Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Exploring NICARAGUA!

The footwear is indeed German, so I figured it would pass muster ...

Ten days of empty coastline, time-warp villages, mountaintop jungles, historic colonial towns, and friendly people …

Teaser pics:

More to come...
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It begins...

Many of you have heard of Salcar's Journey for Healthcare. After riding all of Latin America he ended up parked in Nicaragua and has since begun gathering rental bikes for people who want to visit & experience the place, but don’t have the time/resources to ride an additional 20 countries in the process…

Prior to Salcar's departure we were living in the same city in Orange County and had ridden together previously ... surprisingly, he still talked with me afterward While he was doing the healthcare run around S. America we had kicked around the idea of getting bikes down there for people and coming up with safe (as much as adventure riding can be safe...) pre-scouted routes for people who wanted to experience the place. The past few weeks things began to fall into place...

A recent trip was one of the 1st tours, complete with media involvement, which led to this current adventure, a supported ride complete with chase truck. A couple guys would fly in from the frozen north and let the madness begin.

But first there was some pre-running to do…
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I had heard Managua was pretty crazy with it’s nameless streets and “might makes right” rules of the road, but my initial experience after landing was actually quite tame – Salvador had someone pick up up at the airport. So … problem solved of figuring out how to get to his place The driver gave me a bit of history, local knowledge, etc during the drive so the entire experience was really enjoyable. I just sat back & enjoyed the ride … completely oblivious to hazards such as manholes without covers that were whizzing by beneath me.

Arriving at Salcar’s place I was immediately greeted by one of the more scenic spots to work on the bikes I’ve ever seen. View of the auxiliary parking area from the front door:

The rest of that afternoon/evening was spent prepping for our 6AM departure the next day.


In a world of rapidly evaporating frontiers, this day (and the next two weeks) would prove there still is true adventure to be had in the modern world. The moment we rolled away from Cuidad Sandino, within 2km the clock started turning backward as fossil fuels gave way first to bicycles, then to oxcarts and women carrying loads balanced on their heads. Much, if not a majority of society exists in this way. The area we were headed into is about 100km of pretty much nothing right along empty coastline. Bicycles and oxcarts were the only vehicles that would be seen after leaving the only gas stop for the day. I understood it would be unusual for the locals to see us riding through, but the degree of their curiosity had me baffled at first. I was still thinking of their reaction in terms of ”wow, look at the motorcycle guys going past” when I should have been judging it more along the lines of ”wow, look at the moon men on their hypercycles”. Seriously, once Turkish rolled in on his 950 it might as well been as if someone landed the space shuttle in your driveway … more on that later.

Another pleasant discovery was that there are a ridiculous amount of fruits that grow around here and they make all sorts of juices from them. So many to choose, I actually had one that Salcar had never even tried!

Every once in a while we’d stop to catch the view.

Day 2 – continued …

The more I travel, the more I find that every country, location, culture, etc… has it’s own unique characteristics or interesting places to offer that are unique in all the world. What surprised me about Nicaragua is it’s a relatively small country … in fact it’s just a small country period. But in just two (LONG) days of exploratory riding I think I saw more truly unique features in a shorter span of time than on any other ride I can think of. It’s like this tiny plot of land was selected as a storage depot for interesting stuff… largest tropical lake in the world, freshwater sharks!?, truly world-class surfing, traveling by zip-line in the forest canopy with howler monkeys over coffee plantations several hundred feet below ….the fact that paved roads are the exception means there’s still a ton of exploration to be done (more on that later)!

Stopped overlooking a volcano cauldron lake – apparently this partular lake contains the cleanest water in Central America! The cloudforest of the Mombacho Volcano is visible in the background:


We were a curiosity even to other fossil-fueled vehicles:

The dirt route we took into Jinotega was one of the best I’ve ever ridden – would come to find most of the other people who were along for the ride later all agreed The town itself would prove to have the laid-back colonial feel and architecture I’d grown accustomed to …

You might not guess from the exteriour, but once the sun rose, the doors of this place swung open to reveal a well-stocked supply store of some sort:

Next up … the final pre-run day…

Brief aside...

