Articles tagged with "central america"

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Do you know the way to San José?

Thursday, September 14th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°0' N, 84°13' W
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We had an inauspicious start to the trip. I’d arranged to meet Moh, who I would be travelling with, outside Smith’s on Victoria station, but unfortunately there are two Smith’s on Victoria station and we spent ages waiting for each other. Then we somehow managed to miss two Gatwick trains, for which there was no excuse. We made it to Gatwick in time for the flight, though, and had an untraumatic journey across the Atlantic and down the East coast of North America. Weather delayed us landing in Houston, but with just a little bit of panic and fast running, we made it onto the flight from there to San José, Costa Rica.

I was a bit nervous as we flew south. Far below I could see towns in what must have been Mexico lighting up as darkness fell, and I could hardly begin to imagine what travelling in Central America might be like. My efforts at learning Spanish had not got beyond the appallingly basic, I didn’t really know if we’d got enough money with us, and I had no idea if the place would be crawling with tourists or if I wouldn’t see another foreigner for the next six weeks.

But thankfully, I’d booked our first night’s accommodation. This was the only thing I was not worrying about as we landed in San Jose at a quarter past eight on September 14th. However, there was soon another item on the ‘To Worry About’ list – Moh’s baggage did not appear. On enquiry it turned out it had been sent to San José, California, but they said they’d have it by the next day.

So we gathered what belongings we had and walked out of the airport. The air outside felt like it had just been let out of an oven, and a scrum of taxi drivers fell upon us as soon as we appeared. We waved them aside, though, because José, whose B&B we were going to stay at, was standing there holding a sign which said ‘Welcome to Costa Rica, Roger’.

We got to José’s, in a town called Alajuela, at about 10pm, and met Warren, a crazy American from Nevada. But we had been up for nearly 24 hours and were in no mood for small talk, so we made our excuses and slept.

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Up to Poás

Friday, September 15th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°11' N, 84°13' W
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Up to Poás

Day 2, mission 1. Most of the population of Costa Rica live in a fertile valley in the central highlands called the Meseta Central. About 1500m above sea level, it is ringed by towering volcanoes. Some of them are active, and one of these is Volcán Poás. It stands 2704m tall in the middle of Parque Nacional Volcán Poas, and it last erupted in 1994, destroying what park facilities existed at the time. Since then, though, the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica every year has quadrupled to more than a million. Volcán Poás is a prime attraction, so they have rebuilt everything and put a paved road right to the very top.

We went to the bus stop in Alajuela early in the morning, and got the bus to the crater. Our first sight of Costa Rica in the daylight was impressive – the fertile farmlands of the Meseta Central with dramatic cloud-capped peaks rising behind. After an increasingly bumpy two hour bus ride, we were at the top. A short walk led us to the edge of the crater, and far below was Poás’ amazingly turquoise crater lake, surrounded by a barren lunar landscape. The lake was steaming gently, confirming that the volcano has not shut up yet.

After we had taken all the photos we could, we walked through the cloudforest (it’s like a rainforest only at high altitude) to Poás’ other crater, called Laguna del Botos. This one has not erupted for thousands of years, and is a beautiful green colour. Lush forest surrounds it, and it would have felt very remote, but for the families with their picnic lunches sitting around. The name comes from the Botos indians, who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.

It had been a beautiful morning, with plenty of sunshine. I’d never been to the tropics before and It had seemed strange to see the sun directly overhead, but now it began to cloud over. We were to learn over the next few weeks that it does this without fail during the rainy season in these parts. By the time we had walked back to the park museum building it was hammering down. We bought a coffee and waited around. The rain didn’t stop, though, and eventually we had to brave it and go and catch our bus. This done we enjoyed the run down. The rain was heavier than I’d ever seen before, and raging torrents were forming by the roadside. Lightening was striking incredibly close by, and the thunder was so awesomely loud it was scary.

We made it back to Alajuela safely, though, and spent the evening waiting for Moh’s backpack to be delivered. Warren was there as well, waiting for a fried chicken that he had ordered to arrive, and as we all waited, we found out what Warren was doing in Costa Rica. It turned out that he had driven down from Nevada. He was about 65 and retired, but somehow he had got himself employed to drive a car containing seven Chihuahuas from Nevada to Costa Rica (what for, we never discovered). Despite knowing no Spanish at all, except for ‘No Espanol’ and ‘Shervaza’, which was his poor attempt at saying cerveza (beer), Warren had done OK, driving through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, crossing the borders without trouble.

It began to go wrong for him when he entered Nicaragua. The Chihuahuas had been getting their documents stamped all the way down, but somehow one was overlooked at the Nicaraguan border. Unaware of this, Warren drove on, but when he got to Costa Rica, the border guards naturally asked where he’d got the other Chihuahua from, and when he couldn’t answer, they impounded his car. In the confusion, Warren didn’t get his passport stamped. He had made his way to Alajuela and was trying to get in touch with the owner of the Chihuahuas, who had not yet paid him, and seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. So Warren was now illegally resident in Costa Rica, with no money and no car. Despite this, he was quite a cheerful fellow, but he was also a complete lunatic. Just as he began to talk about his wolf spirit guide, Moh’s backpack thankfully arrived.

