Central America trip CliffsNotes

As I meet people now who are curious about my adventures in Central America, I want to share this blog with them but my prolific 100+ entries from the trip are a daunting pile to sift through. So to help I have put together a collection of entries that to me represent the essential narrative, the most important/meaningful/highlight moments of my trip. It’s not the whole story, but they are my favorites. It’s still a good chunk of reading (it was a crazy six months ok? There are a lot of stories!), but hopefully it is more a digestible guided tour. Enjoy!

Let’s get this fun in the sun started!

Origins story
Safety concerns for a solo woman traveler
What’s in my backpack
Mexico: Day 1, arrival in Merida
Mexico: My first cenote, the beginning of a water love story
Mexico: Tulum ruins
Mexico: Tulum cenotes
Mexico: San Crisobal de las Casas
Guatemala: Border crossing and arrival
Guatemala: Hiking Santa Maria volcano
Guatemala: Colored chicks, the first sign of Semana Santa
Guatemala: Lake Atitlan
Guatemala: Bugs
Guatemala: Chichi market
Guatemala: On traveling solo
Guatemala: Semana Santa in Antigua
Guatemala: Alfombras
Guatemala: Semuc Champey
Belize: I decide to get SCUBA certified
Belize: Open Water course, day 1
Belize: Open Water course, days 2 and 3
Belize: Caye Caulker, sunset at the split
Belize: Cat calls and drug dealers
Belize: Erin’s Caye Caulker food manifesto
Belize: Just say yes
Belize: Crystal Cave
Belize: Iguana photo shoot
Belize: I heart stew chicken
Honduras: Epic transit to the Bay Islands
Honduras: Roatan
Honduras: Deciding to extend the trip
Honduras: Settling in to Utila
Honduras: Advanced Open Water
Honduras: Le sigh roommates
Honduras: Makeshift rum cake
Honduras: Rescue Diver
Honduras: Falling in love with Utila
Honduras: Perpetual illness
Honduras: Snorkel vanity shots
Honduras: Stability in Utila
Honduras: Thunderstorms
Honduras: A birthday party
Honduras: Photo dive
Honduras: Nico’s 100th dive day
Honduras: Last Utila dive
Honduras: Leaving Utila
Nicaragua: Erin gets a travel buddy
Nicaragua: Lady at a cock fight
Nicaragua: The Fourth of July
Nicaragua: Granada
Belize: Epic three-day transit to Long Caye
Belize: The Blue Hole
Mexico: Diving cenotes
Mexico: Swimming with whale sharks
Mexico: Isla Mujeres
Utila throwback
Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels
Gratitude

Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels

Thinking about traveling in Central America? Do it, it’s awesome! 🙂 Before the overcast Seattle sky sucks away all of my travel tan, I thought I’d share some of my favorite backpacker-friendly places to rest your weary head in Central America.

As a solo backpacker, where you stay has a huge impact on who you meet and how you interact with a place. I stayed in a bunch of hostels in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but coming up with my top five was EASY. There are a few that stand out in my mind as utterly fantastic experiences, where a wonderfully-run hostel environment teed up awesome experiences and connections.

First, let me share a little about what I believe makes a great hostel, in order of importance:

1) Social scene: I want someplace with a bustling common room filled with my awesome fellow travelers. Let’s form a crew and have a blast for the next few days. That said, you don’t attract other badass travelers without the next three requirements…
2) Setting and grounds: Rooms and grounds should be clean, bright, and beautiful. Be it in the city, up a mountain, or on a beach, the surrounding location should be both breathtaking and convenient.
3) Amenities: I’m a backpacker; I aint got no money, honey! I want as many of these freebies as possible: drinking water, breakfast, wifi, kitchen access, movies, and social activities.
4) Caring management: Hostels are often a labor of love, and people who actually love running them and love backpackers do the best job.
*) Cost: This is a no brainer, so I’m not even going to truly count it but it is an important criteria. All of these fit into the backpacker budget, ranging from $3.50-$14 USD per night for a dorm bed.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to my top five favorite hostels in Central America:

Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin, Guatemala
$4 USD for a dorm bed
I heard about this place on literally Day One as a must-go spot and it did not disappoint. My three nights (the perfect amount of time) at Zephyr were KILLER fun. A party hostel at its finest. Two things make this hostel: the spectacularly beautiful natural setting and awesome other travelers who all hang together on hostel tours. Located in central Guatemala near the Semuc Champey national park, Zephyr is perched atop a peak overlooking the hills and river. The grounds are spectacular.

