Here’s a breakdown of camping along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, which is hands down my favorite country in the world. The landscapes, the people, the language, and relative affordability make this a great place to travel and camp.
This is my first time camping internationally with my one person Passage 1 tent from REI, which is light and has an excellent rain cover that has served me well as a tour guide who has camped all over the United States and its National Parks.
I started my backpacking trip two weeks ago by flying into Santa Marta, Colombia. This is my second visit to Colombia, and since I have already been to Cartagena, I decided to start my trip in Santa Marta. I plan to travel throughout the entire country, heading south, for the next few months on my 90 day tourist visa.
Before starting, I had no idea how accessible it would be to camp. Not only is it cheaper than paying for a dorm room in a hostel, I also find it to be quieter since there are rarely any people snoring next to me. I’m a light sleeper, so a quiet place to sleep is muy importante.
I hope these tips inspire you to camp in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast!
I initially wanted to do the $350, 4-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), but since I came to the country in the peak of the rainy season that lasts from September to December, I decided against it. I spent a week at Chimila, which costs $1 round trip via bus to get into the city of Santa Marta. They also rent out bikes for free for the first two hours, but since it’s so hot here, I only rode the bike into the city once. It also located a bit far from the Rodadero Beach, so taking a bus is also a good idea.
Pros: The pool and the many friendly, mostly Venezuelan volunteers/staff. The atmosphere was incredibly relaxing, too. I don’t consider myself a homebody, but damn, this place made me want to stay forever! When I talked to one of the awesome Venezuelan staff members, Kelly, over breakfast, she mentioned that this place had served as a spiritual retreat for priests who would come here. Their positive energy has definitely stayed. I definitely made use of the hammock and the lounge chairs by the pool.
Cons: Lots of mosquitos, so buy Nopikex bug spray. I ended up lending a bunch of my handy spray to the staff in the evenings! There are also no roofed camping areas which can be a problem if you don’t have a solid rainfly.
Santa Marta wasn’t my favorite city. It’s very hot and dusty and full of tourists who seem to be on the prowl for drugs and sex. There was a great natural food cafe in the Parque de los Novios, which had a killer ceviche made with green apples, and the street art was impressive, but I wouldn’t go back. Santa Marta is more of a jumping off point to explore the neighboring activities , like Parque Tayrona or scuba diving in Taganga.
Since Yuluka doesn’t have camping, I went all bougie and boked a dorm room at this relaxing hostel a few minutes away from the entrance to Parque Tayrona, and I’m glad I did. I went hiking into the park to see if I wanted to camp there, but because of all the mud, I’m glad I decided not to.
Pros: Friendly staff, cooler weather than Santa Marta, the best patacones (tostones) of life, a refreshing pool, and a free morning shuttle to the Park Entrance.
Cons: No camping, pricer food, a tiny pool, very few Colombians stayed here when I was here. Most of the guests were Dutch so I didn’t practice much of my Spanish outside of speaking with the staff.
Parque Tayrona: This is one of Colombia’s most famous parks. The jungle borders the ocean and if you’re lucky, you can spot monkeys on your hike down to the beaches. Again, I went during rainy season, so I didn’t want to lug my gear through the mud pits to camp. The hike from the entrance to Cabo San Juan del Guia, the most popular beach for backpackers, took about 3 hours and I was almost knee-high in mud. It was an adventure but not one I’d repeat, especially not with my camping gear!
Cost for a day pass: 61,000 COP ($20 USD). Camping spots cost $10+ USD, depending on where you book.
Palomino is an odd mix between a sleepy, agricultural town and mecca for partygoing backpackers. Not a place I’d return to because it’s tourist central, but it was a decent halfway point with a beach between Parque Tayrona and Riohacha. I ate lunch at Sua Restaurant, which has great salads.
Pros: The cutest, cuddliest cats roam the property. There’s a hammock and a roof over the camp sites. The neighboring little food stall sells great falafel and arepas de huevo. For all you yoga lovers, there’s 9 AM yoga in the morning. The beach is a ten minute walk away.
Cons: No breakfast and there were tons of mosquitoes.
La Guajira is Colombia and South America’s northernmost point. It’s rugged terrain, where the resilient Wayuu people have resisted colonization from the English, Dutch, and Spanish for centuries. You can book tours from Santa Marta, Riohacha, and more places, but since I speak Spanish and wanted to save money, I decided to wing it and head out there on my own.
I took a shared taxi from Riohacha to the town of Uribia, where I waited for nearly an hour for a shared 4 x 4 jeep to make the 2-3 hour journey to Cabo de la Vela, a remote fishing village to the north. I began chatting with Reiner, a local who took my to his aunt’s hostel. A group of Colombians from Bogota were also making the trip. The road to Cabo was muddy, and our land rover got stuck in the mud multiple times that day, so we had to call other drivers to pull us out of the mud with a makeshift belt and hook.
Once at the hostel, I tried the lobster for $10 which was really good. Just ask for some lime to sprinkle on it since it’s a little dry. The hostel was bare bones- we had to ask for toilet paper and there was no running water. Bucket baths cost a little less than $1. I paid Reiner about $33 USD for an excursion that night to the lighthouse and surrounding beaches, and my fare would also cover the boat ride to and from Punta Gallinas, an excursion to the beaches there, and the ride back to Uribia. It was a pretty sweet deal considering the distances traveled.
Pros: The camping spot is right near the beach, where kite surfers of all levels are gliding on (or crashing into) the shallow water.
Cons: No running water and I wish I’d brought my own toilet paper, but hey, it WAS only $2 and we were in the middle of a coastal desert, yo. I also wish I’d brought more snacks. Shout out to the Colombians who shared their snacks with me!
Punta Gallinas is the stunning northernmost point of South America. To get there, we took a 5 am boat through the choppy water for two hours. Hospedaje Alexandra is pretty much the only place to stay and is right up the steps from the port. We had a $3 USD breakfast of an arepa with eggs around 9 am, then from 10 am to 2 pm, we went on an included tour of the surrounding beaches and view points.
