The tourist shuttle from El Tunco to Leon, Nicaragua is a 10-hour snooze mostly through Honduras, but is made somewhat tolerable due to intermittent wi-fi availability on the van, which I use to make hilariously useless Skype phone calls to my bank regarding some issues with my debit card.
It’s getting fairly dark as we finally roll into Leon. As usual, I have no idea where I’m staying. The rumor is that Bigfoot is the big party hostel around here, and as it happens, the shuttle lets out right in front of it. From the outside, it seems to live up to the reputation, and also seems a little aggressive after the tranquility of El Tunco, so I go to check out a quieter hostel down the street. It’s booked up. I try a third hostel, across from the second. Also full. Now my options are to venture into the Nicaraguan night, or just settle for Bigfoot. I opt for the latter.
I’m not even checked in when it starts. A girl, who looks 16 but whom I later learn is 19, walks over from the bar while I’m waiting to check in. “How old are you?” she opens. “Too old for this shit,” I say, although really it’s more of an aspirational statement than the absolute truth. Eventually I tell her that I’m 34. She returns to her friends at the bar, presumably to report this information, then quickly comes back and asks me how tall the Eiffel Tower is. (I get the number pretty close, low 300s, but I pick feet instead of meters, an error which I am embarrassed about to this day). My attempt satisfies her and she invites me to join her friends at the bar for more questions along these lines.
The attentive reader will recall that I have not had a fix of pub trivia since I left Guatemala, so the prospect of answering trivia questions, even if they are informally made up on the spot, sounds good. The 19-year-old, by the way, was asking my age on behalf of her 26-year-old sister, who was traveling Central America long term, while the younger sibling was just visiting for spring break. We have a fairly pleasant chat over beer and pizza until the 19-year-old goes off to bang an Australian in the shower.
It’s my first night in a bunk on the whole trip but I’m fairly exhausted from the van ride and I crash easily.
The major backpacker attraction in Leon is volcano boarding. Having heard a little about this, I imagine snowboarding down a volcano presumably with a similar makeup to the upper reaches of Pacaya. On further investigation I find that the board is really more akin to a toboggan, and for some reason you are made to wear a bright orange jumpsuit while you do it. Snowboarding down a volcano had sounded cool; tandem sledding down a volcano while dressed as an ISIS prisoner, not so much.
The next day I start out around the corner at a surprisingly good French cafe around the corner from the hostel. Having passed on volcano boarding, I feel like I need to move on quickly if I’m to check out some of the other things I want to see between here and Panama City. But I take a little time to check out Leon, and make a couple attempts to visit the roof of its famous, UNESCO-heritage site Cathedral. My first visit is too early in the day, and my second visit is too late, so I’m stuck exploring the cathedral’s interior, which is vast but not necessarily the most ornate thing you’ve ever seen.
There’s an art museum in Leon that boasts about Picassos among other artists – it’s true, but it’s just a couple small sketches. Worth checking out, I suppose, maybe more so for the building itself and its courtyards than the artwork within. It’s really not my day though, as the museum is closing early for some reason and I’m hustled out of there.
The rest of my brief time in Leon is spent doing some wandering around the marketplace after procuring a lock for my backpack – I had forgotten my dial lock at home, and this was actually my first night in a dorm where it might be necessary.
In the evening I hop onto a van for Granada, a little more than two hours away.
I have a sort of layover in Managua, by which I mean I switch from one van to another. I’m only in the city for about a half hour so I can’t say much about it. It was selected as capital by compromise by Leon and Granada, and appears to be one of those compromises where both sides were only happy if the result was crappier than either of the original two choices.
If you’ve been to both Granada and Leon, it’s pretty easy to tell which of the two was the capital of the old Conservative elite. Granada has some of that old colonial splendor that is mostly missing in the grittier and more bohemian Leon.
The colonial town square is the biggest and most elegant that I’ve seen thus far, and it seems that Granada is also more tourist-friendly, with relatively expensive restaurants aimed at westerners on Calle la Calzada off the main square, in addition to the lakeside nightclubs on the Malecon.
My lodging situation is diametrically opposed to Leon. I am looking for a more exciting hostel this time around, but instead find the Bearded Monkey, which apparently was at one time a good place but had fallen into disrepair and was mostly abandoned. My roommates were a guy who I think was in the Occupy movement who spent his whole time watching pirated movies on a tablet in bed with a girl who I do not think he was actually sleeping with. Our only interaction was me saying “God damn it” when I stubbed my toe to which he responded “God doesn’t damn anything,” and I just sort of stared at him debating whether to bring up Cain or Sodom but instead just ended up going with “all right.”
It’s not all glamorous, though. Just a few blocks away, the local market is dingy, dirty, and crowded. Even on the upscale Calle la Calzada off the main square, kids come up to the sidewalk cafes begging for change. I shrug one away while I’m eating a dinner that’s too much for me to finish; unfazed, he asks if I’m going to finish the meal. I say no, and slide it over to him. He inhales what’s left of my dinner in minutes and runs off to hustle some other patrons.
Eager to get away from gringo bars, I head to the Malecon by myself. Basically the area is a long, relatively dark road by the lakeshore, and scattered on both sides of it are large nightclubs, with varying degrees of indoor and outdoor areas. One karaoke place, for example, seems to be a bunch of tables around a massive outdoor movie screen for projecting the lyrics, plus a bar. I skip that place and head into a larger indoor/outdoor bar that seems to be a) popular and b) more or less devoid of tourists. As I walk in I’m immediately intercepted by an enthusiastic host – he asks, “You like beer??” and as I nod, he whisks me toward the bar, where a cold Toña is procured for me. Before I have a chance to take a drink, he’s moved on to his next question “You like girls??” I should have thought about this more but of course answered yes, and before I know it I am being seated at a table with a local girl with an incredibly short dress, and I immediately realize that I have made a mistake. It’s tricky to try to diplomatically explain concepts like “When I said I liked girls I meant that generally and I certainly did not want to pay for one” in a second language, but after some embarrassed stammering I excuse myself from the table and try to find a different vantage point. As it turns out, except for a few tables like the one I just left, it seems that everybody there is a couple. Eventually a local strikes up a conversation with the sore thumb that I am. I don’t remember much about it: he was a student, and his girlfriend was in the UK. I finish my beer and decide to move on.
It is probably not a great idea to walk around the Malecon by yourself. Not that it’s particularly dangerous, but it’s dark and the venues are spaced out pretty well, so there’s nobody around if you get in a jam. As it was though I barely encounter anybody until the end of my walk. It’s a striking female figure, the tallest I’ve seen in a month, remarkably overdressed for the surroundings. I was fairly sure she was a guy, until she walked past me and asked for a cigarette, at which point I was totally sure. Having neither cigarettes nor anything else to offer, I moved on to the Weekend Beach Club, which turned out to be exactly the kind of miserable gringo-fest I had hoped to avoid. After a few drinks, my desire to hang out there did not increase, and I got a cab home. This being Nicaragua, the cab picks up another fare along the way. This time I’m not even sure that the lady is trying to convince anybody that she’s not a dude.
The next night I stick to the Irish pub. The bar has Bulleit but the bartender won’t let me have any, as it belongs to the owner. The owner comes out to find out who has ordered Bulleit. We talk for a while and he pours me a glass.
As a concluding thought, I never really realized that, while I’ve been hungover when it’s 95 degrees outside, I’ve never been hungover when it’s 95 degrees, on a top bunk, with no air conditioning. I will not allow that to happen to myself again. I suggest that you never allow that to happen to yourself either.