Around the world by bike
(511km - 18 days)
21/6 - 8/7/2012
21 June - La Cruz, Costa Rica – San Jorge, Nicaragua - 64 kilometres
From Costa Rica the road to Nicaragua veered inland away from the Pacific Ocean and onto the busy Costa Rico/Nicaragua border. Trucks were backed up for at least five kilometres, but at least the crossing into Nicaragua went smoothly. After crossing the border, one first noticed Lake Nicaragua, a substantial freshwater lake. We continued in the direction of Rivas, the first big(ish) village.
From Rivas, a smaller path led towards the lake. We uncovered an inexpensive guesthouse in San Jorge, a tiny settlement along the lake. From here, ferries departed to Isla de Ometepe, an island fifteen kilometres off the mainland. Isla De Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes rising out of the lake. Concepcion (1610m) is still considered active, but last erupted in 1957.
The most remarkable part about Lake Nicaragua was that it was home to sawfish, tarpon, and sharks despite being a freshwater lake. Initially, scientists thought sharks in the lake belonged to an endemic species, the Lake Nicaragua shark. In 1961, following comparisons of specimens, the Lake Nicaragua shark was synonymous with the Bull shark, a species also known for entering freshwater elsewhere worldwide. It had been presumed these sharks were trapped within the lake, but it was subsequently discovered they could jump along the San Juan River’s rapids (which connects Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea), almost like salmon. Bull sharks tagged inside the lake were caught in the open ocean (and vice versa). How amazing is that?
22 June - San Jorge - Isla De Ometepe - By ferry
While on a car ferry across the lake to Isla De Ometepe, a waterspout appeared, not something I’d ever seen before; what an incredible sight. It barely lasted five minutes and then completely disappeared.
From San Jose, it was a mere twelve kilometres cycle to Moyogalpa, one of the bigger villages on the island. Not a great deal was happening in these places, except for a few backpackers wandering around aimlessly. The harbour was the busiest place where islanders loaded and offloaded goods to and from the mainland.
Street food appeared once the sun had set, and tables and chairs were placed along the sidewalk. Both islanders and visitors reappeared from their midday hideouts to enjoy the cooler evening air.
23 June - Isla De Ometepe
While exploring the island, I noticed a small path leading towards the lake, and at the end of this dirt track, we found a single cabana right at the lake shores. No one was getting me away from that spot. We swam, sat on our little veranda and watched life go by along the lake, which had a surprising amount of activity. Seeing it’s a freshwater lake, people bathed, did their laundry, washed farm animals and fished.
As it was the coolest time of day, I woke early and took my camera down to the lake. Once there, everyone was already out doing their chores. Ladies did laundry, men fished, and horsemen washed and broke in horses.
Once checked out from our idyllic abode, a short but scenic cycle, which offered sensational views, took us to the opposite side of the island. The village of Altagracia was not merely home to a cathedral built in 1924, but the town also featured giant ancient statues of basalt rock. Eventually, we returned to Moyogalpa, where an additional night was spent.
25-26 June - Moyogalpa – Granada - 78 kilometres
Situated along the shores of Lago Nicaragua, Granada has a fascinating history. Its location along the lake gave it easy access to the Caribbean Sea via Rio San Juan but made it an easy target for pirates. As a result, the city became victim of many invasions from English, French and Dutch pirates.
Today, Granada is a peaceful, pretty city sporting a lovely mango tree-covered central plaza and many colourful restored houses. There were quite a few impressive churches scattered about. The most remarkable one was the cathedral at Parque Central. Our early arrival gave us plenty of time to snatch a few pictures before the sun went down.
Grenada called for another day of investigating as it was blessed with many attractions. Unfortunately, our establishment was incredibly hot and impossible to stay much longer beyond sunrise.
26-28 June - Granada – Masaya - 21 kilometres
From Granada to Masaya, well known for arts and crafts, was a short twenty-one-kilometre ride. It was also the most accessible place from where to get to the top of Vulcan Masaya.
A backpacker’s hostel made easy exploring and we set off to the artists’ market, a vast walled structure with a warren of stalls selling everything from stuffed frogs to hammocks. Far more interesting was the municipal market and bus terminus. This dusty place was fascinating and where buses came and went in a seemingly chaotic fashion. The equally dusty market was jam-packed with traders, shoppers, food vendors, and scrawny-looking dogs. A place where one could find almost anything, from rice and beans to homemade cheese and handmade leather goods. Joining other Nicaraguans, we sat down to a plate of baho (plantain and beef stew).
