Nicaragua was one of the most-highly anticipated countries we were to visit. It was recommended by many friends and fellow travelers, but of our own research, we knew little, besides that it was both one of the poorest countries in the Americas- yet also the one of the safest. Just looking at the map gave us a bit of information as to where we would begin. The Caribbean Coast seemed exceptionally intriguing, with its unique Costeño culture and isolated beach towns, yet there were hardly any roads that led to this sparsely populated region. The beaches on the Pacific side were very much the opposite, attracting an abundant flow of Nicaragua nationals for the Semana Santa holiday as well as foreign tourists and surfers. The central highlands are at such an elevation that over a quarter of the countries agriculture takes place here- a region dense with fincas producing coffee, cacao, tobacco and sugarcane. Since the rainy season had not yet begun, it was intolerably hot and dry on the coast. We welcomed an opportunity to escape the heat and learn about some of Nicaragua's world-famous exports. So, to the highlands it was!
Our first stop was a sustainable rural community called La Granacha, located south of Esteli, a small mountain town that seemed to be in an eternal state of autumn. The air was fresh and cool, and at night we put on socks, pants and long-sleeved shirts. When we first arrived, the entire main road was blocked off by a heated game of palm-ball, with two friendly competitors, and most of the children of this puebla gathered around as spectators. People were very welcoming and seemed to understand that we were there to camp, giving us directions on where to park, yet no one really appeared to be "in charge." The atmosphere felt very peaceful, or as they say in Español, "muy tranquilo."
The next day, we wandered around the town, admiring the simple architecture of the homes and visiting a little store filled with zopilote sculptures (made from a volcanic stone found only in northern Nicaragua), and had a nice chat with the artist. In addition to growing a lot of their own food and raising animals, the community was known for its cheese- both fresh goats milk and an aged alpine-style variety. They also had a vast medicinal herb garden and a respected female elder of the town who acted as the natural healer. We followed some hiking trails into the hills and had a nice walk to a mirador with views of Cerro Apaguajil. Then we had a lovely lunch prepared for us with local ingredients, and we watched a trio of toddler-aged girls chase each other around the comedor giggling and Joey smiled at them, enamored. Life here seemed so sweet and simple. We were not asked to pay anything for our two nights of camping, and in exchange, we bought raw local honey and few different types of their delicious cheese. It was a beautiful beginning to our time in Nicaragua.
We traversed the mountain summits on bumpy dirt roads and enjoyed the fantastic views. The leaves began to get greener, and we watched as the regions morphed into a more tropical setting of a high-elevation cloud forest. Jinotega is Nicaragua's finest coffee-growing region, and down the steep mountain slopes we began to see more and more coffee plants being cultivated in perfect, symmetrical rows. As the beans were being harvested and roasted, we could even smell the delicious earthy aroma of coffee. What bliss!
Next we were headed to a place called Reserva el Jaguar, located at about 4500 ft atop the Cordillera Isabelia. This incredible family-run reserve is a sustainable coffee finca, among other things, also having a richly biodiverse terrain of plants and animals, and a host to many ongoing research sites for birdlife. The humid subtropical climate gave us our very first taste of what it is like to camp in a torrential downpour-and the storms in this part of the world are truly a spectacular thing to experience! The echoing growls of the clouds, the disappearance of the sky in a dark tumbling vapor, and a curtain of rain too thick to even see through. It had been months since we had seen even a single raindrop, and within minutes it was like we were swimming underwater.
The birdlife was really our favorite part, and we would spend hours everyday on the mirador with our binoculars taking in all of the amazing sights and sounds produced by the hundreds of species of different birds. We saw hummingbirds of all colors and sizes, toucans, swallow-tailed kites, scarlet tanagers, different bluebirds, and the very large and noisey Montezuma Oropendola, pictured above with its yellow tail and red-tipped beak! Other birds we couldn't even name. It was a bird-lovers paradise!
We enjoyed our morning hikes though the jungle before the daily rains began. There were trails of varying lengths all over this massive property, most of which was still wildly unkept. Only a portion of the center was clear-cut, and this was where the thousands of coffee plants grew to be cultivated. We admired the flowers, the ferns, the unusual lily pads and leaves shaped like little umbrellas.
We explored the twisted tree trunks and swinging vines, the stepping stones and the rope bridges. Hiking thru the jungle is such a magical experience- everything is just so alive! We could get lost for hours without seeing a soul, only hearing the sound of the birds above and our own clumsy footsteps. We never did see a jaguar though- perhaps its better that we didn't :)
Matagalpa was next on our list of places to check out, a scenic city nestled within panoramic mountain peaks, this town is known as the eternal spring of Nicaragua. Surrounded by farmland and fincas, it is one of the most commercially-active places in the country, renowned for its coffee, fruits, vegetables, cheese, flowers, and my personal favorite, cacao. We made a special stop at the Castillo del Cacao, the largest national chocolate factory, to sample the goods.
