Having just said to Mike that I really don´t know how to start this blog post he laughingly replied “Once upon a time….” You know he might just be right because, as a result of our recent inland trip, Nicaragua became our favourite country in Central America [just beating Guatemala] and whilst what I will recount is true and not a fairytale, the place was certainly magical.
Our first stop was León, originally Nicaragua´s capital and where, as described by The Lonely Planet, “a faded romance pervades its eave-shaded streets”.
It was originally founded in 1525 near the foot of Volcán Momotombo – which you can just see in the distance – but was moved to its present site in 1610 after suffering a series of earthquakes. Following the move, the old city – León Viejo – was buried under layers of ash which later erupted from Momotombo and it stayed undiscovered until 1967 when excavations revealed a large plaza, a cathedral, church and monastery as well as several private homes. All that remains are some of the foundations – about a foot high – which looked less than impressive in the photographs I took so I have decided not to bore you with those! There is a fairly good museum recounting the history of the city and its inhabitants. The displays and exhibit descriptions are in Spanish only, but our grasp of written Spanish is sufficient for us to have understood most of it – even if it did take about ten times as long to read! Mike´s favourite exhibit was an old map of Central America…..
…….which, as much as anything else gives you some idea about the size of the “Lago de Managua” and also gives a hint as to why Nicaragua is building a canal to rival Panama. On the Pacific side a river runs almost to Leon and there is a massive, already partly navigable, river running out of the eastern end of the lake all the way to the Caribbean.
In what was the centre of the old plaza a statue commemorating the indigenous tribes of Nicaragua has been erected….
Apparently it is possible to take a rooftop tour, though we didn´t actually see anyone up there and our trip to the rooftops [from where the top photograph was taken] was part of our visit to the “Revolutionary Veterans’” museum. Traditionally, León has been the most politically progressive of Nicaraguan cities and during the Revolution virtually the whole town fought against Somoza.
It remains a Sandinista stronghold though we saw many signs of support for the FSLN [Frente Sandinista de Liberatión National] throughout the country e.g. in Estelí in the north of the country….and on the island of Ometepe, south of Grenada….
……as well as statues depicting the political heroes and revolutionaries almost everywhere we went…
Being an old Colonial City León has its fair share of beautiful buildings. Although, at least on the outside, they are not as well preserved as those in Granada, the insides remain excellent examples of Spanish architecture and design….
…. as seen at Fundación Ortiz. This art museum, as well as displaying old masters, contains an impressive selection of modern art including a selection of photographs, depicting transport, with a decorated armoured Tuk Tuk as its centerpiece.
I mentioned above that colonial glories are much more prominent in Granada which, rather fittingly – given the theme of this post, is considered to be the “goose which laid Nicaraguan tourism´s golden egg!
Despite their often elaborate looking exteriors we found that many of the churches are actually quite simply decorated inside.
But even those elaborate exteriors can be deceiving as several of the facades are rather “false”. From the front they give the suggestion of being part of a large impressive building e.g. the “Convento e Inglesia de San Fransisco”….
….but when seen from the side a building only half the height is revealed– you can see the real roof height at the left of the photograph and, below the bell tower to the right there is no building at all.
The convent houses a small, but interesting, museum and has an excellent collection of basalt sculptures carved by the inhabitants of Isla Zapatera between AD800 and AD1200. Unfortunately I didn´t have my camera with me on that day but we were lucky enough to find what I thought were better examples in an old church in Altagracia, Ometepe
But Granada is not just a collection of beautiful buildings – it is also a bustling, vibrant place with small markets and parks and gardens giving shade and opportunity to relax and pass the time of day.
The city is surrounded by volcanoes with Volván Mombacho being the most famous. It forms part of one of the National Parks and visitors have a choice of three walks of varying length and difficulty at its summit. The highest peak is at 1,345metres [approx 4,350ft] and is covered by a cloud forest between 800m and 1100m after which it becomes a dwarf forest. The two longer walks are guided [compulsory] and cost about $20 [£14] per person on top of the $13 [£9] you have already paid to gain entrance to the park and ride the ecobus up to the research station. Hhmmm – a four hour hike with a sharp 1,000 foot climb on rugged terrain and having to pay for the privilege – let me think about that. Given the state of my old and decrepit knees and that I had been ill for a couple of days [everyone is now of course feeling sorry for me – well, maybe not!] I didn´t have to think for long and we opted for the 1.5k self-guided option traversing the aforesaid cloud forest.