On the way there, we passed by goats that weaved their way through the cacti to chomp down on the greenest grass the region has seen in five years, which is how long the area went without rain. Our guide told us that one farmer had 200 goats, but by the end of the drought, he only had 50 left. I’m glad the Wayuu finally had some much deserved rain.
My favorite part of the tour was the final leg, during which we were dropped off at the base of a massive sand dune we scaled, then ran down and plunged into the neighboring sea. It was magic.
Pros: Hammocks galore at the Hospedaje. The fried fish they serve is massive. I decided to try their vegetrian lunch instead, which turned out to be a tasty lentil soup with friend plantains and salad.
Cons: Bathing in stored seawater was not my favorite, but again, it is remote desert! It’s a small price to pay for stunning scenery.
I hope my tips for camping in Colombia’s Caribbean coast have been useful! If there’s anything else you’d like to know, drop a line in the comments.
Looking for things to do this Spring in Washington, DC?
Whether you live a few metro stops away from DC, or you’re flying across 11 time zones to see Dorothy’s Ruby Red slippers at The American History Smithsonian, I wanted to let you know about some fun things to do around DC this spring. There’s something for everyone here, from the solo spring breaker to the family of nine. After leading bike tours on the National Mall since March with Bike and Roll DC, I’ve had lots of fun meeting families from all over the world and showing them the countless wonders of the U.S. Capital.
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. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”→
“I missed my raging sunsets, the green entanglement of treetops, the verdant ravines, and the furious downpours [in Nicaragua]. Costa Rica seemed too shallow and tame: like the light, interminable rain that kept falling over San José.”
Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin
As I traveled through Nicaragua’s Remote Rio San Juan area, Belli’s vision of an untamed Nicaragua spoke to this region best.
I had just returned from my trip to the Solentiname Islands, and now I was on the 3:30 PM slow boat from San Carlos to El Castillo (The Castle). It costs 90 cordobas for the slow boat and 140 cordobas for the fast boat.
Sharing the boat with myself and 30 other passengers was a young, balding man who refused to put on his life jacket as everyone else had done. “C’mon, man, just put it on so we can get out of here!” yelled my boat’s driver to him. He finally put it on, and the dock’s inspector let us to take off.
Riding The Surreal Rio San Juan
As soon as the boat coasted into the massive river, everyone took their life jackets off and stored them overhead. To our left sat another long boat filled to the brim with cattle. “And their lifejackets?!” I asked, making the men around me giggle and nod at me.
This was my first time in the Rio San Juan, and I couldn’t help but think of how long it had been since I’d seen a river deep enough to boat in. This was the driest the river had been in thirty years, but I couldn’t believe it. Many towns here, like my own, have “rivers,” but they are just dry riverbeds with bridges built over them so people don’t get their feet wet in the rainy season.
I braced myself for the three hour ride, wishing I hadn’t sat in the very back because of the noise from the motor. The clouds began to blanket the sky, slowly cooling the humid air little by little. I stuck my hand in the shockingly warm water. It was as if someone had just taken it off the boil a few minutes ago. The motor’s loud rumble evolved into a trivial hum.
This was what I thought Nicaragua would be like before I came here. Egrets waded in the water, insects of all types buzzed about, and the trees. The trees brought Belli’s description of the “entanglement of treetops” to life. They shot up from the earth and mercilessly enveloped one another. The mangroves below them formed perches for kingfishers while they scanned the brown water for lunch.
The land was so clean, too. In a country where people regularly toss plastic wrappers out the bus window, it was incredibly refreshing to see unspoiled land—until we passed signs of human life. As soon as we pulled up to docks to let people off, the plastic Coke bottles and Doritos wrappers dotted the river’s edge, a sobering reminder of “civilization.” I had never been so disappointed to run into signs of humanity as I was on that ride. The desolation we encountered in between made me feel as if we were traveling back in time, and the garbage was the only thing to snap me back to the frustrating reality about the lack of foresight we have about protecting nature.
Lightning bolts crashed on both sides of us, but the motor’s hum and water’s warmth soothed me. A man next to me asked me if I was scared of the lightning. His friend was scared, and he wanted help calming him down. I just said “No, if we die, we die.” The man nodded, but didn’t seem convinced. To soften my fatalistic response, I said that I feel more scared when I’m riding on the highways and the bus drivers are holding a corn on the cob in one hand and waving at oncoming traffic with the other. This version of my sass was more to their liking, as they laughed and nodded once more.
How ironic, I thought, that I was a solo woman comforting a group of grown men on a boat in the middle of a thunderstorm. Many people here don’t know how to kick, much less swim, in the water (even with life jackets on, as I discovered at the Apoyo Lagoon). I’d survived countless crashes in my inner tubing and water-skiing days, so I wasn’t intimidated. The rain poured over us, forcing the man in front of me to bring down the plastic screen to cover the boat’s sides. The driver stuck his head out into the rain in order to see. Radar? Please. There’s nothing like the sense of sight in a rainstorm!
Garbage and lightning aside, the ride was mystical. The scorched river had begged for the cool rain, and it puffed out plumes of vapor to show its relief. Suddenly, we sped right into a beautiful cloud of billions of orange flies. The mischievous flies sped alongside us, while others stayed put. Their mesmerizing mix of motion and stability transfixed me. All of a sudden, magical realism seemed more real than ever.
Two hours into the ride, we pulled into the first large town, Boca de Sáballos. A large, hulking man who looked like the actor Danny Trejo turned around and asked me where I was from. He wore a black jean jacket and white cowboy hat with a pink string tied around it. I explained that it was my first time in the area, and that I thought it was beautiful.
“Si te gusta ésto, te vas a enamorar del Castillo.”
“If you like this, you’re going to fall in love with El Castillo”
I felt safe with this man and his kind eyes, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he looked like Machete.
