Nic your agua: Managua, briefly and Leon
King Quality was serf quality at best. My legs were cramped and the only solace was the well padded reclining seat.
The journey daunted me. 15 hours in a bus. Great. Fantastic. Brilliant. Just dandy.
And so it began. The coach rumbled and grumbled into animation. A puff of grey smoke filled the side of the garage as the security gate slowly opened ahead. I found myself drifting into a deep sleep with Radiohead as a lullaby, seeping through my barely functional 1970’s Sony headphones I bought back in Rio Dulce.
I awoke in a daze a number of times. The view outside my window may well have been the remnants of a nightmare but the early mornings mist had engulfed the streets, luminously red with the fresh sun’s rays. It looked like a scene from a cheap British horror movie set. I closed my eyes and decided to tumble back into darkness.
I drifted back into consciousness at around 9am as we hit the border into El Salvador. It was a simple affair. I handed my passport to the coach steward and she did all the leg work. It was beginning to feel a little more regal. Not quite king quality, but maybe a little prince like.
She returned with an exit stamp out of Guatemala. The coach trudged on down the road to a wooden shed, I mean the El Salvador passport control office. A dainty little El Salvadorian man boarded the coach and began checking everyones passport. He got to mine and spent a while on the page with the Guatemalan stamps. He pointed to the date on the stamp. It was correct. 18th August 2011.
I looked at him and said, ‘Today’.
He looked back, bemused at first and then finally nodded his head with the expression of revelation drawn across his face. He handed it back and continued along the carriage.
I have no idea what that was about.
We powered on down the Pan American Highway, through the flat farmlands of northern El Salvador. Our only real stop was at the capital, San Salvador for more passengers and a surprise hours stop in a garage. I had no idea what was going on. So I slept.
I awoke again at midday and this time we were at the border into Honduras. There were forms to fill out but like before, I made the transition between the countries from the comfort of my seat.
Flicking to the end, I was getting dangerously near to the end of my book.
I couldn’t physically sleep anymore so I withdrew into my conscious as the stagnant ache in my legs was beginning to get unbearable. We stopped at a Honduran petrol station for some much needed ‘Deep Vein Thrombosis Relief’.
We climbed back aboard and made a break for the final border into Nicaragua.
We got there at around 4pm and this time we were required to grab our bags from inside the coach and walk 30m to the passport control building where they ‘checked’ our bags. And by check I really mean unzip or undo the bags, peer in and then give the thumbs up.
All very thorough.
And so we were in. Its my last country and I only have a week and a half left. It’s gone so fast but I’ve achieved a lot I feel. Taken the bull by the horns, so to say.
I sat there and wondered what Nicaragua is going to throw at me but before I could contemplate too hard, we had arrived. We made friends with a Swiss guy named Andy who was also going to Leon and had to stay the night in Managua before heading on tomorrow, so he joined the pack.
It was 9pm and the capital was dark. We were in another security guarded king quality station and quite a few blocks from the Tica bus station and the hostels that surrounded it. So we commandeered a cab. Which was a chore in itself as two cab drivers tore at me to come to their respective cars. We were quoted a dollar to get to the hostel area and we went with it.
As we loaded our packs in the back, the other cab driver kept hampering us and finally said, ‘OK 50 cents’. We turned to the owner of the cab I was loading my bag into and shrugged. He matched the price and said, ’50 cents’. So we stuck with him.
The places recommended in the book were full and I had a feeling the cab driver was coercing us to go somewhere so we made the call to walk to find somewhere. It was dark and the streets looked a little dodgy but we weren’t going to get anywhere with this driver. So we took a stroll and were followed by a local lad who showed us a place that was actually available.
It was a dive. As in, door being broken in during the night with lots of screaming and guns, kind of dive. So we declined and miraculously he knew of somewhere else to stay. By this time we were walking into what looked like a residential area and it began to feel more dangerous by the minute. Guys were hanging out around the front of houses, old neon lit cars drove by and it all began to resemble a scene from Boyz in tha Hood or some other Compton movie scene.
As you have guessed, I didn’t take many photographs in Managua.
We finally stopped at what looked like someone’s house, but it had clearly been converted to a hotel of sorts. The rooms were clean and the price was average. 10 bucks for the night. Not the best deal but it was one night. Andy still looked nervous but I think fatigue kicked in and we slept well.
