Current Location: The Courtyard, Via Via Restaurant, Leon, Nicaragua
Price of a beer in a bar: US$0.86
Song currently stuck in my head: Barrytown (Steely Dan)
I’m sitting in Via Via, having an overpriced traveler breakfast. It’s almost exactly double what it would cost a few blocks away, which still only comes out to US$3.14. I’m on a ~6 hour layover in Leon, having caught a 6am bus out of Matagalpa (US$2.90 for a 2+ hour ride in a chicken bus) and having found the 10am shuttle to San Juan Del Sur (which I also intended to overpay for) full. The next shuttle runs at 3pm, which is a pleasant surprise. They have a dependable daily schedule for the 10am bus but everything else seems experimental. They’re trying an early bus on Sundays to arrive in time for “Sunday Funday”, a super successful bar crawl that draws backpackers southward, out of their post-vocanoboarding Leonese languor, pickles them in the lightly chlorinated waters of several SJDS swimming pools and infuses them with as much booze as they’re willing to pay double for. For US$20 you get a “free” shirt and a few drinks; you see the shirts everywhere.
Via Via feels a long way away from that, even though, physically, it’s across the street from one of that scene’s epicenters. But here at a courtyard table, sipping damn good coffee, I’m remembering how much I really appreciate the decor. It’s bent toward invigorating wary travelers, but the colonial motif is fashioned directly from raw materials, reminiscent of everything I didn’t hate about Guatemala. They’ve simply stretched a light layer of “Travelers Welcome” over the pre-exiting Spanish Colonial Grandeur of the property. It’s a favorite and I’ll take any excuse to overpay for food here. This morning’s excuse is my 6 hour layover; I have my everything on me and have already walked as far as I care to in the Leon heat, so I’m locked in a tight orbit around my shuttle pickup at 3. It’s getting hotter, I’m not getting better rested and Via Via was only a few doors down. I’m considering getting drunk; ordering a succession of well timed beers over the next several hours would be an affordable way to justify my ongoing presence here, plugged in to their power and linked up to their wifi. But I’m more likely to hike it down to Rosita, have a cappuccino or two and play it from there. Maybe I’ll come back for a late lunch. I know a worldly El Salvadorian who drinks here most afternoons and if I catch him before he gets too far in the bag he makes pretty good conversation.
In a few hours I’m paying US$25 for a shuttle to take me directly from Leon to San Juan Del Sur, about a 4.5 hour drive most days, though this seems extremely contentious. If I wanted to do this the hard way it would probably cost me about half that, but there are some big variables being rounded into that math. From here to Managua is ~US$2 and from Managua to the Southern Border, which SJDS is just shy of, is ~US$5. If the tea leaves/coffee grounds/chicken bones/wrinkles on my hand/sky spirit/dice worked in my favor and I managed to get from Managua to SJDS on one bus (and not end up routed through Rivas and/or Granada and/or some shit), which is entirely possible, then that just leaves a taxi ride between the Managua bus station I get dropped off at (“UCA”, pronounced “You-kah”) and the one I need to leave from (“Mayorea”, I think, but I’m off line and you really shouldn’t take my word for it anyway; I’m speculating and repeating what I’ve been told, not telling you what I’ve done). That might cost… well… money. I don’t know. I might get robbed, figuratively or literally. I hate urban cabbies and I don’t think Managua has a flat rate. I think it could cost around US$6, which brings us up to half what I’m paying. But leg room gets to be an issue after a few hours and I started the day with 2.25 hours crammed into a child’s seat. Going by (chicken) bus means going by US school bus with the original seating (though mercifully reupholstered). Not only are the seats close together (since they were built to accommodate children), but they’re also low (since they were MADE to ACCOMMODATE CHILDREN). Nica women sure aren’t going to notice a problem and neither will the vast majority of the men, but with 34 inches of gringo inseam I tower over most of these people. Have you ever, as an adult, tried to sit at a child’s desk? I know, I know, but think about it. Maybe you were at a parent/teacher conference. Maybe you were role playing in the bedroom. Maybe you were filming a cover video to “Hot For Teacher”… whatever, I don’t judge. If you have this experience, imagine doing it for several hours at a time with your neighbor crammed next to you about as snug as those padded harnesses on roller coasters. Yeah, I’m opting for the US$3/hour premium.
South American buses are nothing like this, by the way. I assume the Darrien Gap makes importing them too expensive to be favorable. Their buses are wonderful. So are select bus lines here, but your destination options are limited to major cities (usually just capitals) and while I’m headed to a major tourist destination, it’s one that still clings to the fiction of being a small fishing village.