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Irazú (ovavu)

Sunday, September 17th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 9°59' N, 83°51' W
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Irazú (ovavu)

We had intended to depart for San Jose early the next day, but Jose said there was a great fruit market in Alajuela, so we went to that. It was a vibrant, colourful affair, with a beer tent and live music, and we had a great time buying lots of weird tropical fruits. I got horrifically sunburnt for the first time on the trip, but it had been a fun day so I didn’t mind. Eventually at about 4pm we left for San José.

This meant we arrived just after dark, and it was raining. This is not really a sensible time to arrive in a big bustling Latin American capital, and it wasn’t long before we attracted unwanted attention. ‘Where you going?’ said a shifty looking character. ‘We’re looking for the Tica Linda hostel’ we said. He strode off purposefully, beckoning to us to follow him. Having no better plan, we did just that. He introduced himself as Patrick Fernandez, and said he hoped we’d enjoy Costa Rica. Friendly enough, but when he began walking down very dodgy looking streets, we began to worry. Then he walked into a dark unlit park, and we began to really worry. We made it out the other side unscathed, though, and saw a sign saying ‘Hotel Rialto’. We sent Patrick on his way and checked in. Only much later did we realise that ‘Tica Linda’ means ‘pretty Costa Rican’, and we could then guess where Patrick might have been leading us.

We managed to avoid any further dodgy situations that evening, and after a very noisy night at the Hotel Rialto, which had paper-thin walls, we got a bus the next morning to Volcán Irazú. At 3432m, it is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and like Poás, is a well-developed tourist attraction. However, unlike Poás, we found that the summit was cloaked in thick cloud when we got there. We walked to the edge of the crater, but we could see nothing, so we went and ate a rice and beans breakfast in the food shack near the top. However, about an hour later, things were brightening a bit, and we walked back to the crater edge. The cloud was thinning rapidly, and suddenly we could see green far below, and a few moments later the view was clear.

Irazú erupted last in 1965, but has been quiet since then. It is less lunar than Poás, and the lake is green, but otherwise it’s much the same – a rather safe, touristy, and unadventurous destination. Impressive, but we were eager to get on to more remote areas, so the next day, we got a bus over the mountainous spine of Costa Rica to Volcán Arenal.

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In the jungle

Wednesday, September 20th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°29' N, 84°39' W
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In the jungle

It was a spectacular run through misty mountain forests and small villages, with an awesome thunderstorm erupting overhead as we passed through Ciudad Quesada. We arrived at the small town of Fortuna late in the evening, and checked into a cheap hospedaje. We noticed for the first time how quickly night falls in the tropics when we walked outside 20 minutes later to find it was completely dark. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we could see no sign of Volcán Arenal, which was the reason we’d come here.

Volcán Arenal had caused no-one any bother until 1968, when it suddenly erupted violently, destroying a village and killing 78 people. Ever since then, though, it has been erupting constantly, with lava flowing constantly out of its crater. Occasionally larger eruptions take place – just three weeks before we arrived, three people had been killed by an unexpected explosion. We were pretty much certain of seeing eruptions here, if only the weather would clear up.

The next morning was cloudy, though, so we got essentials like washing done, then went for a walk towards the volcano. No sign of eruptions, though, and we had not yet even seen the summit. We turned back as the afternoon rains began, and hoped for better weather the next day.

It was sunny the next morning, but still the volcano’s summit was covered in cloud. Eruption watching was clearly out, so we decided to hike to a nearby waterfall. We set off early in the day, but it was still phenomenally hot, and it was an exhausting walk up a rough track for a couple of hours. Then thankfully the path went into the forest, where it was a lot cooler, and half an hour later we emerged from the jungle to find a beautiful cascade of water plunging 25m into a lovely blue pool. We cooled our feet for a while before wandering off down river. It was amazing to be right in the jungle, and the noise of all the animals (none of which we could see) was fantastic. After several hours exploring, we decided to head back to Fortuna. When we emerged from the jungle we were startled to see that the clouds had lifted and the top of the volcano was visible, a plume of steam rising from the top.

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Crazy exploding volcanoes

Wednesday, September 20th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°27' N, 84°42' W
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This photo on flickr
Crazy exploding volcanoes

We had met two Germans, Colom and Sylvia, down by the falls. Colom had a pickup truck, and when we saw that the volcano was visible, he said he would drive out towards it after nightfall, and invited us along. We gladly accepted.

When darkness fell, a distinct orange glow could be seen over the volcano, and when Colom called around with his truck, we leapt keenly aboard. It was a spectacular drive out along the road past the volcano, with the wind in our hair, fireflies flashing around, and the volcano glowing high in the sky. However, as we watched, the clouds began to lower, and the volcano disappeared from view. Soon it was pelting down with rain. We sat inside the cab of the pickup until it had eased off, and then drove on.

It was not long before the top of the volcano emerged again, and we decided to stop and watch it. All the rivers which run off the volcano are heated by the magma, and several places along the road here channel streams into pools. We stopped at one of these and sat in the thermal waters, watching the truly awesome sight of the volcano erupting.

Eventually we had to leave. We stopped at a café by the roadside for a bite to eat and watched the volcano from there, but now we were round the other side from the eruptions, and all we could see was the glow. It had been an amazing sight, and we hoped we would see it again.

