As I decided not to do the Miraflor Reserve tour but had already paid for the night at my hostel, I had an extra day in Esteli in which to poke around as well as get some things done I needed to do. First off it was breakfast and coffee at my regular where I made enquiries about where to find a good hairdresser. There comes a point in one’s trip where one needs to address the issue of regrowth in one’s hair and throw a heap of chemicals at the problem. I used to really stress about getting my regrowth done in Central America, however, having had it done now four times in four different countries with good result, I am a bit more relaxed about it all. I get my hairdresser back home to write down the colour combination and formula and hand that to the local hairdresser.


The salon I was directed to was able to help out, however, had no water at that particular moment so suggested I come back in a couple of hours. Another job I needed doing was getting my travel sandals re-stitched as the canyon trip the previous day had not been kind to the job done on them in Leon. I found a shoe shine señor who also did running repairs and sat on his stool while he worked his magic on my sandals. As I sat, several other señors came by to have their shoes polished up. I was astounded at how these shoe shine señors could make the most scuffed shoe look amazing. My shoe shine señor asked if I wanted my sandals to undergo the same treatment and I readily agreed. After all they are leather and should come up nicely. As it was, they ended up looking almost as new and I pranced out of the Parque Central in my shiny sandals.


I still had some time to kill before I needed to return to the hairdresser so decided to check out the much touted Buffet Castillo which was closed first time I tried. This time, however, the place was humming and I waited in line with other locals. Food was served from large Bain Maries and one paid for it at the end of the counter, cafeteria style. I found a table and tucked into a most delicious meal. There is a reason that the locals crowd here at lunchtime and I was glad to have experienced it.


By this stage it was time to return to the hairdressing salon and see if the water had been restored. All being good, I handed over my little card and let the hairdresser work her magic. I was happy the water stayed on until it was needed for the rinse process or I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I treated myself to a blow wave and swanned out of the salon with soft, silky locks (all the same colour) for only AUD32! Happy days.


I still had time to have a bit more of a poke around Esteli so headed straight for the 1823 Catedral. There outside, stood a young girl in a pink gown accompanied by her mother, grandmother and two young attendants also in pink. This was a quinceañera ready to enter the cathedral to be presented to society as a woman. This practice of girls celebrating their fifteenth birthdays in such a manner is common throughout Latin America and is similar to a debutante ‘coming out’. The girls are escorted down the aisle of the church by their mothers to a special mass which is followed by a celebratory reception afterwards. They are commonly quite grand affairs if the family can afford it.


One of the things Esteli is famous for is its street art in the form of murals around the city. My last job for the day involved checking the bus timetable for where I wanted to go the next morning, as I was heading into a more remote section of the country and fewer buses plied these routes. I chose a different route to the bus terminal to see what murals I could find en-route. As it was getting dark by this stage, I made a note of ones I liked so I could take a photo of them the following day. At the bus terminal, I found an hombre that worked there and made enquiries as to when the particular bus I was seeking left the terminal the following day. He was busy chatting up a local girl and paid scant attention to my query but confirmed the times in my guidebook were correct. Thus armed with the information I needed, I headed back to my hostel for my last night in Esteli.

Estelí – Cañón de Somoto – Estelí

In Esteli one gets the 6 am air aid siren as well as the midday one, and today I was up with it! I had been told I needed to get the 7.15 am bus from a terminal that was about a half hour walk from the hostel, so set off in plenty of time to make the bus. The walk didn’t take as long as anticipated so I had time for some coffee before hopping on the bus.


All the other travellers that were going on the canyon tour were also on this bus and it felt strange to be on a local bus and not the only gringa for a change. I managed to get a seat up front which only had leg room for the person on the aisle side. A couple of locals checked out the vacant spot next to me and decided they neither could nor wanted to try to squeeze into the space. Eventually, a señor came along and I found myself sliding over into the legless territory with my feet where his should be. I managed with alternating between putting my right foot up on the wheel arch at intervals to regain what little sensation I could under the circumstances.


The bus roared along a relatively good road and amazing vistas revealed themselves at every twist and turn of the winding road. We were climbing deeper into lush forested hills, punctuated by verdant valleys. Tiny pueblos dotted the landscape and subsistence farmers eked out their existence in pockets carved out of the forest. Despite the discomfort of my seat, the trip was most enjoyable. Though circulation in one’s legs is not to be underrated.


