NOTE 1: We weren’t sure if we should publish this story (in fact, that’s why it is published so long after our actual trip). But the Nicaraguans we met on this journey were all so warm and welcoming that we decided we should publish in honor of them.
NOTE 2: As you may know, the XPDTN3 collective prides itself on being self-sufficient, carrying all our stuff for the trips with us and foregoing any support vehicles. This trip was a bit different as it was actually a recce for a travel tour we hoped to organize for people like yourself. So rather than a straight-up route, we were actually searching for the best options, going back and forth, and sometimes hopping on a pick-up truck. Obviously, the fate of the planned travel tour is also up in the air for now.
But it wasn’t always like that … at least not recently. Sure, the once Spanish imperial outpost has been pillaged by pirates, usurped by mercenaries, coined the term Banana Republic, and was used as a Waxie deodorizer in a pissing match between the U.S and the Soviet Union. As one of my riding partners put it, “they’ve been through some sh*t.” Which is probably why the “Nica” I saw had that laidback, sleepy vibe to it. Some 30 years after the civil war, Nicaragua was finally enjoying some time to simply chill. Until now.
To be clear, it’s advised that people traveling to Nicaragua reconsider. While the U.S. has lifted its ordered departure of non-emergency government personal, the political temperament is still raw. Hopefully over time, Nicaragua will once again find peace and stability. Until then, we have memories.
Like most exploration in Central America, it all starts with religion. With my bike bag spilling open over the tiled floors of a former convent-turned-luxury boutique hotel, I layout my kit, glean, pack, unpack, trim, repack, repeat, until four-days of equipment fits neatly on my bike. Hands on my hips, I proudly gaze at the alignment of ride and kit until Marc ducks his head in and calls me out to get this rodeo rolling.
Four of us (myself, Darius from London, Marc our photographer and fellow XPDTN3 ambassador, and Rene – the boss at 3T) had arrived in León to explore the Central American terrain, the metal of the road—pursue new riches in travel by gravel.
Poised at the base of a string of volcanoes, León has a youthful hangover earned from its spirited revolutionary roots. Never far from a party, (Sandinista or otherwise), one minute you can be licking salt from your michelada, the next, you’re caught up twerking in a lively political parade. Close to the highlands, we chose León as our point of departure, from which we’d ride east through the volcanic corridor, inhale rich gravel skirting the tobacco fields of Estelí, and finish with a fine cup of coffee in the cloud forest hills above Matagalpa. Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine … push further east and we’d be ridin’ dirty towards questionable contraband. Plus, the ride to Matagalpa would put us squarely at 150 miles, ideal for a fistfull of days in the saddle, exploring Nicaragua’s backroads.
We bring our bags to the front desk and negotiate arrangements to have them meet us in Matagalpa.
Driver: “When should we bring you to Matagalpa?”
Me: “We’re riding the bikes to Matagalpa, we just need our bags to meet us there.”
Driver: “Thank you, can you provide a date to pick you up at the hotel in León to drive you to Matagalpa?”
Touring by bike hasn’t exactly “arrived” in Nicaragua, yet. I finally explain that we are traveling unconventionally and that we just need our bags to get to Matagalpa–we’ll pedal there ourselves. Our driver reluctantly understands and wishes us the best as we pedal out of the hotel. We tip our helmets to the statue of Mary, God willing, we’ll see our bags in four days.
We catch a forgotten smear of sand heading east out of León towards Malpaisillo and onward to El Sauce. Twisting through cactus patches and over blocky rocks, the trail ducks down withered riverbeds, and across rusty iron trestles – a reminder of the forgotten bustling rail pipeline that once brought coffee and goods out of the mountains, down to the Corinto Port for trade. The tracks were scrapped to supply the war (rails were sourced for tanks and bullets).
Yet El Sauce has managed to double in size in the 40 years since, something you can appreciate as the sun goes down and the heat lifts. Throngs of people flow out of their homes and onto their stoops, flocking to the plaza to soak in the brilliant sunset. With nearly 20 volcanoes running along the cordillera west, many of them active, the spewed volcanic ash refracts the evening sun and washes the landscape in vivid hues of gold.