Overlooking the hills.
More palapas being built as new dorms.
Chilling in the open-air main lounge after a day of tubing.

It takes effort to travel to, but the cool kids come here. Shuttles are offered to Lanquin from hostels in Antigua, Tikal, and surely other hubs like Guat City, but the ride is a twisty one through the mountains. There is much fun to be had on inexpensive group tours, which everyone does: Semuc Champey for swimming and caving, then booze tubing down the river.

Everyone all loaded up in the back of a pickup truck for a bumpy ride down to Semuc Champey.
The gorgeous pools of Semuc Champey national park.
What better way to relax than a day of tubing and beer with friends?

There’s no wifi and very limited internet access, so everyone hangs out together in the common spaces. Games and drinking rule the night. You are at the mercy of the bar for most of your drinks and meals (breakfast is not included); expect standard Guatemalan hostel gringo food options. Pizza is their specialty. Be sure to check out the semi-enclosed showers with views of the mountains to experience the natural beauty more privately. It can be raucous and a little rough around the edges but overall I had an utter blast here. It is a special spot that stole my heart a bit. Find the full story of my Lanquin/Zephyr experience here.

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Yuma’s House, Caye Caulker, Belize
$14 USD for a dorm bed
Oh, Yuma’s. Yuma’s is the longest time I spent in any hostel, two and a half weeks. Right off the beach, it is well run, bright, smartly appointed, and clean. The rules and management can seem strict at first, but it is all to protect the experience of responsible guests and management actually cares a lot. In fact, excellent management, facilities, and guests are what make Yuma’s special in my book. Most definitely get reservations well in advance as Yuma’s fills up often!

Yuma’s as seen from walking the beach.
Yuma’s courtyard, guests only inside the orange fence.
Yuma’s dock, my fave place to catch the sunrise.

The kitchens are clean and well equipped–a huge plus for me–for when you crave something other than bbq or fry jack. The common areas are a great place to hang out, scattered with chairs, hammocks, and swinging benches. The six-bunk dorms are comfy, cooled by fans and ocean breezes. Private rooms are also available. Quiet hours are enforced by a night watchman, as diver guests are often getting up extremely early the next morning headed for the Blue Hole.

It is a chill place where you and your new crew of friends (over the course of two plus weeks, I rotated through three full crews) can easily slip into the Caye Caulker mantra of “go slow”. The slow life is oh so good. I took my Open Water course here and got good at day drinking at the Split. There’s a sweet rhythm to Yuma’s and Caye Caulker that is enchanting. After not too long, it felt like home. Read more about my Caye Caulker experience here.

Sunset happy hour at the Split with the crew… an essential part of every day.
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La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz La Laguna (on Lake Atitlan), Guatemala
$3.50 USD for a dorm bed
The Iguana is peaceful, homey, and friendly. It’s a great place to take a load off and chill around Lake Atitlan; far superior to any place in San Pedro, IMHO. There is a convivial spirit that permeates the hostel and just made me happy being there. I intended to stay just a night or two, but found the Iguana so relaxing that I stayed a whole week. The restaurant, balcony, and patio area is gorgeous. Right on the shores of the lake, the common areas offer awesome views of the opposite volcanoes.

Just a few steps from the Santa Cruz dock.
View of Lake Atitlan from my fave breakfast couch on the restaurant patio.

One of the awesome things about the Iguana is that is isn’t just a hostel. There are bunks but also private rooms and cabanas–so people of all ages and travel budgets can stay here comfortably–and activities that feel more like a relaxed resort. It’s a very versatile and pleasing place. I stayed in the open-air dorm, in the attic bed in Castillo.

My dorm. I was up in the tippy top bunk. 🙂
There is a full restaurant and bar, plus other services and activities are available on site too. There is a spa on site with reasonably priced facials (I got one and loved it) and massages. Yoga happens often in the mornings, there’s a well-stocked movie room, private Spanish lessons can be arranged, they were piloting trivia night when I was there, and best of all there is a dive shop: ATI divers. They do high altitude diving, Open Water courses, and more. Internet at Iguana is limited; there is no wifi and wired computers are sequestered in a side room for a fee.
3-course family meals are served in the dining room every night. Santa Cruz is a small town with limited dining options, but there are other hotels nearby that do a similar prix-fixe meal deal. But I often liked to stay at the Iguana (even though I never dug the soup course) for the social aspect. It’s where most people at the hostel go and hanging in the dining space is a great place to meet new friends. One of the owners, Dave, often makes musical appearances at the weekend costume party. Ask to hear his signature: the Chicken Bus Song! Read more about my Lake Atitlan experience here.
Waiting for dinner time…
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Oasis, Granada, Nicaragua
$9 USD for a dorm bed
Stepping into Oasis is just what it sounds like: beautiful, relaxing, and filled with little extras that make a traveler smile. The central courtyard is filled with greenery and rimmed with hammocks, swings, and lounging spots. The architecture, furniture, and marble floors bring you to an old and classy colonial Granada. Centrally located near the main square, it’s the perfect base to explore this charming city.