Maybe it was due to us visiting in the “off” season, but there was only one ecobus operating that day and it seemed to be timed to return when a party of young sprightly things would get back from the medium length walk – approximately 90 minutes after we finished our stroll and had spent some time looking at bottles of snakes and spiders preserved in glass jars – well, it is a research station! So, we decided to walk down to the café at the half way point. It took us about an hour so we thought there would be plenty of time for a brew – only to find that having been served our coffee and sandwich, the ecobus turned up. It did stop to see if we wanted a lift but the driver didn´t want to wait until we finished eating/drinking so we had the choice of leaving our food or letting the bus go. We decided on the latter and then had another hour of trolling [clever inclusion of a fairytale type word there!] down to the bottom. Half way back and it started to rain, in the way that it can in the tropics, big heavy drops which increase in volume until its like trying to walk through sheets of water. To add insult to injury, the ecobus came back up the hill and the driver waved but, despite the fact we had paid for a return journey, he did not turn round and give us a lift.
Overall it wasn´t our best volcano experience and paled in comparison to the evening trip we had taken a few days before to Volcán Masaya which is on the other side of Granada. Described by the Spaniards as “the gates of hell”, the two volcanoes “Masaya” and “Nindiri” comprise five craters. Cráter Santiago is still quite active….
The appealing working class city of Masaya lies about half way between Granada and the current Nicaraguan capital, Managua. We spent a couple of pleasant days and nights there and, if flying into or out of the International Airport situated on the outskirts of Managua, I would consider Masaya a good place to stay. The city is bordered on one side by the “Laguna de Masaya” and promenading along the Malecón is supposed to be a very popular pastime. It was certainly very pleasant with good views over the lagoon…
….but I´m less sure about the popular, though it was the middle of the day rather than the traditional early evening time for seeing and being seen. Masaya is famous for its “artisanías”, particularly the production of good quality cotton hammocks.
As well as being more colourful than others we have seen they also have fancy side pieces which appear to be unique to Masaya weavers. The most concentrated area for the artisans to display and sell their wares is in the original town market which was restored after being almost completely destroyed in the revolution.
It was a pleasure to wander round because as well as some very nice and relatively inexpensive goods, the vendors weren´t at all pushy – which is very unusual for a market in Central America. It is certainly the place to go for buying gifts to take home and, as I said, being so close to the International Airport means you could leave it until the end of the holiday so you don´t have to worry about carrying extra stuff throughout your trip. The new municipal market is situated on the outskirts of the town next to the bus station [of course]…
It too has its artisan stalls, but I found the stuff there to be rather shoddy in comparison.
Between Masaya and Granada lies the beautiful crater lake “Laguna de Apoyo”.
This view was taken from Catarina – one of the “Pueblos Blancos”. Now, I´m afraid that sometimes the Lonely Planet exaggerates. You read “this charming mountainous region [true] is dotted with pretty villages …of which the gorgeous [definitely not true] village of Catarina is known for its mirador offering sweeping views of the lake [true]. The “Pueblos Blancos” are apparently named after “the pale white stucco homes which once dominated the area and overlook the laguna”. Maybe it is my imagination at fault rather than the Lonely Planet but in my mind I pictured something like a small version of Santorini. Wow, was I disappointed. There wasn´t a white house in sight either in the village or on the hillsides and “gorgeous” isn´t the description I would used for a tourist trap of a place with tacky pottery stalls and souvenir shops and restaurants [albeit with rather nice views] selling beer at three times the price of anywhere else including Granada itself. I wish we had taken the alternative way of visiting the Laguna i.e. by taking a local bus to the crater edge and walking the 2k down. Still, the views were stunning…
I think the time has come for a small diversion from places visited to a discussion about a few observations we made whilst travelling around. The first is about litter – which is everywhere. Despite the fact that there are signs in many places about not dumping rubbish everyone throws small plastic bags or wrappers out of bus windows, drops the remains of food, discards broken bits of footwear, furniture or whatever in the place where it finally gave up the ghost and generally litters the place. No one seems to mind or care and we found it quite sad that some of the beauty spots were marred by the stuff left behind. I speak here not just of Nicaragua but of everywhere in Central America and, if I could change one thing about the place it is that.
