The plane hit down hard as we landed in Managua the capitol of Nicaragua. You could see some vintage Russian airplanes and helicopters parked on the backside of the airport. People were scrambling and moving fast to get to their destinations. Uniformed guards carried rifles as a show of force or as our protectorate. Whistles were blowing as people jumped on taxis and made their way toward the city of Managua. I simply asked the taxi driver if it was possible to slow down a notch as he flew through several red lights with horns blaring everywhere. “No problema Senor! Cuiado Senor”– as he hit a huge pot hole sending our taxi airborne and nearly crashing into coming traffic.
At least I knew where I was. Sort of— as I saw all of the wires hanging down from the dashboard and a plastic Jesus hanging on the windshield. Welcome to Central America!
I don’t know why someone doesn’t write a song about “Welcome to Central America.” They could blindfold you and stuff your ears with cotton, but I guarantee, when all the horns start blowing at the intersections and your adrenalin starts pumping for your life– you have arrived. I try to engage the taxi driver with my very limited spanish by asking him about his family and how far it is to the bus station.
Never assume there is one bus station in any major city in Central America. There are times I have spent hours trying to get to a destination only to be told you need to get the Blueline on the other side of town. It is always on the other side of town. You would be better off telling the taxi driver to take you to the bus station in the center of town, which there never is, and duck-taping the taxi-drivers hands to the wheel with your destination map taped on his wrist. Oh well you couldn’t buy an adventure ticket like this in Disney World— so just sit back, take in the sights, and pray this is one taxi driver who can deliver you to the right bus station.
Kerclunk, kerclunk, whop, whop, we have a flat tire. The taxi-driver pulls over gets a few of his amigos to lift the car up— takes off the flat tire and walks down the street lugging the flat tire. In a matter of minutes he returns with a big smile— rolling the repaired tire up the street. The taxi driver gets his amigos to lift the car up and just like magic we are on the road again. I asked him how much it cost to have the tire repaired and he told me in Nicaraguan money which amounts to .50 cents in the United States.
As a comparison If you had the flat tire tire in the states you would use your cell phone and call AAA to learn they don’t do tires on the weekends. You would call at least seven other garages to learn they don’t make road calls— insurance won’t allow them to. Then a policeman stops and jumps on your tire iron and brakes it in half and volunteers to call Bubba’s Towing, which he thinks can change your tire on Monday. To save money you ride in Bubba’s tow truck as they tow the car to the neighborhood pound, because the tire garage is fenced and locked, and won’t be open until Monday morning. You then bribe the tow truck driver to drop you off at the nearest hotel and now you go through the payment routine. “We don’t take any credit cards or insurance plans –strictly cash. I can take you a few blocks to an ATM machine if that will help.” You pull five hundred dollars hoping you can pay for two nights hotel plus the towing bill plus the tire repair. One more trip to the ATM machine and the flat tire only cost you $799.00 . Not to worry you send all of your bills to your insurance company only to learn your claim has been denied because just under the Interstate— less than a mile from your flat tire was a tire repair place open 24 hours— seven days a week. So you won’t sue and have a cardiac, three months later you get an adjusted settlement amount of $74.96 from your insurance carrier, which ends with the words: Have a Nice Day! In my opinion third world countries definitely have their advantages.
Ticket in hand the Blueline pulls out on time and is heading to Rivas which is as far as the road goes. One family is loading their bed and all of their belongings on the top of the bus. As the conductor ties down everything and starts hanging out the door yelling: “Directo!” we are pulling out of Managua on the fly. Passing through hours of rural settings you see many people either on horseback or walking the roadways. We stop in a local village for a lunch break. We eat raw pineapple from a stand and drink red kool-aid in a plastic bag with a straw for the trip. The small towns are filled with colorful scenery and smells and by this time you become part of the travel experience and begin shedding some of your corporate outerwear and baggage.
It’s starting to rain cats and dogs and I mean a heavy tropical rain storm. Arriving at Rivas we book a room for the night and run through the streets avoiding the deepest mud-puddles to a local restaurant located on the river. After eating a generous portion of river crabs, fresh shrimp and rice, we ended the evening by drinking a few cervezas and watching the storm intensify. Looking across the street you could see a beautiful white church that looks like it was out of a Somerset Maugham movie.
The storm pounded on our shanties tin roof and we lost our one light-bulb electric. I think this is the hardest rain storm I have ever experienced. We make our way down to the river at 5:00 am where we are loaded on a launch– which will take us to Bluefields on the Caribbean coast. According to the travel books this is one of the most beautiful river trips in Central America packed full of nature, adventure and jungle scenery. I can’t wait for the launch to pull out. Just then the boat Captain had us shift our weight for a new loading pattern before we head down river. Lightning struck down with a tremendous zig zag splitting a tree across the river. The thunder followed almost shattering the windows of the river town of Rivas. With buckets of rain pouring straight down our launch captain had us hold a blue tarp overhead as we made our way down the Escondido River in the pouring rain.