I struck up conversation with my bus bud who was intrigued with my being from Australia. He told me he had broken his clavicle in a motorbike accident, then proceeded to show me an array of photos on his phone of his work and home. I had bought some plantain strips from one of the many vendors plying the buses at certain stops and shared them with my new friend. We munched on our snacks companionably as I answered his many questions about Australia.


We eventually pulled up at Somoto terminal and I was relieved to be able to get circulation back in my legs. A tall hombre by the name of Henry met us at the terminal and assembled his tour participants like a patient mother hen gathering her chicks. We walked over to the awaiting duel cab ute and I climbed into the tray with five others. It was fabulous whirling through the countryside from my windswept post. We pulled up at Henry’s property and the guides got us ready with life jackets and ensuring we had everything we needed. I handed over my camera in its snoop pouch for our guide to carry on his dry bag.


It was then a three kilometre walk to the start of the canyon, at first along the road where we passed horses and mules quietly grazing in their fields or on the roadside. We then turned off onto a dirt track which climbed a hill to give superb views of the river below and then down to the river itself. Volcanic boulders were everywhere. The whole area was basalt of various levels of degradation with the Rio Coco meandering through it all. This is the longest river in Central America and runs all the way to the Caribbean. A three kilometre natural gorge has been carved out with walls that close in to ten metres at its narrowest. There is a 160 m fall over the extent of the gorge which made for an interesting but fairly easy traverse.


We rock hopped, waded and swam the extent of the canyon, stopping occasionally for photos. At the end of the canyon we were all piled into a small rowboat and taken about another 500 m downstream from where we had another three kilometre walk back to the start. We passed a tiny casa on the edge of the river and had to dodge cattle slumbering peacefully on the track and one very contented pig having an awesome time snuffling in the mud at the edge of the river.


A steep hill which resulted in a magnificent vista of the river led to a Reserve checkpoint where we had to register our visit. Then it was just a short walk back to where we started. After changing into dry clothes, we went down for a hearty meal of chicken, rice and salad. A very welcome repast indeed! Two of the girls were staying on overnight, so the rest of us organised a lift back to the bus terminal to catch the 3.15 pm bus to Esteli. The bus everyone was catching was an express which was a bit more expensive and a lot more comfortable with individual seats which in some stage of their life had reclining capacity. The time was also shaved by about an hour as well.


Back in Esteli, I messaged Susie and arranged to meet up with her and Ana for dinner. I was planning on doing another tour into Miraflor Reserve the following day but it ended up being too difficult so decided against it. We found a fritanga to eat at and had an amazing meal of fresh local food. All too soon it was time to bid my two new friends adios as they were leaving in the morning. I hope to meet up with them both when I travel to Costa Rica on my next trip.


Had breakfast and fueled up on coffee at my favourite corner cafe before heading off to meet Susie and Ana for our cycling tour to the tobacco finca. I arrived to find Ana going over all the bikes with a fine tooth comb and rejecting several as not being up to scratch. It turns out she is a bit of a cycling enthusiast back home in Costa Rica, so knows a thing or two about a bike. I was happy to leave her to it as I only usually check seat height and whether the brakes work. After about an hour (nothing happens fast here…), Ana was satisfied that everyone on the tour had a bike of acceptable level and we took off.


We rode out of town along paved streets and then off down a dirt road which took a bit more focus to avoid separating oneself from one’s bike over dodgy potholes. That was the difficult part, as it was hard to focus on road hazards when there was so much spectacular scenery to take in. Tobacco fields in various stages of cultivation separated out the various cigar factories we passed. Rustic wood slab drying sheds were dotted over the countryside and everything was back dropped by jungle covered hills.


We crossed a stream and rode into the finca we were to visit. Our guide took us from section to section to meet local workers who manned that particular part of the growing process. We saw the seeding and the seedlings in the large greenhouses, then went out to one of the fields where another señor explained the planting out and eventual harvesting process. We also learnt a little of the history of the tobacco and cigar industry. Evidently, during the revolution Cuba lent significant support to the socialist FSLN movement which also included support in developing Nicaragua’s tobacco and cigar industry. After the revolution, the Cubans were allowed to stay and today have large partnerships with Nicaraguan tobacco and cigar manufacturers.


After viewing the drying shed and having the process explained, we mounted our steel steeds and rode back to town. As we had started so late, we had a slight delay to the start of our cigar factory tour, but as most of us were on the finca tour it didn’t really matter. The cigar factory we were taken to was just across the road from Treehuggers and was a small Cuban-Nicaraguan affair. We were shown the fermentation room (which if you came out of in a conscious state, you were doing well…) and a room about the size of an office tearoom where half a dozen women were sitting around a large table sorting the dried, fermented leaves and de-stemming those which had been missed. There was a lovely communal atmosphere around this part of the process, with the women chatting and sharing a laugh.


