Nov. 15, 2010
What an awesome trip. Travelled with Jack and Raymond Sandstrom. Raymond is 67 and
Margarita on the Casada in Grenada
loves the young ladies. He puts Jack to shame. He has real estate interests in the States that provide a nice monthly income, plus a rental property of 12-15 beds in Jaco, so money is not really a problem. I was easily the lowest-income guy in this pack. Raymond has been going to Nicaragua for years, every three months to satisfy his passport requirements. Jack went to Nicaragua six months ago to get his passport stamped and said he likes it better than Panama. I, of course, didn’t have to go since I’m waiting on my residency application approval. I just had to show a document to that effect.
The trip began when Jack picked me up at 5 a.m. I packed everything in my small backpack, enough for 4 days away. Shorts, t-shirts, Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops (wore my sneakers), underwear, toiletries, and, of course, my camera. Raymond was already in the vehicle. We then headed off to pick up our driver, Gilbert, who would take us to Miramar, where we would board a bus. Gilbert ferries Jack’s restaurant clients up and down the mountain during the season and speaks excellent English. Jack was leaving him his Nissan Pathfinder to get some maintenance work done. The ride to Miramar was about 45 minutes. We were early, so we had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the bus stop.
We had purchased reserve seats clustered near one another. The bus was full, with mostly Latinos and a few gringos. Once underway, a rather robust guy started coming down the narrow aisles with two coolers, one for food and the other for drinks. It was our very own stewardess! The bus had coverings over the windows between us and the driver, so we could not see where we were going. All I could see as we careened at what seemed like breakneck speed along the narrow, two-lane road were the trees along the roadside, and occasionally the fields beyond. I tried to sleep (since I had been awake since 2:30 in anticipation) but the bus was rocking and rolling too much for that.
Our destination was Grenada, about two hours across the border. More later about Grenada.
We were given the standard forms I’ve filled out when entering the U.S. from overseas trips or when visiting other countries. At the border, they collected our passports and a $13 entry fee. All I had was a $20 and I got my change an hour later after we had gone through immigration. There were long lines of trucks at the border waiting for entry but the buses can go ahead of them. They dropped us in an area where they checked bags first. We had to take our bags off the bus, put them on a long outside table, and wait for someone to come by, look at our papers and let us reload onto the bus. They didn’t even open my backpack. Darn! However, we couldn’t get on the bus right away as they needed about half an hour to check everybody’s passport. While we waited, Jack and I went to the duty-free shop 20 yards away to get a bottle for the weekend. Premium dark rum for $9 a bottle. A liter of Jack for $28. To get back on the bus, we waited for a Tico to read names from each passport, which was then handed to the individual who then boarded.
The bus then went a short distance to the immigration office. Here we got in line to have our passports stamped and then reboarded the bus. I would have been totally lost without my friends, although sometimes I got the impression that the process even confused them (it apparently changes all the time).
The scenery once inside Nicaragua changed from jungle and rural huts to lots of farmland – bananas, fruit orchards, sugar cane, cattle. The cattle looked in better shape than in Costa Rica. We passed by a number of volcanoes off to the east. As we got closer to Grenada, we could see two volcanoes rising seemingly out of the plains – however, these were in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.
Grenada was not what I was expecting. It is a very clean, colorful town. About a half-hour south of Managua, the capital, this is a second home to many of the wealthier people who work in the capital. Building exteriors were architecturally interesting and brightly painted. There were a number of centuries-old buildings that had been restored. The town has been burned down by invaders several times over the last 500 years – and rebuilt. It’s location on the lake (and the low costs in Nicaragua) makes it a prime destination for gringos, especially Europeans.
A word about costs
Nicaragua is much less expensive than Costa Rica. For example, the hostel I stayed in in Quepos when I first arrived charged me $25 for a small room. Grenada has a lot of hostels and one down the street from our hotel was charging $7 a night for the dormitory and $15 for private rooms. I saw another advertised cheaper than that. I looked inside a couple of hostels and they looked like nice hotels in the lobby. Nicaragua is a good place to visit to buy native-made items, such as pottery, leather and wooden items. My hotel room cost me $73 total for three nights.
