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Published: August 12th 2008
View from the tower of the Merced Church. The yellow and pink cathedral is the standout building, while behind you can just about see Lake Nicaragua.
The red and black flag
First time visitors to Nicaragua could be forgiven for thinking that the country's flag is red and black, but this is in fact the Sandinista
Flag, which we noticed flying everywhere, almost from the moment we crossed the border, and which is much more prominent than the official blue and white Nicaraguan flag.
Politics is never far away in Nicaragua, and almost every town has a Sandinista mural or memorial, usually a statue or painting of a revolutionary soldier throwing a grenade or aiming a rifle. Murals supporting the opposite side are much less obvious, as the right wingers seem to use a different form of propaganda, mostly newspapers and other media, to get their message across and to launch attacks on Sandinista leader and current president, Daniel Ortega. Such political fervour was very different from what we'd seen so far in Central America; especially different from our last stop Costa Rica, the region's most peaceful nation, where even the army has been abolished.
We liked Nicaragua from the moment we crossed the border. Perhaps it was the view. Shortly after boarding a chicken bus to Rivas at the border, we had our
first look at Lake Nicaragua, and the stunning twin volcanoes of Conception
which make up Ometepe Island, on the lake. I don't think we've ever seen volcanoes in such a setting as this, and I spent most of the journey to Rivas just gazing at this beautiful sight.
Our first stop was Ometepe Island
, which we reached by ferry from San Jorge. The views of the volcanoes just got better and better as we approached the island. It was just as well I took pictures on this crossing as the summits would be covered in cloud for the next few days.
Ometepe´s popularity as a tourist destination means there are plenty of traveller services on the island, especially in Moyogalpa
, the main town, but it never felt too overrun with crowds. It´s the largest freshwater island in the world, meaning there are plenty of off-the-beaten path areas to explore, including many places which look unchanged for centuries. The lake is home to a species of shark which can live both in freshwater and salt water, though you'd have to be very lucky to see this. We arrived late in the afternoon, so did
View over Lake Nicaragua from Moyogalpa in Isla de Ometepe.
little that first evening except walk around Moyogalpa. The sunset over Lake Nicaragua was spectacular - the best I've seen since the Valley of the Moon in Chile.
Next morning we hired a motorbike in Moyogalpa, and spent the day exploring the island. We had driven a moped before on Easter Island, but the motorbike was a much tougher proposition. Ruth had a quick practice run on a back street in Moyogalpa, and that was enough to convince us that we (or she, at least) could do it. At $30 a day it sounded like a good deal, but by the time we had handed the money over we realised there were no side lights, no rear view mirrors and no insurance!
Sitting on a motorbike saddle reminded me of sitting on a camel, so we were glad to rest our aching limbs after 10 km at our first stop, Charco Verde
. Here there are trails starting from a beach through the forest, where there was supposed to be a good chance of spotting howler monkeys. We saw hundreds of lizards, colourful butterflies and even squirrels, but no sign of the monkeys unfortunately. The trails were good, however,
Volcan Concepcion is one of the two volcanoes on Isla de Ometepe. This is a view from the ferry on Lake Nicaragua.
we had nice views of Isla de Quiste and Volcan Maderas, as well as over Lake Nicaragua, which is so large it felt like we were looking out over the ocean.
We drove on to Altagracia
, the island's second town, a much more traditional place than Moyogalpa. The main (and only) sights in town are the ancient stone statues beside the church. Two local boys asked us to take their picture beside one of the statues, and we thought they would ask for money but all they wanted was to see how they looked in the picture. The afternoon rains fell early that day making Playa Santa Domingo, Ometepe's best known beach, less attractive a prospect. More fun was Punta Jesus Maria, back near Moyogalpa, where there was a good sunset watching area. It was a little early for sunset but we did watch a local couple trying to fish with what looked like a bed sheet!
The motorbike man was almost as surprised as us that we returned the bike without a scratch. We had a couple of beers that night to celebrate (that we were still alive). The following day we decided to move on as
there was too much cloud cover on the volcanoes to attempt a summit.
Nicer than Spain's Granada?
