On Saturday morning, I woke up at 7:20 and grabbed a banana on the way out. It was a cool, sunny morning and I walked briskly to catch my bus to Estelí. I’d never been before. I’d only heard that it’s a huge, clean city. I heard it was on a main highway and that it is a main hub of commerce in Northern Nicaragua. The region is also famous for cigar production. After the Cuban Revolution, several capitalist cigar producers were kicked out of Cuba and fled to Miami. Shortly thereafter, they heard about the fertile soil in Nicaragua and set up shop there. One cigar grower even told Cigar Aficionado magazine that Nicaragua and Cuba “have the most fertile dirt in the world for tobacco. It’s almost like God said, ‘I’m going to pick these two countries and I’m going to use them for tobacco.’” I’m not a fan of cigars. I took a puff of an Estelí cigar once, and I wished I hadn’t. It tastes like you’re smoking dirt. To each their own, though.
Since a banana will never be enough to hold me over for breakfast, I stopped by a family-owned bakery and grabbed two pineapple tarts. They were dry, as is most of the food here, but I happily munched on them as I saw my bus pulling out of the station. I run toward it and jumped inside. I took a seat next to a young man with black, jelled hair and a white, pressed button down shirt. He said he was heading to Esteli for Church, after he asked me where I was from. We passed through the winding Matagalpan mountains and descended into a valley. Less than two hours later, we pulled into Cotran Sur (bus stations here are named “Cotranes”). It was windy and dusty. I walked through the station and cobradores were asking me “Managua, amor?” No, thanks. No Managua for me today. Estelí felt like Managua, though. A safer, smaller, newer Managua. Emily told me that during the war Sandinista war, Samoza (Nicaragua’s dictator in the ‘70s) carpet-bombed the city because of the heavy Sandinista presence. From what the locals tell her, she said that trucks of bodies would load up to take them away. I knew that the rural areas were affected by guerilla fighting, but I didn’t know this kind of atrocity had been committed in a city. It sounded like a much more recent version of the Holocaust.
I called Emily and Traci to meet up with them, who were also visiting for the first time. I thought about catching a cab, but decided to stretch my legs and took the 20 minute walk downtown. The air felt arid, and walking toward the flat city surrounded by mountains made me feel as if I were walking toward a Nicaraguan version of the tri-cities area in Eastern Washington. While turning into town, I passed a brand new “Rostipollo” restaurant, which looked like a Nicaraguan version of Olive garden. Things were reminding me of home in odd ways. It felt like no other Nicaraguan city I’d visited. It was relatively quiet for its size, and very clean.
After arriving at the park, I realized that there was no entrance because it was under renovation (apparently since November). I snapped a picture of the large, white Cathedral that’s similar to Matagalpa’s, and entered the La Colonia grocery store to meet up with my friends. Everything in the store just seemed so much cleaner and shinier than I’m used to. Before coming to Nicaragua, I never marveled so much at ketchup bottles or the wine selection. Since coming here, however, going to a well-stocked grocery store is a big deal. The five of us walked through downtown toward the museum and past the soccer stadium. Apparently Esteli’s soccer team has won the national championship six times in a row. The stadium was bright red and looked so new. I stared at it in disbelief. It was the nicest stadium, and possibly the nicest structure, I’d seen in 7 months. Later, we checked out the small shopping center. As soon as I saw the Burger King, I wanted to get a bacon breakfast croissantwhich. Those were some of my favorite morning treats growing up. The fake egg with fake, melted golden cheese and mini bacon slices will somehow always appeal to me. It’s too bad the store was closed. It was probably still under construction. Some of the construction materials were still laying around just outside of it.
We took the fancy escalator to the second story patio, where we had a nice view of the city and distant mountains. We were getting hungry, so we decided to grab nacatamales. We walked back downtown past steak houses and pizza places, and stopped by an artisan shop. Traci bought a mug with a cockroach in it. Since she is a vegetarian, we stopped by “Licuados Ananda” so she could get a smoothie. It was a vegetarian restaurant and cultural center surrounding an empty blue pool. They even had nacatamales with soy meat. It wasn’t something I’d expect to find anywhere her. It felt like Portland. We then took a ruteado and ate nacatamales at our friends’ house. Andrés made my day when he asked “avocado”? and squeezed some on my pork nacatamal, as my eyes widened in anticipation. It was a delicious, filling lunch. “Whoah, are those bones?”, Traci said, after we cleaned up our plates. “Yup! These ain’t chicken nuggets, Traci!”, I joked. Finding bones in my nacatamales used to surprise me. There are lots of things I’ve gotten used to now.
