Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Honeymoon Redux III: Nicaragua

Nicaragua was one of my "surprise" favorite destinations - I was the most excited about Panama after getting ardent recommendations, Costa Rica as it's famous and Guatemala, and was a bit worried that Nicaragua and Honduras would be too dangerous, too sketchy, too overwhelming to really appreciate.

I was, fortunately, wrong.

I enjoyed every moment of relaxed, laid back Nicaragua even though we only made two stops, on Isla de Ometepe and Granada (Granada, Nicaragua is a namesake of Granada, Spain). I found it to be friendly, affordable and enjoyable, with a world-class historic city and lovely natural scenery (although it did rain a lot while we were there).

We took the bus across the border from Liberia, Costa Rica - a refreshingly easy to deal with town in a country so teeming with tourists that its reputation for scams and con-artistry are nearly as legendary as Egypt's and India's. More on that in Part IV.

It was immediately apparent that we were now in the less developed part of Central America - Panama and Costa Rica are both relatively wealthy (by regional standards) and had better infrastructure and a seemingly higher standard of living than I'd expected.

Once we crossed the border to Nicaragua, it was clear how little Nicaragua has in comparison - I've never crossed a border with that much of a striking difference on both sides: India/Bangladesh and Laos/Thailand, not to mention China/Laos - borders where I'd expect to see a huge difference in development on both sides, looked relatively equal on both sides (generally due to border towns on the more developed side being scruffier than the rest of the country they were in). Crossing into Nicaragua, I could almost draw a line with a marker where Costa Rica stopped and much poorer Nicaragua began.

When we arrived we took a Managua-bound bus that would stop in Rivas, a mid-size town up the road from San Jorge, where the ferry left. Just trying to figure out in broken Spanish if the bus to Managua did in fact go to Rivas without a transfer was a huge ordeal, but once on the bus it all worked out. If you cross this border, you will be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting to leech your money away, "helpers" who have forms and lend you pens for immigration and then demand a $1 tip (sadly, I fell for this, and I should know better, but it was $1 and my life will go on. I feel worse about reinforcing and enabling such behavior).

Our first stop was Isla de Ometepe - Ometepetl meaning "two hills" in the local indigenous language - made up of two volcanoes on the massive Lago de Nicaragua.

Lake Nicaragua is less than 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but is connected by a river to the Caribbean. As a result, it was a contender for what eventually became the Panama Canal. Panama was chosen only because it "proved" that its earthquakes were less severe than those of Nicaragua.

Of the twin volcanoes - Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepcion - Maderas (right) is the lower and easier of the two to climb, whereas more conical Concepcion is a tough hike, an active volcano, and its surrounding land is where most of the development (and the only paved road) on Ometepe is.

And if you're wondering how big the lake is, well, it's big enough to hold an island that hosts two large volcanoes!

The guidebooks praised Charco Verde, a rural area out past the main town of Moyogalpa with good walking trails, natural scenery and gentle, lapping waters. We headed out that way in a taxi - we took the bus at later times but with luggage we figured a taxi was an easier choice - and checked into the Hotel Charco Verde Inn, which was quite nice at a good low season price.

What we hadn't counted on was the rainy season - the walking trails were all washed out, the "beach" was completely flooded, and in the evening tiny white gnats swarmed everywhere.

The sunsets were great though.

I'd happily stay out there the dry season!

To get around we generally took the rickety old bus - buses in much of Nicaragua are mostly decommissioned American school buses painted bright colors and stuck all over with shiny religious stickers and fake BMW logos - and Ometepe seems to get the worst of those (the worst of buses that were considered no longer fit to carry schoolchildren back in the USA).

The room between seats was often so tight that Brendan noted that if the ride to town had been any longer, he might have been permanently disfigured.

One thing that Ometepe does have is an abundance of picturesque little churches.

...and here, like in the rest of the country, people take their freedom of speech very seriously. Most blank spaces were covered with political graffiti - pro-Ortega as this one below, pro-Sandinista but anti-Ortega, and anti-Sandinista.

Someone thinks they should re-elect Daniel Ortega in 2011.

Coca-Cola is everywhere in Nicaragua - it's almost a bit too much.