Who wouldn’t want to hang out here?

Amenities abound. Find free filtered water at a spigot near the communal kitchen (which has a blender… handy for making rum smoothies!). A movie library and book swap are available if you need entertainment. At the free breakfast, unlimited pancakes are doled out by the plateful accompanied by fruit and coffee. Off the breakfast courtyard is a small, shallow pool if you want to go for a dip.

The dorms are spacious with the tallest bunks I have ever seen and ceilings up to the sky. Private rooms are available, but the ones I saw were stuffy and small compared to the beautiful dorms. It’s a large hostel (easy to make new friends!) with people of all ages and background, including numerous families. A great place to stay. Read more about my time in Granada here.

Awesome dorms. Even with railing up top so you can’t fall off!
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Nomadas, Merida, Mexico
$11 USD for a dorm bed
Nomadas was my first hostel experience on the trip and I still remember it fondly. The helpful and kind staff assisted this day-one traveler with everything she needed and more. It is *the* place for backpackers to stay in Merida, but I would also recommend it to people who don’t usually stay in hostels also.

I stayed in a double bed in the large, airy female dorm just off the main courtyard. Private rooms are also available. Everything is brightly colored, clean, and well-kept. Nomadas is full to the brim with freebies: free breakfast (bread, cereal, fruit, coffee), water, computers and wifi, salsa dancing classes, morning yoga, Mexican folk singer in the evening, and cooking classes (love!!) multiple times a week.

Central courtyard, with communal kitchen through the right archway.
Escape the sun in the spacious women’s dorm.

A stand-out feature of this hostel is its pool, with hammocks draped leisurely over the shallow end. It is the perfect way to spend a hot Yucatan afternoon after a day out in the city sight seeing. It makes you forget you are in the middle of a city. Nomadas was welcoming and friendly; I’d recommend it as a beautiful refuge in Merida. Read more about my Merida experience here.

Ahh, the pool! Image from tripadvisor.com
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Best wishes in planning your trip to Central America. I hope you enjoy staying at all of these hostels as much as I did!

Pro tip: all of these places do fill up, especially Zephyr and Yuma’s. I know it’s not the typical backpacker way, but I *highly* recommend making reservations even just a few days in advance for all these places. A little bit of planning goes a long way and you won’t regret it. 🙂

Get me to the boat on time: five countries in 56 hours by land, air, and sea

With one more month left in Central America and having reached my southern-most destination, it was time to turn around and head north towards my exit in Cancun. I would be revisiting Belize and Mexico to meet up with friends I had met along the way and dive Lighthouse Reef in Belize and cenotes in Mexico.

First stop: Long Caye in Belize to visit some lovely people I met three months ago in Caye Caulker who run a guest house out in the Lighthouse Reef that I would describe as a diving retreat. Long Caye is a small island with a permanent population of only about twenty people and is without regular transport; there was one boat I *must* make if I wanted to make it there. My deadline was set: Wednesday at 2pm I had to be on a dock in Belize City. To get there from Granada, Nicaragua would be a three-day travel blitz through five countries; I was under no illusions that I would have time for sight seeing along the way. It was another epic journey, this time executed on my own without a buddy, and surprisingly enjoyable despite the serial early mornings.

Three days, five countries, over 700 miles via bus, plane, taxi, and boat.

My original plan was to fly directly from Managua, Nicaragua to Belize City, Belize. But this plan was thwarted by a malfunctioning airline website resulting in a sudden drastic price increase. I decided to go by land instead, purchased a bus ticket, but then–unconfident with the Guatemalan bus system’s ability to get me from Guatemala City to Belize City in under 24 hours–I opted to shill out some extra cash for a short plane flight to insure I reached my destination on time. More expensive, but hey, it worked.