It didn't take long for us to fall head over heels with this diverse new country. We loved how different and unique the landscapes were, even within the same region. We appreciated the low-key vibe, the ubiquitous opportunities for legitimate ecotourism, education and conservation, and the special value placed on the land. It was so refreshing to spend time in these places in such an informal way- completely without the feeling of commercial mass tourism. Instead of an immaculate staff getting paid by the hour to provide an "experience", what we experienced was real life- the planting and the harvest, the connection to the earth, the value of community- and we found ourselves being welcomed into small, wholesome family-run establishments to be a part of it all. It was so unassuming and authentic.
And yes, the coffee does taste better here, where it is picked, dried, roasted, ground and brewed all in the same place!
"In the world we are recognized by our achievements, but in the kingdom of God we are known by our hearts"
Central America in six weeks. We realized we were running out of time since my Astrology gathering was just around the corner and we were still in the Yucatan. There was still so much we wanted to see and do. Eventually we came to terms with the fact that we would have to prioritize: which places stirred the strongest wanderlust? There would not be enough time to explore every country at our leisurely snails pace. Of course the consolation was that we could spend more time returning to the places we skipped on our way back. So we set off for this chapter of our journey with ambition: Six countries. Six borders to cross. Six new cultures to experience. Six weeks of overland travel.
Not knowing what to expect, we decided it would be best to cover more ground in the beginning in case we needed to deal with unexpected circumstances (road conditions, mechanical issues, the not-so-unheard-of problem of just falling in love with a place, etc). Since we had already been to both Belize and Roatan (a small island off the Honduras coast) we decided to cut back our time along the Caribbean and instead opted to make our way to the Pacific coast.
Belize was a fun change after Mexico. Suddenly there was English again (with a very unique dialect). Belizian Dollars. Architecture that was distinctly different in a more-British, less-Spanish kind of way. Caribbean culture alongside Mayan. Different fruits and vegetables. Different spices. Different cars and trucks. All in a landscape that looked pretty similar to the one we had just left. We found a quiet overlanding spot on a nature reserve overlooking a tranquil lagoon, and just relaxed. This was the quiet before the storm. We ate watermelon and chatted with Earl, our host, and some other new overlanding friends. We sat with our binoculars and noted the interesting rare birds that came to nest there. There were Wood Storks and Jabirus. We watched the boys go fishing and stomp around in mud puddles. It was nice to be off the beaten path for a few days. We took time to breathe and center ourselves. And after nearly a week, we knew it was time. Another border. A new country.
We crossed the border into Guatemala in the northern area near Tikal and fell in love with the wild, lush jungle that thrived, absolutely untouched. There were small villages and heavily potholed dirt roads. Livestock roaming free. Enormous lakes and gushing rivers. Sunsets the color of fire. We made our way south toward Antigua to enjoy a few days of city life in this colonial labyrinth of cobblestone and soon it was time to bid adieu to Guatemala also. After dipping in a balneario (its like a Latin American outdoor spa- usually with natural mineral waters) near the border, we found ourselves in El Salvador.
It was a Sunday morning when we found ourselves on the bridge that led out of Guatemala and into El Salvador and below, we could see a cluster of people wading into the water to be baptized in the green river. The mountian views were incredible as we winded thru meadows of wildflowers and tall, overlooking trees on this lovely spring day. As we passed thru towns, we saw families and neighborhoods walking home from church in their Sunday best. The vibe was really sweet and wholesome. Just another day in Latin America, as quaint as you could imagine. When we reached the coast (finally! the ocean again!) we celebrated with fresh oysters and ceviche.
The coastline was rugged and beautiful and we realized how much we missed the Pacific. However, to our surprise, the Semana Santa traffic had already begun (it was still two weeks before Easter!) and we found the beaches to be congested with little opportunity for camping. We spent a couple days fighting the crowds around El Tunco before we decided to head further down the coast. We ate our bodyweight in papusas and frozen fruit liquados (sandia is our favorite) and somehow survived the heat as we moved even faster than we anticipated thru this wonderful country.
Despite hearing really nice things about Honduras (really, we did!), this ended up being the country we spent the least amount of time in. Being that most of the travel accommodations were located further north, and we were sticking to our route along the Pacific coast, we transited thru the country in a matter of hours. Ironically, we spent more time in Honduras when we had a cruise port in Roatan a few years earlier. That was a day for the books, with two border crossings, several hours of construction stops, an accidental fumigation (I got a big surprise when the fumigation hose broke open and bathed me in chemical perfume) and a false reading on an atm that showed we had no money in our accounts. That's what we get for trying to skip out on a potentially awesome travel experience. A heart attack later, we realized that we were in Nicaragua with a round of cold drinks in front of us. Cheers ~ to next time!
We found Nicaragua to be absolutely incredible. Gratefully, we made such good timing in our transits that we were left with nearly four weeks to explore this gem of a country. And explore we did, from the upper highlands where it was cool and dry to the beaches offering world-class surfing, we stayed on coffee fincas, learned about cacao cultivation, rice production, and their famous cigars. We gazed into active volcanoes with red molten lava swimming inside. We were even invited to stay in the homes of multiple lovely Nicaraguan families. We were blown away. Our hearts were so full. Stay tuned for our upcoming blogs that will tell the whole story of our delicious time in this wondrous new country.
