Satisfied with what he had seen, our new acquaintance scratched his armpits, made a soft hooting sound and darted away from our boat, up a tree branch. I turned to look at Kathya, who is a little scared of monkeys, and we both just laughed.
One of the old major cities of Nicaragua, Granada is situated on the northwest banks of Cocibolca, Lake Nicaragua. It’s colonial art and traditions have endured the test of time as it is one of the oldest cities in the New World. However, our adventure didn’t take place in the city, but about 20-minute car ride out side of the city.
About two hours before our monkey encounter, the Aleman family and I were exploring the Peninsula de Asese, and looking out over the choppy waters of Cocibolca with its mini surf. The Spanish believed that the Lake was the Pacific Ocean when they first reached it from the east, and when I got my first view of the lake, I probably would have been fooled too.
In between us and endless waters were about 365 islets that came from an explosion of the nearby Volcan Mombacho around 10 thousand years ago. Some of these islands are fair sized while others only have a few trees just above the water level.
We were searching for a boat to take us out into them for a closer look. According to Lonely Planet travel guides, there are a wide range of options to exploring the waters. For those who prefer to just relax and take in the sites you can leave from Cabinas Amarillas in a sailboat for about 28 dollars an hour. I’ve got some experience before the mast as they say, but the water near the islets is pretty shallow, and we wouldn’t be able to get close enough for a real look. For only 10 dollars you can rent a kayak from Inuit Kayaks and paddle out for an hour. Another option would be to take out one of the dingy motorboats with a group. The men at the front mobbed our car as we got out shouting prices and “deals.”
The man who took me out with his family, Oscar, started talking to the touts to find us a ride. One of them took a quick glance at me before turning back to Oscar. He then said something quickly in Spanish that made Oscar give a disgusted laugh and turn away.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He saw that you were a chele and wanted to charge us in dollars instead of cordobas,” he said laughing again. “He wanted 600 dollars to charter the boat privately.”
I knew for a fact that it shouldn’t be more than 20 US for the whole trip. Being a chele, white person in Nicaraguan slang, has real drawbacks in the tourist destinations. Other Peace Corps volunteers have told me rumors of places that almost don’t even hide that they have two prices, one for locals and one for Americans.
So the search continued until we found a small boat with an even smaller motor in the back that would take us out alone for about 500 cordobas. Kathya, Oscar, Mayra and I all took our seats as the young guide backed us out into the lake with silent precision.
After spying the name of the dingy, Juanita, Mayra turned to the guide to ask if his name was Juan.
“No...” he said with a confused look on his face. “My name is Ricardo.”
Mayra explained why she asked. She then asked where he got such a pretty name for his boat.
The teenage boy started blushing. “It’s my mom’s name.”
Mayra being the Latin mama she is immediately started praising him for being such a good son, which made his blush more.
The rest of us decided to spare him by asking him more questions about the islets. We were passing huge, grand mansions on some of them while others had restaurants and even a small hotel. Several more had humble tin shacks that housed some of the poorest of Granada.
Each islet had a story. Ricardo would point to one and say, “That big house there, that’s the French family,” and then to another, “That restaurant there, you can buy one fish that’s big enough for 4 people to eat.”
Finally we made it to the island of our little friends. Isleta de Mono or Monkey Island is one of the smallest you’ll see in the archipelago. The island is a sanctuary for capuchins and spider monkeys. The constant flow of visitors has turned them quite friendly towards humans if not actually a bit entitled feeling. When they see new boats approaching, they come down to see the people. Once they see that they’re just taking pictures and not going to give them anything in exchange, they retreat back into the leaves.
As it grew late, the time had come to leave the islets. Ricardo brought the Juanita about to head back to Cabinas Amarillas. I turned to face the western sun as it set behind Granada and Mombacho. The sunset cast orange light over the city, the waters and the faces of all of us in that little dingy as we thrummed our way back to shore leaving the islets to fade in to night.
Originally published in Va Pues, March 2012
(The Peace Corps magazine in Nicaragua)