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International airports are outposts of globalized culture. Local flavor may seep in, but between duty-free shops, uniformed customs agents, and a Starbucks or two, you don't really enter foreign lands until you step out on the airport curb.
When I touched down in Managua, Nicaragua, last week with outdoor filmmaker Corey Robinson and college friend Eliza Wicks-Arshack, that transition hit me particularly hard. I left the daze of an all-night, air-conditioned flight and wandered into the 98-degree day where dust blew, an ox-drawn cart rattled past, and a dozen taxi drivers swarmed. We were easy targets. Each of us carried a collapsible Oru Kayak and bulging, brightly colored drybag--our tickets to an off-grid adventure on Central America's largest lake. But first we had to escape the city. Drivers started a bidding war amongst themselves. Eliza, who has traveled and lived all across Latin America, used her fluent Spanish to get us into a shuttle-van instead. We sped south past the crumbling concrete homes of Nicaragua's sprawling capital, through the colorful colonial city of Granada, and into the countryside.
As we moved toward our remote destination on the south shore of Lake Nicaragua, we hopped through varying modes of transportation: shuttle van to retired school bus to a rusting Hyundai a great deal older than its 21-year-old driver, Javier. He and his friends had to use some creative rope work to strap our kayaks into the car's overflowing trunk.
We drove past the end of pavement and to the literal the end of the road at the tiny hamlet of Colon. Friendly locals directed us to a picturesque stand of lakeside palm trees where we set up our Kammok hammocks in the blaze of a tropical sunset. The cries of the howler monkeys and the crowing of roosters didn't keep us awake for long.
At dawn the next morning, we loaded onto a public boat and headed toward our destination: the Solentiname Islands, an archipelago of 36 isles in the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua. Only a handful of the islands are inhabited and none have roads or cars. The islands sounded like the perfect escape for a group of paddlers, but getting there proved difficult.
Eliza made friends on the boat ride and discovered that unusually low lake levels were going to prevent the boat from taking its standard route. Thinking we wouldn't make it to Solentiname, we began to worry--until the obvious struck Corey. "Why don't we just paddle there?" he suggested. We were carrying our own boats after all. We pulled out the GPS and learned it was only a seven-mile crossing to the largest island. On the muddy shores of the lake we left the public boat, and snapped together our kayaks.
We didn't have to paddle for long before we understood why motorboats were having trouble navigating the area. For the first hour, the water never got more than a foot or two deep and was nearly steaming beneath the sun. It was surreal to see egrets walking in the shallows several miles from shore. When we needed a break from paddling, we simply stood up.
That afternoon we arrived on Solentiname's largest island where priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, who would later become kind of spiritual leader for Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution, founded an artist colony in the 1960s. The town still has a strong communal emphasis. We stayed in the airy wooden buildings of the aptly named Community Hotel, which is owned by a number of families who share in its labors and profits.
For the next few days our agenda was wide open. We paddled our kayaks to deserted islands and explored the rainforest. We spotted monkeys swinging through the trees, toucans in high limbs, and the paths of leaf cutter ants. In the afternoons we were invited into the homes of artists where we discussed Nicaraguan history and were taught to paint small figurines in the local style.
Our final day on the islands arrived too soon, but I left thinking this was the perfect kind of kayak adventure. We'd paddled far away from the beaten path, met new people and explored exotic landscapes. Solentiname's laid-back tranquillo pace and almost nonexistent internet access allowed us to fully sink into Island Time. And best of all, I'd shared the experience with good friends.
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