Once we arrived in Grenada, Jack and I walked the three blocks to the hotel. Raymond took a cab because he had an extra bag he brought along to carry the purchases he intended to make. The hotel is called el Club, I guess because the front part is a bar, with an overflow patio area right behind. There are about 15 rooms with baths, a typical-sized hotel in Grenada. My room had A/C, a nice queen-sized bed, TV, closet and bath. The maid came in every day to clean and leave fresh towels. The only problem I had was the suicide shower did not heat the water, so I had to take cold showers. Another problem the other guys had was the loud disco music from the bar deep into the night. For me, once my head hit the pillow, it was lights out. Never heard the music. A nice feature at the hotel was a free breakfast – eggs, toast, ham and cheese slices, orange juice, coffee, jam and butter. That’s all they served; no menu. You just asked for breakfast and got what they brought. The first day the egg was scrambled; the second day hard-boiled. Raymond and I would save some of the food to make ham and cheese sandwiches for someone on the street. The café, by the way, was excellent, the best I’ve had down here. But you have to be careful to ask for it “café con leche aparte” or else what you get is a cup of half coffee and half milk. Aparte means on the side or separate.
Like most Latino towns, this one centers around a large square, where you can buy jewelry (I did buy a few things) and trinkets, where you can hire a horse-drawn carriage for a tour, and where you will be approached by a number of beggars. Our hotel was about 6 blocks away from the square and an easy walk down a narrow, paved street past hotels, hostels, a bank and girls on the corners. The square has several monuments and on one end there are several large buildings that almost look unoccupied, as well as a large yellow church. The church is where the Casada begins.
This is, of course, the word for the typical Costa Rican meal so I don’t know what the connotation is here. This was the fun place to be late in the afternoon or at night. About 4 blocks long, with a promenade down the middle and no traffic. There were American-style bars/restaurants here, continental, Mexican, Italian, Chinese and local fare. At night, there was always a group of kids who performed street dancing for tips. People were selling stuff everywhere: girls with baskets of cigarettes/candy; boys with sunglasses, different snacks, ice cream. We were constantly shooing them away. And there were a number of children begging for food.
The three of us hung together Thursday. We walked around town a bit to take care of some errands (I went to the bank to cash in some Travelers’ Checks since my ATM has been cancelled due to someone using my number and charging a bunch of stuff. Paid a 5% “commission” to have them exchanged.) and did a stroll down the local shopping district, basically a one-street shopping mall, with stores and stands along both sides selling clothes, CDs, food, and with trucks, cabs, other vehicles and an army of motorcycles chugging along the one lane. The scene reminded me of the crowded bazaars I’ve experienced in China, Hong Kong and Thailand. We would come back here Saturday where I bought a few gifts. A word of caution: I learned in China that eating food from the street vendors can be dicey and had mentioned this to Jack when he bought a bag of juice from the street. It was a cloudy white liquid, put in a clear bag, straw inserted and the top tied up. He didn’t like it and the next day was experiencing stomach distress
At dinner, Raymond was frantically working his cell phones (he brought three, one for CR, one for Nicaragua and a spare). He’s got a lot of ladies’ numbers, yet he still tries to meet every cute lady he meets on the street. Never can have too many options, I guess. He can get way over the top in his flirting but he gets away with it. At the very least, he was having a lot of fun. Sometime during our dinner visit to the Casada (where we had Mexican fare) Raymond made plans for Friday with a girl selling candy and Jack arranged for a woman to visit the hotel the next day to sell him some mariachis for his restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, we met the usual assortment of girls wanting to go with us. Two of us went back alone.
We had decided to take a day trip, hiring a driver, William, that Raymond used on previous trips. He agreed to a $20 fee to drive us a half hour north to the town of Masaya, where Raymond wanted to pick up some pottery/vases for his rental units. Since we added on another side trip, we ended up paying him $30 total, gas included, for a half day of personalized cabbie service.
