Kings of Leon

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That morning I was in for a pleasant surprise. I checked out of Hostel La Clinica, grateful that they’d taken me in last night but not really eager to spend another day sleeping on stained sheets. It was fine and cheap for the most part, but it was pretty quiet and I was ready to meet some people. So I went to the Bigfoot Hostel and checked in at 11 AM, which has plenty of people everywhere not to mention a layout I feel much more comfortable hanging around in than somebody’s home. And after checking in, I walked out of the hostel and saw a familiar face. There, sitting in Via Via, was Jez waving at me. I went over to say hello and noticed he was sitting next to somebody else I knew - Phil! Who would’ve thought we’d be arriving within 8 hours of each other in Leon, Nicaragua, but here we were again, three of the original four Semuc Champey crew missing only Amanda, who’d gone home to Canada. It was now six days to Christmas and the timing could not have been better. They had just spent a good deal of time at Rancho Tranquilo in a town called Los Zorros near Jiquilillo and it sounds like I missed out, but then that’s how it works on the backpacking circuit. The best places are the ones you hear about, not read about, and of course you need to be spending time with people to hear about them. And now here we were.

The three of us explored the town for the day, keeping our eye out for a volcano-boarding tour. Volcano boarding is basically snowboarding except with volcanic ash instead of snow, and I was determined to try it and also break the 80km/h speed record. Well, maybe. But there were no tours on Sunday and Monday was already sold out. We found nothing but yet more churches and interesting locals, so the day was a success in the end. That evening, after some very delicious mojitos at Bigfoot and chatting with some English crew, we celebrated that success at a little pub where a girl that Jez had met was also celebrating her birthday. However, it was her, her sister, and about 10 guys, one of whom was getting on my nerves. Phil and I decided to venture elsewhere and came across a bar called Bohemoso. It was 150 Cordobas or $7.50 to get in but then it was all the rum, vodka, and beer you could drink. Yeah. A situation like that spells only one thing: trouble.

Phil and I were the only gringos in the place, which was pretty cool. We already had a decent amount of alcohol in our systems but were determined to get our money’s worth. We then took turns getting shot down by all the amazing “Nica Chicas” and wound up sitting with a local couple who insisted on over supplying us with beer. Like two to three beer at a time. I had taken in more than I could handle and had to leave early to go home, but Phil pressed on and wound up at their place for a house party afterwards with some Danish people that came into the bar later. Pretty cool. The next day was a slow start and a ‘chill day’ being that it was a Sunday and there was nothing to do but go to the beach anyway. We hung around the hostel, called home, and managed to get ourselves on a morning trip to the top of a volcano. With snowboards and toboggans. Leon would get one more day after all. That evening, we went out for dinner with a couple Aussie girls from the hostel, Ronja and Fran for some of the best street food I’ve had since Mexico. Some cabbage roll type things, greens and rice, and tasty homemade beef patties. We also had a chat with some travelling El Salvadoreans. And we were joined by a very unfriendly American girl who would always give me a look like I had just killed a puppy. Luckily, she joined us for drinks, but she did warm up after a couple beer.

The next morning was unseasonable and inconceivable rain. It hasn’t rained here in a month but this morning, a freak rainstorm. We were supposed to be volcano boarding but clearly that wasn’t in the cards anymore, so we decided to add yet another night to Leon. The five of us decided to get in something cultural and walked (I should say trekked) across town to a museum only to find it closed. Closed and very uninspiring from the outside. Still, after such a long walk we decided to hang around for another 40 mins until it did open at 2:30, only to discover how uninspiring it was from the inside as well. Uninspiring and/or creepy, worth neither the walk nor the wait but amusing nonetheless and we DID find some Santa hats in the end so it wasn’t a total write off. We were looking for a local restaurant but everything was closed for mid-afternoon siesta, so we found ourselves scarfing down some Hollywood Pizza, which was appropriate as we were heading to the movies after. Or should I say movie. There was only one in English (with Spanish subtitles), The Surrogate. Bruce Willis or not, it wasn’t much of a movie but it was nice to just sit in a theatre with some popcorn and watch.

We did manage to get volcano boarding the following morning – at last! The drive out there is about an hour in the back of a pickup truck but when at last you arrive, you’re faced with a very steep cone of solid black fury towering over you. I had been sandboarding in Australia and it wasn’t really that exciting, so I had my doubts about this, but craning my neck to look up at Cerro Negro disabused me of any notions that this would be a routine box-ticker escapade. We set off climbing, boards and bags in hand, and soon realized that the climb was worth it for the views alone. Lava flows in all direction crept over the land like a shadow on the green landscape while a line of other green domed volcanoes stood in formation ready and waiting for their time. We made our way into the steaming crater, sulphurous gases oozing out of cracks in the earth, escapees of a magma chamber 30m below our feet. The climb continued and there was another yawning crater looming over the crater we’d just climbed into, sticking out like a black and angry red pockmark on the horizon.

At last it was time for final instructions. Weight placement, balancing techniques, I took them all in. But somehow it did me no good. The girls went first and Fran actually went down quite fast – not 84 km/h fast (the current record, set by a German, but a respectable 50-something I’d guess). Some of the other people on the trip went and then Jez took off and was probably the fastest of the day, maybe even flying down the 40 degree slope at over 60 km/h. Finally, Phil and I squared off. The problem, which I discovered as soon as we set off, was that I was not properly centred on the board. I would veer quite a bit to the right and as I stuck my left foot into the air to correct, it would over-correct and start the whole thing again, but at a higher speed. I soon had to start digging my feet alternately into the pebbles to slow myself but it was too late for a weight adjustment. I went for broke anyway, trying my best to keep the board moving down the mountain quickly though Phil was long gone, and just as I got moving at a respectable weight I wiped out. Aside from a few scratches and a damaged ego, I was fine but there was no hope of gaining any speed by now and I limped into the finish line sadly, knowing that I wouldn’t hear the end of this for some time. All I wanted was a second try.

But we were off again, the red truck waiting, first to Leon for our complimentary (and delicious) mojito, then for a quick lunch, a bit of time online booking a place for New Years Eve in San Juan del Sur, and finally a bus to Managua, the sketchy capital of Nicaragua. We arrived in Managua just fine and switched busses for Granada, two drivers vying bitterly for our five butts in their seats. It’s regularly 20 C but the one said 15 and we were sold. Of course, once you get on the bus and are well underway, they don’t remember anything about this arrangement and charge you 20 C ($1) anyway, which upsets me on principle but not economically. We arrived in Granada at night but Ronja and Fran had been here before so getting around was no problem, and we found our way to the Bearded Monkey where we would be staying until Boxing Day, celebrating Christmas, and hopefully meeting yet more cool travellers. We went out with some for dinner where I was again charged more than what I had agreed to because “it was imported”. I did argue the point but I think only succeeded in annoying the others, but it's the principle. Sigh. Different cultures can only excuse so much but I paid the difference which, again, was trifling and we called it a night. Tomorrow morning would bring Granada by day, always an entirely different experience and one I was much looking forward to.

Leon Photos


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