It was a Saturday morning, and I went to Matagalpa’s main park, Parque Morazan, to meet up with the other volunteers and friends at 11:30. We met up with the simple plan of visiting the “Castillo de Cacao” (The Cacao Castle). It’s a factory that produces chocolate with coffee that’s sourced from throughout the department. It’s artisan chocolate. It doesn’t taste too amazing, though. I’ve still bought it, because when I’m standing in line at the grocery store and listening to “La Vida es un Carnaval”, I can’t help but take a bar with me. The wrappers come in attractive bright colors, which add to their appeal. Hershey’s wrappers are just plain boring, and the chocolate melts before it’s even opened. Also, let’s face it, when am I ever going to be able to eat chocolate from a castle again? Probably soon, once Whole Foods this durable, rich chocolate.
The last time I went to the Castle was when my friend Raquel and her mom were visiting. We drove to the Castle, but it was closed. This time, I made sure that it would not be closed. Other than what I have just told you, I knew nothing else about that Castle. I just knew we had to take a bus to “Las Marias”, and get off somewhere. Some of us were wondering “How big is the Castle?” or “Is it made of chocolate?” I didn’t come with too many questions. I’ve learned to keep my expectations low or non-existent. That way, you won’t get disappointed as easily. I munched on rosquillas Somoteñas (small, donut shaped corn cookies) as we boarded the school bus. I sat down on one of the bright red, plastic seats, and shared my crunchy snack with my friends. We walked up the highway to the Castle. It was an unassuming house with a big, black Labrador retriever that looked at us as we walked in. The walls were white, and there was a table full of different flavors of chocolate. Some had “trozos de café”, and others had “trozos de marañon” (cashew pieces).
The chocolate comes with no preservatives or chemicals. The plain chocolate is made of 50% cacao and 50% sugar. They don’t have hydrogenated oils. This reminds me of how much more natural some products here, and how it shouldn’t be such a special thing for the chocolate to be made with just sugar. The soda products are also made with sugar instead of corn syrup. I hope it stays this way. After having been in Nicaragua, my body became used to consuming fewer chemicals. I only say this because when I returned to the states after 7 months, the first thing I ate was a Wendy’s cheeseburger in the Houston Airport. I initially just wanted a frosty, but they didn’t have any, so I settled for a burger. The burger tasted better than any I’ve had in Nicaragua. I’m not exaggerating, though, when I tell you that I could feel the chemicals pumping through my arteries. I felt just like the guy on “Super Size Me”, who after he spends weeks eating nothing but Sausage McMuffins and Big Macs, throws up on the side of his car from all of the chemicals. I couldn’t believe how sensitive my body had become. It’s not like I eat organic kale chips and lettuce wraps in Nicaragua, either. I eat heavy plates of rice, beans, and plantains, and have replaced the olive oil I used all of my life with the more affordable vegetable oil.
Back to the Castillo de Cacao. The inside of it was a mini-museum, decked out with shelves and shelves of wrappers. There were empty Whitman’s Sampler boxes, Scandinavian chocolate wrappers, and old Choco Flakes boxes. I could only how much time and money it would have taken to import all of these products all the way here. Some of us took the $6 tour, where one woman described the process of cacao fermentation with life-sized plastic pieces of green cacao pods. I learned that cacao and coffee need the same amount of water, shade, and elevation to grow, so that’s why this region produces both. Before we entered the mini castle factory, we tied on our chef hats and entered. The factory was tiny-it was made up of about 3 rooms. After visiting the underwhelming “Hershey World” in Heryshey, Pennsylvania, I was expecting to walk into a similar setup, minus the dancing Hershey’s kisses and theme park music. This was just a small building with about 3 machines. As soon as we walked in, the delicious smell of freshly made chocolate hit our nostrils. They had grinding machines, mixing machines, an oven, and a large fridge. We went into the kitchen, and instead of seeing a large assembly line of workers toiling over a conveyor belt, there were just two women at a metal table. They smiled and welcomed us. They calmly took out chocolate hearts from their molds and placed them in small, clear, plastic bags.
Our guide explained that these two women crank out 700-1400 chocolate bars a day, as she showed us how the bars are hand wrapped. As she glued a teal label onto a bar with a glue stick, she explained that if machines were making the chocolates, then it wouldn’t be considered “artisan”. There are a total of 5 employees involved in the production of chocolate, and two women in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve seen these chocolates all over the country, and apparently they are exported to Holland. It was very surprising, but then again, it was very Nicaraguan. The focus wasn’t so much on the production as it was on the process. We munched on cashew pieces and chocolate shavings that melted as soon as they touched our warm fingers. It’s still hard for me to believe that two women are responsible for making so much chocolate, pero si se puede.
