- The famous pizza of El Zopilote
- As budget as it can get
- An unexpected encounter
- The joy of getting stuck among locals
- A history of human and natural catastrophes
- A colonial jewel
- Time to say goodbye
I am in Granada now, a colonial city in Nicaragua. This is our last proper day in Latin America. Tomorrow we have a bus back to San Jose and then it´s time to say goodbye. It´s been a while since I wrote last, when we had just come back from some serious wildlife watching along the Caribbean coast. So let´s start off where we stopped: pizza!
The famous pizza of El Zopilote
We woke up very early on Tuesday morning and the owner of our hostel drove us to the bus terminal. Well that was the plan, however, when I saw a sign “Aeropuerto” outside of my window I got suspicious. So I kindly asked him whether he was aware that we did not need to get to the airport but to the bus station. He reacted with the quickest U-turn I have ever seen and managed to drive back in half the time we needed to get there and we arrived at the terminal just in time.
This was only the start of an odyssey which would end with an authentic Italian wood fired pizza in our bellies. At least this was what several travelers had promised us in the jungle of Panama. The next step was surviving the polar temperatures caused by (classic) excessive air conditioning in the bus. We saw it coming, were equipped with jumper and long trousers. Nevertheless, we froze for 5 more hours until we got out at the border for a 40 degrees exhausting 2 hour crossing.
The place we wanted to get to was on Isla Ometepe (“two hills” in Maya language), a pretty big island formed by two volcanoes in the middle of the 7th biggest freshwater lake in the world, the Lago Nicaragua. So another ferry ride and even on the island it was a 2 hours bus ride from one end to the other. Then a 15 minutes’ walk uphill in the jungle and finally, finally we had reached the El Zopillote!
After having put our stuff down we went straight to the jungle pizzeria. Basically the owner of this hostel is an Italian and he could not live without his pizza. So he built a proper stone oven in the jungle and instructed his staff how to prepare real Italian thin crust pizza! Obviously they do not have proper ham, nor mozzarella or other essentials, but a part of that it´s perfect!
It is just so surreal to sit on one of the boulders/chairs looking at these Nicaraguan ladies flattening the dough skillfully to then through it into the massive oven. We were eating with our new German friends who we had changed their plans after we had told them about this mysterious pizzeria. Together we ordered 5 different pizzas and had a proper Italian feast. It was just perfect and especially after we had projected this moment for so long.
As budget as it can get
Let´s now come to the downside of the whole El Zopillote experience. When we got there they didn’t have any beds anymore. They only had 3 hammocks for the night, and we were 5 people. Cecilia bought a hammock in San Jose which we managed to hang up and then we took one for the team and volunteered to share a hammock, not a good idea.
When we went to bed first we saw the biggest spider of this trip so far right above our hammock in the roof, a proper tarantula style hairy fat brown spider. Then we heard something crawling, cockroaches next to us on our backpacks. When we tried to get into the hammock, we realized that it was definitely not made for two people, but nevertheless we managed to find a position which enabled both of us to fit into the hammock. The worst came during the night, after we had already made it through several hours without moving, when the clear night gave way to a monsoon storm. It started raining heavily and the strong wind made the roof over our heads completely superfluous. I got cold, wet and even putting on my rain jacket did not help, it was just too much.
I got the bill the next day: sore throat, headache and eventually fever. This pizza cost me 3 days of my trip and we decided to move to another town and another hostel for the next nights, which I spent sweating and curing my throat infection. Lesson learned: never share an open air hammock during monsoon season.
An unexpected encounter
Every cloud has silver lining, however. When we walked up to our hammock that night after our pizza feast a girl was walking behind us. She was staying in the same dorm (we slept on the porch of the house) and we started talking in the dark. After a couple of standard questions she was like “are you Sebastian who studies in London and has a travel blog?”. Basically, the person standing right in front of me in a jungle hostel on an island in Nicaragua was one of my best friend´s sister, Paola, who I had never seen before but who recognized me as she knows my blog.
Paola is also travelling in Central America and has been to Panama and Costa Rica like us, but I had no idea and if it hadn’t been for hundreds of coincidences our paths would never have crossed. We spent the following days together, along with 4 other Germans (Cecilia´s German year abroad has already started) until they headed on to Granada and Cecilia and I had to stay behind due to my illness. So we took a compulsory group picture for our friend/sister Melanie back in Germany the next day and even after a day we couldn’t believe the odds.
The joy of getting stuck among locals
It is always shit getting ill, even more so when you are travelling. Unfortunately, I do not have a very strong immune system and it does happen to me from time to time. The night in the hammock with the storm was just too much and my body reacts extremely heavily whenever something is wrong. So high fever, sweat, shivering, headache, nightmares – all the classics. Moreover, I have my theory that you need fever to fight the illness and therefore I am reluctant to taking anything that would lower it.
This usually works out if it is only for a day or two, however, I was boiling in my own sweat in a shabby room with 40 degrees room temperature and it was not getting any better. Thank god we picked a hotel with a super nice owner, Manuel, who helped us with everything, called a doctor, went to the pharmacy to get me medicine and did not accept any money for this. So I took some antibiotics for 3 days and now I am basically back on track.
