Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Steep Climbs and Beautiful Views

Leaving our little piece of paradise at Greensurf was a little bittersweet, especially when we remembered there wasn't any breakfast food left in our panniers besides coffee and a couple tortillas which we gratefully ate on the beach. Fully caffeinated, we took advantage of the first store we saw. However, the selection was incredibly limited so breakfast turned into Oreos and off brand Doritos.

A couple hours down the road, riding got tough. A combination of small dinner, a smaller breakfast, 100 degrees by 10:30 in the morning, a strong headwind, and a continuous, gradual uphill all attributed to us feeling amazingly crappy. Low on energy, we took some breaks in the shade and popped electrolyte tablets, but the steady climb in the sun was relentless. Not sure when we would have another chance, we took advantage of the next store we found. This time, our nutritious snack consisted of donuts and coke. Funny how when you fill your body with only sugar how quickly it burns through. Luckily we had all downhill to the next town and rolled into a little restaurant, so hungry thoughts weren't operating quite right in our heads.

Rejuvenated with the gift of food, we pressed onward despite the warnings from locals we had a lot of up to ride. Still hot and dehydrated we skirted Managua and prepared for the worst. What we learned is Nicaragua has no concept of elevation. Before long, we reached our turn off for a national park with volcanoes without any significant change in terrain. Nicaragua, let me help you out with some definitions before you frighten any more bikers. Mountain: a seemingly endless climb, alternating between gradual and steep ascents, where the only comforts in life can be drawn from the breathtaking views and anticipation of the eventual jubilation from an almost equally long downhill. Hill: a brief and attainable incline that varies in steepness but can be defeated quickly with a bit of extra effort. Nicaragua, don't kid yourself. You don't have mountains.

Despite Jon's best charm attempts on the front guard and pleading that he was a student studying biology, the park had just closed and we would have to wait until morning. At least they let us camp by the gate where there was a spigot of water! Since the park didn't open until 9 (and it's light by 5:30) we had some serious time to kill. Luckily, there was a tree tarzan would have been impressed with nearby and all 3 of us were nearly 40 ft up, moving across branches in every direction. It looked like the tree started as a main chute, then dropped branches down in every direction, twisting and weaving past itself in every direction to create the ultimate jungle gym.

Finally open, we paid for our entrance and started up the road towards the volcano. At the top, we were excited to learn it was still spewing fumes that smelled like sulfur if you stood near the edge. We hiked around the top of the crater next to it in the company of a of young kids apparently on an amazing field trip. From our vantage point we could see into the volcano and the surrounding lakes, which helped us pick our next course of action. Back on the bikes, we followed a less busy road to a place called Lago de Apoyo. Apparently it's an insanely nice vacation place because the campground wanted $10 per person from us. Feeling ripped off, we found our way to the public beach, planning to pitch our tents. However, as we were enjoying the fresh water with floating volcanic rocks, the sky started to change color and we were worried about a storm rolling in.

Moving up a nearby yard we talked to the local family. Apparently while they lived in a little shack, they oversaw a beautiful resort house that happened to be empty. For just $40, it could be ours. Still on a college age budget, we countered with "can we just sleep outside on the porch out of the rain." Eventually we settled on $12 for the house, as long as we were out by 5 am so the boss wouldn't come by and find out. Sold my friend :) Happy to support the locals, avoid a storm, and have a fan on an 80 degree night we went to bed early and got up even earlier.

Since we dropped so far in elevation to get to the lake, our early morning was, well, special. The road was sort of paved if you consider stone slabs where tires would go with a jungle in between paved. Despite the trudge up the stones slick with moss and a humidity so strong I literally wrung out my jersey from sweat, we were thoroughly entertained by the howler monkeys in the trees that would call back to our best attempts at imitations.

Once we made the morning climb, the rest of the terrain was flawless. Slightly downhill with gorgeous green fields and mountains in the backgrounds, I think I hit some sort of riding high. I simply could not stop smiling, my legs moved but didn't fatigue, and 100% of my thoughts were focused on the bliss of the present. Making it into town,  I ended the ride with a casual triple scoop of ice cream.