Thus it began:

DAY ONE, Monday
  • 3:30 am: Woke after a fitful sleep; I was up every hour because I don’t have a reliable alarm clock and did not trust the hostel night watchman to wake me at the appropriate time. My taxi reservation had been lost just hours before and there was doubt whether or not it would actually arrive. Had more bizarre lucid dreams–a habit of mine on this trip–which weren’t helped by a dormmate with a strong stutter who approached my top bunk in the middle of the night and started talking to me. (He was already on my bad side: earlier that evening when I lost my bus ticket and was frantically going through my stuff, he lectured me on not getting stressed out, saying all the things a stressed out person does NOT want to hear. I’m sure he meant well, but good god his attempt at late-night conversation was disorienting!)
  • 3:45 am: Taxi did arrive on time (yay!) and drove me one hour to Managua, Nicaragua.
  • 5:30 am: Caught my TICA bus from Managua to Guatemala City. This bus ride would take two days. TICA bus is the way to travel; they execute travel so smoothly. With comfortable space and provisions, the ride was pleasant. I alternated between sleeping, reading/writing, and enjoying the view of the countryside. I had two seats to myself, my travel pillow, blanket, loungey clothes, snacks, and a huge stack of books mostly procured from Lucha Libro in Granada, including:
    • For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway
    • Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez
    • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle
    • A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle
    • Pride and Prejudice, Austin
    • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin
    • The Trial and Death of Socrates, Plato
    • I, Claudius, Graves
    • Common Sense, Paine
Oh, TICA bus, you need some english speaking proof-readers…
  • Over the next twelve hours on the bus, we left Nicaragua, crossed into Honduras, then into El Salvador. I had a whole different emotional reaction to travel this trip. The first times I entered both Guatemala and Honduras I felt an element of fear. I didn’t know what it would be like and had images of potential danger dancing in my head. This time, I felt safe on the TICA bus (they know how to seamlessly do a border crossing) and nostalgic for my time already spent in Honduras. I was happy to return, even just passing through for a short period. El Salvador was new, but I still felt secure; I know how to make these transits now.
  • 2:00 pm: Rest stop. Discovered El Salvador uses US dollars as their primary currency. Sweet! This makes things easier: instead of different currencies here and there, I can use USD the whole way to Belize!
  • 6:00 pm: Arrived in San Salvador, El Salvador. Driving through downtown, I was surprised how lame San Salvador is; it reminded me of San Pedro Sula in that it is FILLED with shiny plastic American chain fast food (what I hesitate to call) restaurants. Nothing special whatsoever that I saw. No charm, all neon.
  • 8:00 pm: I had designs for a papusa dinner, but those went out the window fast with a late night arrival in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Instead, after some internet time sorting out logistics for the following day, I ended up eating pizza and drinking cool red wine out of a champagne flute at an over-air conditioned Italian restaurant just across the street from my hostel.
DAY TWO, Tuesday
  • 4:15 am: Awoke after another night of dreaming people were in my empty dorm talking to me. (WTF crazy brain? Just let me sleep already!!) Took a taxi to the TICA bus station for leg number two.
  • 6:00 am: Caught the TICA bus to Guatemala City. Still had two seats to myself, so comfyness continued. Read a little, slept LOTS.
  • 10:00 am: Crossed the border into Guatemala and found papusas! Just a few cents apiece, I got myself a small plate for second breakfast.
Papusas in Guatemala, just over the border.
  • I was immediately happy to be back in Guatemala. On my first run through back in April, I didn’t fully appreciate the vibrancy of the culture and people. Instead of plastic lawn ornaments like in El Salvador, bunches of flowers are sold on the side of the highway. The landscape feels lush and green and friendly. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.
  • 12:30 pm: Arrived in Guatemala City and immediately took a taxi to my hostel. I actually *liked* driving through Guatemala City, which you are not supposed to as it is notoriously dangerous and charmless. Even though most tienda business is conducted behind iron grates for safety, that Guatemalan flare was still there. I picked up four bottles of Quetzalteca, my favorite cheap Guatemalan spirit, then hunkered in at the hostel for the night, eating a dinner of pan fried english muffins with peanut butter and bananas.
That didn’t last long…
DAY THREE, Wednesday
  • 4:30 am: Woke early once more and took a shuttle to the airport, arriving the recommended 1.5 hours before departure. I was the first person at the minuscule domestic terminal, it took two seconds to check me in, and then I slept on a bench for an hour and twenty minutes. Ugh. There is nothing I hate more than getting to the airport way too early. Don’t get me wrong, I never arrive late enough to miss flights, but being there so early is an unnecessary waste of time that drives me nuts.
  • 6:30 am: On a backdrop of beautiful Guatemalan volcanoes and rolling hills, finally departed on TAG flight to Flores, Guatemala.
That beautiful Guatemalan landscape.
  • 7:15 am: Arrived in Flores. During customs inspection discover that my stuffed-to-the-max backpack had busted open at the seams in three places. D’oh! Luckily my rain cover kept things mostly in place for the rest of this trip. I was super amused to see the Belikin beer ad printed on the back of my Tropic Air boarding pass. Can’t wait to get me a bottle of stout!
Belikin pride!

