From Honduras we crossed the border into Nicaragua and soon arrived in Leon, Nicaragua’s second biggest city after the capital Managua. After Nicaragua withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, the Liberal party and the Conservatives vied for power. As their capital the conservatives preferred Granada and the liberals Leon. As a result the capital regularly shifted backwards and forwards between the two.
This rivalry between the two factions often spilled over into civil war and in 1855 the Liberals invited the notorious William Walker to join their struggle against the Conservatives. Walker was totally mental and seemingly hell-bent on establishing a personal empire in Central America; I picture Marlon Brando in apocalypse now. An earlier vainglorious attempt by Walker to invade Mexico with 45 men ultimately ended in failure. Nevertheless he leaped at this new opportunity and eventually betraying the Liberals succeeded in setting himself up as president. His talk of further conquests against neighbouring countries spooked many and he was defeated in 1857 by a coalition of Costa Ricans Hondurans and Salvadorians. After the defeat of William Walker in 1857 the city of Managua, approximately equidistant between Leon and Granada became the capital.
Leon is a beautiful and lively town but we didn’t stay long. We decided we wanted a bit of R&R and leaving the bikes, caught a plane to the Corn Islands approximately 80km off the Caribbean coast of the country. The first thing that struck us after having traveled for so long in Central America is that everyone was black now and suddenly speaking English. The second thing that struck us was that actually it is much more complicated than this.
Nicaragua was colonised by both the British in the east and the Spanish in the West simultaneously. The West is now almost homogeneously Mestizos (of mixed Indigenous and Spanish descent). For its own reasons, which presumably had nothing to do with the interests of the indigenous people, Great Britain implemented a policy in the East which ultimately resulted in the survival of many indigenous and multi-ethnic groups. The Corn Islanders themselves were until very recently mostly of mixed African and European origin; black slaves from Jamaica, white slave owners as well as a few European seafarers. Recently however lobsters have been intensively commercially exploited and many people from the main land have moved to the Islands in search of work. This is what resulted in the confusing (for us) mixture of people living on the islands that mainly spoke either English or Spanish and only occasionally both.
Some of the lobsters are caught in lobster traps but many are speared by fisherman who use Scuba gear to dive to great depths. Scuba diving can be a very dangerous occupation when there is a lack of training and regulation paired with a commercial incentive to dive deeper and for longer. Injuries are sadly common and a hyperbaric chamber is in existence at the regional capital Bluefields to treat people suffering from decompression sickness. Tragically, whilst we were staying on the Island, a young boy died by free diving, taking air off a diver on the bottom, and then rapidly surfacing without exhaling causing a fatal lung over-expansion injury. People on the island were understandably shocked, but several that spoke to us seemed optimistic that it may at least galvanise some kind of response to try to prevent a similar tragedy happening again.
We had initially been planning to go Kitesurfing, but when there was wind we could never find Nacho (the guy with the kites) and when we could find him there was no wind. We still had a great time though, hanging out with some wonderful people we met on the island as well as two of Jess’ mates from her old rugby club, Widget and Lu, who happened to be there at the same time. We also went Scuba diving ourselves. Jess in particular got totally hooked and if we weren’t already so close to the end of our trip, she would probably have stayed for ever and become a Scuba instructor.
The scuba diving was great and we were lucky enough to see beautiful coral, huge shoals of fish, turtles, sting rays, octopuses/octopi/octopodes and even a pod of dolphins. But one thing I have learnt on this trip is that sometimes the best experiences are ones that you can potentially have anywhere like having a beer with a mate after a hard days cycling or unexpectedly having a cute girl in a bar declare you look like Hugh Laurie, ranked #1 in Glamour magazine’s sexiest man alive list (yes I checked). Not even placing in this list myself I was feeling pretty chuffed until she left 5 minutes later with a Tony Robinson lookalike.
Slightly despondent I left to look for Jess, Widget and Lu who had gone to make some kind of comedy video for their friend’s hen party which they were missing. The timing was perfect, I heard some familiar voices behind a cabana on a quiet beach, and arrived just in time to find Jess filming the backs of Widget and Lu, both naked, running into the sea and screaming ‘Skinny Dip!’. They then turned to wave to the camera, I was slightly stunned but it seemed clear the only polite thing to do was, of course, to wave back. A lot of screaming instantly erupted and I quickly retreated back out of sight. Please contact Jess for the video.
So after much excitement and even more doing absolutely nothing we flew back to Leon hopped on the bikes and continued South/East to Costa Rica…