We woke to a beautiful sunset over the rolling green hills after our first camping night in Nicaragua. Our friendly French neighbors which we had met at the border, also camped with us and we shared a morning chat about our plans whilst in the town of Estelí. A cigar tour and horse riding topped the list as well as volcano hikes, this area seemed to have it all. As previously mentioned in Kenya, our hiking days are over and the idea sampling the sights by horseback held merit. First on the list was to check out the local Tobacco plantations and find ourselves a cigar factory tour.
We found ourselves a guide and spent an afternoon discovering how to make a great cigar and what the tobacco industry means to Esteli and Nicaragua. We quickly realized we knew zero about cigars or tobacco and spent the next couple of hours learning about this most lucrative industry.
We were guided through the entire process, from how the plants are grown and what leaves are used where to putting the finishing touches on the final leaf of the finest Nicaraguan cigar, ready to export to the world and to Cuba of all places.
Some of the interesting facts we learnt:
- 80% of the locals from the Estelí region are gainfully employed thanks to the tobacco industry, some of who have worked in the same factory for over 40+ years.
- Nicaragua rolls some of the most highly sort after cigars in the world
- The land in the Estelí area is some of the best in the world for tobacco growing conditions, which has led to overseas factories buying land and generating production from this area, including the Cubans
- Woman only are employed to ‘Finish’ the cigars, due to their delicate hands…hello…of course!
- Cigars at the factory were $2 each, overseas the same cigar will sell for over $20
- The process of rolling a cigar takes around 25 minutes, excluding leaf curing, sorting & grading
- A vacuum machine is used to audit batches of cigars for ‘draw’ or smoke ability
- Factory staff smoke cigarettes while rolling cigars, but the old ladies proudly suck on stooges
- Somewhere in the world an industry leader is going to smoke our crap ‘tourist rolled’ cigars and its fantastic
- You can and will turn green smoking a cigar the size of your forearm
After we walked through the process, step by step, we were then invited to attempt our very own cigar. Needless to say we were up for the challenge and although our bungled attempts were giggled at by the staring girl workers, Russ managed to get his passed and onto the processing tray, we still speculate on which sucker brought the cigar and that he will never know it was made by a less than amateur. Even though neither of us smoke cigars, we both decided it would be rude to not participate in the final taste testing. So our guide gathered up a selection of the finest and we got a cracking lighting these puppies up. Small ones, large ones, light ones, heavy ones, Russ got in there on all of them, and after half an hour of puff puff pass, the green on the face set in and it was time to leave.
Next on the list was Horseback riding! We had heard of an area around Estelí called the Mira Flores, this is a mountain where the flora changes with each rise in altitude. Apparently there is no better way of exploring a countryside that on horseback… apparently. We drove to the community of El Coyote first thing in the morning and parked at our guide’s house and waited for the days transport to arrive. With our Spanglish and his zero English, we wondered how much information about the area we would get on this trip. Anna was full of excitement and ready to gallop, Russ, hoping that his fifth horse ride ever would end in an 80% fall off rate… to date it stood at 100%.
Watching as he was hoisted up onto Lupe aka Racer/ Phar Lap, it appeared Russ was not confident in all things! We set of through the country side and the chorus of “Hi ho silver” took on a whole new meaning. Our guide jabbered away in Spanish, pointed to various trees, plants, and hills, we smiled and were back to the familiar repetitive “Si Si, ok Si” It is amazing how much you can learn from just pointing, hand and face signals and general nodding.
We rode up the spectacular landscape to the top of a hill that overlooked the entire Mira flora valley, the views were breathtaking. Our guide pointed out his family home, his brothers, sisters and parents homes, all located in on a substantial block of land had been in the family for ever and he hoped one day his son would take over from him. It was awesome to see the proudness in his eyes and the tradition of their life style.
Russ seemed to be getting the hang of this horse riding thing and every now and then the guide would give Lupe aka Racer/ Phar Lap a light whip on the rump and we would be off, a trot then a gallop, Russ’s arms and knees flailing like a rag doll all the while crying out “whoa racer whoa”. I think for entertainment factor we got our monies worth.
After visiting a waterfall and going for a swim in a freezing cold swimming hole it was time to head back to the homestead and walk terra firma once more. Bums throbbing we waddled back to Troy and made our way back down to camp. Sitting in the truck on the way back made us wish we had brought those travel bum doughnuts that were on sale in Kathmandu at Bondi Junction. Think the road to recovery might be a slow one.
