Reflections: February 2018
Our alarms went off just hours into February 1. We were in Guatemala camping on Volcán Acatenango right next to Volcán Fuego as it was erupting, and we wanted to climb to the top to catch sunrise. We layered up and set off for the summit in the dark. After a short but difficult climb, we made it to the black crater just in time to see the stars fade.
By the morning, the eruption had created a tower of ash that stretched into the sky. As the sun rose, the blue gave way to pink and peach, and the landscape became surreal. What a way to kick off the month.
Back in Antigua, we ate, rested, and ate some more. It was the perfect place to relax with all its cafes and restaurants. One day we decided to check out Cerro de la Cruz before sunset to see the picturesque city from above. The neatly organized grid of tiled roofs is stunning with volcanoes in the background.
Feeling curious and indulgent (seriously, it’s hard to resist some of the high-end things Antigua has to offer), we took a day to visit an organic macadamia nut farm just outside the city. Valhalla is a huge farm that grows macadamia nuts as a sustainable product that provides liveable incomes for many locals. The high value of macadamia nuts discourages logging, and the trees take out more carbon dioxide than pine trees. We toured the farm and then treated ourselves to a giant plate of blueberry macadamia nut pancakes. Everything from the flour to the nut butter was made with organic macadamia nuts, and it was decadent.
But our time in Guatemala was running out. We were headed to Nicaragua with an overnight stop on the coast of El Salvador.
When we arrived in El Tunco, we immediately wished we had planned to stay for more than a night. The tiny coastal town was friendly and laid back, and the black sand beach was the perfect place to sit and watch surfers. It was also nice to be in hot weather again. With only one night to enjoy the place, we grabbed some pupusas and watched the fiery sunset.
We eventually made it to León, the revolutionary capital of Nicaragua. It’s a city that has been a hub of leftist politics and resistance, and it shows its battle scars. The evidence of bullet holes in the sides of buildings and revolutionary murals decorate the streets. It’s a place where families hang out on the sidewalk in rocking chairs and students of all ages populate the central plaza.
We spent days in museums that, while not organized or kept to the standards of museums in many parts of the world, felt authentic. Black and white photos in frames honored those who had died fighting the Somoza dictatorial regime. Giant papier-mâché figures told local folklore legends. The exhibits felt raw, like the community itself had been tasked with remembering its history.
We spent afternoons eating at our favorite little comedor and evenings in the central plaza. It seemed like there was always some celebration in the square at night, whether it was a festival celebrating Mexico (we had some of the best tortas al pastor here) or honoring the late revolutionary Augusto Sandino, there was always something going on.
But once we discovered that the beach was only a short chicken bus ride away, we added that to our routine. We’d head to the very end of Las Peñitas beach and grab lunch. Ladies with coolers full of fresh fish would fry our selection, and we’d eat under the palm-covered hut. We’d grab a liter of cold Toña (a domestic beer) and head to the beach. It was a pretty fantastic way to spend February. We even almost ended up with a baby rabbit, courtesy of a Nicaraguan abuela.
To spice up our lazy beach days in León, we signed up for the adventure sport the city is known for: volcano boarding. Racing down a volcano on a board seemed like a fun — though we imagined pretty tame — activity. But as we strapped on our wings and began to trek up Cerro Negro, Central America’s youngest active volcano, the certainty that we’d make it down without injury evaporated. The winds were so gusty that they nearly blew us off the path down the rocky mountain! Our guide said the wind had never been so strong in her experience, and we stopped half way to get on the ground and wait for it to pass.
Eventually, we made it to the summit, where we pulled on mechanic suits, bandanas, and eye masks to protect us on our way down from the sharp volcanic sediment. Heads otherwise exposed and looking like we were in a nuclear cleanup site, we shrugged our shoulders and hoped not to flip over. And off we went! Twice!
We also had to make it to the Flor de Caña rum factory just outside of León. Having bought a bottle of 7-year at the grocery store and been turned on to this award winning liquor and beloved Nicaraguan staple, we wanted to sample some of their finest product. So we took a chicken bus to the Flor de Caña factory in the tiny town of Chinandega. On the tour we learned about the family-run business, the history of rum production, the aging process, and the company’s sustainability practices (the rum is distilled using 100% renewable energy and the company has a carbon negative footprint). But our favorite part was tasting the 18-year rum in the family’s private tasting room. Neither of us have ever been partial to rum, but tasting the intense caramel and vanilla notes may have converted us.
As our time in León was coming to an end, we still had to visit the rooftop of the city’s famous basilica. Walking on the all white exterior through a landscape of massive domes against blue skies felt like we’d been transported from Nicaragua to Santorini.
At the end of February, we packed our bags again and headed east to Estelí. Surrounded by farms and mountains, it offered a peek into the lives of rural life in Nicaragua. To visit the Miraflor Nature Reserve nearby, we needed a local guide to navigate crossing private property, but what we got was a personal history of the war in this region. Located close to the Honduran border, this area experienced some of the most conflict, because the Contras launched attacks from Honduras. Rodolfo, our guide, lived through the war as a teenager and on our hike pointed to trees where people hid. It was a reminder that while we may see peace and beauty in these rolling hills, others who have called this land home are reminded of terror.