After this jaw-dropping ride, my eyes widened further as a boat pulled up next to ours, and a woman jumped right onto it, as if she were stepping off the sidewalk. A man next to me couldn’t contain himself, waving his finger at me and shaking his head, as if to say: “That’s nothing. You’re definitely new around here. I’m just going to use gestures since you don’t speak Spanish.” The excitement the locals felt for me was endearing. I was excited that they were excited for me.
Dusk drew closer, and the sun turned bright pink as we sped away from it. This raging sunset was unlike any other I’d seen. The vertical streak of bright pink reflected on the huge river, only to be interrupted by the rocky rapids, logs, and palm trees in between us. Even though it’s a freshwater river, it smelled salty like the ocean it would lead into seven hours later. I couldn’t believe how lush the jungle was. This wasn’t the loud, deforested, and smoggy country I’ve lived in.
Around 6:30 PM, El Castillo’s twinkling lights welcomed us. El Castillo is named after its famous fortress, which was once run by the Spanish to protect Lake Nicaragua from pirates that would sneak in through the river’s Atlantic mouth. Instead of watching out for honking taxis, I quickly saved myself from stepping on the frogs. Just like their cousins did in Solentiname, they hopped all over the paths without the slightest fear of human feet or bicycle wheels. I couldn’t wait to see this place in the daytime. After all of this magic, I deeply questioned how much of García Marquez’s fictitious village, Macondo, was imagined after all.
Machete was right—as soon as I go to El Castillo, I fell in love with it. It was unlike any other town I’d seen here. In fact, it reminded me of the Germanic town of Leavenworth in northern Washington State. The rapids flanked the town’s left side, and cozy houses and hotels on stilts advertised their tours and restaurants with hand-carved, wooden signs.
I dropped off my things at the LGBT-friendly, family-owned Nena Lodge ($10 for a private room with a shared bathroom). It’s a basic resting place with creaky wooden floors. From the balcony, you could see the river while swaying in a hammock. You could also see people walking from both sides of the street, but they could also see you–and exactly which room you’re sleeping in.
Nena’s takes a lack of privacy to a new level. The rooms have open ceiling spaces characteristic of Nicaraguan homes that maximize airflow and minimize privacy. You can hear everything that goes on in the next rooms until you blast the fan. My bed had a much-needed mosquito net, a towel, and a fan. I was glad I’d brought my repellant.
The family that owned it was very sweet and quiet, showing me where I could go for dinner. Peace Corps volunteers implored me to try the veggie curry at Border’s Café, and they told me to keep walking to the right along the main path. I mentioned that Nena’s is LGBT-friendly because I found this out from the warm, determined, and incredibly resilient gay owner of Borders, Yamil, whose mere existence despite multiple assaults in this small town is a testament to human adversity. I’d meet him that night and hear his full story in the morning.
But first, I needed to rest. I couldn’t stop thinking about how surreal the boat ride was. This makes me think of Rushdie’s interpretation of the lines between fantasy and reality.
“When people use the term magic realism, usually they only mean ‘magic’ and they don’t hear ‘realism’, whereas the way in which magic realism actually works is for the magic to be rooted in the real. It’s both things. It’s not just a fairytale moment. It’s the surrealism that arises out of the real.”
Before visiting the San Juan River, I had only read about magical realism. Now, I had lived it, and El Castillo would grant me an otherworldly adventure.
Have you ever experienced a magical place before? Where was it?
On a map, Big and Little Corn Island are unassuming specks in the Atlantic Ocean. They are located off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. They are unforgettable gems for the budget traveler.
I decided to go to the Corn Islands because I’ve heard so many other Peace Corps volunteers rave about them. When the $165-200 round trip flight from Managua equates to roughly the same as our monthly earnings, and they still go, then it must be worth it, right? Since my mom had already spent $1,200 on her flight from Pasco, Washington, I dug into my savings to buy our round trip tickets. We were on a budget because we were traveling to the Apoyo Lagoon after this.
You probably haven’t heard of Big and Little Corn Island because they are so small. Why are they named after a golden vegetable? Some say that it’s because of the wild corn that grows on the island. Others attribute the name to phonetics: pronounce “corn” in a Caribbean accent, and it sounds like “carne”, the Spanish word for meat. The islands were known for the cattle that grazed the land and whose meat fed the British pirates and colonizers in the 17th century. Most of the people who live there are the descendants of escaped slaves of Afro-Caribbean descent.
I didn’t have many expectations. I knew I’d explore gorgeous beaches and that I’d hear locals of Afro-Caribbean descent switch seamlessly from English Kreole to Spanish (or English). I’d only been to the NiCaribbean coast once in August, when I led a classroom management workshop for English teachers at the ANPI (Asociacion Nicaraguense de Profesores de Ingles) conference in Bluefields. ANPI paid for my flight and lodging, and some meals. When my meals weren’t covered, I was happy to sit in the park and share a $1 loaf of dense Coconut Breadwith Amilcar, a friendly cab driver I met and came out to. I was excited to return to one of the few parts of the world where the language and culture of Latin American fuses beautifully with that of the Caribbean.
Day 1 Managua to Big Corn Island: 216 miles, or 1.5 hours via La Costeña Airlines. A cheaper option is to take a boat from Bluefields (a much longer trip)
It was a hot, humid Christmas Day. My mom and I woke up at 5 AM, then sat for three hours on a refurbished school bus from Matagalpa to the Managua Airport ($3). Luckily, our flight to Big Corn Island would only take half the time. We boarded around 11 AM. Our tiny airplane took off, and we shook and wobbled with the slightest gust of wind. Nervous excitement and tourists filled the plane. My ears plugged painfully as the cabin pressure changed. We cruised over the Atlantic Ocean. I was enamored by the way the puffy, small clouds cast dark blue shadows over the crystalline Caribbean Sea. Each cloud caste its own imaginary island on the water. The shallow water revealed undulating sand dunes underneath it. A flooded Sahara Desert. I could hear passengers chatting and pointing out the window, but my ears were too plugged to make out the words. I opened and closed my mouth to no avail.
