Nicaragua Wrap Up

Looking through the accumulated mail when we got home, Jack opened up their college savings plan statement.  He was pretty shocked to see the amount because it would barely cover a semester of college at a state school.  Yeah we have pretty much spent what could have been a decent start to a college fund, but it was a choice we made, a choice I feel privileged to be able to make.  Those are two pretty good choices, right? Travel, help pay for college, renovate the kitchen......we couldn't do it all, so we put the money where we thought we could get the most bang for our buck.  The hope and prayer is that the kids, and us as a family, will get more long term benefits from travel experiences than anything else.  Travel is what helped shape the life Luis and I built together, so we passed on the gift.  

From our conversations this time, I've gotten a little glimpse of what my kids envision in their future.  Maya talked about careers that would put her on the front lines of helping people in other countries, working for an international aid agency or the foreign service.  She dreamed of traveling as a career and lifestyle going abroad for longer and to more remote places that we ever did when we were younger.  For Jack he learned more about what he doesn't want to do which is just as valuable.  A desk job, an office, 2 weeks of vacation, and staying in one place are all things he does not feel attracted to.  They may have learned this about themselves through experiences other than traveling but I can't help but think their perceptive about who they are and how they want to live is coming more intensely and at an earlier age becasue of traveling to other countries.  For my teenagers who normally can't see beyond the moment in the day to day at home this soul expansion is truly priceless.

Speaking of priceless, this trip ended up being pretty affordable, as Nicaragua is considered a fairly cheap place to travel.  Our tickets from Orlando cost about $400 each, and our daily expenditure worked out to be $154 a day for all four of us.  The daily cost for 18 days included:

One week beach house rental 550
2 big hotel splurges                 650
Surfboard rental                       120
horseback riding                         45
2 volcano tours                         280
canyoning                                 120
Fishing trip                               130
All food, public transport, other 875
lodging & souvenirs 

This trip could have been significantly cheaper with less expensive lodging and fewer tours.  We planned on only one pricy night in Esteli but everyone got sick so we ended up staying 4 nights in a hotel that was twice the price we normally would have wanted to pay.  I didn't have the heart to move sick people from a quiet and comfy place to a cheap and dirty one to save a couple hundred bucks.  So if that didn't happen consider that the average hostel is 10$ per person and food is easily found for $2 per meal.  Transportation is super cheap, 2 hour bus rides cost about $2.50.  For backpackers, saving a few dollars a day means more time away from home and out on the road.  It's like a game to see how little money you can spend in a day.  But we were time limited with a specific budget so I didn't haggle for 50 cents on a taxi ride or need to tolerate crowded and loud hostel dorms.  Maybe we could have spent $20-30 a day or even less on each person with those changes.  Traveling with teenagers is really like taking another couple on vacation and footing the bill.  We needed four of everything.  It used to be that Maya would sit on my lap on the bus, we could split 2 or 3 meals between us, and only needed a double room becasue we could share the beds with the kids.  But now everyone needs their own plate and bed.  As it was, I thought we did pretty good money wise.

Another aspect to note was the feeling of safety we felt in Nicaragua.  While I am sure things happen to travelers, we did not once experience a feeling of unease. Also notable was a lack of police presence.  Other Latin American countries have armed police/military everywhere but not so much in Nicaragua. Also, I never knew what guidebooks meant when they claim the locals are friendly (and they always say this about practically every place) until I went to Nicaragua.  Seriously, the folks we interacted with from bus drivers to street food vendors, everyone was pretty cheerful and kind.  

As always we used a Lonely Planet guidebook.  The best way for me to plan a trip is to pick a county, buy the plane ticket, and get the LP book.  Then I read the book and Google places that sound interesting.  I search the LP Thorn Tree forum for travelers insights and also use Trip Adviser and Booking.com.  Another tactic I have used is to search "Gringo Trail" and then cross those places off the list.  The places we went to definitely were off the beaten path and out of the way.  Sure there are backpackers there and some tourist infrastructure but the places we went to were generally off the main Gringo Trail that the hoards are trodding.