Once we all met up, we grabbed lunch by the shore of Lake Nicaragua and found a man named Ronnie who was willing to cut us a deal. As a man from Missouri who recognized dirty travelers from the states, he gave us a back room for our gear and allowed us to string up hammocks at the hotel he ran for only $10. With a cold fridge full of beer it was tough to leave, but I was geeking out too much about the lake and its potential to become a canal, so we jumped on a ferry to visit the island nearby. Well Jon and I jumped on the ferry but Kai had to catch the next one since the boat left a couple minutes early and he was still waiting for the street vendor to finish cooking his burger. The ride over was fun but the ride back was spectacular. We caught one of my favorite sunsets over lake Nicaragua and the glow illuminated the volcano on the island.

The next morning, we got up early and made it down to a more touristy location called San Juan del Sur. Discovering an amazingly refreshing drink of blended bananas with milk, our day started splendidly. The beach was surreal. With a giant Jesus statue on one bluff and another high wall on the other our beach made a certain cove that attracted a number of different boats to fill the bay. At high tide, we spent our time playing in the waves and Kai got a surf board to try out. I think surfing could be a fun activity, but the balance for me is so foreign it would take a serious time commitment. Also, we quickly learned that surfers wear shirts for stomach abrasion resistance. Oops. At low tide, I jumped in a pickup soccer game that started friendly, but as more people joined the intensity rose. Nothing was out of bounds, anything went, and goals were little piles of sand. After riding all morning and two steady hours of running, I was exhausted. Planning a rest day for the following day, we decided to get a few drinks. However, what we didn't plan on was two neighbors from Holland offering us more drinks. After a night with them, we decided we were all drinked out for a bit and spent the whole next day lounging, recovering, and a bit of surfing.

The next day we got up early to head to Costa Rica. Although there was a low road, we decided to back track since we couldn't guarantee it had an immigration office. Leaving the country was surprisingly simple, except twice we got in the line to enter Nicaragua instead of leaving it. Also, there were tons of people trying to sell paperwork for a dollar that you didn't actually need. Even being careful, we got talked into buying one useless piece before we made it through.
On the other side, the scenery and feel had a less dramatic change than earlier country crossings. It basically looked like Nicaragua if you added a couple hills and filled in the farm fields with tropics. Overall, we were pretty enclosed until we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch and were blown away. Somehow we stumbled into one of the most beautiful ocean views I'd ever seen. Not caring that Costa Rica is apparently about 3 times more expensive than the rest of central America, we grabbed a bite and took in the view. As we were finishing up, a full bus of ACM students from the Midwest came in. The professor recognized our Luther jerseys but sadly the closest student was from Grinnell. Still a small world.

Pushing on, it began to rain. And I mean really rain. It was coming down in huge drops at a consistent angle, soaking us in seconds. Passing a nearby farm, we saw some people on the porch and decided to test our luck. After explaining who we are and what we're about, the people not only were willing to let us camp but offered a room with three mattresses in it. Not luxurious, but super kind. Once the rain stopped, we explored the ranch and a little boy there followed us around for at least 20 minutes mumbling the same sentence. After questioning his sanity, ignoring him, and taking turns trying to figure out what he was so determined about, we realized he was saying "llevar" because he wanted a ride on the bike. Strapping on Jon's helmet, I put him on my rear rack and had him hold onto the seat while we did a few laps around the yard. He wanted to take a rocky cattle trail, but it was something I wouldn't attempt on my mountain bike let alone with a kid on the back. We spent the rest of the night trying to decipher rural Costa Rican mumbling that I guess was Spanish and listening to a super long story about gringos, danger, and no money. None of us really followed it, but it felt like it just kept repeating so we eventually said good night and passed out.

The next day, we got out early to avoid another endless story and hit the road. There are a few words that I get especially excited about, and while we were riding I saw a sign with two key ones that said: "free coffee tours." "Free" and "coffee" are right up my alley, so we stopped to learn about the growing, roasting, but most importantly tasting processes. We've been pretty satisfied with our instant Nestcafe in the morning but having real coffee was an incredible treat. Since it was hot and the middle of the day, we pulled into a cafe for a few hours to beat the heat. Feeling productive, we bought plane tickets from Panama to Quito and locked in the next major part of our travels.

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