The next day, we planned to hike back along the road, and make our way to a viewpoint we had seen signposted the day before. We were going to watch the eruptions from there as the sun set. We bought food and drink and were all set to go, when suddenly Moh was afflicted by what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in these parts. We had to give the walk a miss, but later on when it was dark, the eruptions could be seen again, so we went for a walk around town, and took some photos.


Much later, I learned a painful lesson from the photo here. Someone asked me if they could publish it in a book. I was very excited by this and agreed. Sadly, the person concerned never paid me as promised, and also lost the slide. So, all I have now is the poor-quality highly compressed JPEG from a budget scanner that you see above. Ah well – I’ll just have to go back to Arenal some time.

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Onwards and upwards

Saturday, September 23rd, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°49' N, 85°22' W
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Onwards and upwards

We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.

There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.

It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.

We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.

Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.

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Around the mountain

Sunday, September 24th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°50' N, 85°19' W
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Around the mountain

The next morning, we set out to explore the mountain. Rincón de la Vieja is at the centre of a region of great geothermal activity, and the evidence for subterranean heat is everywhere. A well-trodden trail winds past many geothermal features, and we set out along it. Before long we were temporarily out of the forest, and all around could see steam rising from the ground. It was quite a sight, and we set off in search of what was steaming.

Over the next three hours or so, we passed hot pools of water, gently simmering and glooping pools of mud, warm streams, and a steaming hole in the ground which was rumbling and groaning ominously. We also saw a fearsomely boiling pool of mud known as Volcancito. It was quite a sight, and we couldn’t help but wonder just how far below us the magma here was.

After seeing all that we could on the trail, we returned to our tents and had a magnificent pasta, tomato and tuna meal, before breaking camp. We had arranged to be picked up at the park’s other ranger station, 8km away, and we had four hours to do it in. We wanted to stop at some hot springs on the way, so we thought we’d leave plenty of time.

It was pretty hard going, though, with the first four kilometres being almost entirely uphill. Moh at one point complained that his legs weren’t working, and promptly fell over. However, we were making very reasonable time. With about an hour and a half left before our driver was to pick us up, we arrived at the trail which led to the springs. A quick kilometre and we were there, and it was truly wonderful. Hot water emerges from beneath some rocks, and flows into a cool stream, and where they mix is pure heaven. I sat with my feet in the cool water and the rest of me in the hot, and relaxed.

But all too soon we had to be on our way, and we set off renewed for the final 3km. We set a blistering pace, and arrived at the ranger station at the same time as our lift, although Moh was looking somewhat the worse for wear. ‘Bue…nos…di…as’, he said to our driver, wheezing terribly. ‘You look terrible’ replied our scrupulously honest driver. We had a great run back to Liberia in the fading light of day, and on arrival back at our hospedaje, we drank about a gallon of water each and I had the best shower ever.

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Into Nicaragua

Monday, September 25th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°31' N, 85°41' W
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Into Nicaragua

The next day we headed out of Costa Rica. Our next stop was to be Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It’s the largest island in a freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. The island itself is made up of two volcanoes, one active, joined together by ancient lava flows. It can be seen from far away, the twin peaks rising from the waters of the lake. Before the Spanish arrived, the area was inhabited by the Nicarao tribe, who spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. After a civil war in Mexico, the Nicarao people had fled south, and, on consulting their idols, were told that they should continue until they came to a huge expanse of fresh water with two mountains in the middle. Thus they settled on Ometepe and around the shores of the lake. The name Ometepe comes from the words Ome Tepetl, meaning ‘two hills’ in Nahuatl.

Latin American border officials have never had the best reputation in the world, so we were a little daunted as we got the bus to Peñas Blancas for our first border of the journey. However, in the event the border officials weren’t a problem. We crossed without paying bribes or having drugs planted on us. The main problem was the bank, who spent a good half hour stamping, scratching, marking and variously defiling our travellers cheques, before giving us Nicaraguan córdobas at an abysmal rate, counting them out four times.

But soon enough we were across the border. Some taxi drivers told us there were no buses onwards from the border and we’d have to take their taxi if we wanted to get anywhere. We were too streetwise for them, though, and hopped aboard a nearby bus, which was going to Rivas, from where we would continue our journey. As we drove off, we could see Lago de Nicaragua and the towering peaks of Ometepe Island on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The first thing we noticed when we entered Nicaragua was that the people looked very different to Costa Ricans. Straight away we could see that the people are mestizo, a mix of Spanish and indigenous. In Costa Rica, disease and cruelty very nearly wiped out the indigenous people within about 50 years of the Spanish arriving, so no intermixing took place. But in Nicaragua, the Spanish were a little bit less brutal in their treatment of the natives, and the mixed descent is clear to see.

As we arrived in Rivas, we found that despite 10 days of learning, our Spanish still wasn’t very good. We never worked out what the old man was trying to tell us when we asked him where the San Jorge bus stop was. We wandered off up the road trying not to look abysmally stupid, and down the deserted street towards us came a battered old taxi. It said ‘Pablo Garcia’ in the window, and Señor Garcia leaped out when we glanced in his direction, cheerfully hustled us in and drove us to San Jorge, from where we were going to get a ferry to Ometepe Island.