It was then on to the rolling room where the process of combining leaves into the final cigar takes place. A couple of dozen workers were seated side by side, combining the required leaves to make the different styles, sizes and brands the factory produced for. This was the final stage in the process and after rolling, the cigars were placed in a press in batches to compress further. Trimmed and finished with an outer sheaf, the cigars were then ready for packaging.


I was bemused to notice a couple of hombres choofing away on massive cigars whilst working, despite the ‘no smoking’ sign displayed on the wall. I asked one of the señors about this and he said one was only allowed to smoke the company’s cigars and these were provided free as the company believed it helped workers with the process if the knew what they were making. I’m not so sure it would have helped with their future respiratory health issues, but this is Nicaragua after all.


We were then taken to a small stockroom where a massive cigar was lit and passed around for all to sample. Whilst the communal stogie did the rounds, we were free to make purchases from the stockroom at ridiculously cheap prices. Although this was a fairly small operation by Nicaraguan standards, cigars were being produced for some of the finest brands in the world.


We thought we still had time after the tour to visit the Museum of Heroes and Martyrs and made our way there straight afterwards only to find it shut. We went around the corner to make enquiries and was told that the old woman who usually does the tours was unwell and hence the Museo was closed. Not deterred, Susie continued making further enquiries and we ended up in an art studio that focused on supporting youth art programs and street murals. A very interesting conversation evolved about their work and Susie and Ana took advantage of the offered tour of murals around Esteli the following day. I would very much have loved to have joined them but had my canyon tour already booked.


Susie then made enquiries at the fire station over the road from the Museo and spoke to an aged hombre whilst waiting. Susie asked him if he fought in the revolution as he looked about the right age. His answer was interesting. He said it was all in the past and he that doesn’t like to talk about it anymore. He just wants it to stay in the past and for everyone to move on with life. Whilst Esteli was a stronghold for the FSLN during the revolution, there still would have been people who did not support the FSLN or simply did not take sides but who would have experienced massive trauma despite this. He also could have been a disillusioned FSLN member who just wanted to put it all behind him. And who could blame him?


I went back with Susie and Ana to their hotel rooftop terrazzo where they met up with the son of a friend of Ana’s who now lives in Esteli. Caesar works in the cigar industry here but makes flavoured cigars which evidently are quite popular. He recommended a restaurant for us to go to for dinner which ended up being a great choice. A fairly early evening was in order for me as I had an early start the following day.


I found a great little cafe on the adjacent corner from the hostel and spent some time checking emails and enjoying a tasty breakfast and fabulous coffee. Nicaragua produces some of the world’s best coffee and here it is cheap and plentiful. My supply of dodgy Guatemalan anti-inflammatory drugs was running low and I wanted to make sure I didn’t run out in some remote spot, so found a sizeable pharmacy to see if I could stock up. They didn’t have any Bayer (first preference), nor dodgy Guatemalan (unknown quantity preference as Lord knows what else might be around!) but did have some slightly less dodgy looking Costa Rican ones which came in a pack of 30 so would last me until the end of my trip.


I wanted to visit Somoto Canyon which can only be organised as a guided tour, so went to a local NGO by the name of Treehuggers to arrange. As my knee was still nowhere up to scratch for such things, I wanted good, reliable information about the terrain, etc. so as to be able to determine whether I thought I would be able to do the trip. A woman sitting nearby overheard my questions and offered to help to ensure I was getting exactly the information I was after.


It turned out that Susie was a US expat now living in Mexico and was visiting Nicaragua with her Costa Rican friend, Ana. They were organising a cycling tour to a tobacco finca, then a tour of a local cigar factory. As that was one of the things I was looking at doing myself, I decided to join them the following day and postpone my canyon trip to the day after. As is typical of Central America, such things are not expediently organised and it was some time before all the arrangements were finalised. Susie and Ana decided to get a coffee while I finished organising my canyon tour and I joined up with them afterwards.