We woke up at a decent time, realised there was nowhere to eat near the ‘hotel’ and so decided to head by taxi to the shuttle buses that leave for Leon and look for ‘desayuno’ there.
It was a good choice. There was a little joint behind the university and we had huevos fritos with frijoles (fried eggs and beans).
Full and content we walked back around the corner and boarded a shuttle which headed north to the town of Leon.
It felt good to leave the city. And we were back on a country highway. Lush views and a warm breeze through the windows.
Leon is beautiful, in a run down kind of way. It has all of Antigua’s colonial flare but with a post apocalyptic feel. The inhabitants and the surroundings seemed disjointed. The main square is daunted by a great cathedral. Once white, after much peeling it’s now mostly grey and looks as if it has survived a war. The disparity between this view and the state of the streets, further exaggerates the contrast with the moderately well dressed people and also carnival type set ups around the square.
We had been recommended La Tortuga Balooga as a place to stay and we got a taxi there from the market where we were dropped off.
The hostel is amazing. Nice, clean, pool table, free organic coffee all day. It had a very rustic wooden feel with murals over the walls, a case of books and very friendly staff. We fitted right in with some healthy banter with staff and inhabitants.
One of which was another Swiss guy, Cornel, who was quite funny and a number of country orientated slurs began. We sat around, played pool and eventually were joined by an American couple, Travis and Casey, or as I began to call them, KC & JoJo. Trav was a professional fashion photographer and so took some arty shots of us all around the pool table.
This lead to a search for karaoke, which in turn lead to tacos and then a walk around town as it darkened.
A good start to Leon.
We awoke the next day at a decent time and found that the American couple were checking out and heading to a nearby beach to stay.
On impulse we decided to go with them for the day.
A pickup pulled up and I sat in the back with the two boys while we let the couple enjoy the comfort of the trucks interior.
The ride was nice and it was fun sitting in the back of a pickup. We neared the beach and I was hit by that salty air that I had begun to miss. It was well worth the trip, the place was gorgeous, black volcanic sand and huge surfer’s paradise waves.
I can’t surf. This is now fact. I tried my hand at a spot of body boarding and I couldn’t even manage that.
Although I found myself very proficient in the almost suicidal sport of swimming out to a big wave, swimming back in with it until it crested and then closing my eyes and becoming as straight as a surf board. This proved a bloody fun sport and the waves crashed and tumbled me all the way back to the sandy shore.
It’s also a tiring sport so we all had lunch at a beachside bar and restaurant.
The crazy activities ran well into the late afternoon and by this time I was getting used to the hammering the sea was giving me. It was a fantastic experience.
Especially when I just recovered from a wave, facing the beach, I ran my hand through my hair to get rid of the water and seeing the guys pointing behind me with shocked looks on their faces. I turned to witness a cresting 5ft wave about to crash down on me.
That knocked me into the sand but it was pretty awesome to feel such a force just from that liquidy goodness that is water!
Our pickup arrived and we left the Americans to return to the hostel.
By the time we got back, Cornel had returned from volcano boarding and we were also joined by another Swiss guy and a Spanish girl called Alba.
Yes all the Jessica Alba jokes were made.
We spent most of the evening sitting around, making general noise and discussing topics from Switzerland’s lack of a capital, through to the true Spanish meaning of the word, ‘cabron’. Which we finally decided meant, ‘asshole’. In the nicest possible way.
We were later joined by an American called Patrick, who had lost his passport and money. He had left it in the back of a pickup and was going back to the drivers home the next day to try and recover it.
His entrance into the group started a whole new topic of conversation as we found out that the new Swiss guy was a major conspiracy theorist.
It was funny and after much deliberation we left the hostel to trawl around town.
Which proved very interesting.
We awoke late the next day and Andy had already left for the day to continue his hobby of watching a football game in each country.
It was raining so we declared it a lazy day and we spent most of it in the hostel, bar an afternoon excursion with Cornel to a local eateria to keep our bodies fuelled.
We were talking to Cornel when Andy returned and we had a revelation for him. Cornel had spoken to his parents earlier and had realised that he is related to Andy. Their parents are cousins. Small world. Jokes were made and then I had a small revelation.
Cornel was leaving at 5am the next day to head north to a town called Estelli. He was going for the coffee and for me, Estelli was the promise of a cigar factory.
