Just as our chicken bus was pulling out of the bus depot in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, my only contact in the country, Francesco, a stranger to me up until a few hours ago introduced to me via a mutual friend and Nicaraguan native now living in NYC, receives a phone call. He quickly gets off the phone and tries to describe something to me which I have a hard time understanding (the norm in our young relationship - I have a very good working knowledge of Spanish, but for whatever reason, his accent was pretty difficult for me to understand). After a few back and forths, I figure out he’s trying to tell me he needs to go home to his family and is asking if it’s better for him to come with me to Granada and then leave right away, or leave me on the bus now and meet me there. This is my first time in such a country as Nicaragua and my first time on this much talked about chicken bus. But who am I to keep him from what he needs to do after only hours of making each other's’ acquaintance? The instant I tell him he can go and meet me later, he muscles his way off the VERY tight bus (the seats of which seemed too tightly packed together to be original). I’m now left alone on the bus making it’s way to Granada. Whether he used his phone to escape our newly born relationship that was regularly lost in translation or whether he really had things to attend to at home, I’ll never know as he never ended up meeting me in Granada…
A large number of passengers aboard the chicken bus got off on the outskirts of town, luckily, leaving me able to spot the cathedral I knew my hostel was beside. It was dusk, so had the trip been any longer, the darkness and unfamiliarity with the new city would have left me more frazzled than the bus ride (during which, I learned, the goal is to fit as many people on the bus along the way as they can like chickens in a cage, thusly proving the name ‘chicken’ or tika bus). No, it’s not an air conditioned coach bus, but one of our old yellow school busses, painted and retrofitted with luggage racks inside.The fact that I was surprised it was still running was hardly a cause for excitement to be riding it on a narrow, Central American road, with a reckless driver. BUT I did make it to town with the rest of the locals, who showed no signs of concern.
Though I’m always hesitant to do ‘tourist traps’ since the cost feels inflated and I suspect there are more interesting things to uncover in any place besides the attractions that are most visited by foreigners, Nicaragua had many ‘traps’ to offer that were pretty unique….at least for a first time visitor to another America. I was enticed.
After mulling over the situation I had to make my choice before I wasted the entire day. The options were a puma trail hike, a volcano hike, or kayaking through the Isletas de Granada. Despite my lack of confidence in having the strength to kayak for any length of time, kayaking was my chosen excursion.
With one swift phone call from the front desk, my entire trip was arranged, and I only needed to be picked up by the taxi that would take me down to the docks.
The taxi arrived in the late afternoon, a time the desk and I agreed on would be great for avoiding tourists. The car itself, like all the vehicles in the country, had seen better days; days that were circa 40 years ago. And the ride wasn’t the most glamorous either, being taken through the poorest parts of town made the ride uncomfortable as we made our way past stone shells of houses.
We arrived at the docks where I met my tour guide. He gave me a cool waterproof bag to put my few belongings in as I got in my kayak and he pushed me out into Lake Cocibolca. He followed suit in his own kayak.
Feeling like an idiot with an oar in my hands, I tried to keep calm and figure it out as he gave me a couple tips. We started toward the isletas, which I could see were covered in trees and surrounded by aquatic plants and various grass-looking lake-weeds.
Most of the islands that were large enough for housing had mansions. As we passed each one, he would point out the private islands and who they belonged to; owner of Nicaraguan beer brands, owner of the Nicaraguan newspaper, and a rich gay local with an American husband. My guide also pointed out a house that could be mine, rented by the week at a pretty decent rate!
Once we reached a ‘clearing’ on the lake where I could see out beyond the canopy, I had a view of nearby smoking volcano, Masaya, and something slightly unnerving out in the distance. I brought up the sight of the dark cloud coverage and thunder to my trusty tour guide. All he could do was confirm my suspicion that it was, in fact, a storm. As a bad swimmer, the thought of being on a lake, in a kayak, in a storm, was terrifying but slightly thrilling at the same time. This is why I travel, right?
We rowed on as he pointed out more indigenous birds and more mansions. Within minutes of having mentioned the storm, the wind was picking up and the water was getting choppier. It wasn’t until the sprinkling started that he gave instructions to speed up and head straight for our restaurant stop on a far island. My arms were already tired as kayaking isn’t something I do regularly, but the looming storm on the water had a magical way of imbuing them with a newfound strength.
My guide, obviously a much more expert rower, sailed through the choppy water speedily and with ease.
After several minutes of my first kayak marathon, he gestured ahead to our destination. We reached the island at the same time as some local fishing kids were escaping the rain. Hanging our life jackets on the rocks, we headed up dirt stairs to a tropical bar where he left me alone to enjoy the scenery for however long I wanted. At the suggestion of the bartender, I ordered Macuá, a rum and papaya cocktail - which is the country's national drink. I reclined in a hammock accompanied by chickens and looked out over the fishing kids who were now in the shallow water playing as the rain continued to pass.
My tour guide reappeared eventually after what was probably a long stint of playing on his flip phone and it was time to start the journey back, but not before we made a stop at La Isleta de Monos, or MONKEY ISLAND.
The moment I had been waiting for; we pulled up to one very tiny isleta, home to 6 rescue monkeys that were put here by a veterinarian.
I took a deep breath, knowing that the return trip was just as long as the trip out there and my arms had to last the entire way. Luckily, the rain had passed so we could take our time and not strain ourselves - by that I mean strain myself.
We arrived back at the kayak shack by the coast where my return taxi was already waiting for me. I paid my guide and bid him farewell as I hopped into the scariest taxi yet, but still arrived back at the hostel safely, prepared to regale the other hostel inmates, Spaniards, French, and Dutch, on the day's adventures.