The Other Colonial City

Alright, so, fun fact, the ferry that takes you to Big Corn on Wednesdays and back to Bluefields on Thursdays is a lovely, big, stable ferry that looks like it has “staying afloat” on its list of things to do today. The ferry that brought us to Big Corn on Saturday is a tiny, rocking vomit machine. We didn’t realise this until we boarded the floating wonder on the Thursday to head back to the mainland and a couple of guys were like, yeah we came here on this, we didn’t know what you were on about when you said it was awful. Well, shit. Pro tip then, guys! Sail out on a Wednesday and back on a Thursday. Also, position yourself by the lifejackets so when the boat is underway you can move to the floor, sit on one lifejacket and use another as a pillow. You’re welcome.

This is the superior boat. If you have this boat then rejoice.

We stayed the night in Bluefields again because we didn’t fancy rolling into Managua at some god awful hour at night. I’ve really enjoyed not being robbed at knifepoint so far and we’d very much like this trend to continue. We apologised to the guys in our dorm in advance for the 4am alarm. They said they’d be up at 4.30am anyway because they were aiming for the same bus as us. That made my eye twitch a bit, I hope it wasn’t too obvious. I mean, it’s clearly none of my business how they handle their timings but WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF SOCIOPATH DOESN’T GET OUT OF FUCKING BED UNTIL AN HOUR BEFORE THE BUS THEY DON’T EVEN HAVE A TICKET FOR YET??!!?? I’m not hyperventilating, YOU’RE hyperventilating!

I’d love a bus like this but I doubt it’d pass an MOT.

We were on the street looking for a taxi by the time the guys were getting up. We didn’t have to wait long. We went straight to the ticket window when we got there, waited anxiously whilst the ticket seller and the bus assistant seemed to be counting seats and trying to work out if there was space before we were finally sold tickets for the 5.30am bus. Phew. Result. The guys arrived about 20 minutes later but by then the bus was full so I did feel a tiny bit smug. (I felt a lot smug). These buses don’t get any comfier though do they? It’s basically over seven hours of trying to contort yourself into various shapes to relieve the pressure on different parts of your arse in a space designed for American school children. It was long. So long. But we made it, found a taxi to take us to Terminal UCA and jumped on a microbus to León where we promptly fucking melted because León is about 100°C.

Our hostel had this bush that the hummingbirds adored. It worked out very well when I was devastatingly hungover and couldn’t move from the hammock. I just lay there and watched the hummingbirds.

When we were in Granada we somehow failed to do a walking tour until the day before we left so the first thing we did in León was arrange for a bloke called Leo to show us around his city. He’s very good. I’ll pop the details below but yeah, it was a great tour and we learned so much, not only about León but about Nicaragua. Fuck me, this country has a history. Leo told us that in the last 500 years Nicaragua has seen 40 years of peace. For the other 460 years they’ve been dealing with civil war, volcanic eruptions, dictatorships, and most recently some pretty violent civil unrest in 2018. They’re still under a dictatorship now, this guy has been in power for 26 years and literally changed the constitution so they could remain in power indefinitely. They’re closely allied with Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela… yeah I think you get the picture.

Bullet holes from the 2018 unrest where over 800 people died or disappeared.
I like León. It’s often compared to Granada but I think it’s less polished and it feels a bit more real which I love. I think León deserves more time than we gave it.

This tour though, it’s so well structured and he took us through the history of the country in chronological order, covering politics and offering snippets of information whilst leading us through the city, buying fruit and snacks for us to try, pointing out buildings and recommending bars, clubs and places to eat. Did you know that 60% of Nicaraguans live in poverty and 17% are illiterate? Education and healthcare is free for everyone but there aren’t enough chairs in the schools, universities are out of reach if your parents can’t afford for you to live in León or Managua, hospitals are dirty and rife with infection and people often die of conditions that would be easily treated in a developed nation. Also the market is an excellent place for lunch, you can find fritangas (grills) outside the market for dinner, 23 Bar is where you go to party and Bar Antorchas is where you go for a quiet drink. We were just saying to each other how Antorchas sounds like our kind of place when he added, “That’s the bar for old people.” Oh. Right.

