One Dirty Magazine
Trail-Less in Nicaragua Masaya Volcano offers adventurous running just south of crowded Managua. Photo by iStock Photo

Trail-Less in Nicaragua

A runner searches for escape in a crowded capital city—and takes whatever she can find

Megan Janssen June 1st, 2016

If you run in Managua, Nicaragua, you are not a runner. You are a badass. You run lawless highways and concrete tracks. You run through a city shaped by revolution and earthquakes. You run wherever you can, and you share your path with whatever’s around: ox-drawn carts, exhaust-spewing buses, bicycling ice-cream vendors, wandering dogs, starving horses. You run in rain that makes rivers out of roads, and you run in sole-melting heat.

I lived in Managua, but I am not a badass. I’m from the baby’s bottom of trail running: Ashland, Oregon. It’s a land of forested trails, clean air and endorphin-powered smiles. I moved to Managua because my boyfriend, also a runner, got a teaching job, and living abroad was too good an opportunity to pass up. I knew it would be a challenge, but I liked challenges. Or so I thought.

The points of interest on a typical run included piles of burning trash, pesticide-spraying trucks, high-speed SUVs not subject to emissions standards and groups of men whose greetings ranged from whistling and yelling to endless, lingering stares. On the hotter days, there were little zones that smacked of urine.

I’m not ashamed to admit I run from things: urban claustrophobia, everyday worries, the general roteness of being a human in society. I soon realized I couldn’t get away from those things in Managua. Every time I laced up my shoes, a host of new worries was introduced.

I decided it was time to get out the map and find some damn running trails.

Masaya Volcano

Our car broke down for the fifth time in five months the day before our trip to Masaya. No sweat: Nicaragua lacks many amenities, but public transportation is not one. A taxi, buggy and bus got us to the front entrance for less than $1. We even had change to buy a delicious Nicaraguan espresso along the way.

Masaya is one of the few volcanoes where you can saunter up, look over the edge and see the incandescent rock and magma below. The crater is constantly smoking, and there is a sign that reads, “Area of Eruption Influence—No Parking.” Indigenous Nicaraguans are said to have sacrificed women there to pacify the “displeased gods.” In the 16th century, the Spanish called it The Mouth of Hell and built a giant crucifix on the rim. It’s a beautiful, haunting place.

Dark volcanic rock and tipsy dry grasses lined the seemingly endless trail. Arthritic trees and a brilliant sky provided the backdrop. I felt like I was running through a Tim Burton film.

We had nearly reached our turnaround, seven kilometers in, when I felt some displeased gods of my own. I gathered some leaves and wandered into the brush, cursing the pre-run espresso. Squatting next to termite mounds and cacti, I thought, Maybe the Sign of a trail run is whether you can dig a hole along the way.

The run back began at noon, in 100-degree heat. It was complete with giant iguanas and dehydration that parked me in the shade to contemplate whether I should join the sacrificial women in the mouth of the volcano.

Four bottles of water later, we boarded the return bus, trying not to offend the other passengers with our volcanic stink. I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful that we had a volcano to run, grateful for the packed-to-the-gills bus we could hail from the side of the highway, grateful for legs that carry and the spirit that makes them go.

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The author on Selva Negra singletrack. Photo by Leland Fulton

The Hidden Road

After some GoogleMaps research, we discovered a dirt road near our house that led into the hills above Managua. It was like finding a hundred-dollar bill in an old coat pocket.

The shaded road meandered up to the forest, past shacks, pigs and roosters. Poinsettias, enormous ceiba trees and prickly pear grew wildly. Sometimes, we’d spot a motmot, the flashy national bird of Nicaragua.

Of course, there were still burning trash piles, taxis, trucks, dubious stares and dogs that wanted to rip your shorts off.

The road quickly became a staple. One day, we found a baseball game in action at the large field where the road ended: a board for a bat and three mitts to go around. Old men and boys lined up to play. We cheered on the players while kids attempted baseball lingo: “Strikes!” “Homer run!”

I didn’t know if this road counted as a trail, considering you could get a taxi at any point. But I was willing to take it.

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A trail junction in Selva Negra. Photo by Leland Fulton

Selva Negra—The Black Jungle

I’ll come right out with it: Selva Negra is the baby’s bottom of trail running in Nicaragua.

Selva Negra, the “Black Jungle,” is a modest resort in the central highlands. Better known for its farm, coffee plantation and sustainable tourism, it also has copious cloud-forest singletrack within its 300-acre reserve.

The trails—steep, rolling, technical and dramatic—all lead to a ridge that overlooks a rich highland valley. The strangler fig trees get as tall as 50 meters; orchid epiphytes decorate trunks and swooping branches. Monkeys, toucans and quetzals frequent the treetops. And more to the point: there are bona fide trails.

We spent a weekend in Selva Negra, scrambling up root ladders, dunking our heads in streams and gazing out at the gorgeous valley below. We crossed mossy ridges and craggy creek beds. We ran leaf-covered paths and bamboo mazes.

I had to remind myself to stop and look around, so I could channel it the next time I ran in the mayhem of Managua. It was in these quiet moments, legs aching and skin dripping, that I finally felt alive and wild. I had found a piece of home.

Megan Janssen, a freelance writer and runner, recently returned to the “baby’s bottom” of trail running. This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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