By boat and taxi and chicken bus

The day yesterday began at 4:30 am with a few sharp knocks on our door. We had decided the day before to leave El Castillo and settle in for the remainder of the trip in León. As was our luck all flights from San Carlos were booked up and we had a long travel day ahead of us.

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Sunrise in El Castillo

With bleary eyes I grabbed my backpack and we headed down the darkened street toward the port to begin our first leg of the journey on the 5 am boat from El Castillo to San Carlos. Luckily we got there slightly early as the boat began to quickly fill up and as the trip went on people were stuck standing. The normally three hour trip took longer due to the fact that we again stopped at every dock or bank along the way to pick up or drop off passengers. I slept off and on while the day grew hotter.

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Clark & Lam – super psyched about the boat ride

We arrived in San Carlos around 8:30 am just missing the early bus to Managua, the next one wasn’t leaving until 12. Getting a ticket at the bus station was slightly confusing but in hindsight here’s how it works: After getting off the boat the ayudantes (drivers’ helpers) are calling out the bus destinations and the time they leave. You can pre purchase a ticket which will then reserve a seat for you, otherwise you can take your chances buying on board and maybe standing up for the ride. The buses aren’t parked in the bays that they leave from because there isn’t enough room for all the buses, so what looks like an empty bay is actually where you board about 10 minutes before departure.

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Bus figured out – on to León!

So we purchased our tickets for the chicken bus to Managua (150 cordobas, roughly $6.50) and had a few hours to kill. San Carlos doesn’t have much to it, and even less on a Sunday. The mercado only had a few stalls open and the vegetable vendors were not out in force as they were when we first passed through. We took a walk up to the central park slightly up the hill, and then a bit further up to the remains of the fort of San Carlos. The “fort” as it was would not have been recognized as a fort had they not put a sign up near the two remaining walls telling you what had been there. We did manage to get a good view of the town layout though. With our time dwindling we had breakfast and then boarded the bus.

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Bus snack – they sell all kinds of food on the bus. You may be uncomfortable but you won’t starve

I had never been in a chicken bus before but had a read a bit to get the impression that the ride would not be first class. The buses are just old American or Canadian school buses, often repainted with designs and the destination/origination of the bus route. There is no AC and the windows need to be down to get decent air flowing through the bus. Even then it’s still hot. Every time the bus stops, which can be three times in as many minutes, the hot air stalls and settles on your skin. People get jammed in as tight as they can pack them in so you may, as I did, end up with someone’s butt half in your seat.

The upside to this is being able to be part of what is daily life for people in Nicaragua. The scenes out of the bus window were a view into how the rural and small town Nicaraguans live. Corrugated tin roofs are the norm, block walls or wood planks loosely nailed to framing constitute walls. There were chickens, stray dogs and pigs everywhere, our bus had to honk and slow down to get a few cows out of the road once. Most people are by our definition poor, and not in the they can’t afford to shop at Walmart kind of poor, they’re a probably have dirt floors kind of poor.

Once our 6.5 hour bus ride dropped us off in Managua we had to take a taxi roughly 30 min to the other bus station where the mini buses were which would take us to León. The taxi driver I’m pretty sure overcharged us but at only $4 a person was still not bad. We got dropped off halfway across town just in time to take the last four available seats in the mini bus to León. The 1.5 hour ride cost 46 cordobas ($2) a person, and was like the chicken bus only smaller and with windows that wouldn’t open on my side. The mini bus dropped us off in a sketchy looking part of town, or at least it appeared that way in the dark. We caught a cab for $4 to the hostel we had read about and luckily they had a room available for the four of us.

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Celebrating our arrival with El Comandante – the mural on a wall of our hostel room

After what ended up being a 17 hour travel day from door to do ended on a high note. Bigfoot Hostel is only $6 pp for our room, and when we got in it was pizza night at the adjoining cafe (large pizza and two mojitos for $7) so after dropping our bags in the room it was dinner time and then much deserved sleep.

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The perfect end to an arduous day

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Mmmmmmm…..mojitos!

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León…..let’s slide down a volcano!

We had read about volcano boarding before we came to Nica but didn’t plan on ending up in León so once here we decided to check it out. Apparently this is also on CNN’s list of 50 death defying things to do before you die. Our hostel was giving a deal, $30 for the tour, a beer and two mojitos at the end and free breakfast if you booked another night, considering we were going to stay another night anyway this was a great deal.

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Lounging before breakfast

I woke at 7 am and headed to the cafe to get some coffee and breakfast. Clark and Laura decided to do there own thing so Harmony and I had a quick breakfast and jumped in the giant orange truck that would be taking us up to Cerro Negro for the volcano boarding. What volcano boarding essentially is, is sitting down on a sled fashioned of plywood with a strip of formica on the bottom that allows you to slide down the volcanic pebbles on one side of the volcano. Some people have gotten up to upper 80+ km per hour.

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Cerro Negro – see if you can spot the track we’d be sliding down

We took a bumpy 45 minute ride outside of León on gravel roads twisting through farmland and ranches. As we passed a school some children waved and yelled ‘hola’ at us, and the men on horseback who had to move out of the way of our truck waved at us as well. As Cerro Negro loomed in the distance and the track we were going to slide down was pointed out I started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into, the volcano looked STEEP.

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Parked at the base of Cerro Negro

We parked at the base of the volcano to begin our trek up the hill, it was slightly slow going for. It as the volcanic rocks slipped and slid on each other. Normally I don’t advocate for certain types of travel gear, but the Adidas Approach shoes I brought as my everyday wear had amazing grip, especially for this type of climb. We took a break halfway up, and then another before we reached the summit where we’d begin our descent. Our guide pointed out to us the line of about seven volcanoes, including the one we were standing on, which happened to be the youngest at 161 years old and also the most recently active. Nice to know at any moment we could be in the middle of an eruption, no wonder they didn’t make us sign any waivers, ha.

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Starting the trek up the volcano

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A much deserved break halfway up

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At the top of Cerro Negro

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On top of a volcano….that’s right, a VOLCANO!

The views from the top were amazing, you could see smoke wafting out of some crevices and smell the sulfur. If you scraped off an inch or two of the upper surface rocks the area under was super hot to the touch. Our guide explained how we were supposed to sit, steer, break et and it was time to head down the volcano. Harmony was the first to go down and looked to be hitting s pretty decent speed, I wish I could say the same for me.

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Suited up

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Let’s do this!

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Harms getting ready for her speedy ride down

Volcano boarding is harder than it looks, or it least it was for me. Ideally you want to tighten your core, lift your legs off the ground while leaning back and let gravity do its work. Apparently easier to write than perform as I could not do any of the above with any sort of skill or regularity. I ended up sliding to a halt w couple of times coming down and arrived at the bottom slightly disappointed and with an embarrassing radar reading that I’ll not share.

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Ida from Denmark and Harmony – first ones down the volcano

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My volcano boarding skills were below my expectations

All in all it was a fun experience and I definitely recommend it if you’re coming to León, if anything for the hike, the company and if it suits your, for the cold beer they give you an the ride back and the two mojitos waiting at the hostel. For $30 including a nights stay and free breakfast, totally a deal. Another win for Bigfoot Hostel.

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So the worst beer we’ve had here has another variation – equally as gross

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Harms savoring the victory of her second place finish