On arrival at San Jorge, we bought tickets for the Señora del Lago, a beaten up old ferry which plieD the waters between San Jorge and the island. The sun was setting over the lake as we crossed, and we arrived at the village of Moyogalpa just after dark. Here we got another bus, to Altagracia, where we would stay. This was a great ride, on an absolutely packed bus, with loud music on the radio, fireflies flickering outside the window, and people carrying chickens and fruit and vegetables home from the market. It was almost disappointing to arrive at Altagracia just after 7pm.

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Ometepe

Tuesday, September 26th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°33' N, 85°34' W
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Ometepe

Before I left, whenever I told people I would be going through Nicaragua, a look somewhere between pity and horror would cross their face. People seemed to have the idea that it was a war-torn smoking wreck of a country.  What everyone remembered was the infamous Contra war which raged throughout the 1980s. Nicaragua had been run autocratically by various members of the Somoza family for more than 40 years, from 1937 to 1979. In that year, after many years of struggle, the people finally succeeded in toppling the regime. A junta was formed to run the country while new institutions were formed, and at first it had both hardline and moderate members. Soon, though, the hardliners, the famous Sandinistas, moved to take total control. As the Sandinistas promoted communist ideals, and were receiving aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union, the US president, Ronald Reagan, decided to intervene in the region. He began funding counter-revolutionary insurgents, known as the Contras, who attacked Nicaraguan territory from bases in Honduras.

In 1984 the US Congress passed a law banning further funding of the Contras, but the Reagan administration carried on covertly. They began selling arms at vastly inflated prices to Iran, using the proceeds to keep the Contra war going. The affair was discovered, and much controversy ensued, but the war in Nicaragua continued.

The Sandinistas had resoundingly won the general elections held in 1984, and under the new constitution elections were required every 6 years. So in 1990 the country went to the polls again, and the Sandinistas were confident of victory. But the people were sick of war, and knew that peace was only likely if the Sandinistas weren’t in power. Violeta Chamorro, one of the moderates on the post-revolution Junta, was elected president.

When we arrived, there had been ten years of democracy and, more or less, peace. In remote mountain areas, factions who wouldn’t put down their weapons still fought sporadically, but where we were going was well away from trouble spots. The Sandinistas were still a major political force, but had not recaptured the presidency. However, a Sandinista had just been elected Mayor of Managua, the capital, and expectations were high for the elections due in 2001.

We spent our first morning on Ometepe exploring around Altagracia. The contrast between the peaceful, stable and relatively prosperous Costa Rica and Nicaragua was sharp. Nicaragua was visibly poorer than Costa Rica – most of the houses were tumbledown shacks, and while every third house seemed to be a shop of some sort, they usually had pretty limited stock, and were dark inside. The shopkeeper would turn the light on when a customer came in, to save electricity.

I could have passed through Costa Rica entirely ignorant of the politics of that country, but it would be impossible to do the same in Nicaragua. Walls everywhere were covered in political graffiti, supporting one or other of the Sandinistas, the PLC (Partido Liberal Constitucional) or the PC (Partido Conservador), and people wore t-shirts and caps proclaiming their allegiances. According to my guidebook, Ometepe was relatively untouched by the revolution, so I wondered what the mainland would be like.

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Concepción

Wednesday, September 27th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°31' N, 85°37' W
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Concepción

Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción.

We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.

We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.

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Raindrops keep falling on my head

Thursday, September 28th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°26' N, 85°30' W
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Raindrops keep falling on my head

The next morning, we got up at 4am to try and climb Volcán Maderas. Neftali had told us that it was a difficult climb, but that if we set off early and the weather was OK then getting to the summit was just a matter of persistence. But when we got up we found that the rain was beating down mightily outside. This was a change from the norm, but it was only several days later that we discovered what the cause was – Hurricane Keith was sitting just off the east coast of Nicaragua, and causing torrential rains all over Nicaragua.

So we decided not to get the 4.30am bus to Balgüe, from where a trail leads up Volcán Maderas. By 9am the rain had stopped, and so we decided to try our luck with the climb. We took the bus around the island, through many small villages and beaches on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua, and arrived at Balgüe at about 10.30am. From Balgüe, a sign saying ‘La somete – tres oras’ points up the mountain, and we set out along it. It leads after about half an hour to the Finca Magdalena, a coffee farm which acts as the base camp for the climb. Here we met two Argentinian volunteer workers, and we asked them whether the climb was still possible after the earlier rains. To our disappointment they advised against it, saying it was slippery at the best of times.

So we appreciated the fabulous views from Finca Magdalena all the way over to the other side of the lake, twenty miles away, before heading down again to Balgüe. From here, we decided, we would walk to Santo Domingo, a beach about 7km away. Though it was overcast, it was warm, and we didn’t know there was a hurricane about 200 miles away and moving closer, so we set off. We walked north along the winding road, passing a few straggling houses for the first half hour or so, but then being out of sight of civilization. There was the odd farmer walking to or from his fields, and they would always give a cheery ‘Hola!’ as they passed. After a couple of hours walking we came to a deserted beach and stopped to rest for a while.

We didn’t see anyone else in the half hour or so we sat on the beach, and it certainly felt desolate with its black sand and battered driftwood. It was incredibly hot, but I decided I was getting used to it. I was still sweating bucketloads, but I was quite OK with doing long walks in the heat of the day. Having cooled our boots in Lago de Nicaragua, we carried on.

