Published: March 9th 2010February 14th 2010
Leaving South America
view over one of the many serpentine rivers of the Amazon basin
Window-seats on a daytime flight from Buenos Aires gave us a great chance to say goodbye to South America. Out over the city and into the countryside. Within a couple of hours the snowcapped peaks of the Andes popped up on the horizon to the west and all of a sudden we were flying over Amazon basin rivers and jungle. Absolutely stunning, and yet we were leaving.
A stopover in Panama city and then we were on our way again. With only a couple of month left in our trip we were having to make some hard decisions about where to hit and where to miss in Central America. But if there was one country which I (Jeff) just had to see it was Nicaragua. I can't recall exactly when my interest with this country began, but it was probably inspired by the lyrics mentioning the country within songs by my favourite revolutionary rockers Rage Against the Machine. And I think at one stage I chose to do a history assignment on the country, or at least bored all my classmates with tales of US meddling in other countries affairs...
And now I have the opportunity to bore you
all with the same as I present a concise, possibly biased account of 20th Century Nicaragua: US Marines enter in the 1910s (Nicaragua is seen as an ideal site for interocean canal). 1930s: Augusto Cesar Sandino leads an anti US rebel army. Head of US backed military, Somozo, invites Sandino and others to dinner and peace talks; has guests killed. Somoza assumes presidency and with his sons the Somoza dictatorship reigns for 40-odd years. Rebel army the FSLN (also named the 'Sandinistas') wage war on the Somoza government coming to a head in the late 70s. The socialist revolution takes place in July 1979 as the FSLN roll into the capital Managua. 1980s: US president Ronald Reagan secretly funds a counterrevolutionary 'Contra' army despite FSLN winning 'free and fair' elections (it is later exposed that Reagan is funding the Contras through secret sale of weapons to Iran...interesting!). US also place trade embargo on Nicaragua. FSLN lose elections, in part due to economic and military situation. The socialists return as FSLN leader Daniel Ortega wins 2008 election with just 37% of the vote. 2010: Jeff and Jen arrive. Managua
We arrived in Managua, which was created as the
national capital to stop fighting between conservative Granada and liberal Leon, and is situated halfway between the two (a bit like Canberra). We soon found out that like Canberra, Managua is also very hot, not particularly interesting and has some slightly sketchy inhabitants (sorry Flecks!). And so after a visit to some historical sites, including the dilapidated and vacant city square and a great taxi ride with a driver who pointed out all the local important places (the presidents house, the channel 10 television studio) we were on a bus to old Leon. Leon
Leon, the former capital of the country provided a far nicer environment in which to wander the streets and take in a bit of Nicaraguan life. A typical walk around town included spotting a church or ten, a bite of good street food, and watching locals enjoy the evening breeze sitting around in rocking chairs (on average each house would have about 5 rocking chairs!). Jen also undertook a half day cooking course (see below) - I cheated and just partook in the tasting session which was fantastic! Leaving the big pack behind, we jumped on a local 'chicken' bus - a retired US school
portrait of Sandino
located in the former prison and torture chambers used by the Somozas against dissidents
bus from the 60s, designed to fit school kids and definitely not tall foreigners - out to the Pacific coast and the beach and river of Las Peñitas. Some good swimming, mangrove exploring (by me at least), seafood eating and plenty of hammock swinging had us really chilled out. But perhaps the highlight of Las Peñitas was the fact that we were in 'town' on Superbowl Sunday. Jen was nice enough to humour me as we walked from place to place looking for a television, let alone one showing the superbowl. When we had given up all hope, we sat down for a beer at a hostel/bar, and heard some commotion nearby. We walked into the backyard of the place to find 20 to 30 Americans all sitting down infront of a small screen watching the game. Some of them were real characters, and were nice enough to explain the rules and strategy of the game to us. When New Orleans took the lead late in the match, one of the older southern gentlemen jumped up and yelled with glee through his toothless gums, 'WHOOOO DAAAAATTT!!!?!' To which everyone else who was also supporting New Orleans replied with the same...