After 30 minutes of flying over the massive, blue Dalmatian’s coat, the plane’s nose tipped down and we dove for a landing strip that divided Big Corn Island in two. We skidded to a stop, zooming past turquoise and orange houses on stilts. Three black children, resting under the shade of a massive palm tree, pointed at our plane, immediately distinguishing the locals from the tourists.
I was the last one who exited the plane on the staircase. The tropical wall of breezy, yet sweltering humidity hit me. My mom and I took a cab for less than $1 to our hotel, the Tropical Dreams Hotel. I’d found it on Airbnb, and the rooms were $20 a night.
Our room was sweltering hot, and had no air conditioning. For 97% of my Peace Corps service, I’ve been used to relying on fans to cool off. Air conditioning is a luxury to me. The amount of mosquitoes quickly made us regret not bringing a full can of bug spray. My mom ended up upgrading us to a room with air conditioning and far less mosquitoes for the two following nights. The upgrade brought the room up to $60 with breakfast included (cereal, instant coffee, and toasted coconut bread). Our hosts were super friendly, as was the dog, Gretchen. If you go, watch out for this puppy’s warm, friendly licks!
On the budgetary bright side, our stay included a 10% discount at Marlene’s “Relax” Restaurant next door. Marlene has won several cooking competitions for her Caribbean concoctions, like Rondon (a coconut stew) and freshly caught lobster in garlic sauce. We ended up spending most of out meals there. The prices were double what I’m used to on the mainland, but it does cost more to ship everything out here.
Tropical Dreams Hotel to the Beach: A five-minute walk
The beach had peach-colored sand, coconuts laying around like easter eggs, and palm trees anchored into the sand. Their thin, emerald leaves rustled in the wind. The only other people there were two mestizo women and a handful of prepubescent boys. They splashed around near the shore, careful not to get swept away by the sneaky current. I’m a strong swimmer, but this was one of the strongest currents I’ve ever felt. It pulled me to my right as I faced out toward Africa. Then, I heard a “chh chh” sound. A 12-year-old boy waved me over to talk to him. His friend was already chatting next to my mom, who preferred to enjoy the beach by sitting on a log rather than swimming against the current.
As soon as I was close enough, the boy told me how beautiful I was. He grabbed my arm and traced it with his finger, as if assessing my level of beauty according to my whiteness. “Ohhh, yeah! You are pretty. Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. “No, I’m a lesbian.” His three friends came by to listen in. I was trying to fight the waves. It’s hard to have a learning moment when you’re getting slapped in the face by salt water and tossed around like a doll in a washing machine.
“Oh! So you’re a dyke!” the boy responded. His friends laughed. Calmly, I responded: “I don’t like being called that. It’s not nice. What if I came up to you and called you an idiot?” His friends laughed. “But he is an idiot!” one of his friends piped up. More laughter. “Well, I’m not going to say that because I don’t know you” I explained. “Well, how do you say it then?” the little flirt asked. “Les-bi-an-a” I responded. This interaction reminded of coming out on the bus to a surprised older man. I’ve never come out to so many curious strangers as I have in Nicaragua.
I’m not sure if this boy really understood what the word lesbian meant, since he proceeded to ask me for a kiss on the cheek before he had to go. I said no, and that I didn’t want to. He had been touching my arms and looked me up and down. “Why not?” he asked. “That’s not nice. What if I came up to you and starting touching you where you wouldn’t want to be touched?” He looked down, then waved goodbye as he ran back to shore.
He was very persistent for a 12-year-old, and I wonder how much I impacted him, if at all. As I thought about what forces made this prepubescent child feel the need to seduce women at such an early age, I thought of queer blogger Bani Amor’s post about the flipside: when white women assault men of color. This article made me extremely uncomfortable at first, but it brings up a point no one talks about. I had never thought of white women as the perpetrators of these crimes, but now I think more critically of where I position myself as a queer, Mexican, white woman in Nicaragua. At first, I selfishly thought, well, maybe there are male victims, but the rate is not as high as it is for women. The rates are not the point. The fact that men of color are victimized for their skin tone, and that few people know about this, is the problem. Oh, Bani. You’re always making me challenge my own assumptions.
Then, came dinner at Marlene’s. I had a chicken taco (which resembles a fried, Mexican flauta) and a lobster taco rolled in a flour tortilla ($3 each). It was pan friend in coconut oil-I recognized the taste of the oil I’ve grown to cook with. I could’ve eaten four of them, but I was saving money for the trip to Little Corn Island the next day. I’d been convinced to leave one paradise for another after reading Big World Small Pocket’s 20 Things to Do on Little Corn Island. She is a great budget travel blogger-I recommend subscribing to her posts. Little Corn was also featured in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Big Corn Island to Little Corn Island
Distance: 45 minutes on a speed boat. Articles of clothing soaked: All of them. Number of waves that made us wish we hadn’t taken the panga: All of them.
After moving our things to the air-conditioned room, we took a cab to Briggs Bay. Our panga (speed boat) would leave for Little Corn Island at 10:30 AM. We paid $6 for our huge, laminated boarding passes, then waited for everyone to climb in first. We put on our neon orange life jackets. My mom sat next to a mestizo Nicaraguan, Alejandro, who was on vacation. Luckily for her, he also had a seat cushion to share with her.
I was sandwiched between the edge of the seat cushion and a backpacker with a manbun. He had thick, long, dark eyelashes and began to peel an orange as if he were on a picnic. The zest filled my nostrils while the peels filled the floor. He picked them up as the boat picked up speed. We abandoned the tranquil, turquoise waters and became acquainted with the Caribbean on a windy day- and the 20-foot waves that came with it.
Other than “Sorry!” I didn’t exchange a word with Mr. Manbun. I grabbed his forearm twice. The boat climbed up and over each wave, and slammed down to transform the water into concrete.
It was the longest, cheapest roller coaster ride of my life. If you’re ever had a spinal or neck injury, stay on Big Corn Island-this ride is not for you!