The latter stages of the walk were less pleasant. We were terrified by swarms of huge flying beetles – they were about two inches long and very fat, and kept on flying into our faces. We were also bothered by enormous dragonflies. I don’t like insecty things even in the UK, and soon I was so traumatised that even the sudden appearance of a butterfly made me jump. And then it began spotting, then drizzling, then really raining like there was no tomorrow. We tried to carry on walking, but before long we were soaked to the skin, and took shelter under a tree. This didn’t do much good, but it was all we had, and we stayed there until a bus passed by, and we hopped squelching aboard. As it turned out we were about a hundred metres from Santo Domingo, where there is a café with a roof and cold drinks, but we didn’t know this as we stood under the tree.

So we went back to Altagracia, and made plans to visit the Salto San Ramon, a waterfall a couple of hours hike away from a village on the south end of the island. We spoke to Neftali again, and told him of our failure to climb Maderas, and our plans to go to the waterfall. “I’d say don’t go if the weather’s bad”, he told us. “It’s a really slippery trail, and the river can flood after heavy rains.”

The rain kept us awake for most of the night, and though we made a cursory attempt to get up at 5.30am, the trek to the waterfall was clearly not on. It rained more or less all day, so we spent a lot of time reading and writing our journals. For a brief time it calmed down to a light drizzle, and we went for a wander around the village, discovering its tiny museum of pre-Columbian artefacts, before the rain set in again for the evening.

In the evening, we met Adam and Song, two Americans who had been Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic for the past two years, and were making their way home overland, having flown into Panama. They were also keen to climb a mountain, and we agreed that we would try and climb Maderas again the next day.

Sadly, the rain got worse, and from about 9pm onwards it was a downpour. It continued through the night, and once again our getting up at 4am was a token effort. It was clear that we were going to have to give up on Maderas and move on. We decided to leave that very day. The rain abated as we got the ferry back across the lake, but when we reached the mainland it was coming down once again. As we boarded a bus heading for our next destination, Granada, we hoped that things would improve.

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Granada

Monday, October 2nd, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°57' N, 86°6' W
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Granada

It wasn’t raining but the streets were wet when we arrived in the historic town of Granada. Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba, the Spanish conquistador of Nicaragua, it is the oldest city in Nicaragua. The city of León, in the north of the country, was founded in the same year. Granada was wealthy and conservative; León, the capital, was poor and liberal. There was intense rivalry between them, which erupted into civil war many times. This eventually led to the founding of Managua, half way between the two, as a compromise capital in 1857.

The city didn’t look like it had changed much in the last hundred years. The buildings were all colonial (though after the economic hardships of the last twenty years, many looked somewhat the worse for wear), and horses and carts formed the majority of the traffic. We spent a lot of time while we were there walking around the streets of this characterful town.

But the main thing we wanted to do while we were here was visit Volcán Masaya. This active volcano is just up the road from Granada, and it is an easy climb (apparently) to the top from the town of Masaya. The volcano began erupting most recently in December last year, and lava flows can often be seen deep in the crater. We got up early on our first morning in Granada to go to Masaya, but we found it was raining heavily. We had not seen any newspapers at all on Ometepe Island, but they were plentiful here, and we discovered now what had been causing all the rain – Hurricane Keith was sitting off the east coast and lashing the whole country with rain.

So we waited in the hotel for the rain to stop, which it did at about 2pm. It was too late in the day to go to Masaya, so we explored Granada instead. We walked down to the shores of Lago Nicaragua, which must look quite appealing when it is sunny, but with the brooding skies and wet beach it looked distinctly uninviting. We saw more relics of the revolution on our walk around town – a statue of Hernández de Córdoba had a metal plaque on it mentioning Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and his name had been chiselled off. We also saw some intensive campaigning for the impending mayoral elections, with campaign trucks driving around blaring out slogans, and banners and poster up everywhere proclaiming the various candidates. At one point as we walked down a deserted street, a Sandinista campaing truck slowly drove by, playing ‘We Are The Champions’. I thought it was quite poignant.

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Returning to Masaya

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°58' N, 86°6' W
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Returning to Masaya

The next day dawned fine, and, with an Australian traveller called Ashley who was staying at the same hotel as us, we got an early bus out to Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. However, our luck was not in and by the time we got there it was once again hammering down with rain. We nonetheless decided we would give the volcano a go, but the park ranger told us the path was closed, both because of the weather, and because large amounts of poisonous gas were being given off by the volcano. We were forced to leave it for another day.

We decided to visit the nearby town of Masaya, and got a bus to the outskirts of town, and walked towards the centre. The rain was still ludicrously heavy, and the roads were flooded. Progress was slow, as we had to find safe places to cross the roads. Drains in Nicaragua often did not have grilles on them, so stepping off the pavement into fast-flowing muddy water was quite a serious risk. However, we made it safely to Masaya’s Mercado Central about an hour later, and had a look around. While we were in there the rain finally stopped, so we walked to the end of town, to look over the tranquil Laguna Masaya to Volcán Masaya itself. The sun once again forced its way out, and mist began to rise from the lake. The volcano could be seen steaming away, and we were determined that we would make it to the top.