I went back with Susie and Ana to check out their beautiful hotel and amazing rooftop terrace with its incredible views over Estelí . A group of student nurses from the US were also staying there and helping out with regional clinics in the area. It seems Nicaragua attracts a lot of foreign support in terms of professional volunteering. I bid Susie and Ana buenas noches and took a wander down the streets of town for a comedor which took my fancy. I eventually found a fritanga which ticked all the boxes; cheap, typical and full of locals. I chose from the limited menu and sat down at a table. This is Nicaraguan eating at its best. Simple good food prepared on a large rustic wood fired oven facing the street. Just the thing to finish off my first day in beautiful Estelí.

El Sauce – Estelí

Time to leave lovely El Sauce and make my way further afield. Of course, I had to swing past my new favourite haunt for one last mixed fruit juice. The bus left from the tiny mercado so I just walked up the few blocks amidst the morning market bustle.


I found a bus that had Esteli proudly painted on its front and went inside to seek a seat. In Central America, if you want to reserve a seat on a bus, you just leave something on it and it is yours until you return. It’s quite a handy system and means not having to stay put on the bus until it leaves. A couple of seats were a little unclear as to whether they were taken or not so I asked a nearby señora if she knew the status of them. She very shortly told me that they were taken and flamboyantly waved her arms and pronounced that all the seats on the bus were taken and that I would just have to stand. Another, sweeter señora smiled and told me she thought the seat I was standing next to was free which pissed surly señora off no end. I decided to chance it and sat down, ignoring surly señora’s indignant huffs. Sweet señora just smiled and nodded reassuringly.


The bus pulled out and promptly pulled into the terminal a few metres away where the bus really filled up. I couldn’t understand why anyone would wait in a throng of people, jostling for position, when one could just have walked to the corner and secured a seat. But still, this is Central America where people will wait on the side of the road less than ten metres apart and the bus will pick them up regardless. The reserver of the seat next to me had returned to claim his seat before the bus left for the terminal, which was when we discovered a mystery bag which wasn’t his. I was starting to assume that maybe the seat I took wasn’t free after all but decided to just wait and see. The little grey pack was moved to the overhead rack and its owner came into play when the bus was chock full of people. I thought I might have been in for a bollocking for my brazen seat steal, but no, he was just after his pack and shitty that the bus was leaving early. I could relax after all. I glanced back at the two señoras; sweet señora smiled serenely, whilst surly señora scowled in a ‘Told you so, you ignorant gringa!’ manner.


I had hoped that my trip to Esteli would take me through more of this glorious mountainous countryside off the beaten track and was not disappointed. The bus rumbled out of town, along the same road I started wandering along the previous day and continued on through tiny communities nestled in the lush terrain. The condition of the road and the steepness of the terrain meant slow progress, but as it was considerably cooler up in highlands it was quite pleasant.


Eventually one could see the start of urbanisation which proved to be the outskirts of Esteli. I checked to see where we were in relation to Parque Central as the hostel I was heading for was close to that landmark. After nearly fours hours cramped on a bus, it was good to jump off and walk the remaining couple of kilometres. I found Hostel Iguana readily, however, it appeared to be closed down with a bolted metal door barring entry and no buzzer. I banged on the door several times and eventually a señora came to open it. I was shown to my room and met the manager, Heilo. He explained that he had just split with his girlfriend and she had gang connections who were giving him grief. Hence the total lock down. Great!


As I hadn’t eaten all day and it was getting late in the afternoon, I went out in search of food. The comedor Heilo had recommended was shut so I ended up at a little Mexican restaurant and had a very average baleados. I decided to buy some cervezas from the local supermarket to take back to the hostel and caught up again with Heilo and Carlos. I learned more about the ex-girlfriend; it seemed she was not the straightest chip on the plate and had a record for pimping, drug trafficking and armed robbery. Evidently, she did not take the break up well and cleaned out the premises of furniture and artworks. And got her her gang buds to frighten the bejesus out of Heilo.


The boys eventually went out and I retired to my room to work out what I wanted to do in Esteli. I was engrossed in something I was reading when I heard a “Señora”. Thinking it couldn’t be for me, I ignored it and kept reading. Again I heard the calling. Again, I looked up and saw no one. After the third time, I got up and went to investigate. There, in the doorway of an adjacent room across the patio, was an attractive señora in her 30s. It was she who had been calling out to me. She had tears in her eyes and the most forlorn look I had seen outside of a soap opera. As it was, she insisted on telling me her woes and I did indeed feel as if I had been plonked right in the middle of a Latino telenovela. My Spanish is conversational at best and definitely not up to self- analytical ‘why my life sucks’ level, so I did the universal ‘sympathetic nod at regular interval’ routine which seemed to satisfy her needs.


