January 20, 2014

The adventure begins: Laguna de Apoyo

“HOLY CRAP this place is crazy! Lots of guys have guns. Most houses are made of aluminum sheets. The nice houses have tall walls around them with barred windows, and razor wire, electric fence, spikes, or broken glass on top. Our hotel has an armed guard outside. Get me out of here!” 

This was my 14-year-old son Silas’ Facebook post the day we arrived in Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua. We’d been picked up at the airport by a wild-eyed scientist and proceeded to careen through chaotic city streets packed with panhandling children, oxen carts, and bicycles piled high with people (three per bike seems to be the required minimum). 

Our scientist friend pointed out buildings ravaged by earthquakes, bomb-damaged statues of Sandinista revolutionaries, a giant outdoor painting of the recently deceased Nicaragua ally Hugo Chavez, and the sites of historically important assassinations. The kids were shellshocked, but I was feeling that familiar thrill of diving into a foreign land and was impressed by the vibrant public art on display and a sense that the beleaguered city was trying hard to right itself. 

“I don’t think you’re supposed to bring kids to a country like this,” Silas announced at our hotel room that night. I mentally tamped down my concern that he was right and assured them that they would like our next spot better. Then we all collapsed in our room and let the brainless balm of American sitcoms sooth our frayed nerves.

The next morning we set out for Laguna de Apoyo, the place we planned to call home for the next several weeks. Our scientist drove us out of the madhouse city, past steaming volcanoes and speeding fleets of SUVs (“that could be the president or an ambassador,” he said), to the village of Masaya where he handed us off to Pablo and his magnificently battered Land Rover. Pablo was a biologist and the manager of the research station/hostel/Spanish school at the laguna. He impressed us right away by somehow managing to fit the four of us and all of our bags into his rig. 

Laguna de Apoyo is a four-mile-wide volcanic crater filled with crystalline water from underground rivers, creating a thermally-heated lagoon of the clearest water in Nicaragua. Just reading about it and the biological station was enough to convince us to start our trip at Apoyo. But first we had to get there.

The rain started innocuously enough and we slid the windows shut while Pablo flipped on the vehicle’s single miniature windshield wiper. It was the rainy season, so we expected this. It didn’t take long, however, for it to start feeling like the end of the world. Water sheeted across the windshield, the chopstick-sized wiper working furiously and futilely, while Pablo steered with one hand and urgently wiped off windshield condensation with the other. Water poured into the vehicle down the door and windows, spraying my face and soaking my shoes. 

“Keep my camera bag dry if you can!” I called back to the kids, who were wedged into bench seats behind our bags in the back of the rattling rig. 

“Dad, we’re driving through rivers,” I heard Silas’ voice call out over the drumming of water on the roof. Most cars would have been swamped by the rushing brown waterways, but don’t worry, I called to Silas, Land Rovers are tough. Even 40-year-old shells of ones. 

Then, the rain now falling with murderous intent, we crested the rim of the Apoyo crater and began the plunge down its 1,000-foot wall. Pablo jammed the stick shift’s tall metal rod into a low gear. The nose of the Land Rover tipped below us at a shockingly steep angle and I braced a hand on the rusting metal frame of a dashboard. Tropical forest groped across the narrow road. Temporary cataracts crashed down rock faces on our side. The entire crater wall seemed sure to give out beneath us at any moment. I threw a wild smile at the kids in the back — we were having an adventure now. 

Twenty Perfect Storm-like minutes later we were in the crater bottom lugging our bags down a stone walkway to a one-room shack in the trees. Pablo opened the front door and we stepped into a room just big enough for a bunk bed, double bed, and a small table. The unclean brick walls were painted with white paint and various bug remains, which also covered the bedsheets alongside a few deposits of gecko droppings, which we would soon be experts at identifying. A large window had metal bars but no glass. Pablo said to leave the ceiling fan running to keep out bats. This was our home for the next two weeks.

I tried to put a brave face on things — “C’mon guys, let’s go check out the lagoon!” — but there’s no hiding from gecko poop on your pillowcase. Or the scorpion I would soon find in my bag. I’d wanted to show my kids some of the world’s rougher edges, to show them that material things can’t make us happy and that simple, close-to-nature living can, but even I was reeling a little now. 

