Published: July 13th 2008July 16th 2008
On The Roof
On top the main cathedral in Leon, the largest Cathedral is all of Central America
It seemed liked I´d changed worlds completely when I left the tranquil beauty of La Moskitia outlined in my last blog and, after spending more than a day and a half on buses, arrived in the groovy Spanish colonial city of Leon, the 2nd largest city in Nicaragua. It wasn´t just that I´d gone from primary rainforest to a decent sized city, but when I was out in Moskitia there were hardly any other travellers to see; Leon, however, is one of the main cities on "The Gringo Trail" through Central America, somewhere that almost everybody backpacking through these parts will stop at, and after having spent some time in the previous weeks a bit isolated from other travellers I purposefully went and checked myself into one of the budget traveller places in Leon with a biiiiig social reputation, although when I got there found I almost wasn´t ready for it...
I soon met a huge group from Colorado who almost defined the stereotype of drink-a-thon Americans on the "Gringo Trail" through Central America. It ended up on a fairly mad night out which seemed to involve lots of shouts of "COOOOLLLAARAADDDDOOOO!!!!!" through the streets of Leon.... often
"Go Down That Way and Hold On"
Our volcano boarding instructor gives us the simple instructions...
followed by equally loud "WHOOP WHOOPS!" and other excitable americana carry-on. Since none of the gringo-trailers I had in tow had bothered to learn any spanish while travelling through all these spanish-speaking countries, I became the defacto "team-translator" ("WOO-HOO, LET´S HEAR IT FOR STEVE THE TEAM TRANSLATOR EVERYBODY - WHOOP WHOOP! COLARADO!!!" etc) and managed to lead us to a 95 Nicaraguan Cordobas (ie. 5 US dollars) All-You-Can-Drink bar, from which the rest of the night starts to become a bit hazy... tho I do remember there was swimming pool back at the backpackers and having a swim in my boxers at 4am.
Aside from providing translation services for drinkathon Americans, Leon actually had quite a lot to recommend it as a city, especially as it had been quite a while since I´d hung out in a larger city - plus staying in the kind of backpackers that I was meant there were always people up for doing something. The Modern Art Gallery lays claim to being the finest in all of Central America, and it defo had some really cool stuff. There was some good nightlife and great places to eat, another interesting museum covering folklore and legends
A major revolution happened here in 1979, and I´m reminded of it everywhere I go.
from the Nicaraguan countryside which was also pretty cool, and also the biggest cathedral in all of Central America - from the top of which one can see for miles. They have also pioneered "Volcano Boarding" in Leon - whereby one climbs a smooth volcano in an orange jumpsuit and then speeds down on a wooden toboggan...
I also went to the Sandinista Revolutionary Museum, which outlines the leftist-led popular revolution which toppled the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somozo back in 1979 - and was shown around it by a veteran of the fighting no less! The 1979 revolution figures largely in the popular consciousness of Nicaraguans, and I´m reminded of it constantly as I travel from place to place.
After Leon, I headed up to a town in the Northern Highlands called Esteli with a few folk I´d met in Leon. Esteli was one of the strongholds of the lefty Sandinisata movement, and there´s plenty of lefty graffiti artwork over the walls. There is also a "Museum of the Martyrs of the Revolutions", which is basically hundreds of photographs of late-teenage and early 20s Nicaraguan men and women that died first fighting Somoza, and then
Breastfeeding and Gunslinging...
Although the painter who did this painting has given her a red blouse in place of the combat fatigues she was wearing in the photo... this image has legendary status here in Nicaragua
in the ensuing civil war that the US funded after their puppet Somoza was toppled, in order to destabilise the new Sandinista regime as much as possible. Most of the young faces have various takes on disco haircuts and headbands, and you can spend a bit of time looking at them while asking yourself if you too would be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for something you believed in. We also stopped in at a cool bar that was thoroughy decked out in all sorts of Sandinista regalia, including a large print of what now appears to be a legendary Sandinista image of a young leftie women dressed in combat fatigues and breast feeding her baby while she has an AK-47 slung over her shoulder.
Esteli is also the home of Nicaragua´s booming Cigar industry, and me and a dutch guy headed out to one of the major factories out here for a tour. I was a little cynical on the way out there as to what a 'factory tour´ would be like, but it was actually pretty cool. 100s of people making each and every cigar by hand, tho strangely enough there is a strict male-female division
Cigar Factory Worker
This woman had the job of putting the final layer around the cigar and ensuring each one looked right.
of labour there: males always have the job or preparing the tobacco inside the cigar and rolling it generally into shape, whereas females always have the job of put the final (smokeable) wrap around and ensuring that the cigar looks right. They took us to a storage room where they keep all the cigars, and the smell was so strong both Hans and I were getting a serious headrush just standing in the room. They also had these strange cigars out there that were the size your average roll of salami, but I can´t seriously imagine anyone smoking one...
