Jenn writes on 2014-01-25:
We are currently in Granada, Nicaragua relaxing by the swimming pool at the Oasis Hostel. It was recommended to us by Peter (AKA Senior Kiwi), a retired Kiwi who is riding around Central America on a local bike, Suzuki GN125, and who we met in Leon at the LazyBones Hostel.
This is our fourth day in Granada. A quiet day after partying the night away with a bunch of Torontonians (as well as Italians, Nicaraguans, Germans,…) at the Mombacho Cigar anniversary party. A few days ago we took a tour of their facility – not really a factory, but rather a beautiful and quaint colonial compound where all things Mombacho happen, including storage, assembly, rolling, etc. During the tour we were invited to the anniversary party, although hadn’t really strongly considered it, as we had originally only planned to be in Granada for a day or two.
It turned out that Mombacho cigars have a strong connection with Steam Whistle Brewery, and while we were not familiar with Mombacho cigars, we are quite familiar with Steam Whistle brewery. Incidentally, Adam attended high school with the sister of Cam Heaps, one of the owners of Mambacho and Steam Whistle, and interviewed his father, Frank – also in attendance – the owner of now defunct Ontario craft beer pioneer Upper Canada Brewery for a grade 12 urban studies class. It also turned out that many of the staff from Toronto had flown down for the celebration. The tour was informative and we got to see a sampling of the daily life of a cigar, as well as meet the cigar master, Claudio.
I also had a chance to explore the cemetery here in Granada. Central America has some amazing cemeteries, with above ground graves and underground tombs. As we were riding out of town yesterday, we passed by Granada’s cemetery, the tombs gleaming white in the bright sunlight. I convinced Adam to stop so that I could take a few photos and admire the grandeur with which the locals memorialize their dearly departed.
The tombs were largely located underground, with a low, flat structure above ground and a tiny little door that opens onto a staircase or ladder in order to get below. Above ground, some were decorated with elaborate statues and crosses, but many were plain, and although in many of the cemeteries that we have passed by the markers are painted in bright colours, Granada’s cemetery markers were solely painted in white. This cemetery was truly a work of art, as well as a place of sanctuary, spirituality, and remembrance.
We have also had a chance to taste some of the local food specialties.
Our first day here, we rolled into town hungry and sweaty, so after a quick shower and change we headed off to Parque Central to find some sustenance. Instead of food carts, we found a few permanent restaurant stands with tables, and sat down to a mixed plate that included fried cheese, plantains, chicharron (fried pork skin), pinto gallo (beans and rice), and a bit of chicken and beef. Adam wasn’t a big fan of the chicharron which was thick and fried crispy (edit: we didn’t know it was a part of our dish), but the jury is still out with me on what I think about it.
Other than that Granada is a beautiful city; quaint, colonial, with many buildings with brightly painted facades. There are number of old churches, a fort, and plenty to see. It’s also quite touristy, and many of the prices at restaurants and hotels reflect the popularity of the place. We have been finding it a bit of a challenge finding affordable places to eat, and have taken advantage of the hostel kitchen and nearby grocery store to prepare some of our own meals. Thankfully one of us knows how to cook…
Since we haven’t updated our blog since Santa Ana (three countries ago!), here’s a quick recap of what has also been happening:
From Santa Ana in El Salvador, we crossed the border into Honduras which was a fairly painless process, although incredibly hot with temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius). Honduras didn’t end up being the nightmare that Adam had previously described, and we didn’t have any problems with corrupt cops or at the border (but have heard problematic recent reports from other travellers). The high temperatures, strong winds, and blowing dust that started shortly before the border crossing into El Salvador continued right across the country and into Honduras. Although we are here at the end of the rainy season, it is very dry and some of the landscapes resemble what I imagine dry African landscapes to look like: long, dry, yellow grass with stunted trees, and blowing dust. Adam has commented that these landscapes look completely different to him, having passed through during a rainy period (actually, being chased by a hurricane).
Once into Honduras, we headed to Choluteca, a city half way across the southern end of the country, and where Adam had stayed three years prior. As we stated before, we aren’t necessarily trying to stay in all the places Adam stayed before, but if a place was clean, close to amenities, and bug free it seems like a good place to stop once again, especially when we are solely in transit and just looking for a place to shower and sleep. It’s also a little funny to see Adam get all nostalgic on me. Unfortunately, once we arrived, the area had changed and Adam was unable to find the hotel where he previously stayed. After a few laps of the area and the hotel strip, we spied two other travel bikes parked in a the courtyard parking lot of a fairly upscale-looking hotel on the main strip.