We thought we were in luck the next day when we found that it was bright sunshine. The papers said that a Red Alert hurricane warning had been declared, but we decided to give Masaya one last try. It stayed fine as we approached the entrance to the Parque Nacional, and we had great views of the steaming cone. But once again the trail was closed. Apparently the heavy rains had percolated through to the hot rocks below, and the result was that the volcano was emitting large quantities of highly acidic gas. So again we were denied.

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Through the volcanoes

Wednesday, October 4th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 12°24' N, 86°36' W
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Through the volcanoes

We decided then to abandon all hope of climbing up Volcán Masaya and move on instead. Our next destination was Nicaragua’s other old city, León, and to get there we needed to get a bus to Managua, make our way across Managua, and get another bus across the outside. We had heard horror stories about Managua from many different people, and were not too keen to see what it had to offer. I was guarding my pack with extreme paranoia as we got off the bus at Managua’s central market. As we expected, there were plenty of taxis about, so we got a taxi across the city. It was a sunny and hot day, and the city didn’t actually look that horrible. It seemed a bit concrete and soulless, but then vast swathes of it were levelled by a huge earthquake in 1972.

We made it to the Mercado Bóer bus stop without being robbed or assaulted, and, still guarding our belongings fiercely, we boarded the bus to León. We had a great run up there as the sun set behind the chain of volcanoes which form a spine along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, arriving just after the sun set.

In the morning we headed for León Viejo (Old León). León was originally founded on the shores of Lago Managua, in the shadow of Volcán Momotombo, and for the next 86 years was the capital of the colonial district of Nicaragua (part of what was then called the Captaincy General of Guatemala). In 1610, however, it was destroyed by an eruption of Momotombo, and the city was moved to its present location. The ruins of the original city can still be seen, and it was to here that we headed.

After a typical Nicaraguan bus journey involving crowds of people selling goods ranging from soft drinks and snacks to disposable razors and hair clips, and a bone-shaking run down some very badly maintained roads, we arrived at the village of Puerto Momotombo. It was quite a surreal place, with just a few houses, and no roads to speak of, just dusty tracks. There were very few locals about, and it felt like we were the first outsiders to visit the place in years. We walked down to the shores of Lago de Managua to have a look around.

It was a strange place down there. The black sand beach was covered in straggly plants, and there were a few stumps of long-dead trees on the shore and in the lake. Across the water, the towering red cone of Momotombo was steaming gently, and in the distance we could see a village woman washing clothes in the lake water. The only noise was the buzzing of the insects. We sat for a while, appreciating the tranquillity and solitude, before heading back up the track to the village, and looking for the ruins.

Where there are no roads, no signs and no people, it is quite hard to find what you want to see. We searched for some time for León Viejo, before finding someone, asking the way, and discovering that we were right outside the gate. For the entry fee of about 75p, we got a guided tour of the site, which was great. I’d only been learning Spanish for a few weeks but I felt like I understood a decent amount of what we were being told. The ruins were not really much to look at – just the foundations of a few large buildings, the rest completely obliterated. But the history was fascinating, and it was incredible to imagine that this was one of the earliest settlements in the New World.

What made the place really impressive was the views. From a small hill in the middle of the unfortunate city, there was a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. This north western corner of Nicaragua is dominated by the Cordillera de los Maribios, a range of volcanoes which frequently erupt (there had been at least six eruptions in the five years before we were there), and from the hill, we could see six volcanoes, three of which were steaming. This formed the stunning backdrop to the forested plains and Lago de Managua.

We signed a guest book on the way out. The entry above ours was from almost a month before.

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Silent cyclists and snakes

Thursday, October 5th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 12°35' N, 86°43' W
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Silent cyclists and snakes

The next day we wanted to go to one of the most active volcanoes in the chain, Cerro Negro. It didn’t exist before 1850, when a steaming crack in the ground suddenly began to exude lava, but now stands 600m tall, black and steaming, above the surrounding countryside. We took a bus to the town of Malpaisillo, from where (so my guide book told me) it was a 4km walk to the base of the volcano.

We struck out along the road from Malpaisillo, appreciating the fantastic weather. The temperature must have been at least 35°, but by now we were used to it, and we enjoyed it. After about half an hour we caught sight of the volcano, its black slopes dramatically contrasting with the lush greenery surrounding it. We quickened our pace, and after a couple of hours we reached a path which looked like it was going in the right direction. We passed a guy on a bike after a short way, and asked him if we were going the right way. He confirmed that we were, but told us it was a 10km walk to the volcano. This was a blow – to walk all the way there and back would take at least four hours, by which time it would be dark. Buses stop running long before sunset in this part of the world, so we decided we couldn’t go all the way, but we decided to walk as far as we could.

Initially our friend on the bicycle left us, but after about 10 minutes, he reappeared, and said he would walk with us. It was nice to have some company, but communication was difficult. My attempts at Spanish seemed to go down worse than usual, perhaps because very few travellers come this way, so foreign accents are a rarity. The cyclist spoke no English, so we mostly walked in silence. But I managed to establish that it was always this hot here, that there were often earthquakes, the volcano had erupted two years earlier, and that there were not many snakes around, but they were big. Lobi grinned disturbingly as he said this.

We walked for about an hour and a half before deciding to give up. Disappointingly, for most of the way we couldn’t even see the volcano, but it had been interesting. We saw no snakes, thankfully, though we did see one enormous, foot-long lizard. At about 4pm we reached the main road, and waited for a bus back to León.

