Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Leon, Nicaragua and beyond

Leon, Nicaragua and beyond

Happy to be done with the border crossings and having been crammed into this mini bus I was happy to be on the final leg of our drive to Leon. Two borders in 12 hours is more than enough and with constant delays we were definitely going to arrive late.

Where to stay in Leon…

We finally arrived at around 1 am and our first stop was Bigfoot Hostel. This is the most popular place for backpackers in Leon and is a 24/7 party but was fully booked and definitely not my style. They have dorm rooms that start at $6 per night or $8 per night if you want AC. Single rooms start at $20 per night with a shared bathroom and $26 per night with a private bathroom.

Another option in Leon is Tortuga Booluda(The Lazy Turtle) which has a more chilled out vibe. The dorm rooms here are $7 per night and include breakfast and coffee. The rates are also reasonable for single rooms that either have an ensuite or shared outside bathroom and these start at $16 per night.

We found most places were booked up and didn’t have a reservation so me and a few guys who I had also shared a shuttle with between Antigua and El Tunco, El Salvador a week before decided to stay atLazybones Hostel. We split on a private room with a shared bathroom for 230C/$9 each but a basic dorm starts at 210C/$8 and a single private room is 520C/$20. These prices also included the 15% tax that is charged in Nicaragua.

Some photos of Lazybones hostel in Leon.

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This was a great choice and we had a large spacious room in a good part of the city. This was a converted colonial mansion that had a huge open courtyard in the centre of the building, a swimming pool and lots of balcony space. They also provided free coffee in the morning and had a restaurant with a really good menu. The staff was also very helpful in arranging any tours, shuttle or in my case my car rental that I would need the following morning. This would be the start of my journey to the beaches of Popoyo and more specifically Playa Guasacate, Playa Santana and Playa Jiquiliste.

Time for a road trip…Leon to Playa Guasacate and the beaches of Popoyo

After a late night I was still up early and packing my things to hurry and pick up my car from the rental agency. There aren’t many options for car rentals outside of Managua. Avis only has locations in Managua and Alamo has offices in Managua and San Juan del Sur. The only car rental agency in Leon was Dollar Rent-a-Carwhich has the most locations compared to the other agencies and treated me very well. This was a small office located within a car dealership and I decided to rent a Toyota Rav4 for 7200C/$280 USD per week. Weekly or longer rentals also forego the extra fee for dropping the vehicle off at a different location which is what I planned on doing once I had made it all the way South to San Juan del Sur. As usual car rental agencies aren’t in the business of renting cars as much as they are in the business of selling you insurance. Usually when you forego anything more than the basic insurance you are going to hear the typical spiel that you are being foolish and taking a great risk etc. etc… I didn’t get any of this from the agent and I wasn’t uphold into getting a larger 4×4 either which is quite common in this part of the world. I’ve crossed many of small rivers and been through a lot in the past with Rav4′s and for the money they are the way to go. One thing I found interesting about this transaction was that they were still manually taking a carbon copy of credit cards for the pre-authorization.  I wasn’t charged anything until the vehicle was returned and before I accepted the vehicle we went through a thorough inspection of the vehicle and a few small things that I hadn’t been able to notice were quickly pointed out to me showing the honesty of the dealership. I also was shown that all the fluids were topped up which is definitely going the extra mile with customer service. One thing that I would have appreciated was a gps being available for rent but they didn’t offer this service.

My Visa being ran through the old fashion way!

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My shiny red Rav4. I know it won’t look like this when I return it!

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About half an hour later I was off and running in the busy streets of Leon. A few turns and about 10 minutes on the road I was on the highway headed out of town. One of the best things about Nicaragua is there aren’t too many locations in this country that you can’t see a volcano. There are 19 active volcanoes here and it’s fascinating to be around so many. Quite a few of them you can actually drive right up to or visit on a short hike. As anything as physical demanding as hiking make sure you do your research and see what areas would be worth hiring a guide for. As always I suggest using a local guide and supporting the local economy instead of some foreign owned tour company financing someones expat lifestyle.

One of the many volcanoes I passed by en route.

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Nicaraguas police and corruption…

Anyone who has been to Nicaragua knows that the police are some of the most corrupt in the world and I knew sooner or later on my drive I’d be pulled over for either something I had done and didn’t realize or something I hadn’t done. About 20 minutes on the road I was pulled over at a check point. The police asked me where I was going and checked my car registration documents, my international drivers license and my passport. Never give these away to be looked at and always show the documents keeping your hands on them. Once you pass these off you will most likely be blackmailed into getting them back. I showed my documents and they let me drive away without incident. One of my old tricks when I rent a car is to keep american and local currency payoff money separate in my pockets. One pocket for a $20, one for a $10, one for a $5 and the equivalent of $20 US in the local currency which is called the Cordoba.