After what seemed an excruciatingly long time, the boys finally returned and took charge of the sorrowful señora for which I was extremely grateful. It turned out that Mariela was Heilo’s ex-wife and was going through a hard time. Heilo explained she had been taking cocaine and shouldn’t be as it brought her down too much. He spent some time trying to get her to get out of the room again and socialise as he said it would do her good. Both he and Carlos kept disappearing back into the room and there was no prizes for guessing what they were up to in there. It appeared I was staying in Casa de Crackhead.


I now had an party of three desperate to tell me their life stories. I found out that the actual owner of the hostel is Heilo’s brother, a successful doctor in the US (and I’m assuming not a habitual cocaine user). On a recent trip home to check on the hostel, he happened to come at a time when two French girls were off their face on who knows what and one had climbed onto the first floor screaming she was being abducted. At the same time, a Chinese girl had broken the toilet on the first floor and water was cascading onto the ground floor patio. Evidently, the brother took one look at the disarray, turned to Heilo and said “We’ll talk tomorrow.” That talk involved the brother saying he would split the property in two and give one half to Heilo to do with what he wanted as he wanted no more of what he saw the previous night. Since then, no money had gone into maintenance, (which showed) and the ex-girlfriend cleaning out the place also gave it an even more sorry feel. Eventually, I was able to excuse myself and retire to bed. I did make sure I locked my valuables in my pack though. Just to be on the safe side.

El Sauce

New Year’s Day loomed and I decided to take a walk out of town and wander in the countryside. But first, I had to go back to the juice bar to get another of their amazing concoctions and a sandwich. Duly fortified, I wandered down a road at the outskirts of town, crossed a tiny bridge and began my little trek.


Down at the river, one could see señoras washing clothes and children bathing. I passed the faded green cinder block cluster of buildings that was the local hospital, which signalled the edge of town and also the end of the paved road. Dust from the occasional colectivos, motorbikes and buses led me to veer off the main road as soon as I was able and take a track leading off between two fields.


The shaded path was far more tranquil and I passed a small hacienda with the usual assortment of fowl pecking and foraging in its general vicinity. Two señoras came along and seemed surprised to see a stranger in their midsts. When the track forked we went our separate ways and I continued on past a field of sugarcane. In another field further along, a small herd of cattle languished in the shade of a tree oblivious to the magnificent vista of the mountain range behind them.


A young boy on a bicycle passed me and pulled off at a tiny casa on the side of the track. An assortment of small children came out to greet him, then continued on with their play. I came to a creek and crossed on the stepping stones alongside the barbed wire fence. Further up, I passed another hacienda with numerous holding yards depicted by post tops painted a bright yellow.


Shortly after, my trek in this direction came to a halt as the path ended at a large, well presented hacienda, so I made the return trip back the way I came. As I reached the hacienda with the holding yards, two hombres on horseback were herding cattle along the track and into the yards. My presence must have disturbed their task and several of the cows started wandering back down the track towards me. One of the hombres broke off from the mob and wheeled them back around again into the yard. I made sure to get well out of their way so as not to disturb them again.


A group of young boys on pushbikes passed me further down the track and delighted in the fact that a stranger was in their midst. Clearly, they don’t get too many visitors to their little part of the world. Back on the main road, I walked up the hill back into town.


All that was left of the day was to do the mundane washing that travellers on the road need to occasionally do to ensure they are more socially acceptable by the general population as I was heading off again in the morning.


El Sauce

I awoke to the loud peeling of the church bells two blocks away. At first I thought it was someone’s alarm clock (the walls weren’t overly soundproof) and cursed them soundly when it went off again 15 mins later. I was yet to find out that the church’s bells are of an electronic type which is broadcast across town every 15 minutes. Why, I have no idea, as you couldn’t even check your watch by them as they were out by a few minutes.


I decided to have a wander around this interesting little town. El Sauce used to be a bustling railway town, but now the trains have stopped, this sleepy pueblo has diversified its industry to support the numerous fincas dotted in its stunning hinterlands. Pace of life here is of a more leisurely one, which was a pleasant change after the hectic cities of Chinandega and León. Señores and señoras ambled down streets, stopping regularly to chat to a neighbour who would be rocking serenely on his/her front porch. One couldn’t help but adjust to the pace of life here.