Site of former house of the boss of the army, Managua
It was here that Somoza (then chief of the National Guard) invited Sandino and other to dinner to discuss peace talks, then had the guests killed that evening
And so we now have a new term of excitement to use in our travels (complimenting 'Spotty Dog' from Scotland of course). And so we saw out our first superbowl, in a tiny Nicaraguan fishing village surrounded by Americans. Quite odd, very fun! Jen's Guide to Nicaraguan Cuisine
Being excited by food in general, and new food in particular, I jumped at the chance to do a Nicaraguan cooking class, largely because I had no idea what Nicaraguan food was. The first suprise came when we went to the market to buy the ingredients for our chosen dish. We could choose between a beefy stew, and iguana... And if we chose iguana we´d be buying it alive at the market, then taking to the class to cook it up! Needless to say we all chose Indio Viejo - the beef option. We then were given a list of ingredients and amounts needed and had to go round the market finding what we needed. The fruit and vegie part was particularly fun, as we´d have to ask the market ladies if they had a particular thing, they´d look at us as if we were stupid, and point at the mountain
of said vegetable right under our noses. We next jumped on a local bus - really a ute jammed full of people - to head to Dona Ana´s house, where we were to cook. We got there and it turned out that on Sundays it was the local cockfighting ring and bar. Luckily it wasn´t Sunday, because I´m not sure cockfighting is quite my idea of a good time, but it was interesting to check out the location and talk to Dona Ana about it all.
supposedly the oldest cathedral in Central America
After getting everything started with Dona Ana we headed off to the local tortilleria to make, and buy our tortillas. The tortilleria was a shed out the back of a house where five women work for about 12 hours a day making tortillas, and they only get 2 days off a year. They make about 2000 tortillas a day, and were suitably amused at our efforts, often telling us we´d done really well, then taking our work and smashing back into a dough ball to be made again. In the end however, I managed to whip up three decent tortillas, and am going to give it a go when I get home - the key is apparently lime, not the fruit, but the chemical in the dough.
Once the tortillas were made we headed back to Dona Ana to finish off the stew. A few beers were had, the meat was hit repeatedly with a rock to shred it, and the stew was somehow balanced over a large outdoor fire. Soon enough it was ready and we feasted under the fruit trees in the backyard. An excellent day, and I even managed to get some to take back for Jeff to sample (Dona Ana seemed very understanding when I explained that my man was at home waiting for some food!)
Back to Jeff...
Isla de Ometepe
In the middle of the massive Nicaragua Lake lies an island made of not one, but two massive volcanoes - Concepcion and Maderas. Concepcion is definitely an active volcano, having blown its top a few times in recent centuries! We had just made the last ferry for the day and arrived on the island in the dark. By now we were quite used to arriving in unknown places at night, having researched accomodation options before we arrive. So with a few places in mind
Casa del Obrero, Leon
1956: the patriach of the Somoza dictatorship was killed in this building by an assasin who posed as a waiter
we were ready for the main port town of Moyogalpa where the ferry arrives. When a young local asked us if we wanted a room in San Jose del Sur (kilometres away from Moyogalpa), we politely laughed him off. Until we figured out that we were somehow, actually in San Jose del Sur! Friend, come back! But thankfully we found a nice little room in a family run restaurant, looked after by the friendly Fidel ('like the president of Cuba' he informed us).
We spent the next day bushwalking around a lagoon. Thats right, a lagoon on a volcano, within a lake... We managed to hear, and then spot q whole lot of howler monkeys, and an array of bizarre birds including the stunning 'blue tailed magpie', which is not at all like the magpies we know. The next day was an adventure in itself, trying to get to the other side of the island by infrequent and unreliable chicken buses, and a steep climb with packs halfway up the smaller volcano. But the effort was worth it to reach Finca Magdelena, a working farm and budget lodge. Once we got our breaths back, we attempted to walk along a
gets decapitated in the mercado. The woman was working through a whole sack of them, throwing their still kicking bodies to the side
'marked trail' to find carved petroglyphs nearby. Attempt 1: fail. And Jen has a blow out. So we arose early the next morning for attempt 2: Fail. Where were these petroglyphs?? All we kept finding were more and more plantain plantations. But finally attempt 3 was successful, and again, well worth the tough effort! Granada
Next stop was Nicaragua's most important tourist destination - the beautifully preserved colonial city of Granada. Our time here was spent wandering around in morning or dusk, and doing our best to avoid the daytime heat. Highlights were a great museum/art gallery, climbing up a great church belltower for views over the city and catching a salsa bands in one of the restaurants. But in all we found the tourist scene a bit too heavy for our liking, so only spent a couple of days before heading off to another volcano. Sure we had just been on a volcano within a lake, but in Laguna de Apoyo we were heading to a lake within a volcano!
There are more photos below