Sapote fruit. It’s quite nice but I’m not sure about the texture.

But what I’m trying to say is, this was a comprehensive tour packed full of information delivered in such a way that we hung on his every word. One minute he’s recounting a particularly traumatic piece of history then pointing out cheap cocktails. Leo is passionate about his city and his job. He’s very intelligent and well spoken, his English is flawless. It was over two hours but I could listen to him speak for way longer. And we now know what that popcorn smell is we run into everywhere and that churritos will be our new go to snack when we’re out and about. They’re corn and sugar so I don’t hold out much hope for my teeth. Or my waistline.

There’s loads of street art in León, a lot of it is political. This is something to do with American interference in voting.
Fritanga outside of the market. You can get a full meal with salad and gallo pinto amongst other things.

The ultimate “if you go to León and don’t do this did you even go to León?” is volcano boarding whereby you climb up an active volcano and slide back down it on a piece of wood. Cerro Negro, literally Black Hill, is the youngest volcano in Nicaragua and possibly the second youngest in the world at 173 years old. In volcano years that’s practically foetal. It’s a short arse too at 738 metres but we’d be doing most of that on a bus, thank fuck. This is also the only place in the world you can do this. The first bloke was an Aussie who owned Bigfoot Hostel, he slid down it on a fridge door. Trust an Aussie to look at a fucking volcano and think, “Bet I could slide down that cunt!”

Cerro Negro. It doesn’t look like much but one eruption produced enough ash to collapse homes and kill the inhabitants.
The walk up through the lava field.

Anyway. We showed up at Bigfoot Hostel and everything was explained to us whilst we were shown a video of someone tearing down what is actually a very fucking steep hill, falling off, and tumbling at speed down the slope. What. The fuck. Are we doing?! Why show us that? Oh my fucking gosh, this is it, this is how I die. We bundled onto the bus and drove the 90 minutes to Cerro Negro. As we got closer the roads became black sand. Crops were planted in black soil. Homes were plonked in the middle of black dirt.

Us with Lana. Mike would have been in the photo but he was probably already at the top.

After a brief stop so the guide could pay us in and the resident doggo, Lucy, could be given appropriate pets and crisps we parked up at the foot of the slope we’d be sliding down. Guys, it’s steep. It’s so steep. What. The fuck. Are we doing?! We were given bags with overalls, and goggles that were so scratched up you could barely see through them. Probably a good thing. You can carry your own board up but there’s the option to pay a man to carry it up for you and, in fact, it’s encouraged. “Remember,” our guide told us, “these are very poor people.” You don’t need to convince me, buddy. Shut up and take my money. I’m 99% certain I can’t carry that bad boy up that hill and I’m not even 100% I can get down on top of it. There is a get-out, a “walk of shame” that you can take if you completely bottle it. Good to know.

We walked through the oldest crater to get to the top which was quite cool albeit there were steaming fumeroles and we really didn’t need that extra heat.
Ever played Lemmings? Does this look familiar?

The walk up started over the lava field. It was alright at first but it rapidly got harder. You’re walking on gravel and sand so pretty much every step you take sees you sliding back. What doesn’t help is the fact that hills have been my nemesis since I got ill in Somerset during our big hike, plus my fitness levels have dropped through the fucking floor over the last year. We were doing this with mates of ours we met in Panama, Lana and Mike, and Mike has been described as a “mountain goat in flip flops.” He was way ahead of the whole group, clutching his board as he went. I was really struggling, once he got to the top he came back to take Lana’s board but she refused because she wanted the right to complain about it for the rest of her life, so he took my backpack. I adore these two, they’re so lovely and Lana is hilarious.

Another of Cerro Negro’s craters.

So whilst the lava flows down one side of the mountain during the actually very frequent eruptions the wind blows the ash to the other side and this is what we’d be sliding down. We all sat at the top and were given instructions on how to control your speed and steer. Steer? What? No one said anything about steering! Oh man. What. The fuck. Are we doing?! When people talk about volcano boarding they never mention that it’s actually really scary whilst you’re sat at the top looking down. You can’t actually see past the first few metres, you just have to trust that the track is there. Once we’d been briefed we started going one by one. Mike went first and he tore down!