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Border nightmare

Friday, October 6th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 14°6' N, 87°13' W
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Border nightmare

The next day it was time to brave our second border crossing. While we were in Granada, the news had been that a bridge on the road to the border at Guasaule had been washed away. This was indeed the case, and the bridge was still down, but by now the flood waters had subsided, and the bus was able to ford the river. It was a very slow journey, road conditions being pretty bad after the rains, but we made it to the border in reasonable time.

Here we did not have a fun time. We were only going to be in Honduras for a short time, and we knew what border banks were like, so we decided to brave the money-changers. Unfortunately, they had a habit of quoting a good rate, then counting out money at a bad rate. You can then argue all you like, but they’ll deny ever having said ’14 Lempiras per dollar’, and we had to settle for 13, which was at least still better than the bank rate.

Then we got a lift across the border in some bicycle/rickshaw type of things. As we got in, I asked how much it would be, and the driver said a dollar. However, by the time we reached the other side, this had gone up to ten dollars. This was clearly ridiculous, but unfortunately, the driver had a large group of friends on his side. In the face of this there was little we could do but hand over some money and get on the way.

I had a pretty low opinion of Hondurans at this point, but things soon got better as we got on a bus to Choluteca. It was fast and large, and infinitely more comfortable than Nicaraguan buses, which are exclusively old yellow American schoolbuses. The bus from Choluteca to the capital, Tegucigalpa, was equally luxurious, and though we once again arrived in a big city after dark, we got a taxi to hotel and again avoided mishap.

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Across Honduras

Saturday, October 7th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 14°50' N, 89°9' W
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Across Honduras

We left before the sun was up the next morning, and thus failed to see Tegucigalpa in the daylight. I am told this is not a great loss. We were headed for Copán Ruinas, some 500km away, and we needed to get a bus first to Santa Rosa de Copán, 400km up the road. We were pleased to find that, for our fare of L90 (about £4.50), we had a luxuriously comfortable bus for the six hour journey. We wished we were spending longer in Honduras as we passed through its beautiful mountainous forested scenery.

After two further short bus journeys, back in the yellow school buses, we arrived in the town of Copán Ruinas, which is right next to the Mayan ruins of the same name. We booked into a very cheap hotel, at only £2 each per night, which had a rooftop terrace with fantastic views over the Valle de Copán. We’d forgotten that it was the weekend, and we wouldn’t be able to get money for two days, so we were too skint to pay up front, but fortunately the friendly family said we could pay up on Monday.

The main purpose of coming to Central America had been to see volcanoes. Honduras has none, so we were originally going to pass right through without stopping. However, right on the border between Honduras and Guatemala lies the huge Mayan site of Copán. It would have been silly to pass by without seeing it, so the next morning we left early to walk the 2km down the road to the ruins.

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Copán

Sunday, October 8th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 14°49' N, 89°9' W
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Copán

The Maya were one of the three great ancient civilizations of the Americas, along with the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico. The civilization began to emerge at least 4,000 years ago, was advanced by 300AD, and reached its peak (the so-called Classic Period) from around 600 to 800AD. During this time, they built great cities at a prodigious rate, covering them with towering temples and pyramids, and in many cases spectacular stone carvings. They were advanced in agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, and quite independently of the Arabs (who generally get the credit), they invented a positional numbering system and the concept of zero. They also had a literary tradition, though much of the hieroglyphics have yet to be deciphered, and an accurate calendar, which was adopted by the Aztecs and is still used in more remote parts of Guatemala.

At the height of the Classic period, the Mayan empire spread across the southern Mexican states of the Yucatán peninsula, the whole of modern-day Guatemala and Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. Around 900AD, though, the whole of Mayan civilization went into dramatic decline, many cities being abandoned to the jungle. After something of a renaissance around the 1200’s, Mayan civilization was again in decline when the Spanish arrived, and they conquered the Mayan lands rapidly.

In their religious zeal the Spanish razed to the ground most of what they conquered, destroying the ‘pagan’ temples and pyramids and the idols inside. Fortunately, the decline of the Maya meant that there were many cities which were now abandoned and totally covered in jungle. Today, many have been uncovered, and every year more are discovered. Just before we left the UK, we heard that a huge new set of ruins had been found deep in the jungle in central Guatemala.

Copán is one of the most famed of the Mayan sites of Central America, and we were certainly impressed when after a short walk down a forest path we emerged into its Great Plaza. With a low pyramid in the centre, carved pillars (stelae) scattered around, and larger pyramids visible further off, it was quite a sight.

Copán was founded by 1200BC at the latest, and started to become a great city in 426, when a king called Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw came to power. He and his descendants began Copán’s great tradition of recording their achievements on stelae, slabs of rock about eight feet tall, great numbers of which can be seen today at Copán. Copán’s most productive king in this respect was Uaxaclahun Ubak K’awil, the thirteenth king, whose name sounded very fitting for a powerful king until its meaning was deciphered. Somehow a king called 18 Rabbit hardly seems destined for greatness, but under his rule Copán came to dominate many surrounding cities, including Quiriguá, which today lies across the border in Guatemala. 18 Rabbit’s rule lasted nearly 45 years, during which time many of Copán’s finest structures and stelae were built and carved, but unfortunately the people of Quiriguá had never accepted their subjugation to Copán, and in 738 they captured the unfortunate King Rabbit and beheaded him.