Wandering down one street, I came across a little comedor selling fresh blended juices. Choosing from the vast selection was the hardest part, but I threw my money down on a banana, pineapple and melon combination which did not disappoint. A little further on, I stopped a panadería (bakery) and randomly chose what ended up bring my first coconut bread of the trip. Walking along the outskirts of town with my little picnic was bliss.


As El Sauce is quite rural, an abundance of animals are free to wander the roads. I had to skip past a scavenging pig on more than one occasion and dodge the occasional cow. Hombres on horseback occasionally trotted through the maleé, thus completing the scene.


I ended up at the church of the never ending bells and sought refuge from the heat of the day. A service had just concluded and parishioners were slowly ambling out with a can of coke and a wrapped pastry of sorts. The pastry I got, but the can of coke left me scratching my head. I sat at the rear of the church for a bit, enjoying the coolness of the space and waiting for the church to empty so I could more respectfully take a gander. Like so many of the churches in these parts, ornate woodwork has been beautifully used to create simple but incredibly effective features. Long sheets of cloth hung vertically alongside posts and billowed gently in the breeze.


It was time to return to my little hotel and watch the crackers being let off in the street for New Year from the safety of the bar. A large family group was celebrating a young girl’s birthday and another group of hombres were enjoying the ambiance of the evening and encouraging the more adventurous of the group in his raucous dance routines. A pleasant and different way to spend New Year’s Eve.

Potosí – El Sauce

I was keen to escape the heat and head to the mountains so made sure I was well and truly ready for the 9.30 am bus. I plonked my pack on the rack above and helped myself to a plum seat up front to better to view the vista. We rolled out of town and returned down the badly rutted road; stopping at regular intervals to pick up passengers and/or cargo, or to drop off same. Young children would be waiting on the side of the road for the bus with empty containers, then travel a few kilometres to the nearest community in order to fill them and return back home on the next bus going in the opposite direction. Nothing moved fast here – not the people, the buses, nor the animals.


People and smaller cargo went inside the bus, larger cargo such as sacks of grain, beds, stacks of chairs and a fridge went up top. The bus filled and filled, then filled some more. By the time we hit the paved road again, I was sharing a seat with a señora with a baby on her lap and she was trying to keep the baby safe from the crush of people in the aisles. Just when I thought there was no way anymore people could possibly fit on this bus, the bus assistant would manage to squeeze more on. Not only that, but he somehow managed to make his way through the tightly packed throng to collect fares and return back to the front of the bus! The only one with any space at all was the man behind the wheel. In that moment, for all the world, I so wanted to be a Nicaraguan bus driver! Plus you also got to pick the tunes.


We eventually reached Chinandega and everyone piled off at a gas station. I wasn’t sure where we were as it wasn’t the Mercandito I caught the bus to the Peninsula from. I decided beyond anything else I needed to pee, so started walking to find a little restaurant. After turning the corner, I immediately recognised the little comidor I ate at last time whilst waiting for the Jiquilillo bus! It seemed the bus dumped its passengers a block away from the Mercandito, before venturing around the corner to collect the next batch. As it was now early afternoon and I hadn’t eaten all day, I tucked into another delicious meal from their bain-marie.


I decided to take a pedicab to the main mercado where the bus I needed left from. This gave me a completely different perspective of Chinandega than the cramped collectivo I took from the other direction several days earlier. I had to return to Leon to continue on to El Sauce, so was becoming quite conversed with the main bus terminal there by now. I found the bus to El Sauce and squeezed on the end of a seat towards the back of the bus.


We passed through fincas with majestic volcanos puffing away both near and far. This is the Maribios Chain which is the epicentre of the most active volcanic region in the world. Eventually, we turned off the highway and made our way north on an unpaved road. The terrain changed and we started climbing through foothills as we headed towards the Cordillera Dariense. We passed tiny little communities nestled into the forest, before eventually pulling into a small mercardo on the edge of El Sauce.


I had made inquiries from other passengers on the bus about hotels in town and a senor that was getting off in El Sauce as well, organised a pedicab driver to take me to a hotel in the price range I requested. Hotel Katy was clean and roomy with a private bathroom for USD10 so I was happy. Plus they had a dog and a puppy to play with! I organised to stay three nights as I was going to be there over New Years and I knew there would be no buses on New Years Day.


There was a bar/restaurant attached to the hotel, so after a quick wander around town, I settled in with a cerveza and a tasty meal. In the streets, local youths were letting off crackers in preparation for the New Year. The town had a friendly, chilled out vibe and the bar seemed the place for locals to hang out for a drink and a meal. I looked forward to exploring this quaint little town the following day.

