Ometepe turned out to be stunning – and of course it was, because my good buddy Joe said it would be! (I’m only surprised I didn’t skip it after he recommended it.) The island is formed from two volcanic cones, joined together with a narrow land bridge to form a figure-8. The waters along the island’s long sandy beaches, while murky brown, have the comfortable warmth of a tepid bath – even in the middle of the night – and offer stellar views of both volcanoes, albeit only in the daytime. Staying in a comfortable guest house at the edge of the barely-a-town of Sta. Cruz, with the beach just across the road, I got to soak in the warm waters of the lake while watching horses walk along the shore. I felt like I had found a tasty little morsel of paradise.
But once again, my enjoyment of the natural beauty of the place was tarnished by unfortunate run-ins with other people who look and talk the same way that I do. At one restaurant I couldn’t resist the temptation to chat up a Wizard of Oz-esque crew of backpackers who had globbed together in the course of their travels, presumably united by their shared whiteness. (One man, a Californian hippie who was a fair bit older than the rest, somewhat reminded of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowsky, so at least he was pretty cool.) I sometimes spent time with them and sometimes avoided them, torn between my desire for human contact and my aversion to hanging out with a bunch of sunburnt two-decade-old gringos. The fact that they were all incredibly nice to me probably just made things worse. I would try to distract myself by practicing my Spanish with the kindly young couple who owned the restaurant. I was rewarded for my friendliness for with extra-large portions of beans and rice and chances to try strange tropical fruits, like a small, round, tan-coloured fruit that tastes half-rotten even when it’s fresh. (Tastes better than it sounds? Well, I did find myself starting to enjoy the taste more after choking down a few dozen of them.) Also, they had a dog!!!
On my last night in Ometepe, the gringos celebrated the departure of one group member – the gorgeous young blond-haired British adonis (who, once again, in spite of being a hot young guy who had struck up a vacation romance with a hot young female member of the group, was also annoyingly nice to me) – by playing cards and getting even more wasted than usual. At the end of the night, they all drunkenly skinny-dipped in the lake, even casting off on some trusting local person’s boat for a bit of naked midnight boating. I wandered back to my room, unnoticed and fully clothed.
The next morning, mindful of how much land I had left to cover in my short trip, and also wanting to avoid more friendliness from people who somehow just made me feel bad, I decided to get on a morning bus back to the mainland. The bus passed by on the highway a few minutes ahead of schedule, I left without saying goodbye to the gringos or the restaurant owners. I regret the latter, at least.
The highways of Nicaragua brought their own simple pleasures. Although the land is flat and not especially scenic along much of the tourist trail, the major point of interest is the certifiably free range livestock, with cows walking lazily down the middle of the road and pigs foraging happily in garbage by the roadside. In fact, the cows looked so happy that I started eating them, having had beef for the first time in years while in Nicaragua. I hope that progress will not one day bring with it the horrors of factory farming.
I traveled onward to Granada, which has a reputation for being one of the best-preserved colonial heritage cities in Central America. I found it a bit underwhelming, to be honest, and it probably is not a good sign that the highlight of my time there was staying in La Mexicana Guesthouse, which was indeed owned by a matronly Mexican woman and her Greek husband (whom she affectionately referred to her as her “Griego”). Her smiling face and singsongy voice mostly just reminded me that I would have rather been in Mexico. I felt a bit sorry for her, as well, given the fact that I seemed to be the only guest in the entire place. Before I left she pleaded with me, in her singsongy manner, to tell my friends about their guesthouse and bring them the business that they seemed to so desperately need. I never did get around to doing that, especially given that I didn’t love Granada very much; I did, however, support her husband’s Greek yogurt-making enterprise by gleefully gobbling up half a litre of the stuff – delicious!
