The first time I read the description in my guide book, I slammed the book shut, shivered and thought, “How did they know?”
Northern Nicaragua had appealed to me for its cool mountain weather, political culture, diverse ecosystems, and world-class coffee. After three weeks in the region I was full of caffeine, new information, and mountain air, but I was missing the one experience I craved the most: hiking in a cloud forest.
Much of the Central American cloud forest has been developed into farmland, and opportunities to experience it are surprisingly difficult to find. As a result, I’d become obsessed with reaching one particular location: a remote mountain village called Peñas Blancas. The guidebook’s description of the village was: “Here you’ll find the mossy, misty, life-altering primary cloud forest scenery you’ve been waiting for.”
Weeks after reading that sentence, I realized I had just one spare day in my schedule. The life-altering cloud forests of Peñas Blancas were a three-hour bus ride in the opposite direction. It was a fool’s journey to go there for one night, but I was determined to make it happen.
I asked the owner of the hostel where I was staying for some advice. He told me about a man called Don Chico who had spent every one of his seventy-eight years exploring the cliffs of Peñas Blancas. Don Chico ran a small eco-tourism business in the village, led guided hikes through the cloud forest, and
rented out his extra bedroom to visitors. The hostel owner assured me that the few travelers he knew who had visited Peñas Blancas had all returned with rave reviews of Don Chico.
I awoke early the next morning and caught a chicken bus into the mountains. Chicken buses are old U.S. school buses that have been given a new lease on life by Central America’s persistent mechanics and relaxed safety laws. The buses are patched-up, repainted in audacious colors, fitted with booming sound systems, and driven over anything that resembles a road. A good chicken bus ride is both cheap transportation and a great cultural experience. A bad chicken bus ride is a nightmare.
My journey to Peñas Blancas was the latter. Human bodies, bags of produce, baskets of tortillas, plastic furniture, and a random assortment of other items filled every inch of space. I felt claustrophobic as the run-down bus creaked into the mountains and was relieved when the half-seat at the back of the bus became vacant. It was only big enough for one person and I assumed it would give me some breathing room.
That was my mistake.
My travels through Latin America had happened almost by accident. I don’t speak Spanish and I can’t dance, which seemed like strong enough reasons to prioritize the thousands of other places I wanted to visit. But then I took a volunteer position in Belize for six months and the opportunity to travel Central America after I finished was too good to miss. Even so, I was nervous about traveling alone as a woman. I had traveled plenty before this trip, but rarely alone.
So I was thrilled to find that most of the people I met in Nicaragua were helpful and welcoming. In fact, the hospitality and generosity I had experienced far outstripped anything I witnessed at home in the United States. I had experienced very little outright harassment. I had not even been catcalled, because Nicaraguan men tend to make a hissing noise under their breath instead. Although it’s unnerving, it’s easier to ignore than the jeers I’ve received elsewhere in the world.
Unfortunately, the vendors on the bus to Peñas Blancas were determined to deliver every bit of harassment I had thus far avoided. They climbed onto the bus, shouted that they had plantanitos or gaseosas for sale and stood by the back door so they could hiss and stare at me while they waited for the next stop. “Plantanitos, mami?” they asked me and, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Sometimes they employed the little English they knew and leered at me: “Hello, baby.” A group soon gathered to watch my discomfort. The more I ignored them, the more they laughed.
I went to college in Boston, a city widely considered one of the safest in the United States. One weekend during my second year, I visited a friend across town for a late dinner and movie and rode home alone on the last subway train of the night. The train car was almost empty so I took a single seat for myself.
Shortly before the train departed, one more person stumbled into the car. He was tall, white, shaggy-haired, and obviously tipsy. He took the seat behind me. I could tell he was feeling chatty, so I pulled a book out
of my bag.
He ignored the hint. “Hi,” he said. I sighed and looked up, which was enough to encourage him. He chatted incessantly for half an hour. He described his night and gave me a long list of his favorite bars in Boston. It was annoying, but it seemed innocent enough.
We were within a few stops of my destination when I prepared to stand up and leave. The sight of this caused an abrupt change in his attitude.
“You’re into weird sex, aren’t you?” he said. “Wait a few more stops and get off with me. You’re into the weird stuff, I can tell. Let me eat you out.”
I stared at him, appalled. What had happened to the drunk, rambling idiot I had been ignoring a few moments before? He flicked his tongue at me and grinned. My stomach lurched. He had suddenly become threatening. I felt angry at myself for letting the conversation reach this point. Why had I even acknowledged him? I took my first opportunity to escape and jumped off
the train at the next stop, which was one station before mine. He shouted, “Come on, you know you want it,” as I sprinted around the corner.
My heart was beating heavily and I couldn’t unclench my fists. I knew I was too rattled to return to my empty apartment so I hurried to a friend’s house nearby. When I arrived, I found a group gathered around a board game. One girl looked at me with sympathy and handed me a beer.
“That, my dear,” she said. “Is why you never take the last train of the night.”
By the time the bus lurched to a halt in Peñas Blancas, I was feeling anxious about my plans with the mysterious Don Chico. Why had I jumped on a bus to meet a random man in a random place in a foreign country?
He was waiting for me when I arrived, an elderly man wearing waist high jeans, a baseball cap, and rubber boots. He broke into a wrinkled grin when he saw me. I could see his gold-rimmed teeth shining beneath his Charlie Chaplin mustache.