It was shit getting ill, however, it was also quite nice, because we got stuck in a place which traveler would never really stay at more than a night. Altagracia is one of the bigger towns on Ometepe and, as we found out, a popular place for upper-class Nicaraguans to come on a weekend. So on Saturday morning minibuses packed with 3 families each arrived on the lot of our hotel. It was nice, because it gave the place such a different atmosphere than the hostels we usually go to. Moreover, the owner was a local running the place with all of his family (baby to granny) and he was just so attentive and answering to all of our questions.
Shopping in town was also an experience: prices are kind of standardized to 1 Cordoba (0.05 Dollar). Whichever fruit (Mango, Banana, Watermelon, Pineapple) or bakery (cookies, cinnamon rolls, cinnamon triangles) you buy, everything for that ridiculous amount. It was awesome and we are actually managing to keep our overall travel budget after 8 days in super cheap Nicaragua. We loved the place, as simply strolling around the calm streets was an unforgettable experience, with everyone greeting you and the mighty active Volcano Conception in the background.
A history of human and natural catastrophes
To put these News into context, just a short overview of Nicaraguan history: up to 1821 it is the same as everywhere – indigenous tribes living here which originally came from Asia and crossed the Behring Strait 8000 years ago. Then the Spanish came and exploited and decimated them and finally they got their independence from Spain with Mexico´s help in 1821.
Similar to Panama or Laos (and many countries for that matter), the main interferer was and has been the US. Their main interest was obtaining the sole rights to build a transatlantic canal through Nicaragua. Curiously, they never actually intended to do so and always preferred the narrower Isthmus of Panama for that purpose, however, they didn’t want any other country to possibly mess up their plans. As a result, they backed guerilla groups at the beginning of the 20th century to overthrow the president and then stationed marines in Nicaragua for 30 years.
When the Samoza dictatorships took over (plural as it was first the father, and then the two sons) in 1937, the US happily withdrew their forces as it was very pro-American. The atrocities committed in the 40 years that followed were ignored by the US and thousands of Nicaraguans had to lose their lives in this period.
After a revolution which overthrew the dictatorship and the last Samoza, Nicaragua tried to get back to normality in a country which did not only have to deal with political hardships, but also with horrible natural hazards being located close to three tectonic plates. To make things worse, the US (again) were not happy about the very pro-Cuban and pro-Venezuelan government and decided to enforce a trade embargo on Nicaragua and back domestic guerilla groups called the contras. This way, they have continued to basically make presidents resign until a more conservative candidate is in power to then lift the embargo again.
Nowadays, Nicaragua is doing alright and is engaging in more trade relations than ever. Although it is on the Columbian-US drug route, its crime levels are decisively lower than in neighboring states and it is therefore quite safe to travel.
A colonial jewel
After I got hold of illness and felt fit enough to travel on, we took our backpacks and travelled on to Granada, the supposedly first European city in mainland America, founded 1524. It is located on the northwestern edge of Lago Nicaragua and surrounded by volcanoes. We haven´t really been to any cities yet, a part of futuristic Panama City, but we heard so much good feedback on this colorful city that we decided to make it our last stop on our Central American journey.
When you get out of the bus in southern Granada and try to walk the 15 blocks to the center your senses are put on a serious challenge: chicken running around, cars, buses, bikes and horses sharing one lane which also serves as the local market for simply everything. Then hundreds of people on the side of t he road trying to make a living by selling everything you could possibly turn into a few coins. I just love this chaos, which reminds me of many places in Asia (any place in India) and which we hadn’t seen like this in Costa Rica and Panama.
The houses here are all very pretty, one floor only, square shape with a big green court-yard in the middle. Our hostel has a particularly nice one, with a garden in the middle and chill-out area all around. They have nice wooden rooms and prepare an insanely good red curry which we have been eating for the last three days.
But let´s not get carried away on food and back to Granada: it has many ancient Spanish colonial churches, and being so flat, you can see all of town if you climb one of the 20m high bell towers. Then for some reason they painted all the houses in hundreds of different colors which just fits into this market atmosphere. Moreover, it´s fairly safe and we can just stroll around trying all sorts of food from the vendors and buying fruit which we then put in the freezer and eat basically frozen.
There is plenty of stuff to do around Granada too, but we are not that keen on climbing volcanoes with 40 degrees and therefore we just took a day tour to a lagoon which was created by the eruption of one of the surrounding volcanoes. The whole crater filled up with water and you can now paddle around its blue water while gazing at this mighty natural sight. We wanted to take it easy on our last day, get our final well-deserved sun burn and just chill before two days of travelling again.
Time to say goodbye
The last two months have taken me through 7 different countries, all the way up Latin-America from the freezing snow-capped Andes in the south to Caribbean surf towns with endless palm-fringed beaches in the north. I have seen incredible natural wonders, tasted delicious food, met incredible people and experienced unknown highs and also lows. I also blogged for the first time and to be honest I still have a lot to learn, especially on how to combine my free and spontaneous travel style with the discipline needed to maintain the blog. But I am proud that I managed to actually do it and post regularly.
I really hope you guys enjoyed it, and I will be back on the road soon, travelling is not a hobby, it´s a way of life.
But my trip is not completely over now. I am heading to New York for 5 days, a city I have never been to and always wanted to go to. However, I do not want to write News from the US or Europe, I just don’t feel like it. If you are lucky you might get a food feast special report though J
Ok, time to hit the bed, tomorrow we have hundreds of kilometers and a border crossing ahead of us.
Hasta luego viejos