Upon pulling into the parking lot, we discovered two things: one) that the bikes had Canadian license plates (one from British Columbia, and the other from Alberta), and two) that the hotel was both expensive and full for the night. By this time the owners of the bikes had seen us and had come out to say hello. Lee and Joel were heading back north to Canada after riding around Central America for the past few months. They also offered to share their room with us, since it had four double beds and more than enough room. We gladly accepted their invitation.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), I was quite comfortable with the idea of sharing a room with two strange men (and one that I was quite familiar with). It wasn’t long, anyway, before Joel and Lee didn’t feel so much like strangers any more. All it took was a good meal, a few drinks, and some great travel stories. There is also a bit of a kinship amongst us motorcycle travellers, and combined with that special something that makes Canadians Canadian, it was a no brainer.
In true fashion, I fell asleep shortly after returning to the room while the boys stayed up to swap stories. I have to admit that it was probably one of the best sleeps that I have had outside of the tent. Perhaps it was a ‘safety in numbers’ sort of thing. Perhaps we were spoiled by the air conditioned room (our first, since we have been opting for the non-AC rooms to save some cash). Perhaps I just like sleeping with strangers (is it getting old yet??). In the morning we parted ways (after one flat tire change – theirs, not ours), and even though I was a bit sorry to see them go, it was great to meet other Canadians on motorbikes and to have a bit more company even for one night.
Before long, we arrived at the border crossing into Nicaragua which proved to be fairly straight-forward but the fixers were a royal pain. We repeatedly told them that we didn’t need any help nor were we going to pay for any of their services and still had a young boy force his services on us, going so far as to follow us across the border from Honduras to Nicaragua. It created a very tense situation when, at the completion of the process the fixer repeatedly asked for money, as he was draped over the bikes. I don’t understand why they just don’t leave us alone when we clearly state that we are not interested and that we don’t want to pay for their services.
The borders have improved enough that most of the buildings are clearly marked and the process is largely the same at each one (immigration signs you out of one country, then aduana signs out your bike; then you drive up the road and immigration signs you into the new country, and aduana registers your bike, sometimes with insurance and sometimes not). The high pressure tactics adopted by the fixers which can include jumping out in front of your moving vehicle, touching and draping themselves over your bike, and not taking no for an answer, can be very intimidating and confusing.
Since there isn’t exactly a shortage of security at the borders, I would hope that one day they come down hard on these guys who are nothing but a pest and are poor representations for their country. Needless to say, it left a bad taste in our mouths and it certainly wasn’t the way that I wanted to enter Nicaragua, as I was looking forward to visiting this country after hearing some amazing things about it. Since we were both tired and quite disheartened we decided on a short ride day, and decided to stay close to the border, in Leon.
I had read some nice things about Leon, including pinpointing a few sites but we didn’t really get to see much of it. We arrived at our hostel mid to late afternoon, and after a quick shower we set off to find some food (are you seeing a pattern yet??). The buildings were brightly painted and had colonial flare, but there wasn’t a convenience store in sight despite combing a number of blocks around our hostel (Lazybones). We did find a phenomenal pizza place nearby which was one of the best pizzas that we have had since leaving the USA, and possible one of the best pizzas that I have ever eaten. Our hostel was nice enough, very clean, and our room on the second floor overlooking the swimming pool caught a lovely breeze in the evening which helped to quell the soaring temperatures.
Ok. Back to the party. So, yesterday we had actually packed up and had headed out of town, on our way to our next location but Adam was a little disappointed in having forgotten to grab a photo of us and the bikes in front of the Mombacho cigar factory before we left town, so we turned around and headed back into Granada and to Mombacho (the cigar factory, not the volcano). Not too many people were around but we did get our photo, and a formal invite to the party, so we decided to stay in town and headed back to the Oasis.
The Party: When arrived, the party was actually gated and we needed an invitation (which we didn’t have since we had been told by two people that it was an open party). It all worked out though since someone eventually came out with a stack of invites and gladly let us in. That someone turned out to be one of the owner of Mombacho cigars, Markus Raty, who we never formally met but whom we want to thank for opening his doors to us and inviting us inside!
It was quite the swanky soiree, indeed, with open bar serving beer and seven year Flor de Cana, sexy cigar girls offering up Mombacho’s finest, a drum and horn line complete with dancing girls in costume, lots of dancing, beautiful people, and rubbing elbows with some of Toronto’s finest.
Initial awkwardness eventually and soon we were out on the dance floor (yes, Adam too!), and celebrating with the rest. Adam actually danced and even joined in the limbo with the feather head-dressed dancers. Rum flowed like water, cigar smoke wafted into the night, and a great time was had. A huge thanks to Claudio, Markus, Cam, Victoria, and everyone else for their hospitality and for being a part of our journey! It was an amazing thing to be a part of!
[Adam adds: I also basically lost one of my zippered travel pant legs on the swimming-pool-now-dance-floor as my zipper snagged on something, came off and also started to remove my whole leg providing me with a new look – one leg in pants, and other in shorts. I roughly corrected the issue the best I could, fixed one of the zippers the next day. I still have to perform surgery on the upper zipper but I have no need for long pants at the moment].
Next stop: San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua – a surf/beach party town.