After 45 minutes of the slamming and splashing, we reached sand. Mr. Manbun climbed out and turned around from the dock, making a peace sign with his fingers back toward the boat. I’m not sure if he was looking at me or at the captain, so I just waved back and smiled.
We didn’t have an agenda for Little Corn. Alejandro advised us to hike to the radio tower for a great view. I was in the mood for a mojito, after what we’d gone through. I had my mind set on finding the Little Corn Beach Bungalow, a Peace Corps favorite. I had no idea it would be so hard to find. There are no paved roads on Little Corn, but the amount of white hipsters, yogis, and coffee shops reminded me of Portland. So this is where all the young white people go, I thought. Most of the tourists we saw on Big Corn were older. After having survived the boat ride, I understand why. The millenials lounged about, reading novels on their beach chairs. Books replaced teddy bears for the sleepy hammock-goers.
As my mom and I kept walking, a gorgeous, young black woman sang “Excuse me!” as she passed by on her bicycle. I wonder how annoying all of these tourists are for the locals. The island isn’t developed very much, aside from the posh cafés and restaurants. I wonder how different Little Corn Island was 50 years ago.
It felt like a tight-knit community. Locals smiled at us and said “Mornin’”. On our walk, it began raining, and a generous homeowner waved at us to come find shelter from the five-minute sprinkle. His dog sat next to me while I scratched his ear. We thanked the owner and pressed on.
We walked for hours along the beach, and in the wrong direction. One woman told us where the Bungalow was, but she ended up pointing us to a private farm. The farm’s annoyed, yet understanding owner finally gave us the correct directions. We walked past yards decorated with empty soda bottles strewn on strings, and heard people clapping their hands at a church overlooking the sea. One girl was dressed up in a pink dress walked to church with her brothers holding on to her hands.
We walked past swamps and trudged through beachside paths that were filled with water from the high tide. We finally reached the Bungalow. It was the very last hotel on the way there. As we looked at the map of Little Corn, we realized that we could have made it from the dock in a 10-minute straight shot. Well, at least the walk back would involve less water.
I ate grilled cheese sliders with onion rings ($4), and my mom ate some fries. I doused everything in a dark green, curry-like sauce in an old rum bottle. “What sauce is this!? It’s so good!” I asked the waitress. “Oh, that is just a vegetable and spice sauce” she said, in her melodic Caribbean accent. “They sell it everywhere. It’s called Lizano.” I thought Lizano was just a hot sauce, but yes, they do in fact sell it everywhere. I bought a bottle after that and the taste reminds me of how tired I felt after finally having found the place. Not to mention it takes me back to those greasy, cheesy sliders.
After lunch, we sat by the water. The Bungalow is more of a high-end resort. It’s a neat business that is pretty eco-friendly and is involved in the community. The resort has lots of neat sustainability initiatives, such as a spaying and neutering campaign. Normally, guests can be found scuba diving and snorkeling nearby, but the wind was so strong that the normally clear, blue water turned murky. We took the path we should have taken all along back to the center, and hiked to the radio tower. Mom climbed up the ladder rungs to the lookout point first, and I followed her. We had a panoramic view of the little island. Big Corn Island jutted out to the south. “Climbing up is always easier than climbing down”, mom said. I decided to count the number of ladder rungs in order to stay busy instead of nervous. There were 36 rungs.
On the way back to the dock, we stopped to buy coconut bread from an older woman. The smell of freshly baked Coconut bread is more memorable than the taste, but not by much. I told my mom about the time I ate coconut bread in Bluefields with a stick of margarine after my Amilcar suggested that it was the best way to enjoy it. “We have margarine”, the baker’s husband chimed in. “It’s the day after Christmas and I’m on a diet,” I joked. He laughed and pat my shoulder. We walked out, sharing ripped pieces of the fluffly, warm bread. “It doesn’t taste like anything”, mom said. I just smiled because the taste wasn’t what I was after. It was the smell and the experience of buying it. Since I’ve left the states, I’ve come to appreciate the process of buying a product rather than the product itself.
A five-year old boy extended his hand and asked me for a piece of my huge loaf. I ripped of a piece and handed it to him. Instead of a “thank you” he bit into it, as if this were his price for sharing his little island with me. Then, we passed by the little boy who had asked me for a kiss the day before. “Adios”, I said to him, as he walked by with an older man. Only the man said “adios” back to me. Mom and I had some time to kill, so we waited on the beach. I jumped in and swam to cool off.
Only now do I realize that Johnny Depp’s eyeliner must have been very, very waterproof for it to stay on after all of the perspiration one excretes in the Caribbean.
Our boat back to Big Corn Island was supposed to leave at 4 PM, but the captain didn’t even show up until 4:15. This reminded me of the time my friend Jen and I boarded a bus to hike Cosiguina Volcano, only to sit inside of it for over an hour in 90-degree heat before it departed. It was just another day of hurrying up and waiting, as she’d say. The Captain strolled lackadaisically from the beach onto the dock, then boarded the boat. It was as if he were disappointed that passengers even showed up. The tourists loaded up first, carrying their waterproof nikons and snorkeling kits. Locals loaded up bags of rice and an ice cream cart.
We set out at 4:30. I was mentally preparing myself for another round of getting slammed by the sea, but this never happened. Our boat turned out to be the large, gentle, two-hour ferry. One woman leaned against the ice cream cart and took a nap. How different things were now! As, we sat there, realizing we had more time than we thought to look out into the ocean instead of nearly pissing ourselves, I thought of one of my favorite travel writing passages, Mark Schatzker’s description of the ocean in A Tale of Two Crossings:
“It is vast. It is impersonal. It is wavy like you can’t imagine, except for those rare moments when, miraculously, it lies still. On a bright afternoon two thousand miles south of Alaska, it looked like a magnificent indigo pile rug. A day later, under a sky blotched with clouds, it resembled the hide of a huge slumbering animal, heaving up and down as it breathed…an ocean swell is the ultimate in existentialism: unremitting and blind. The waves marched across the horizon like Victorian factory workers. Their movement was both vigorous and futile- as if to say, “What else you gonna do out here?”
