A Life-Altering Swim: Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua

Roughly a month after I started traveling, I was close to finishing an extended period exploring Northern Nicaragua. I had accomplished almost everything I wanted to do in the region. The one experience I was still missing was the one I was most excited about: hiking in the cloud forest. Unfortunately, much of the cloud forest in Central America has been developed into farmland.  Opportunities to really experience it are surprisingly difficult to find.

As a result, I had become obsessed with reaching one location in particular: a remote mountain village called Peñas Blancas. The Lonely Planet description of the village states “here you’ll find the mossy, misty, life-altering primary cloud forest scenery you’ve been waiting for.”

The first time I read it, I slammed the book shut and thought, “How did they know?!”

Now here I was, weeks after reading that sentence, with one spare day in my schedule. The “life-altering” cloud forests and stunning cliffs of Peñas Blancas were a three hour bus ride into the mountains in the opposite direction of my next destination. It was a fool’s journey to go for one night, but I was determined to make it happen. I asked the owner of my hostel for advice.

He told me about a man from Peñas Blancas named Don Chico. Don Chico had spent every single one of his 78 years wandering the cliffs of Peñas Blancas. He ran a small eco-tourism business, leading guided hikes into the cliffs and renting out his extra bedroom for a pittance. My hostel owner reassured me that the few people he had seen make the trek to Peñas Blancas had returned with rave reviews of Don Chico.

I was convinced.

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Usually I adore “chicken buses”, the rickety, pervasive transport systems of Central America. Chicken buses are generally old American school buses that have been given new life by the relaxed safety laws and persistent mechanics of Central America. They’re patched up, painted audacious colors, outfitted with boisterous sound systems, and driven exhaustively over anything resembling a road.

Though chicken buses are more than the novelty of seeing a neon green Bluebird bus covered in Playboy stickers; the experience of riding one is unparalleled. One might encounter anything – four people squeezed into a two person seat, buckets of rusty car parts between your feet, boxes of live chicks in the luggage racks, men riding on the roof while sacks of onions serve as your seatmate.

A good chicken bus ride is cheap transportation and entertainment rolled into one. A bad chicken bus ride, though, is a nightmare.

Unfortunately, my ride to Peñas Blancas was the latter.

I climbed into the bus early in the morning and waited for it to fill up. As with most chicken buses going to remote towns, it was filled to the brim by the time we left. Human bodies, bags of produce, baskets of tortillas, plastic furniture, and a random assortment of other items filled every inch of space in the bus.

This bus was even more run-down and crowded than most. As it slowly creaked into the mountain I began to feel slightly claustrophobic. I was exceedingly aware of the unabashed stares of the local Nicaraguans; they didn’t often see paper-white tourists on this route.

I was relieved when the half-seat at the back of the bus opened up. It was only big enough for one person and assured me some breathing room.

This was my mistake.

Thus far in my travels Nicaragua, the people I had met had been incredibly welcoming and helpful. I had experienced very little outright harassment from men—I hadn’t even really been catcalled. Instead of catcalling, Nicaraguan men make a strange hissing noise under their breath. While the sound is a little unnerving, it’s easier to ignore and less offensive than the audible jeers I’ve experienced elsewhere.

Unfortunately the vendors on the route to Peñas Blancas seemed determined to make me feel every bit of harassment I had missed so far in Nicaragua. They would climb into the bus via the back door, hollering in Spanish that they had various snacks and drinks for sale. When they finished walking the aisle, they would return to the back door and wait for the next stop, staring at me unblinkingly and hissing.

“¿Plantanitos, mami?” they’d ask me. “¿Tienes un novio?Do you have a boyfriend? Or better yet, they’d employ the little English they knew to leer at me more effectively: “Hello, baby.”

They seemed to enjoy my discomfort, and a group of them formed to watch the sport. I sat stiffly ignoring them. They laughed at my determination.

◊◊◊◊

I went to college in Boston, a city that is widely considered one of the safest in the United States. One weekend night in my second year I visited a friend across town for a late dinner and movie. As a result, I ended up riding home alone on the last subway train of the night. I climbed into the nearly empty train car and found a single seat to myself.