With perfectly divine timing, we arrived in Costa Rica. My upcoming conference Astrology Rising was only three days away. We were so happy to have made it there, as it was our destination all along. But as the saying goes, it is not about the destination, but the journey. It couldn't be more true. After all, it was nearly a year from our starting point that we had finally arrived. So much had happened in those months in between. New countries. New friends. New insights and new growth. We felt we were somehow different after such a wild adventure. The last six weeks proved to be pretty climactic.
We had made it! And we learned a lot in those six weeks. Lessons that were genuinely sweet, completely unexpected, and most of all, very humbling. That the world could feel so small and familiar and safe, while at the exact same time, so new, so foreign, and so radically extraneous- that I would liken it to being a child seeing the world for the first time, or an alien landing on an unexplored planet. And trust me, when we arrived in some of these remote and less-traveled places in our Crystal Starship, people looked at us like we were indeed from a different universe. Yet these were some of my favorite memories, of being very comfortably out of place.
My favorite learning experiences happened time and time again in the mercados. Every little puebla has at least one, and this is where we did most of our shopping for fruit and vegetables. Each country presented a slight variation of some mostly-familiar foods, and then there were random things that just completely blew my mind. Exotic staples that I had never seen or heard of. Yet, being the foodie that I am, I was always so excited to bite right in!
With my broken Spanish, I would ask a million questions of these lovely people who looked curiously at me like I was from a different planet all together. Here is a sample conversation:
Me: "Que es esto?" ("What is this?")
I would notice a funny smile as they grinned awkwardly at one another, wondering where the hell I was from.
Them: "Es..." (Fill in the blank: lorroco, chayote, zapote, carambola, casseva etc)
"Hmmm," I would say. "Es picante o dulce?" (It's spicy? or sweet?")
More giggles and funny looks. "Es una verdura. Como una papa. Tu conoces que es una papa? Necesites cocinar" (It's a vegetable. Like a potato. Do you know what a potato is? You have to cook it.")
I would look at the thing again, poking it suspiciously. "Umm... bien. Puedo tener uno?" ("Umm... fine. May I have one?")
More giggling. "Solo uno?" ("Only one?)
Me: "Si, quiero probar." ("Yes, I want to try.")
Them: "Claro, claro. Disfruta tu papa! haha!" ("Sure, sure. Enjoy your potato! Haha!")
Lots of laughs and strange looks, but eventually I just got over the awkwardness! I learned to laugh at myself a lot. And I also really appreciated all the kind people who offered me samples of their delicious harvest! Luckily the learning curve is high :)
Also, the money situation was humorously puzzling. Just as I was adjusting to a new system of currency, it was time to move on to the next: Mexican Pesos. Belizian Dollars. Quetzales in Guatemala. Back to US Dollars in El Salvador. Then Lempira of Honduras. Nicaraguan Cordoba. Costa Rican Colones. My brain was so confused with currency conversion. Sometimes there would be a left-over bill from the previous country crumpled in my wallet and I wouldn't realize it, confusing my calculations even more. I am certain every idiots guide to travel book cautions against it, but there was more than one occasion when attempting to make a purchase that I pretty much just gave up- fumbling all of my money onto the counter in complete surrender to my trusted cashier- “Por favor” I giggled nervously, “Dale”. Take my money and please give me back some change. If I lost a dollar or two in these transactions I just considered it a simple service fee and was grateful for the assistance. (We were also left with an ambiguous collection of money from each country that couldn't be exchanged. So, naturally, we got Joey a little piggy bank and he couldn't be happier- his very own coin collection with jingley coins from all over Central America!)
This is the Central America that I want to remember. Not that some of the places we ventured were dirty or destitute. Instead, the incredible warmth of the people. The generosity offered so freely. The smiles and eye contact I shared with someone I will most likely never even see again. The times we entered a new country and got nothing but waves and cheers by locals admiring our awesome rig. The times complete strangers would notice we were stopped and offer us directions.That we literally could not back out of any tight alleyway anywhere without like numerous guys popping out of nowhere offering hand gestures and whistles. “Derecho, derecho, derecho- Alto!!.” Or that any time our son looked longingly at a cookie or a piece of fruit in the market, he was met with warm smiles and offering hands. Or that without any warning, we were invited into so many people's homes to stay with them and have our every need satisfied: the families that cooked for us, showed us around, helped us fix things, take showers, do our laundry, and made us feel so comfortably at home. What we felt the most as we traversed these countries was the amazing abundance of spirit.
To anyone interested in traveling to these far-away places, I urge you, do it. You will find that there is so much reward in these sights, tastes, and feelings. Its a rare thing in our world to experience such warmth and sincerity. Your heart will be touched in beautiful ways. I know that ours were.