All in all, except for everyone getting sick, this was a great trip.  Even though it was our 6th Latin American country the kids were still very into it and had loads of high octane adventure, which is very good for their adrenaline craving teenage brains.  I spent glorious hours becoming reacquainted with the amazing young woman my daughter is becoming and watched my usually cautious son embrace  and initiate extreme sporting challenges.  It was good, and I mean good in a bone deep these are my people kind of way,  to reconnect and embrace these humans that are my family.  Sometimes in life with teenagers it feels like game over, you hit a wall, you run out of lives, you can't believe the shit they are doing or not doing....and then you get lucky and find a deeply buried reset button and hit it as hard as you can.


The Grand Finale

We saved this tour with Quetzal Trekkers for last, punctuating an epic trip with a giant exclamation point.  Nicaragua is the only place in the world where you can go volcano boarding.  This activity requires 45 minutes hiking up a steep rocky volcano and along a high narrow ridge with a 5 foot wooden toboggan and a heavy denim bag strapped to your back.  Add that to high winds that create a parachute effect on the board, plus being on a tour with a group of energetic 20 year olds that were impossible to keep up with.  It was so hard for me that the guide had to carry my board and I still had to stop every 5 minutes to catch my breath.  The tour company we went with is the only one that offered a second go but I knew from the start that I would not be taking advantage of that!
Finally at the top, suited up in a heavy denim one size fits all jumpsuit, goggles, and a bandanna to protect the face from sharp flying rocks.
Looking back toward the launch area at several groups of tourists.  It's a "must do" for every backpacker in Nicaragua.  Luis and I were definitely the oldest folks up there, and Maya the youngest.  
The boards look like home made sleds. They weigh about 10 pounds.
A couple of nice views from the top of this young 2400 foot volcano, which erupts on average every 17 years.  The last eruption was in 1999.  Hmmmmm.
Luis trying to look cool.  
Maya succeeding at the look.
Steam vents! If you dig down just a few inches it's hot enough to cook an egg.
Listening to the guides instructions. Hard to hear through the wind.
Waiting at the top, not sure if it looks as high as it is....but it feels pretty nerve wracking waiting for our turn.  It's longer and steeper than it looks.  Lean back, put your feet up and you can gain some serious speed. Or you can lean forward, dig your heels in and have complete control over your speed. You can be sure I used the second technique, braking the record for slowest descent I'm sure! 

Walking back to the trucks after our run, Luis and jack decided to take another turn.  I would have done it again too if there was a chair lift or something, but I couldn't do the hike a second time.  

Volcano boarding down Cerro Negro was a great way to end our trip.  We made it back to Leon in one piece, got a pineapple smoothie, and boarded the next bus to Managua to crash before our flight in the morning.


Latin America is Street Food and Catherdrals

And I love it! The main cathedral in Leon was built with indigenous (slave) labor over the course of 100 years.  You can just feel  the suffering in these huge buildings.  After last nights Telica hike we were beat so we slept in a bit.  We planned to go to the cathedral, do some shopping, and eat some lunch. The thing to do is pay to go on the roof of the cathedral for the view.  We were pretty excited about that, until we actually got up there and our eyeballs were pierced with the whiteness that was so blinding it felt like wooded skewers hammering into my eyes.  I snapped random pictures that I couldn't see as I was taking them.
After the roof experience we had batidos (smoothies) and then went back to the hotel with headaches from the glare and ended up staying there for the next 4 hours. When we finally went out we sat and people watched in the central park and had our last behind the cathedral street food.
So many great things to choose from its hard not to get your plate loaded up with more than you can eat.  Back to the hotel to get packed up and anticipate our volcano boarding experience the next morning.  