Beaten down by the massively oppressive heat, our smiles crumble into sad, tired faces at the hotel. We tip back liquids with the gusto of fraternity brothers, tapping every available can, glass and bottle filled with a potable liquid, and stack a heap of plastic and glass piled between us. I toss back a handful of electrolytes. Doesn’t help much, my legs cramp all through the night.
This next section is brought to you by the job of the day: Civil Engineering
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you don’t live in Central America. I’d wager you live in a place with a robust department of transportation who employs a small army of civil engineers, designing roads for comfort, efficiency, and safety. In the States, I’ve found that even the most remote backcountry roads are suitable for a long-haul trucker to wheel a trailer stacked with full sized spruce. Deep pockets, city, state, and federal taxes – we are indeed blessed with great roads.
Our Nicaraguan maps generally hint at four types of roads: Orange (highway), yellow (likely highway), double lines (we’ll go with gravel), and finally dashed lines (anybody’s guess). Preliminary scoping hints at 2-3% “…maybe 5% grade … max.” The plan was to take a ‘dashed line’ to our next destination, picking our way up through a spectacular cloud forest to the tip-top of the Tisey Reserve.
Before we leave El Sauce, we review our proposed route with the hotel owner, who encourages us to rethink the dashed line (which, if I understood her right, is “a poor excuse for a donkey path”) and insists we consider taking the “yellow” highway … a reroute that would add 30K to the day and force some backtracking the following day.
Now I’m not saying Nicaragua doesn’t employ the same principles as the U.S. DOT civil engineer, but after 10 minutes on the “highway”, I deduce that efficiency in Central America is the calculus of the shortest distance between points A and B, tilting the road upwards of 10 …15 … sometimes an 18% grade over a surface that could be mistaken for a quarry mine. In visual shorthand, the “highway” is both technically and physically exhausting. At least there were no dogs.
Once again, the heat is cranked all the way to the right. We roll into Estelí with wilted spirits; Rene buys the team a round of courage in the form of coke products, cookies, a bags of spicy plantain chips. Still, the collective enthusiasm wanes as we debate the merits of completing the day “… 30K … in the heat … uphill….” I spot a Toyota Land Cruiser hidden in the shop garage and if you’ve ever paid attention to any 80’s TV plotline, you know where this is going. $10 later we are the talk-of-the-neighborhood, as a sidewalk crew shouts across the road on how best to lash the four bikes to the ‘79 series Land Cruiser pickup.
At some point in its life, the double cab was outfitted with a speaker the size of an oil drum … an addition that I truly believe elevates one’s Friday night game in Estelí. Though it sort of deafens the effectiveness of a “troopy.” Nonetheless, the five of us pack in the cab and ramble up to the lodge, thumping to the rhythms of gravel and heavily sampled latino house music. I think we made the right choice.
“Welcome to Marduk Gardens!” Oscar Duarte is a tall, lanky fella with long dreads spilling off his shoulders and combat boots laced below his skinny jeans. Oscar greets us with a gentle smile and a round of Toña beers. Previously a photographer for Reuters, Oscar decided to dial life back a bit and transform the family ranch perched high in the Tisey into the Marduk Gardens, a boutique eco-lodge.
“You came from the south, no?” Oscar continued. We shake our heads and with swinging arm gestures describe our roundabout ride from El Sauce all the way up over to Estelí, and finally to the Gardens by the Land Cruiser fitted with oil-drum sized speakers delivering bid audio chest blows out front. “We heard the road south wasn’t rideable by bike, let alone a car.” Oscar smiled, sharing that a new gravel road was just completed replacing the horse trail. Word travels slow in these parts.
Marduk Gardens has 10 or so cabañas, roosting high up on tip of a pine forested shoulder in the Tisey. Clean beds, hot showers, hammocks for everyone, a yoga platform, fresh food (all of the vegetables are organically grown at the ranch) … off the grid in most every way, the amenities could only be outmatched by the views and the superior service. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, drop by. The juice is worth the squeeze. Just take the new road if approaching from the south.