First, however, was breakfast and a visit from Jack’s mariachi lady, who came with two bags of hand-painted and designed instruments, at $5 a pair. (We found them later on the square for $3 a pair.) She even carved “Jack” on two of them in big bold letters. He bought five pair and she gave him a sixth. She was due to give birth in 8 days but was working the Casada in the hot sun the day before, and had a great disposition despite the hardship. She came early to complete the sale, obviously not wanting to lose out on the money with the baby due, her third and last.
The first stop in Masaya was to a market with a number of shops selling leather goods, pottery, ceramics, wooden arts, clothes, shoes, etc. Didn’t buy anything here although, in retrospect, I wish I had – I found some nice sandals for $2 and a beautiful leather woman’s purse for $13 but didn’t buy them. We decided then to go to a less-touristy market. This one definitely was for locals, not gringos, and we stood out quite a bit. Jack made us stand out even more by his playful nature. He tried to get a picture of every other vendor, with either he or I in the shot. We left a lot of smiling faces and laughing people in our wake. This market was almost dizzying in its size and its maze. We walked a narrow path between stalls of every conceivable local food, cheap clothing, cheap shoes, etc. This is where the locals shop. There were stalls with live chickens, where they would kill and clean the bird right then and there for you. There were stalls where meat or fish was being carved up in the hot sun, and where people hovered over their goods, constantly swishing the flies away. We walked around an empty meat butchering area where I got some excellent photos. Managed to find a nice blouse for a gift. We kind of got lost in here but eventually made our way out, found William, and were on our way to pottery city.
It’s not actually called that – it’s just a single road we drove to outside of Masaya, where there were a number of shops selling primarily pottery goods. I’m guessing there is a source of clay in the area that attracts the artisans here. This is really professional stuff that sells for twice the price in Costa Rica and probably at least three times the price in the U.S. Raymond had a specific store he wanted to check out, which we found. They had a single room with pottery of all kinds almost to the ceiling. One of the things Jack wanted to do was to see where they made the pottery. Turns out these shops had their own rudimentary pottery manufacturing rooms downstairs or in back of the shops. This store’s pottery was made in the basement and the owner happily took us to see. There were three women working on pots in various stages of completion, a large pile of wood, a kiln, and two foot-powered pottery wheels. Back upstairs, Raymond found two large pots he wanted for about $140 and I found a small cylinder-shaped piece of pottery art for $20. Raymond eventually would buy five pieces. We then headed back to Grenada.
Once back, we were hungry so headed to the Casada, where we ate at a sports bar. My quesadilla appetizer was a full meal at about $6. Also had the native beer, Victoria, which is quite good and only 80 cents a bottle (in the bar). By now, Raymond had his plan for the evening – pick up the candy girl at 5 and then later head out to the discos along the lake, a couple miles away. He was going to meet another lady he knew previously there for some dancing and whatever. Raymond loves to dance.
After we rested up a bit at the hotel (and met the candy girl as she was leaving, Raymond lavishing praise after she left about how nice she was), Jack and I took off for the local pool hall, which we had located that afternoon. It has 7 regular tables and one snooker table. The place was packed in the afternoon and more so in the evening. However, they cleared a table for the paying gringos and we played for about an hour. Raymond came by to watch for awhile. There was one table I really wanted to get on, although the locals probably would have handed me my lunch. It was obviously the table where the “players” gathered, as it had several guys waiting in line to play. People came into this place with their bicycles, parked them inside along the walls and played.
We then headed down to the Casada and Raymond said his goodbyes and headed off to the discos. Remember, this is a 67-year-old. Jack and I settled down outside one restaurant and had a giant margarita. We then had some pizza for dinner while watching all the fun on the boardwalk. Finally, we decided to grab a cab and find Raymond, which we did right away after a $4 cab ride. The disco was open air and half full, with a band. Raymond was sitting with his date and three of her friends, all drinking courtesy of Raymond, very typical of the culture. He danced with several people while we had a drink, and Jack took my camera to have some fun. Jack and I then left Raymond there and found a cab outside with two women in the front. They took us the back way back to the hotel, which got Jack a little paranoid about driving down dark streets he had never been on. They got us safely to our hotel for half the earlier fare we paid.