Vacation in Leon just didn´t feel like vacation, and it definitely wasn´t calming my mind. Everywhere I turned I ran into someone I know; got caught up in another obligation. People kept asking why I was still there and where we were going next. We ended up staying two nights- one at Guadabarranco and one at Lazybones. I´ve been wanting to try out Lazybones hostel for a while for one reason- it´s the only hostel in Leon with a pool, a novelty becoming increasingly precious as the dry season soldiers on.
Leon is HOT. I feel like a limpid pool of feverish sweat here. When the pipes run dry, which is common during the dry season, there really is no easy way to cool off. Three fans pointed directly at your face just seem to move the hot air slowly about your face.The idea was to escape to Ometepe right away. Our plans changed when Tom´s friends from Honduras who wanted to come see him while he was in Nicaragua could only come on Sunday, four days after Tom arrived. Nelson was Tom´s host dad and Fabio his best friend during the summer of 2009 (the same summer I was in Nicaragua for Amigos). He volunteered in a school run by Nelson, teaching English and working in the carpentry shop in the affiliated trade school. A couple weeks ago I received a facebook message Tom had sent out to a big group telling Fabio´s story of being the hardest worker at the school (both the academic and carpentry schools) but that he was unable to pay for university. Tom raised 1,000 dollars just through that plea for Fabio´s first year of university.
Nelson, Tom and Favio at dinner.
The four of us.
It was Thursday; we had three days to kill. We decided to fill up the weekend with a shorter trip to the famous Somoto Canyon. Quetzaltrekkers used to run treks to Canon de Somoto. I don´t know how they rationalized selling a canyoneering trip when the organization´s motto is ¨hike volcanoes, help kids¨ and the canyon is left unfeatured in our classic logo that depicts the Maribios Range of Volcanoes. Whatever the case, for reasons unclear to me, a tantalizingly glossy poster advertising trips into the canyon was left hanging in the Quetzaltrekkers office until mere weeks ago, spurring expectant would be clients to inquire about canyon treks nearly every office shift. This created many an awkward conversation during which I always felt the need to find another tour company that actually offers canyoneering in apology for our false advertisement. You may ask why I didn´t just take the sign down myself? I would retort by pointing out that aside from sheer laziness on my part, the sign remained dangling there even after the entire office was rearranged for the mural, meaning the stupid sign was hung BACK up by another volunteer.Rebecca is the only current volunteer who has done Somoto Canyon. She insists that due to all the transportation and the abundance of capable local Somoto guides, it makes more sense (and is drastically cheaper) for tourists interested to simply arrange their own tour from Esteli or Somoto. Nevertheless, I have spent many a boring hour during uneventful office shifts gazing at the dramatically intriguing cliff walls depicted in our teasing devil of a poster. Since I obviously won´t get the change to to snag a free trip to the canyon as a guide, I decided long ago that I had to make it happen on my own.We spent a leisurely morning at Lazybones and took the noon thirty bus to Esteli, a far north city in the hills and the takeoff point for organizing guided tours of the canyon. We arrived at the terminal early and were told only after our backpacks had been loaded onto the roof of the bus that it was required to buy a ticket beforehand to get a seat on the bus. Of course, they were sold out. Luckily standing in the isle for the 3 and a half hour ride was an option for ticketless riders, and there were about 50 of us in that boat. It was a mildly uncomfortable 3 and a half hours.Tom and I passed the time by making friends with a large group of Peace Corps volunteers from all over Nicaragua convening in Esteli for a birthday party. Hard not to start up a conversation when you´re squashed up against their back. We swayed as the bus rounded shallow curves through the hills- the air grew fresher as we moved upward, finally to the mountainous North.Esteli was a breath of fresh air. It’s a city clinging to rugged slopes and has the feel of the Old West. Every other Nica wears a bright white cowboy hat, and it´s the place to go for personally tailored cowboy boots. We were escorted to our hotel- Miraflor- by a weathered Esteli native (which had hot showers…!) After booking a tour of Somoto for the next day, we wandered the streets of Esteli for a few hours before settling on a café with a live piano and saxophone player and quesadillas.