My next stop was – fittingly enough – inspired by loneliness. The Nicaraguan capital of Managua does not have a very good reputation, being known for little aside from having the highest crime rates in the country. (Incidentally, I should point out that aside from Managua and the terrifying lack of street lighting in Rivas at 6:30 PM, Nicaragua turned out to be a very safe, friendly country.) However, after mostly having spent my time alone or in the company of Sad Singsongy Mexican Lady and The Dude, the big city seemed like a good place to get an Internet date with someone who wouldn’t sic her brothers on me if I were to ask about her educational goals. For this, I was willing to grant Managua one day out of my rather claustrophobic itinerary.
A few days before, I had managed to chat my way into a date with an absolutely stunning mestiza dentist. I arrived in Managua in the afternoon, and tried to squeeze in a few hours of sightseeing before our meetup. I grabbed a taxi into the center, hoping to see whatever limited sights Managua had to offer.
Unfortunately, Managua taxis must be among the worst in the world. They are, seemingly without exception, dilapidated old station wagons. The fares, which don’t seem that cheap to start with, do not in fact entitle you to a private ride – even after you agree to the inflated tourist price, the driver is still at liberty to pick up other passengers and take them to wildly out-of-the-way locations, all while grinding through Managua’s considerable traffic. After a few such detours, my first Managua taxi ride finally brought me to the tourist center (such as it is) with little daylight remaining. I really hope they get Uber soon.
The tourist center fronts Lake Xolotlan, with a mix of eerie empty lots, looming revolutionary monuments, and pleasant-enough government buildings. The highlight(?) is a profusion of massive tree-shaped arrays of lights, which look merely bizarre in the daytime, but are significantly more impressive when they are lit up at night, by which point you shouldn’t be out in Managua anyway.
Along the lakeside I also stumbled upon a large, free museum dedicated to Ruben Dario, the beloved Nicaraguense poet. I seemed to be the only visitor, and the guides eagerly jumped at the chance to talk to me at great length about the the genius of this poet – and unfortunately for me, my Spanish was good enough that I was forced to listen politely. Through each successive speech, I reflected on two important facts: 1) I was in Managua, and it was getting dark and, 2) I had a beautiful woman waiting for me several traffic jams away. One awkward moment occurred when one guide assumed that we must surely have learned about the great internationally renowned poet Ruben Dario in school back in Canada, and I had to confess that I actually had no idea who he was. But then, people in Nicaragua probably don’t know Stompin’ Tom Connors, either.
My date messaged me to say she was ready to meet, but I nonetheless proceeded to wander aimlessly out of the centre on foot.
It was starting to get dark, and a panic set in as I realized I was in a poorly-lit area and couldn’t seem to find a cab. Presumably moments before a masked man would have pulled a cab on me, I managed to flag down a taxi and enjoy another authentic Managua taxi experience – but this time with rush hour traffic.
My date wanted to meet, as ridiculously hot women often do, in a high-end western-style shopping mall. Upon arriving, this gleaming mall of luxury stores and American fast food brands felt a whole world away from the serene beaches of Ometepe, and for that matter, the hot-blooded paranoia of traveling through the streets of Managua at night. But hey, at least it had Papa John’s!
Unfortunately, my date had gotten tired of waiting for me and had already started watching a movie in the cinema with her friends. She stepped out long enough to chat with me briefly, and after having basically lived a Latin American version of the 1970s cinema classic “The Warriors” to reach her, I wasn’t too happy about having been blown off in such a manner. Plus, I felt a bit mad at myself for having wasted so much time on the way – it was my fault, too. And she was ten times more ravishing in person, so that just made me feel worse. She went back into the movie, I headed back to my guesthouse, and we stopped communicating soon afterward.
After that, I was off to my last stop in Nicaragua: the mountain town of Somoto, renowned for its beautiful canyon, and recommended by – yep, you guessed it! – my good buddy Joe. The journey to the bus station provided the highlight of my brief visit to Managua, bonding with other passengers on the city bus over our shared love of holding on for dear life, and wandering through a bustling city market. (I also found an electrical supply shop in the market and bought an extension cord for all the hotel rooms – and there are many – which strategically locate their only electrical outlet as far from the bed as possible.) A kindly Afro-Caribbean lady from Nicaragua’s East Coast – a whole other world I never got to visit – waited for my bus with me while showing off her impeccable English, which she assured me is quite typical in her part of the country.
