The guy working the reception at Tortuga Booluga is definitely either high, hungover, or both. Probably the former as he wasn't too bothered by "our" indecision over whether to take a private room or a dorm.
Following on from the sleeping debacle in Guatemala City, I can't believe it's even a discussion, and as we're quickly shown to our room, Carly declares "you decide". Fine, private room it is then. "Are you sure? It's your decision." Yup, we'll take this room. "Do you think we should see the dorm?" You can look at the dorm of it makes you feel better, I'll leave my bag in here though. We check the dorm, it looks fine, but I really want to be able to sleep and lay my stuff out everywhere, so as per the original decision... private room.
After a refreshing swing in the hammocks, and a near total unpack of our kit onto the 5 beds at our disposal, it's time to get out and see what Leon has to offer, and it's pretty nice - I'm already liking Nicaragua more than Guat. Plus it has free pancakes for breakfast...oh yeah!
After a couple of hours wandering, and sampling local drinks in plastic bags,
...and what appeared to be a massive supermarket shop completed for just $10, we make our way to the Myths and Traditions museum. Entrance to this former prison turned showcase of curious art is a mere $2, inclusive of an English speaking guide. That description is generous, as while our friendly guide had carefully learnt the speech for each display, he clearly had no understanding of what he was saying, and neither did Carly. Admittedly you had to work pretty hard as he was pronouncing each syllable the way that it would be in Spanish, which led to some pretty bizarre descriptions, the best one being the "shark of death" when we were looking at a papier-mâché model of a skeleton horse drawn carriage full of more skeletons. After checking 3 times what this was Carly accepted that it must somehow represent a shark of death, and only when the guide had stopped his little speech for this room could I translate for her - Chariot of Death (obviously!).
Few pics of the rest of the museum...highly entertaining!
This next one is only one third of her normal size, she is a puppet used in the parade where the woman represents the very tall, sexy and big busted Spanish women and he man, (see above) is short with a massive head (big brains)... Would love to be a part of any of those parades where the parody created by the local people laughing at the Spanish conquerors has become such a part of Nicaraguan festivals.
Next up, first haircut of the trip for RD, as up to this point I was in danger of turning into a fluff ball. Grade 2 all over, including the beard, and I'm much closer to being a smarter human being again, or I would be if I could remember the last time I showered, or if my process of selecting clothes for the day didn't include a hearty sniff of each item to test it's road worthiness.
As we leave the barbers, the heavens open and we retreat back inside for shelter. Enough rain is falling to set off car alarms, but every time we think we'll have to make a run for it, it suddenly rains even harder.
Eventually we can't wait any longer, and run as fast as flip flops will allow through the rivers that were formerly roads. Not to the hostel though, as we've spotted a bar on the corner called The Gecko which promises 2 for 1 happy hour margaritas. In Guat, happy hour basically meant that you paid the same price for 1 drink, but got 2 of them because they split it between 2 much smaller glasses. Here, it's done the way it should be, and we're quickly presented with 2 enormous frozen margaritas for £1.50. And half an hour later, 2 more. The barman doesn't even seem to mind that I'm openly wringing out my T-shirt over their recently cleaned floor.
We can't stay here drinking cocktails forever though (actually, we could!), we have plans for tomorrow and need a hearty meal, so we return to the hostel to cook up a feast with the shopping from earlier. Given the supplies and facilities available, the spag bol that CP conjures is nothing short of incredible, and the guacamole fashioned from the biggest avocado I've ever seen was a perfect accompaniment. It's been a long day, and there's just enough time to book us on to the activity for tomorrow - sandboarding down the volcano Cerro Negro...
We'd already booked on to a sandboarding tour through the hostel, but within 10 minutes we've met a couple of German girls also staying in the hostel, and they tell us about a different company, which does the same trip, but where all the profits go to special projects within the community... and you get a free t-shirt, which if we're honest, was the real deal breaker for us. By the time we're leaving in the morning (after an excellent breakfast of pancakes and fruit!), we realise that of the 12 people on the tour, 7 are from our little hostel.
We bundle into the back of a pickup truck, and pass the time on the hour long trip by spotting chickens, pigs, cows, and other fauna as we bounce around on dirt tracks, the dirt getting progressively more like volcanic rock as Cerro Negro looms ever larger in front of us. Our guide, Logan, tells us that he's only been here a week, and only done the sandboarding once, but we shouldn't be concerned...