I tried to get to Vulcan Masaya but could only find a guide for the following night. It was fun, and the guide’s English was slightly better than my Spanish. However, I considered his vehicle far from roadworthy. I sometimes doubted whether we would make it to the top as the drive was steep along a winding road. The poor car splattered and hiccupped but, eventually, we reached the lip of the crater. The Santiago crater is an active crater billowing out thousands of tons of toxic gasses causing acid rain and thus very little vegetation at the top. Folklore has it pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the area threw young women into the boiling lava to appease the goddess of fire. When the Spanish first arrived, they called the crater the Gates of Hell and placed a cross overlooking the crater hoping to exorcise the demons who dwelled within.
Equally interesting was the nearby bat cave, home to millions of vampire bats. Around sunset, these bats left the cave searching for food; an extraordinary sight.
29 June–2 July - Masaya – Managua - 30 kilometres
A short 30-kilometre cycle ride led to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, where we came upon a rather disjointed city. The city had been subject to many natural disasters; the latest being a devastating earthquake in 1972, which destroyed the city centre. Managua was rebuilt around outlying shopping centres and markets. As a result, it took cycling around before locating the “traveller’s area” close to the old town. Sadly, the old city centre was derelict, with just the remains of an old cathedral visible. Interestingly, the clock still showed when the earthquake hit - at 12h35 midday.
As always, Ernest needed bike spares but couldn’t find a shop selling decent-quality spares. However, we did get an address of one selling Shimano spares, but it was Saturday and already closed.
One of the exciting things in Managua was the Ancient Footprints of Acahualinca. These tracks consist of fossilised human footprints in volcanic ash and mud, solidified about 2,120 years ago. The footprints were buried four metres underground when unearthed and are still in perfect condition. The prints indicate a group of 15 people (men, women and children) en route to the lake. In addition to the human footprints, there are also deer and raccoon tracks.
One can’t go far in Managua without seeing a statue of Augusto Nicolás Calderón Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary and leader of a rebellion against Nicaragua’s US military occupation between 1927 and 1933. He was labelled a bandit by the United States government. However, his exploits made him a hero throughout much of Latin America, where he became a symbol of resistance to the United States’ domination.
3-5 July - Managua – León - 93 kilometres
The way to León, Nicaragua’s first capital, was significantly more challenging than anticipated. The road deteriorated and led along a hilly and potholed route. If I ever wondered what two tectonic plates smashed together looked like, this was probably it. I had no energy but battled along until reaching León, dehydrated and unwell.
León was very much a university town and graced by picture pretty restored colonial architecture. Construction of León’s most famous building (The Cathedral) began in 1747 and lasted over a hundred years. Today, the cathedral is the largest in Central America. According to legend, the city’s leaders feared authorities would turn down their original grandiose design and submitted a more modest but bogus set of plans.
6 July - León – San Isidro - 114 kilometres
From Leon, the road turned inland and headed towards the hills to San Isidro. Our day consisted of a slow slog up the mountain; mercifully, it came with a cloud cover and a mild gradient. To our dismay, San Isidro turned out considerably further than the signboards indicated. At first, the distance was expected no more than 90 kilometres, but the 90-kilometre mark came and went and still no San Isidro. Doubting whether on the right road, we eventually made it to tiny San Isidro and bunked down in a roadside hospidaje. Food was from a roadside eatery and we crawled in early as I still wasn’t feeling 100%.
7 July - San Isidro – Esteli - 30 kilometres
A short but hilly ride took us to Esteli, a seeming cowboy town where one could find handmade leather boots and oversized belt buckles. The land around Esteli is perfect for growing tobacco used in the making of cigars, and the town became a refuge for Cuban cigar makers following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Award-winning cigars made Esteli one of the truly important cigar-producing cities in the world.
In Esteli we went in search of these famous cigars, not an exceedingly difficult task. By evening, Ernest puffed away and declared it excellent quality.
Esteli was the scene of heavy fighting during the civil war against the Somoza government. Most of the town was destroyed during that time. Today, it’s a peaceful town featuring a few interesting murals reminding one of its not so peaceful past.
8 July - Esteli – Ocotal - 81 kilometres
Following a slow start, our route proceeded to the Honduras border. Being firmly in the highlands, the road continued to be hilly. I thought it amazing what a difference 1,000 odd meters can make. The weather was substantially cooler at elevation and the best part of the morning was spent cycling in a drizzle, making it cool enough to don a windbreaker. Fortunately, the hills weren’t too extreme, and we encountered as many descents.
A comfortable abode off the Pan-Americana Highway made an excellent overnight spot a mere 25 kilometres to the Honduras border.