Something I wouldn´t want to change – the subject of my second observation – is the juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern. We saw old ox carts which are still in use…
We saw cattle being herded slowly along the lake, and this in the Granada, to better pastures [and see what I mean about the litter!]….
….and – in contrast – a mobile phone in the hand of every person we met. I saw one person who clearly didn´t have much in the way of money polishing his phone every time he took it out of his pocket – which was on average about 15 seconds after he had put it in there! Bus drivers use them all the time whilst driving and photographs of anything and everything are taken just because its possible. I know that the mobile phone or the latest i.phone 6 [well it was the latest a few weeks ago!] has taken over the world and that everybody has one permanently attached to ear or fingers, but it was just so noticeable because the rest of life in Nicaragua is as it has been for years and years.
On this note, my final observation is that there is no national dress. In contrast to Guatemala and to Panama, in Nicaragua [and in El Salvador] everyone wears western style clothes. Actually, I am not strictly telling the truth as there are national costumes but these only seem to be worn on special occasions.
One such occasion was Children´s Day which was celebrated on Friday 5th September. In advance of the celebration we saw a performance of songs and poems by young children in the small town of Matagalpa…
The Children´s parade which we witnessed the following day, in nearby Jinotega, was really quite amusing. As you will see, some of the children enjoyed it more than others but there were rows of small kids in their school uniforms with added “military style” hats and gloves…
…who were interspersed with the “bigger boys” co-opted to provide the band [for whom practices seem to be held daily just when you want a siesta!]
…and, my favourites, these aspiring majorettes…
Matagalpa and Jinotega were two of the three mountain towns we visited in north Nicaragua – Estelí being the third. Despite its popularity with backpackers, probably because of its proximity to two Eco Reserves, we didn´t find Estelí to our taste and with hindsight would have given ourselves an extra night in both León and in Matagalpa instead. However, we did go on a very nice walk to a local waterfall….
Matagalpa we really liked. It is a bit unkempt but the people were extremely friendly and there was a very nice Italian restaurant/wine bar! We met and spoke with several locals during our walk towards “Cerro Cruz”.
As per instructions from our trusty guidebook we first went to the “Café Girasol” [Sunflower] to get a pamphlet of the self guided walk [by get I mean buy because it is a charitable community project]. Unfortunately it was a very poor map and/or whoever wrote it didn´t check with the local farmers that the paths either existed or were open to the public. Both the land owners we met were very pleasant and, even though one was shouting loudly and gesturing with his machete he was only doing what the British do when talking to someone who can´t speak the lingo i.e. talk louder and louder and try charades at the same time! We were, therefore, turned back twice and didn´t actually make it to the cross but we did get a good view of the town nestling in the bottom of the valley.
…we headed off down a track looking for one or more of the four small hamlets we had read about and which were supposed to be nearby. We don´t know whether we found any of the ones listed but we did have a great day out. There were signs of community living such as this well….
Matagalpa was the first, but not last, place that we encountered school children wanting to practice their English. The conversation went something like “Hello”, “Hello”, “Where are you from?”, “England”, “What is your name?”, “Mike/Claire”, “Goodbye” and off they would trot giggling with their schoolmates.
There is clearly a great willingness on the part of Central American people to welcome tourists and they are happy to put up with very poor Spanish and try to use their little English. We felt both welcomed and safe everywhere we went. The only place I probably wouldn´t have liked to wander – particularly at night – is Managua although the Lonely Planet doesn´t give the same level of warning for this capital city as for e.g. Tegucigalpa, Honduras or Guatemala City. So, strolling around in the evening was very pleasant ….
….being able to watch people doing everyday things be it chatting to a mate outside the “casino”, playing pool, gathering as a family at one of the street food stalls,or playing hopscotch [OK, so no hopscotch being played but it was there if you wanted to!]
The four photographs above were taken in Jinotega where we enjoyed what was probably the best steak we have had in Central America. It might not look much but it was beautifully cooked, cut like butter and the veggies were fresh and served al dente. Perfect.
Talking of food, we loved the “Macho” breakfast offered at a restaurant in León….
Well, I think its now time to move on to the enchanted kingdom of Ometepe. Indeed, the Lonely Planet even says “Ometepe is the sort of place that belongs in fairy tales or fantasy novels”. To get to Ometepe you have to take a ferry from Granada or San Carlos [twice weekly – 4hrs and 10 hrs respectively] or, as we did, the much more frequent 1 hour [approx] crossing from San Jorge, near Rivas on the PanAmerican highway.