To get to our hotel on Charco Verde, we would get off the bus at the turnoff and then walk for 10 minutes down a dirt road between farms. At one point this idiotic dalmatian (he really was a moron) that had been following us decided to sniff a cow's butt. The cow was not pleased.

On the second day, we climbed halfway up Volcan Maderas (the easier of the two climbs) to the cloudline. Due to trees and constant cloud cover there's rarely a view from the top, so we were happy with stopping at the cloud line - plus the final 2 hours of the hike gets very steep, damp and slippery. I can do it, but I'm not gonna do it for no view!

From here you can see Concepcion, also covered in clouds as usual. It's like the clouds are attracted to the peaks.

I do recommend hiring a guide to take you on the hike if you go here - it's not expensive, you can book it easily in Moyogalpa (transportation is a bit expensive though) and the trails are a bit hard to follow in places - it'll be good to have someone who knows their way. I would, however, make sure that you read your guidebook on good tour agencies that will arrange a guide and you choose one yourself - don't hire a guide who seeks you out.

The views, as above, are amazing, you are likely to see all sorts of interesting animals, from insects to monkeys. It was not that cloudy (at least below the cloud line - derr) or muddy the day we hiked but I absolutely believe that once you cross the cloudline, it gets extremely muddy and wet.

If you want to save money on the climb and don't mind being out of the way, you can stay at the farm at the base of the volcano - it's quite lovely with amazing views of Concepcion from the open air eating area, though it's probably not cheap.
When waiting for the rickety old schoolbus (once per hour) to go back to town or just leave Charco Verde, we waited in the shade at this little cantina in the tiny settlement of Las Cruces.

When we returned, our ferry left before the Che Guevara ferry.

Only in Latin America is this not hilariously fauxronic (fauxronic = faux+ironic).

The ferry arrived back in San Jorge, we took a taxi to Rivas for $1, and hopped a bus to Granada after fending off more taxi driver touts who insisted the next bus to Granada wasn't for several hours (despite the presence of a bus with a painted sign saying "Granada" right there). The bus left 30 minutes later. I snapped this photo from the open door.

Whatever you do, do NOT, NOT NOT NOT try the red soda. I have ingested many terrible things in my life, from chicken rectum to duck tongue to asparagus juice, and this was absolutely the most horrific thing I have ever allowed to touch my tastebuds. I didn't know that they actually made a soda flavor called "Chemical Red" (or at least that's what they should call it), tempered with five pounds of sugar.

The bus duly arrived in Granada, not via Managua as the taxi touts said it would (never listen to a taxi driver in Nicaragua, ever), and we settled up in a room at Hostal Esfinge, across from the market and not far from the Parque Central. In a restored colonial building with a friendly but watchful owner, it was a fantastic value for money in an atmospheric space.

Granada is gorgeous, restored to grand colonial beauty in some areas:

Still "under construction" in others, but still quite grand nonetheless, such as at the Iglesia San Francisco, below:

...and has a gorgeous Parque Central with the lovely yellow and white Cathedral de Granada at one end and a string of high-end hotels at the other (I recommend not staying there unless you want a little luxury, but definitely going there for some well-mixed cocktails when the backpacker bars down by Iglesia Virgen de Guadelupe get old). There is great coffee to be had at an upscale coffeeshop on the verandah of one of these hotels if you get sick of Euro Bagel (which also has good coffee) on the other side of the square.

Parque Central, Granada

...and some places are in desperate need of a little care. This shot was taken at dusk - I do not recommend traveling alone at dusk on foot in Granada. If you are in a group, fine, but not alone.

The market area is not as well-renovated as the Parque Central and has a lot of dirt and scratches around the edges.

...but also has brighter colors and more vibrant street life going on. The Parque Central is manicured and lovely, but all you see are tourists, horse-drawn carriages and touts selling necklaces.

Near the market in the early morning. These tiny stands all line up and repair watches, shoes or other small items.

What I loved in Granada was the use of bright colors - different buildings and houses were painted a panoply of brilliant shades.

...and yet Granada is still a lived-in city. It's not like Antigua which seems like one giant (but lovely) museum - it's a working city with real people in it, and part of that city is not so nice - ask your hotel owner where it's safe to go. This shot was taken in a middle class residential area.

The government is still working on getting the funds to restore the old hospital (Hospital Viejo) as you can see by this antiqued photo.

