Skipping (Through) Central America- Part 2
Nicaragua and The Vanabundos
After slinking through Honduras, we spent about a week in Nicaragua. For us so far, I think Nicaragua has been one of our favorite countries. The nation has over 70 protected areas and National Parks that encompass about 17% of it’s total landmass. This focus on nature and conservation combined with a relatively low crime rate makes camping and hiking the forests, volcanos, and beaches easy and cheap.
We definitely didn’t have enough time to even scratch the surface of opportunity Nicaragua had to offer.
Our first two nights were spent in a truckstop parking lot, doing laundry and catching up on projects. Although usually far off the standard tourist paths (or maybe because of it) we’ve always had really good experiences at locations catering to over the road truckers. Since our first trip on the ferry across the sea of Cortez in Mexico, we’ve always found the truckers to be some of the most kind, helpful, and interesting people we’ve met.
In Central America, long haul truckers cross borders often. The countries are so small that it’s very common for trade to cross national lines. In many ways, having a conversation with a Central American trucker is similar to those we have with fellow overlanders. We always swap stories of our travels, and share the best places we’ve found to park for the night. We discuss the multitude of differences in food, culture, and language found along the PanAmerican route. In many of these countries, very few average work-a-day citizens travel internationally, even if it’s only a few miles across the border. The truckers are an exception and their time on the road gives us an instant common experience to connect over.
The owner of the lot was one of the most kind women we’ve met so far. The cost to stay overnight was about $1.20, and each morning she would come check on us to make sure we had slept well and to deliver breakfast right to our camper. We were grateful, although a bit confused at first, but it turns out the breakfast was included in the price. She was very excited that we were visiting her country, and gave us a laundry list of things to do and places to see while we were in Nicaragua.
We were sad to leave that muddy lot, but we had volcanos to see and Swiss to meet up with!
Like always, Taylor and I were itching to spend at least a night or two away from the hustle and bustle that is so common in Central America and park out under the stars in a good camp spot at the end of a bad road. I had scouted out a place a few days earlier, cross checking maps and GPS co-ordinates, at the base of one of Nicaragua’s many active volcanos, Volcan Telica. After turning off the highway, we made our way up an increasingly rough dirt road past small farms, horse carts, laundry drying in the sun, and men logging or plowing using oxen.
The spot we found was exactly what we’d been looking for. Quiet, secluded, and filled with the stunning presence of the smoking volcano. The hike up the volcano itself was fairly easy, as volcano hikes go, since we had done most of the climbing already simply driving up the road. The views from the top were stunning. Rolling green hills below, with horses and cows grazing among the volcanic rocks and smoking fumaroles. The sounds of men working cattle drifted up the slopes to meet me.
Approaching the mouth of the mountain, the gasses drifting up the sheer walls of the crater itself were intense. I wrapped my scarf around my face and lay flat on the edge, peering through the caustic smoke and haze to see the glowing red magma several hundred feet below. The volcano gurgled and rumbled, sounding hungry in its solitude.
Standing up, I found myself sharing the peak with another person. A local man had made the trek from town, carrying a small green cooler filled with beer and soda to sell to tourists. As so often happens in this part of the world, I was not nearly as alone as I’d felt. After making the long drive and the lonely climb to the top, I felt like the only person for miles.
As it turns out, I was simply there in a lull between tour groups. On my way down I passed at least 12 people making their way up the mountain and found our “secluded” campsite was now shared by two additional Land Cruisers. All the same, everyone was friendly and after watching the sun set from the peak, left us to pass the night alone in the rain and quiet.
After our experience at Volcan Telica, it appears Nicaragua has a whole network of similar roads to nearly all of it’s volcanos. We would have loved to spend a week or more, just exploring these tracks and camping on the shoulders of giants, but we were on a tight schedule. We were reluctant to pack up and leave, but were heartened by the prospect of meeting up with yet another travelling couple, this time The Vanabundos.
We met Sandro and Gabby when they pulled into Pierre’s place at Lake Atitilan a few days after us. We spent nearly a month as neighbors, and became fast friends. They introduced us to some truly great vegetarian meals, including homemade pizza, and inspired us with all the languages they speak, and their comfort in learning new ones. Like the Vagabroads, Gabby and Sandro work hard on the road. They are constantly writing, submitting magazine articles, managing websites, and working on book ideas.
Gabby also helped to start the excellent online magazine One Day Portray, where writers take an entire day to get to know a perfectly ordinary person. The time and care taken with the interview, writing, and photography for these long-form, multimedia portraits highlight the extraordinary beauty of average people living their day to day lives. I really recommend you check them out, especially if you enjoy learning more about people around the globe and like to sink your teeth into something that is so much more than just a headline and a few paragraphs (you know, like this blog- Ed.).
The Vanabundos are an incredibly sweet couple, travelling the world in their high-top VW van. Their blog is also excellent, and though it’s in German, google translate does a pretty good job of getting the point across.
We met up with them in Leon and spent two days together, exploring coffee shops, churches and street food. We even caught a movie together. Luckily for us, these guys are heading in the same direction as us so there is hope we’ll see them again, possibly in South America.
Our last night in Nicaragua was spent a short distance from the border along the shores of a beautiful volcanic lake. We chose a high spot in the pouring rain, then managed to snap a few pictures of the ensuing rainbow framing our truck before we were forced to move as the small creek transformed into a muddy brown river.
Next up, Costa Rica!
Here's a video of us moving camp in the flood, and a link to an episode of the excellent web series Expedition Overland where they make the same trip to Volcan Telica as us. I didn't realize they had been there until after we got home. Pretty cool.