Riding out of Léon was refreshing after the chaos and subsequent laziness of the past week. We had not talked at all about quitting the ride (although we are still trying to figure out what our best move is in the coming months), but it was re-affirming to be back on the bikes. We are definitely a little more skittish and asked a lot more questions about the route. Happily, we were told on all occasions that we have nothing to worry about and enjoyed a nice morning before making our first stop in La Paz Centro (The Peace Center) for a cold drink.
The day’s ride was fairly unremarkable: flat and full of pasturelands. There were, however, a few highlights that made it interesting. We got our first glimpse of Lake Managua from a little overview on the side of the highway and Volcan Momotombo was a presence for most of the morning. But we got really excited when we found out that this particular stretch of road is famous for a local specialty called quesillo. Quesillo in Nicaragua is not to be confused with the delicious Guatemalan string cheese or the sweet cheesecake-like dessert found in El Salvador and Venezuela, both of which share the same name. In Nicaragua, the word refers to a savory snack, similar to a Mexican quesadilla; a soft white cheese is melted between two small tortillas, then the whole thing is drenched in sour cream and topped with sautéed onions. Not for the faint of heart.
The proprietor of the cafe in La Paz recommended a spot particular spot in Nagarote, Quesillo Gourmet, which was helpful since it seemed like everyone in town was in on the game. He also told us not to miss the local drink, tiste, a incongruously delicious blend of corn and cacao. Ever the dutiful tourists, we tried the quesillo triple (that is triple the cheese) and got both the usual cacao (made with milk and without corn) and the tiste (mixed with water, but thickened by the corn). Shockingly, we were able to get back on the bikes and continue the ride to Managua.
I can’t be sure whether my sluggishness was due to our hefty lunch, our extended time off the bikes, or just the rolling hills that began to appear as we approached the capital, but the tail end of the ride was kind of a drag for me. Our map told us that we could skirt the heart of the city but there was no shortage of traffic as we entered the great, hilly sprawl that is Managua. With Monica’s great directions, we managed to find her neighborhood pretty easily and, with assistance from some confused security guards and less confused gardeners, we found ourselves admitted to a little slice of heaven right in the middle of Managua.
We were greeted by Monica’s daughter, Lauren, and quickly made ourselves at home showering, doing laundry, and sitting down for a home-cooked meal in the evening when Monica came home. Monica and her family are Americans who have been living abroad in Central and South America for several decades and are a haven of hospitality for Peace Corps volunteers, Foreign Service workers, or other wandering souls who find themselves in need of some respite from the outside world. We met Monica’s son, DJ, through mutual friends during our stay in New Orleans, and made plans to visit her in Managua before we had even left the States. It turned out to be a messed-up kind of serendipity that we were only days away from Managua when we were robbed in Honduras. But it gave us a comfortable place to recompose ourselves and try to replace what was lost, although that turned out to be easier in theory than in fact.
The first order of business the following morning was to get visa extensions. Nicaragua is a member of the C4 agreement (along with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), which allows citizens of the four participating countries to move freely across borders. It also means that travelers can use one visa to visit all four countries, but are given the standard 90 days to complete their travel. We entered Guatemala in early August and didn’t exit until October, so by the time we made it to Nicaragua, we were running out of time. This worked out nicely, as Managua was the only capital city that we planned to visit in all of Central America. We thought we’d have to do a lot of fancy footwork to get around town and deal with the headache of the Immigration Office, but it turned out that there is a satellite Immigration Office inside the MetroCenter Mall, only 10 minutes from Monica’s house! Talk about one-stop shopping!
We had a few hoops to jump through to get the visas. They didn’t want to give us extensions so far away from the expiration date (10 days) and told us to come back a day or two before we needed a new one. We didn’t want to cut our time so close, especially since we were on bicycles, and weren’t sure if an extension is automatically granted or if we’d find ourselves hightailing it to get out of the country on expired visas. Once we convinced the woman in charge to give us the extensions anyway, she told us that she couldn’t do it because R’s passport didn’t have a clear date of entry into Guatemala. Anyone who has ever had a passport stamped, especially in third-world countries, can attest that little care is often given to the stamping of passports. Faint ink, incomplete impressions, and outright omission of stamps is not unusual. So R’s stamp did not bear a sufficiently clear date of entry into Guatemala for her, even though it doesn’t take too much creativity to make out the AUG 11 stamp, especially considering that it was right next to the exit stamp for Mexico that bore the same date. We solved the problem by going to a different immigration agent, who issued the extension without fuss.
The rest of the day was a bust, in terms of shopping. The replacement iPod for R cost around $700 (compared to $300 in the US) and we decided that we couldn’t justify that kind of expense. We figured that we could have one shipped from the US, but Monica shot that down, telling us that customs would hold onto any electronics shipped from the US and not release them until a tax of up to 50% was paid. So, we went back to the house and passed the remainder of the day lounging by the pool. It was hard.