Don Chico walked with me to his house, chatting the whole time. I relaxed as I recognized the characteristic Nicaraguan hospitality and kindness in his demeanor. He spoke Spanish in a lilting mumble that was friendly but almost
impossible to understand. I locked onto the key parts of every sentence and let the rest fall away, hoping it wouldn’t matter. He showed me to my room. It was a simple concrete, tin-roofed affair with multiple fleece blankets to protect against the cold mountain nights. He gave me an excellent cup of coffee and my own pair of rubber boots and we began to hike.
We turned one corner and there they were: the white cliffs of Peñas Blancas. They peaked above our heads, glistening and ghostly among the morning clouds. The bleached stones were draped in cloud forest, a rich tangle of giant cathedral trees, bromeliads, and orchids that echoed with birdsong.
“Lista?” Don Chico asked, grinning at my awed expression. “Are you ready?”
The steep hike up to the cliffs took an hour and a half. There were moments when we gained nearly vertical altitude, climbing worn wooden ladders or using the tree roots to hoist ourselves up. We crept along narrow, muddy trails that overlooked steep declines, gorgeous old-growth trees, and the rolling hills of Nicaragua.
Don Chico bounced ahead of me, beaming and chattering and providing specific instructions as to how to handle the trickiest parts.
“Put this foot here and that foot there,” he would say and, “Grab this tree… no, not that one!” He laughed the entire time with light, childish giggles.
He was a hilarious hiking partner. His whole demeanor was giddy with enthusiasm, whether he was explaining the medicinal use of a plant or swinging from a vine. He was also intent on me taking thousands of pictures. At one point, he stopped mid-step and looked down. He pulled a rock from the ground beside the trail and placed it between two tree roots in
front of him.
“It looks like a dancing man!” he laughed. “Take a picture.”
Another time he stopped to point out one of the elephantine leaves that dotted the undergrowth. The plant drooped onto the trail, its leaves as tall as Don Chico. I began to take a picture but he stopped me.
“No, no,” he said, “Like this.” He moved behind the leaf and put his head in the crevice so the enormous leaf covered his whole body. I laughed and took the picture.
The higher we climbed, the more frequently I stopped to stare at the forest. The trees rose in towers around us, a dozen feet wide and dripping with air plants and orchids. Vines and plants of every variety fell from the branches to the ground, creating a curtain of plant life between us and the valleys below.
The white cliffs peeked out from beside us and glittered in the sunlight.
Don Chico and I pushed onwards until we reached the top of the cliff and the forest stretched out below us. His zealous energy became infectious. We bounced forward into the forest. It seemed as if we discovered a new swimming hole or waterfall at every turn. I must have seen fifteen waterfalls over the course of an hour. We stopped to drink the spring water, pouring it into our mouths from huge tropical leaves.
I’ve always been a water baby. My parents had to drag me out of pools when I was very young. I used to sit chest deep in the ocean and let the waves wash over me until my bathing suit was heavy with sand and my fingers were a study in wrinkles. In some ways, I aged out of this. Swimming as a teenager became more about the opportunity to preen than playing in the water. The glamour of being a wind-blown beach babe does not correspond to having your hair weighed down by sand, nor wearing a bathing suit sturdy enough to stand up to the waves. The ordeal of being in a bathing suit in a public place soon stopped being a fun chance to swim and simply became stressful and unappealing.
Now, however, I began to feel an emotional distress rising in my chest as we passed each new pool and waterfall. I recognized that feeling immediately. I wanted to swim. Here I was, at the peak of these ancient cliffs in untouched cloud forest, stumbling across these fantastic swimming holes. Each one teased me more than the last. The water was clear and crisp and speckled with the sunlight that streamed through the leaves above. The pools were like images from a dream, nature at its most idyllic. My heart ached with the
desire to jump in.
How could I? I had several hours of hiking left with Don Chico, and I couldn’t hike in wet clothes. I would have to swim in my bra and underwear and I would have to do that in front of Don Chico. The thought horrified me.
I’m not sure whether Don Chico realized what I was thinking or whether the fates were conspiring against me, but at the next pool he asked if I wanted to swim. I looked at him and stalled. I couldn’t speak Spanish well enough to express my doubts or ask him exactly what he meant. I was all alone in my
I thought about how this seemed like exactly the sort of common sense situation travel books and my mother would tell me to avoid. I thought about my underwear. I thought about all those men on the bus to Peñas Blancas, and the man on the train in Boston, and men in general. I thought about Don Chico’s innocent, toothy grin. I thought about how I would feel if I left this perfect swimming hole, with its perfect water, without swimming in it. I thought about the immense amount of white privilege, effort, money, and time that had gotten me to the foot of this waterfall, at the top of this cliff, in this remote region of northern Nicaragua. I thought about how unfair it was that I even had to think when a male traveler would already be splashing around in the water. I thought until Don Chico looked at me with some concern.
I thought about the kindness and the welcome that Don Chico and most Nicaraguans had shown me throughout my trip. I thought about rising above the intimidation of being a solo female traveler and taking ahold of the moment. I thought for one more second, stripped down to my bra and underwear, and dove into the water.
It was the best swim of my life.
This essay was originally published in the Alone Together travel anthology. The book can be purchased here.