We decided to join him, so we hastily packed and went to sleep.
The bus left at 5am so we woke at 4am. We got a cab to the bus and I spent the rainy morning nodding in and out of sleep in the packed, cramped, chicken bus that bobbed along the uneven roads north.
We arrived at 8.30am and had no idea where to even begin.
Estelli looked like a lovely little town in the middle of lush surroundings. It was sunny by this time and the town looked a lot brighter with simples coloured buildings in comparison to Leon. It’s highstreet looked like a bit of a truck stop and as we walked out of the station a fight broke out between two bus drivers.
One chased the other down the road, right past us. They scuffled and suddenly one of them had pulled out a knife the size of my forearm. The other guy ran for his life and found shelter behind a bus further down the road. The knife brandishing local waved the blade around for a while and then finally slipped it behind his belt on his back and trudged back past us to the station.
My mouth was agape. I was shocked to say the least. But the adventure to find this cigar factory urged me on.
We decided to follow Cornel to his hostel in the hope they might be able to advise as further.
And they did more than that. By the time we got there it was close to 9am and the café opposite had a tour leaving in a few minutes.
I had a quick coffee, which was local, fresh and fantastic and before we knew it we were in a cab on our way to the local cigar factory.
It looked like a run down government building from the outside, with a few more flares like an ornate fountain and caged monkeys.
Just as my anticipation began to peak, I was distracted by a slow dusty wandering local cowboy, sauntering past on his horse and away around a bend. It was unusual to see with the contrast of the modern motor vehicles and electrical lines, but the run down colourful colonial buildings, gave the scene a nostalgic realism and reminiscent flare that I couldn’t help stop and appreciate.
But the feeling passed as soon as the lonesome rider passed the corner.
The security gates rolled back and I felt like Charlie entering Willy Wonka’s secretive lair.
Our guide showed us the first stage.
The box making. A large room full of sheets of plywood, cedar wood and ready made boxes. A small table surrounded by about 5 people, made up the production line. They glued precut and prestamped boxes.
We were then ushered into a room at the back where the boxes where treated and finished. But I wanted to get to the real stuff. And so we did.
The first step way drying the bags of local organic tobacco leaves on stacks of chicken wire trays. This was done over a period of months.
In the mean time in the room next door, special wrapping leaves that were brought up from the south, we continually being dried and then dampened by a spray. This gave the leaves elasticity. These were the leaves that wrapped the tobacco in a double layer and this was the tricky part.
Once supple enough, they were dried in another room. Bundled together in leaves of 20, they laid out on the floor on wooden pallets to await processing.
We then went to the next processing room and here there was a table of 8 ladies who sorted the leaves into piles of quality and colouring. Darker leaves for stronger cigars and leaves with holes in them into a separate pile. They held the central stem of each leaf in their fingers and then wrapped the leaf around their wrist until the clean parts of the leaf broke free in two separate parts and then bundled together ready for the final stage.
This was the last and most exciting stage, the actual making of the cigars. The room had about 7 rows of benches and each held about 4 rollers. They worked in pairs.
The men carried out the first process. They would get a lower quality wrapping leaf, place it on the rolling machine, grab a bunch of long dark tobacco leaves, place it on top of the wrapping leaf and then pushed the roller forward and then back. This produced a rough cigars shaped bundle of leaves. He then placed this into mould and once it was full, the mould was set under a weighted machine.
The cigars resembled small torpedoes in a submarines loading pod and once they were removed they looked more cigar shaped but still a little straggly.
This is when it is given to the lady. And it is only the women who finish the cigars. This old lady was astoundingly skilled. She laid out a high quality wrapping leaf and then wet her finger with the binding agent which was the sap from a local plant. Running her damp finger over the wrapping leaf, she then placed the rudimentary cigar on the leaf and rolled it into a smooth finish. Using a small cutter she rounded off the edge, added more binding agent and smoothed the end off with her finger. The cigar was then placed in a measured cutting vice and snipped into the right size. This would then join a pile of perfectly hand rolled cigars at the head of her bench.
It was a fascinating process and it felt a privilege to experience such a skilled and prestigious trade.
We finished up in the shop where I bought a box for gifts back home and we made our way back to the café.
