Is it glitter or gravel? [San Juan Del Sur and León, Nicaragua]

My family stopped celebrating Christmas in the typical American fashion five years ago. Instead of an overdone ceremonial gift exchange, we craft delicious food together on that day and plan a family trip somewhere. It’s all about spending time together filling up our relationship piggy banks, rather than emptying the real ones.

In 2018, I took anti-traditionalism to another level and booked an 11-day trip over the holidays with friends I consider brothers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the shrimp & prime rib back home were delicious, but that December 25th, Chris, Sean & I were feasting on Nicaraguan street meat and volcanic gravel at 48 kph, with less than zero regrets. 

Two plane naps and a number of rifle-packing security guards later, my apprehensions of dropping into Managua’s political turmoil were slightly dampened by seeing a man holding a piece of paper with my internet alias on it at the airport exit. It checked out, as I’d booked the shuttle and destination hostel through facebook messenger, a sketchy paypal account, and some good old faith in humanity.

We finally arrived in San Juan Del Sur three+ hours, not the quoted two, after we started – a pretty classic undersell of Latin American land travel time. But who can really be mad when that’s the view we showed up to?

People LOVE to misspell Sean's name

Bless Chris’ insomnia for making hostel friends / lining up personal nightlife guides while Sean (aka San) and I slumbered. An unplanned bar/restaurant crawl that evening went a little something like this – 

Avoiding getting $20 tattoos at Auric, but not avoiding the first of many shot challenges that San Juan Del Sur is known for. Dusting off The Loose Moose’s wall-mounted shot ski, to the delight of the Canadian owner, and another shot challenge for Chris, which awarded him with a tank top proclaiming “The Moose is on the Loose”.

Weird how I don’t remember the names of the next few stops between there and reaching our actual destination: Lost in Translation, aka LIT, which was hosting their version of a full moon party. We left there with a lot of paint on our bodies and a little less phone in one of our pockets (cough, cough Chris). In between several shot challenges, unknown quantities of other liquids, a “LIT” tramp stamp, and him trying to pole dance in a cage, I am just baffled at how he lost his phone…

I’m sorry you had to see this…

The real reason we went to SJDS was to fact check the validity of the ‘infamous’ status that their Sunday Funday hostel pool crawl has reached. Simply for the fact that it was two days before Christmas and they still managed to draw the crowd they did, I’ll let them have it. At a minimum, Hostel Pachamama deserves a nod for willingly destroying their premises with glitter usage to rival a Ke$ha concert (Chris and San confirmed at the Iowa State Fair).

And though we gained a lot of sparkle, both in our bodies and out, we also suffered some tough losses. I got lost from Chris & Sean while Sean was busy losing his credit card. I lost my hat after we were reunited. Then Sean & Chris managed to scheme up for the loss of some of Chris’s forearm skin. I’m sure if he’d still had his phone that day, Chris would have lost that too. 

As it was he cut his tank top of the day into a midriff shirt only to lose that at the first bar and somehow find it on a local 8 hours later. Given the day we had, Sean hit the hay early but Chris and I weren’t done yet. While Chris was busy haggling with his phone service’s customer representatives, a new friend and I decided he needed more alcohol. And me being a good friend, I obliged in the form of guarana flavored Smirnoff ice… 2 of them 🙂

One could also say that someone needed to punish him for walking around in public looking like that. (How many times should I apologize in this post?!)

Waking up at any hour before noon the next day would have been bad enough, but we had to do that and endure a 4 hour ride to León. The fact that we even thought we’d execute on our original plan to stop off for a scuba excursion on the way was laughable.

As with any hangover the best cure is usually the most questionable food you can find and we found it all over León. Around every street corner were ‘stands’ piled with par-cooked meat, cheese, plantains and vegetables sitting uncovered and unrefrigerated next to the grills used to reheat them. My food service background had me cringing, but when in León.. you eat the street meat. While certainly not Michelin star quality, I still sometimes crave the flavors those little old ladies were able to create with effectively nothing. 

Now to get to the best part of the story and the true reason we braved Nicaragua at all that year: volcano boarding. For the low, low price of $25 they’ll transport you in the back of a surplus truck (what are seatbelt laws?!) to Cerro Negro, an active volcano outside of León, where you’ll receive plywood tobogans, prisoner-like orange jumpsuits, old chem-lab goggles and brief instructions on how to attempt break the 98 km/hour record for sledding down a mass of hot gravel. Oh and that price also includes a night’s stay at Bigfoot Hostel. It’s a steal.

While none of us even came close to hitting the record speed, a girl did have to go to the emergency department for some foot/ankle x-rays after we got back. If you’re adding this to your bucket list – pro tip: keep your feet on the board once you get going!

Between low quality plumbing and adventures of the days’ past, we were wallowing in numerous forms of filth when we got to our only real hotel of the trip that evening back in Managua. Thankfully there was nobody else in the restaurant when I scratched my head and had to ask whether the grainy substance stuck to it was glitter or gravel.

Name me a better Christmas, I dare you. 

That’s the plan!

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