Nicaraguan Style Goat Cheese

A Different Style of Goat Cheese

Place Taken: Tisey Reserve, near Esteli
Date Taken: October 27, 2008

During Nicaragua’s rainy season, the forests surrounding the city of Esteli get pretty wet. We were determined, however, not to let a little (or a lot) of rain keep us from seeing this beautiful part of the country. So we made two trips—one to the Miraflor Nature Preserve (which turned out to be a muddy disaster as we wrote about at the time) and one to the Tisey Reserve. Though the evening and night brought a lion’s share of rain, the day had breaks of sunshine, which we took advantage of, hiking up a nearby mountain for a 10-mile view and then walking to a nearby village where we were told they make excellent goat cheese.

By the time we arrived at the village our mouth was nearly watering as we thought about the creamy, white, spreadable goat cheese that we know and love. But that’s not what we found when we got to the goat farm; what we found was hard rounds of rinded cheese. We went for it anyway. It turned out that we didn’t like it as much as the creamy stuff, but it wasn’t bad. Right after we purchased it, the rain began to come, so we enjoyed the cheese with some bread while tucked away in the village general store, where the friendly owner provided us with a cutting board and knife. The rain would last the rest of our time in Tisey, but it wouldn’t ruin the trip. We could still lay in the hammock on the porch of our cabin and listen to the frogs, and that evening we met another couple also visiting the reserve. The guy was from Nicaragua, the girl from Spain, and our entire conversation was in Spanish, a major accomplishment for me as I’d just finished my first and only week of Spanish lessons.

Toothbrushes Galore!

Toothbrushes all in a row

Place Taken: Altagracia, Ometepe, Nicaragua

Date Taken: Oct 15, 2008

While visiting the Si a la Vida kids to deliver the goods we brought from the US for them, we got the “grand tour” of their facility to see how they lived. They were amazing kids with such spirit, creativity and charm. Compared to their previous lives of glue sniffing and homelessness, they must’ve thought their shared rooms and single shared sink were fantastic, but two days out of the US, it was a bit shocking to us. Their row of toothbrushes lined up on the courtyard wall next to their shared sink was emblematic of that for us and made for a really colorful picture.

Nicaragua’s Karate Kids

Karate Kids in Leon

Place Taken: Leon, Nicaragua
Date Taken: October 31, 2008

We entered a cultural center in the university town of Leon, checking out the various artworks hanging on the wall, including a very anti-American depiction of Ronald Reagan from the Contra era. We browsed through the collection of craft items for sale and read a few fliers for music and poetry events. Then we walked out the backdoor into a courtyard. As we enjoyed the little oasis, local kids began to drift in, entering a room open to the courtyard where karate lessons were about to begin. While waiting for the class to start, two of the kids wandered out in their white outfits and yellow belts and made their way over to a large, brightly colored mural on the courtyard wall. As they stared, seemingly contemplatively at the mural—a common feature throughout Leon—, we snapped their photo.

R and R

After a grueling 3 weeks in Nicaragua…okay, there really wasn’t that much that was grueling about it, except for maybe the cold showers and that rat that invaded our bedroom one night…we decided to end our stay in this beautiful Central American country with a few days at the beach. Appropriately enough in a country chock full of volcanoes, Las Penitas, the beach we went to near Leon, was a black sand beach, that burned the heck out of your feet. As with most Pacific Ocean beaches, the water was rough and the waves were huge and popular with surfers. The water was however, in contrast to most of my experiences with the Pacific Ocean, not freezing cold and actually felt really great, especially considering how hot the sun is in Nicaragua.

A couple of hours in the sand and the surf and a mojito or two (we had to try the local rum!), and we were nice and relaxed (since let me tell you…permanent vacation is rough). So being all relaxed and having nice hammocks all around us for a leisurely day of reading, what did we decide to do with ourselves on day two? Well, wake up at 5 a.m., rent a kayak, and paddle around for 6 hours, of course. What else would you do?

In the early morning sunlight, we paddled through a lagoon created by an island that is now a nature preserve. Herons, egrets, and other large beautiful birds flew low over the water. Blue and orange crabs clung to the roots of the mangrove trees that grew dense along the lagoon. Tiny fish leaped in and out of the water. And somewhere caymans lurked, though we never did see one.

