You take the good with the bad. Or so we’ve experienced.
We hustled to Nicaragua. We’d been told by some Australian and German backpackers in El Salvador that the political situation in Nicaragua was getting worse. Borders were getting blocked. Violence. Blockades were increasing. If you’re going to go, they said, go through the northern border. Then they flew to Panama….
We drove straight through Honduras in one day, joined by our new best buddy from Washington, Uncle Steve. Five hours of driving, five hours of border crossings. The El Salvador / Honduras was fairly straightforward. The Honduras / Nicaragua border was taxing, literally and figuratively. Took almost three hours. And no one was there. After going through the car X-ray, Nicaraguan officials spent almost an hour searching for Andrea’s blowdryer….
We camped in Somoto Canyon. Andrea had contacted a tour company there, partly to ask if it was safe to cross the border, partly because it was close to the border, and partly because it looked like a fun tour.
We visited the nearby town of Somoto first to grab cash and groceries. Most everything was closed. A national day of protest. A few drunks stumbled through the streets. A few policemen cowered in the crevices. It was eerie. Post-apocalyptical. But we were told everything would be open the next day.
At dusk, we pulled into our camping spot, a grassy lot on the river adjacent to the canyon. A gorgeous spot. The river rolled through, Ringed Kingfishers fished, and cows grazed next to our van. All seemed right in Nicaragua. We figured, as has often been the case on this trip, everything was overblown. Just a mini protest. We’d restock on Doble Queso Cheetos mañana.
Andrea had booked a hike into the canyon. Or so she thought. Our tour guides met us by the Rio Coco at the crack of 8:30am. They brought life jackets. We’d seen some locals cross the river the day we arrived. It was swift, but no more than most the rivers in Idaho. We just figured they were being overly cautious. They didn’t make us sign waivers after all.
They weren’t being cautious. After stumbling within feet of entering the river, swallowing mouthfuls of Coco and pride, I realized life jackets would be necessary. For us gringos of course. The Nicaraguan tour guides, with our kids on their backs, just skipped across the river sans jackets.
The hike wasn’t so much a hike, in the traditional sense, at least in the traditional sense to us Idahoans, as it was a rock climb up a river. We scaled cliffs. Jumped boulders. Dove and swan across sections of the river. At several points, I felt like I was horizontally rock-climbing: reaching for finger holds while my body was being pushed parallel by the river current (Andrea and the kids were in tubes at this point).
In total, six Nicaraguans helped five gringos (our family and Uncle Steve) and one dog (Steve’s dog Lilley) hike/trek/climb/swim up the river through the limestone- and jungle-walled Somoto Canyon. Our reward for the effort: a leisurely float, in our life jackets, down the Rio Coco.
After the “hike”, our guides invited us to their house for a traditional Nicaraguan lunch and the World Cup. It was awesome. The entire experience was the most adventurous, and perhaps enjoyable, activity we’ve done on this trip. We were digging Nicaragua.
We were instructed by our tour guides — a family of seven brothers and two sisters! — to stay in the northern part of the country. The chaos was in the south, they said. While that meant we’d have to avoid many of the sites on our to-see list, including the cities of Leon and Grenada and the entire Nicaraguan Pacific coast, we weren’t willing to date danger. Flirt? Perhaps.
The roads were clear and beautiful, like driving through a tropical version of the Highway 55 in Idaho, until Estelí, Nicaragua….
Semi-trucks created a multiple blockage in the center of town. We were able to 4×4 past the first blockage. Fairly easily. Then a local on a motorbike lead us around the second. By the third (see video below), we had to hop over a curb, skirt a precipice, and then narrowly squeeze between a power pole and a semi-truck. By the fourth, locals demolished a cement pylon on the side of a cliff to help us pass. It was nuts. Nerve-racking. We lost our minds and the pipe to our grey water tank (which broke on the pylon, spilling stinky Lingle water all over the street). The line of semi-trucks was at least ten miles long. Drivers were sleeping in hammocks beneath their trucks. Millions of dollars of lost commerce.
We hit an additional nine blockades that day. Six the following. Only that first blockade was walled by trucks. The rest by bricks and militia. Masked and armed militia — armed with bomba guns (house-made grenade guns? we were never sure, but that’s what they called them) and regular guns (pistols and rifles) — manned the blockades. Mostly young men. A few enthusiastic women.
The militia entered our van on six or seven occasions. They never threatened us. Never asked for money. Didn’t steal anything. They were searching for armas. Seems like they’re stockpiling for coup. Nicaraguans no les gusta Ortega.
We’re in Costa Rica now. Safe. Staring at sloths.
We keep talking about Nicaragua, however. While we’re certainly bummed we did not get to see much of the country — it looked every bit as beautiful as Costa Rica — we’re mostly concerned for the people. Supplies are running out. When we visited the grocery store the day after the national protest, only about ten percent of goods were left of the shelves. ATMs were already out of money. It certainly felt like, within a matter of weeks, something drastic is going to happen. We just hope, whatever happens, conditions improve for the masses. La gente. Some of the nicest people we’ve yet met. It’s crazy how one crazy dictator can affect so many lives.