This is Tarrant. She was going a lot faster than me. We know this because her video is a second shorter than mine.
This is my and quite frankly I’m surprised there aren’t any brown skidmarks behind me.

Tarrant went before me, probably a bit faster than I was comfortable with and I hoped she’d retain at least 70% of her skin. When it came to my turn I bum shuffled on my board and off I fucked. It’s actually really easy to go slow to start with, I even had to use my feet to drag the board. It’s a bit soft lumpy at first and the board quickly got buried in the ash and gravel. Once I got going properly I kept it steady as possible but it kept trying to veer. As I passed the guy taking videos I just clung onto the board, concentrating on not going too fast. It’s steeper here and a lot smoother. I thought I was going pretty fast but Tarrant took a video. Dear reader, I was not. I think if you zoomed in on my goggles all you’d see is wide-eyed terror. I did, however, have fun and I’m really pleased we did this.

I think we have enough photos of us in silly outfits for it to be a thing.

Once everyone was down we all headed back to the bus where they started a bonfire. Marshmallows, snacks and rum were handed around and fuck me, they weren’t stingy with the rum. Back on the bus the music was blaring, the party lights were on and everyone was encouraged to stand up because this makes it much easier to bang on the ceiling whilst yelling along to songs. To be fair, given the quantity of rum we’d all consumed very quickly it didn’t take much encouragement. We sat on the back of the seats which actually isn’t much less comfortable than sitting on the actual seats and this is how I’ll be sitting on chicken buses going forward. It was a great laugh though, the whole afternoon was a lot of fun but I’ll be scraping bits of volcano out of my ears for days.

It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you’ll go it’ll still look badass in the stills.

Another thing to do in León is go up to the top of the cathedral and apparently we didn’t get enough of that in Granada. We were given the option at the start of the walking tour and they split the group according to who wanted to check it out there and then and who wasn’t bothered but Lana and Mike, a lovely couple we met in El Valle in Panama, had read the reviews and the general consensus was that Leo was the best guide so we stuck to ground level with him. We saved it for another day.

The cathedral in León is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built between 1747 and 1816 and the full and proper name is Basílica Catedral de la Asunción de León. Obviously “León cathedral” is easier for the native English speakers.
Leo told us these figures were added in I think 2006? They’re to symbolise the fact that Nicaragua was built on the back of indigenous slaves.

It’s very much worth it actually, you’re not just going up a bell tower, looking through four windows then heading back down. You have access to the whole rooftop. It’s white and lumpy and very photogenic. We did it the day after the volcano boarding when I was still sweating cheap rum so I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I would have if my internal organs hadn’t been utterly destroyed.

The rooftop reminds me a lot of Greece.

You can’t come to León and not mention the heat, it’s fucking ridiculous. You could solve world drought with the fluid gushing from the pair of us right now. I swear I’m sweating more than I’m drinking. The only bearable place to be for any length of time is directly in front of a fan on full speed. It’s a great city, don’t get me wrong, but you’ll take liquid form and there’s fuck all you can do about it.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

León, León Department, Nicaragua

Stayed at: Hostal El Jardin, León

Hostal El Jardin. There’s a bigger garden just beyond this photo but I liked it here for the hammocks and the hummingbirds. It’s a great value place to stay. The staff are always cleaning, even the fans in the room are spotless. The included breakfast is typical Nica, so gallo pinto and eggs, and it’ll fill you up for hours. Cannot fault this place at all.