If you're curious about the Surfing aspect of this trip ... we stayed a couple nights at Popoyo ... check out the Feburary 2008 issue of Surfer Magazine!

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Pre-Run ... Day 2

The next morning we awoke to a picturesque morning in Jinotega. The beauty of this place was really amazing. Turk, Jim, Craig, and I scored an amazing sunset over a lake just a few days later here (pics to come). A stark contrast in climate was noticed. The whole trip had been relatively temperate, however up here is where the temps dropped to their lowest and we actually got a little rain on the way in.

The plan for today was another long one – roll out from here & take an as-yet unridden dirt route to Esteli, exploring several options along the way. From there we’d have to hightail it back to Managua – hopefully as close to sunset as possible – navigating the streets of Managua at night, with their cover-less manholes can be something of a chore for the uninitiated!

Moments before rolling out:

Rush hour – Nicaragua style

One of the towns we rode through:

Salcar raced some of the locals

After hours of being on the dirt, there was this interesting “gasp” of pavement. A cobblestone street in the middle of a town that ended almost as quickly and abruptly as it began:

Then I got my 1st flat (I think it was the first … kinda lost track ). No matter where we got a flat, there always seemed to be plenty of helpers around …

Ignorance being bliss, I wasn’t so much concerned as Salcar I think because he actually had an idea of how far we still had to go today.

Fixed & rolling on…

Before long we were reached our first destination and took a celebratory trip to relax for a bit before continuing on to Managua.

A relatively long pavement run back to Managua and the pre-run was finished. Next day was spent repacking, getting the bikes re-shod & prepped for the “official” trip that would start just a few hours from now…

Like Salcar said earlier, I got a little sketched when the GPS failed. Here I am in a very foreign country, mid-way through a pre-run where both I & the guy that grew up here got lost to the point the locals couldn’t even help us and tomorrow I was going to guide a couple guys over the same route.

Latin America does have a strange effect on the U.S. psyche however … this may simply be the effect that this sort of environment has on “1st world” types though… Long story short, Salcar summed it up in his “you’ll be fine” statement. I don’t know what it is about his place, but after staring at maps for a while I took supreme confidence in those words & really did feel that “I would be fine”.

The map was folded up, and I decided to go to sleep and let any concerns I might have had simply dissipate into the balmy comfort of the Central American night air…

Next morning greeted us with a beautiful sunrise, the tour guys arrived, and we were geared up to head out … all the while taking great comfort in the supposition that the ‘correct’ turns, forks, animal trails, and gas stops would just … reveal themselves along the way.

The guys flew in & turns out one of their bags was flown to … who knows where. No problem – Craig had a great attitude about everything – between some of the ‘loaner’ gear that Salcar had plus Jim having some extra riding gear in his bag … everything was worked out & we were on our way … right on time

Craig, “Turkish”, and Jim

The first part of the ride took us through one of the neighborhoods that you’d be hard-pressed to find in the US … well, better yet this sort of neighborhood just plain doesn’t exist … oxcarts and people carrying loads balanced on their heads seemed to be the main mode of cargo transportation. As far as the dualsport motorcycle goes … this was paradise. Pavement was the exception … what pavement was there tended to be beautiful hand-laid paving stones. One of the immediately sobering aspects to a ride like this is when you allow your mind to make the logical leap and deduce how these roads came to be. By “1st world” standards these thoroughfares would be far too lofty, almost rarified, for use in public transport. The sobering aspect to this was realizing that human life is valued differently elsewhere in the world and the labour costs are simply not factored into the grand scheme. End result being as pristine a roadway as you can imagine – miles & miles of paving stones - connecting the dirt routes we were taking, shared for the most part by oxcarts hauling sugar cane. A far cry from the asphalt & concrete superslabs I’m used to back home.

Needless to say, a far cry from hopping on the #5 interstate and heading to San Francisco or someplace.

Coming out of a neighborhood, just before the pavement.

Something of a “jungle trench” river wash trail led to the pavement section.