After a few hours of paddling, we tied up our kayak and scrambled across a narrow portion of the island to the crashing waves of the ocean on the other side. We looked as far as we could see in both directions, and yet saw no one. We had the entire beach to ourselves. So we waded in the water, searched among the many shells that washed ashore for the best of them, and watched tiny hermit crabs scuttle along the sand. When the tide had gone out, we returned to our boat, making the return trip with the current in our favor, a good thing since the sun had become quite intense.

After all the paddling, swimming, and sunning, I was wiped out, but Jeff still had a bit of energy to spare, so when darkness descended he headed back to the island, this time with a park ranger and a very specific goal—spotting one of the sea turtles that come ashore on the island to lay their eggs. (And here, in his words, is that experience…)

Six men per week live out on Isla Juan venado during the week, and their job is to walk the beach at night and look for turtles laying eggs. They then collect these eggs after the turtles have left and move them to a “vivero” where they can safely incubate. When they hatch, they are released at night so they have a better chance of survival. My guide and I (I was the only one interested in turtle watching, apparently) set off early in order to see the release of some of the young ones that had been born that day. Beyond that, “necesitas tener suerte” – a little luck was in order.

We headed out to the island slightly before dusk and by the time we reached the vivero (hatchery) and the tiny turtles, it was pretty well dark. Even so, they were impossibly tiny and soft. And when they were set on the sand, they just sat there, somewhat bewildered. Eventually they got the idea and stumbled off toward the ocean. Then they disappeared.

Then we set off down the beach, my guide and I on a romantic evening stroll.  There is something quite maggical about the beach at night, especially in Nicaragua, where the entire sky is lit up with stars.  The soft moonlight illuminates the crashing waves, the cool sand, the way every ridge in the sand casts dramatic shadows.

We walked for about an hour down the beach, with me turning on my flashlight constantly looking for turtles. Its only after I give up on seeing one and we turn around that I realize how silly it was to be so actively looking for one. About five minutes back toward the vivero, there is a giant shadow of disrupted sand leading directly up the beach. At the end sits a giant lump, and its abundantly clear, tengo suerte. The turtle has just started digging a nest, and is throwing out sand with strained effort. My guide tells me we must be very quiet because at this point if we are noticed, it will leave without laying eggs. We sit patiently and wait until the sand stops flying and the turtle starts laying. At this point, there is no turning back for the turtle.

We observe this much closer, then watch as the turtle slowly fills back in the sand and does what I think is the coolest part. It scoops sand in, then leans to and fro on its belly a bit like a rolling pin, compacting the sand. Following this ritual, the turtle ambled back off toward the sea, and within one wave hitting it, was gone.

That was the only turtle we saw all night. In a way, I liked it that way. Many would’ve been neat to see, but I wouldn’t have studied it as closely, watched the whole process through. And it felt like something I had to earn with all my walking, a just reward. It really was an amazing process to watch, and I’m glad I went (and made my guide walk so long with me). It was a pleasant way to end Nicaragua.

“Volunteer Work”

At 4:15 AM we met, had breakfast, walked outside and promptly waited an hour for the bus (yes, this was the day we waited longer on the return trip). What, might you ask, would compel us to do such a silly thing? Well, the first thing being that since the sun usually rose around 5:30 AM and set around 5:30 PM, we were pretty used to going to bed early and getting up early. The second was that we had Nicaragua’s most active volcano to hike!

Cerro Negro is not the tallest of Nicaraguan peaks, about 700 meters (2100 feet) above its surroundings, but it erupts often. During our ascent, we walked past the crater formed in 1968 up to ones formed in 1995 and 1999. Since it’s so active, it is completely surrounding by loose black lava rock and almost no vegetation, making the ascent harder and hotter.

Our tour group spent about four hours getting up the mountain, weaving our way up the side, then into the large crater filled with fumaroles (Theresa was not a fan).

The view from top was fantastic, allowing all the volcanoes on Nicaragua’s rim of fire to be viewed in a near straight line.

