March 28, 2016 @ 7:04 am
Good morning, San Juan del Sur! I’m not sure what is more beautiful this a.m. — our hotel, the view from our hotel, or the endless coffee bar at our hotel.
After dining on eggs, toast, freshly squeezed orange juice, rice and beans, we received instructions from our guide, Raquel.
“Chicos! Today is a big day. Please hide your toes with the closed shoes. And where are my chicas? Please, wear the longer pants. If you do not… well, I warned you!”
“Warned us about what?”
“About showing the things we do not wish to see. Because today we zip-line! And when the chicas get excited, they go ahhhhhhh! And the legs and the arms, they go everywhere. It is a great show. But it is much better show if you covered. Now you know. I warn.”
A Mercedes Unimog has arrived to haul us off into the mountains for zip-lining. It makes me wonder where we are actually going, to need such a beast of a vehicle? People always talk about how amazing the zip-lining is in Costa Rica. What is it like in Nicaragua? And is there a reason why you never hear anyone speak of it?
Fortunately, I’m not too frightened, as this will not be my first zip-lining experience. My brother Bradley, who works for a zip-line company, helped me overcome any hesitancy. There’s nothing quite so terrifying (yet reassuring) than to trust your younger sibling to properly attach you to a cable and send you flying over a mountain gorge.
At the top of the mountain, we paused to take in the view and continued to be amazed by the brown vegetation. During the dry season, the trees have no leaves and the grass has no color, yet it is still beautiful.
Raquel explained that many locals are building wells for the monkeys to access during the dry season. Often, it is difficult for the primates to find freshwater. And because the tourists want to see the monkeys, it’s important to keep the population healthy.
More monkeys = happy tourists = more money for the developing country.
We only saw two of the critters during our hour-long tour of the canopy. Whether it was because they were hiding elsewhere in the forest, or because we were too focused on not flailing around as we zipped down the cables (some of which were much faster and longer than others), is still undecided.
It was not until the last run that we experienced any mishaps. The first was our GoPro taking a plunge to the grassy plain below.
Gabriel was brave enough to bring the camera, despite lacking a helmet mount. Fixed on a GoPro stick (aka a more expensive, glorified selfie-stick), he looped the gadget on his left wrist and positioned it to face outwards. He held it tightly against the vertical harness, which doubled in keeping him safe and also stabilizing the footage. But within sight of the ending platform, the stick wiggled loose and took a dive.
More concerned about his safety, Gabriel focused on making it to the platform. By the time our guide detached him, a little boy who saw the camera fall and who was able to retrieve it, ran up to Gabriel with it in hand. After a quick inspection, he was relieved to see no harm came to the GoPro, and the recorded footage was still in tact.
I did not hear about these events until afterward, as I was also focused on my own safety during the last run. As our guide harnessed me to the cable, he told me not to brake because of the gradual slope — otherwise, I would be stuck in the middle of the line. Afraid of that scenario, I followed his instruction to a tee and let my right hand limply graze the cable.
The result? I almost took out the other guide, waiting for me on the other side. A grunt involuntarily left his lungs as I body slammed him on the platform, still 20 feet above the ground. As we both recovered from the collision, I apologized.
“Maybe the men, we stick in middle,” he replied, pointing to the line and then sticking his belly out, giving it a pat. “Maybe, you brake next time. Or eats more rice and bean.”
Embarrassed, I laughed at his comment before crawling down the ladder and back to the ground. There, Raquel met up with me. She overheard the joke and tried to smooth my embarrassment.
“From Nicaragua, we are more… what is the word?” Here, she patted her arms and flexed her muscles. “More short and wide.”
“Si, Señora Sara! I like this. We are healthy.”
When we return to San Juan del Sur, I plan to be more “healthy” myself, by eating my way around the small beach town. I have a feeling it will take little convincing for Gabriel and Blake to join as well. It will take some convincing, however, to lure them away from the zip-line company’s other trucks so we can return.
First dishes on our culinary tour of San Juan del Sur: tostones con queso, ceviche de pescado and cerveza. Naturally, we had to go with the national favorite — Compañía Cervecera de Nicaragua: Toña.
The acidity and brininess of the ceviche was beautiful juxtaposed the malty (albeit diluted) Toña. Yet, it was the plate of plantains that stole the show. Minimally sweet and comfortingly starchy, the fried, smashed, then fried again banana-cousins would have been enjoyable on their own. But add a cube of fried cheese on top? Yes, I said fried cheese. Need I say more?
We only have an hour before we need to report to lunch with the students. I wonder how many plantain bites I can squeeze into my belly in that timeframe? I’m trying to caution myself — what if there is something even better (although it’s hard to imagine) being served for lunch? And what about our continued Nicaraguan culinary tour this afternoon?
I refrain from ordering a second plate and decide to sit back and enjoy the view instead. The restaurant sits on the beach, making it easy to people watch. Families picnic together while a couple rides horses on the sand.
To the far right of the cove, perched on the surrounding mountainside, sits Cristo de la Misericordia, an 82 foot (25 meter) statue of Jesus. Overlooking San Juan del Sur, it can be seen from anywhere on the beach.
As I sit here with cerveza in hand and the last of the tostones in my belly and watch the families on the beach, I think only Salvador Dali encapsulates the moment best — “There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”
Another delicious, local meal: grilled lobster with chips, salad and rice. Sodas arrived in glass bottles and were quickly downed in the 99º fahrenheit heat.
