First air-conditioned bus ride in Nicaragua. I was so comfortable I couldn't believe it was true - here I am, in the cool comforts of modern transport, breezing up north to Leon on a air-conditioned, comfy minibus, far removed from the hot chicken buses and unpaved roads.
Maybe that glorious encounter with air-conditioning, like meeting a long-lost friend after ages and rediscovering all those common interests once again, led me into the all-too-easy cocoon of fellow backpackers in Leon.
Instead of going out deep into the city, talking to people and experiencing the lives of ordinary citizens, I shut myself beneath the security and comforts of the Via Via Hostel. It was an excellent hostel, with the same kind of standards as the newer hostels found in large, well-visited European cities like Barcelona and Lisbon. Somehow it manages to be cosy, modern and hippie at the same time. I loved lounging in its ever-so-happening bar out front, rocking in the hammocks strung from wooden pillars, or just chatting with other travellers in the spacious dorms and common areas.
Met many travellers, and the demographics of those I met were a bit surprising. It definitely wasn't an accurate snapshot of the travellers visiting Central America, but it was a pretty insightful one. By far, a large majority of the people I met are travelling alone. They are usually between the ages of 22 and 40, young, male, middle-class and from Western countries - countries heavily represented include Canada, Germany and the US. They seem to stick to a sort of prescribed route, a kind of "backpacker highway" if you will, flying into Mexico or Guatemala, moving southwards, stopping at destinations that are generally tourist-magnets, with well-developed tourism infrastructure and lots of hostels, bars, clubs and tour companies. And they have either become disillusioned with their jobs and quit to travel, or are taking a year off between undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
Despite these similarities they share, each of them are unique and interesting in their own ways. There's a German kid who studied sports management in college and managed to find a lot of time to travel; he's currently on a year-long trip, and has embarked on trips of similar durations in the past. There's a former investment banker from Quebec, and a guy working in the oil fields in Alberta, which really served to accent the sharp differences between the English-speaking and French-speaking parts of Canada for me. The former reminded me a lot of Frenchmen I met in Paris, with their typical mindsets and outlooks on life. The latter were much more American, though with a dry sense of humor. I also met a tall Australian guy who kept worrying about the floods back home in Brisbane, and a German in his 50s who's a postman back home but who has traversed large swathes of the globe, including places as far-flung as the Easter Islands off the coast of Chile. And an Israeli guy who just finished 3 years of military service and narrowly escaped being deployed into live combat.
I hanged out quite a bit with these cool people, played poker, talked a lot, drank too many cervezas, and had a great time in general. I don't regret my choice to stay on the well-trodden backpacker trail for a few days, even if it had the unavoidable effect of alienating myself from the rest of Nicaraguan society. Having travelled quite a bit myself, I've realised its true - you either make an effort to get to know locals and a country, or you'll find yourself sticking to other travellers and chatting more in English than attempting to gesture in Spanish.
Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad thing to hang out with fellow travellers. It recharges you and talking to other people about their travels reminds you why you travel in the first place. The cosmopolitan culture in Leon was very alluring, and I enjoyed myself and felt extremely at ease.
Leon's a magical city. It's one of my favorite places in Nicaragua, and with good reason. This city is beautiful. It's dotted with churches, colonial abodes, universities and tree-shaded plazas. It's very easy to find good food, with one of the cleanest markets in Nicaragua hosting tens of vendors daily selling any kind of Nica cuisine you could think of. Being a university town, it also has many cheap eating spots, including lots of steam-table buffets, inexpensive places where you can point to whatever you fancy and fill up without breaking the bank (if it was even possible to break the bank in Nicaragua, one of the cheapest destinations in the world).
There's plenty of great cafes and bars in this city. They're atmospheric, with painted murals, good music, high ceilings and huge courtyards that keep you cool, a great escape from the stifling heat of the city (Leon is really hot, and this is coming from a Singaporean so you know it has to be true). It's possible to find some decent coffee in this city that's a refreshing departure from the instant variety, and there's also many food carts around selling cheap burgers, hot dogs and soda.
It's small enough to tackle comfortably on foot, yet big enough to warrant a few days. It may be touristy, but its size means that it's also possible to wander off into pleasant streets where there's no gringos in sight and locals are even more welcoming. And behind those quaint doors are galleries, museums, cultural centers, schools, hostels, restaurants, cafes and even more bars. When the sun finally goes down on another clear and hot day, the historic buildings are tinged a magical orange as they reflect its last rays. The city seems to glow as it settles down for the night gracefully and peacefully.
It's a miracle I even managed to leave. If I ever come back to Nicaragua again, I'll make sure to schedule a stop in Leon.