I realize that I talk about roads a lot in our blog, but when half our time is spent driving transporting our home from location to location, roads become a very important part of our everyday life. Since leaving Alaska, we have encountered roads in a variety of conditions and populated by drivers of all talents. The roads in Nicaragua are by far the best since we left the states. Well paved with few potholes, painted lines, clear signage, and drivers obeying those lines and signs equals road heaven.
Our joy was magnified even more by the knowledge that we had left the pot-holed roads of doom in Honduras behind us. That is until we realized the plethora of obstacles that Nicaragua would throw our way, maybe just to keep our driving skills sharp, probably to remind us that we were still in a third-world country. Instead of pothole dodging, Suzie now had to improve her oxen and horse cart, and cow and goat herd dodging skills.
As we later learned, the United States government and the European Union had given Nicaragua the funds necessary to repair, maintain, and fix their roads with the caveat that the next election held would be transparent. In 2012, Daniel Ortega was re-elected in an election rife with corruption and the U.S. and E.U. withdrew their monetary support. As we drove a horrific 20 mile stretch of road between Leon and Granada with some of the largest potholes to date, we decided that this stretch was where the money had run out.
After successfully navigating through the Los Manos border, we made our way to Canon de Somoto, Nicaragua’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon. While attempting to find the entrance, we were cornered by a very helpful local, Louis, who not only hunted us down an incredible campsite, but also took us on a tour down the Rio Coco through the canyon.
Equal parts hiking, swimming, cliff jumping, and wading through the river with cliffs towering overhead on either side the Rio Coco reminded us of the Zion Narrows and the Smith River in Montana.
From Canon de Somoto we headed to the Pacific for the first time in almost 3 months. The last time we had dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean was Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Playa Penitas was a very sleepy surf town with not much happening except spectacular sunsets.
After a two days lazing on the beach, we decided we needed a little bit of city culture not to mention a shower. Leon had not impressed us as we drove through and so we drove onto Granada. As we rolled up to our first police checkpoint in Nicaragua, we were confident. I mean, we had just spent three weeks in Honduras, the country supposedly with the most corrupt police in Central America, without a single bribe attempt. Pride does go before fall and I couldn’t believe my ears as the officer looked through our paperwork and sadly shook his head. “Where is your vehicle inspection paperwork?” He asked sorrowfully as if it pained him to bring it up. I pointed to the signature of the customs official on our vehicle import permit who had given Suzie a cursory glance. “No,” he said, “you need a mechanical inspection, it is a yellow piece of paper. I am very sorry, but I am going to have to keep your license while you go to the bank and pay for the ticket.” Ken and I looked at each other in horror mixed with a little bit of glee. Finally, we were going to put into use our practiced bribe evasion strategy. In all reality, the officer’s grubby little fingers were only holding onto Ken’s international driver’s license, a document not vital for us to continue our journey, but we didn’t want to give it up without a fight. Forgetting the Spanish I had been using to converse with the officer previously, I put a confused look on my face and spoke the phrase every overlander memorizes before leaving home, “no entiendo?” The officer began speaking slowly in broken sentences, “banque, pagar, regresar manana,” all the while clutching Ken’s driver’s license to his chest. We kept insisting we did not understand what he was saying as well as the fact that there was no possible way that Ken could drive to the bank without his driver’s license. We continued on this back and forth debate for about 10 minutes until the officer made his fatal mistake and handed the license back to Ken. Immediately, he realized his error and asked for it back. When we refused, he gave up and waved us on. High on our adrenaline rush we didn’t even notice the entrance to Volcano Masaya until we had passed it. No worries, the next break in the concrete barrier Ken pulled a U-turn through the painted yellow lines and right into the eager arms of the officer at the next police checkpoint who could not believe his good luck. This time we knew we had violated a legitimate traffic regulation. The exact same song and dance ensued that we had been through only 20 minutes prior. This officer kindly offered to let us pay him a mere $40 instead of driving all the way to the bank to pay the $20 ticket. We figured we’d try to play the dumb gringo card again and to our surprise succeeded!
After our victory over the corrupt (or not) Nicaraguan police, we continued on with our day of doing things that we would never be allowed to do in the U.S and drove to the top of an active volcano.
Volcano Masaya last erupted in April 2012, yet tourists are still allowed to drive their vehicles to the edge of the still smoking crater, breathing in noxious fumes and wearing hard hats, and parking their vehicles pointed towards the exit just in case there is another eruption. Luckily for us, but much to Ken’s chagrin, Masaya did not erupt and we survived another unique day on the PanAmerican.