Drenched to the bone we arrived in Bluefields which was running with knee-deep water down the main streets toward the harbor. The taxis said they couldn’t run— too much water in the streets. We walked through knee deep water and deeper until we found a small hotel with a restaurant in a town that looked like it was a set for a novel or a movie. This was the real Banana Republic. Rusted tin roofs, water streaming down the streets and a mix match of Caribbean houses and shanties right up to the waterfront. Fish mongers were selling their wares, folks were buying vegetables, and people were just hanging out at the marina waiting for the tropical storm to ease up.
After a better nights sleep we took a taxi to the Bluefields airport where we found an airplane connection to the Corn Islands. In the air I reflected back on Bluefields where there were jaguar hides tacked on the wall at a local restaurant, a man living just a few miles away with a snake ranch and the real jumping off point to the Pearl Lagoon Islands strung along the coast, where you could visit with the fun-loving Caribbs and go sunbathing or hire a boat to take you snook or tarpon fishing. This area of Nicaragua is the real wild untapped part of Central America. From Bluefields to Puerto Cabezas not too far from the Honduran border there are basically no direct roads and you either fly in or make your way up river by hiring local river guides. The people are a mix of indigenous Indians, black Caribbs and Miskitos and live basically the way they have for generations. They have simple huts and shanties in the rural areas and basically live off of the land and the sea.
As the plane touched down in Big Corn Island we were treated to turquoise clear waters and brilliant blue skies. The Corn Islands are located in the Caribbean and belong to Nicaragua. While staying in an ecotourism hotel on this idyllic island we felt as if we were definitely off the beaten path and ahead of the curve. Big Corn Island had a few resorts, a lobster industry, and several small businesses. While having our morning coffee I picked up the local newspaper only to discover our river town of Rivas was devastated by the tropical storm. After a few hail Mary’s and Dios Mios it felt good to be on dry land. Thank you Lord Jesus we just missed the flood of the century by several hours. Destiny can be a tricky equation at best! Muchas Gracias, Muchas Gracias we are alive as we pinched ourselves for proof and took a few photos to document our existence.
The streets of Big Corn Island were dirt and either turned into paths or roads as you explored the island. You could either walk or hire a taxi to take in the sights. We located several fine restaurants that served seafood to die for. Snorkeling was a good option along with swimming in the turquoise clear waters. Dogs seem to follow you everywhere which is sort of nice. They stay on the beach while you swim— it’s sort of like having your own protection system.
Off to Little Corn Island! We are flying in a open boat which is slamming through the surf. If you have any loose teeth or cavities they will be jerked out by the time you arrive. Our launch boat comes in fast and lands on the easterly side of the island. The island is made up of a lobster factory, one restaurant and shanty houses along the beach. One enterprising American has a beautiful diving resort on the backside of the island which you can walk to. It is fully equipped with lodging and meals and is nestled in the swaying palms right on the blue sparkling waters of the Caribbean. You can either cut straight through the island by walking, make arrangements with the dive resort, or do what we did and walk around the entire island. There are several other small resort hotels sprinkled around the island offering additional lodging.
In Little Corn Island if you want to meet the locals or just kick back this is a hidden oasis that probably won’t be hidden very much longer. We met several travel guides from Nicaragua who were promoting both islands. Tourists are beginning to trek here for the turquoise waters and beautiful temperatures not to mention a slice of tropical island life. Bring a good paperback book or just kick back as you blend into the no-hurry lifestyle like you would envision on a paradise island.
To most Nicaraguans the eastern half of the country that faces the Caribbean sea (Atlantic coast) is a mysterious region that might as well exist on another continent. The “Atlantic coast” includes most of the surface of Nicaragua, but only a small fraction of its population. Miskitos, Sumus, and Ramas descended from the Indians who first inhabited these lands, live here mixed with escaped slaves from the British. Caribbean Nicaragua was never a Spanish dominion, except in theory. English traders provided gunpowder and tools to the Miskito, Sumu and Rama and set up trading posts along the lagoons and rivers. Although the British protectorate ended in 1862, English remains the principal language here and the Protestant religion is still dominant.
So if you would like to explore an area of Nicaragua that is heavily steeped in history, has wild jaguars running in the jungles, miles and miles of mountains, cascading streams filled with fish and wildlife and little islands spread along the coast with friendly people and a place teeming with adventure you might just fly to Managua and take the scenic river route through Rivas or take a direct flight to Bluefields or Big Corn Island and let you your adventure begin.
QUOTE: “There’s a certain nostalgia and romance in a place you left.”
——-David Guterson brainyquote.com
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ZENTRAVELER SAYS: If you have the ITCH you may be a travel bug!