Copán’s fifteenth king, Smoke Shell, was another great builder, and started the Heiroglyphic Stairway, the longest inscription known in the Maya lands. But the following two kings oversaw Copán’s terminal decline, as its ever-growing population finally outstripped its food production. Skeletal remains from this late period show evidence of malnutrition and disease, and most of the people had left by the year 1000. A few stragglers remained for a long time, but by about 1200AD the site had been completely abandoned to the jungle. It was found by a Spanish explorer in 1576, but then not visited again until 1839. At this time it came to the attention of archaeologists, who have been working at Copán ever since, uncovering ever more structures (3450 are now known, covering an area of 24 square kilometres) and deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics.

We wandered around, admiring and appreciating the art and architecture, and trying hard to really believe that this was once the centre of a great city. We climbed the Temple of Inscriptions, at the top of which you find walls covered with intricate carvings, a fine view over the ruins and surrounding countryside, and (on this occasion at least) a Honduran television crew, asking visitors to give their impressions of the place. Always eager for 15 seconds of fame, I happily told them what I thought of the place. Moh was media-shy, and hid behind a wall until I was finished.

After we had spent a good long time exploring Copán, we walked further down the road to one of its suburbs, today known as Las Sepulturas. This was a residential part of the city, and though it is certainly less dramatic than the main site, provides a greater insight into how the Maya lived. It’s also much quieter than the main site: we didn’t see anyone else while we were there.

We were lucky with the weather – it didn’t start raining until after 4pm, when the ruins are closed for the night. This meant we only got soaked once we’d seen everything, which was good. We squelched back to the town of Copán Ruinas, and prepared to leave Honduras the next day.

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Bad driving

Monday, October 9th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 14°32' N, 90°33' W
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Bad driving

All our travel up until now had been on local buses. We were a little daunted at the thought of the Guatemalan bus system, having been advised by the Foreign Office that fatal crashes are frequent, and by other travellers that the buses are unbelievably crowded. We were also not too keen on negotiating our way across Guatemala City, about which we’d heard more horror stories than Managua. So when we discovered that you can get a minibus all the way from Copán to Antigua in Guatemala, our next destination, we decided that we would cop out and take it. It’s a service used solely by tourists, and I certainly felt like a cheat as we got aboard. We crossed the border at a very quiet border post, and no-one tried to rip us off. It was boring.

On the whole, though, it was probably a safer and more sensible option that the five-leg journey we would have had if we had got the local buses. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though – we had a marvellous run for the first four hours, through beautiful mountainous Guatemalan scenery, but during our slow, traffic-jammed crossing of grim-looking Guatemala City, we were hit by a bus. It was a low-speed impact, so no-one was hurt, though it took some time to get my backpack out from the crumpled boot.

Our driver got out to discuss things with the other driver, and I fully expected punches to be thrown, but fortunately everything was calm and sensible. After a short discussion we drove on to a petrol station nearby, taking the conductor of the bus that had hit us along with us. I wasn’t sure why this was – perhaps the minibus firm were keeping him as security? We then stopped and waited for a replacement minibus to arrive. When it came it had three armed guards with it, but we completed the final leg of the journey safely.

We arrived in Antigua late that evening. It was hard to shake the odd feeling that the trip was nearly over, as here we were in our final country with Costa Rica already a distant memory. But we still had nearly three weeks to go, and much to see and do.

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Antigua

Wednesday, October 11th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 14°33' N, 90°43' W
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Antigua

When the Spanish conquered Guatemala, they founded their first capital in 1527 at a site known today as Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Situated on the fertile flanks of the huge but extinct Volcán Agua, it seemed like an ideal place for a city. It lasted for just 14 years, though, before disaster struck. After weeks of heavy rains, the lake at the summit of the mountain breached the crater walls. A huge torrent of water and rock swept down the mountainside and ploughed through the city, completely obliterating it. A new capital was founded two years later, further from the volcano, and (so it was hoped) out of danger.

This city, known in full as La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, thrived as the capital for 230 years, before disaster again struck. A huge earthquake struck the region, and the city was all but flattened. The present capital was established at Guatemala City, and the old capital, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala), no longer an important place, was very slowly repopulated.

Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. Volcán Agua towers above the city to the south, while Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Fuego stand slightly further off to the west. Volcán Fuego is one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, and had been erupting every few weeks for many years, while slightly further away from Antigua, Volcán Pacaya is another very active volcano, which made the news here in January after a particularly large eruption.

We wanted to climb Pacaya and one of the three big volcanoes, but on our first day it was overcast and much colder here in the highlands than it had been at sea level. The clouds hung low, and we could only see the stumps of the three volcanoes, so we spent the first day just exploring the town. It was a beautiful town, with its colonial architecture and lively markets.

The next day was also grey, but we wanted to do something, so we decided to climb Cerro de la Cruz. This is a hill to the north of the town which was once notorious for armed robberies. Very few people ever went there, because if you did you were almost without fail relieved of all your belongings. However, these days, the Antigua police accompany anyone who wants to go up the hill. They are well armed, and it costs nothing, so we took advantage of this service and went up the hill. Despite the clouds it was a good view of the city nestled between the volcanoes, and we took many photographs.