Kids playing in Granada.

Bright colors in Granada.
Granada has no shortage of gorgeous doorways - there are even posters and postcards titled "the doorways of Granada"! This is the entrance to the Iglesia Xalteva, across the street from a pretty little brick-laned park (Parque Xalteva).

Granada also has a lot of the wonderful, whimsical door knockers seen all over Antigua.

More Granada doorways.

It is worth the walk to Iglesia de la Merced, a lovely old church with an elegantly paint-peeled steeple. You can climb the bell tower for $1 and get a fantastic view of the Cathedrale de Granada, in orange/yellow and white, in the distance, over old red tile roofs that remind me somewhat of Chinese roof shingles.

Different brightly-painted buildings as seen from the bell tower.

People can and do socialize in the public space just outside churches in Nicaragua - they perform a similar function to temples in Taiwan, where old folks and kids crowd around the court and banyan trees outside.

The lovely old Iglesia de la Merced.

The nightlife scene is definitely down past the Parque Central, on the way to Iglesia Virgen de Guadelupe (below) - here you can get sandwiches and Italian food as well as Mexican and local fare (don't bother with the local fare, eat that in Los Bocaditos - and make sure to try the salty local cheese - it's a nice change from rice and beans as usual), hamburgers, pizzas, ceviche (YUM!), and the usual selection of local beers and Corona.

On our second day we took a day trip to Masaya to check out the market. I wasn't terribly impressed, to be honest, though the main local market was fun. It didn't help that it was pouring and we got soaked - I had to buy a new t-shirt and change into it in a repulsive public restroom.

It rained so hard that the streets actually flooded and we had to wade a bit as cars stopped in the riverine streets to get back to the bus after visiting the "artisan's market" (ahem, tourist market). The artisan's market in Masaya is worth a trip only if you want to buy some souvenirs without much hassle - it's not worth it just to see.

On the way down, I stepped on a loose sidewalk stone and filthy, rancorous black water spewed up and covered my left foot.

A few days later, in Semuc Champey, that foot began to swell. I didn't think it was a big deal until I got medical attention for it back in Taiwan, but the doctor said it wasn't just too much stress from walking on cobbled streets - there was an infection under the skin. EW!

Lesson? Be careful where you step on a rainy day in Nicaragua.

One thing you can see in Masaya are these giant idol-like parade dolls that remind me of the tall gods that parade around in Taiwanese temple fairs (called "dua sen" in Taiwanese, usually recognized as being 七爺 and 八爺).

We did have decent coffee and tres leches (I love tres leches) in the tourist market, and we met a young boy with a pet spider monkey (let's leave aside the probable cruelty of this). He let me pet the monkey, and as he - being a young boy - was generally more playful and not gentle with it, but I was gentle and stroking his neck and side, he decided I was his mother. He crawled on my back and did not want to leave - it took the restaurant owner to pry him off me as the boy couldn't get him to move.

(The picture is at the top).

From Granada we boarded a bus headed straight for Tegucigalpa (well, with a transfer in Jicaro Galan). The heavy rains all the way up through Nicaragua brought people out to stare at swollen rivers and farms that had turned into lakes.

We did stop in Managua briefly, but we never left the highly-secured bus station area. I got the feeling that it was a city of sprawl, though we never did make it to whatever town center it may have (the old town center was destroyed in an earthquake and the government simply can't afford to rebuild it).

One thing I kept noticing were signs by several bridges on the Interamericana that said "Taiwan-Nicaragua Cooperative" (in Spanish) - as diplomatic allies, Taiwan provided much of the funding for the bridges that Nicaragua so desperately needed but couldn't afford.

Tip - change your money before you cross the border. We didn't get the chance at the border and were having an awful time exchanging cordoba in Honduras (some friendly foreigners heading that way did it for us). Do it before you get on the bus, because cross-border buses won't stop for you.

All in all, enjoy Nicaragua!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Buenos dias me gustaria poder dibujar algunas de tus fotografias por que son maravillosas y me inspiran , muchas felicidades por las bellas tomas!!!
Espero me rrespondas pronto!! Yo soy Orgulloso de ser Nicaraguense y tus fotos son increibles!!!

Este es mi correo:

Muchisimas Gracias de antemano