The ferry ride was an adventure in itself. Everyone´s luggage was under the tarpaulin, two bikes were tied on [not quite cross channel ferry style!] and we, and four other backpackers were seated on a bench at the back. The funnel belched smoke which gave us a lovely black speckled look and then it rained, hard, so the guys who had loaded the boat lifted up the tarp and dived under, followed rapidly by us gringos! The rain cleared as we approached the island and we got our first close up view of Volcán Concepción, one of the two volcanoes which rise out of the lake to form Ometepe, the other being Volcán Maderas.
However, having arrived safely ashore we caught the one direct bus of the day to Santa Cruz and our accommodation which was surrounded by a lovely flower filled garden which attracted butterflies, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon.
Ometepe is extremely unspoilt. Many of its [few] roads are dirt tracks and the charm of some of the available accommodation is a result more of location and potential for relaxing than modern facilities – though we were more than happy and had electricity [most of the time] and a perfectly good, if cool, shower.
The nearby beach of black sand offered views of both Volcanoes…..
….as well as a glimpse of what must have been the “lost boys” – obviously at least one of them wanted to stay lost!
We had a great view of Concepción from our balcony and Mike managed to capture it almost uncovered by cloud on one occasion…
Ometepe is famous for its petroglyphs which, you may remember from previous blog posts, depict humans, animals and birds as well as being carved in geometric shapes. We understand that there are petroglyphs dotted around over most of the island, some possibly lying undiscovered but we decided to visit Finca Porvenir just down the road from our hotel where we enjoyed locally grown coffee in their palappa restaurant and were able to view [free of charge] the few petroglyphs in their grounds.
Far more plentiful were those at Finca Magdelena which was a 5k [3mile] walk from Santa Cruz. Again coffee/food was available – both Fincas also offer accommodation – but there was a charge of $2 [£1.35] which is hardly extortionate especially as the forest trail you had to take to visit them took about 45 minutes. Well, it should have done, according to the sign, but somehow we got lost and then it started to rain and then it got really muddy and slippery and the…. No I won´t go on. Looking back it was actually quite funny and, once it had stopped raining, the sun came out and quickly dried us off. We did, however, see some more excellent examples of the old carvings…..
Our longest walk on Ometepe was approximately 10k [6miles] from Santa Cruz on the Maderas side to Altagracia on Concepción. Although the walk was along the main road we probably encountered only half a dozen cars [taxis or car rental] and one bus during the whole walk. The most popular form of transport on the island, other than real or shank´s pony, is the push bike and, although we didn’t, it is possible to hire these, or small mopeds, if you wish to get around faster. Quite why you would want to go any faster I am not sure – Ometepe is for reading, relaxing or enjoying a cold beer in a beachside bar
As well as guided 8-12 hour hikes up the volcanoes [guess what – we didn´t do this either!] the most popular tourist spot – well maybe the only tourist spot – is the “Ojo de Agua” [Eye of Water] – a freshwater spring which provided a spot for a cool swim in the heat of the day.
The most popular hostel on the island was also just down the road from our hotel and is called “Little Morgan´s”. It is very rustic but quite charming with all accommodation in shared huts. We believe it can get quite boisterous at weekends and during high season but it was very quiet when we popped in for a beer and an excellent sandwich lunch [homemade bread] and there was only one thing hogging the pool table!
So, it is possible to wander from place to place and find somewhere to eat and sleep as you go but we were happy staying in just the one place, getting out and about from there and relaxing in the evening on the hammock or rocking chairs outside our room. I was rather surprised though on one evening when I looked down and saw my chair being used for a very different purpose….
In total we spent five nights on Ometepe though, on the day we came to leave, we thought we might have to stay for a little longer! On our last night it started raining at about 7pm and it rained and rained and rained – and really quite heavily at times. Unperturbed we got up for breakfast hoping to catch the only direct bus back to the port at approximately 9.30am. With the rain during the night we were half expecting that bus not to turn up because the first 4k [2.5miles] of its journey was along the very rough, unpaved, track with some quite steep uphill sections that we had walked along and back to Merida the day before. We were therefore prepared for a two stage journey on a different bus from Santa Cruz to Altagracia and then another from Altagracia to Moyagalpa [the main “town” and port] – all of which is along a tarmac road. In the hotel restaurant we met three Spanish nurses who were holidaying in Ometepe having been working for three months as volunteers in the poverty ridden town of Bluefields on Nicaragua´s Caribbean coast. They too were looking to leave the island that day but greeted us with the news that no buses at all were running because the road between Altagracia and Moyagalpa was blocked. The hotel thought that the blockage would be cleared by mid morning – but, as time went on, the young women decided to try to get a taxi instead and invited us to join them. To cut a long story short we had to get two taxis and made it to the port on time for what we think might have been the last ferry of the day. What we hadn´t realized, and the reason for two taxis instead of one, was the severity of the devastation and the length of road blockage which had ensued. Huge boulders – as you can see from the photograph below using Mike – and the boy – as comparators…..