Arriving in Esteli.
The first beep of the alarm sounded at 6- the Somoto trip itinerary demanded that we take the 7:30 bus from the North terminal. Luckily there is a little pulperia that serves tiny, intensely sweet cups of coffee at the terminal, and an orderly row of seats like what you’d expect a bus terminal to look like, unlike the crowded chaos of Leon´s main terminal. The busride from Esteli to Somoto is about an hour and a half long, and in Somoto we were greeted by friendly and strapping Olvil. He´s the brother of the famous Henry Soriano who runs a respectable tour company of which a percentage of profit goes towards supporting families in the community of Somoto.
The town of somoto is located on the Nicaraguan Honduras border, and at the beginning of the hike we were able to see the actual borderline from across the canyon as well as both Nicaraguan and Honuran immingration buildings. The Canyon was ¨discovered¨ in 2004 by a group of Czech and Nicaraguan geologists and since then has exloded as a tourist destination. During our hike we ran into three other groups of roughly fifteen tourists each.
The trip involves a mild hike through vaguely defined paths snaking through dry brush adn farmland, then weaves down into the canyon itself. Between towering 200 meter cliff walls brilliantly blue water fill sthe canyon and reates a slow moving (and excruciatingly cold) river, part of the Rio Coco. Canyon de Somoto is the result of a fault line, and its walls are an ingriguing composite of 50 million year old metamorphic rock and the much younger volcanic rock which is found as far East as the canyon despite its location so far from the coastal volcanoes. Dry season (right now) finds the canyon drastically barren in comparison to the rainy months of Nicaraguan winter. Waterfalls which once gushed from above with fierce power are now reduced to slow trickles down the mossy walls. The river was so low when we arrived that we spent a good couple hours dry hiking over rocks in our water shoes, passsing massive, pure white boulders; one seemed to have molded into the form of a hybernating polar bear.
Despite the dried out nature of the canyon the views were dramatic. We had been hoping to be able to rock climb or atleast rappel in the canyon, but Olvil was concerned about the danger of such activities, even with a top rope and belay device. It looked like the only way to rope up in the canyon would be to hang around in Somoto for several days to sear h for a guide willing to accomodate our hazardous desires.
We did get a chance to partake in one of my very favorite activities: cliff diving! There were several deep emerald pools along the way, and at each Olvil announced that it was ¨time to jump¨. The jumps became increasingly high and terrifying at each stop, and the water became progressively deeper until the only option was to swim. In our bright orange life jackets we thrashed and kicked with the fury of drowning men to quickly escape the biting cold of the water, and scrambled up onto each accessable rock island. Near the end of our journey we climbed a particularly high cliff, and were presented with options of 10, 15 and 30 meter jumps into the narrow sliver of water below. I settled for the 10 meter. The time I spent gearing myself up for the leap was not out of fear of heights, but out of dread for the freezing temperatures waiting to greet me below. When I finally jumped, I was so eager to get to the warm, sunbaked rock aove that I climbed up the cliff in a brainless fury and only stopped once I realized I had gotten way too far. I was stuck. On slippery walls, in watershoes. I spent several minutes clinging to tiny fingerholds, assessing my options and gingerly trying out moves only to find them all to risky. Oops. The number one rule of soloing: Dont get yourself in a situation that you cant get out of. Tom climbed up and helped me take my waterlogged shoes off and I finally found a way down, to my masked great releif.
We quickly swam on, me trying desperately to find alternate routes along the cliff walls to avoid the water. At a sandbar, I choked as the river widened and spread out before us- it looked like a long swim. Luckily, a boat was part of the plan. We drifted down the rest of the canyon in a brightly painted wooden row boat and disembarked on a sandy beach, at which point I threw myself on the warm sand and refused to move.
