Nicaragua 1: San Marcos, Honduras to León

After returning from breakfast, the team was greeted by a big and serious gentleman in reception.  He was talking to the hotel owner and was wearing aviators, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots with big cowboy spurs, a huge cowboy belt buckle with tartan cowboy shirt and a engraved cowboy pistol in a matching cowboy hoister.  The team said buenos dias and quickly went to their room.  On the way there, they passed another big guy who was similarly dressed to the first dude but was checking each of the rooms (except the teams) for something or someone.  Needless to say, the team completed their pre-race preparations quickly, received their first clue for this leg and then left the pit stop.

The ride to the border was quickly completed and customs on the Honduran side was very relaxed as was the Nicaraguan immigration, once the required fees were paid.  Arriving into Nicaragua proper, the team was informed that there were no public buses running as today was the Nicaraguan election.  Simon and Ang were both concerned that their only options were walking or a taxi.  They suspiciously accepted the taxi ride for the small sum of 20 córdboda, about $1 to a nearby town of Somoto.  Simon was proud that the plastic Nicaraguan money was printed in Australia.

Honduran border station (under renovation)

Over the course of the journey, the taxi driver talked to someone on his mobile telephone.  The conversation mentioned of the amount of time left to drive and that he was coming from the Honduran border.  Both Ang and Simon were wary as the taxi didn’t seem to be a legitimate one and they had only been in the country for about an hour.  All along the 20km drive there were no buses, only scores of people walking to polling stations or to their family homes.  They made a brief stop for some Policia at a checkpoint to inspect their passports before they arrived at the dusty town of Somoto.

Arriving at Somoto, a dusty town with an empty quiet bus station, the team managed to determine that there would be no buses for the day and according to the driver and a guy at bus station, none for the next two days.  This meant that they would need to stay in Somoto or they would need to get the taxi further to Estelí, the next major town heading south.  Deciding that the accommodation options in Somoto would delay them too much, the team negotiated with the cab driver for a reduced fare to Estelí for the princely sum of USD$40.

With nothing to compare this fare to, other than the price to come from the border, Ang in particular was concerned they were being ripped off.  This fear was exacerbated when a chicken bus drove past them heading in the other direction.  The taxi driver was forced to justify his no bus claim.

The rest of the drive to Estelí passed quickly and they covered the 80km in about 1.5 hours. Entering the outskirts of town, the driver stopped on the outskirts of the city and told them to take another cab to their hostel.  At this point the team commenced arguing with the taxi driver.  The team didn’t think that USD$40 was fair given it appeared as though the taxi driver was profiteering and was not completing the journey to the agreed destination.

The argument spilled out of the taxi with the team collecting their bags and trying to pay half to the cab driver.  Hailing another taxi, they managed to negotiate a compromise with their original taxi driver and the second taxi driver who kindy assisted with the dispute and $25 was accepted. Soon after being delivered to their accommodation, the team found out that $40 from the border was a fair amount and that $25 was a really good deal.  Simon felt bad, but said “while we were the bad guys today, we’ve lost out more than we’ve won”.

As this day was also Simon’s birthday, the team was tasked with finding a suitable piñata for him to bash in celebration.  Unfortunately this task was not completed (due to the public holiday shop closures).  There also was no alcohol available for purchase, so the team set about completing the alternative task to locate and consume local Nicaraguan ice cream.  This was eventually achieved at the only open shop, a welcome sight, the only supermarket in town.

That evening, whilst completing the second food task for this leg of the race, the team had perhaps the weirdest dinner experience yet.  They raced from their hostel to a nearby open restaurant that was a poor imitation of a 1950s American diner.  It was located right next to the local vote counting station and just down the road from the second most popular party, PLC after the ruling FSLN party, so was surrounded by action.  Dinner was enjoyed while watching the riot police, celebrating voters, yahoos and general election night craziness.  Simon said later that “that was by far the oddest birthday I’ve head yet”.

Riot police, Estelí

The team’s next task was to complete a homestay with a Nicaraguan family.  This was to involve travel to their home in the Miraflores.  The Miraflore reserve is a community orientated project with the objective of maintaining the natural flora and fauna of the region.  This area is home to a range of diverse plant and animal species, and banana and coffee plantations, but is very poor.  Homestays provide the families living in the area with supplemental income and are an excellent way to see traditional Nicaraguan life.

Waking early, the team were soon on the only chicken bus for that day bound for the Miraflores.  For two hours the team endured the bone-jarring off-road ride that took the team deep into the picturesque reserve.  Due to there being limited transport services to this area, the team disembarked their bus at Terrere, and along with a pre-organised guide, set off for a two and a half hour hike overland through the reserve to the small community of El Somote.

Their guide Darvin had been up most of the night involved with the elections at the PLC party headquarters in Estelí.  He was tired, disappointed with the outcome of the election and was also unwell.  The team had to wait often for him to catch up during their walk through coffee and banana plantations and cool forests.

Miraflore cow Waiting for Darvin
Mariposa in Miraflore

Before long, the team arrived at their homestay and met the family.  Their stay involved completing challenges such as to go for walks to see the views, help prepare dinner which included hand making tortillas from scratch from corn flour only, and to practice their Spanish.  Ang was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to practice and the chance to communicate.

Wilbur on his horse The rest of the family The rest of the family
Making tortillas in the kitchen
Brushing up on basic Spanish phrases Between tortilla making, there was lots of sitting around

After spending a relaxing and interesting night, the team woke early and commenced racing once again.  They prepared more tortillas then they boarded the one and only chicken bus back to Estelí.  This ride took the team three hours as it had to drive around the whole reserve and was another spine shattering journey.  Once back in Estelí, the team’s final challenge for this town was to print the photos they took of the family to give as gifts.  After completing this, they were given their next clue and set off to the bus station.

At the bus station, the team was unable to locate the direct minibus to León, but did meet Walter, who would soon become the second half of Team Belgium.  Together the one and a half teams walked to the southern bus terminal where they boarded a chicken bus bound for San Isidor.  An hour later they were on another heavily loaded chicken bus heading south past dramatic volcáns to León.

The shark fin helps make the deliveries faster Australian aid dollars at work

Three and a half long hours later the teams arrived at León’s bus station.  As seems to be typical in Central America, this station was also located in a market.  However, Ang and Walter both agreed that it looked like something from Asia or India due to the incredible amount of chaos, rubbish and smell.  Leaving this behind and 20 minutes later entering the rough and ready colonial heart of the town,  the teams checked into their hostel, the pit stop for this leg of the race.