That morning on the treacherous panga ride, I had my own existential crisis. By the time we pulled back into Briggs Bay, the ocean was just another animal, slumbering under the twinkling stars above. I was relieved. We reached shore, and we had no more oceanic panga rides planned. Ever again.
We climbed into a cab that was headed in the opposite way of our hotel. I expected the driver to turn around as soon as we climbed in, but when I told him this, he mumbled that he was taking the other way around. He then turned up Pitbull’s timelessly tacky Taxi to keep us from bothering him. We came home at the same time after having driven the opposite way. Big Corn Island is not so big. Two lobster tacos later, I was ready for bed in our air-conditioned room.
What a great day to not ride the panga! This was our last full day on Big Corn Island. My mom and I set out to walk around and end up at Picnic Center, which we’d heard was the most swimmable beach. We passed past crab crossing signs and houses on stilts that blasted country music from their porches.
We stopped by this cozy little green shack for some fresh coconuts in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood. The owners, Sidney and Adele, have been married for 40 years. They were the most warm, relaxed hosts. 40-cents later, we were sipping on a fresh coconut through a straw. Then, Sidney hacked it in half. We scooped out the gelatinous, white pulp. We giggled because of how good it was. I felt like a kid again. If only I’d had some chile and lime to put on it. I left Mexico when I was three, but one of the few things I do remember was seeing roadside stands selling fresh coconut doused in lime and chile powder. I also thought of how straws are called “popotes” in Mexico. Here, they are “pajillas”. This is just one example of the many linguistic differences between Latin American countries. I wanted to stay there forever, but my mom rightfully pulled me away. We ended up coming back the next day and I found out why Adele has never left the island.
We pressed on along the road. The hot, humid air started to make my neck unbearably itchy. I’ve had eczema all of my life, but for the past two years, my neck has been the only itchy spot on my body. Dermatogologists don’t know what to do with me, other than prescribing a rotating list of ineffective lotions and harmful steroid creams. I’ve even taken prednisone to stop the itching before. We were downtown, and my neck felt as if it were on fire. I bought a gallon of water and tub of Vaseline, then went outside and splashed my neck. I put on some Vaseline, which helped a bit. We took a cab to the Picnic Center beach, and the burning started to die down. We ordered beers and I asked for a bag of ice to press on my neck. The burning died down, and I jumped into the endless, still infinity pool of the ocean.
The beach was nearly deserted- and this was the “high season.” We walked back to town and spun around to see just another airplane glide over us. This time, we were the ones pointing at it. A troupe of young men played soccer on the beach. Other men welcomed us to the island and asked if we wanted to buy a conch. I thought they were selling us conches for ceviche, and replied “No thanks. I’m full.” My mom playfully clarified: “It’s not to eat. They want to sell you the shells!” “Oops!” I said, laughing.
Taxis honked at us, as if to ask “Why are you white people walking? You don’t know where you’re going!”
We weren’t in a rush to go to the hotel, though. Luckily, the only bus on Corn Island approached. It was a blue van with a huge decal in bubble letters that said “My Bus” on the windshield. We waved it down and stepped in. Dancehall music blasted from inside. It cost 40 cents to ride anywhere on the circuitous route. We took the “long” way back to Tropical Dreams. About 12 minutes later, we stopped by Marlene’s to place an order for Rondon ($11), a local specialty.
Two hours later, we sat down at the restaurant and were each served immediately. The staff placed a big, bony fish cooked in coconut milk in front of us. We daintily picked out the bones from each steaming forkful, and then came another offering: a huge bowl of plantains, malanga, yucca, shrimp, and green bananas cooked in coconut milk and spices. My favorite part was the broth. It tasted like gravy.
The Rondon took two hours to prepare, and 45 minutes to eat. The vegetables were tougher than I expected, but the fish was perfect-after we drizzled lime juice onto it.
Panza llena, corazon contenta (Full stomach, happy heart) is a common saying here. My heart was definitely happy, as I sat there in a food coma. It was not bad for a final NiCaribbean dinner on Big Corn Island.
Day 4 Big Corn Island to Managua Distance: The blink of an eye.
I had booked our flight out at 12:45. I knew I wouldn’t want to leave paradise first thing in the morning. Our alarm, a half-grown rooster shrieking outside, woke us up. I’m used to the feeling of waking up in a zoo, but my mom isn’t. I don’t pay much attention to the dogs yelping at 2 AM anymore. The only thing that I’ll never get used to is the BANG of cats landing on my tin roof. We walked one last time to Adele’s and filled up on more fresh coconut juice. We then tip toed in between washed up sea urchins, sea weed, and coconuts on the beach.
We took a cab to the three-room airport. We paid our $2 exit tax and I received a massive wooden boarding pass for the both of us. It could’ve replaced a cutting board.
An officer stood in the corner with his black, drug sniffing lab next to him. “Sentáte”, he said. The pooch quickly sat down and looked up at his master with eager eyes. I sat next to a young couple from Vancouver in the waiting room. They asked about my Peace Corps experience. I explained the negatives and positives of living away from home for 27 months. A skinny woman with a bob sat in front of us. She kept turning around to listen in. I mentioned that yes, it’s safe here. I’ve been assaulted, but that could have happened anywhere. I referred to Nicaragua as a “peaceful country”, and when the woman in front heard this, she whipped around. “Excuse me? Did you just say this is a peaceful country?” she asked me. “Yes, it is, compared to other countries,” I responded. “Oh okay, in the day-to-day, you mean.” “Yes, it’s not the 1980’s anymore.” “Oh yeah, I was going to say…” she nodded and turned back around.
What does peaceful even mean? It’s such a relative term. I had just gone running while listening to music on the island, something I’m still afraid to do again on the mainland after my assault on a run a month ago. I felt very safe on the island, but it does depend so heavily on tourism. Everyone knows everyone. I still see the mainland as peaceful, in its own way. Petty crimes are common, but there’s not as much gang-based violence or mass shootings as there are in the United States.
