Published: March 1st 2011March 1st 2011
It's just over the bridge
You could almost define Nicaragua by what it is not. The food is not as good as Mexico – at least as far as spice and heat goes – but you can get some really nice meals. There isn't the level of security that you find in El Salvador or Honduras but we felt safe. The sellers of souvenirs and such are not as insistent as in Guatemala. It is a lot bigger than Belize. The population has more obvious civil liberties than in Cuba. There seem to be less law and order issues and, interestingly, less apparent policing than other places. It is less 'touristy' than Costa Rica and seems somewhat less prosperous. But defining the place in these terms would be a little unfair I think.
We didn't really know what to expect. It was primarily the recent history of the country that made it a place that we wanted to visit. The Somoza regime, the hardship for the poor, the fight between the Sandinistas and the Contras (and the US involvement in that), followed by a Sandinista government that promised much and, on most of the analysis I have read, delivered less. Surprisingly for many, a peaceful
Streets of Leon
Reminiscent of the streets of towns in Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala etc - where the Spanish built towns at the same time
change of government but with the Sandinistas still very much a potent political force followed by further changes in leadership, also peaceful. With all of the elements of a country that could have had regular bloodbaths, this one has dealt with its issues much more reasonably than most. That alone makes the place interesting. There is, of course, a lot more to the country than its politics. Helpfully, a lot of information about that is set out on very good government web site – the best and most honest I have come across in our years of travel.
I will say now that we would have loved to stay longer in Nicaragua. The east coast and the Rio San Juan looked like excellent places to have a look at. Unfortunately, this time, we couldn't find a way to fit them in without cutting back on the later parts of this trip. We decided to pick a couple of really good bits and concentrate our activities there.
Coming from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, there is one obvious road to follow into Nicaragua. This would take us past Esteli so we determined that we would stay there a few days
Pigeons in the Parque, Leon
In front of the cathedral there
and see if we could get up into one of the National Parks in the area for a day, probably on a horse. The Tica Bus service seemed to be the best bet if we could get it to stop for us in Esteli. The bloke at the ticket counter saw no problem with that but, halfway through the booking process – that involved the use of two computers, one with a printer attached and the other seemingly linked to the booking system – he explained that the bus would not be going through Esteli but would go straight down through Honduras and come into Nicaragua on the IntraAmerica highway to Leon. This was sad but not too much of a drama. We are very flexible people. We could always duck up to Esteli on a back road we had spotted from Leon.
The bus duly arrived pretty late at Tegucigalpa, but it did arrive, so we were pretty relaxed. As we were about to depart the ticket bloke came looking for us to let us know that we would, after all, be going through Esteli. The very essence of flexibility are we, so we had no worries with
this and started to re-jig our plans around horse riding and national parks. We expected to be at the border pretty quickly going this way so were a little surprised – but not too concerned – when it didn't turn up. Turned out that we weren't going through Esteli after all but would enter along the IntraAmerican highway going past Leon after all. You really do need to put get your uncertainty avoidance mechanisms on hold to travel happily in Central America.
Tica Bus has a lot of experience with border crossings and it comes in useful. The bus conductor collected documentation off everyone nice and early, even from those who find it very difficult to hand over their passports to anyone at all. He also collected money. $15 USD per head from the 4 of us. We couldn't tell how much he was taking off everyone else but we did know that there was a charge for the Nicaraguan Tourist Card – even though they are part of the CA4 agreement. (There was also supposed to be a charge to get into Honduras but, given that there was no one at the border post who was interested, we
Plaza de la Revolucion, Leon
The walls have murals of the history of Nicaragua
didn't pay anything.) The border arrived and the conductor disappeared. All passengers were off loaded and had to pick up all of their baggage, line up and head into the customs hall. The most thorough inspection we have had for a long time took place. It wasn't quite as thorough for us as the Norwegian lady in 2009 who couldn't believe we had no grog or smokes so went through everything, but they had a very good look at every bag.
After we had all been checked we waited. And then we waited longer. Eventually, the conductor arrived back and started handing out documentation to those who could get back on the bus. Everyone bar a large family group of 22 people loaded. There was clearly a problem and the Tica Bus people were obviously not going to leave them behind. The negotiations took a long time. Those of us lucky enough to be on the bus sat there for an hour and half in the air conditioning watching the 22 members of the family – aged from about 60 down to a couple of months or less, with a few pregnant women as well – being denied entry
Cameras Clicking Again
Along with all the others. Leon was full of tourists
sitting in the heat. We sharp-eyed people had noted that some didn't have passports, instead having proffered an official looking sheet of paper. Perhaps that was the problem. Turns out, as far as we could tell, that they were on their way for holiday in Costa Rica and didn't really want to stay in Nicaragua. They, therefore, may have objected to payment of the amount required for a Tourist Card. Or perhaps they objected to the payment of what looks suspiciously like a 'side effects' payment of $5 for all of the work of the conductor and/or the immigration officials. In any case, we eventually moved on.
As is often the case, the country changed as we crossed the border into Nicaragua. For a start there was less noticeable litter spread around. The country is also clearly a lot more productive. Holdings seem to be larger, mainly running cattle, horses and sugar cane. There is some irrigation and it looks as if more intensive agriculture could be supported if water was in better supply. The land on this side of the country, as in Guatemala and Honduras, is drier than the Carribean coast but, with the very high level
One of the Heroes
A household name, and not just in Nicaragua
of volcanic activity, you would have to punt that it is a case of adding water to get some pretty high levels of production. In any case, if the age and make of vehicles, the types of houses and the public infrastructure is anything to go on, the area from the border to Leon is pretty well off..
