Nicaragua has a lot to offer. Even though I’ve been living in the “land of a thousand volcanoes” for a few months now, I’m far from having seen everything there is to see. I want to change this and so whenever I have the chance, I take my rucksack and a few good friends and set out.
This time our journey began in San Carlos, the capital of Nicaragua’s smallest administrative department. We spent Christmas with some friends and then decided to head towards the two small Caribbean islands off Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, via the former pirate colonies of Bluefields and Rama. In true Nicaraguan fashion, it’s possible to travel very cheaply using local means of transport – we hope to last ten days with our budget of 100 Euros. With a bit more money and time, it pays to take a detour by boat via Ometepe, the ‘island with two mountains’ in Lake Nicaragua that Michael Ende wrote about. On the other hand, the travel guides all mention San Carlos in passing as a starting point for trips to other areas of the country. They also recommend that travellers avoid spending even one night in the ‘small village without any charm’. It’s true – San Carlos does not have anything to offer tourists. Except for a well-preserved Spanish fortress, it has almost no sights to see, no backpacker’s hostels and not even a supermarket. But it pays to give the town a chance. San Carlos really does have charm and a warm heart – if nothing else.
In one of the small restaurants direct on Malecon, the smartened-up harbour promenade, we drink fresh fruit juice and banana milk. The town is on Rio San Juan, the river that forms one of the country’s natural borders. We can see the sun go down behind the Costa Rican mountain range. As soon as it gets dark, the tempting fragrance of grilling meat and spices wafts down the streets. Hungry, we ask someone the way to the ‘best fritanga’ in the entire region. The word ‘fritanga’ describes the small street food stands (‘comedor’) that open at dusk and also the food they sell. On large stone grills, they cook beef, pork and chicken and fry strips of plantain in bubbling oil. ‘With chilli?’ asked Marie Sol, the owner of San Carlos’ most popular fritanga, while shovelling a generous portion of meat, bananas and pickled cabbage salad into a small plastic bag. ‘With, please,’ I quickly answered, watching her drizzle the homemade, sweet-hot chilli over my food. I pay 50 córdobas for my chicken, and it’s worth every centime. Nicaragua has two official currencies: the córdoba and the American dollar. One dollar is worth around 26 cordobas. I ate with my hands out of a plastic container while talking to Marie Sol, the owner of the fritanga. Marie Sol is a vision. With her strong arms that are the same circumference as my thighs and her rapid fire chatter, she effortlessly heaved up a heavy kettle of fat while keeping her customers at bay. For many years, she’d been a profesora at one of the better schools in the city, she told me. Now she works at the fritanga by night, and in the daytime she’s a childminder for working mothers. It often happens here that men don’t want to take responsibility for their family, she says. “Machos, all of them.” Marie Sol shook her head and served a platter of rice to a group of men. “In the mood for a beer?” the bravest of them asked me. “In the mood for me?” added his friend, which earned him the knowing laughter of his friends as well as a good smack upside the head from the Señora. There’s no doubt about it, Marie Sol has her machos well under control.
We spent the night at the home of acquaintances and the next morning found ourselves sitting exactly on time in the yellow school bus that was to take us to Rama. Riding the bus in Nicaragua is an experience. Anyone who’s ever driven past an erupting volcano at night or had to share a seat with a net full of living hens will back me up. The bus filled up quickly and the man next to me gave up his seat to a young woman travelling with her children. She took the older boy in her lap and resolutely set the barely three month old baby on mine. My neighbour’s name was Rosita and the baby in my lap was her third child. “Don’t you miss your children?” she asked. When I explained that I was neither married nor have children, she raised her eyebrows in disbelief. After all, contrary to her, I was already past the age of 20.
It becomes uncomfortably hot in the bus around noon, and I feel relieved when we stop at a small rest area to take a break. We can use the loo – which turns out to be a hole in the ground. I’m glad that I have a bit of loo paper and a spray bottle of disinfectant with me. Mosquito spray is also essential, if you don’t want to be eaten alive. The peddlers have descended upon the bus and are loudly hawking their wares. For a few córdobas, I buy strips of green mango with salt and quesadillas, which I share with Rosita and her children. The next few hours seem like an eternity. I am sweating, my legs are sticking to the plastic seats and the baby on my lap won’t stop whinging. When we finally arrive in Rama, it starts to rain. The fat raindrops are transforming the clay streets into muddy puddles – we quickly ask our fellow passengers where we can find a cheap place to stay.
As we finally reached Rama, it began to rain so we hastened to ask our travel companions if they knew of any cheap accommodation. We were referred to the Hospedaje Doña Luiza directly next to the wharf towards Bluefields. At 60 córdoba, the price of the rooms was unbeatable, and though they didn’t contain any frills whatsoever they were inhabited by only two cockroaches. In general, the place was cleaner than the price might have led us to expect.