We sat and had lunch, content with the days explorations, when the two Aussies, Kylie and Aaron, who we met in Livingston, Guatemala, walk through the door. Hello’s and catch up stories were exchanged and we realised they were also heading back to Leon in the afternoon. As we sat and talked about cigars, we were joined by an American couple who told us about a Rocky Patel factory around the corner.
For those of you who don’t know, Rocky Patel does big things in the cigar industry.
And so we set off in search. Cornel and the Aussies came along and we left the Americans in the café where we would meet them later as they were going back to Leon too.
We walked around, lost, but finally found it.
A local guys stepped out with a quizzical look on his face. Cornel knew Spanish and explained that we wanted to have a look around.
The guy shook his head.
We asked Cornel to tell him is was a once in a lifetime experience and I feigned a sign language stomach pain to help the case.
We were getting nowhere. So we left, with our tails between our legs.
We returned to the café and then made it across to the bus station with our two new American friends, Mahdi and Elizabeth. Mahdi was from Morocco and it was funny to share stories of how the Central American’s perceive us ‘exotic’ individuals!
The bus journey back was uneventful apart from the excruciating cramp in my legs during the 2 and a half hours of the ride.
The American’s decided to come back to our hostel, purely because it is awesome, so we said goodbye to the Aussies again and made our way back home.
I bet we will meet them again any day now!
We were tired but a pizza had been ordered and we spent the night with the guys joking around and watching YouTube videos. I managed to persuade Madhi to come volcano boarding with us the next time and in turn he persuaded Elizabeth and so we booked it. An 8am start. Something more reasonable.
8am came and we sat in our hostel with our morning coffees, waiting for the shuttle.
It arrived and had some more Americans in it. Friendly girls and we shared travel stories all the way to the volcano.
And there it stood. Cerro Negro. The black monolith, erupting from the lush green surroundings. We logged ourselves into the centre at it’s base, our names, date of birth and nationality. I guess in case anything were to happen to us.
We approached the base of the giant and were handed our boards and backpacks containing protective gear. Sliding the boards between our backs and the packs we set off on the gruelling hour and a half hike to the top.
It was hot and the terrain was just a series of differed sized volcanic rocks.
I took a small one as a souvenir and journeyed on.
We took a break half way up in order to take pictures and enjoy the view.
From here we could see the smoking crater and the smell of sulphur wafted on the wind. It was definitely still active and from our vantage point we could see a black stream of old dried lava that had dripped down the side of the volcano, etching a large lake shape into the forest below.
A constant westwardly wind meant that most of the ash blew down the west face, toward Leon and the sea. This is where we would be boarding from.
We trudged our way to the top and after some novelty pictures we got down to business.
First it was the elbow pads and knee pads. Followed by the jump suit and then gloves and wrist guards. I felt and looked the part.
As we peered down the steep slope of ash, the adrenaline began to rush. What the hell was I thinking.
Sitting on a piece of plywood, 800m up, in a green and yellow jumpsuit, wearing my shades and a grin on my face. Unfortunately my camera had died at this point so I haven’t got anything to show the sheer drop we were going down. All I can tell you is that it was steep.
And then the thought dawns on me.
There’s definitely something wrong with me.
But it was too late to look back. I was away.
Ash kicking up from the front of my board and tearing away at my face. I was picking up speed and my trajectory needed contest correction by letting go of the rope with a hand and digging into the ash. Left hand on the rope, right hand grazing the slope. Right hand on the rope, left hand grazing the slope.
I was going quite fast by this point and I resisted the urge to be sensible and dig my feet in the ground to slow down.
It was insanely fun and over in a flash.
An hour and a half of hiking, finished in under a minute.
I had ash everywhere. In places I don’t even want to describe. But it felt good to have conquered the slope. To have conquered the live volcano. To have conquered my own initial fears.
The ride back was bumpy to say the least and once we got back to the hostel, Mahdi and Elizabeth left to head out to Las Penitas.
I declined their offer as I needed to take a final walk around town and take some pictures, so it was goodbye.
And now none of the Leon friends we have made are left. And tomorrow it is off to Granada.
Who knows what more Nicaragua has in store for us.
Leon has been a blast and this hostel is a fantastic place to experience it all from.
In the morning we pay our dues and head back to Managua, briefly, to get another shuttle on to Granada.
The journey continues as time slips through my hand like sand.