Granada is Nicaragua's oldest city, dating from 1524, and it's an immediately impressive place, like something from a fairly tale: beautiful squares, colourful houses, crumbling churches and picturesque streets. No where could be this nice and not be a popular tourist draw, but the crowds didn't spoil it. On our first day in town we did little more than walk the streets taking more and more pictures of the beautiful buildings - often returning to the same spot to look at it in different light. Though is has to be said the further you walk from the main square the less salubrious the streets; down by the port area the people live in fairly dilapidated houses. There are more than enough churches, museums, restaurants and so on to stay here for weeks. Put simply, Granada is probably the nicest town we've seen in Latin America - don't miss it!
Given that we've climbed a volcano almost every other week in the last 10 months, and that Nicaragua is full of active volcanoes, it was inevitable we'd find ourselves attempting
Watching shadows in Granada.
Shoreline of Lake Nicaragua.
another summit. I think we picked a good one too. Volcan Masaya National Park
is a short bus ride from Granada, and is one of the best parks I've been to in Latin America. There was a good museum with useful information on Nicaragua and its volcanoes, helpful staff and even a road to the summit with a lift from the rangers for $1 if you don't fancy the hike up (which we didn't).
At the summit you can peer into the highly active Santiago crater. What looked like a cloud above the crater was in fact smoke coming from the crater. After seeing this, it was easy to understand why the first Spanish priests to visit this volcano built a cross: it really does feel like you're peering into hell! But you can't get too close as Masaya has in recent times sent flying hot rocks out of the crater. We were given a leaflet by the rangers full of useful advice, including my favourite: "In case of explusions of rocks you should protect yourself under your car."
We walked back down to the main road, then jumped in a passing chicken bus for 5km to the
next sight, Coyotepe
, which a man on the bus that morning had recommended to us. This hillside fort was built as recently as 100 years ago, but in that time has played an important role in Nicaraguan history. First it was the site of Nicaraguan defence against a US invasion in 1912, and, more recently, in the civil war, it was used by Somoza's side against the Sandinistas. When the Sandinistas eventually stormed the fort, the defenders fled, but not before brutally killing all the prisoners. Nowadays the only inhabitants of the cells are bats, while the walls of the fort are sadly covered in graffiti. There were great views of Masaya town and Masaya volcano from the walls, but very few visitors were here to see the fort or the views; most were amorous teenagers from the local schools.
León: the other colonial city
The journey from Granada to León was fine, with no hitches at all other than me somehow managing to lose my shoes when we changed bus in Managua
. Though from a bag, not from my feet! We stayed in Managua all of 5 minutes, which is about 4 minutes more than it deserves
judging by how our guidebook rated it. The scenery on the journey to León was beautiful, especially near Lake Managua, where we had great views of Momotombo and Momotombito, two more of Nicaragua's impressive volcanoes.
León is the second colonial city after Granada, though its buildings have more of a faded air, with less striking colours. There are also far many more Sandinista murals around as León is traditionally more liberal than conservative Granada. There's even a a plaque on a wall dedicated to the man who killed President Somoza (the right wing dictator) in 1956.
As in Granada, there was as much to see around Leon as in the city, so, with little time, we had to be selective. The Flor de Caña rum factory tour and the volcano sand boarding will have to wait until next time; instead we spent a day at the beach on Las Penitas
, on the Pacific Coast. The currents here are notorious and there have been many drownings so we didn't wander in too far. The waves were fierce, I was turned upside down on more than one occasion while trying to swim with them. A great spot though and another
The classic Sandinista woman!
beautiful day weather wise. And this is supposed to be the wet season! To make up for missing the rum tour, that night we bought a bottle of 7 year Flor de Caña reserve for about $5 in a supermarket. I can understand why some people call this the world's best rum, as it was fantastic.
It was difficult to leave behind the sunny skies and easy life in León, but we both wanted to see the "real" Nicaragua, which, wherever it is, certainly isn't in León or Granada. The bus from León to Matagalpa
was supposed to take 2.5 hours, but it took us 5 hours in an old US yellow school bus (with authentic signs in English from the 1960s) along a road with more holes than Swiss Cheese. I thought the highlands would be much cooler than the coast, but the same sunny skies and high temperatures greeted us too in Matagalpa.