Hiking Telica Volcano

Sitting poolside with a beautiful cup of coffee at our splurge hotel is a nice place to write about how great it was to hike up an active volcano last night.
We started our day pounding the Leon pavement in search of lunch and ended up eating in our favorite of places, the lively market behind the cathedral.
So this is a a little bit like a giant crock pot.  It's a giant metal tub that is layered with meats, yucca, plantain, vegetables, surrounded by banana leaves then slow cooked over a fire for 6 hours.  We had a few other dishes as well, each costing about $1.75 making it a $6 for the entire family.  The portions in Nicaragua are so enormous we usually only need to order 3 plates.  The market is sweltering, loud, crowded, and has no shortage of flies that you need to continually swat away, but I love it and will eat here every day.  Regardless of the discomfort and risk of getting sick street food is, hands down, our favorite way to eat when traveling.

Our hotel booked our tour to hike the Telica Volcano.  We had a knowledgeable and friendly guide who really knew what he was doing.  As a bonus he spoke really good English, which was unusual for us to experience in a tour guide.  We usually have a Spanish speaking guide and get our information and questions answered with my Spanish and a lot of hand gestures.  

Not wanting to pay for a cheesy tour I had been googling how to hike this volcano independently, a search that turned up nothing.  A guide and a major 4wd Land Rover type of rugged vehicle is a 100% absolute necessity as we soon found out.

The road itself is something to write about.  The paved portion is about 30 minutes then you turn off road into seriously rugged terrain, the kind of single track, twisting, steep, giant rock strewn trail that people at home dream about running their ATVs or mountain bikes on.  I used two hands in a death grip on the  hand holds inside the vehicle to withstand the turbulence.  Impossible to take pictures, but I could take just this one of how narrow it was in the beginning when we shared it with some farm animals.
So that's the calm and easy part.  But the guide stopped for a good photo op along the road of the volcano we are about to hike.

The real fun begins at the base of the volcano, where the guide tells you that there are no fences at a the crater and he shows you the safest way to approach the edge of the cauldron of death.  And you get to take a picture of this foreboding sign.
The hike up zigs and zags over loose rocks for 2.5 ankle twisting and cardiac arrest inducing miles.  Really hard ya'll.  For me anyway.  My kids had no problem whatsoever, even in the Crocs (yes, Crocs) worn by the 16 year old who knows everything.  Hiking a volcano in Crocs, really.  

Since I felt like dying nearly the whole 45 minute way up I could only manage this one picture of Luis.  This doesn't look hard but I am telling you that climbing up rocks at 3500 feet is a challenge if you are me.
At the top the edge of this crater is the reward.  You can hear the lava and smell the sulfur and there are no regulations on getting as close as you are crazy to get.  We all crawled on our bellies to look into the eye of the dragon.

The next treat was a walk over to a really cool bat cave in a crevice in the volcano. If you are terrified of bats you will freak out because they are flittering and swarming over your head the entire time.  But they don't bother you and they generally stay above your head.  
You can't tell from this picture, but there are hundreds of bats flying all around our heads. Emerging from the cave we find a nice spot to watch the sunset and eat a little sandwich.  Not just any sunset, but one with the Pacific Ocean on the left, rain falling on the distant right, and a chain of volcanoes straight on.
How lucky am I to experience this with my family! After sunset, we hike back to the rim to try to get a glimpse of lava if it's not clouded by gasses.  We belly crawl to the edge and look down and when the gas clouds part glowing magma shows itself, so incredible!  We hang out in that position for several more lava showings punctuated by gazing up into an amazing night sky.  A surprise came when we heard a loud rumbling, liquid rock moving, death is imminent sound.  We backed away immediately expecting a firework spout of molton lava to attack us, which of course did not happen.  But it sounded like it was going to! Either that or the rim was about to crumble into itself beneath our prone bodies.  Either way, we took the advice of the guide and decided to leave.  Making our way down 2.5 miles of strewn rocks in the pitch dark (with flashlights) was challenging of course, and then there was the motocross track to get through for the next hour.  We arrived safely back at the hotel after 7 hours of crazy fun. 

I leave you with this beautiful shot of Maya who I pray feels as free as she looks.