  • 9:00 am: Departed on Tropic Air flight to Belize City. It was a teeny tiny propeller plane with room only for six passengers. Being the only single, they asked if I wanted to sit up front in the copilot’s spot. Um, how about yes absolutely?!
Our little propeller plane.
They should have given me a co-pilot hat!
All the stuff I could have touched and totally screwed us all over.
  • 9:45 am: Landed at Belize City airport, gathered my luggage, and went out to the curb to find a transfer to downtown. All taxis charged $25–outrageous!! I figured there must be a better way, but apparently no buses go to the airport (really? I still find this hard to believe…) I did discover a shuttle to the Princess Hotel, where my boat was departing from. I hitched a ride. The driver told me he is waiting for another flight and we will leave in 10-15 minutes.
  • 11:30 am: Shuttle FINALLY leaves the airport after over an hour of collecting 7 other people on 3 different flights. All but the last passengers were peeved.
  • 11:45 am: Arrived in Belize City proper. Acquired stewed pork plate for lunch, patching material for imminent backpack repair, and special request items for peeps on Long Caye. Searched for a Belikin singlet that did NOT say “You better Belize it!” on the back. Was unsuccessful.
  • 1:00 pm: Stormy weather hit. The seas looked rough and you could not see past the edge of dock. Looking out at the water made me think about how two weeks ago some people I knew got lost at sea in Honduras between Roatan and Utila. They were miraculously found after four day adrift, but after hearing that story I was a smidge leery of boat travel, even though my situation and theirs was absolutely nothing alike. I was in the good hands of capable crew who knew the conditions and area.
Not my ideal vessel for inclement weather…
  • 2:00 pm: The weather leveled off, rain mostly subsided, and the small uncovered boat left on schedule. I huddled in the back, sharing a giant yellow raincoat with another guest as we road into a light rain. After just a few minutes, the rain stopped and the ride became much more pleasant. We crossed the open blue, the mangroves of Turneffe Atoll, and the last leg of ocean until we entered Lighthouse Reef.
  • 4:00 pm: I arrived on Long Caye, safe and sound and on schedule! I happily took a welcome coconut caipirinha from my hostess Ruth. An excellent beginning to a week of chilling out.
Hello Long Caye. Nice to meet you. 🙂
Woohoo! Made it. Time to kick back and enjoy the island lifestyle.
It was a long trip, but I actually really enjoyed it. I covered a lot of ground over those three days and got to see hours of beautiful scenery during transit. I also felt very confident and secure the whole time, and am happy to have the travel scene of Central America down. I enjoyed feeling independent and capable. Sometimes it is all about the journey, no? It does feel weird to be making my final moves towards departure in three weeks. Trying not to think about it!!

Granada, the jewel of Nicaragua

Granada has been a godsend. My days here have saved my Nicaragua experience. I am incredibly glad that past-Erin and past-Nick had the foresight to change plans and allocate more time to this beautiful city. And it is quite beautiful. Finally, FINALLY I have found my place in Nicaragua with surroundings that make my heart sing, cheap and varied street food, and excellent company.

Granada claims to be the first European city in mainland America, founded in 1524 by Francisco Cordoba. Filled with brightly colored churches and buildings, it is a candy-colored treat of a colonial city.

The cathedral.

Rainy Parque Central during one of the brief afternoon downpours.

The main bar street that is always bustling at night.

Iglesia de Xalteva.
Iglesia de la Merced.

View from Iglesia de la Merced bell tower, looking west.

Me, up in the tower, looking east towards the cathedral.

The lobby of my gorgeous Granada hostel, the aptly named Oasis.
An awesome place to stay, they had it all, including a killer free pancake breakfast.

Time for a day trip, chicken busing it to Masaya to check out the market.
Promenade to the shore of Lake Nicaragua.

Cemetery walk! Inspired by fourth of July conversations and reminders about myself.
Strolling amongst the gravestones.

Another mark to me of a city I will love? Finding a top-notch bookstore. In Granada, the best by far is Lucha Libro, kitty-corner from the Garden Cafe. They have a shelf of mostly classics that are 3 for $10 that completely destroyed my current pack weight. Headed for some long travel days and a week on an island, I bought eight.

