Where’s Wallis? Leon, Nicaragua

I see travel time in Central America sort of like cooking a turkey…

Or converting centigrade to Fahrenheit. There’s some unclear formulae between the estimate given when you purchase your ticket and the reality.

The ‘express shuttle’ from Granada to Leon followed the law well: Estimate = 1.5 to 2hrs
Law: double and add a fraction of estimate
Reality = 5hrs

We drove through gridlocked Managua (the capital) which everyone I’ve met says not to bother visiting. This also seems to be the consensus for San Jose (Costa Rica), Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Guatemala City (I’ll let you guess…) and to an extent San Salvador (El Salvador).

On the journey we passed two bloated dead horses lying in the road, it was pretty disturbing, especially that everyone just continued to drive around them (though now it seems minor in comparison to what was to come when I arrived in Guatemala…)

Various travellers and travel books recommended the ‘Surfing Turtle Lodge‘, set alone on the pacific coast on an island about 20km from Leon city, near Los Penitas beach. Given we didn’t arrive in town until 5pm I booked into their central Leon sister hostel: Surfing Turtle Leon.

Due to the extended travel time I was ravenous for a super late lunch/early dinner and I went for my first typical ‘Nica’ meal at a little place run by a women’s cooperative. It was deeelicious. Grilled chicken, fresh gallo pinto (black beans and rice), salad and salted thin plantain chips. All for about $4.

When I got back to the hostel a couple of guys were sitting out in the courtyard with a bottle of Flor De Cana rum and limes from the tree in the courtyard and invited me to join them.

They were both Canadian (so many Canadians travelling!) and one of them, Andrew, was going to the surfing turtle lodge the next day to start working as a volunteer.

The lodge has a pretty good set up as it has some full time local cleaning and cooking staff. But all the on-site management and bar service etc is done by volunteers, in return for free board and food. I met one girl who’d been there 8 months!

As we were sitting in the courtyard drinking, a deep rumble of snoring began to disrupt the conversation. Then an alarm continuously rang for about 15 minutes from one of the rooms – whoever was in there was sleeping deeply!! We tried knocking so the the alarm could be stopped but no response.

Eventually someone emerged bleary eyed from the room, and it transpired that it was Aldo, the owner of the lodge and the hostel. He joined us for a drink and was heading to see a band somewhere in town so we joined him.

It was a small venue, a bar with only about 20 or so people there. There was a 3 piece band (drums, keyboard and double bass) and an American singer, perhaps in her late 40s. Between songs she came to chat to people and she told us she was from LA. She was exactly how I imagine the stereotype of a slightly faded Hollywood starlet to be: great voice, outwardly super confident, but wearing an outfit that was far too revealing and someone my age (25 today!! 😊) would struggle to pull off!

The band were fantastic, three local guys, who apparently had never all played together before, but the singer had sent them her tracks and they’d all only practiced for the first time that day. It was a really good evening, and great to go somewhere that I’d never have gone if I hadn’t been with someone local.

The next day I took the shuttle to the beach lodge. In the bus was a guy who used to work at Deloitte (we’re everywhere!) but was about to go to Utila in the Bay Islands, Honduras, to become a diving instructor.

The 1hr journey took 2.5hrs. Good to see the laws of the universe upholding. Annalie and Kalle had described it as quite a magical arrival….once you got off the bus you had to take a small boat across the water that separated the island from the mainland, and you were then met at the ‘Welcome Tree’ by a horse and cart that took you to the lodge.

Unfortunately, as our shuttle was full to the max with about 15 people (plus backpacks, plus surfboards) it was not quite as magical. The poor horse ended up having to lug all the bags and we had to trudge behind.

Now, I have a weeny confession to make. Don’t judge me. In my month of travelling so far I have successfully avoided sleeping in a dorm room 🙊

I mean, it sort of just happened like that: no hostels in Cuba so I always seemed to have 2 beds to myself in a Casa Particular. Then obviously when Der was visiting we got private rooms – it was his holiday after all!

However, my stretch of luck/luxury appeared to be at an end as when I’d checked the night before the lodge only had either camping or a 16 bed dorm available. So desperate was I to avoid the dorm that I actually booked a tent for the night….partly on Aldo’s advice, he said he always camps when he stays there.

However on arrival I began thinking about practicalities: what if it storms? Bugs? Where will my stuff go? I won’t have a locker! and when I went to look at the dorm it looked bearable. I thought perhaps I should just bite the bullet so ‘upgraded’ to a dorm bed and moved my stuff upstairs.

When we were at the Finca on Ometepe we had dinner with a lovely guy called Gerry from New York who was on a three week holiday. He’d left the same day as us and headed straight up to Surfing Turtle Lodge where he’d booked a cabana for the week. I’d told him that I was thinking of going there too and he gave me his email and said to definitely get in touch if I was as I could crash in the cabana. Don’t worry there was an extra bed (plus he wasn’t really interested in the laydeees, as emerged during story-time around the campfire at the lodge).

I’d emailed him when in Granada, saying that I was going to come to the lodge but it looked like only tents and dorms available so if he was happy with it I’d definitely take the spare bed in the cabana. I heard nothing back. I thought this was strange as he’d been the one who suggested it, and he seemed mature enough that he’d reply and say that he’d found a new cabana buddy, rather than ignore.