Now here’s the fun part about this hike … the way down. Really, you run. Straight down. All the way down. You can “sandboard” down it too (think snowboard on rocks), but we just ran. It took literally five minutes. All the work getting up the mountain undone in mere minutes. But that said, it was an exhilarating five minutes, barreling down a 45 degree slope. I still maintain a log roll was in order. Or somersaults.

But at this point, you may be wondering why this adventure would have the title “volunteer work.” Allow me to explain. Our hike organizer, QuetzelTrekkers, is a non-profit organization in Guatemala and more recently in Leon, Nicaragua. They arrange hiking tours like the one we did using volunteer guides, local transportation and local markets to supply food. Therefore, they keep their costs lower than other tour operators with their own vehicles and have a positive impact on the community and local commerce. Meanwhile, more of the money we pay for the guide can go to local charities. They work closely with organization providing assistance to street children, but have recently expanded their reach into other areas as well. Check out their website and goals, I find the whole concept to be very cool — even if the bus sometimes doesn’t come.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round…Except When They Don’t

In the 3+ weeks that we’ve been in Nicaragua, I’ve ridden more school buses than I think I have in the rest of my life combined. You see, I was a car rider when I was in school, so I only hopped aboard school buses for field trips. But in Nicaragua, the good ol’ Blue Bird school bus is the standard mode of transport. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the bright yellow bus of your childhood, well, my friend, it’s been reincarnated in Nicaragua. And it’s seeing things it’s never seen before.

For starters, it’s seeing way more people onboard than it ever thought possible. You think those seats are made for two people in each one? Ha, think again. Three minimum. And that’s three adults. If you’ve got kids, you can fit way more than three. And what was that nonsense about keeping the aisles clear. No, sirree, the aisles aren’t for safe passage. They are for jamming with people. As many as can fit. We’re a friendly people here. Your hand smooshed up against her boob is no problem at all.

The modest school bus is also seeing life as a courier of not just people, but things. Have a bike you need to get to another town? Just throw it up on top. Want to take 50 lb bags of rice to your village? Those go in the back. Smelly fish? A chicken? An entire trunkload of goods you want to sell at market? No problem. Wherever they can fit is just fine.

Oh and about that no drinking and eating rule. That was just a joke. Eat and drink all you want. Eat the corn cakes that the lady hawks to you at the station. Drink the sodas served in plastic bags that the young boy who got on last stop and will get off next stop is shoving in your face. Then when you’re done with your chips and your candies, your plaintains and your refrescoes, just throw the trash out the window. I mean, it’s not like there’s a trash can on the bus and who would even think of holding on to it all the way to your destination.

And while we’re throwing rules (and trash) out the window, the one about walking while the bus is in motion can go. If you can’t walk around while the driver drives, then how can you make sure the entire bus hears your infomercial on protractors or Icy Hot? And don’t bother waiting for the bus to come to a complete stop before exiting or entering. You might not get to get on or off if you do that. The bus has a schedule you know…though maybe you don’t, since the bus has probably never shown up when the schedule said it would.

But hey, just wait…seriously, just wait, it will come. It always comes. Well, okay, almost always. Just not that one time when it broke down in the road only about 2 km from where you were waiting for it for an hour past when it was supposed to come. But hey, like the bus driver said, when you saw him under the hood of the bus as you rode past in the back of the pick-up truck that transported you instead, the bus was still coming. You just needed to wait a little longer. And then, as always, you would have a most excellent experience on the Nicaraguan transport of choice…the good ol’ Blue Bird school bus.

Goin’ Muddin’

As I understand it, “goin’ muddin'” means taking your truck and driving it off-road through really muddy land. Apparently, for some people, this is an exceptionally good time. I don’t happen to be one of those people. I just can’t figure out what about that experience is appealing.

But on a trip to Miraflor Nature Reserve, I did it anyways. But I forgot the car part. I just took myself, sans car, muddin’. I slipped up and down muddy hills. I made tracks through long muddy stretches. I got stuck in mud that threatened to suction off my shoes. I splattered mud all over myself. And yeah, I still don’t get the whole “muddin'” thing.