Once the tour ended, everyone else went home, but I decided to meet up with Dan and David, who had left early to go to the Cascada Blanca, a waterfall just 20 minutes down the road. “You’re going alone?!”, Tim asked me, as we headed out. “Yeah, I am! I want to see the waterfall!” I admit I was nervous to wait for a bus for God knows how long, but I was determined to keep exploring. I waited by the highway in the warm sun. An old man in a truck offered to give me a riding, asking “San Ramon?” (a nearby city). I said I was waiting for a bus, and thanked him anyway. I’ve never hitchhiked, and especially as a solo female traveler, I never intend to. Every time I heard a bus’ horn blowing in the distance, I was excited that it was my bus, but it took a while before mine rolled up. Forty minutes to be exact. As I waited, I kept thinking “Hay mas tiempo que vida, Char”, and “It will be worth it”. The bus screeched to a stop in front of me, and the cobrador opened up the emergency exit door for me to go in. “Va a la Cascada Blanca, verdad?”, I asked him, and he nodded as he hurried me inside. The bus was packed as I stood in the middle, sandwiched between two men, thankful that the back of my head pushed against the padding above the door.
Twenty minutes later, the bus stopped, and the cobrador asked “Y la Chela donde esta?”, as he looked for me (the “blonde” woman) to let me know I’d arrived. I climbed out of the back ladder and hopped out as I paid a dollar for the ride. A man with a rifle stood outside of the Eco Lodge. By now I’m used to seeing friendly armed guards everywhere, even inside of the city library. You won’t see a bank without an armed guard or two watching over everyone. He guided me down the path, and another smiling man told me where to go. I descended the slope and could immediately see the waterfall. It was huge. It was similar to Esteli’s waterfall, but I liked this one more because it was closer to me. I finally found a place to go swimming near my home! The pool was pretty large, and no one was swimming in it yet. Locals were bathing farther downstream. I found Dan and David sitting at a picnic table across the pool and inside of a cave, so I joined them. As soon as I met up with them, we climbed down the rocks and jumped into the water.
I was so happy I decided to make it. While waiting for the bus next to the dusty highway, I considered giving up and going home. I’m glad I stuck it out, because the water felt delicious. It was deep and cool, and the crash of the waterfall resonated all around us. We swam toward the crashing waters. The closer I got, the more I could feel the mist hitting my face, and the water nudging me back out. Swimming under waterfalls scares me. This one was definitely more powerful than the one in Esteli. I wanted to swim under the water and get to the rocks, despite my fear. There’s a saying that says you should do something that scares you every day. I don’t remember this saying until I’m confronted with a scary situation, and it motivates me to push through. Again, I knew it would be worth it. I swam under, and the water pounded my head. I could barely open my eyes because of all the water. We just screamed “Woo!” in triumph, as we celebrated our small victory. Dan and David climbed onto a slippery rock, but since I was wearing my sandals, I didn’t even try. There was a group of Europeans our age sitting on a nearby rock watching us as they drank their Flor de Caña rum.
Our celebratory chanting had attracted a whole group of Nicaraguans who watched us from far away. They probably thought we were crazy for swimming there and that we would drown. Not many people know how to swim here, so I can understand why. My ears began stinging a bit from the cold water, but I was still happy. I floated on my back and looked at the top of the waterfall. “Waterfall number three, check”, I thought. After swimming, we sunbathed on a randomly placed set of concrete stairs. The constant, buzzing sound of Cicadas rang all around us. Dan scooped up a cicada from the water. We thought it was dead, but it came right back to life. After letting it crawl on David’s skin for a bit, I think it became tired of our antics and it flew away. We crawled out of the pool, and snacked on David’s watermelon slices. If you ever go to the cave and see a patch of watermelons, it’s thanks to us and all of the black seeds we spit on the dirt floor.
Dan, David and I headed out and took a bus back to the city. We were famished at this point, so I took them to “La Parrillada”, a fritanga serving typical Nica dishes. I asked for the chorizo plate for $1.50, and we sat down at a table with plastic chairs. There was no roof over us-just a clear blue sky darkening ever so gradually. I felt at peace. As our huge plates arrived, we chatted about the countries we’ve visited. David has visited Oaxaca, Mexico, and after chatting with him about it, he made me want to go there more. I was born in Mexico, but I’ve only been to the capital and to the northern states. Southern Mexico sounds like a completely different country. After having been in Central America, I want to see how Southern Mexico is. In the south, the terrain is made up of rainforests, as opposed to the northern, mountainous deserts where my family lives. My family eats tamales made from corn husks, instead of those steamed in banana leaves. I enjoy discovering these differences and making sense of them in my mind-as well as in my stomach. I was so grateful that I choose to surround myself with people who enjoy traveling just as much as I do. Today, I strayed just far enough from home to feel as if I’d gone somewhere, but close enough that I could see my see my site in a new light.