Useful shit to know…

How To Get From Little Corn Island To León By Boat And Bus

Little Corn Island To Bluefields
  • We got to the jetty on Little Corn early on the Thursday but it wasn’t necessary. The boat didn’t get full.
  • We showed our passports to a woman sat at a desk at the end of the pier. She registered us and sold us our tickets.
  • It cost C$360 each (they’ll quote US$10) and took less than half an hour.
  • The ferry to Bluefields was already docked and we got straight on. It was much less chaotic than the boarding process in Bluefields but it was a bigger, better boat. It turns out the Wednesday there/Thursday back boat is much nicer than the barely afloat vomit trap we caught on the Saturday.
  • We queued so an official could photograph our passports and Nicaragua entry stamps then a second official registered us.
  • If we were on the small boat again I would have sat outside but we opted to risk sitting inside at the back on the bottom deck.
  • No port tax was collected. We just had to pay the C$255 each fare.
  • Pro-tip: Position yourself by the life jackets. Once the boat was underway I used one to sit on on the floor because that was comfier than the bench, and one as a pillow.
  • It took just over 5.5 hours but it was a nice, smooth crossing.
  • Time from Little Corn to Bluefields: Just over 8.5 hours.
  • Total cost: C$615 (US$16.83) each.
  • Again we decided to stay in Bluefields overnight rather than heading straight to Managua.
Typical House Bluefields. Literally someone’s house. The first time we stayed here our room was right next to the living room where the family were chilling, eating dinner and watching TV. The second time was in a dorm room upstairs. You can’t really fault it for a night or two. The shower is really good (cold, but you need that) and the WiFi works well. It’s tucked away down a dodgy looking alley but it’s actually fine. There’s no sign pointing the way but everyone seems to know it and if they see a confused foreigner they’ll point you right. There’s a shop called Chow Páiz and the alley is next to that. Taxi drivers know the shop. It’s really close to supermarkets, comedores and the jetty.
Bluefields To León
  • We were on the street looking for a taxi at 4.30am. We didn’t have to wait long.
  • It cost C$60 each which is fair enough, I’ve never been anywhere where taxis don’t cost more at night. It’s usually C$40 each.
  • We had to pay C$5 to enter the bus terminal in the taxi.
  • These are express buses so you buy your ticket from an office before you get on and if all seats have been sold you’ll have to wait for the next one.
  • We managed to get on the 5.30am bus to Managua as did the couple behind us but a couple of guys in our room arrived maybe 20 minutes after us and the 5.30am bus was full. They got tickets for the 6.30am bus.
  • You can buy your tickets in advance if it’s important that you’re on a specific bus.
  • It cost C$320 each and whilst we were, in theory, assigned seating there were no numbers and everyone sat where they felt like.
  • The bus journey to Terminal Costa Caribe took just over 7.5 hours including two breaks totalling about 50 minutes.
  • We left the terminal and walked at least a block to find a taxi as we’d heard they’re less likely to overcharge you.
  • We were quoted C$100 each to Terminal UCA (the microbus terminal) which we were happy with. It took just under half an hour.
  • Just ask the guys at the terminal for León and they’ll point you in the right direction. The microbuses leave when full, it won’t take long.
  • It cost C$100 each (it’s meant to cost C$88 but hey, Gringo Tax, which is getting tiresome) and took just under two hours.
  • Time from Bluefields bus terminal to León: 10 hours and 15 minutes.
  • Total cost: C$520 (US$14.23) each

  • *The Original* Free Walking Tours are twice a day in English or Spanish.
  • You can book here through Guru Walk.
  • It’s called a free tour but it is tip based and you pay what you feel.
  • Both Bigfoot Hostel and Volcano Day offer volcano boarding for similar prices.
  • Bigfoot’s pricing is US$30 for the sunrise tour, US$33 for the daytime tour then they take you to the beach afterwards, and US$35 for the sunset tour which includes a bonfire, marshmallows, and they’ll get you drunk.
  • Both companies include a free t-shirt but if you’re really not bothered about that Volcano Day offer a basic option for US$25 which is literally just the boarding, no frills.
  • I’ll admit that Volcano Day seemed a lot more efficient and professional and their group was half the size of ours.
  • It costs US$5 or C$180 to have your board carried up. You can pay in either currency.
  • It costs US$3 or C$107 to get up to the roof of the cathedral.
  • Apparently you can do a full tour of the cathedral for US$10.
  • The best time to go up is for sunset but they stop letting people in at 5pm. You can stay past 5pm if you’re already up there.

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