If you think this was inconvenient for us, spare a thought for the 200 families who lost their homes and livelihoods that day and to the family who saw their 5 year old daughter swept to her death. A sad end to our visit to Omepete, though it will long remain in our minds as a place of beauty and peace.
We were delighted to find that, like us, our Spanish travelling companions were planning to go to San Juan del Sur. Obviously they could communicate much better than us and were also used to bartering over taxi fares. We think that being with them saved us at least $20 [£14.00] in taxi fares and then the taxi driver took us to a really nice hostel in San Juan and saved us another $15 having told us in advance the price of the room – so that when the proprietress said $25 we could say “the taxi driver [her friend] said $20” which she just accepted. This was quite a good thing for me to experience as I am always VERY wary of taxi drivers offering to take you to his friend´s hotel/restaurant/ shop/whatever. Usually it means a backhander for him [fine] but an inflated price for us to cover the backhander…and more [not so fine]. On this occasion however it worked well – though I will still remain wary!
$35 [£23] may not sound to many of you like it was worth me bothering about – but every little helps and when you can get a litre bottle of beer for about $3 [£2] in a bar and $1 in a shop and a quarter bottle of rum served on a tray with a bottle of coke or lemonade, ice and limes for $6 [£4], you realize just how far that $35 will go!
San Juan del Sur is a seaside town nestled in a horseshoe bay. Traditionally a fishing village, it is now a popular beach resort though fishing is still a good source of income for the locals and a few “wet fish” shops can be found near the harbor.
The photograph is taken looking south, the hills in the far distance being Costa Rica and you may be able to work out from the photo that it is also an anchorage for visiting boats. In addition it is an official port of entry. There were a couple of catamarans and a couple of small [36ft]cruising yachts anchored while we were there though, having read “Noonsite” [good website for any yachties who haven´t come across it yet], it seems that October is the worst month of the year to consider going there due to the weather. Perhaps we had good weather – for October, but even so there was quite a swell and I can see that in foul weather there would be little protection. The area available for anchoring is almost taken up with mooring balls but if it was calm and you just wanted to clear in I think it would be fine. Noonsite suggests a better anchorage a few miles up the coast though apparently with space only for a couple of boats.
San Juan itself is a great little town. However, as well as the possibility of bad weather in October, visiting at that time means you are in the middle of the aforementioned “off-season” which, understandably, seems to be the time when many shopkeepers and restaurateurs take their break. There were some great sounding restaurants in Trip Advisor but all of them were closed during the three nights we were there. But, undeterred, we managed to find an excellent local fish restaurant towards the back [i.e. not the beach side] of the town.
Although wine was on their menu they didn´t actually have any so they were quite happy for us to go to the nearby shop and buy a bottle and provided a corkscrew with no corkage charge. That´s service.
The town is surrounded by tall picturesque cliffs and we decided to walk to the statue perched on the top overlooking the anchorage. It was quite a tough climb up a very steep road in temperatures well into the 90´s [F that is – approx 30C]. The statue….
The views down to the small coves on the other side [north] were also lovely…..
Most people staying in San Juan itself seem to pay for hostel shuttles or local taxis to get here – probably because they are toting surfboards – but we caught a twice daily small bus which goes up and back along an inland road – well track really – running about 40 minutes walk from the coast. Not knowing what time it would make its return journey we walked the whole way back – it took just under two hours but was very pleasant with, once again, no traffic to bother us.
Whilst at Maderas we took what is probably the most important photograph of the holiday – but only from the viewpoint of Preston, the “land crab terrier”…
…..whilst, of course, enjoying that rum and coke I spoke of above and reminiscing about the fabulous time we had had in magical Nicaragua…….