So there I was, reluctantly ‘settled’ in the dorm, sitting in a wooden chair down on the beach watching the surfers, mohito in hand when along came Gerry! He’d never got my email and quickly saved me from my uncertain fate that night and moved me in to the beachfront cabana 😊

I’ll attempt to stay in a dorm again soon….promise!

The lodge was great. I’d definitely recommend it. It looked deceptively small but held a large amount of people so was really buzzing. They had a volleyball court, horse riding, surf lessons and also night time turtle walks. They had a hatchery on site where they’d store the eggs that they gathered from the beach on turtle walks, to protect them from predators and poachers until they hatched and then release the hatchlings into the ocean.

I was lucky as the day I arrived about 50 babies had hatched, so at sunset we all went down to the sea and released them. It reminded me so much of my turtle conservation project in Costa Rica years ago… except the release at the lodge was a slightly less intense experience as you weren’t standing on a beach by yourself, at 4am, surrounded by crabs, waiting for 30 minutes willing the babies towards the ocean.

You might already know this but you can’t just dump the hatchlings directly into the sea, tempting as this may seem! They need to walk at least 10 meters down the beach into the sea, and this way they remember the beach to return to and lay their own eggs when they’re older. It’s amazing! So patience is definitely required as they shuffled sea-ward, only to decide to have a rest, or walk back up the beach, or once they finally make it to the water get swept right back to where they started by a big wave.

It was so stunning though, watching all these little newborns crawling towards the sea as the sun went down.

We had a great evening, including a turtle walk (sadly no laying turtles though) and drinks around the bonfire on the beach. I retired to the cabana about 1, exhausted. I didn’t hear Gerry come in, but when I woke about 4am to go to the bathroom I shone my torch at his bed, just to check that there was a man sized shape under the mosquito net and that he’d made it back safely, which luckily he had. Though I don’t really know what my plan was if he hadn’t been there.

There were no curtains on the cabana so I woke about 7 to a stunning view out to the sea. I managed to force myself back to sleep for another half hour or so. When I heard Gerry make the smallest movement I instantly said a cheery “Morrrrrrning!!!”, to which he grunted. I think he probably regretted saving me from the dorm at that point.

I am very much like a small child, waiting for someone to wake up to play with me. Dermot will second this, everyday for two weeks as soon as he stirred I was waiting, ready for activities!!😂😂

I decided to be kind and let Gerry sleep so quietly got my running stuff on and went for a beautiful run along the beach. Beach running is so good!! I contemplated trying to do the little exercise regime I’ve invented (and done all of 3 times since I’ve been away) on the beach, but given it involves lying down, and my intense hatred of sand in clothes/hair I opted out.

I was just getting settled into the pace of life at the lodge, and could easily see how people ended up staying weeks or even months. But sadly I had to keep moving, the shuttle bus from Leon – Antigua (Guatemala) only went on alternate days. So either I’d get the 15hour bus the next day or three days later on Monday which is my birthday! My only birthday requirement was to not spend it in transit, so I opted for the Saturday bus.

I hadn’t booked my ticket as I wanted to wait until I got to the lodge, just in case I decided I loved it and wanted to stay longer. But I knew that the horse-boat-shuttle back from the lodge wouldn’t get me to Leon until 3pm earliest, which was cutting it a bit fine to book onto a bus for 2am the next day.

Anticipating this I’d gone into the shuttle operators the day before and told them that I 90% wanted a ticket for Sat AM, but that I’d ask the lodge to call them the next day to confirm, and then would come in in the afternoon to pay (nothing is confirmed until payment here!) The hostel called the shuttle company to confirm I did want it, though I had done all I could I was still worried that I wouldn’t get a ticket and would end up stuck in Leon until Monday and travelling on my birthday.

I was right to worry it seems, I headed straight to the tour place when I got back to town, passport and money in hand. I introduced myself to the guy at the desk, told him I had a reservation for the shuttle to Antigua (sort of true) and that I just needed to pay.

He asked me when I wanted to go, I said “tomorrow morning”, and his face told me all I needed to know. Before he could speak I quickly and cheerfully chipped in that I’d come in the day before and that the hostel had called ahead.

He hesitantly took my passport and tapped away at the computer for probably 10/15 minutes, obviously desperately trying to find me some alternative to admitting it was full.

Finally he said “okay, so, you can go tomorrow, but you have a small seat, but don’t worry only for 4 hours until El Salvador” (El Salvador was 7 hours at best)

I quizzed him what exactly a “small seat” was, I.e whether I’d be in the boot with the bags. To which he just laughed, but didn’t confirm!!

I needed to keep moving towards Guatemala though, so I said okay and signed up for my small seated journey. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep before the bus arrived, and I stepped outside hesitantly. I was greeted by our driver, Nelson, and an empty minibus. I was the first to be picked up!!

I cautiously asked Nelson if I could sit anywhere (not wanting to reveal myself as small seat girl!) and he said “Yes, this is the best seat” (pointing to the one behind his)

What a victory. I happily got settled down for the 15hrs ahead, praying that this time the turkey/temperature law of travel would not apply…















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