The Matagalpa region is best known for coffee & Sandinistas - Nicaragua in microcosm perhaps. Carlos Fonseca Amador
, the legendary FSLN leader, was born in Matagalpa, and the town is very much left leaning. The house where Fonseca lived is
now a museum showing photos from his life. There wasn't much information about him beyond the pictures, but the girl running the place answered questions for us.
We picked up a hiking map from Cafe Girasol, which donates all its profits to local charities. The maps describe day hikes around Matagalpa, and we chose the Ruta de la Guerra 1978, a path up Cerro Apante
followed by the Sandinistas in the 1978 revolution. We followed the map and descriptions but a man with a machete told us we were going the wrong way for Yagunga (a village on the trail) so we backtracked and followed his route. This did lead us into Yagunga, basically a few huts in the forest, where nothing we could see matched the text description.
There were narrow paths going everywhere, so we followed one of these eastwards for a while, but the path quickly became overgrown and very narrow and as we had no wish to meet Mr Bushmaster, Ms. Fer-de-Lance or any other of Nicaragua´s poisonous snakes, we turned back. Starting for the third time from Mataglapa we returned to the path we had originally followed. Machete man wasn't around and we
seemed to be on the right track. We climbed higher and higher and had great views over the town and countryside. But luck wasn't on our side as a guy driving past told us we were on private property and certainly not on the way to the summit. So it seems our map was years out of date, and no one knew where the correct path to Cerro Apante was!
Hiking in the cloudforest
Our last day in Matagalpa was the most memorable. We spent the day at Selva Negra
, a German owned mountain resort set in the cloud forest. The entrance is on a turn off from the Matagalpa-Jinotega road, marked by a tank, left over from the Nicaraguan civil war. The chalets at Selva Negra looked very inviting but we visited for only the day, enough time for the hiking trails and the restaurant. The hiking is excellent, with a dozen trails through the rainforest. We hiked on almost all the trails over 4 hours - the best one was the Peter and Karen trail which is named after a British couple who got lost on the trail when it first opened, and were later honoured
Even Fred Flintstone is a Sandinista supporter.
by the name.
The walking here was similar to the cloud forest in Monteverde in Costa Rica, though we saw more wildlife here and oen or two of the trails were far more difficult. As ever it was difficult to take good pictures of the wildlife as it was at a distance and always on the move, but the sounds we heard from the birds were great. It only cost $1.25 to enter and a free coffee and cake was included as well as access to the trails. Estelí
was our final stop. Like Matagalpa, it's very much a Sandinista town, and played a huge role in the Sandinista revolution in 1979. After Estelí fell to the rebels, Somoza fled the country and the Sandinistas came to power. There are many murals in the town, and I haven't seen this many black and red flags since County Down last won the All Ireland Football Championship!
There is a definite community spirit here too, with many business being run as co-ops and other enterprises donating their profits to charity. We stayed in one such place, Hospedaje Luna, run by a friendly English lady. We only had a day
Ben Linder Cafe, León
Ben Linder was an American killed in Nicaragua´s Civil War. Linder was volunteering in a rural area, when he was ambushed and killed by the right wing Contras, who, ironically, were CIA trained and funded.
in Estelí so she suggested a good itinerary for us, taking in the Sandinista Museum
and a nice restaurant on the outskirts of town. The Sandinista museum is fascinating - obviously a bit one-sided, but full fo great pictures and stories, including an especially gruesome one about Che Guevara´s death.
That politics plays so important in Nicaragua is not surprising given that the brutal civil war only ended in 1990 and that Nicaragua remains amongst the poorest countries in Latin America. What's surprising is how safe and accessible a country it is nowadays, though you get the sense it wouldn't take much to reignite the flames of the conflict. Even more surprising is the other Nicaragua, the one that doesn't make the news, the Nicaragua of beautiful colonial towns, of stunning natural beauty, of friendly people and of such low costs that you won't want to leave.
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