Another 20 minutes down the road the same thing happened and I was also cleared to keep going without any problems. As the saying goes ’3rd time’s a charm’ I was pulled over another time when I slowed down at a checkpoint that had transport trucks pulled over at the side of the road. When I started to slow down I was passed by a few vehicles behind me and realized that this was for trucks only and didn’t need to stop. When I started to pull away one of the officers stepped in front of my vehicle and waved me over and this is when I figured it was going to cost me a few bucks to get out of this one.

Pulled over I was asked for my documents and they really wanted to hold them hostage but I was too smart for that. The police officer then started to write a home made ticket on a blank piece of paper complete with a crooked signature line and told me that I had 3 choices. Go to the bank then the police station, go to the police station or the bank or the easiest and fastest would just be to go to the bank and pay the fine. This whole time I didn’t find out what I had done wrong and didn’t think it was worth my time or effort to find out. I knew why I was being pulled over. I was a gringo in a rental car and they had me at the side of the road. The initial price of the ticket was 2000C/$80 but after arguing and haggling I ended up giving him the equivalent of 310C/$12. Any time I’ve been in this situation the best way to get out of a big payout is to tell the police that they aren’t the only one with problems. I said I had to fill up the gas tank, buy lunch and needed to pay for a hotel room. This is the best way to handle these problems and I gave him $5 in US currency and the rest in Cordobas. You know you’re getting shaken down when the police thanks you as you drive away. One thing to realize about the police in Nicaragua is that they make C1020/$40a week and if many were in their situation perhaps they would rip tourists off too!

Back on the road…

After that ordeal I didn’t have any more problems with the police and I was almost in Managua which you have to bypass on the way to the Southern Pacific beaches I was destined for. It’s not easy to know what roads to take down here but the last thing I wanted was to accidentally drive into the centre of the capital city by accident. I had to stop a few times to get my bearings straight but after a few turns I was on the road South. I was to continue on this road until a small town called Ochomogo where I’d veer off and make my way towards the coast. I had to go through a couple pretty rough towns on this drive and one thing I noticed was that traffic rules don’t apply. It’s every man for themselves and expect the unexpected. These were Diriamba, Jinotepe and Nandaime and weren’t places I’d want to hang around for any length of time.

Don’t expect any rules of the road to apply while passing through these cities. If you see an opportunity you go for it and you have to assume this same attitude from the other drivers!

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A truckload of bananas for sale!

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A random fruit stand offering the biggest papayas I’ve ever seen anywhere in my travels!

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Once I got to Ochomogo I made a turn at the local police station and started to head through the jungle down a dirt road to reach the pristine beaches of Popoyo. This road took me through rivers, along high hills and lush valleys and was one of the least developed places I’ve ever been in my life. I’d also consider Nicaragua to be the most undeveloped country I’ve ever been so this was no surprise judging by where I was headed. This being said make sure you have a full tank of gas and whatever else you might not be able to go without depending on your needs. Not once on this drive did I see fuel for sale and a gas station is out of the question this far off the beaten path. Commonly gas is sold out of peoples houses or at service stations but commonly these only have diesel.

You can also expect construction and usually it’s not the safest setup!

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The thick jungle that this road was carved out of!

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This was one of the longest drives I’ve done on a dirt road and every so often I’d see a local farmer on horseback or operating a bull drawn carriage or trailer. Here they use bulls a lot for getting things from point to point and its amazing how much they can handle.

There is also extensive bus transportation throughout the country and there wasn’t a place I went to that didn’t have a chicken bus passing through at some point. This is also a drive that I wouldn’t suggest making at night because of the soft shoulders on the road, the sheer drops into the jungle and the many rivers that are necessary to cross.

The most washed out part of the road that I encountered!

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The chicken bus that services the area. The guy hanging off the back handles the bags and is constantly moving between the roof and the back door of the bus to give people whatever they happen to be travelling with. I’ve seen anything imaginable including full size sofas and appliances on top of some.

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The first town I made it to on this dirt road was Escalante and just to be safe I double checked the directions to get to Popoyo and more importantly Playa Guasacate which is where I was going to be staying for the next week.  I’m glad I double checked as I had to take the previous turn off which was less than 100m behind where I was stopped. This was the last turn off I needed to take that wasn’t marked with signs and it was a welcome site when I finally did see a sign.

After passing through a few more rivers I had finally reached Popoyo and from there I found signs pointing me in the direction of Playa Guasacate and knew I’d soon be able to park and relax at the beach. From here you can also take a road to Playa Santana and Playa Jiquiliste. Another thing I also realized was that I’m not sure how far I would have made it in the rainy season as the rivers were very low and I still had to floor the gas pedal and hope for the best going through a few of the rivers. I got lucky at one point and was driving towards another chicken bus that I was happy to wait back for and see how he planned on crossing the river. The driver obviously had local knowledge based on how he navigated through the rivers and in most cases this meant not going straight through the middle.

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This was definitely one of the crazier drives I’ve had over the years of travelling to foreign countries and if it was rainy season there is no way I would have made it to my destination without a large 4×4 truck or SUV. Once I made it to Guasacate I was going to be happy to have a good meal and crack a cold beer.

Gone on a whim…