Shortly before the train took off, one more person stumbled into the car, looked around, and sat behind me. He was young, tall, white, shaggy-haired, and tipsy.

I could tell he was feeling chatty, so I pulled a book out of my bag to ward him off. It only deterred him for a few minutes.

“Hi.” He said. I sighed and looked up at him begrudgingly. This, unfortunately, was enough to encourage him. He chattered on incessantly for the rest of the half hour train ride. It seemed innocent enough – he told me about his night and his favorite bars in the city. When we were within a few stops of my destination I started preparing to pack up and leave. The sight of this stirred an abrupt change in his attitude.

“You’re into weird sex, aren’t you?” he said. I jumped, startled.

“Wait a few more stops and get off with me. You’re into the weird stuff, I can just tell. Let me eat you out.”

I stared at him, appalled. What had happened to the drunk rambling idiot I had been ignoring moments before? He flicked his tongue at me and grinned.

My stomach lurched. He had suddenly become threatening. I was mad at myself for letting the conversation go so far. Why had I been speaking to him in the first place?

I got off as soon as the train stopped, one stop early. He yelled at me as I left, “Come on, you know you want it!”

I waved him off and jumped off the train. I nearly sprinted around the nearest corner before I slowed down and started breathing again. My heart was beating like crazy — I couldn’t unclench my fists. I had been planning on heading home but I wouldn’t be able to sleep now. I hurried down the block to a friend’s house, where I knew I would find people to help calm my rattled nerves.

I arrived to find a group of them watching a movie. I explained what had happened, my voice shaking.

One of the girls looked at me sympathetically and handed me a beer. “That, my dear, is why you don’t take the last train of the night.”

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By the time the bus came to a stop at the turnoff for Peñas Blancas, I was a bundle of nerves. I leapt off the bus, suddenly anxious about my arrangement with the mysterious Don Chico. How could I have simply jumped on a bus to meet a random man in a random place in a foreign country? How would I get in touch with him if I couldn’t find him? Where would I head next, and were there back-up options for lodging if Don Chico fell through? The whole plan suddenly seemed like a hair-brained scheme.

Don Chico was there at the stop waiting for me, a hunched elderly man wearing waist high jeans, a baseball cap, and rubber boots. When he saw me step down from the bus he broke into a wrinkly grin. I spotted a few gold-rimmed teeth glittering beneath his Chaplin mustache.

He walked me down the road to his house, chattering excitedly the whole time. I began to relax as I started to recognize the characteristic Nicaraguan hospitality and kindness in his demeanor.

We turned a corner and suddenly, breathtakingly, there they were: the staggering white cliffs of Peñas Blancas. They peaked far above our heads, glistening and ghostly amongst the morning clouds. They were draped in the much-anticipated cloud forest, a rich tangle of enormous cathedral trees, bromeliads, orchids, and birdsong.

“¿Lista?” Don Chico asked, grinning at my expression of awe. Ready?

◊◊◊◊

It quickly became one of the best hikes of my life. The steep hike up to the cliffs took roughly an hour and a half. At points we gained nearly vertical altitude, climbing up worn wooden ladders or using tree roots and limbs to hoist ourselves up. At other times, we crept slowly along narrow, muddy trails overlooking steep declines. All the time we were surrounded by gorgeous old-growth trees and views out over the rolling hills of Nicaragua.

Don Chico invariably bounced ahead of me, grinning and chattering enthusiastically. He often gave me very specific instructions for how to handle the tricky parts.

“Put this foot here, and that foot there. And grab this tree, not that one.” He would say in nearly incomprehensible Spanish. Then he would break out into light, childish giggles.

Don Chico Penas Blancas Nicaragua
78 years old and still swinging from vines

He was a hilariously fun hiking partner. His whole demeanor was giddy enthusiasm, whether he was explaining the medicinal use of plants or swinging from vines. He was strangely intent on me taking thousands of pictures of the hike.

At one point he stopped and pointed at one of the enormous elephantine leaves that dotted the undergrowth. This particular plant drooped onto the trail, its leaves as tall as Don Chico. I tried to take a picture, but he stopped me.

