce Nombre was interesting for two reasons; it had large paintings on its façade and right inside the main doors, there are life size statues of Jesus AND the two robbers that were crucified with him, all three on their crosses.
We began walking back to the outskirts of the city to catch our bus hoping to catch a pedi cab again and we were more than half way when we stopped to buy a few groceries (as there’s not much in the town on the beach) and when we came out, there was one.
He took us back to the bus area and after 40 minutes of sitting on a hot parked bus, it finally left for the coast. The ride back was longer as the bus stops in another town enroute to Las Peñitas and we were so happy to get to Tigger and cool off. It did not rain at all today.
We tried to skype with our grandkids but the connection was not great so we sat under the large palapa at the hotel bar/restaurant and chilled for the afternoon.
Sunday we were SO busy: reading, sitting watching the waves, swimming in the waves, doing Spanish/walking the day flew by pleasantly. It was a perfect beach day; sunny and clear and we had the ocean to cool off in when it got too warm. For $23 US we had lunch and pop/beer all day at the bar. Around 5pm another overland vehicle pulled in and we met Martin & Jeanette from Switzerland doing the PanAm south to north. We enjoyed a beer or two chatting with them as the sun went down.
Monday and Tuesday brought us more spectacular days and we thoroughly enjoyed them like Sunday having happy hours with Martin & Jeanette each day. Tuesday night as we were trying to decide what to do for dinner, it began to rain and it came down pretty heavy for several hours.
We met several travelers during the course of our stay here: two women from Canada, Mimi & Kiki with two children; an American couple from New Jersey who just bought a place down here, some young Germans and a group of German firefighters who have an exchange program with Nica firefighters. This hotel/bar is pretty popular and as we have checked out other eating/drinking establishments in this town, it’s probably the favourite and busiest.
Wednesday, Doug got up early and caught the bus back to Leon to partake of a tour for “volcano boarding”. They take you to Cerro Negro Volcano (means black hill) and you are given the gear (jumpsuit, goggles etc.) including a board that is somewhat like a snow board and you hike up to the top about 45 minutes. Everyone goes down individually and Doug was asked to go first. He said you can’t really see the way down – it’s at about at angle averaging 41 degrees and you “slide” down on the board across the cinder rocks.
It was a pretty dirty ride; takes about two minutes and he came close to falling off many times; rocks spray up; if you don’t have a beard you’ll have one by the time you get to the bottom between your goggles and neck; the black dust gets up your nose, in your ears and it’s scary; you move so fast and you know if you wipe out it will hurt; it’s not snow powder you’re sliding through but rock.
He returned to our campsite around 1 and we decided that since despite last night’s heavy rain, it had cleared up perfectly and we’d enjoy another afternoon on the beach. While sitting at the bar for happy hour dark clouds came in and we had cool cloud display out over the water as the sun set and we had a short sun shower. Then a rainbow appeared out over the bar and it was all over.
Thursday morning after breakfast we unhooked and drove to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua.