Stuck in Honduras; our layover to Leon
Remember that time we left El Salvador too late in the day and got stuck in Honduras? Oh you weren’t there? I forgot that fact in the middle of being terrified.
So we left El Salvador a little too late in the day to make our connections. Our lovely guide book (Lonely Planet) mentioned that there were collectivo vans just across the border of Honduras that could carry us through the small southwestern gap between El Salvador and Nicaragua. With this as our solid “no turning back now” plan, we left our little beach side safety net of Playa Esteron and set off for the frontera.
Anticipation always builds when we approach border crossings and this one felt a little heavier than usual. The landscape was even changing before our eyes the closer we got to the no man’s land between these 2 notoriously sketchy countries. I noticed miniature looking hills that looked like tiny volcanoes rolling by a few hundred meters from the rubber edge of our tires. Without warning, the bus pulled into a parking lot, began backing up down we were just on, and came to a halt. After the doors slid open, we put another notch in our border crossing belt and entered the chaotic scene on the other side. There were people milling about everywhere, garbage burning in barrels, and characters crossing in and out of the disarray while an imaginary spotlight seemed to be beaming on us. We encountered a collectivo van that was supposed to cost about 5 dollars (when full, of course) and were horrified to find out that we were the only people interested in getting to Nicaragua. The 10 dollar tickets turned into $72 right before our eyes and we now had a new problem to figure out. After a few preguntas we also learned that buses stop running around 5pm. At that time it was about 4:45, so we had very little options. I exchanged some dollars for Lampiras from an unofficial change man with a huge wad of cash, just enough to get us somewhere for the night and out the next day.
Off we went into the surprisingly pretty southwestern Honduran landscape. We picked a town that had some sort of description in our guide book and grabbed the name of a hotel from it’s black and white pages. The situation felt very black and white too. We had no intentions of staying in Honduras, but that was out of our hands. We scored a room and walked around the town looking for any place that had food and would take a credit card. Wendy’s wound up being the winner. After a nights rest, and another trip to Wendy’s, we regressed back towards the bus station. A white horse appeared suddenly in the road in front of us and seemed to realize it was very lost. This was quite a sight to see in an urbanized neighborhood, but didn’t surprise us as much as it should have. After a loud neigh the stud eventually turned around and went back from where he came from.
We were stuffed into a collectivo van in a gritty mercado that did not hide the truth about poverty in developing countries. After waiting and being offered almost every variety of snack on this planet, we drove all the way to the border, mostly on the wrong side of the road. I think that drivers tend to have a “the grass is greener” belief about all roads encountered, regardless of the condition it’s in. They always want to get on the other side, even when you can clearly see that both sides of the road are in the same state of disrepair. This continual game of chicken is not for the faint of heart. But I digress, a lot.
Eventually we made it to Leon that day. The moment we stepped off our bus we were approached by a goofy looking kid in his 20’s wearing a Mexican sombrero speaking perfect English about a hostel that offered two free shots for each new guest. We laughed as politely as we could and hopped into a bike taxi elsewhere. Passing through another jam-packed mercado along the way we wove through the maze of streets Leon possesses. We dropped our belongings off and immediately sought out our first tried-and-true destination that helps us get a real feel for a new place; el mercado. Leon boasts several of these but the closest was right next to an older, deteriorating sun soaked yellow colonial church. A quick spin offered gigantic avocados, cheeses, and a plethora of Latin American fruits and veggies. But a section of this mercado had numerous small stands selling every part required to build and repair bicycles. This kind of service felt long overdue because there have been an uncountable amount of unique two and three wheeled bikes used for carrying and moving just about everything under the sun.
The first day in a new country is always one full of questions. The first of which that enters my mind is the overall sense of safety with the unfamiliar surroundings. Leon felt very comfortable to us and seemed to have a general adaptation to tourism, in a positive way. It didn’t feel too catered towards tourism and held a lot of it’s traditional Nicaraguan lifestyle for us to interact with. After talking with our native hostel owners and operators we learned that Leon had several sister cities in many different countries. As it turns out, there are three sister cities in the US alone! Janesville, Wisconsin is one random city, which made the question of “Ustedes son de Wisconsin?” in a tienda a little less random. With this Leon had a variety of tourists from all over the world, as well as a university presence, to give it a flavor that was quite enjoyable.
The next full day we spent was exploring the other mercados and the beautiful churches scattered around. We were wondering how their special corn based chocolate treat named Pinolillo tasted, so we sought out the large indoor market behind the Cathedral of Mary’s Assumption during siesta. I love going into empty markets during this time of day because it often is less hectic, more photogenic, and there seems to be less pressure exerted towards sales. This tends to gravitate towards a more relaxed atmosphere, leaving more energy towards general chit chat and friendlier interactions. We eventually eyed a stall that sold Pinolillo and eagerly ordered one immediately. Our smiles morphed into a more disappointing gesture as the woman made the drink straight out of a tap protruding from the wall. We each tried a sip but didn’t feel like it was worth the risk to suck down a bag of potentially contaminated water. We accepted our loss and rooted around more plazas, more churches, and more side streets taking in a day in the life of Leon.
In Leon we determined that our dream of making it to the east coast of Nicaragua wasn’t going to pan out for us this time around. The territory on the eastern side of the country was technically governed by Britain until the early 80’s when it was given back to the Nicaraguan government. It’s isolation and strange background history as a foreign governed land has created an environment that operates today as it’s own sovereign territory, and sounded like a whole different world to us. English, Spanish, Miskit, and several other languages are used in this area and the islands in the Caribbean sounded somewhat edgy, but utterly heavenly as well. It would have cost us about 2 days of buses, boats, ferries, and collectivos or over priced flights that were no where near our meager budget restrictions. Since Elissa had been to Nicaragua a few years prior we decided to get her back to Granada to see how the city has evolved. The next morning we checked out of Leon and hit the dusty road in an old, old school bus bound for one of Elissa’s old haunts.