“Best Bookstore in Central America”
Lucho Libro from the street. Painting credit Joe Kaknes, via Lucha Libro’s facebook page.

And of course, my favorite, the food. I only ate in a restaurant once in Granada because the street food with so good, cheap, and plentiful. Lots of fried little tidbits with cheese, chicken, beans, or rice with the canonical Nicaraguan cabbage slaw on top.

These things don’t look like much but they are awesome. About fifty cents for like an empanada stuffed with rice, beans, and chicken with slaw and hot sauce. One of my faves from the street.

Hot masa and cheese pancakes for $0.20 each.

Lunch at the Masaya market. This plate–with steak–cost about $1.50, plus $0.20 for an avocado.

Nicaraguan version of an enchilada, with a side of fried cheese, $1.

Time for a little dulce… is piña really supposed to be red though?
Quesillos: thin slices of queso fresco heated in a tortilla then topped with cream and hot sauce. 

Munchin’ a quesillo. Que rico!
Looking all “travely”, lunching in Parque Central with multiple books in hand.
Ten minutes later the sky opened up and it pissed rain.
$2 lunch close up! Pork, rice and beans, slaw, pickled veg, and tortillas.
I still have no idea what type of fruit that juice is from…

My one restaurant meal: travel buddy date night. 🙂 Piña coladas and DNMs ensued.

I took a final day walk around town with two of my bestest–and also fantastically most frequent–travel buddies Nick (Lake Atitlan, Lanquin, Utila, San Pedro Sula, Leon, Ometepe, Granada) and Joanne (Xela, Antigua, Lanquin, Caye Caulker, Punta Gorda, La Ceiba, Utila, Leon, Granada). Just coming up with this list made me realize: EVERY PLACE I have been over the past three and a half months–save two combined weeks in Flores, Ambergris Caye, San Ignacio, and Roatan–I have seen one of the two of them! It is a small, small gringo trail. Luckily I’m in good company.

Picking up strays along the lakefront.
An offer of ice cream; sharing is a very important quality in a travel buddy.
*HEART.* May our paths cross another another adventure soon!

And with that, I wish Nicaragua a fond farewell. I will miss Granada and you guys! Much love! ❤

My fourth of July and getting into the American spirit

Boston, in my mind the heart and soul of the fourth of July. Photo credit scullingfool.

I am a lover of holidays and pageantry, things the fourth of July does in spades.  It is one of my very favorite holidays. Growing up, it was a time for the whole neighborhood to come together in the street just outside my house and set off fireworks together. This year the fourth was a travel day from Ometepe to Granada and the whole time I was dreaming of being back in Boston, while searching for festivities here. When I lived in Boston, I adored the incredible bang-out spectacle put on along the Charles River. Can any other place really rival the Bostonian spirit on the fourth? I miss the crackling energy and excitement of the crowds, big band music being played by the Boston Pops, the visual explosions of a mad fireworks show over the Charles, and over-the-top Americana and patriotism. America–and I say this with complete sincerity on the fourth–FUCK YEAH.

Back at our hostel in Granada, we started the evening out fairly normally, gathering in the hostel common room eating guacamole and drinking Flor de Caña seven-year rum. Nick fancied things up for the occasion with smoothies instead of the usual rum and (imho) crap Coke.

What says “America” more than mango-banana-rum liquados? I switched to beer later. 😛

Captain Social holding court.

After a while of usual raucousness, the Americans in the group started to get restless. The table split based on nationality and we rocked out. Immediately, I found my partner in crime: Trent, an amazing guy from Utah who it turns out I have so much in common it is freaky, or, as he put it, awesome. He was also feeling the need to celebrate and do something quintessentially American. We both missed the celebrations happening at home. One tradition of his is to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution every year on the fourth, which I loved and may need to add to my life. He had actually spent a good chunk of the day searching for fireworks but unfortunately to no end. The two of us broke away from the crowd (really people, ladies night shots at some bar? I sooo need better festivities than that on the fourth!!) and headed to Parque Central for late night hot dogs and to brainstorm some Americana mischief. What could we do?

Inspiration struck: find some tea and dump it in a body of water. Concrete, simple, silly, and perfectly on theme. The Bostonian in me loved it. Initially I was thinking as a purist and assumed we could track down some real-ish tea in a teabag. But, after three tries, the first tea we came across was premade sweetened Nescafe iced tea. It was too hilarious to pass up. We got some in a to-go plastic cup with a straw and slice of lime. Just like Paul Revere used to make.

