The Journal  

29 December 2005


Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


León, León , Nicaragua

December 12-13

Traveling on a budget in Central America

We rolled into León, tired and dirty from a long ride, only to find the street our hotel was on closed down for construction. Parked on the side of the street, robbed of the breeze that comes with riding and sweating like pigs inside our riding suits, we pulled out our guide book to find another option. The guide had called León a hidden gem, but from what we could see, it was well hidden among the narrow streets lined with buildings with faded fronts. We identified a few possibilities and headed off into the maze of cobblestone streets to start the process of finding other hotels, stopping to see if they had rooms and continuing on if they didn't.

With enough money, you can travel anywhere in the world and stay in the United States . If you stick to the big cities, money buys you large, air-conditioned hotel rooms with ESPN and wall-to-wall carpeting, take-out from McDonalds and service from locals, who's perfect English spares you from having to attempt their native language. But to really get to know life in the country you're traveling in, you need to travel on a budget.

Most budget hotels in Central America are converted from houses. This conversion means taking large spaces and making them small, often very small. When the guidebook tells you that your hotel was a former mansion, they may forget to mention that the rooms you can afford to stay in were made out of the stable. The good thing about the way we travel is that by the time we get to our hotel, any bed feels like the Hilton.

  Bathroom privacy came in the form of a thin Pokémon sheet that hung from the door frame in our room whose walls were covered in hand-painted murals of colonial times.

Bathrooms in budget hotels are like a box of chocolates. Some are spotless, though antiquated. In others you feel dirtier after you take a shower than you did before. Things you take for granted in American hotels, like towels, toilet paper and shower curtains are usually absent. Hot water, if there is any, is usually provided by a little electric unit, connected to power with bare wires, that is mounted on the end of the shower head and provides a teasingly tepid and inconsistent stream. In tropical climates, the cold water feels good. The slimy feel of not being able to rinse the soap off of yourself does not. In many places the bathroom facilities are shared and you are at the mercy of the courtesy and cleanliness of your neighbors. If your fellow guests tend to drink to excess or have stomachs that don't agree with the local cuisine, shared conditions may become less than ideal.

  Our private bathroom wasn't much for looks. We had to provide our own toilet paper and the shower was more like a garden hose that was sticking out of the wall, sin agua caliente (without hot water).

Almost all of the budget establishments have parking for a motorcycle, an amenity that is accessible only if you have the skills of a trials rider. Parking usually involves removing all of the luggage, riding up the stairs, around the corner and across a narrow board. In León, the sidewalk was raised three feet above the street. Ten feet down from our door a set of metal ladder ramps led to a private car parking garage. I eased the bike up the ladders, trying to keep the tires on the rungs, edged up a set of concrete steps and then turned onto the foot and a half sidewalk, using the throttle when my feet wouldn't touch down for balance.

On the sidewalk I took a breather, letting pedestrians pass, and then drove down the walk to find a six-inch step into our hotel. I inched the bike as close to the edge of the walk as I dared, turned the front wheel hard to hit the step as perpendicular as possible and rolled on the throttle. The bike did a mini-burnout on the slick concrete, sliding sideways, half the rear wheel dangling above the drop-off. Holding the front brake with one hand I eased off the bike, grabbed one of the luggage mounts, and pulled it back onto the walk. I was contemplating my next move when the hotel owner appeared with a small section of board. I checked for nails and then wedged the board under the front wheel, giving myself enough of a ramp to get the bike into the hotel. Parking took twenty minutes. Being able to sleep at night knowing your motorcycle is safely locked and off the street is worth any amount of effort.

  Pedestrian traffic brakes for the motorcycle crossing as Jeremiah maneuvers the Guzzi out of our hotel down the sidewalk to the metal ladder ramp.

The only consistency in budget hotels is the friendliness of your host and their genuine enthusiasm for your visit. Little children playing by the reception desk remind you that the place you're staying is not only a business, it's also your host's home and what you have to endure for one night is a family's way of life. The smiles on their faces shame away any pampered American frown that may be on yours. We fell asleep in León, halfway clean bodies tucked in halfway clean sheets on broken down beds, happy to be staying with friends.

  The resident parrot at our hospedaje or guesthouse spent 3 hours playing with this bottle top.

  The son of our guesthouse owner spread his toys out in the foyer to play early in the morning.

  Poinsettias grow like trees in courtyards around León.

All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus