El Salvador is a small country, and we were not there long.
Of course, I have stories to tell… of drunk teenager thieves and trying to wake a deaf and dumb man in the dark of night. Of beautiful views of perfect cone volcanoes and shimmering lakes. Of off-road biking through the rural north, where foreigners are unusual and war-wary locals are either unquestioningly helpful or understandably suspicious. Of trying to find our way, when the roads on the maps do not exist and villages that locals know intimately are not marked at all. It all makes navigation a nightmare. But although the hills were rough and steep, we did eventually crawl into Honduras. And a few days after crossing into the sixth country of this trip, we arrived in the capital, Teguchigalpa.
But this blog is about the next part of the journey…
Staying with a local family in a quiet suburb of Teguchigalpa was fantastic. Amazing hospitality. Best of all though, not a rooster to be heard from the depths of dreamy sleep.
I didn’t even hear Claudia’s two older children getting up and leaving for school. In a country where public schools are poor, people who can afford to, send their children to private school. Many are bilingual, teaching in English too. Perhaps this is part of the reason that many people we have met speak some English.
It was here we left our bikes and panniers and took to public transport with backpacks. Our journey for the next few weeks will be decidedly different from the routine of cycling: Ride, Eat, Sleep. Or perhaps not once the buses are out of the way: Paddle, Eat, Sleep.
Our next destination, Somoto in Nicaragua.
Taxi to bus terminal. Minibus to El Paraiso. Change to chicken bus for Los Manos border. On foot across border, via immigration. For passport stamping and fee paying. Another chicken bus to Ocotal. Wait at station and take another bus to Somoto.
Backpacking is tiring. In some ways, more so than cycling. Not muscle tired, but brain tired. And jolting along in the back of an old yellow school bus, never intended to fit 40 adults, tires the body too. There is no routine.
But the buses left on time and arrived on schedule. There were no chickens on the chicken bus though, or domestic animals of any kind. And sitting next to Lars meant there was no risk of being subjected to vomiting children or leery toothless old men or fat women who take up a good portion of your seat too. Instead, there were smart clothes and mobile phones. Times have changed since I backpacked in Latin America over 10 years ago.
With our earlier crossing from El Salvador to Honduras, the change in country was immediately noticeable. Friendlier faces. But this crossing into Nicaragua was different in that little changed. Besides the few hustlers and parked trucks, and of course the welcome to Nicaragua sign, we’d not have known.
Somoto is a quiet town, with a central park and adjacent church and a grid of streets spreading in each direction. Typical of Honduran and Nicaraguan towns. The Spanish legacy.
But the town itself was not why we came here. Instead, we wanted to visit the Somoto Canyon. A canyon known to locals all along, but only in the last decade has it become known to outsiders.
A taxi to the entrance, 15km from town, and we were met by guides. With some gentle persuasion, we explained we didn’t require their services. And having paid the entrance to the park, we set off on foot.
On foot along dusty tracks, rucksacks weighing us down. But soon we found rhythm, shortly after we found we were lost. Well, taken the wrong path at least. Backtracking and picking up the correct trail, we soon saw the river flowing in the narrow valley and we descended until it was time to take off our shoes.
We rockhopped (perhaps rock stumbled is more accurate) until the inevitable getting feet wet. In we plunged through the clear flowing water. Until we reached a large black pool of water and so it was time to inflate a packraft.
Unloading one raft and inflating it, we loaded in the bags, jumped into the cool still water and swam to the other side.
Some more scrambling. Then we saw ahead a clear channel cutting through the narrow canyon with it’s vertical cliffs towering above and leaving just a narrow slot of light that filtered through the still air, bounced off the water and reflected off the walls, flickering and dancing as the water gently rippled.
In the packrafts we paddled and floated. Along smooth rocks, beautifully and carefully carved over millennia by the never-ending work of the river.
Occasionally the passage would be too narrow for the rafts and we would clamber over the rocks again, carrying our rafts with us. When we came to the small waterfall, we lowered the rafts first and then jumped on into the water. Cold and refreshing. Like a black abyss from the surface, but when we disturbed the water, it was perfectly clear and little bubbles rose as we kicked and swam.
Gradually the canyon widens out and the cliffs become gently sloping hills, with cacti, and trees and dry grass.
And after a lunch on the rocks, sitting in the white heat of midday, we paddle on round a couple more bends until we reach a path. Here we pack up and take off on foot back to the road.
In the few minutes of waiting for a passing vehicle with which to hitch a ride, we speak to the grey-haired, thin-limbed old man who is sitting in the speckled shade of a leafless tree. He asks which route through the canyon we took. ‘The middle one’, I reply. ‘Oh good. So you took a guide then?’ I reply that we went alone. ‘Very intelligent!’, he remarks. With a new-found respect for us in his eyes, his final question before a truck pulls up is, ‘so you must have a good map’. To which i shout as I run towards the vehicle, ‘The map is on the wall. And in my head.’