Fortunately the lagoon was only a few steps away from our little dive casita. The research station, the Spanish classes we would take there, and the monkey-filled jungle were all good reasons to be here, but the lagoon was the main draw. Through all the ups and downs of the weeks that followed, it was our savior. Warm, impossibly clear, and harboring countless mysteries in its depths and jungled shorelines, we swam and paddled in its warm, sulfurous waters every day for the next three weeks. 

We’d made the decision (or more accurately, I’d begged my wife to go along with my idea) to bring two inflatable standup paddleboards on the trip. Three-piece paddles and wheeled dufflebags made hauling them around easier, but they were still two big bags in addition to the personal, duffle-style backpacks we each carried, to say nothing of my stupidly heavy pack of camera equipment. Fast and light we were not. 

But, c’mon, paddleboards at a place like Apoyo? I just knew it would be worth it. And as soon as I put those boards on the water, dug that paddle in, and glided out onto that jungle-rimmed, perfectly clear lagoon it was giddily clear I’d been right. 

We used those boards nearly every day. We soon found our favorite rocks along shore for practicing diving. 

We explored the distant, wilder reaches of the lagoon and held bellowing contests with troops of howler monkeys. 

And rather than walk the half hour to Spanish class in the morning, we frequently paddled, creating what we called the “school board.”

As you can see by her expression, our teacher was deeply impressed with my linguistic skills and ability to learn new words after only 7 or 8 reminders.

As magnificent as the lagoon was, the kids were still struggling at times, especially little Jonah. Learning Spanish was hard, the authentic Nica food we ate at the biological station was weird, and he missed his friends terribly. “Why are we here?” he asked over and over. The hard part was that I didn’t always feel like I had a good answer, at least not something that was easy to explain to an 11-year-old. 

Doing laundry by hand at the biological station.

We were here because I wanted to get my family away from the insatiable materialism and gun-toting ignorance of the U.S. for a good long while. We were here to experience different, simpler cultures. We were here because after the death of my mother I felt unmoored. Society’s conventions were meaningless. I needed to get out into the greater world and find new footing in a universe that suddenly felt reshaped and without foundation.

There was a new strain of wildness in me now, a pain in search of placation. Combined with my congenital lack of fear in the outdoors, this led to things like my decision one night to paddle from the biological station back to our casita in the dark. Wind and thunder were rumbling through the dark forest but I knew the air and water were always benignly warm, so I grabbed my board, walked down through the trees, and jumped on the lagoon just as the rain hit. The blast of wind came soon after, dropping me to my knees. I watched in awe as jagged flashes of lightning strafed the crater rim and illuminated waves, forest, and sky. My mom would’ve hated me being out here right now, I thought as the storm moved directly overhead. Soon I was fighting three-foot waves with a smile. The thunder was like bombs and explosions of white blinded me for seconds at a time. 

What would it be like to die out here? My mind flashbacked and I realized, man, I’ve had a hell of a 42 years. I have nothing to regret. The lightning flashed again, ripping open the night sky and blinding me once more. Except I wasn’t blind — in those explosions of light and thunder, wind and wave, I stared into the face of my own mortality. I knew death. I knew it was waiting for me, like it’s waiting for us all, and I was not afraid of it. 

Then I thought about my kids. How me dying out here would ruin our trip. How sad it would be for their lives. I might not be afraid to die, and there might be something deeply invigorating about being naked to the heart of the storm, but I didn’t want to go yet. Not if I can avoid it, anyway. Somehow, out on that thrashing lagoon, I found a little of that footing I was looking for. 

So, yeah, bringing the boards was good. They added just the right dash of adventure to our Apoyo cocktail. Granted, we still hadn’t dragged them through cities or on chicken buses, but even just for that first month at Apoyo they’d been worth bringing down. 