They call it sandboarding but I'd call it sledging. There's no danger of standing up on this thing, which is essentially a piece of ply wood with a metal and/or formica sheet screwed on to one side. And this will carry us at "up to 70kph" down a rocky and steepening slope. First though, there's the hike up there. Spurred on by the excitement, we set a reasonable pace, stopping occasionally to allow any stragglers to catch up. Pretty quickly it's clear than one girl is struggling, whenever we move she's immediately 100m behind and going backwards. I stop, offer to carry her board, but she refuses. Another 100m later (for the rest of us) and she's barely moved, so I go back and take the board off her (hero mode), start walking with her, but she sends me on ahead.
While waiting some more, we tell the guide we don't think she will make it... he tells is that's bad news, because as there's only one guide, if one person turns back, we're all going back... er no!
It takes an hour to get everyone to the top, but we make it, views from the top are spectacular, both into the crater and out into the surrounding countryside.
Logan goes through the safety guff. Along with our boards we've also carried up a pack each which contains an ill fitting boiler suit, some gloves with holes in most of the fingers, and a set of goggles that you can't see much (anything) through but should at least stop the worst of the sand and rocks going into your eyes. At the top we see other tour groups, some of which have knee & elbow pads and a bandana to cover their faces. The bandana seems like a good idea, the rest isn't going to do anything to help if you crash anyway.
Final information from Logan - there's a left route and a right route, we'll be going from alternate sides depending on the signal he gives us from his position halfway down the mountain. I happen to be first to go down the left route... after an inauspicious start where the board repeatedly dug into to the deep stuff and I had to get off 6 times to empty the crap off it and try again, I got up what initially felt like some reasonable speed, before definitely getting off track and on to some much lumper stuff near the bottom. As I come to a stop having missed the run off area by about 30 metres, I'm thinking it was "alright" but nothing special. Then as I'm making my over to the run off zone I realised that my hearts going pretty fast so maybe it was pretty good?!
When the next guy comes down the left route he has the same troubles as me at the start but manages to stay on line to the end, at which point a guide from another tour company comes running over to tell that this is "CRAZY!" - what?! He explains that the "left route" that Logan has directed us to is a new pathway that has been made for people to walk swim, isn't safe (hardly any run off area, curved - hence me going off line, and hasn't been cleared of the larger rocks so it's too dangerous for us to be boarding), and that in 5 years of being a guide here he hasn't seen or heard of anyone boarding that route... FFS!
We can't do anything about alerting the others at the top, so we trudge off to the end of the correct routes where the run off area is massive, and the people there (including Carly) are busy revelling in the stories of their downhill adventure and passing around a couple of beers.
CP had managed to acquire the beers by offering other group who had the beers any amount of money (which incidentally, she had none of and was hoping the others in our group had some), whatever it cost, in exchange for the beer, but money was not needed as they had seen her crash out spectacularly and gave three massive bottles of beer to us out the goodness of their hearts...we've never appreciated a beer so much! Carly has managed to stack it spectacularly on the way down, after heading down straight after me on the right hand side. She got up some wicked speed and then slid off about half way down. The googles were doing nothing to keep the black rock and sands out and were actually a hinderance in seeing anything at all, so it was slide and hope at times! After the first slide out, CP was back on and heading straight down at epic speeds.... So much so that about 15m from the bottom, she crashed out spectacturarly, including no less than 3 airborne somersaults, gloves being flung 20m, bag breaking and goggles lost, but other than a broken camera (thanks for that!) she has no noteworthy wounds to show for it and her sunglasses survived somehow - maybe the boiler suit did it's job after all?
Alright, so maybe my ride wasn't so bad - blazing a new trail including going off course, so yeah, I'll share that beer, celebrate our survival! When everyone's finished and back to the bus where we can get some lunch, we're asked if anyone wants another go - a couple of us from the wrong route had said we might do it, but no one really wanted to climb for an hour just for a few minutes of action. One by one we all said we weren't fussed, and it looked like it wouldn't happen, until I asked a guy from French Caledonia called Thibault who was staying at our hostel if he was keen, and he gave a very Gallic shrug and said "well....". My reply surprised even me: "fuck it then, let's go back up!"
