There’s something special that transpires when you look forward to an experience with great anticipation and excitement for a long period of time. You have no conception of exactly how you’ll feel when (and if) it finally comes to pass, but you suspect it might be somewhat akin to the first time you saw a shooting star or a dolphin jumping through waves or your first glimpse of a waterfall after an arduous hike. Simple things really, but magical and heart-filling all the same. The actual event—when it does happen—almost always exceeds your highest expectations. I had one of these soul-blowing experiences recently and, truth be told, I was literally overcome by the rush of delight and pure amazement that I felt. Think cheek-stretching smile from ear to ear.
Before I get to what happened (grin), a bit of background on where Mark and I are right now. Having extended our trip another week, we are running now around Nicaragua, trying to make the best of our last 14 days. After picking up my absolutely gorgeous pair of shit-kicking cowboy boots made-to-order by the expert craftsmen at Calzado Arauz (I love them! I love them! I love them!), we caught a local school bus from Esteli to the city of Matagalpa. Like Esteli, Matagalpa is a commercial town, filled with boisterous market stalls and “thrift” stores packed with second-hand clothes. There’s definitely a cowboy vibe here, evidenced by the plethora of plaid shirts for sale and macho men with excellent posture and a swaggering gait strolling the streets. Since we arrived, it has been quite comfortable and we’ve had a good ol’ time getting to know Matagalpa’s haunts.
When traveling in foreign places with unfamiliar customs, it’s always extra-interesting when you drop into a town and a festival is going on. As luck would have it, we happened to arrive in Matagalpa when their annual agro-industrial fair was taking place. Having lived in New York for the last eleven years, I had a vague idea about what transpired at such a fair, but wasn’t quite sure of the details. When we stopped by the fairgrounds, we found out that exactly what we imagined might happen, was. Many, many branded cows and bulls for sale. Lots of poking and prodding of said cows and bulls. Plus, a bunch of booths dedicated to farm-related things and the occasional booth selling trinkets and junky jewelry or sunglasses. A few games with plush prizes for the taking scattered here and there, and a couple of rickety but fun-looking rides.
On Sunday, we were in for treat, the agro-fair’s horse parade . . . which was, pretty much, horses—and their riders— on parade. What made the whole thing so very Nicaraguan was the fact that the entire thing took place in the rain . . . and not just a light drizzle, but a ferocious downpour. Mark and I had conveniently snagged front-row balcony seats at a nearby Chinese restaurant (huge, gigantic fried rice, heavy on the MSG), and enjoyed the whole thing while remaining relatively dry. Mark also chose this as the perfect time to enjoy his first Nica Libre cigar. From the looks of him in the photo to the right, I’d say he enjoyed himself—and the cigar—immensely.
But what does Matagalpa have to offer when it’s not time to purchase cows and ride throughout town on horseback? A chocolate factory in the shape of a castle. Yes, folks. It’s true. Four months ago, Mark and I tried, but failed, to commission a tour of El Ceibo’s chocolate factory in La Paz, Bolivia. (We did, however, get a chance to visit their facilities in Sapecho where cacao beans are fermented, dried, and toasted prior to being shipped to La Paz and made into chocolate bars. Here’s a refresher (LINK).) We finally managed to do so here, although on a much smaller scale. El Castillo de Cacao is a tiny establishment (think three-rooms) nestled in the hills outside Matagalpa. They create the most delectable organic chocolate from just cacao beans and sugar (plus any additional “novelty” ingredients specific to each bar, such as coffee beans, cashews, or rum). The whole operation, which opened its doors in 2005, is run by just a handful of people, but the quality doesn’t suffer because of the lack of hands on deck. If anything, its simplicity is what makes it tasty. While I had a hankering (and the photos to prove it) to do a separate post on Castillo de Cacao’s chocolate-making process, Mark reminded me that I already posted a recipe here and that much of what I would write would be redundant. What I will say, though, is at the end of the tour, they treated us to a plate full of warm, freshly made cacao goo—clearly, the highlight of our hour there.
While waiting for Mark’s shoes to be finished (yes! He found a shop here that—we hope—is making a fine pair for him as well), we took a side-trip out to San Ramon, a rural community 20 minutes outside Matagalpa. For a full 24 hours, we did nothing but read and relax in the sunshine with a beer or two by our side. A small hike up to a nearby mirador bestowed us with striking panoramic views of the spongy green, mountainous countryside. Clambering up the red-roofed structure and looking out over the vast horizon made me think about all the young San Ramon muchachos who must take their girls up there for a romantic sunset. It unexpectedly brought back fond memories of sitting on a blanket aside a peaceful reservoir in my own hometown at that age. But! I digress.
So, what was all that business earlier about eagerly awaiting—and finally experiencing—something I’ve been looking forward to with great, great anticipation? One word says it all. Monkeys. Monkeys! Ever since we landed in Chile (Yes, I realize there aren’t monkeys in Chile), I’ve hoped to be in the company of monkeys in their home environment. Right . . . so, keep the jeers to yourself about me being a monkey or growing up amongst monkeys or dating a monkey (grin). What I write is true. While monkeys are like squirrels in parts such as these, to me, the experience of watching a monkey swing from branch to branch, toes curled, eyes wide, teeth bared . . . it’s a truly remarkable sight.
Although we did manage to spot a monkey high up in the trees on two separate occasions while in Madidi National Park in Bolivia, we saw our first large troupe of monkeys while hiking in the mountains surrounding Selva Negra—and it was downright incredible. At first, we were shadowed by a group of teenagers who were whooping and hollering and making a general ruckus about the lack of monkey sightings (go figure). We took to the high (and steep) trail, thinking if we could just lose them and get to a quiet, secluded place, we could wait until the monkeys came to us. And that, they did. With a loud burst of howls (these being Howlers), the monkeys came out in full force, jumping from tree to tree, hollering and scratching themselves and creating general mayhem. There simply aren’t words to describe how I felt watching and listening to them watching and listening to us, but needless to say, it was an experience I will treasure forever.
For your listening pleasure, here’s a wee clip of what we heard that day.
Later today, we are heading south again—this time to Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic island made up of two still-functioning volcanoes situated in a fresh-water lake. Our plan is to hang out there for a week before flying home from San Jose, Costa Rica on the 20th. I’m not sure if we’ll spot any monkeys in Ometepe, but I’m sure we’ll be wowed by anything that comes our way. It’s the nature of this trip, it seems.
**Meanwhile, in the time that I first wrote this post and actually posted it, there was yet another parade in Matagalpa’s streets—this time, with the tiniest kids you can imagine. Each dressed in a different costume, these wee tots looked so proud to be banging away on their little instruments (the boys) and prancing around in their high-heel boots and twirling batons (the girls) that I just had to snap a few pics.
A bunch of photos from our week in Matagalpa, for your viewing pleasure: