27th May – 2nd June: The geography of the Pacific side of Nicaragua is dominated by a chain of 10 volcanoes – some active – that march across the flat, fertile plain. It was alongside and around these impressive giants that we weaved and wound during our first days in Nicaragua – the largest country in Central America.
Our first destination was the colonial city of Leon, famed for its revolutionary sentiments. During the revolution the place was a Sandinista stronghold and today it is a university city that still holds on to its rebellious reputation. An easy place to while away a few days, we enjoyed wandering around and generally taking it easy – taking our cue from the locals who like to spend their evening hours on the street swaying to and fro on rocking chairs.
Some slightly more active highlights were a fleeting visit to the beach, and an entertaining afternoon watching Barcelona beat Manchester Utd in the Champions’ League – there were a bewildering number of Barce fans rammed into the tiny bar, it was so packed in the midday heat that I think I was sweating more than Wayne Rooney!
We were originally going to head directly for Lake Nicaragua and continue south but whilst in Leon we received an encouraging email from Martina of Radio Four Food Programme fame. She was enthusiastic about our idea to visit the cloud forests from which she sources her coffee and works on community projects. So off we went north-east in the direction of the mountains.
The road to Esteli was great – perfect volcano views, not much traffic, not much climbing. The sun remained like a red hot poker prodding us mercilessly, but with the promise of the cool mountains we were able to sweat and bear it.
So far we are really enjoying Nicaragua, and Nicaraguans who are friendly, honest and warm. In a rainstorm (yes, we’ve hit the rainy season) a family beckoned us in to shelter from the torrent, just as I was beginning to get a tad nervous about the fork lightening and biblical claps of thunder overhead. The whole household gathered to hear our story and tell us about their work mining gold by hand in the community. Backbreaking and dangerous work by all accounts. They even gave us some rocks containing gold (apparently) as a souvenir (thus forcing us to violate an absolute rule of cycle touring: never carry rocks in your panniers!)
Then there was Juan-Antonio who gave us more mangos than we could possibly eat, danced for us, invited us to his forthcoming birthday party, and coveted Ned’s cycling shorts! Strange, yet wonderful encounters of the cycle touring kind.
In the charming town of Esteli – famed for cigars and herbal medicines, I’m not sure if the two are related – we set about sorting out some mechanical problems. My front wheel hub bearings were gone, thankfully soon fixed for less than a quid in the local bicycle repair shack. Then, off to the enticing cool of the mountains of Miraflor…