Jiquilillo – Potosí

I had checked with Ernesto as to when the buses left and which one to take to continue on to Potosí, my next port of call. He recommended taking the 7.30 am bus as it would be the best for connecting to the Potosí bus. As Nicaraguan buses don’t always run to an exact timetable, this meant being ready on the roadside closer to 7 am in case one missed the bus.


As it was the bus came five minutes late and I hoicked my pack and self on board. Half an hour later, after slowly traversing the rutted road I came in on before, I got off where the bus turned on the main road to go to Chinandega. I had an hour to wait on the roadside bench which gave me plenty of opportunity to watch the passing traffic and all that prevailed. People came by in cars, on motorbikes and on horseback. A battalion of harvesting machines came by in two batches; each with one hombre driving and one hombre perched atop. A bus drove past with its interior packed full of people and its rooftop packed full of cargo; including one very unimpressed looking black sheep tethered to the struts.


Finally, my bus arrived and I jumped on board. I managed to score a window seat as the bus wasn’t overly full for a change. After about an hour, the bus turned off the main road and slowly made its way through the Reserva Natural Volcán Cosiguina. If I thought the road to Jiquilillo was bad, this was considerably worse. At one stage, more than half the road had been washed away and an aged tree with low hanging branches on the other side meant the driver really had to use his skills. As we lumbered slowly past tiny communities, one caught glimpses of everyday Nicaraguan life from the discomfort of one’s seat. All the while with the majestic Volcán Cosiguina overseeing the commotion. This used to be the largest volcano in Central America at over 3000 m, but El Volcán decided to blow its stack big time in 1835; the effects of which were far reaching. Nowadays it sits at a more modest 872 m which hardly earns bragging rights in this neck of the woods.


The bus kept filling and the temperature kept rising. Due to the slow movement of the bus, little airflow was available to provide any relief. Thus, one sat crammed into one’s seat hard up against the bus window stewing in one’s juices for the better part of an hour until we finally made it into the tiny fishing pueblo of Potosí. By this stage, I was grateful to escape my ‘sauna on wheels’ and get some air. The air outside may have been fresher but no less uncomfortable. The sun beat down relentlessly from atop a dead calm sky. Everywhere was hot, dry and dusty. I found lodgings for the night and decided to poke around the pueblo.


Potosí ended up being mainly one long dirt track echoing the curve of the beach, with a couple of adjacent tracks back up to the main paved road into town. I found the coast at the end of one of these tracks and had a brief wander over its pebbly volcanic beach. Potosí sits near the tip of the remote Cosiquina Peninsular and faces the Golfo de Fonseca. From the shore, one can see the neighbouring countries of Honduras and El Salvador on the other side of the gulf. Colourful fishing boats and ram-shackled wooden casas lined the beach, and a bright blue and yellow Nicaraguan Navel vessel sat out to sea.


Wandering back up the other track to the road, I passed a shady pool filled with locals cooling off from the searing heat. In Nicaragua, the locals generally go swimming fully clothed, so that’s what I did! I had stumbled upon the famous Potosi hot springs I had read about in the guidebook and not a minute too soon. I put my daypack somewhere inconspicuous, but where I could see it from the pool, and jumped in. The slightly warm water, shaded by giant leafy trees, was pure bliss and I spent the better part of an hour there.


I had intended to organise a guided walk up to and around the rim of nearby Volcán Cosiguina and made inquiries from a nearby small hotel. It seemed that the 2 – 3 hours quoted in the guidebook was one way only and I would need to be walking 6 hours in seating heat! Aside from the fact that I didn’t trust my knees to uphold their part of the deal, the idea of trekking for that long in this brutal heat was what really put me off, so decided against it. What I did decide upon though, was purchasing a chilled cerveza and availing myself of a mighty comfortable hammock under an obliging fan. And here I whiled away the next hour until things started to finally cool down a little.


I decided to have a little wander around what there was of the town. It would seem from the reaction of the locals, especially the children, that not many travellers get up this far. It was interesting to explore this little remote part of Nicaragua. The whole place had a strong community feel about it and it was lovely seeing the interactions between its members. As I passed one particular shack on the sandy track, I noticed a racoon tethered to a post. As I had never seen a racoon before, I stopped to have a look. The señora of the casa came over and told me his name was Pancita – Little Pancho. I didn’t ask if I could pat it. From its frantic pacing I decided the last thing I needed was a bite from a potentially rabid racoon.