Debating had begun as to where and for how long we would spend in Nicaragua. So far we were loving it and there seemed so much more to see and explore. With time ticking we decided on a volcano, an island and a beach, all of which had been highly recommended. The volcano was first up. Volcan Masaya is one of the only active volcanoes where you can drive the rim and walk to the edge. You can’t go past and active volcano! We arrived early and were promptly given a hard hat each and an English rundown of the dos and don’ts in the park. The most interesting note was to spend no more than 15mins around the crater and avoid breathing the sulfurous and noxious gasses. We found this quite amusing because when we did get to the top we saw the local vendors selling fruit and horse rides, they are there all day every day and use their shirts to filter out the ‘bad gasses’. We don our shiny yellow hats and commence our drive up, passing the old lava fields that line the road and national park around us. It was only a year ago that Masaya exploded and rained molten lava & hot ash onto the surrounding area killing a few and wounding many. And here we were, off to the top with just our hard hats and a smile. Occupational health and Safety is alive and kicking in Latin America… not.
It was quite a sight to see, even though the lava pool couldn’t be seen due to the billowing gasses, the energy you feel standing looking down the barrel of something so large, active and alive is confronting. The crater itself is deep and large, leaning over to look in leaves you with a sense of insignificance and mortality. Volcano’s will do this to you I guess.
The walk around the other dormant craters gave way to a spectacular view of the area and panoramic shots of the surrounding lakes, towns and rolling hills. It was lush, yet rugged, and the starkness of the volcanic rock gave it a prehistoric Martian feel. Our camp was off the volcano and on the other side of the lava fields and as so many times before we spent the night alone in the camping area and enjoying having the place to ourselves. We stoked a small fire and toasted a beer to past days and times to come. Waking early to the big and bold sunrise we packed up and said goodbye to the spider monkeys playing in the trees next to Troy. The night watchman approached as we started to drive of and gently probed us for payment or as cash gift for no real explanation, we politely declined and headed out the park and toward the coast, destination Isla De Ometepe.
Isla De Ometepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, it consists of 2 matching volcano’s at each end of the island, it’s a rare site to see, both looming heights right next to each other. We needed to take a small vehicle ferry over and after a 30 minutes of debating the new ‘Ferry Tax’ being applied to our fees, we reversed Troy boy down the rickety ferry ramp and into pole position on the ferry. The trip over was beautiful, the large cone shapes getting larger and larger in our view, we did a quick read up in the lonely planet and set the GPS for the north side lake beaches. We spent a weekend on the island, soaking up the unique island life lifestyle, slowing our pace to match the local ways. Apart from the dump trucks Troy was easily the largest and loudest vehicle on the island. As we cruised down the small, local streets with our looming size and noisy exhaust with a hole in it, heads turned at every direction and we were met with stares, smiles and waves. The people on Isla De Ometepe were extremely friendly and happy. We love this about beach and island life, hang 10 really fits the bill.
As with most of the destination in Central America, campgrounds are far and few between, restaurant car parks or abandoned hotels are the usual locations to set up safely for the night. Isla De Ometepe was no exception, and it appeared even harder with the dirt road and lack of cars and car parks. But we managed to luck in and the local hospitality shined though, both nights we approached larger hotels and asked politely about camping in their grounds, both time we were met with a “no problem, no charge, just buy a beer” One even directed us right to the front of their lake side location and told us to set up on the water’s edge. We were not complaining! Our days on the island were spent exploring the rugged roads, spying on the local life, swimming in the lake and soaking in fresh water thermal springs. The beauty here was stunning and the vistas under sunset were on par with some of the best we have seen in the world. Nicaragua is just tick, tick and tick so far!
Our last stop was to hit the pacific coast and head to the well know Matilda s which lays 16 odd kilometers north of Playa del Sur (or Playa del Sewer to local gringos). Time for the sun on the skin and sea salt in the hair. We plugged in the GPS coordinates for a recommended beach camp and as we jigged along the long, dusty dirt road hoped there was a well worth reward at the end. We were not let down, this place was a paradise, the blue waters, piped waves and white smooth sand. It hit all our requirements for staying more than a night, so we set up the camper front and center and settled in for 3 nights. As we were tucking into our rice and beans, voices could be heard that were very familiar, 2 strong kiwi accents stood out from a nearby chatter and we quickly hovered to make conversation, our first kiwis we had met on the road, it felt like home. We proceeded to spend the next few days soaking up the heat of the day and passing the nights around our lantern sharing bottles of rum. We trekked to the top of the cliffs for sunset over the pristine surrounding Bahia and reminisced about Kiwiland as we listened to old skool tunes pumping from the local Canadian resident’s tent. Conversations flowed easily and we decided these 2 crazy Kats should hit the road with us and we offered for them to hitch a ride over the next border and head into Costa Rica with us. Deal done, we all stowed into Troy and hit the road reluctantly.
We all had the same feeling, Nicaragua was spectacular and by far one of our favorite countries we had all visited so far, none of us wanted to leave and could have easily spent another week in that same spot. We wanted Nicaragua to be never-ending, it’s a hidden gem in Central America and we had fallen in love with every part of this country. We can’t recommend this place enough for a visit and with all it has to offer, we know we will be back, but for now it’s time to keep moving and head to costly Costa Rica and back onto the Americano tourist trail…
Check out the Nicaragua pics : http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.489815831054194.1073741825.319040084798437&type=3