One Day In Nicaragua: Self-Deportation, An Active Volcano, A Dead Boa, A Dip In A Lagoon And An Art Deal Gone Bad

Stepping over a dead boa constrictor with flies buzzing around it wasn’t what I had in mind when I hired a guy named Carlos to take us to see Volcán Masaya, a national park in Nicaragua where you can drive right up to the crater of an active volcano. But when we piled into his Toyota Corolla on a sizzling hot morning in late February, Carlos wanted us to see much more than just the smoldering volcano.

“I’m going to take you to a farm and then we’re going to visit a mask maker, before we hit the craft market, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano,” he said, before we’d even had a chance to test his air conditioning or fasten our seatbelts.

We wanted to see the craft market in Masaya, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it. That uncertainty grew when we pulled up in front of what seemed to be a dilapidated farm as a host of mangy looking dogs serenaded us with howls and barks. A young man in a dirty, pale-blue T-shirt led us into some caged enclosures to look at iguanas and Carlos asked me if I’d ever eaten one. I have not.


iguana“It takes like pork,” he said. “You put it in a tortilla and serve it with a little salt and lemon juice. You want to try it?”

I didn’t but I’d seen Andrew Zimmern feast on iguana, porcupine and other exotic delicacies while filming his Nicaragua episode back in 2009 and was curious where he went. Carlos said that there was only one restaurant that had retained a permit to cook iguanas and it was in Masaya, near where we were going.

Carlos and the farmhand showed us some turtles, lizards and bunnies before leading us into a caged enclosure to see some boa constrictors. I assumed they would be inside cages but as we stepped inside the enclosure, we nearly tripped over a dead boa, whose carcass was a target for swarms of dozens of hungry winged creatures.

“When did he die?” I asked Carlos.

“Hard to say,” he said as the farmhand began poking a stick under some empty shelving units behind us. “But there are four other boas in here, don’t worry.”

“Four other boas?” my wife said, grabbing our little boys, ages 3 and 5. “Where?”

“They could be anywhere in here,” Carlos said.

And with that, we were ready to exit, but the farmhand seized a massive boa by the neck and we couldn’t help but stop to stare at the darn thing. It was hissing and coiling itself around the guy’s arms, clearly pissed off. For all we knew, it probably killed the dead boa in the corner, so after a few minutes we beat a retreat back to the car.

The visit to the mask maker felt safer and, to me, more interesting. I’m usually leery of these types of stops on a tour because typically the point is to bring you to a place where you will hopefully buy something, securing a commission for your guide in the process. The whole spectacle makes me feel like a piece of meat on a hook in a slaughterhouse, but in this case, it was just an old man sitting in the courtyard of his home with no shirt on making colorful, painted masks with his own hands. He made no attempt to sell us anything and seemed please to have us wandering around his home, snapping photos and asking ignorant questions.

The craft market at Masaya, built in 1891 and refurbished in 1997, is the best place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs in Nicaragua. There are dozens of vendors and if you enjoy haggling, this is the place for you. I sparred with a 4-foot-tall woman who called me “my love” and “my dear” over a painting I wanted but ended up paying very close to her original asking price because she correctly sensed that I really wanted the thing and used that advantage to crush me like a bug.

After a delicious lunch and a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, a terrific swimming hole near Masaya, Carlos told us about his U.S. immigration woes. When he was 12, his mother arranged to send him to the U.S. by purchasing fake identity documents to make it appear as though he was the child of a Nicaraguan woman who had a better chance of getting a U.S. tourist visa than she did. At 22, he paid an unscrupulous immigration attorney $10,000 to try to legalize his status but it didn’t work and he eventually returned to Nicaragua. Now, at 40, he felt like his chance to live in the States had come and gone.

The Masaya volcano has to be one of just a handful in the world where you can drive right up to its craters. The volcano has erupted 18 times since the early 16th Century with the last major eruption going down in 1772, but there was some volcanic activity in April of last year that forced the closure of the park for several weeks. Prior to 1529, locals threw virgins and children into the volcano as sacrifices, and during the Somoza dictatorship in the ’70s, dissidents were also supposedly tossed into the volcano.

We hiked around the Santiago crater and although I appreciated the view and the novelty of standing right on the age of the smoldering volcano, I felt dizzy after a half hour and couldn’t help but assume that in the U.S., tourists wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the crater of an active volcano.




On the way back to the hotel, Carlos regaled us with stories about tourists he’s guided and I asked him if he wanted to see tourism boom in Nicaragua.




“We want more tourists,” he said. “But not at the expense of our culture and our traditions. We’ve got to keep what we have.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Moments of Serendipitous Travel Bliss In Nicaragua

fat man getting haircut outdoors in nicaragua ometepeI was sitting on the Che Guevara ferry, which was bouncing over choppy waters in Lake Cocibolca on the way back from Ometepe island in Nicaragua, when I heard a sweet melody drifting slowly through the humid night air like a message in a bottle floating in the lake. I peaked around the corner of the boat to investigate and stopped dead in my tracks to listen to a young man and his grandmother singing a beautiful, melancholy Christian song.

They were holding hands as the boat swayed backed and forth and I was struck by how unselfconscious the young man was. One could ride planes, trains, boats and buses for a lifetime in the United States and not come across a young man holding hands with his grandmother and singing an impromptu song for no reason other than fun, but here they were.

I listened to their song and then introduced myself. The young man’s name was Janier Mairena. He was 25 and from a town called Altagracia on Ometepe. His grandmother’s name was Maria Auxiliadova Mairena. After chatting with them, I went back to sit with my family and realized that those kind of moments of serendipitous bliss, bordering on rapture, are why I love to travel. I knew I’d never forget them or their sad song but I wanted to share it with others, so I went back over to them and asked them how they’d feel about singing the song again, this time while I filmed them (see video).