Now for the body of water. We noted a few dingy half-filled fountains as backups, but headed due west towards Lake Nicaragua. Along the walk, Trent started drinking our prop. 😛 I hadn’t been to the promenade along the lake shore yet, and in fact didn’t even know it existed. Turns out it was the perfect spot. We hopped the parapet and trudged through the marshy grass to the water’s edge.

At 11:30 p.m., just in time for it to still be the fourth of July, we ceremoniously poured our cup of iced tea into Lake Nicaragua while singing “America the Beautiful”, whose lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, Wellesley class of 1884. I threw in a loud chorus of “SISTERhood” as is Wellesley tradition. After we finished our song, Trent chucked in the lime round as well, just for good measure. It was utterly delightful. I was in stitches.

Lake Nicaragua shore in daylight.

Who knew this combo plus a couple of Toña litros would be quite so awesome?

Lady at a cock fight

WARNING: This post contains images of animal violence and blood some may find disturbing. 

Day one in Leon was a blank page. A day for city exploring or a mystery activity. On the night I arrived, the obvious choice was laid out: some friends were going on a tour to the once-a-week local cock fight. NicAsi tour company easily connects tourists with the local Sunday cock fighting culture by providing transport, introductions, and a little insight into what is apparently a favorite Nicaraguan pastime. The next afternoon, with gambling money stuffed in my bra, I hopped in the back of our sweet ride and headed for the fight.

Our chariot.

Our tour group disembarked and began the afternoon with a baby shot of truly terrible cheap-ass rum. As the tour includes an open bar, everyone then moved on to Toña beer, which is the beer of choice in Nicaragua. After a first night in Leon filled with too many mojitos, I stuck with mineral water instead. Or I thought I did. I refilled my water bottle from the normal looking jug, but what I thought was bottled water was actually tap water. Whoops… since, I have learned that much of Nicaraguan tap water (at least in the places I visited) is from springs and considered safe to drink. Who knew?

Learning the finer points of the “best” crap cheap rum. Still made by Flor de Caña, so it must be ok, right? Ick!

Feeling mischievous eating an arroz con pollo pasty. Delish.

A true local haunt, the Gallera takes place every Sunday on family farm grounds fifteen minutes outside of Leon. The owners open up this private space on their farm to friends, then take a 10% commission on all winnings. A small wooden ring with seating provided the main venue. Before the fights started, men played a roulette-like game, watched soccer, or just stood around shooting the shit. This is a small-time community arena. Apparently there are much bigger cock fights elsewhere and if a gallo does particularly well here his owner will bump him up to the big leagues. We were an obvious group of gringos, but I felt welcomed. Everyone I spoke to was friendly, in a good mood, and happy to chat.

The contenders. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

The arena. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

A little something to pass the time before the real action begins. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

I flitted around chatting with local men, learning a little about cock fighting from them and how to select a fuerte gallo to bet on. Men continued to arrive in a slow but steady stream, more often than not bringing a rooster cradled in their arms. They were affectionate with their roosters; our guide said that roosters are the closest thing in Nicaragua to a pet and are greatly valued and cared for. Dogs are protectors, cats are pest control, roosters are loved. One man I was talking to insisted on bringing his gallo out of its cage and plopped it in my arms for a photo.

Think I’ve got myself a winner!

One of the proud papas. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

There are very detailed mechanics and procedures for a cock fight, but in this casual neighborhood environment they are all self-managed. Gallos are weighed to ensure a fair fight, like weight classes in boxing. Owners then agree on matching up, select a peer referee, and determine betting odds. Each owner must put up whatever total amount they decide to bet, but they do not have to put it up all by themselves. This is where everyone else comes in. Members of the crowd are then able to join the betting by huddling around the owners and kicking in money.

Into the weighing cone. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.
Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

Once the details are out of the way, gallos are prepared for the fight. They are armed with sharp hooked razors attached to their leg. These are indeed weapons, but meant only to maim, not kill, as these gallos do no actually fight until the death. The winner is determined once the looser runs away or lays on the ground in submission.

Suiting up. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Ready to fight. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Next step: get the gallos in the ring and riled up. A harnessed gallo hung from a post just off the ring and was waved in front of the competitors to ignite their fighting spirit. I likened his role to a “fluffer”. My friend Julie, who is a clothing designer, got inspired to make chicken-shaped handbags. Sounds pretty super hip to me.

The harnessed “fluffer” rooster, used to excite the gallos during their warm up.
Getting ready in the ring. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.
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The fluffer in action.

