With salt in our hair, and sand in every crevice of our bodies, our little crew of four set out yet again after five relaxing days at Playa Gigante. We had booked some rooms at the Surfing Turtle in Leon, Nicaragua to spend Semana Santa in the big city. However, we made the rookie mistake of thinking that their Easter holidays were the same as our own back in our respective countries- Monday and Friday. Nope. Way off. In fact, their week began on the previous Monday and continued through until Easter Sunday, and on our ‘Easter Monday’ things went back to normal. Not knowing this, we figured it would be easy to catch a bus from Gigante to Rivas on Thursday, and then connect further to Leon. It would have been, if this was a normal day, but this was the height of the Semana Santa celebrations and the only transport was buses coming in to the playa to drop people off, and the occasional taxi going out- at exorbitant rates. We ended up wandering the roads, looking for a taxi because we were advised time and again that no buses were running. We would have to pay a pretty penny for it, but that’s the price you pay for ignorance and poor planning!
We found a taxi driver who would take us the four hour drive for about $35USD each. It was steep, but we had to fork it over if we wanted to get to Leon. We settled in for the long and cozy ride; Richard up front and three ladies squished in the back seat, legs touching, sweat dripping down our overheated legs. But as is the case in all of central America, our cabbie did not disappoint and played 90’s music the whole way, including the soulful Michael Bolton’s ‘How am I supposed to live without you’. Three times.
Finally we arrived. At the wrong hostel. We loaded our bags onto our shoulders once again and headed out into the steaming hot day and trudged along for 15 minutes until we found the right hostel. After getting checked in we all had nice real showers- no cockroaches joining us this time, and we even enjoyed the privacy of a door when we used the facilities! The hostel was nice, the manager was great, and we all settled in to our home for the next five days. Leon was the perfect place for us to re-group, get some laundry done, have some skype dates and enjoy the Semana Santa celebrations.
For Good Friday, Sarah and I took to the streets to explore and see what kind of celebrations we could stumble upon, while Kajsa slept off a sickness and Richard tried to deal with insurance for his lost phone. So far we were finding that Leon wasn’t that busy because apparently everyone was flocking to the beaches for the holiday- sort of like we do back home for holidays! It was nice to have the city so quiet and subdued – I was worried it would be absolute madness due to the holiday but we lucked out.
It wasn’t long before we walked directly into a huge procession near the Leon Cathedral. Hundreds of people filled the street and carried upon their backs large platforms with statues of Jesus and Mary. A live band followed behind playing sombre, beautiful music. Many of the locals carried umbrellas, clearly outsmarting the silly tourists who were being scorched in the 40 degree heat. We wandered the streets and kept finding ourselves in the middle of different processions- it seemed as if a different one was on each street we wandered on to. I felt blessed to be able to be here in Leon during Semana Santa, a holiday as huge as Christmas is to us back home.
We regrouped in the evening and set out to find the art demonstrations famous in Central America- in particular in Leon and Antigua. Artists use coloured saw dust to create masterpieces on the street- and when all the pieces are complete- the people walk in a procession over top of them, churning them back into meaningless dust. It reminded me of the monks and their sand mandalas, and I loved the idea of impermanence and detachment that was associated with this type of creation and destruction. The art was beautiful. In Antigua, they use stencils and boards to assist with the designs, but in Leon the pride themselves on everything being freehand. The Antiguan designs are reminiscent of carpet designs while in Leon the are all depictions of biblical scenes and imagery. The artists ranged from every age, but were mostly men. It was intriguing to watch the artists create such intricate scenes from coloured wood shavings, for hours on end, working tirelessly in the heat, knowing that their art will soon be respectfully trampled.
Aside from the Semana Santa celebrations, the only thing we knew we wanted to do while in Leon was Volcano Boarding! We booked with an Italian guy who picked the four of us up in his Land Rover and we left the city and headed towards the line of volcanoes in the distance. The drive was only about an hour and then we had an hour hike ahead of us. The volcano we were climbing was aptly named Cerro Negro (Black Hill). It was stunning. The charcoal mass of rock climbed steeply to round off in a mound at the top. It was a foreboding sight, but we grabbed our backpacks filled with our suits, goggles and gloves, picked up our deceivingly heavy boards and began the trek. The boards were awkward to carry, but the hike went by quickly and before we knew it we were cresting the top- but we still had to march across the crater edge for quite a ways. The wind was raging up at the top and we had to position our boards strategically otherwise the wind would catch them and quite literally knock us over the edge and send us tumbling down the volcano. We put them length wise across our backs and let the wind push us, in fact making the hike easier!
