Leon, long the political and intellectual center of Nicaragua, served as the nation’s capitol from its founding in the early 1500s to the 1840s, when it began to fight for supremacy with Granada. The capitol was eventually settled somewhere in between the two, but Leon retains its status as the home of poets, scholars…and the second oldest university in all of Central America. Its gorgeous architecture certainly attests to its rich history, with sweeping basilicas, ornate churches, stately homes, and commanding civil buildings. Much of the history that led to Nicaragua becoming a nation and maintaining its own unique spirit that sets it apart from the bordering countries started here.
It’s kind of a shame that we didn’t enjoy Leon more than we did…a combination of nasty heat, unhappy tummies, a thwarted mission to mail coffee home, and THE rudest postal woman in the history of Earth compounded to taint our one day that we spent in town. It did not help that we had also run into an unpleasant situation where a crowd of angry Nicas mistook Sangbyeong for a Chinese man (China is building a canal through the country against the wishes of its citizens and the anti-China feeling is very strong in some areas), which resulted in me going toe-to-toe with an irate grandmother to explain the difference between Korea and China in my rough Spanish. Nevertheless, our hostel owner was extremely sweet and helpful, the coffee shop Alex (in Matagalpa) recommended served us perfectly brewed coffee and tea, and the taxi drivers were honest. And, of course, the views of baroque architecture on all sides did help my mood.
Within Nicaragua, we had spent time on rivers, in villages, in jungles, in colonial cities, on mountains, on volcanoes, on islands, on a lake…but we hadn’t seen a speck of either of its coasts. Leon is only 18km from the nearest beach, but we were seeking a further flung retreat. We caught a bus to Chinandega, where we had to take a bicycle taxi across town to the market to catch our next bus. That market adjoined the city park, where the roads were blocked to create a roller blade racetrack for the day. We watched a few races, mostly boys and girls who were elementary and middle school-aged, and enjoyed the free wifi that exists in all city parks in the country. Most citizens still do not have smart phones, so the wifi is surprisingly fast, considering the randomness of its location. From Chinandega, the bus we had to ride to the coast was jam-packed and we had to stand most of the way…but we were on our way to the beach! The pavement ended and we bounced along a rough gravel track that got narrower and wilder the further we went. The driver stopped next to a hole in the tangled bushes and announced it was our stop…tentatively, we stepped out of the bus, through the break in the dry foliage…and into an eco-traveler’s dream.
Rancho Esperanza is the brainchild of an American guy, Nate, who came to this area on a mission trip in high school. He came back after university and spent his own savings trying to rebuild the village after it was half washed away in a devastating hurricane. When he ran out of money, he went to teach English in Asia (hey, that sounds familiar) to raise enough money to open his own eco-hostel back in Jiquilillo. Which is precisely what he did ten years ago, and it is still going strong. It includes a 500 book reading library, communal dinners every night (with vegetarians and vegans always accommodated…and fresh, ethically-caught fish on order with one day’s notice), and the cleanest compost toilets I have ever seen in my life. Compost toilets I actually enjoyed using!! It backs up onto the vast stretch of gray-sand beach that turns silver in the high-reaching tide. Surfing is popular, with locals willing to share their knowledge and wild, thrashing currents that create some good waves. Be sure to shuffle your feet though…there are lots of stingrays! We also spotted live sand dollars and all kinds of crabs and shellfish in the shallows.
Another draw of Rancho Esperanza is its deep involvement with and commitment to the local community. Kids from the fishing village come over for play activities, surf club, and English lessons. Guides from the village are hired with no middleman fees to lead kayaking expeditions and all kinds of cultural activities. As Sangbyeong’s Valentine’s Day present, he got to choose what tour we would take…so we went crabbing in the mangroves. Our guide led us deep into the spidery roots of the mangroves and we dug deep holes in the mud. Then Sangbyeong would lay down flat to the ground, reach his arm in up to the shoulder and feel around for the wily, larger crabs. He caught a few that would be big enough to be keepers…but not enough to make a proper soup, so he decided to release them in the end, as it was not crab season and better for the population to keep breeding age crabs in the environment. We still had a lot of fun getting caked in mud, talking with our friendly guide, and then washing off in the ocean in the red glow of the sunset. As you might imagine, the sunset over the churning Pacific with a cold Tona beer every evening was one of our favorite parts.
We had planned our two days in Jiquilillo to be a chance to recharge our batteries before heading into our next set of countries…and we only wished we could have stayed longer. Hopping back onto the rickety bus, we made our way back to Chinandega, then onto Somotillo, the town on the border with Honduras, where we spent an interesting night. The hotel on the main drag was apparently booked up, but the owner led us through the town streets to his own mother’s house, where we paid a few dollars to sleep in her extra bedroom, which faced onto the family courtyard filled with bathing children, squawking pet parrots, and random cousins sleeping in hammocks. It took us only a few minutes to explore the few streets of the town and befriend the local bartender, who happily cooked up a big dinner for us and blared Shakira over the stereo for our benefit.
The next morning, we were up before the sun to make our way to the border, where we walked the 100 meters across a bridge…and into what is considered one of the most dangerous countries on Earth.