And we did end up staying for a month. After the first two weeks, we moved to a room in the biological station itself that was cleanish and more social than our casita, with Pablo, his assistant Elmer, the cook Juana, the Belgian intern Rueben, and an evolving cast of guests and Spanish students passing through. 

The company helped sooth Jonah’s homesickness a bit and allowed us to spend more time with the station’s dogs Simba and Bella and their scarlet and green macaws, which we named Groucho and Nacho, both rescued pets. 

We were lucky enough to be there when they brought in a new rescued bird, a stunning keel-billed toucan. 

The illegal pet trade is having a disastrous effect on wild macaw populations, with the scarlet macaw, one of the most beautiful birds in the world, particularly endangered. 

Though we spent most of our days in the Apoyo crater, we did foray out to practice our Spanish at local craft markets and a couple neighboring volcanoes, including the smoking crater we’d seen on our drive from Managua, Volcan Masaya, and the dormant volcano now draped in cloudforest that’s visible from Apoyo, Volcan Mombacho. 

There was one afternoon during our third week that I realized no matter how homesick the kids were, no matter how much they were missing their friends and sports teams, we were going to be okay on this trip. We were practicing backflips off the boards in the middle of the lagoon when I looked around, soaking in the beauty of the place, and said something about it being the finest swimming hole in the world. Jonah flipped off the board and said enthusiastically, “I know! I’m going to bring my kids here in like 20 years, too!”

But as much as we loved it there, after almost a month at the biological station it was time to leave Apoyo and move on. We’d learned some Spanish, squared off with scorpions and tarantulas, and now there was a whole world of enticingly raw and remote places to explore. Besides, the humidity in that crater was crazy and I had mold growing in all kinds of places it didn’t belong. 

We decided to head to the city of Granada for a few days and get a nice clean room with air conditioning so I could thoroughly clean and dry my camera gear before we headed to the next place we planned to hunker down for a month or so — Omotepe, a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua. 

Our last paddle and swim in Apoyo were bittersweet. The kids wanted to buy a house here and come back every year, but I knew, after visiting countless amazing places I've never returned to, that this might be the last time we would feel these magnificent waters. 

I got up early our final morning — before we said goodbye to Pablo, Elmer, Rueben, Juana, and the birds — and walked down the dirt road that led around a portion of the lagoon. Birds were everywhere and I marveled at the blood red bills of hummingbirds and the impossible blues of motmots. At an open highpoint with a view across the lagoon, I watched the morning sun glint the water’s surface as birdsong and butterflies filled the air. Looking across it all, both smiling and sad, I bid farewell to Apoyo, a place my family will never forget. 


  1. Good to see you are all doing well. Your pictures are as beautiful as ever. Enjoy your adventure and stay safe!

  2. I’ve been waiting for your post! After learning about you and your family taking a year off, I have been researching to do the same thing in a couple years when our youngest is a bit older. Because of that I’ve been wanting to see how your family have progressed. Glad to see they are taking it all in. I too have thought to bring a “toy” with us and my inflatable SUP was also on my list. I’m interested to hear how traveling with it will be after a couple relocations. Keep the posts (and pictures) coming.

  3. Beautiful! These are times your kids will treasure and look on fondly for many years to come!

  4. Nice to see an update on your adventure! Its refreshing to hear about the struggles as well as the wonders of this kind of traveling. You should have the kids contribute to the blog too! It would be cool to hear first-hand what they're are thinking as they have this incredible experience.

  5. It's a delight to read your blog. All the best from Bosnia.

  6. I'm following your adventure with fascination. Dying to hear the next installment! Very inspiring to read.

  7. I suppose "Our hotel has an armed guard outside." to keep "the insatiable materialism and gun-toting ignorance of the U.S." away.

    1. I thought the same thing - ironic ain't it! :) Viva la 2nd amendamente!

  8. Great to discover a new, beautiful location through this post, Aaron. The mix of informal shots and the travel ones make for a really nice series. And that last image is stunning.

  9. Headed down this weekend! Any update since late January on your family's adventures?

  10. Our website: http://www.gaianicaragua.org
    , and our blog: http://www.lagunadeapoyo.blogspot.com
    . Thank you for all the kind things written.