Some students from the other group are thinking about hiking to see Cristo de la Misericordia. It’s only a two-kilometer hike, but one that sounds exhausting in this heat. Instead, I think we will go to the market for an afternoon of shopping (and possibly more eating).
We’ve created the ultimate guide to this coastal town: San Juan del Sur by shade. Somehow, we’ve managed to navigate our way through every quarter without extensively exposing ourselves to the blistering sun. It helps that store fronts are designed with awnings and roofs that hang over the sidewalks.
On our hunt for shade, we stumbled upon a local market. Located at the corner of two streets and only blocks from our hotel, it was easy to miss. The store front appeared to sell only t-shirts and clothing. But, if you ducked under the hanging shirts, you emerged in Narnia… er, I mean… on a walkway lined with vendors selling local goods. Hand-dyed scarves, fruits, veggies, jewelry and a small restaurant covered much of the space inside.
In the back corner, some scarves caught my eye and I immediately entered haggle mode. The older woman selling the scarves was tough and didn’t back down easily. It didn’t help there were a plethora of gringos in the area with American dollars. I had Cordobas to spend, but she wanted to do business in USD — in part, I’m sure, because she could increase the price of the scarves to account for the exchange rate if I paid in USD.
It also didn’t help I couldn’t speak Spanish and she couldn’t speak English. But somehow, after 10 minutes of grunts, frowns and hand gestures, we both smiled as I handed over some paper bills in exchange for two beautiful scarves.
We decided we need a nap. But on our way back to the hotel, Gabriel felt some money still burning a hole in his pocket. Naturally, I offered to help him spend it.
The first few stores we popped into carried similar touristy items. But the last one we came to was overflowing with handcrafted goods. It’s sometimes hard to tell (and often even harder to trust) if something is actually handmade by a local craftsman. Whether they were or not, I found the most unique items I have seen all day: painted feathers.
Understated and easy to miss, they were stacked on a table. Each feather adhered to a matted frame and was painted with scene of Nicaragua. Some featured birds, monkeys or other wildlife while others included murals of entire villages.
While Gabriel and Blake perused the other shelves, looking at wood carvings, paintings, leather satchels, wallets and coin purses, I scoured through the stack of feathers, trying to find one that spoke to me. Instead, I found five, which I forced myself to narrow down to three: one for my dad, two for us.
As we prepared to pay, the shop owner became quite chatty after learning we were American. He told us how much he loved American baseball — but not the Yankees, which was hilarious since Blake was wearing a Yankees hat.
“Which state do you come?”
“We’re from North Carolina.”
“I have a friend in Miami. It is close?”
“Um… not quite.”
We explained how far away Miami was from NC, and where NC was in relation to the two east coast destinations foreigners are always familiar with: NYC and Walt Disney World. It’s easy to forget how large the States are in relation to other countries.
After discussing all things American, we left the shop and returned to the hotel for a siesta. Which is what I plan on doing, now.
Raquel swung by our room around 7:30 pm to pick us up for dinner. Another alfresco dining experience down by the ocean, the meal was as delicious as the scenery was beautiful.
For an appetizer, we ordered plantains to share with two sauces — the first: a hot jalapeno queso (and one I could drink, it was so good). The second was a tomato based sauce that tasted sweet, like a marinara sauce, but was chunky like salsa.
As we waited for our main course to arrive, Raquel told us more about her life. She has a boyfriend from Cuba, a big heart for animals (I deferred this after learning she’s rescued 3 dogs and 4 cats), three kids and two grandkids.
When she told me she was a grandmother of two, I almost fell out of my chair. She looks to be no older than early forties! Which I suppose is not so unreasonable — particularly in a country like Nicaragua when families start young. I think perhaps it is her youthfulness that is throwing me off; aren’t grandmothers supposed to worry after you? Not send you zipping over tropical dry forest canopies, or swimming with bull sharks?
By the time my pescado arrived (poached in butter!), our conversation had shifted to more serious topics. Raquel told us that Nicaragua was trying to build a dry canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic — something Panama is not happy about.
“It will connect the rivers and the Lake Nicaragua and the lands and the oceans. This is why they call it ‘dry’ canal.”
As she explained it further, I tried to picture large freighting ships moving over land and through rivers. I’m still having a hard time trying to picture it.
When dessert slid in front of me, I thought I was served a plate of melted ice cream.
“What is this?”
Trusting her completely, I did. The substance was the texture of runny cake batter and tasted like the banana bread batter my mom makes (the one I try to sneak tastes of when she isn’t looking). I told Raquel this and she smiled.
“Then mama is here with you.”
We talked some more about life in Nicaragua and the States. When an extra, complimentary dessert plate arrived at the table, Raquel passed it over to me and whispered:
“Here, have some more of mama.”
The students wanted to play on the beach after dinner (they obviously did not have stomachs as full as mine). We took Duncan’s soccer ball out to the sand so half of the group could play fútbol while the other half learned about night photography.
We set up the tripod and briefly gave a lesson on shutter speed, aperture and how to “ghost” without post-production work. Gabriel handed out different colored lights and they practiced writing their names — something much more difficult than it sounds, as you must write it backwards (and quickly!) before the shutter closes.
Eventually, we moved to drawing pictures instead of backwards letters.
We left the beach shortly after. Tomorrow we will cross the border into Costa Rica! While I’m excited to go, I’m not quite ready to leave Nicaragua.