Once again we found ourselves in a rented car, another white Nissan. It was a little more beat up than the one of the same model we’d rented in Costa Rica, creating a nice visual metaphor for the two countries. In fact I prefer a beat up rental, it puts my mind at ease as we chug over rutted roads and through paint scratching shrubbery.We first paid a visit to Volcan Masaya, a smoke belching cauldron that at night gives off an eerie red glow. The visitor center and parking lot near the rim were badly damaged in an eruption last year, so the things to see were extremely limited, but the steaming caldera was worth staring into if only to get a sense of the mountain’s potency. In the 16th century a Spanish priest decided it was the mouth to hell and did an exorcism to lock the demons in. The cross he planted at the rim is still there, so maybe it worked: we saw not a single demon.
A safe distance from the volcano is a town of the same name, noted for its large craft market. We visited in order to remind ourselves that we didn’t need any knit bags with “Nicaragua” written boldly across them. Close by however is a smaller town called San Juan de Oriente, equally noted for its exceptional pottery, specifically the pottery of one artist named Helio Gutierrez.
Back in León we’d visited a remarkable collection of art both antique and modern. On display next to a fine array of indigenous pottery were its modern descendants created by Helio Gutierrez. The design was bold and compelling, an extension of the same conversation begun by indigenous Nicaraguans thousands of years before.In San Juan de Oriente, we ran across a few pieces of Gutierrez’s work, but the majority were knock-offs created by his protégées. Nothing that was for sale had quite the same quality, and soon, Magda was insisting we try to buy a piece directly from the artist himself. But how to find him? At first we were told he’d retired. He may well have, since it turns out his pieces are internationally shown. But then someone told us his daughter worked in one of the shops, so we asked around and found her. She was herself an excellent artist, but Magda was set on finding her father. She called him to ask if he had anymore pieces like the ones we were interested in. He did not. His last one had been sold to a Japanese collector the previous week.
Never easily dissuaded, Magda asked if we could meet him, so his daughter called him back to see if he was interested. We stood outside of her studio beside a large pile of gravel that the whole town was taking turns shoveling into buckets and hauling up some stairs. Soon, a short, stocky man walked up looking like a country farmer, a camposino, not an artist of international renown. Like many Nicaraguans he had gold lined teeth, making him look slightly menacing, but only when he flashed his warm, friendly smile.
“Mi papi”, the young artist said as introduction.
Magda described the specific piece she’d fallen in love with and he told her he could make it for her for a very reasonable price. How to ship it? He mentioned he was going to LA in the winter, any chance we could meet there? We told him we could make something happen (I picture my cousin Troy meeting him under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles, wearing a trench-coat). We paid half up front, and agreed to pay the other half on delivery. We’ll see what happens.
Later in the day we rolled into the extinct volcanic crater of Laguna de Apoyo. We’d driven from San Juan de Oriente through little villages of wood sided shacks covered with terra-cotta or corrugated metal. The roads were paved with cement bricks and in good condition, but dozens of red earth paths veered off into the forest all around. When we’d descended into the old crater, we followed a rutted dirt track to the Paradise Hostel. We skeptically wondered if it could live up to its name.
Laguna de Apoyo is utterly beautiful. It is a clear, warm, clean freshwater lake about a mile wide and perfectly round. The high walls of the old crater are covered with dense forest and only a half dozen houses, making it seem incredibly remote and very tranquil. The Paradise Hostel was almost as good as its name. It fronted the lake with a series of buildings stair-stepping up the side of the hill. The ultimate building was the beach bar which held an unbroken view of the majestic old crater. We ended up staying two nights there, though the first night was marred by the inevitable collision between five young American guys and six young French-Canadians girls who insisted on lounging around in bikinis. When enough alcohol was consumed, the volitile mixture was complete, and the older guests, including us, fled the bar to find refuge on another patio also overlooking the lake. The sounds of screaming twenty year olds reverberated late into the night, but we heard nothing from our small, cramped room in the far rear that we’d chosen over other much nicer rooms, closer to the common areas.
In the morning we woke early to take a kayak out onto the glassy smooth water. As we paddled outwards, ripples followed us like steps across a virgin snowfield. The walls of the crater reflected in the surface. From our little craft we could see fish and the bottom of the lake as easily as if peering into an aquarium.
During the day we drove to Nicaragua’s most beautiful city, Grenada, a finely preserved colonial town that was a little more polished than León had been. We’d heard mixed reviews of Grenada, some people found it dangerous but we thought it was a lovely, peaceful place to wander the narrow streets and peer inside shops. One of the places we poked our heads into was a barbershop that looked like it had changed little in the last century. The chairs surrounded a corner of an open courtyard filled with tropical plants, under an eve of Spanish tile. Magda wanted to take some pictures and I’d been thinking my beard had gotten out of control again, so while I got the old time treatment of hot towel wraps, frothy shaving cream, deadly sharp razors and spicy after-shave, Magda clicked away capturing the naturally lit ambiance. It was probably the best barbershop experience I’ve ever had, more of a face spa than anything else – all for about three dollars. I shook my barber’s hand when we were done and he said he’d be waiting if I decided to cut my hair as well. In the future I will seriously consider flying to Nicaragua just to sit in the same picturesque barbershop for some more grooming.