Peaceful is a relative term. As I pondered the meaning of a word that makes up my job title, we boarded the plane. Again, I was relieved to find out that this plane was much larger than the last one. Our ride back was much less bumpy. The Corn Islands were testing us during our first panga and plane rides, then forgave us with a tranquil voyage back. It was a predictably refreshing trip, and surprising in other ways.
Big and Little Corn Island are familiarly Nicaraguan, but distinctly Caribbean. I came knowing I’d be in a peaceful place, but left wondering what exactly peaceful means. What does it mean to you?
This is the second part part of my journey to hike Cosiguina Volcano near Potosí in Chinandega, Nicaragua. Read Part I of my travels here.
Friday, 2:10 PM
Jen and I had been on the bus for three hours. The bus rattled along the road into Potosí. We stopped outside of the Hotel Brisas del Golfo. “Oh, we’re here!” I said, tapping Jen on the shoulder. We hopped out and waddled to the entrance, where we saw an older woman with curly dark hair and button noise sitting with her stroller, as if she had been waiting for us all day. “Buenas!” we said to one another. She moved pretty quickly for an older woman with a stroller. She was on a mission. We had reserved dorm beds for $8 each, and luckily, we had the whole room to ourselves. We set down our things, relieved that we didn’t have to set foot on another bus for the rest of the day. The hotel didn’t have air conditioning (as 99% of hotels and houses don’t), so we tested out the three fans to see which ones could blow the hot air away from us the best.
The hotel had a quaint, yet eerie feel to it. It had colorful, red walls, and lots of rocking chairs. We laid in the hammocks and looked at how differently decorated this hotel was, compared to the others I’d been in. I felt like I was in Mexico. The walls had pictures of distant relatives, as well as antique advertisements for Spanish bull fights. There were three fat cats with healthy-looking fur. I never used to pay much attention to whether an animal had healthy-looking fur or not, but I do now, after having seen countless stray, sickly looking dogs and cats in the streets. Cat lovers as well as dog lovers would enjoy this place, since the canine hosts include a mother and a baby Chihuahua.
After having drunk a Coke and laid in the hammocks, Jen and I went for a walk on the beach. On the way there, it was as if every house had at least two pigs outside, grunting and looking for whatevever it is that strikes a pig’s gastronomic fancy. My favorite pig was a white baby pig with black spots, It reminded me of a cow. Potosí wins the award for the most pigs per capita, I’m sure. But where’s the bacon? I wondered. We passed a large swimming hole where families took a break from the heat and stared at us at the same time. Children came up to as to stare at our white complexions. One girl twisted her neck at me, as if that might change my skin color, so I did the same, and she smiled. Having staring contests with children is my new past time.
As we got closer to the beach, more and more men catcalled us. “Adios, mamacitas!” one man said on his bike. Jen poked fun at the monotone way at which I replied “Adios…”, because I’m used to this type of attention here. Luckily, it wasn’t the overtly sexual street harassment I’ve experienced before. They wanted to see if we spoke Spanish or not. So, in order to prove it, I asked them what the names of the volcanoes in the distance were. “That’s El Tigre, in Honduras”, one man said. I told them they were lucky to live in such a beautiful place, and they just nodded. As we approached the beach, we saw a group of kids throwing rocks at empty Coke bottles. I picked up a rock to join them, but I ended up missing by about 20 feet.
The beach was calm. Groups of men played soccer on one side. There were almost no waves, since we were inside the barrier that is the Gulf of Fonseca. I took off my Chaco sandals so that the dark, volcanic sand could massage my feet. We passed several fishing boats that were docking for the night. “Are those your dogs?” I asked a man, who had a handful of fish in his hands and looked as if he were about to feed the hungry dogs. “Just that one, he said” looking at the yellow Labrador in front of him. The beach reminded me of the beaches of Bahía de Caraquez, Ecuador, where I lived in the summer of 2011, during an internship with the La Poderosa Media Project. I thought of the beachcomber who took my flip flops as I’d gone for another barefoot run. I had to walk home barefoot that day-that’s not something I would do here. It doesn’t matter if you leave a Spanish plant outside, like my friend Danica did until her family advised her to put it away. It you leave anything unattended, chances are that someone will pick it up to reuse it.
It was getting dark, so we headed back and went on the boardwalk. There were shrimp exoskeletons all over it. At the end of it was a staircase, so I walked down it in order to get in the water. The stairs were so slippery that before I knew it, I’d fallen backward and scraped my elbow. “Oh my God, did you hit your head?” Jen asked. “No, I’m fine. I can’t believe I did that!” I laughed. She came down to help me and also tripped. Then, we noticed that the water was infested with jellyfish, and decided against swimming. My elbow was bleeding, so we went back to the hotel, where I rinsed it out and put antibiotic ointment on it. What a day.
I ordered Chicken for dinner. While we waited, the mother Chihuahua came and sat on my lap. It was strange to be in the presence of a Chihuaha that wasn’t shivering. That’s how hot Nicaragua is, my friends. One of the cooks brought out our heaping plates of rice and beans, cabbage, tortillas, and meat, and I asked her what the dogs name was. “Is it Princesa?” I asked, jokingly, because that’s a common name here. I was correct. So, I put Princesa down on the tile floor after our cuddle session and enjoyed dinner. Just as we went to pay, the lights went out. Black outs are pretty common here. You never know how long they’ll last. Just as I was waiting for Rafael, the owner, to find a flashlight so that I could pay, “Garfield”, one of the fat cats, jumped up next to me and began munching his bowl of cat food. “We don’t feed them tortillas, or rice, or anything. They only kill the mice, but they don’t eat them. We only feed them Pedigree, Mar y Tierra (Surf ‘n Turf)!” said Rafael, who pinched his fingers together and moved his hand down to emphasize his point.
