I flew down to Managua, Nicaragua on December 17th and hopped a van to the small, Pacific coast town of San Juan del Sur, where I’d booked a condo for a month. My plan was to chill out in that beach town for a week or so, talk to some people about things I should do while I was here, and travel around a little bit to see a few of the sights in Nicaragua and close-by Costa Rica. As usual, I traveled solo and I fully intended to make a much better effort at meeting people than I usually did while traveling, especially because I was going to be gone for such a long period of time and didn’t want the risk of going more crazy than I already am during my first trip to the Third World.
I don’t speak any Spanish. The van driver that picked me up at the airport, Manuel, didn’t speak much English. As we waited for the other passenger scheduled for pick up to arrive, I asked Manuel how far it was to San Juan del Sur. He said about 120 kilometers. I asked him how long it would take to get there. He said about two and a half hours. Hmmmm. I’m not much of a math guy, but that translated to about 50 kilometers an hour. I think that’s about 35 miles per hour. I probably should have been clued in at that point.
The roads here are horrible. There is no way to sugarcoat it. Not bad. Horrible. Most of them are barely roads.
The other passenger arrived about a half hour after me. He was a Chinese guy in from San Francisco here to teach at a local yoga academy in San Juan del Sur for about six weeks and he told me the classes were free. He’d gotten back from Tibet a few months ago. Made for some reasonably interesting conversation during the long van ride. I resolved to add some yoga classes to my previous intention of learning how to surf on this trip.
Not more than a few miles outside of town, we started down a highway and let’s just say that there was some pavement between the potholes. I looked over the driver’s shoulder. We were making about 30 kilometers per hour. I figured there that the Manuel’s estimate of two and a half hours was just his way of being nice to foreigners, instead saying it would take four or five hours to get there and starting your trip off on the wrong foot.
After an hour and a half or so, we actually did hit some pretty good road and managed to get it all the way up to 70 km/h or so in short spurts. I started to have some hope for a three-hour trip.
I told the driver, in that slow and loud, annoying way that we all speak, enunciating every syllable, when the other person doesn’t speak the language you are speaking, “nice road.” He replied, “American road.” I knew Americans hadn’t had anything to do with building this road, but I’ll take the goodwill however it comes.
Vendantin, the yoga guy, spoke a bit of Spanish and also had a hand-held translation device. He’d occasionally ask Manuel a question for the both of us. As we drove down the better highway, we noticed in spots there were kids standing beside the road with shovels in their hands. As our van would slow down behind traffic, the kids would approach the van and ask for money.
Vandantin asked Manuel what was up with the kids. He said that the kids filled the potholes and wanted to be tipped by the passing cars for performing the road maintenance. We began to notice that the stretches of road with the kids generally had the potholes filled with dirt from the side of the road and the stretches without the kids were much worse. He and I lamented that we hadn’t changed any of our money at the airport and couldn’t tip the kids (I didn’t have anything smaller than a $20 on me – which I later found out was the equivalent of about 3-4 days of wages for most Nicaraguans).
After doing a small survey of the roads on this trip – I think the government might ought to think about hiring more of these kids.
The good road was pretty busy, going both ways. I had no idea how these kids actually managed to get out to the middle of the road to fill the potholes without getting killed. Passing anyone in our van was difficult, given the amount of traffic, but that didn’t stop the big trucks.
As we continued down the good road, big 18 wheeled trucks would occasionally pass us and cut right in front of us, and our driver would have to slam on the brakes to give them room to merge in front of us.
And while we are at it, let me tell you that “lane of traffic” is also a relative term. Pretty much you just drive to avoid the potholes. If that meant on your side of the road, great. If that meant on the other side of the road, fine. If that meant on the shoulder area or in the front yard of some shack, it happens.
I stopped counting the number of times that we got reasonably close to hitting another car or truck because were in the other lane of the road dodging potholes on our side of the road in the face of oncoming traffic. Fortunately the roads that you had to do this on were so bad that neither car would be traveling fast enough to hurt you too bad when you wrecked.
Nighttime travel didn’t seem well advised. I made a note to myself.
So, back to the 18-wheelers. First, they were the main reason that the roads were horrible. Basically, the roads were built for normal cars and trucks and between the long rainy seasons, the corrupt and broke government and these long-haul trucks, the roads were just going to hell. Secondly, they do whatever they want on the road. Vendantin translated from the driver: “apparently the road rules is that big is the rule. If you are big, you rule.”
We pulled into the regional capital of the area I was going to, Rivas, after about two and a half or three hours on the road and stopped to get some fruit at a local fruit and vegetable stand. I’d seen on my map that Rivas didn’t appear that far from San Juan del Sur and asked the driver how far it was. He said about 20 kilometers. I asked about the road from this point in. He shook his head and said “worst.”
Not sure how it could be worse than before.
‘O how little did I know on day one of my trip.
Unlike the previous stretch of bad road, where there was at least some pavement between the potholes, this road was about 75% or more just dirt. Later, in town, some local told me that the road had actually been a paved road four or five years ago, but it was almost impossible to tell that driving down it on this trip. There were occasional parts of the road where it appeared there was a few hundred feet of pavement, but it was tough to recognize as such and more importantly, those stretches were few and far between. Walking would have been faster than driving parts of the road.
At one point a guy on a bike — not a motorcycle, a bike — passed us – frankly, he blew our doors off. . . and the rider looked to be about 10 years old. . . pedaling up a slight hill.
We finally pulled into town and he dropped me off at the place I’m staying in, which is great. Here’s the view from the balcony on the 2nd floor.
Yea – the trip was interesting, but the 1st beer on the balcony didn’t suck too badly. And later getting to meet the craziest person I have ever met…. and nights of iPod battles… this place is great. And although I absolutely adored San Juan del Sur and its odd set of residents, my good friend Ayngelina had a bad experience there — robbed in Nicaragua.