Leon, Nicaragua

Leon was what I needed to wash the taste of Granada from my mouth.

From Granada, I took a minibus to Managua, where I connected to another minibus to Leon.  It took about three hours and cost about $2.50, it was air-conditioned, and it beat a chicken bus.

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From the bus station, I took a taxi to the Parque Central to orient myself and find a hotel.  After my experience wandering for 20 minutes in the streets surrounding the bus terminal in Masaya before taking a taxi, I had decided from then on to spend $1-2 to take a taxi to get where I was going if I was the least bit unsure of where that where was.

My first hotel choice turned out not to exist anymore.  I turned around on my way to my second choice when I had already walked farther than I wanted to and still hadn’t got there.   At my third choice, the front gate was closed and locked, and no one answered my calls of “Hola! Buenas dias!”  So I went back to one of the hostels that the cab driver had mentioned as possibilities. He had seemed surpised when I didn’t ask to be dropped off at one of those, which I took as a sign I didn’t want to stay there, trying to escape the tourist hordes of Granada as I was.

The reception desk at Bigfoot Hostel was the bar. People were coming and going and the atmosphere was party-like.  I asked for a private room, with shared bath, to save money.  All they had was a private with bath for $24.  I told them I’d think about it and went back into the street.

Across the street was another hostel, ViaVia.  Reception was still the bar, but the vibe was much quieter.  Some local men played pool, while a mix of locals and guests sat in the bar/restaurant area watched the Champions League game between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid.

They had a room with private bath for $19.  I took it.  I was led back through two landscaped courtyards, set with tables and chairs and hammocks slung between beams, to my room, which was large, high-ceilinged and clean.

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I walked the streets of Leon.

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It was a real city.  People went about their business.

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The market, behind the cathedral, was covered, cleaner than the one in Granada.  The Parque Central wasn’t as nice, less shaded but with no one walking around asking for money.  In Granada, they had very diligent tourist security guards shooing beggars away from any tourists they were bothering.  It happened to me twice.  Here that didn’t seem necessary.

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I was desperate for a diet soda. I’m addicted to it.  I’ve been doing pretty well so far only drinking water, (free, from my hotel sink after being purified by my Steripen) because I refuse to drink regular Coke and diet sodas are not common in Central America.  Also, Coke is often only available in the  glass bottles you never really see in the United States anymore outside of retro type circumstances.  Because there is a deposit for the bottle, the shop won’t let you carry it away.  Instead, they pour it into a clear plastic bag, stick in a straw, and twist and rubber band the top closed.  I’ve even been places where the plastic bag is branded with the Coke logo.

I went into shop after shop, even the supermarket around the corner from my hotel, and was confronted with regular Coke.  I was desparate.  I had seen a Burger King logo on a building I had passed earlier.  Surely Burger King would have Diet Soda?  I found my Coke Zero, and took my large Burger King cup back to my hostel. I felt judged by my fellow travellers, who I’m sure couldn’t have cared less.  I wanted to tell them, “I didn’t buy food! I just wanted a diet soda.  I’m not one of those Americans!”

In the evening, I had dinner at one of the fritangas on the street between the cathedral and the market.

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Prepared food was piled all over the table, not just grilled chicken and plantain maduros this time. I pointed and asked, in Spanish, “What’s this, what’s that?”  I settled on grilled pork, gallo pinto, a slice of friend cheese, ensalada, and plantains maduros for desert. The woman running the place threw them on the grill to reheat them, and brought them to me at the plastic table where I sat with the Diet 7Up I’d found at the supermarket.

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Motorbikes and cars stopped, and gave their orders, waited, and took them home.  A combination fast food drive-thru and bargain sidewalk cafe, all the street life and people watching and the other pleasures of dining outdoors as Calle La Calzada, for 1/3 the cost.

I bought a beer at the ViaVia bar and took it back into one of the lounge areas, where I sat at a table, drank, and smoked one of the Nicaraguan cigarillos I bought in the Masaya market.  A man was smoking a cigar near me one night on Calle la Calzada, and the smell made me want one. Now, I was reminded that cigars are one of those things that I enjoy more in theory than in practice.

The next day I walked more, to semi-suburban Sutiava market, which I found small and only okay, not worth the walk.  I ventured to the market near the bus station, which was more in line with what I expected a Central American market to be.