Its impossible to underestimate the drying power of the Nicaraguan sun durring summer at noon though, and within minutes I was burning up again. We ate lunch at the Sorianos house with another tour group. They were also headeed back to Esteli, and had hired a driver with a flatbed truck. They agreed to let us hitch a ride back, saving us money and time. Best of all, Tom and I finally got to live the dream and ride in the back of a truck along a breezy mountain highway! The others pitied us and offered cramped seats inside the cab, but we heartily refused. For me, freedom was epitimozed in that ride: Imagine a long road stretching into the distance in front of you as you stand wildly hanging on lest you fly away in the soaring breee, whooping in exhaltation and loose hair whipping under peircing blue skies, a broad, uncontrollable smile spread from ear to ear.
We were a bit confused when the driver dropped us several miles outside of Esteli, but our stranding made for a blissful evening walk into the outskirts of Esteli. We passed a river where wild horses drank silhouetted by a setting sun, walked by creative graphiti style murals on the city walls, and admired a towering white church painted pink by the dusky light, architetually very different from Leon's dirtier cathedrals.
Xilma, a Quetzaltrekkers volunteer who works only in the office, lives in Esteli and spends her weekdays at University in Leon. I called her up when we got back to the hotel and we agreed to meet up for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. She couldnt stay out long, but she told us about the special concert that night: Luis Enrique, possibly the most famous musician to come out of Nicaragua, is originally from the town of Somoto and was playing that night just outside of Esteli. You know the song ¨Yo no se manana¨? The concert was 200 cords, which is roughy 9 bucks, but I just had to go to see that one song. Ximlas dad agreed to drive Tom and I to the concert venue. The place was packed, and since it had already started we could only find a table directly behind the band. It worked out well though; during their breaks Luis Enrique himself would walk right past our table to backstage. I couldnt quite work up the courage to shake his hand but I did give him a shy smile. To my dissappointment, the band didnt play the one song I know. That didnt stop Tom and I from having a great time though- we adapted the assortment of ballroom dance moves he knows to fit the groove of the music and danced wildly off to the side, long before anyone else dared to bust a move.
The concert ended around 12 and in a jarring moment the smoth atmosphere of salsa and smooth latin jive morphed into a night club scene. Reguetton suddenly blasted out of speakers and the audience finally moved to the dance floor. We shrugged and joined in. The music leapt from hiphop to salsa to 80s to techno without warning. It was a typical Nicaraguan assortment of US and Latin tunes, layering over one another with gratingly disconcerting transitions and the least smooth DJing skills you could imagine. We had a blast, but we were tired, and when it seemed like the DJ had finally settled on club style beats for the rest of the dance party, we made our escape.
We got to the hotel around 1, expecting a night watchman to let us in. The hotel is set back from the road with a fifteen foot gate; you walk along a short path and then arrive at the front door. Well, the gate was locked. We knocked and knocked for 10 minutes and finally realized that there really was no night watchmen. We shouldnt have been surprised, but we stood there wstaring blankly at the heavy padlocked wall barring our way from a nights sleep at a loss for what to do, until- Hey! Were climbers!
It may be a lesser known fact the perhaps the only practical application for rock climing is cat burgulary. In our case, we used potentially lethal skills in innocence, but it still feels pretty bad ass to break into a building, even if all youre trying to do is get into a room that you already payed for and in a normal case (AKA in the US) should be accessable at any time of the night.
We climbed the gate with what tiny hand and footholds were available and were thankfully both skinny enough to squeze through the narrow gap above the door. We had made it into the courtyard, but how to get through the locked front door? I waited aprehensively while Tom scaled a brick wall separating the hotels plot from the neighbor, and snuck along a terrifyingly tiny roof ledge to a ladder, where he somehow hoisted himself onto a balcony that led into the main hotel area. Giggling uncontrollably like mischevious kids, we skipped into the darkened hotel and pondered how dangerously fun and thrilling our little adventure just was. Luckily, neither of us are the theiving type, but let me tell you, breaking into buildings seems to be a scarily seductive sport.