The mucking about at the border cost us the opportunity of arrival in Leon during the earlier part of the afternoon. Arriving after dark is not normally too much of an issue but, in Leon, it was difficult. We have a strategy for the seeking of accommodation. Two look after all of the packs and the other two go and find somewhere. This time Pat and I sat in a bar and had a nice cold beer while Adam and Klaire searched. They found 7 establishments that were full before the found one with room for us.
Leon is a much more relaxed and comfortable place than those we have been in for the last little while. An old town and not particularly attractive but it once had aspirations to be the capital of the country. Some of the guide
Too Much Choice
One of the many stalls around the market area in Leon
books report some crime problems. They know about tourists in Leon and I suppose it is not beyond belief that some have been robbed. We were scammed by a taxi driver, but that is nothing terribly new. At no time did we feel under threat. There were a few small boys late at night who tried to beg a bit but, other than that, the place is very easy.
Given that we want to be in South America proper in early March we have had some decisions to make. There was not enough time to move slowly through Costa Rica and Panama and also see a bit of Nicaragua. We had also spent a reasonable amount of time on local buses and that can get tiring. We needed a weekend, a couple of days off travel. So we decided to pick one place in Nicaragua, spend a good period of time and then scuttle through Costa Rica to Panama on an overnight bus if possible to pick up our plane to Colombia in early March.
Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua was the pick. A combination of buses, taxis and ferries later, we made it to Ometepe. It takes
Electioneering in Managua
Elections are due in November. And Managua is a much nicer city than the capitals in neighbouring countries led us to expect.
a long time to travel short distances in these countries – unless you are prepared to pay more dollars than we are. It isn't hard to find transport but it is sometimes difficult to find transport that suits. The bus from Managua to San Jorge, the port on Lake Nicaragua, leaves from one terminal and the bus from Leon came in at another. As usual, when our taxi pulled up at the terminal for the San Jorge buses, a group of young men formed around us all touting for their bus or buses. Our taxi driver quietly mentioned that we should take the 'green bus'. Our very enthusiastic group of touts guided us towards a bus that was undoubtedly green. It had signs on it for Rivas – the town before San Jorge – and San Jorge and others. We were a little suss because San Jorge is about 6 km off the main road but, well, the bus was green and we were assured over and over again it was the bus we wanted.
As the bus heaved to a stop about 3 minutes from Rivas on the side of the IntraAmerica Highway and the offsider bellowed 'San
Going to Ometepe
One of the smaller ferries on Lake Nicaragua
Jorge' at us, we had confirmation that our suspicions were right and we were indeed on the wrong bus, or perhaps, to be fair, the not-quite-right bus. It cost us less than $5 in a taxi to get to San Jorge so there was no real problem. While we were having a feed the real bus turned up. It was bright green. I should mention that our trip this day, including a taxi for 40 minutes on Ometepe, cost us less than $15 per head so it is not expensive.
El Tesoro del Pirata wasn't on the top of our list of places to stay but it was the first we came to that wasn't not booked out, was a reasonable price and in a great location. It is not a popular pick for others but very comfortable for us. A cabana on the beach with its own restaurant serving excellent food at a good price. Air conditioning if you want, kayaks a reasonable drive away to hire, horses, trail bikes and the like available not too far away. What more do you need?
Lake Nicaragua is a large freshwater lake with the island of Ometepe in the
Or part of it
middle (actually, a little to one side from the middle). It is generally calm but it does tend to get a little rough in the afternoon. We went out kayaking early, after dealing with the roughest road I have seen in a while. The paddle out was not too bad. We made it to a creek that took us into the island on a very gentle body of water where there were plenty of birds, flowers and some of the best mangroves I have seen. We could have done with a small motor, or at least a sail, on the kayaks on the way back after paddling about for 2 hours, but I suppose that is really not the done thing.
There are two volcanoes on the island, one of which is active. The inactive one is a reasonably easy climb but, after the kayaking, enthusiasm for the climb waned, as did enthusiasm for anything more active than laying in a hammock drinking rum. The island is very popular with tourists but, luckily, they seem to be the sort of tourists who need the company of lots of others. The little place we stayed at didn't attract too many
Afternoon Swim at Our Beach
The horses came down every afternoon.
and that was all to the good.
So we have been a little lazy here taking the chance to regroup. When you are on the road for a long period you need a break once in a while and, even if you don't, Ometepe is a top place to kick back. We did have an interesting time leaving. We thought we had arranged a pick up from a minivan at 8.00 am thus allowing us to catch the earliest ferry off the island. The van hadn't arrived by 8.30 so we started action on an alternative. Then the minvan arrived. Looked at a clock in the hotel and it said it was in fact an hour earlier than we had thought. We had it confirmed that it was correct. Perhaps daylight saving had ended or something? The driver's clock was the same as the one in the hotel. We must be wrong. We loaded up and headed for the ferry. Every clock from there on agreed with us. Nothing on the internet. Nobody else knew anything. A strange coincidence? Didn't really matter anyway.
It cost us $25 in a taxi to get to the border. It would have
Not sure what Klaire had spotted.
been cheaper in a bus but it is a 6 hour bus ride from the border to San Jose in Costa Rica so we wanted to get there as soon as we could. The border was interesting. First we had to pay a 40 Cordoba, Municipal tax at what looked a lot like a shop. Then we were grabbed by young men with handfuls of immigration forms who promptly filled them out for us and then asked for a $1 tip. It was handy because that seemed to have been the only way that you could actually get a form. Then it cost us $2 each to leave Nicaragua. After all of that you walk about a kilometre to the Costa Rican Immigration. We initially found a queue and joined it but it looked a bit long. Long queues are a nuisance so we had more of a look and found a nice short one. This was the Costa Rican entry queue so we were away.
I will leave this one here and try to get this post up. Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia will follow – if we do indeed make it to Colombia.
There are more photos below