We drove out of the city next and explored the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua. Near Grenada are the Isletas de Lago Nicaragua, dozens of little volcanic outcroppings that form a mini archipelago on the edge of the lake. We drove by dozens of shouting touts that jumped in front of the car to try and sell us boat tours, opting to head towards a more remote spot. We negotiated a herd of cattle, avoiding getting a horn stuck in the side of the car, and made it to the end of yet another lonely, dusty road. There sat an aged man on a wall, unconcerned by our presence. We asked him if he had a boat we could hire and he said he did. Soon we were chugging through little channels past islets populated by single family houses, most of them little shacks fronted by earthen yards that took up the majority of the available land. It occurred to us that anywhere else in the world people would pay millions for a tiny island in a remote corner of the tropics. In fact, quite a few gringos had had the same idea and our boatmen pointed out several houses owned by foreigners. They’d thankfully kept their buildings small and humble like the native Nicos, except for one Costa Rican who’d crafted a little McMansion on his island. Our guide scowled at it, as did we.
The next day, after another lovely night at the Paradise Hostel, we headed back to Grenada to return the car and catch a bus to the ferry headed to Ometepe, a huge island made of two volcanos in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Getting there was easy enough although it was another ponderously slow schoolbus that took us along with dozens of Nicaraguans. Gringos call these “chicken buses” which I find to be a little offensive – except that on this bus there were in fact chickens.
We took the ferry from the minute port town of San Jorge, from where it was possible to see the two conical volcanos that make up Ometepe. The northern mountain still smolders, as it is active, while the southern cone lies dormant. Once across the calm waters of the lake we walked past a crowd of waiting taxistas and into the verdant interior.
There isn’t a great way to see the sights of the island without renting an expensive 4×4. Taxis cost a flat fee of five dollars a ride and it seemed this would add up. We figured the best way was to rent a scooter that could be arranged for us by the front desk at our hotel. It was delivered to us on our first morning there, and we exchanged money without talk of insurance or liability or making note of the sorry state of the machine. Carlos, the scooter’s owner, explained that there was enough gas to get anywhere we wanted/were able to go on the island. Then he walked back to wherever he’d driven over from.
We spent the day laboring up steep hills then rattling down the other side. It was hard to see how fast we were (or were not) going since the speedometer, the odometer, the tachometer and the gas gauge were all broken and stuck on zero.
We rolled into Altagracia, one of the two biggest tiny towns, and saw a small sad collection of the remaining indigenous sculptures once found on the island. Some of the best pieces had been spirited away to other countries, including the U.S. and France. Now the remnants stand partly in an old churchyard and partly in a scrappy little museum in town. Neither place does justice to the importance or craft of the artifacts. We visited several other little towns and farms, some that had excellent petroglyphs dotted about their grounds. Most of these were covered to discourage lichens and erosion, none had any explanation about who made them or why.
Stopping for a swim on a black sand beach for a swim in the freshwater lake, the water was so shallow for so long that even 100 yards into the water I had to sit down to be fully immersed. Afterwards we drove to a spring called Ojos de Agua, which was meant to be a deliciously clear watering hole that makes you feel ten years younger, but was actually full of rowdy Nicaraguans throwing rum and coke at each other. We swam for a few minutes, as far away from the cocktail bath as possible, and then got out when a downpour rolled through and soaked everything not already swimming in the pool.
After we got back to our hotel, we changed into some dry clothes and decided to set out again for a festival they were having in the island’s other town. It was getting dark and more rain looked imminent, but we were interested in the fiesta since we seem to always be just missing one wherever we go. So we got on the scooter and bounced back up the gravel driveway to the road. As we drove, darkness fell. There were no street lamps. The headlights worked, but blinked on and off when the engine idled low or when we went over a bump. Just as I started thinking how dangerous this whole project might be, the headlights blinked, the engine sputtered and then the scooter completely died. It seemed we’d run out of gas, something Carlos had assured us was unlikely. It wasn’t as if we had a way to tell how much we had anyways. Fortunately we had a Nicaraguan phone card and Carlos’ phone number so we called and told him we were stranded in the middle of nowhere. He said he’d be right there.
We rolled the scooter to the side of the road. Just as we sat down to wait, the sky opened up and it began to pour. We didn’t know where Carlos was coming from, but it was taking him a long time. The darkness was complete, save for the occasional headlights of a passing car, two of which stopped to ask of we needed help. We didn’t know how nervous we needed to be about our safety stuck out there in the Nicaraguan countryside, in total darkness. The island had seemed safe but that was during the day. When two motorcyclists pulled over, staring at our scooter, the rain speckling the beams from their headlights, we were hesitant to approach them. Fortunately one of the bikers turned out to be Carlos.
It turns out we hadn’t run out of gas, a cable had disconnected. He needed a knife to fix it (for some reason) so his friend ran off towards a nearby farmhouse to find something sharp. After he came back we all stood in the pouring rain while Carlos kneeled in the mud, stabbing at the scooter’s innards with a machete. With visible pride, he got the scooter started again. He apologized profusely, rain dripping off of his nose, and reminded us that without this incident it would have just been a normal day, now, he smiled, we’ve had an adventure!
As we got back on the rain soaked scooter, Magda suggested we still try to go to town to see the fiesta. I asked her if she was kidding and pointed the scooter towards home. Ten meters from the end of the hotel’s driveway the scooter died again, leaving us once more in the dark. Fortunately we could see the lights nearby, and rolled the scooter the rest of the way.
The next morning we left the island and found our way back to the Pan-American highway where we’d been told a bus might come by headed for Managua in the next few hours. Our rainclouds of bad luck lifted though and the moment we stepped to the curb a souped up school bus roared up, barely stopping to let us on. Unlike our previous ex-patriated Blu-Bird experiences, this one had been heavily modified into something of a super bus. It thundered across the countryside, passing all comers like a rocket. Our little journey was played back to us in reverse as we flew past Grenada, the turn-off to Laguna de Apoyo, and Masaya in record time. Before we knew it we were strolling back up to the front door of the Urbinas where we were welcomed back into the bosom of their home. We had a celebratory feast of pizza and iced tea and went to bed early in order to prepare for a five o’clock a.m. bus to Honduras.