Sunday, April 24, 2016

Matagalpa: Hiking the Highlands, Part 1

I enjoyed two great hikes yesterday and today. I finally found the greenery I was looking for and the weather has been great, just a bit cooler than a summer day back home.

Yesterday I followed one of the hiking guides I picked up at Centro Girasol for the Ruta de la Guerra 1978, "the road the guerrilleros used to escape the ruthless attacks from the National Guard". The guide is basically a narrative describing the route with a very rough sketch depicting it relative to major landmarks.

The hike started at the plaza Parque Dario in and then up a very steep road leading out of town. On my way I was greeted in English by a guy working on a house remodel. We chatted for a bit and he asked me if I was going up the mountain. I said yes and he asked, "By yourself?", to which I answered affirmatively. "Aren't you afraid?", he asked with an incredulous look, as if I were going on a day hike through the ISIS caliphate in Syria. That got me a bit worried, but I responded, "Why would I be? The people are nice here. And I'm don't have very much on me to lose." He smiled, but still with a sort of questioning look. Not exactly comforting, but onward I proceeded.

The road out of town became unpaved and I soon reached a guarded gate with a sign Ruta de la Cruz. This was not mentioned in the guide. I showed the guard my map and he told me I was going the right way. Ruta de la Cruz leads up to a huge cross and statue of Jesus at the top of a peak called Cerro Apante.  I needed to go around this peak, not up to it, I figured I would be able to divert at some point. The wide, unpaved road is closed to traffic and has big, rather elegant, monuments showing Jesus carrying his cross spaced about every 300 yards. I figure that this route is used for religious processions most or all of which I imagine involve the participants hauling crosses uphill.

I soon came to the diversion I was looking for, a crossroad described in the guide at La Providencia, a hacienda. However, I was a bit puzzled by the signage at the gate in front of me. One sign says, "No entry, only authorized persons permitted." Another says, "No charge for entry...don't give money to anyone who asks for it". The guide says, "At the entrance of La Providencia, go straight through the gate...if you can!"

So, now after being passively warned of the dangers of hiking alone, I am confronted with the possibility of trespassing onto private land, no doubt patrolled by armed guerrilleros who are still mad at the Yanquis and their starving, rabid guard dogs. I was feeling a bit paranoid, but mustered up the courage to push through a small opening next to the gate and then walk, very, very quietly past the farm buildings so as not to wake the guerrilleros and their hounds.

My paranoia diminished as the scenery along the trail transitioned to beautiful flowering coffee bushes and banana plants all under the partial shade of tall trees with lush mountains in the background. Beautiful. The air was really fragrant, too. It must have been from the coffee blooms.

I found the turnoff to ascend Cerro Buena Vista, one of the tallest peaks in the area and started a steep uphill climb through dense forest on a narrow trail. The trail led to a large grassy clearing and then up a final climb to a tall radio antenna. When I reached the antenna, a diesel generator was running, tended to by a young guy who was washing his clothes when I arrived. I said hello and he came over to greet me. My original plan was to stop for lunch at this peak. The drone of the diesel put me off a bit, but I didn't want to appear unfriendly. So I decided to share my modest lunch with Simonte, which he seemed to really appreciate and enjoy. He showed me around the antenna, which relays radio communications. Not much to see, but Simonte had a lot to say about the whole installation, the surrounding area, different trails one can take, etc. I don't think he gets a lot of visitors.

I hiked back down the peak and rejoined the Ruta de la Guerra loop that would lead me back to town.  As I passed by other side of La Providencia and neared its exit, my uneasiness about trespassing had just about left me. It returned quickly and intensely as a security guard wearing a crisp blue Providencia uniform and carrying a sawed-off pump action shotgun approached me coming from the opposite direction on the trail. I smiled, said hello and figured I would speak French if he stopped me for questioning. But he just uttered a barely audible "hola" in return and paid no attention to me at all. As I exited through a gate similar to the one I had entered with the same signage, I concluded that the "no entry" restriction applied only to the improved hacienda property, not the surrounding land which is designated as a nature preserve on maps.

I walked the last few miles back into town along a gravel road. It was hot and I was out of water and thirsty. The thought of a cold Victoria Classica quickened my steps.  When I got back to the plaza, I found a bar crowded with townsmen sharing big bottles of cold beer at their tables. I found a seat for myself at a bar along a front window and ordered my own big Victoria. I had just started drinking it when a young guy told me in Spanish that he liked my hat. He wore a baseball cap sideways, a thick metal chain around his neck, an athletic shirt and loose, long red shorts. To me, it looked like gang member or wannabe garb. I thanked him and he repeated his compliments in English and invited me to join him and his friend at their table. His friend was more conservatively dressed and had a pleasant face but looked like he had been drinking for a while. After being by myself for several days, I welcomed the chance to socialize. Walter introduced himself and his friend, Josue and the three of us set to talking and enjoying our beer.

I have long suffered from the common weakness of becoming fast friends with strangers when I'm drinking and having a good time. Even though Walter was loud and bombastic, I was enjoying myself and Josue was quiet and very pleasant, though I think a bit embarrassed by Walter.  I bought a couple more big bottles of beer. I think Walter ordered one for a friend at another table. After about an hour, Josue left to catch a bus back to where he attended university. Walter and I continued to talk. I bought another bottle of beer. Then Walter said he had to go, to catch the last bus back to where he lived. I knew I was being stuck with paying for all the beers we drank, but was okay with that. Until I asked for the bill. Crap, Walter and Josue must have been drinking steadily for at least a couple of hours before I arrived. Being in Nicaragua where beer is pretty cheap, it wasn't a huge amount of money, but it made me feel pretty stupid and taken advantage of. I walked back to my hotel feeling pretty low, but then shook myself out of it by considering the expense as "tuition".

It isn't the first time I have invested in my education in this manner. Many years ago, Carol, my ex-, used to shudder at the thought of leaving me on my own when we were traveling, as my trusting, friendly nature often resulted in unplanned depletion of our joint travel funds. She will no doubt get a nostalgic kick out of this story when she reads this. Clearly I am still at some risk in some situations in the absence of adult supervision.

This all comes on right on the heels of my Mom sending me an email in which she expresses concern about the frequency in which beer is mentioned in my blog posts. Now this story...Don't worry Mom, I'm way too narcissistic about my figure to drink too much beer. A bottle, maybe two a day.  Unless I'm feeling lonely and someone compliments me on my hat...

The day's hike and sharing my lunch with Simonte up on the peak were great. Drinking with Walter...not so much. I'll work on feeling grateful for the former and learning a lesson from the latter.

The road to the cross atop Cerro Apante 
Wood is continuously harvested for cooking fuel in Nicaragua. You see people carrying big branches along the roads all the time. 
Coffee bushes

Coffee blooms

A nice section of trail through the coffee and banana plantings

The trail narrows as it enters the forest and ascends to Cerro Buena Vista

The view from the antenna site near Cerro Buena Vista, where I shared my lunch with Simonte

The coffee bean soaking and drying area of Hacienda La Providencia 
To the left, the driveway to Hacienda La Providencia- no entry. To the right, the road leading to the trail to Cerro Buena Vista in the background- okay to travel. 
View of Matagalpa

Spanish Moss-like fern growing on trees 
Blooming yucca

The signs that confused me at first but, with hindsight, figured out later
Matagalpa street on the way back into town