Once everyone is ready to go, the gallos are placed opposite each other with a board in between. The ref lifted the board and the fight began.

Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

Gallos confront each other. The beak seemed to be a more effective weapon than the leg razor. Pecks to the neck result in bleeding quickly. This shows up especially well on white-feathered birds. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it, but the sight of blood spatter on the dirt floor of the arena surprised me.

A standoff. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Gallos square off, then flap, peck, scratch, and dance. The owners remain in the ring with the gallos and the ref, goading on their contended if the action ever slowed. The crowd cheered obscenities, enthralled.

The fight in action.

Spectators. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

The involved crowd. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

If one gallo has not submitted within a few minutes, a break is taken for owners to clean, rest, and rouse their rooster. Afterwards, back into the ring they go, repeating until a victor has emerged or a draw is called if the fight goes on for fifteen minutes.

In between sets, the serious men of the ring. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.
Sucking blood from the injured gallo during a break. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

The fight resumes with a final attack. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Winner or loser? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Paying up. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

I usually turned away before the bitter end of the fight. (After all, there was also soccer happening and snacks to be eaten.) Eventually, both bloodied around the neck and under the wings, one gallo always submitted. After, everyone gathered around the owners to collect their winnings or contribute to the pot. While supposedly these fights are not fatal, the damage to both gallos is bloody and gruesome. What happens to the losers? Are they actually nursed back to health or turned into soup?

Child holding a winner. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Overall, it was a fascinating peek into a Nicaraguan cultural phenomenon. However, upon posting the photo of me holding the rooster on Facebook, I heard a small uproar from a few friends who objected to me participating in such an event on the basis of animal cruelty. Totally a valid argument and I can understand them being upset. However, from a cultural perspective, it is the third most popular sport in Nicaragua. I found connecting with the people at the event, not the actual fight part, to be an incredible opportunity. Talking with the locals in their off-time was a treat and a glimpse into their real lives.

I know people may not be happy when I say this as it is not politically correct, but animal rights is not a passion for me. I greatly respect others’ strong views on this issue, but personally I eat meat, don’t have pets, and going to a cock fight does not get my blood boiling. I would NEVER hurt an animal directly, but I view visiting this cock fight less as supporting cruelty and more as trying to understand an aspect of my fellow human beings’ culture. I felt like this was one of the most real interactions I had with Nicaraguans the whole time I was in the country. I enjoyed the experience as a whole and given the same situation I would go again. To all the animal lovers out there, I hope we can still be friends.

And now for something completely touristy: Volcano boarding

The beginning of the rainy season hit just as we arrives in Leon, knocking a true volcano trek–what we essentially went there to do–off the table. But when life gives you lemons, go volcano boarding. Our hostel was BIG on promoting their volcano boarding tours (it’s the tagline in their name, the walls of the lobby are plastered with news outlet endorsements, was apparently a reward challenge for SURVIVOR: Nicaragua in 2010, and they give away free tshirts that are essentially ads) and it is definitely one of the “things to do” on the gringo trail. Almost everyone I know who has come to Nicaragua has a picture on facebook of them in a bright orange jumpsuit tobogganing down the side of a volcano. I aimed to get me one too.

The day we went the sky was overcast. We piled into the back of a truck and drove 45 minutes to the volcano. Cerro Negro is an active remarkably young volcano, something like only 150 years old. Apparently its eruption a few decades back sent a black cloud of debris that fell on Leon, causing much of the blackened coloring on the building you see today. It isn’t all that tall–just tall enough to board down for a minute!–and its face is mostly small volcanic sand. We hauled our boards and gear up a 30-minute path to the top.

Up we go on the brief, most mountainous section of the hike. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

Partway up it began to rain, just in time for team photos at the vista point.

Even on a rainy day, we can still have fun on a volcano! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

As we approached the crest, smoke and steam wafted up from below.

Almost there. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

We got to the top, donned our electric orange prison jumpsuits (yes, they are legit; some had prisoner numbers stenciled on the breast) and lined up. The wetness of the rain made the sand stick together and significantly slowed down the ride. Some people were able to overcome this by pushing off with their legs at the right time, but others got completely stuck in the pebbles. My run down went okay. Not the slowest in the group, but not the fastest.

Discarded boards at the base. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
In my opinion, I think volcano boarding is a highly overrated novelty activity. I’m glad I did it because I would have wondered otherwise, but it’s not as rockin’ as everyone’s facebook photos led me to believe. Oh well.

Grrr… yeah, that’s volcano grit in my teeth. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.