Later, we eat a yummy plate of ‘gallo pinto’, one of Nicaragua’s national dishes, in a small comedor. Consisting of rice and boiled black beans, it is the basis of practically every meal. We are surprised when they add a dash of spicy coconut milk to the rice, giving it a Caribbean touch. After a few rounds of Toña, Nicaragua’s most popular beer, we sit at a rickety plastic table with Juan, the comedor’s owner, and play ‘desmoche’, a popular card game. Later than we had planned, we pay 10 córdobas to take a taxi back to the hotel – Juan persuaded us not to walk through the city late at night.
Early the next morning, we head out for Rama. Sleepy-eyed and with growling stomachs, we climb into the adventurous speedboats that will take us to Bluefields on the Atlantic coast. It starts raining again during the 90-minute trip. Dripping and frozen, we finally arrive. After a more or less balanced breakfast consisting of greasy chicken, plantain chips and Coca Cola, we set out to explore the area. During the hour and a half long journey, it started to rain again, so that when we arrived we were completely soaked and chilled to the bone. The former pirate town differed hugely from the Nicaragua we’d seen so far. Instead of merengue and bachata, reggae beats blasted from the shops and the majority of people spoke a form of English Creole. Being model tourists, we visited the Cultural History Museum, of course, exhibiting artists of Native as well as Christian heritage.
In the evening, we take a taxi to Lunas Ranch, a restaurant on the edge of town, which is known for its legendary seafood. While we wait for our meal, we examine the collection of old drawing and photos on display that show how Bluefields has changed over time. The atmosphere is very relaxed; the waiters laugh and joke around with us. I gladly pay the bill for my lobster: 11 dollars. We’re staying in Hotel Anabas, one of the better places to stay in Bluefields. The room costs 20 dollars a night, but we don’t enjoy our soft beds for long because we have to get up at 5 o’clock the next day.
Our destination, the Corn Islands, is about 70 kilometres out from the coast. You can get to it by boat twice a week or take a plane. We decide to take the boat, the more affordable alternative – but have no idea of what we’re getting into. Once on board, before we can pay the 180 córdobas for the tickets for the 6-hour trip, they inspect our backpacks and then check our passports.
The further out to sea we went, the stronger the waves were and it wasn’t long before half of the passengers were seasick. This included my friends, and so I ventured down below deck by myself. This is where the luggage is stored, and from behind a suitcase I could hear some notes being played on a guitar. “Hey Chela!” I came upon two men with rather stereotypical dreadlocks drinking Flor de Caña – Nicaragua’s best rum – direct from the bottle. “You want a drink, Chela?” Yes, I did. Loosely translated, Chela means “the light-skinned” and isn’t derogatory. To designate someone by their physical traits is completely normal in Nicaragua. For example, I called the young son of a friend “Gordito” for a good four months until I realized that the little “chubby” was actually named Manuell.
When we finally reached the Isla de Maíz, I realized that I was a little tipsy and was completely overwhelmed by the scene that presented itself. Palm tree lined white beaches, turquoise blue sea, and sand and water eroded cliffs. It became clear to me that my personal paradise had a name: Corn Island.
For 15 córdobas, we have them bring us to the southern coast of the larger island, where we plan to look for a hostel. Our taxi driver is in an exceptionally good mood. ‘If you need anything, just ring me,’ he said with a wink. We suddenly realise what that smell in the taxi is! We took the only two available rooms in a tiny hostel on Long Beach and paid 3 dollars a night per person. What did it matter that there were no showers, only a rain tank? We spent the next three days swimming, eating well and going on small bike tours. Bicycles could be rented for 50 córdoba a day all along the coast. The island is a heaven for seafood lovers, and in almost every comedor, shrimp, spaghetti de la mar or grilled meat are on the menu.
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, we were sitting on the smaller of the Maís islands. Despite its relative popularity with backpackers, the small island of only 3.12 km² is still an insider’s tip, so that you find yourself almost alone on the long sandy beaches. We strolled past the small and colourful houses with blooming hibiscus in their tiny front gardens. Reggae music is ubiquitous. A guitar and a repertoire of a few Peter Tosh songs seemed to be the standard deal here. For 20 dollars, we rented two simple bungalows on Cocal Beach and then set off snorkelling in the open waters. Unfortunately, most of the coral was grey and dead, but there are other nice spots around the island for snorkelers and divers.
The high waves can quickly become tiring for someone who can’t swim well, like me, which is why you really should hire a professional guide. Just go to the small cafés and bars on the west side of the island and ask. And there are also two diving schools with good reputations.
We celebrated the New Year in Tranquilo, a very popular small bar that sells mojitos for an unbelievable 40 córdoba. A backpacker band played the whole night through as we sang and danced with people from all over the world. On the beach, some boys set off self-made fireworks. New Year under the palm trees – yes, it’s as cool as it sounds. As we sat at 5:30 the next morning with our last cocktail and gazed out over the sea at the rising sun, the moment was perfect. Though we’d nearly reached the end of our budget, it didn’t matter. It would be enough to get us home. And truly: you couldn’t buy this view for all the money in the world.