A half hour later, the power went back on, and the TV resumed its nightly telenovela. We went to bed at 7:30 because our guide, Ramon, would pick us up at 5 AM to hike Cosiguina. He would take us up the volcano for just $25 split between the two of us.
Cosiguina Volcano hosts an enormous, blue crater lake. It is located near Potosí, Chinandega, in Nicaragua’s northwest corner, and overlooks El Salvador and Honduras. Cosiguina is also in the hottest part of the country. I knew I needed to hike it.
Why would we sign up for a hike? Because I’d heard that the panoramic view is worth the extreme heat. That’s what adventure travel, and vulnerable travel, are all about-experiencing a new place in an even more uncomfortable way, because the outcome is worth it. I would see if it would be worth it for myself.
Friday, 4:15 AM
That morning, my alarm buzzed and I jumped out of bed. By 4:45, I was out the door on the way to catch my 5 am bus to Chinandega. Since it was still pitch black outside, and since my city isn’t safe out night, I flew down the hill with my bottle opener in my hand. I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to use it, but it gave me more peace of mind than if I had left without it. I ran to the main park so that I could catch a cab. Large groups of men were laughing and joking in the park, because that is just what men do at 4 am here. I’ve had a guy friend get mugged and beaten up at 11 pm at night. His laptop and iphone were stolen, and he had to get eye surgery, so I was nervous. During the day, my city is fine, but after 8 pm, I take cabs home. Nicaragua is a relatively safe country, with gang violence not nearly as high as in other Central American countries, but crimes of opportunity still happen.
Luckily, I waved down a cab in a few seconds and crawled inside with my blue backpack. I breathed a sigh of relief as I handed my driver 20 cords (73 cents). “Tome”, I said. Here, it’s customary to pay as soon as you get inside, since the prices are set. If you’re traveling past 10 pm, or if you live on top of a huge hill like I do, cabs cost 20 cords. Otherwise, it’s 10 cords.
5 minutes later, we I got out at the bus station, where women were setting up their food stalls and laying out their dragon fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. Bus drivers stood around the station. Some of them extended their hands out to me, asking “A donde va, Chelita? Managua? Estelí” (“Where are you going, young white woman? Managua? Estelí?”. I just raised the roof, singing “Chinangedaaaa, woo!”. I was still in a celebratory mood, since I hadn’t been assaulted that morning. I got on my bus and laid my backpack next to me to save my friend Jen a seat. We would be passing through her site soon. I sat there, making heads turn toward the “sssss” sound I made as I blew air into my inflatable headrest. That is one of the most useful tools I’ve had since college. It looks silly, but it has spared me a lot of neck pain-I recommend getting one.
Thirty minutes later, Jen got on the bus and sat next to me. I ate chocolate flakes as we caught each other up on our lives. Jen and I had hiked and swum through the unforgettable Somoto Canyonin August, and I was excited to hike somewhere new with her.
Our bus pulled up into the city of Chinandega. We took a cab downtown and ate a greasy breakfast of eggs, beans, rice, and cream. It wasn’t the best meal, but it would keep us full for the remaining three-hour bus ride to Potosí. Tara, a volunteer who lived nearby, recommended that we buy snacks in Chinandega. Potosí is a small fishing town with no supermarkets. So, we stopped by the Wal-Mart owned Pali supermarket, which is famous for having no air conditioning and lines so long it makes you think people are waiting for a Star Wars premier-not to buy bags of frozen chicken thighs.
Just as Jen and I were about to pay for our crackers and tuna, something bizarre happened. “¡Gringa, gringa, dejeme pasar!” (“American, American, let me go in front!”). A woman with brown eyes and disheveled hair came up from behind us, cradling a bottle of Tang, and proceeded to cut in front of us. She placed her things in front of the cashier. We just stared at her, in disbelief. I’m used to people here cutting in line. They are the masters of being sneaky. That’s why people literally rub elbows with each other in line, and aren’t afraid to invade what Americans call “personal space”. This lady caught us off guard because she brazenly announced that she was cutting. She then justified this by telling us that she was an elementary school teacher that didn’t make much money. “Oh, the same with us, except we are high school teachers! And we make just as much as you do”. She thought that we were just another bunch of clueless tourists, so the look on her face was priceless. I’m used to having these kinds of conversations with people on the bus or at parties, but never after having been cut in line. We both wondered what we should have done, but I was just so dumbfounded about what had happened.
We got on the bus for Potosí, and began to chat about the lady who cut is in line. I admitted to having felt guilty for how the United States screwed over Nicaragua in the 1980’s by backing a war against the Sandinista government. Jen reminded me that our U.S. citizenship gave this woman no right to cut in front of us. It’s funny how I even correlated a war that ended when I was born as a justifier for being cut in line. No matter how much money my government has with relation to theirs, cutting in line was still not okay. It was so hot inside of the non-air conditioned bus, that I got out to watch a man changing the front tire. I told him that I’d changed a tire once, but that I’d forgotten how. He asked me where I was from, and if I liked Chinandega. I explained that it was nice to visit, but that I wouldn’t be able to live in the heat very comfortably. As soon as he finished changing the tire, he handed Jen and I some spiritual self-help books, and told us to have a nice trip.
It turned out that our bus to Potosí wouldn’t leave for another hour and ten minutes. We didn’t know the bus schedule, and no one else seemed to, either. So, we waited. As Jen said, the term “hurry up and wait” speaks to our experience here. We often rush to get onto a bus because we want to get a seat, but if we do, chances are that if we are early enough to get on first, that the bus won’t leave for another hour. By 11:10, we rolled out of the hot, noisy market and began our three-hour drive northward toward El Salvador. It was a beautiful drive, dotting with endless palm trees, banana trees, rice fields, fields of cows and horses, and corner stores selling glass bottles of Coca-cola. The last hour of the drive was on a dirt road. Eventually, we drove by a large, emerald-colored hill. We wondered if that was Cosiguina, but I didn’t want to assume anything. We would find out, eventually…