From Esteli I headed out to one of the major national parks out here for some trekking. But arranging it was a little different from usual, as rather than going through a tour company, you have to go to the office of the 'Farmers Co-Operative Union' in true lefty Sandinista style, and from there arrange a room in a Nicarguan farmers house (or a private cabana, if you fancy a little more privacy - tho I stayed with a family), 3 meals and a guide for the trekking... for a total princely sum of US$16. Its
a fairly good system in that you know all your money is going directly to people in the community, rather than to some private tour company.
A few of us headed out there together from Esteli, and while I enjoyed staying with the family who were uber-friendly, the day itself was little more rainy and the ground more boggy than I would have liked, but it was still a good walk nonetheless! There is a lot of coffee farmed out that way, and on the aftenoon after our trek finished we found a little coffee finca with a cute little onsite cafe on top of a rise overlooking the whole area which was a sweet place to while away the afternoon listening to Bob Marley on their soundsystem and waiting for the rain to stop.
JINOTEGA and MATAGALPA
Jinotega and Matagalpa are both pretty sweet towns that are kinda similar although Matagalpa is a fair whack bigger. Both are situated in cool locations - surrounded 360 degrees by the Northern Highlands rising up in every direction which gives them both a pretty cool ambience. I hit Jinotega first, and arrived in time to find a bar
Wall art in the city of Matagalpa... the slogan reads "And also to teach them to read".... a reference to the Sandinista´s highly effective literacy campaign in the 1980s
showing the Spain-Germany EURO 2008 final, and of course everyone in a hispanic nation like Nicaragua is going for Spain, so I was in good company and the celebrations really started after the Spanish won 1-0. Other than that I didn´t do a lot in Jinotega as I´d picked up a bit of a cold, and most of the activities there involve walks up the various highlands immediately next to the city, which I decided not to do on account of my failing health.
Ditto for Matagalpa as well actually, with my cold not leaving I just wanted a "down-day" to check into a slightly more expensive hotel room that had cable TV with a couple of movies channels that are mainly in english (with spanish subtitles too, so good for practicing!). But towns like Jinotega and Matagalpa aren´t always about the "doing stuff" - neither gets a lot of backpacker traffic through them, and they´re both quite calm, chilled places to hang out and watch town life crusing on by in the "Parque Central" (Central Park), finding the odd popular local place to eat and striking up the odd conversation with a local that doesn´t necessarily look like
asking me for money will be their first question!
SAN JOSE DE LOS REMATES
My last stop for this blog was the tiny mountain town of San Jose de los Remates. Like Matagalpa and Jinotega, it too was surrounded by groovy peaks in every direction, but its a heck of a lot smaller (more of an overgrown village really). San Jose is so small, that when you arrive you´re supposed to go the Town Council office to arrange a room. I spoke to some guy there who went off to secure a room in a local Hospedaje for me (kinda like a simple hotel), and then later found out that the guy who went was actually the Mayor! So I felt very important ;-) Being the only Gringo in town sometimes has its advantages.
After settling into my US$2 dollar-a-night room, I went back to the Town Council office and the Mayor (again!) walked me through town for a while and took me to meet a local guide, with whom I spent the next 3 hours climbing the peaks around the region (I was feeling a lot better by then) which took us through coffee plantations,
Trekking Around the Farms
With my guide Juan Pedro, near San Jose De Los Remates
processing plants, through lots of fruit farms, up past some waterfalls and past a Nicaraguan farmer so drunk he couldn´t sit on his horse properly...
San Jose has a pretty interesting recent history. A large section of unused land was sold by its owner to a wealthy cattle rancher who was going to hack down the wild forest on it and let his cattle run all over the place instead. San Jose is one of the few small towns in Nicaragua whose tap water supply is actually drinkable as it all comes from a couple of streams down from the highlands, but the introduction of largescale cattle farming along the streams would have endangered that, what with cows poo-ing all over the place and all.
So with help from donations from within their own community and from abroad - including a sizeable donation from the Spanish Government - the San Jose Town Council was able to purchase the land off the rancher to stop it from happening. Now they´ve established some community-based farming and are starting to put an eco-tourist infrastructure in place taking wayward wandering backpackers like myself through the forests and up the peaks to fill
Cigar the Size of a Salami Roll
But who would seriously smoke it? Only someone on their deathbed, or someone that wanted to be...
in an afternoon. And a nice afternoon it was too ;-)
And that´s about all for now, since then I´ve missioned about a fair few other places in Nicaragua but will write about that more in my next blog. Till next time...
There are more photos below