Saturday, June 16, 2012

A City With No Trails: Jinotega, Nicaragua

Jinotega, Nicaragua
The quaint city of Jinotega sits cradled among fertile, verdant hills that disguise themselves as impressive mountains. A Spanish nickname that signifies "city of mists" is apropos. The elevation that ranges from 3,000-5,000 feet leaves only the eyes significantly breathless. The moderate climate that is responsible for producing world-renowned coffee is tolerable year round. When it comes to the perfect place for mountain bike trails, few spots in Central America would provide a more picturesque location to carve it up and lay it down.

True to their heritage, the 50,000 plus residents of Jinotega are easy going, hospitable, and eager to find a connection with even the culturally clumsiest of gringos. Even though the city is considered "rich" in comparison to the rest of the impoverished country, the most affluent house in town still leaves any middle class American feeling like a Trump heir. (According to The World Factbook, in 2011 the GDP per capita in Nicaragua was $3,200. In the U.S., it was $41,000.) Needless to say, poverty and heartache are as boundless in the area as the fruit trees and humble smiles. My reason for travel to the large, but rather remote city was to help lead a group of high schoolers on a week-long mission trip.

I must confess it is an obsession of mine everywhere I travel to imagine bike trails cut throughout the landscape. (My grandparents have a sizable ranch in southern Texas that makes me drool every time I visit.) It was no different on this trip. Most days of the week included a substantial amount of driving to our work sites. En route to the different towns or villages, I couldn't help but lean my grimy face to the window of our battered Isuzu or bus and pretend I saw (or was riding) glorious bike trails.

Apparently, I'm not the only visitor to this off-camber region with a perpetually cyclical mindset. One website I googled noted there are "hundreds of unmarked walking trails" and advised "borrow a bike and ride the steep hills for a little adventure" ( Nice thought, only one problema. On all the bumpy roads we traveled throughout the week, not once did I see a street shop with a sign out that advertised "bikes for rent."

Sure, there were bikes galore on the cobbled byways and elevated dirt roads. In fact, of the numerous places I've been within Mexico and Peru, I have never seen near the number of people on bikes as I did in Nicaragua. I'd be willing to bet if you asked a kindhearted Nicaraguan, "puedo usar tu bicicleta, por favor," he would probably lend you his only means of transportation. (Especially if you asked him in Spanish.) Even so, for all the Córdobas in Managua, I wouldn't take a borrowed frame to the top of the closest northern Sierra and head down. No offense to my southern neighbors, but my self-preservation instincts wouldn't let me do it. Look closely at the bikes in the pictures and you'll see why.
Bikes in this part of the world have a different flavor to them. They are not seen as a means of exercise or a piece of recreational equipment. They are simply used to get from point A to point B. (Of the dozens and dozens of people I saw on a bike, not a single one had a helmet, gloves, riding shorts or clipless pedals. I feel stupid noting this.) It was not uncommon to see bikes ferrying supplies to sell at an outdoor street stall, or bikes toting one or even multiple locals down the street.

To my knowledge, there are no bike trails in Jinotega. On one hand, my brief journey made me want to return one day with a trail building crew and then get featured as an "awesome destination for mountain biking" in a national bike magazine. But on the other, I think I realized the breathtaking, green hills surrounding Jinotega may for their lifetime hold nothing more than grazing cattle and coffee beans. So to my brothers and sisters in Nicaragua who will never read this, thank you for the reminder of how immensely blessed I am to get to ride a bike. Not because it is a necessity, but because it is a luxury.

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