Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Leaving our hearts in León

When one adventure ends, another begins. After spending three months in Mexico, my plan wasn't to go home straight away, no way! Mexico is only a few steps away from Central America, a region I've associated with volcanoes, national parks and natural beauty, so I knew that once my internship ended I'll be heading there. My excitement to explore C.A. started even before I left for Mexico. I spent my last day in Mexico in Guadalajara before hopping on a plan straight to Panama to make my way to Nicaragua, my introduction to Central America.

Our first stop: León! 

León is the second biggest city after the capital Managua: A university town that is rich in culture and history ... and near the Maribos volcanic chain, so it's not surprising that are first on our itinerary. León was originally the capital of Nicaragua and still shows signs of historical revolutions and civil wars in forms of bullet marks and museums.

We spent our first evening in the town square. We sat on the steps of cathedral and watched the town of León. Children on bikes, couples on benches... Leon was probably the most foreign place I've been to (I knew very little about Nicaragua's history and current affairs compared to other countries I visited) but the scene in front of my was so homely. On my first full day in Nicaragua, we spent walking around the city centre with the Lonely Planet Walking Tour as our guide. There's an abundance of churches and small museums in León, which was perfect for taking a break in the shade from the intense dry heat. 

Volcano boarding in Cerro Negro 

...Was the highlight of trip, hands down. When we discovered that volcano boarding in León exists, we knew we were going to do it. Before we ascended the volcano, we were given a talk about how much we will be hiking, how to hold the boards (Fehn and I scoffed at when she warned us that she's seen small girls being flown off at the top) and what to do if there's an eruption (I doubted their management when she couldn't answer someone's question on how to tell an eruption will happen), but I never anticipated how difficult the I would find the whole experience. Now I only speak for myself because, as I have said many times, I am dangerously unfit. I could feel myself becoming incredibly weak by the time we reached the halfway point. When we finally reached flat land, I expected the hike to become easier... but I never accounted for what felt like a windstorm. The volcano was not that high, I've climbed higher! How can the wind be this strong? I could feel the wind pushing hard and I genuinely feared that I would be flying off the side of the volcano (the irony!). I had to walk down lower into the volcano so that I was being pushed onto it's side rather than taking the risk of being flung off the ridge! 

We were asked if we wanted to have a second turn but just thinking back to the whole trek to the top had me me in doubts but Fehn convinced me we can do it (this is why I liked travelling with her, the adventurous optimist). We did it once, we can do it again! That adrenaline quickly went away as soon as we approached the slopes and I descended into exhaustion and regret. It's moment like this that you really appreciate the kindness of strangers. One of the other VBers offered to carry my board (he carried two!!) and waited for me as I ambled up Cerro Negro. My second slide down the slopes of Cerro Negro wasn't as smooth and I ended up tumbling down the volcano at the end of the slope. 

But I would do it all over again if I had the chance to. 

We climbed the roof of Central America's largest Cathedral 

... And saw the hollywood image of heaven: pure white. We took off our shoes and my feet immediately began to tickle as soon as I stepped on the pristine root top. I had to wear my sunglasses because I was literally being blinded by the whiteness: my perception of depth was gone and I couldn't see if I was walking on something flat or curved. You could see all of Leon from the top. The Cordillera Los Maribos volcanic chain could be seen in the northeast. Telica stood out bright red from the rest of the chain and Momotombo looked perfect, despite it's infamous history of forcing the town of León to relocate after 1610 eruption. 

Eating the best (& the worst) Nicaragua had to offer. 

Maybe it's a little sad to admit that the best food you had in Nicaragua was the first dish you tried. When we arrived in our hostel, the directed us to a BBQ stall behind the Cathedral. Central America is infamous for it's boring cuisine that is mainly centred around rice and beans with a side, but it was good. There's normally two BBQ stands, almost identical to each other but equally as successful (we tried both). There's a big bowl of gallo pinto and a huge selection of BBQ'd meat and vegetable for you to pick and choose. We thought we should be good and try a new eatery every night but nothing was able to compete with the meal from our first night. It wasn't just dinner that we enjoyed in Nicaragua. There was a juice bar called Jugoso in the town square, opposite the Cathedral, where we spent all sunsets trying different combinations of fruits. On my way back from volcano boarding, I had sour mangoes covered in chilli and salt (one of my favourite snacks). On our last day we tried Raspados, shaved ice with syrup on top. 

Now for the worst... we all know that when there's a language barrier, you're bound to fall into some mishaps. Neither Fehn or I knew any Spanish. So you can imagine that we fell into several mishaps. I tried to learn some while I was in Mexico but my co-volunteers were so considerate in looking after the group that I learnt very few phrases. I could order food and if the server replied "Si" then things would be all fine and dandy. What I was unprepared for was anything else they might reply. This happened when I tried to order our first breakfast (pancakes and fruit salad) in Nicaragua. Now not understanding what see was saying, she pointed repetitively at the lacking buffet which I understood was our only option in the cafe. The buffet had three items: a questionable looking fish (Fehn did not eat chips), tortilla chips (I don't like tortilla chips) and these square yellow blocks that I thought looked french toast. I opted the latter for both of us. Imagine the surprise on our face when we expected a sickening sweet and greasy toast to be sickening dry yet greasy pure cheese. Imagine the further surprise we had when the lady behind us was served fruit salad a couple of minutes later. 

Soul Warming León 

We wanted to León to be our last stop as of a saying we kept coming across: "You will fall in love with Granada, but leave your heart in León". This proved a little difficult when planning our itinerary around Mombacho, which has specific opening days. I was debating if I preferred León or Granada. While the latter had more to offer its visitors, I liked how León felt more cosy and calm. León definitely has a more backpacker-y feel to it: the town is sprinkled with hostels and I hardly saw families and older couples. I loved the hostel we stayed in, Hostel Ivana, even though we stayed in a dorm. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, and I met some incredibly insightful travellers. In León itself, the views were picturesque and sitting down in on the steps of León Cathedral in the evenings watching the locals unwind and enjoying time with their friends and family was one of my favourite moments in León.    

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