Cresting the top of the crater was extraordinary. I felt like I had stepped inside the lands of Mordor. The land around me was black and dead, grim and unnerving- yet hauntingly beautiful. Plumes of smoke were rising from small fissures in the crater, letting out noxious vapours, their sulphuric stench wafting up to assault our noses with each gust of wind. The black mass was only interrupted by stains of rust and white coloured rock that flanked the craters mouth. I completely forgot about boarding down the volcano and got lost in the stagnant world on the edge of the crater. This alone was worth the trip, to climb up and then nearly inside this volcano and see a completely different world.
Once at the top, you could look out for miles around and see the effects of the eruptions of this volcano. While they are a massively destructive force and everything at the top was dead and lifeless, life around the volcano was flourishing, thanks to the fertile ground volcanoes leave in their wake. The black rock left a huge stain across the otherwise lush, rich, green land.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from simply standing, mouths agape, savouring these strange and otherworldly sights. But alas, it was time to suit up and send ourselves careening down the side of volcano, like any respectable human would do. There was quite the line up- being Semana Santa brought a lot of tourists to the area. We sat around enjoying the sights for a good half hour, sweating in our giant green jump suits and laughing at the people who were attempting to get their boards going. It was tricky at the start to get going, you really had to butt-hop for a while until you started to get some momentum. To be honest, the ride down was really anticlimactic for all of us. None of us got any speed- I suppose coming from Canada, I’m used to terrifying speeds sliding down hills in winter- but even so it just wasn’t that fun. We saw a couple of people get some serious speed but not many went much faster than we did. If the hike up hadn’t been so phenomenal, I would have been sorely disappointed in the whole trip, but the hike and the view made it well worth it.
The only downside to our time in Leon was that Kajsa and I got bedbugs. We were sharing a queen bed in a private room and Kajsa, having had them once before, knew something was up after the first night. I didn’t have any bites nor could I feel anything so I brushed it off. The next night she woke me up at 5am and showed me a bed bug and showed me bites all over her, and small blood spots on the sheet on her side of the bed- strangely (and thankfully!) enough I was left unbitten- it’s said that some people are immune to the bites. We told the hostel that they had bedbugs and they basically blamed us, and told us we had to leave, but would refund our night’s stay and pay for our laundry after we demanded it of them. Luckily a nice hostel just down the road had room and we were able to shack up there. The manager at Surfing Turtle was really helpful and kind, but the owner was the one making the decisions and handled the situation poorly. Once again, the awful customer service skills of Nicaragua have us taken aback. I wouldn’t recommend staying at the Surfing Turtle in Leon for a couple of reasons- one: bed bugs- this happens, we get it, but how you deal with it is what people remember. Throwing your guests out during the busiest season? Not okay. Furthermore, the hostel we moved to, Colibri, was way better! It was just an all over nicer set up with much more space and we got a great free breakfast.
On our last day Sarah and I ventured out to explore the Leon Cathedral roof as they open it to guests during certain hours. It cost $3 to enter, but it’s worth the small fee. The Cathedral roof is spectacular. The rest of the building hasn’t been restored in a while and the whitewash is fading drastically (which I think adds to the charm of the Cathedral), but atop it’s breathtaking and white as snow. The alabaster stone reflected the sunlight sharply, nearly blinding you-sunglasses are an absolute necessity up here! The views are dazzling, offering great panoramas of the surrounding country and volcanoes.
Leon is a beautiful little colonial city filled with churches, street vendors, and loads of Eskimo ice cream shops (which I frequented- sometimes twice- daily). It’s a great place to experience the Semana Santa celebrations because the crowds flock to the beach, leaving Leon a quiet haven, but you still get to experience the rich culture of the celebrations. It was here that our fearless foursome decided to part ways if only for a short while. Richard and Sarah were heading to El Salvador for a couple of days and Kajsa and I were heading straight for Utila, Honduras to get our Open Water PADI certification! They promised to come to Utlia after El Salvador so we said our goodbyes, but knew that we would see each other again soon, this time on the beaches of a new ocean.
Look for my photo essay on Leon coming soon 🙂