What a Trip: Surprised by Nicaragua


The Concepcion volcano on Isle de Ometepe in Nicaragua is one of the many active volcanoes in the country. It helped form the island that sits in Lake Nicaragua. (Heidemarie Brandes)
May 16, 2013

Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.

Who: Heidemarie Brandes and her fiance, Ashley N. Hall, both of Oklahoma City

Where, when, why: When Ash and I decided to take a romantic trip to Central America, we didn’t initially plan on visiting Nicaragua. I’d visited Costa Rica before, and I thought that Ash would like that country, but the airline prices kept going higher. One day, Ash texted to ask, “What about Managua?” And I thought, “Why not?”

Highlights and high points: One of our key destinations was the Isla de Ometepe, an island created by two volcanoes in the middle of the mind-bogglingly huge Lake Nicaragua. One of the volcanoes, Concepcion, is still active and looms like an angry god over the island. I hiked up the second, dormant volcano, Maderas; it quickly became the most challenging and humbling hike of my life. For 31 / 2 hours, my guide and I tromped straight uphill on rocky paths and through steaming cloud forests while dodging howler monkeys that throw poop and rain urine down upon intruders. Passing 2,000-year-old petroglyphs and eating edible plants all the way up, I quickly realized that no matter how much in shape I thought I was, Maderas was going to do me in. I made it nearly to the top before my legs turned to mush . . . and then had to trek two hours down along the same knee-torturing path.

Cultural connection or disconnect: Halfway through our visit, Ash and I decided on a whim to hop a flight from Managua to the Corn Islands on Nicaragua’s Caribbean side. After a harrowing motorized canoe ride from Big Corn Island to Little Corn Island, we met Clifford, a Rasta fellow hawking fishing and snorkeling trips. For the four days we spent on this tiny Caribbean isle, Clifford became our unofficial tour guide and friend. Because he’s in his 20s and Ash and I are both 40, we joked that he was our long-lost island son.

During those days, Clifford drank the magic Nicaraguan rum with us, set us up on snorkeling trips to swim with the sharks and stingrays, just hung out and talked over coffee and introduced us to Captain Elvis, who took us out to fish on the ocean on a small bass boat. After a shark broke my fishing pole, Elvis brought us to another “sweet spot” where the yellow snapper and grunts hit every few seconds.

Later, Captain Elvis’s wife cooked our fish in a traditional island stew called “rundown,” which is a coconut-milk-based soup full of plantains, breadfruit, fish, lobster and “scrimps,” or shrimp.

Biggest laugh or cry: Driving! Not only did we rent a car that was basically a three-cylinder stick shift with no power steering, no power brakes and no GPS, we had to dodge herds of cows and stray horses on the highways, as well as horse- and ox-drawn buggies full of people. While the roads are in amazingly good shape, driving in Nicaragua means sharing the road with bicyclists, livestock and the random baby or two in the road.

How unexpected: On our first day, after getting lost in our horrible rental car in the dangerous suburb of Tipitapa outside Managua, we made our way to Granada. Ash and I were both famished and decided to walk from our hotel until we found the first restaurant we came across, where we would eat and ask the locals about exchanging money and get other advice.

The first place we saw was Cafe de las Sonrisas, or “Cafe of Smiles.” Walking in, we discovered that this little cafe, with its gorgeous, flower-filled courtyard, was also a hammock factory. It lived up to its name. The staff approached with big smiles, but no one spoke to us. We tried talking, but they just shook their heads. One staff member handed us a menu, and we discovered that we’d found the one restaurant and hammock factory owned and operated entirely by deaf and mute people.

Deafness is an issue in Nicaragua, but cafes and businesses like Cafe de las Sonrisas offer the disabled jobs and careers. It turned out to be the easiest time we had communicating — and the food was some of the best we had.

Fondest memento or memory: What we learned was that after 21 years, we can still have so much fun together and discover new aspects of ourselves.

To tell us about your own trip, go to www. washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your best memories, finest moments and favorite photos.

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