On the bus, I ended up seated next to a chatty middle-aged gentleman from Somoto whose English was also quite good. His name was Louie, and he seemed like a great guy. But I was wrong – Louie was actually kind of an asshole.
He was a teacher who was coming back to Somoto after visiting Managua for a few days. And during my stay in Somoto, it slowly dawned on me that his chattiness was mostly an opportunity for him to talk himself up. At first it seemed pretty harmless – he led me to what turned out to be a rather poor hotel with the pomposity of a high-ranking delegate showing a foreign dignitary around town. (The hotel had bad WiFi and a deafeningly loud water pump that had to grind away incessantly, on request, whenever a guest had to take a shower.)
But the next day, when he offered to take me to the canyon, I got to see Louie in full ass mode as we interacted with the impoverished locals in the countryside. He managed to asshole his way into getting free tours from guides who were obviously in some lean times during low season. (To be fair, I didn’t realize how much the guide fee would be, and didn’t bring enough cash.) Before and after our hike, we found ourselves sitting in the simple homes of the guides or other locals, with Louie eagerly informing anyone who would listen what a renowned local teaching institution he was (a teacher of chemistry, and physics, and math, and English – he painstakingly listed them all, every time). He carried his guitar with him, and delighted in telling every single person we met how much it was worth. He played and sang Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” repeatedly, smugly belting it out with excruciatingly mangled lyrics while glowing with pride over being such an excellent guitarist and excellent singer with excellent English.
The sad nadir came after the canyon hike, when we ended up at yet another country home – I really don’t know how or why – and he bullshitted to the poor parents of a young girl about how he could teach English to her, opening the door to a world of endless opportunity. Unfortunately, his English wasn’t as good as his bullshitting, and I imagined this poor family scraping together their meager savings to have a charlatan teach broken English to their sweet young daughter. When I wanted to give some money to our guides, who had busted their asses to get this candy-assed white boy out of the canyon alive, he scolded me for wanting to give too much – even though it was still significantly less than the official guide fee. Apparently Louie’s bullshit and empty promises were to be accepted in lieu of cash payment.
After our canyon adventure, I stepped into the supermarket to buy some shampoo, and Louie grandiloquently exclaimed that Pantene was an a “wonderful” brand. I crankily informed him that it wasn’t wonderful, it was just damn shampoo. I wearily accepted his phone number, with no intention of ever using it. Fuck you, Louie.
Luckily, the canyon itself was stunning, and the town of Somoto was charming. After being first surprised, then merely depressed, about the awful quality of most local coffee in Central America – with Managua being certifiable Instant Coffee Country – the mountain brew of Somoto filled my mouth with joy. And the food, which had been a highlight through Nicaragua, reached its glorious peak here – stellar gallo pinto (beans and rice), fried cheese, fried plantains and plantain chips, all heaped with generous dollops of sour cream. The locals were kind and the mountain air was invigorating, too.
I even met someone nice. After going to a local bar for karaoke, I never actually got around to singing due to the welcome distraction provided by a charming local woman with an incredible smile who was out with her friend to celebrate her birthday. After half an hour of not-entirely-inept Spanglish conversation, I had to rush back to the crappy loud water pump hotel before the 11 PM lockdown (goddamn you, Louie!), and didn’t have the chance to see her again. We chat occasionally, so I know that she now has a boyfriend, and God only knows when I’ll ever return to Somoto. Story of my life?
Again feeling pressed for time, I abandoned fried cheese and possible romance to catch a bus to El Salvador, a country that brought plenty of extraordinary surprises of its own. But then, who knows if I’ll ever get around to writing about it.