So why did I do it you ask? Well, there’s not really a simple answer. You see, Miraflor has been on my list of places in Nicaragua I want to visit since we decided Nicaragua made the cut. Miraflor is a unique place in that it’s not an actual park or government reserve, but rather a collection of private land that the owners have collectively decided to open up to visitors—by hosting homestays, by opening small guesthouses, and by providing guide services. The land itself is supposedly some of the most beautiful in the country—home to orchids, butterflies, waterfalls, and cloud forest. I, unfortunately, can’t really confirm this, because we went in rainy season and this is one place where rainy season isn’t just an afternoon thunderstorm but a somewhat prohibitive rain, rain, and more rain season. It’s wet. Like soaking wet. And all the dirt is mud. And all the waterfalls are dirty, muddy waterfalls. And it’s cold (up in the mountains and all). And the showers—if there are any at all—are cold water only. So visiting in the rainy season is a wet, cold, muddy experience.

So again, why did I do it? Well, um, because no one told me it would be that muddy. Because I was hopeful that it wouldn’t be that bad. Because I’m stubborn. Because, damn it, I wanted to go to a Miraflor and I was here now in the rainy season and I don’t know if I’ll ever be here in the dry season, and I wasn’t just going to sit on my butt and not do it, you know. So I did it. And I got wet. And muddy. Very, very muddy. And I didn’t have the time of my life. But I did have an okay time. And I didn’t melt. And eventually I got clean…I think…though I can’t completely vouch for inside my ears.

Masaya: Not What I Was Bargaining For

Last Thursday, once class was over and we had consumed one of the always enormous lunches provided by our host family, Jeff and I hopped the bus to Masaya, a nearby town famed for its markets. Jeff had been before but he hadn’t really said much about them except that he’d bought his hammock there. From what the guidebooks said and what others had mentioned in passing, I was under the impression that the old market—the one most highly recommended—was a place where artisans from all over Nicaragua set up shop and sold their goods: handwoven hammocks, carved wooden figurines, ceramic bowls and vases, and much more. I was pretty excited because, even though I wasn’t planning to buy anything—the backpack is full enough as is—I love looking at crafts and talking to the artisans who make them. I was expecting an arts and crafts fair with Central American flavor.

Well, boy was I disappointed. What I found instead was a sterile building with stand after stand selling the same exact things. In fact, they weren’t really stands at all; they were more like little shops. And the people who ran them weren’t artisans, but shopkeepers. They didn’t really know anything about the pieces or have any experience working with the crafts themselves. It wasn’t at all what I expected; instead it was prettily packaged tourism.

So we walked through rather briskly, glancing at variations on the same thing over and over, and then took a walk through the town to a malecon (or boardwalk) extending above the nearby Laguna. Luckily, it was rather scenic, providing a bit of saving grace to an otherwise disappointing trip.

I think I once heard someone say that you can’t win them all. Turns out they were right. But since we seem to win way more than we lose, I guess I can’t really complain. Chalk it up to experience.

Walking in the Clouds

Its not too often you can hop a bus into the clouds. But that’s exactly what we did last week as an easy day trip from Granada, riding the bus from the entrance to the Volcan Mombacho Reserve directly to the shrouded top. The top remains semi-permanently in a cloud from the moist air from Lake Nicaragua hitting the steep cliffs of the volcano. This results in what they call a “cloud forest.” I just call it neat and think its fun to walk around in.

They had a lovely path that wound around the main caldera, with vistas looking both ways, into the crater and out across Lake Nicaragua and Granada. If there were no signs to tell you what you were “looking at” however, it wouldn’t matter, since they all looked just like this.

But what all this cloud cover did was make everything look creepy and incredible all at the same time. Even simple trees took on new imagery. It didn’t hurt that the constant cloud cover provided a very moist environment that epiphytes apparently love.

The end point of our hike was a series of “fumadores,” emanations of steam from the earth. Given the conditions, however, these were tough to separate from the rest of the cloud until you were right in its sulfurous path. But from this western edge of the volcano, facing the lake, you could strongly feel the wind pushing up and over the mountain, and any body parts facing the lake collected cloud, like my arm.

All in all, it was a very surreal experience, but fascinating. Here’s a few more pictures to round it out.