“No, no. Like this.” He said. He moved behind the leaf and put his head in the crevice at the top so that the leaf covered his whole body. I laughed and took a picture of him before I obliged and we switched places.

As we climbed higher, I had to stop more often to stare in awe at the forest around me. The trees rose in towers around us, tens of feet wide and dripping with air plants and orchids. Vines and plants of every variety fell from the branches to the ground, creating a curtain of plant life between us and the valleys below.  The white cliffs peeked out from beside us, startling bright in the sunlight.

Near the top, Don Chico pointed out one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I have ever observed. Above us, just in front of the nearest white cliff, the morning sun was blasting through a gap in the canopy. The light clearly belonged to a sunny day, and yet, somehow, in that small space in front of the cliff it appeared to be raining.

penas blancas nicaragua
this is a picture that does absolutely no justice to one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen

As far as I understood from Don Chico’s enthusiastic explanation, the water was condensation from the namesake clouds of the morning. It was dripping from the roots and leaves of plants far above us. The sun blazed determinedly through the droplets, giving the trees and cliffs an ethereal, heavenly glow. Standing there, surrounded by haunting birdsong and gazing into that incredible light was one of the most magical moments of my life.

◊◊◊◊

We pushed onwards until we reached the top of the cliff. Unadulterated cloud forest stretched out as far as I could see, full of ancient trees, mossy branches, and dazzling butterflies.

penas blancas nicaragua
those bromeliads though

By this point, I too was pure zealous energy. Don Chico proceeded to lead me into the forest, where seemingly every turn revealed a new glistening swimming hole or tumbling waterfall. I must have seen fifteen waterfalls over the course of an hour.  We stopped frequently to drink from the spring water, pouring it into our mouths from big tropical leaves.

As we continued onward, I began to feel a sort of emotional distress rising in my chest. I knew what it was immediately. I wanted to swim.

Here I was, at the peak of a series of mind-blowing cliffs in the midst of untouched cloud forest, stumbling across increasingly fantastic swimming holes. Each one teased me more: the water was perfectly clear and crisp, the sun glittering through the leaves into the depths of the pool. They were like images from a dream or a Disney movie, imagined representations of nature at its most idyllic. My heart ached with the desire to jump in.

But how could I? I had several hours of hiking left with Don Chico, and I couldn’t do it in wet clothing. I would have to swim in my bra and underwear in front of Don Chico. The thought horrified me.

I’m not sure whether Don Chico realized what I was thinking or if the fates were just trying to tempt me, but at the next pool he asked me if I wanted to swim. I looked at him, stalled in confusion. I couldn’t speak Spanish well enough to express my doubts or ask what exactly he meant. I was all alone in the decision.

I thought hard. I thought about how this seemed like exactly the sort of common sense situation that travel books and my mother would tell me to avoid. I thought about my underwear. I thought about those men on the bus in Nicaragua, and the man on the train in Boston, and men in general. I thought about Don Chico’s innocent, toothy grin. I thought about how I would feel if I left this perfect swimming hole without swimming in it. I thought about the immense amount of privilege, effort, luck, money, and time that had gotten me to the foot of this waterfall at the top of a cliff in a remote region of northern Nicaragua. I thought about how unfair it was that I had to think so much, when a male traveler would already be splashing around in the water. I thought until Don Chico looked at me with concern.

I thought about the overwhelming kindness and welcome that Don Chico and Nicaraguans in general had shown me throughout my trip. I thought about rising above the intimidation of being a solo female traveler and taking ahold of the moment. I thought for one second more, stripped down to my bra and underwear, and dove into the crystal clear water.

It was the best swim of my life.


Gee, what a long post! That’s because this is an abridged version of a piece of writing I submitted to the Women Travel Latin America 2017 writing contest about women traveling alone. I hope you enjoyed it–wish me luck!

3 thoughts on “A Life-Altering Swim: Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua

  1. Thank you for sharing this interesting and very relevant story! I believe we are many who have had these considerations at some point when traveling in Latin America. In my own case, I did a similar experience in Colombia. So, thanks for putting it into words and sharing it 🙂
    //Rebecca

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