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There were lots of horse carts.

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I liked Leon and ViaVia enough I decided to stay one more day than planned.   I had a few days in Honduras I wasn’t sure what to do with. I spent that day venturing into the streets before returning to the hostel.  I worked to plan the final month of my trip, from Belize to Mexico to San Diego and by Amtrak back to New York.  Since I was familiar with Mexico, I had left that bit of planning till last, but now it was getting to be only a month away, so I figured I should start working out the details.

I ate lunch at the comedor across the street for $2.75, chicken, rice, frijoles a tortilla, and to my relief, Coke Zero in a 20oz plastic bottle I could carry away.  I ate dinner again at the fritangas, came back to the hotel and went through the beer and cigarillo(still better in theory) routine again after Skype calling my parents and went to bed, to wake up tomorrow and catch the afternoon bus to Matagalpa.

I had been using thebusschedule.com to plan my routes, and had found it accurate so far.  There were only two direct buses listed from Leon to Matagalpa, 5:20am, and 3:10pm.

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The early bus was too early, so I checked out of my hostel and they let me leave the bag behind the bar until 2:30pm, when I took a taxi to the bus station.  As I wandered looking for a bus with “Matagalpa” on the windshield, a pedicab driver, seeing my backpack, asked if I needed a ride to my hostel. I said, no, and he asked where I was going. When I told him Matagalpa, He said that bus already left, and told me that if I wanted to get to Matagalpa, I would have to take a bus to San Isidro and change there.  He pointed me to where the bus was, making sure I found it.  I saw a sign reading the Matagalpa bus leaves at 7:30am and returns at 6pm.  This is what I got for not asking locally.  I briefly considered waiting another night, but I didn’t want to lose more time off my itinerary.  The bus to San Isidro was crowded but not standing room.  I was dropped off by the side of the road and told to walk up and bit and cross for the bus to Matagalpa.  I had been hoping San Isidro would be a place, somewher I could find a hotel if  things went awry, but it was just that typical collection of comedors at the intersection of two highways,  the Central American version of the I-80 Truck Stop outside Davenport, Iowa. I had been able to check my phone while on the bus and found a Matagalpa bound bus was supposed to pass every 30 minutes, but now I knew sometimes that schedule was wrong.  It was 4:50pm, so I sat down on my bag to wait.

A bus showed up 10 minutes later, right on time.  I found a seat, to my relief.  The bus became crowded as we progressed to Matagalpa.  It was the evening commute home for all the farm laborers and construction workers, hard harts, Coleman thermos and machetes slung from shoulders. We reached Matagalpa an hour later.  It was dusk, and for the first time, there was no scrum of men shouting :”taxi, taxi” as I got off the bus.  Somehow dropped out of my chest pocket the map of the town I had torn out of one of my guides.  I knew where the hotel I wanted to stay at was, so in the relative security of the bus station, I pulled out my phone and used Google Maps to orient myself.  It was easy, as we were near a river.  It looked a long walk, but I had no choice.  I started walking, uncomfortable that I did not know the area and it was getting dark.  A couple off duty taxis went by, but within 5 minutes, I got a ride, and older man with his wife riding in the passenger seat.  As we rode, she asked me if I was Christian, and I was here on missionary work, or as a tourist.  I told her I was a tourist, but that I liked Jesus.  Her line of questioning told me I was firmly off the tourist trail.

They dropped me at my hotel, up the side of a hill, and to my relief, they had a room.  There was time enough to drop my stuff and go find dinner before full darkness set in.  The hotel was about 10 minutes removed from the big cathedral and adjacent park.  The walk was dark, but didn’t feel dangerous.  I walked around a bit looking for a restaurant, I saw several, including an intriguing looking, open-air place called Restaurante Monkey, but I had developed an affection for street food, both for the quality and thr price.  It was Friday night, and the park was full of families, so I took a spot on a low wall in front of the cathedral and watched for a bit.  I spotted a fritanga across the way, and a few blocks down, a Pali supermarket.  Beer and street food seated at plastic furniture on the terrace of the hotel it was, then.

I ate and watched the night settle and the lights come on in this town surrounded by mountains.  The air was finally cool again, after the relentless heat since San Carlos, though it wasn’t quite crisp.

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I had a feeling that I was going to like Matagalpa quite a bit.

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