Coming out of that section, we again met up with the chase truck & were greeted with water, cold Red Bulls, and kudos for making it through the sand wash

Passing through the sugar cane fields we headed toward one of the few beaches I can image where you can still purchase beach front property for a couple month’s wages … and then ride on it

Try this in Laguna Beach 3

After a somewhat extended stint of playing around on the beach, we were off to our next destination along our tour route.

Not everything went completely smooth, but sometimes the best moments are those that involve a ragged edge.

Shortly after leaving the beach I had a brief lapse of attention deficit disorder.

This has happened on more than one occasion, and always in the same type of scenario. One of the more significant examples was when I picked up my BMW GSA from the original owner’s house on the other side of the country. There I was in completely unfamiliar terrain off some rural unpaved back road in Vermont, attentively listening to directions as the bike’s previous owner explained how I could get from where I was, to where I needed to be. Once all was explained and I was packed up, I hopped on and thumbed the starter…

…and pretty much forgot everything I was told about where to go.

I’m starting to think that if you’ve been blessed/cursed/infected with even a touch of the “adventure spirit”, the mind has some sort of ingrained defense mechanism that prevents one from taking the road more traveled whenever other options are available. In the case of picking up the GSA in Vermont, pretty much any direction was a fantastic option – the whole state is just stunningly beautiful.

Such was the case here in Nicaragua – after playing around on the beach for a while, it really didn’t matter which way you went … close your eyes & throw a dart at the map – it’s all good stuff. So yeah, guiding a tour & we just fly off into the great unknown

Fortunately Salcar was nearby with the chase truck at that point & caught the back two riders before they blew the right turn – Craig and I however did our own “left” adventure .

Even though our extra-credit loop was only a very few miles, at least three of the initial “teaser” pics in this thread’s first post came from that blown turn – including the opening “Nicaragua” shot.

Just one more example that in adventure riding, many situations that would typically be called “wrong” can actually be thought of as simply “different”.

In spite of our extended time on the beach, a mechanical adjustment or two, and a missed turn, we made the lunch stop right on time.

The next section of the trail was the most remote terrain we would encounter for the tour, so while we were not late, according to the estimates, we definitely did not have a ton of time to spare.

Rolling out of Masachapa:

I lost count of how many water crossings there were – probably on the order of 10 or so. Salcar has photos of the first one from the bridge above… yes, there was a bridge over that first crossing BUT it happened to be situated on a section of trail where we were all pretty heated up, so charging through the river was no doubt the better option

One of the later crossings.

Some spots were amazing … we’d be riding for miles and then come across a group of school kids playing in the middle of nowhere. Obviously a village of some sort nearby but heck if we ever saw any towns…

Last “major” stop before venturing off into the wilds:

Turkish made some new friends here
Invariably, one of the questions I keep getting asked about the trip is (in various forms), ”wasn’t it dangerous?”.
These photos sum up how pretty much all of our encounters with people went down.

Slowly creeping away from civilization…

I can only guess what this was doing out here … a few miles from this spot there was a pile of these things.

This was the most major settlement along this stretch heading toward Popoyo.

The main road though here:

Sure don’t see these trees in Baja …

With time to spare, we arrived at our destination!
Good thing to as there was a few mechanical issues to deal with on the bikes… an additional plus, Craig’s bag that had been misdirected had arrived, and was on the way in the chase truck.
For now, we took the time to explore the local area a bit, start checking over the bikes, and formulating a plan for tomorrow…

This was just day 1…

Day 2

From one extreme to the other…

Being valentine’s day there was a bit more activity than usual in the area … as we had showed up earlier than anticipated to the hotel, Jim & Andy chose to relax while Craig & I went & did a little exploring of the local area. What we discovered is riding to the end of the point revealed a couple more hotel options, one of which was gearing up for some sort of shindig that night. I think the sound system was trying to make up for its lack of quality in sheer decibels. Man that thing was LOUD. The place itself was pretty cool – situated on the end of a point overlooking a river mouth where it fed into the ocean. A short distance away was the famous surf spot of Popoyo. A little later on we met up with the group and all went out to a beautiful pizza place run by Argentineans. This was NOT Domino’s … all dirt roads to get here, the place itself was a beautiful palapa structure with a full-bar & various hand made Pizzas.