Next thing there's 6 of us grabbing boards and heading for the climb. CP decides that she's probably used one of her 9 lives already and politely declines another chance to cheat death, so for once the roles are reversed, and CP stays behind as I head off for another dance with the devil.
With none of the slower climbers in the group, we're blasting up the climb, no stopping, no pissing about, and we're there is less than 30 minutes. We needn't have bothered as there a big group taking an age to get down the slope so we're in for a wait anyway. In the meantime Logan sets us a task - apparently there are 5 countries in the world which if you write their names in capital letters, you can't colour in any of the letters... Go!
Finally we're ready to go again, and having now seen the correct left/right runs, it all makes a lot more sense! Meanwhile a tour group of locals are doing the same thing, but with no safety kit. Instead the are going in short shorts and skimpy vest tops... predictably a woman wrecks as she hits the steepest part - from the top we see her disappear then an arm and a leg appear as she gets airborne and takes a big tumble... when she finally clears out the way, we launch ourselves down the volcano one by one, this is more like it! According to strava, I hit 48kph (vs a paltry 27 before crashing out and sliding for a while without the board, OUCH! Some decent wounds on an arm and a leg but I clamber back on and finish the run - no beer at the bottom this time, but I feel like I've earned that free t-shirt! CP definitely earned the shirt and we both felt very satisfied with our efforts, although I'm not sure CP liked waiting around with the "girls" whilst I went off to have more fun for the second run...
Back in Leon, and it's time for some more sedate pass times - we visit the cathedral, normally a place of peace in any city, but in this case a deafening echo chamber due to the ice cream truck bicycles that parade around Parque Central.
Having seen (and heard) enough, and devoured the remaining spag bol from the day before, we retired to the gecko for more of the happy hour margaritas.
Spurred on by a couple of guys from the sandboarding, we made our way to another bar where we sampled a Michelada for the first time. This is a "beer cocktail" that I'd heard about before getting to Central America, but this was our first one... it's a beer, served with ice, in a salt rimmed glass, with salt, pepper and tabasco mixed in. It's an acquired taste, but now another thing added to the "stuff to try back home" list. CP was concerned about the fact that salt and pepper was being added to her beer and she was being charged for the privilege, but it had to be done.
After that, it was back to the hostel - we have an early start in the morning which should be a bike tour of the city, which we've been trying to organise since we arrived here. The bike tour comes with a 7am start, so we're up at 6:15am, missing breakfast, and RD is grouchy! Even more so when we get to the alleged start point of the tour to find it deserted, with no signs of life there off a very long time. We did at least get to experience the cathedral at its tranquilo best, and got back to the hostel for another pancake and fruit breakfast.
Since we were up early, we figured we'd make the most of the morning and check out the revolutionary museum before our bus to Granada. Here we managed to learn about the history of Nicaragua and Leon, the national war, and the civil war (as recent as 1979), and our guide was so good that we'd already decided to tip him when he told us that they didn't do tips, but we could buy the DVD that they make detailing the revolution, and featuring live footage of the assassination of a deposed dictator, Samoza... we haven't watched that yet...
This was probably one of our most insightful activities, as not only did we leant about the very recent, and continuing struggles of the Nicaraguan people, but we saw the charity of the city of Leon first hand, with the museum also acting as a homeless shelter, giving basic food, shelter and medicine to those living on the streets. Our guide was even able to identify and give the stories of the various individuals we had seen on our explorations round the city, obviously knowing intimately their situations and lives (for example, we had given a bit of money that morning to a man who was pulling himself along the pavement with his bare hands as he had only one leg. He had not been asking for money but he definitely looked like he needed it. Our guide told us that the guy was homeless, but it was by choice and that he had lost he leg because he had fallen asleep drunk on a railway track and been run over. He had been given wheelchairs (no less than 7 over the years) and clothes but always sold them so he could buy more booze...still, the museum helped him out when he needed it and imposed strict rules when he slept inside, no alcohol etc. it's always the stories of a city that gives you the real insight...
Back to the hostel to meet the German girls (Michelle and Sabine) who we will travel to Granada with, and off we go!
Cameras broken: 1 (RDs camera, broken by CP)
Answer to the 5 countries...: FIJI, YEMEN, LIECHTENSTEIN, CHILE, SEYCHELLES