If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.
Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.
Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.
We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.
Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.
An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.
To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive.
We dropped off our things in the 10-bedroom dorm ($8 a night each), which we thought we had all to ourselves. The kitchen, by some alchemy, didn’t have gallo pinto (beans and rice), so we ate two fried eggs and fried quesadillas they call repochetas here. A German man and Mexican woman our age were speaking in Spanish together at our table, until the Mexican woman, Mariana, asked Jen in perfect English: “May I have some coffee?” and her need for caffeine broke the ice. She was a yoga instructor living in Granada for a few months, and she’d met Jonas, the German, there. They were at Peñas Blancas to escape from the intense Granada heat. They hadn’t gone hiking and they’d been there for three days. They were just happy to not be sweating like crazy.
Mariana asked me what I’m doing after the Peace Corps, and I explained that I wanted to keep travel blogging and doing more social media marketing for a travel company that promotes sustainable, low-impact service work. After having met so many Europeans and Australians who take months or years off to just travel and figure things out, I feel more comfortable with the uncertainty that comes with finishing a contract job.
Americans tend to frown upon traveling for extended periods of time. It’s not part of our culture, unfortunately. Why would you rather see the world instead of sitting under fluorescent lighting in an office cubicle all day?
We finished lunch, and put on our rubber boots. Don Chico led Jen and I down the only road up through vast cow pastures. Within the first five minutes of walking with Don Chico, he proved to be much more gregarious and knowledgeable than any of the other guides I’d met. He wasn’t just our chaperone, but our educator.
Don Chico moved to this area when he was seven, and hasn’t left since. He explained the coffee farms’ origins and pointed out which plants were venomous and which leaves and tree bark alleviates indigestion and kidney disease. He stuck a knife into a tree, and out came red tree sap. All of us licked the “blood,” which tasted like liquid bark. The sap cures ulcers and stomach aches.
Hiking a cliff is just what it sounds like. We took El Aventurero (yes, I sang the ranchera song) trail that was supposed to last five hours, where we’d see the famous Rainbow Waterfall. The incline was so steep that Don Chico had nailed ladders into the trees for us to scramble up. He built the entire trail himself.
Morpho butterflies fluttered past us as I continuously wiped my sweat with my orange handkerchief—it was humid! Every once in a while, a black-and-blue wasp would buzz by and circle around us. “Don’t move,” Don Chico said. Eventually he killed two wasps by waiting for them to perch on his head and slapping them senseless with his large, callous hands. My tactic of spraying the wasps with 40% DEET wasn’t as successful as his.
Hours later, we reached the view of the Rainbow Waterfall, aptly named for the several rainbows that appear around it. Our guide grabbed four bamboo shoots and said “Here comes the airplane!” as he rested the shoot on a hanging vine and thrust it out into the valley. The airplane plummeted over 3,000 feet off of the cliff’s edge. Don Chico looked like a little boy who’d just discovered how to make a paper airplane.
Meanwhile, I gazed out into the valley from this awesome viewpoint. I’d had dreams about standing on the edge of this cliff, then I’d just fly off of it. We snapped photos and searched for a waterfall to swim under. Our guide once again stopped us to look at a 100-foot long vine that reached straight down from a treetop. It was as thick as a full fire hose. “Foreigners get scared when they see how far up I can climb up this thing,” said Don Chico. I half-jokingly told him to show us. This “senior” jumped on and hugged the vine with his hands and feet, climbing right up like a monkey.
“Soy un chavalon!” (I’m a big kid) Don Chico said, after he proved that age ain’t nothing but a number. I tried to climb the vine but had no success going up.
Then, we finally found a tiny waterfall. I jumped right into the pool of freezing cold water that gave me goosebumps. I splashed around the deliciously cool water for 20 minutes, hoping I wouldn’t stir up any sleeping snakes from the leafy bottom. It felt nice to be in such a green, clean place.
We pressed on and Don Chico took us to another cliff’s edge, from which we could see as far as Jinotega’s Lake Apanas (where I’d gone skinny dipping). The sounds of the valley reverberated up the cliff, and we could still hear the occasional bus horn from the road. Rain clouds cast ominous shadows on specific sections of the land, but the plumes spared us a bath.
On the entire way up and down the cliffs, Jen and I kept slipping and falling into the mud. “Well, this is a humbling experience!” I said, and we burst out laughing. My stomach clenched with laughter because what I’d just said spoke to our entire Peace Corps experience. It’s humbling, to say the least. The more I tripped, the more I felt as if I’d forgotten how to walk. By hour five, Jen and I resorted to having a movie quote contest. She claimed that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the most quotable movie ever, but I argued that Mean Girls was.
In between falling down the cliff and latching onto whatever vines we could to not fall as hard, we recited quotes like “We are the knights who say ‘ni’!” and “Do you even go to this school?” Don Chico was incredibly attentive, carving holes into the ground for us to step in, and coaching us as to how not to twist our ankles like the German woman who had to be carried down the cliffs. Hiking a cliff is no easy feat, but the views were worth it.
Six hours later, we emerged from the forest and walked into the undulated leaves of Don Chico’s coffee farm. He bit into a green coffee bean to expose the white pulp inside, explaining that the coffee needed another six months to ripen. We got back to our room, took off our rubber boots, and ate a dinner of beans and rice, tortillas, cuajada, and chicken cooked with green olives (olives are expensive here so I was surprised to see this).
I was exhausted, but to Don Chico, the night was young. He serenaded us with the folk music emanating from his mandolin and accordion. I hear lots of people complain about young Nicaraguans not caring as much about folklore and folk music, but it was comforting to see this old man play the music that comes from the region. We cheered him on and clapped after each song. All of us were a third his age, yet he had the most energy by far. It was so precious to see such an old man full of so much life.
After dinner, Jen and I discovered other arachnid guests sharing our dorm room. There was a baby tarantula on one bed, and Jen took out her flip-flop to kill it, but it only hid. Silly humans, it probably thought. We gave up and turned off the lights, giggling at the ridiculously loud croaking of the frogs outside. Neither of us could sleep properly because of the thought of the extra company in our room. When Jen woke up, there was a grasshopper the size of a stapler sitting vertically on the wall next to her pillow. Staying in a place with no mosquito nets isn’t for the faint of heart.
We got dressed and went for a short walk to a nearby waterfall, then returned for breakfast. This time, our repochetas weren’t friend and came with beans and rice. We took turns refilling our cups of coffee from the thermos while chatting with Don Chico. I’m not sure if he even slept because he was wearing the same thing he’d worn the night before. Maybe he went to go build another trail.
The bus back to Matagalpa city passes by every two hours, so Son Chico walked us both out to the bus stop after we paid ($21 each + tip). He walked us to the bus to go home, he asked if we have boyfriends. “I don’t. I’m a lesbian,” I said. “Oh, you’re a lesbian,” he said. I just hosted two women who were hugging and kissing each other during our hike. I was fine with it. To each their own.”
“Great, because you’ve been around a while, so I didn’t think I’d be the first one you’ve met,” I said. “No, you’re definitely not” he said, with his fixed grin.