The sun sets and rises on the sixes as you approach the equator; early to bed and early to rise, we fuel up on a proper Nicaraguan breakfast of beans and rice, and eggs. We confirm our route with Oscar, point the bikes downhill over a road that looks like it was graded with sticks of dynamite, fold into the drops, loosen our grip, and let it rip back down into Estelí.
Some of the finest tobacco in the world is rolled in Estelí, and March is height of the harvest. We ride past farmers shuffling armfuls of tobacco into the massive drying barns. No time for a smoke, we head north towards the Miraflor, climbing through three climate zones in 30K:
- The dry, scrappy lowlands
- The greener midlands with bromeliads clinging to branches, power lines (or just about anything that can suck the humidity out of the air)
- Finally, as we crest the hill, we immediately transition from the dry season and into the moist cloud forest, a brilliant green, lush oasis in the mountains, known for its 200+ species of orchids–one of the richest orchid zones in the world
On the map, Miraflor is identified as a nature reserve, but it’s more properly described as a loose collection of like-minded farmers who prize eco-farming and tourism. During the civil war, local farmers armed up and resisted a band of Contras coming down out of Honduras in these very mountains. The reward? President Ortega gave the land back to the farmers as a “collective.” The socialist vibe is still present today.
The ride was short today: 45K. We roll into our hotel perched on the crest of the Miraflor, Finca Neblina del Bosque, just in time for lunch.
Now over my 40-some years, I’ve come to understand that there are a few constants in life. Death, taxes, and the fact that nearly anything in a corn tortilla a meal makes. I’ll add to that list if you are dining in Nicaragua, beans and rice will be served in that corn tortilla. And of all the beans and rice we consumed (and we consumed a lot of beans and rice) the variation at the Finca Neblina del Bosque was at the top of the heap. We passed the time sipping beers and scooping salsa with oven roasted tortilla chips until it was finally time for bed.
The esprit de corps of our of spandex crew was to observe. If we weren’t sometimes baffled and amazed, we were probably doing it wrong. Since we were making amends to the route daily (if not twice a day), I think we were spot on. So when considering our final day, which looked long and hilly, over suspicious roads on the maps, we agreed it might be in our best interest to ride down to San Sebastian de Yali and hitch a ride along the Pan-Am 1 to Selva Negra, our last stop on the tour.
Plunging some 800m in 17 kilometers, we follow the plumb line down, racing through lush mountain forest laced with wispy waterfalls, over rivers and past mind blowing views obscured by veils of mist and finally roll out into Yali, where we are once again at the center of a crowd negotiating our four bikes into the back of a Toyota. Darius in the cab, I climb into the back of the Hilux with Marc, Rene and the rack of bikes, clutching my camera in one hand and the truck with the other, as the Hilux raced up out of town and over the Nicaraguan countryside towards Selva Negra.
Selva Negra could easily be mistaken for a Bavarian farm: green, lush, manicured, tudor farm houses … conspicuous Greylag geese. No surprise, Selva Negra translates to “Black Forest,” which is where its German founders immigrated from back in the 1800’s. Farm to table, the lodge is a working ranch, growing sustainable coffee, fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy which we eagerly sample from the menu and wash down with the local Toña beer. The sense of formality properly bookends our ride, bringing us full circle from our start at the Convent. Amen to that.
We retire to our cabin on the lake, shingled with orchids growing out of the debris that fell from the canopy above, sit in the reading room and watch eurasian geese track trails in the algae. Then Darius breaks the silence … “Nicaragua! Good choice, right?” Indeed. Nicaragua with its friendly people, beautiful scenery, and quiet (yet challenging!) gravel roads, surpassed all our expectations.
“Listen … hear that?” I respond. The white noise of birds, cicadas and wind washes through the eucalyptus trees.“… It’s the Americas calling!”
Hopefully the current turmoil of demonstrations and threats will eventually heed to the hum of birds and insects…