Day 2

While the 1st day was a “middle of nowhere” exploration, today was to be a bit more urban … or urban in Nicaragua terms. As part of today’s ride would hook up with the Pan-American highway, we weren’t pressed for time and could take a more relaxing morning routing – in this case that meant walking down to the beach & doing some bodysurfing before the ride! (…and fixing the flat on Andy’s bike).

Once we got on the bikes, first step was to head into town to the gas station.

No smoking.

Just before fueling up, Salcar took the group up to a nearby viewpoint. I had picked up a nail in the rear tire of the f650 Dakar & stayed behind to fix that, but had been to the viewpoint a few days earlier during the pre-run and shot this:

Where we stayed the night before was just on the other side of the hill in the center of the photo below. You can just make out the rivermouth mentioned above on the left side of the photo at the base of the hill.

As we headed out of town towards the Pan-American highway, there were several water crossings … this was one of many sections that exemplified different paradigms of motorcycle riding. There were several fairly deep water crossings in this section. During the pre-run I saw Salvador go through one that looked to be particularly deep, yet just before reaching the water I passed a family of three, on a motorcycle, coming the opposite direction that had just gone through the same crossing.

Who knows, maybe it’s easier on a motorcycle. The busses seemed to have a hard time.

The remainder of the road out was a twisty hardpack dirt road that wound it’s way through some low-lying hills and eventually straightened out as it entered the flat plain where the Pan-American highway runs.

The highway itself was an experience. The road was in great shape from what I could tell – I’m guessing there’s not as much destructive large truck traffic as many of the Mexican highways I’m used to. Just think of a 2-lane country thoroughfare, add a few donkey carts, and you’re halfway there.

At this point we were headed to the oldest city in all of Latin America – Grenada. Along the way there were a few stops to be made however – first of which lay at the end of a ridiculously steep paver-stone road. We rode the bikes up the first part of the road and parked them in a lot where we would hop into the back of the chase truck for the ride up the rest of the hill.

This whole area is a coffee plantation – the plants growing right on the sides and flat areas of these steep hills. This is the first time I’ve ever had coffee beans right off the plant. As mentioned earlier, the road up this hill is fantastically steep – hearing the tires screech at every turn on the way up one isn’t surprised that there’s a waiting area along the way where men with 2-way radios check for clearance before anyone tries to head up or down the one way grade.

This “waiting” area also happens to be a mini-museum related to the coffee plantation. Entering the building there’s an assortment of fresh-brewed coffee to sample, historical photos & equipment, and a back porch with an incredible view of the valley below with workers processing coffee in the foreground.

Soon the roadway was clear and we got the green light to proceed up the hill. We were headed to the top of the mountain to hike around the rim of the volcano.

There are hikes of up to four hours you can do in this place exploring the trails – we were just getting a taste.

You can also hike … up.

Notice the tree in the photo below – there are a variety of other plants growing on the tree forming a mini-ecosystem. One particular tree along the hike has 35 different species of plant growing on it!

Grenada & the island grouping in the lake is visible in the valley below – this is an incredibly rare sight as where I’m standing is the “cloud forest” – normally completely enshrouded in mist.

This photo is taken from many miles away – you can see the cloud formation that sits atop the volcano virtually year-round.

This same section of trail we were on has the “fumaroles” where steam continues to rise from the volcanic fissures.

Once we had circumvented the volcano cauldron the adventure was by no means over. Driving back down the hill we stopped at another spot to get geared up for a different kind of descent. Rather than steep roads, this one began high above the forest floor in the treetops …

Sliding from platform to platform there was only the sound of your own zipline and the howler monkeys leaping around the same treetops … of course some of the participants were howling too…

The first leap of the initial platform is a very unique experience … even moreso if you do it upside down…

We all reached hard ground again safely, hopped back into the chase truck, and drove back to the bikes – where we discovered Craig’s bike had a flat. Rather than deal with fixing it at that moment, we only had a few miles of pavement to Granada, so Craig hopped on the back of Andy’s 950, we tossed the Yamaha into the chase truck (almost literally, those 2-strokes are light), and headed for town.

Next up … Granada