Articles tagged with "nicaragua"

Border nightmare

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.


Silent cyclists and snakes

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 spout 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. It was incredibly hot and humid, 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 said 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 stopped running long before sunset, so 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, and 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.

We walked for about an hour and a half before deciding to give up. For most of the way we couldn’t even see the volcano. 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.


Through the volcanoes

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.


Returning to Masaya

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.


Granada

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.


Raindrops keep falling on my head

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.


Concepción

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.


Ometepe

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.


Into Nicaragua

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.