I returned to the hotel I had had my siesta at for a most tasty meal of fresh pan fried fish. This, hands down, is my favourite dish at the moment. Especially with the smell of the sea in the air. It doesn’t make sense to eat anything else and the Nicaraguan señoras sure know a thing or two about pan frying fish. Que delicioso!


I awoke during the night to find a small kitten had crept in through a hole in the mosquito net and had decided to snuggle up. My little feline friend slept quite contently on me the rest of the night. I found out later that the kittens belonged to the property next door but had been spending quite some time at the hostel. Another one of the kittens decided to check out breakfast and had to be shooed away by the hostel cook who wasn’t quite as sympathetic to its cause.


Jiquilillo is on the edge of Reserva Natural Estero Padre Ramos. The wetlands of this reserve contain the largest remaining mangrove forests in Central America and are federally protected. I inquired about a boat trip through the wetlands as I wanted to take photos and wasn’t prepared to risk taking my camera on a kayak. The cook rang her son who rocked up half an hour later on his motorbike. When I told him I had a 250cc Honda, he was impressed as that apparently is a big bike in Nicaragua. Most motorbikes here are only 150 – 200cc. I grinned thinking my little entry-level bike back home was hotshot here in Nicaragua.


We walked to the edge of the river delta where the family’s 25 year old longboat, hewn from a single tree, was waiting on the beach. Ernesto used thick tubes of polypipe to roll the boat towards the shore and into the water. We putted around the river delta chatting and soaking up the scenery. Ernesto turned into a narrow waterway and we dodged low lying mangrove branches as he putted down an even narrower waterway to pull up on a muddy bank. Above was a small hill which we walked up for an amazing vista of the coast, the communities and the wetlands below.


Back down the hill we returned to the boat and continued putting around the mangrove forest. We stopped where another boatload of travelers who were part of a volunteer scheme to re-vegetate lost stands of mangroves were replanting. I was handed a bundle of mangrove stems to plant so added my little bit to help maintain this amazing oasis.


Back ashore, Ernesto asked if I liked fish as his mother (the cook at the hostel) did a mean red snapper. It seems that Mama feeds the hostel’s non-vego guests at her own home and I was quick to take up the offer. Ernesto pointed out his mother’s house so I could find it later and walked me back to the hostel. I was planning on renting a kayak so I could have a private poke among the mangroves, but found I could only do it as part of a tour, so declined.


After spending a couple of hours rummaging through the mangroves, a dip in the ocean and a chill out on one of the hostel’s many hammocks seemed completely in order. After all, It wasn’t called Rancho Tranqilo for no good reason.


An afternoon walk along the beach gave me a chance to explore this largely undeveloped fishing village. Evidently a tsunami completely wiped out the village in 1992 and tidal surges still take their toll on unprotected properties. I stopped off at Monty’s Beach Lodge and chatted to the owner’s daughter. Monty is a Canadian ex-pat who came down to Nicaragua ten years ago to set up a surf camp. These days the Lodge caters more for volunteer travelers ranging from doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and scientists of many different fields. All to support the community and help make it more self sufficient.


As it was getting later in the day, fishing boats were getting ready to go out. Each boat had a crew of about six people moving the boats on two well worn logs with a metal handle on one end to make it easier to move to the next position. When the boats were close to the water, the boat’s 75hp motor was wheeled down to it by another hombre and placed into position. The whole process was reasonably lengthy and quite relaxed with lots of breaks to wait for one thing or another to arrive. Eventually, the boats were rolled into the water and took off into the surf.


I continued my walk along the beach, past sparkling rock pools and a small rocky headland. Sea slugs were busy creating mantric patterns along the shoreline which glistened in the lowering sun. Out to sea, colourful fishing boats vied for better positions from which to harvest the ocean’s bounty. On the edge of the beach, thatch roofed shacks gradually gave way to lush vegetation. All was peace and absolute tranquility.


As was due to rock up at Mama’s house for dinner at 6.30 pm, I had time to grab a cerveza back at Rancho Tranquilo and watch the setting sun on the beach. One of Mama’s daughters came to collect me at 6.15 pm and walked me to the family house. Once there, I was sat at a table and presented with the most amazing meal of pan fried red snapper, rice, plantains and salad. There was so much food, I was struggling to get through half of it. Sitting in the breezeway of the family house, with family, dogs, pigs and chickens as my companions, I couldn’t have wished for a more blissful end to a perfect Nicaraguan day.