At first, they just laughed and seemed confused by my request.

“I’m going to put it on YouTube,” I told them. “Give me your email address, Janier, and I’ll send it to you.”

But Janier had no email address and wasn’t familiar with YouTube. Ometepe is a beautiful, but poor and undeveloped island that is about to get an airport. I wondered if in five or ten year’s time any young people on the island will still be without email and unfamiliar with YouTube. Janier gave me the address of his church on Ometepe, saying it was all he had, and then he and his grandma happily sang the song again, just because I asked for the encore.

A few weeks before traveling to Nicaragua, I interviewed Amber Dobrzensky, the author of the “Moon Guide to Nicaragua,” and she mentioned that one of the things she loves about the country is its unpredictability. After visiting the country in late February for the first time, I now know exactly what she meant. These were a few moments of unexpected delight that I’d like to share.

ometepe outdoor haircutOne of the pleasures of visiting a country like Nicaragua is that you see things that you’d never see in the U.S. I could drive around Chicago from now until doomsday but I don’t think I’d ever see a man with a nice, big round belly getting an outdoor haircut with his shirt off. So when I saw just that by the side of the road in Ometepe, I asked our cab driver to pull over so I could meet and photograph the guy.

The big man, his barber and the bystanders had every right to wonder who the hell I was and I’m not sure I would have agreed to a photo if I was in this guy’s situation, but he didn’t hesitate to give his consent. I was greeted as a welcome curiosity on an otherwise dull Monday morning rather than an annoyance.




The man was sitting outside a humble home next to a huge pile of freshly picked plantains and when his neighbors got wind of what was going on, a few came out of their humble homes to tease him.

My Spanish is pretty rusty but I recognized that they were calling him gordo (fat). I think that one woman said something on the lines of, “The tourist wants to take a picture of you because you are so fat.” But instead of taking offense, the man started laughing and then I started laughing uncontrollably and everyone shared in the fun.

breakdancing in nicaraguaAnd on my last night in Granada, I stumbled across two very different musical talents that surprised and delighted me. The first was a group of guys breakdancing on the street. When I first saw them, from a distance, I was surprised – breakdancing? People are still doing that? But when I stopped to watch these kids I was amazed.

They were unbelievably good and the show just kept going on and on and I couldn’t fathom how they weren’t collapsing in exhaustion. I had the feeling that if these kids were in the U.S., they’d probably have their own show on MTV or, at the least, would be invited to perform at big time venues and on TV, but here, all they could do was pass the hat, and since Nicaragua is a poor country, very few people dug deep to recognize their talents.




My last meal in the country was at a place called El Camello and the food was good but the live music was even better. They had a singer/guitarist who had a great voice but whose passion and fire were even more impressive. I felt that if he lived in L.A., he’d probably already have a recording contract and groupies. He was putting every ounce of his soul into the music and when he stopped by our table during a break to ask for tips, I understood why.

His name was Luis Rolando Casamalhuapa and he was extremely grateful for the tip we gave him.

“I hate having to go around basically begging for money, but I really need to unfortunately,” he said.

He explained that he got into a terrible car accident in his native El Salvador that left him in a coma for more than three months.

“I was really lucky I didn’t die,” he said. “But my teeth were totally smashed out and I need all kinds of dental work.”

Luis said that he came to Nicaragua because the extensive dental work he needed was cheaper there but he was still a bit short and was playing in restaurants and teaching English in order to try to earn the rest of the money he needed. When I’m in the U.S., and someone approaches me with a sad story in need of money, the cynic in me often doubts if they are telling the truth, but in this case I believed every word, even though I couldn’t give Luis the $600 he needed to get his dental work done (nor did he ask for it).

All of the people described in this story touched me in some way – because of their sincerity, their sense of humor, their talent, or their resilience in the face of disaster. And the moments I shared with them, as our paths crossed, are what I’ll treasure most about my visit to Nicaragua. Go to Nicaragua and experience it for yourself. They’ll sing for you; they’ll breakdance for you; hell, they’ll even let you take their photo while they’re getting haircuts with their shirts off.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Doomsday Bicycle Tour Lets You Ride To The End Of The World

Tour d'Afrique's Doomsday Tour of La Ruta Maya What do you want to be doing when the world ends in December? If your answer is exploring Mayan temples ruins, gazing upon volcanoes and waterfalls, and basking in Central America‘s warm autumn sun all from the seat of your mountain bike, then Tour d’Afrique has a pretty epic tour for you to consider.

Tour d’Afrique’s Doomsday Ride is a 2,300-kilometer (1,429-mile) transcontinental bike expedition along the “Ruta Maya” timed to coincide with the end of the world according to the Mayan Calendar. The trek begins in San Jose, Costa Rica, on November 17, 2012, and follows a winding, but well-scouted, route through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. It concludes at the Lamani Mayan Temple outside of Belize City, Belize, on December 21, 2012 – the supposed date of the apocalypse.

Along the way, participants will get to check out Mayan ruins at Tikal and Copan; the great colonial architecture in the city of Granada, Nicaragua’s erstwhile capital; and villages, markets, rainforests, volcanoes, crater lakes and many other slices of life and nature off of the tourist track. If you can’t take off for the full five weeks of the expedition, Tour d’Afrique offers three shorter sections that average between 10 days and two weeks.

To learn more about the tour, the route, rates and schedules, check out Tour d’Afrique’s La Ruta Maya – the Doomsday Ride Blog.