After an easy four-hour crossing of Honduras we entered a beautiful cowboy region of Nicaragua. Despite the very frequent stops by traffic police and one half-hearted bribe attempt, we enjoyed our time exploring jungle-covered volcanoes, watching talented surfers tackle big waves, playing disc golf in one of the few courses in Central America, and celebrating the 4th of July with overlanding friends.
We had been warned and even a little intimidated by stories from other overlanders about the corrupt police in Honduras and Nicaragua. Many travels on the Pan-Am choose to blaze through Honduras at the shortest possible point between El Salvador and Nicaragua, which is about 80 miles. One couple claimed to have been stopped by traffic police no less than eight times in that short passage, and several of those stops involved threats of tickets, which are really bribe attempts. Given our timing and location, we too chose to do the Honduras drive-through, taking a slightly longer route than most others, about 90 miles to a smaller border crossing. We were fully prepared with the requisite traffic triangles, fire extinguisher, reflective stickers on the bumper, and even a traffic cone (thanks PK!) and mentally prepared for a long day of border crossing and corrupt police.
After reading that the Honduras and Nicaragua border crossings can both be nightmares we got a super early start and made sure all of our papers were in order. Maybe we just got lucky, or maybe others tend to exaggerate their experiences, but we ended up having a very easy time entering Honduras – we were kindly shown where to go, charged the correct amounts, even assisted with the paperwork both for the vehicle import permit and for Hobie, and were hardly pestered at all by the “helpers”. As soon as we left the border we had our first traffic stop, but it was a routine military checkpoint and they just looked at our new papers and sent us on our way. In the next few hours we passed a few sets of cones, which are usually set up as traffic stops, but never saw any of the dreaded traffic police. We reached the Nicaragua border without being harassed once – no need to show off our shiny traffic triangles or newly-applied reflective tape – almost a disappointment.
The Nicaragua border was also easy, even though we arrived at lunch time, generally a no-no in border crossing. Our least favorite part of the whole crossing was the fumigation procedure, which involved a man in a gas mask spraying the whole outside of the van with some unknown (and likely nasty) chemicals, then “gassing” the inside. We were told that our food and bedding wouldn’t be toxic after this procedure, but the gas mask wasn’t very reassuring. Soon enough we were on our way through the rolling hills of Nicaragua…and stopped at our first traffic police checkpoint.
The Nicaragua police more than made up for the negligence of the Honduras police in pulling us over. In a few places there were checkpoints set up every few kilometers, and it was predictable that they would pull us over every time. In fact, the only times we didn’t get waved to the side were when they were already busy with other vehicles, then we would hold our breaths and slip by as quickly as we could. Almost all of the stops simply involved showing our paperwork and making some small talk about how beautiful Nicaragua is, then being sent on our way. But there was one cop who saw dollar signs painted on the van. Emily was driving at the time and carefully obeying the speed limit and all of the rules of the road. We came up to a intersection with the the typical traffic police cones placed in the middle and no one else around, and sure enough, as soon he saw us the cop waved us over to the side. Emily turned on her blinker and crossed over to the side of the road, safely out of the way of traffic. The cop came up to the window and asked for the papers, as usual, but this time instead of looking them over and handing them back he started into some long rant about how we had crossed over the white line. Very patiently Emily explained that we only crossed over the white line when he waived us to the side of the road, and that she never crosses over the white line while driving. He argued for a while, vaguely waving at the cop at the other side of the highway and saying something about writing a ticket, but we were insistent that we had done nothing wrong and a ticket was unnecessary. Eventually he defeatedly shoved our papers back at us and gave us a dismissing sort of hand signal, so we drove away. Team Subagon South: +1, dirty Nicaragua cop: 0.
After a few days in the cowboy region we headed to Volcán Masaya, arriving at the entrance to the park at exactly 4:45, which is their closing time. Tim managed to sweet talk a cute park ranger into letting us in anyway after he assured her that we just wanted to camp for the night and wouldn’t wander up to the caldera until the park re-opened the next morning. We spent a peaceful evening camped next to the Visitor Center on the flank of the active volcano, only occasionally wondering what we would do if it started to blow. We were the first ones through the door of the visitor center the following morning and were very impressed by the wealth of scientific information in Spanish and English and the many displays. Then we made our way up to the caldera and parked on the rim of the caldera, facing out as instructed, just in case we needed to make a speedy escape. As expected, it was too windy to see far into the steam bellowing up from the fiery depths, so we had to just imagine the giant boiling cauldron of lava below.
Our next stop was a well-known surf spot called Popoyo. We camped on a small bluff next to a palapa bar that directly overlooked one of the best surf breaks in Nicaragua. Had the waves been slightly smaller or less crowded we would have attempted to ride them, but as it was we contented ourselves with watching the dozens of experienced surfers catch beautiful, huge, A-frame waves.
Since Hobie didn’t seem to think that imagining catching great rides was as much fun as we did, we decided to spend his birthday on the beautiful Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. From shore Ometepe looks something like Madonna laying down (in the 80s anyway), this is because the island is made up of two massive volcanoes – Concepción and Maderas. Unfortunately, both when we crossed over the island and when we returned the clouds were too thick to see much of anything, so we had to again use our imaginations. We spent two nights at Finca Magdalena, a very peaceful coffee farm on the flank of Volcán Maderas with a spectacular view of Volcán Concepción. On Hobie’s birthday we hiked up Maderas through beautiful jungle and into the cloud forest. As usual, Hobie lead the way, jumping up the steep, muddy sections where we had to climb up roots and rocks, proving that despite his 11 years he’s still a puppy at heart.
Heading back across the narrow isthmus we made our way to the southern beaches near San Juan del Sur. We chose the beautiful and quiet Playa Majugal, which was within walking distance but still sheltered from a popular beach crowded with surfer bros. As we pulled up to the camping area we noticed a familiar car with Michigan plates, it was Karen and Patrick, an overlanding couple that we met at Semuc Champey, Guatemala. It was great to see them again and as we swapped travel stories it turns out that we had been just missing each other for the past several days, sometimes by only a matter of hours. We spent two days drinking cold beers, enjoying the waves, walking over to the surfer dude beach to watch World Cup games, and playing disc golf.
We had partially come to this beach because it happened to be close to one of the few disc golf courses in Central America. The course was established over a dozen years ago by an ex-pat, who at the time didn’t actually know much about disc golf, but managed to make an awesome course anyway. The baskets are a home-made design, constructed of fishing nets strung up on a pole, which makes for a different sort of challenge than the baskets we’re used to on courses in the states. When we arrived we were offered an entire wagon full of loaner discs that we could use and felt a little silly for hauling our own discs all the way from Colorado. The course was well-marked and super fun, had it not been blazing hot we might have played all day.
Our last night in Nicaragua happened to be July 4th, so we celebrated with Karen and Patrick both the US and Canadian holidays with a beach-style barbecue and plenty of rum. We finished off the night out on the beach watching a massive thunderstorm over the ocean. It was a lovely way to say goodbye to Nicaragua, and to our overlanding friends, who were starting the journey back north the next day.