I laid down on the bed to digest my meal before our waterfall adventure. Emily offered me some kettle corn, and I munched on that. Eating more in order to digest is always a good idea. It was sweet and salty, but not too much of either. Just right. By 1 PM, we headed out and I ran into the pulperia (corner store) to grab some pinguinos, which are basically like hostess cupcakes. I demolished their chocolate-y, melty goodness before we even found a taxi. When we finally stumbled upon an empty cab with four seats, the five of us squeezed inside. Once at the bus station, we took the 1:30 school bus for the waterfall. It was only 5 kilometers away, but since it was on a hilly dirt road, the bus crept along much more slowly than I’d expected. I found out later that the cobrador was busy jumping out and removing boulders from the path. I didn’t notice at the time-I was just waiting impatiently to be whisked away to the waterfall.
After 30 minutes of inching up the dirt road, we hopped out at the gate and paid about 90 cents to enter the reserve. We asked when the bus would come back, and the woman said “A las cuatro”. We thought we’d have to hike back down, so, score! It was a ten-minute hike down to the falls. On the way, we said “adios” to several women walking out. They were wearing nice dresses and carried umbrellas to hide from the sun. It was as if they’d just left church. “I must’ve missed the ‘wear a nice dress’ memo”, I said. They made me feel underdressed, but oh well. I’d be stripping down to my bathing suit soon enough. The short path reminded me of when I’d go hiking alone in the hill country outside of San Antonio, Texas. I would pack half a gallon of water and spend the day hiking in 90-degree weather. Here, it wasn’t so scorchingly hot, but the dry air and less-than-lush vegetation reminded me of those hikes. Once we passed a bend in the road, we could hear the crash of the falls. I didn’t have high expectations, so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw how beautiful the Salto de la Estanzuela waterfall was. Having low expectations generally leads to great outcomes. It must have been over 50 feet tall, and had a large swimming hole. It felt as if we were in Oregon, which is famous for having lots of waterfalls, especially along the Columbia River highway.
We found a spot near the water and took off our sweaty clothes. Emily pulled out her chicken nacatamal and ate it. I took a picture of her taking a picture of her nacatamal with the waterfall in the background. After taking pictures of the nacatamal and of each other, we tip toed into the cold water. It was the coldest water I’d swam in since the summer of last year. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m used to expecting water to be freezing cold, even in the summer, since a lot of it is glacial water. This water was just cold because it was in the shade, surrounded by cliffs. I felt as if I were back home again, just stopping to swim in icy cold water on a hot summer day. My ears even began to hurt a bit for the cold that my body wasn't used to experiencing. After jumping into the cold, deep water, I swam to the base of the waterfall, where once small, harmless droplets had gained enough speed from the fall to continuously pound into the pool. I swam right underneath the waterfall, and I felt my adrenaline rushing because of how loud and cold the water was. It looked as if there might be some underwater caves at the base, causing us to debate about the proper pronunciation of cave-diving. Is it spelunking or splunkering? Autocorrect says its spelunking. Traci, you win. Emily suggested I float on my back and look up at the waterfall-it was a great view. It’s not every day that you get to swim by a waterfall, but this was just another weekend here and I was grateful for it.
I dried off on a rock and thought about how this was just another moment of discovering something I didn’t expect to find here. Finally, I could swim in cold, refreshing water again. Emily came by and gave us the last handfuls of kettle corn in her bag. The waterfall is only 2.5 hours away from where I live, and I knew I needed to come back soon. One man yelled to his friends “Alli viene la lluvia!” (Here comes the rain!) and his friends just laughed at him. It wasn’t rain, it was just the droplets of water that escaped in the breeze. Even if it were raining, it would have been a great day. It was time to crawl out of the pool, which was a challenge because I was barefoot and the floor consisted of slimy rocks with fish darting around them. We dried off and headed back to the pulperia by the gate to catch our bus. I munched on some strawberry nougat and ate a virgin strawberry jell-o shot (they sell them in mini sized, individual cups). A skinny but healthy looking beige colored dog with pointy ears sat near us, unfazed by the ant colonies that made us jump up and dance.
The bright sun warmed up my calves and dried my swimming suit in no time. A hen and her chicks walked inside the pulperia. Maybe they wanted some nougat, too. Before I could take a picture, the woman in the store shooed them away. The bus turned out to be 40 minutes late, but waiting was just part of the experience. As I sat down and looked out the window, I felt exhausted and refreshed at the same time. That’s when I know I’ve had a good day. The bus dropped us off at Cotran Sur, and I hugged my friends goodbye. I hopped on a Matagalpa-bound bus, which left a half hour before I was told it would. It wasn’t until I was paying my fare that the cobrador said the bus would be stopping “La Trinidad”. I didn’t know what that meant, but the lady next to me in her green button-down shirt comforted me and just said that I needed to get off at La Trinidad and wait for the next bus to pass through town. I got off the bus and waited for the next one, which came about 30 minutes later. Waiting was just part of the experience.