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Published: April 19th 2009
The last picture on the route
The Six Headed No Tail Snake
When you think about cities with historical rivalries what comes to mind? Auckland and Christchurch... pretty tame. Cardiff and Swansea... they´re definitely not friends, and as for Barcelona and Madrid, that hostility can be down right nasty. But here in Nicaragua we discovered two leading contenders for ¨rivalry of the millennium¨.
Before we get to them, this story starts with a safe but chaotic border crossing. Having enjoyed the cooler climes of highland Costa Rica our senses were slammed back to reality as we lined up in the fierce early morning heat and dust to enter Nicaragua. Immigration consisted of a small building with six serving windows. From each window snaked a long line that somehow had merged with all the other lines to form one gigantic mass that appeared to have no start.
Getting your head around this was a lot like solving one of those puzzles where you have to follow the tangled lines to see which object connects to what. To make things worse, in some sections people in the same queue were facing different directions. Having had no luck asking a few locals where was best
How A Cashew Starts Life
Don't worry about eating this fruit though, it is horrid! The nut is in the VERY solid grey bit on top
to join, we decided to simply merge into the middle of a line and see what happens. Nothing. After ten minutes of no progress Tracey went to look for a better solution and came back with hushed news of a smaller ¨side queue¨that looked more promising. It was, and it was in shade, so after 45 minutes of waiting and watching some clever pushing-in followed by the occasional argument we were officially in Nigarauga.
Slaying A Dragon
Nicaragua is much poorer than Panama and Costa Rica and the people and the environment looked it. However we must have had 20 huge smiles within the first 5 minutes of walking through the chaotic bus station and jumping on an old chicken bus. These big grins and the genuine warmth and affability of the people made Nicaragua a really nice country to travel in. As we have mentioned before the high point of our travels is always the interaction with people, so being back in a country where we were shoehorned into a shitty old bus packed full of friendly and interested locals was highly satisfying.
We were heading to the port of San Jorge (Saint George) to
This giant puppet of a woman was paraded through the streets and she performed for money
catch a ferry to two islands in the enormous Lake Nicaragua. Tracey´s English heart beat proudly as we passed a statue of the great man slaying a surprisingly small dragon. As it was Sunday and only a week until Easter it seemed that every family in the country had come to the lakefront. Thousands of people (tens of thousands?!) were eating, drinking and partying and we were thrilled to see some of Niguragua´s famous giant dancing puppets pass us by.
Starving from our already long day, Tracey spotted some delicious looking food and got us two plate loads and a large glass of Coke. When we tried to pay it turned out that the food belonged to a group of teenage locals who had actually just shared their lunch with us! They wouldn´t take any money and they were definitely in the party spirit. Our spirits couldn´t be much higher too, although Tracey did have a boat ride looming on her horizon.
Life´s A Blast
Isla De Ometepe is exactly what you would hope an island made from two volcanoes rising out of a lake would look like. One of the volcanoes is still
The twin peaks making up Isla Ometepe
active, the steam puffing out of the top is a dead giveaway. Roughly 35,000 people live around the base of these deadly beauties in a number of small towns. Joining the two volcanoes together is a strip of land formed by lava flow and it was to this area that we finally arrived after a boat ride, a short bus journey and a free lift from a passing local. Handily for us this local turned out to own a guest house which was newer and therefore cheaper than his competitors.
A few weeks earlier when we decided to come here we had also planned to climb one of the volcanos. Now that we were here in the oppressive heat with a rather more fanciful option of lying on the beach and drinking a cool beer we made a swift change of plans. Instead of a treacherous 12 hour slog we would instead go for a walking, eating and swimming tour of the island while hunting out ancient stone statues and petroglyphs (pictures carved into the rock) that are found all over the island. In the end our so called 'easier´plan turned into a 23 km (14 mile) slog up
They found Tracey fascinating
and down hills in scorching heat. We managed to find a few petroglyphs and eventually a good place to swim with fresh mangoes falling off nearby trees, but other than that it was a long walk for very little return.
When we finally made it home after 10 hours of exploring, the bloody water was off so we couldn´t even have a shower. We were not amused and Tracey let the annoyingly disinterested reception staff know it.
That night while playing cards we were visited by a GIANT cane toad. These guys are big and ugly and quite brave as Mr Toad didn´t look the least bit bothered as David pulled chairs out of the way and crawled all around him while trying to take a good photo. It was only when we put a harmless little pen next to him to show some scale that he finally got scared and tucked his head in to hide.
A Tale Of Two Cities
In this part of the world Easter weekend is HUGE and we had been warned that travel might be difficult and getting a room might be impossible. Not wanting to get
This one wasn´t so brave and poisonous when we put a harmless pen next to it to show its size
stuck on the island we left Ometepe and headed for a city that we hoped would offer the best Semana Santa experience, Granada.
In 1524 a few years after colonisation the Spanish founded the cities of Granada and Leon. From that year on for almost 500 years both cities have vied for supremacy. By 'vied´ we mean fought, quite literally, including numerous coups, battles and at times outright civil war. In 1853 Leon even hired 56 mercenaries from the USA to attack Granada and help shift the balance of political power their way. According to some info we read the attack was a disaster and sadly most of Granada was burned down in the process so we were happy to discover how intact and beautifully restored the old colonial centre is. It is set around a huge tree-filled square that was full of food sellers, market venders and locals kicking back with a beer on a warm evening. You can also take a horse drawn carriage ride around the square and down a very pretty road to the lake front.
It´s Astounding.... Time Is Fleeting
Finding accommodation was also no problem as once again
Bread, Glorious Bread
Finally some fibre in Nicaragua
the accommodation found us....and what a strange and lovely place it was. We were met at the bus station by a Spanish, Italian and English speaking French man and liking his offer we followed him around a huge market and down a few back streets to a faceless building with no signs. Once inside we were introduced to two middle aged French speaking ladies and a freaky baker of unknown origins who looked exactly like Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
We never quite got to the bottom of it, but this place was being run as a sort of healthy, homeopathic hostal as a way of raising funds for a local social awareness project. We met another lady from Finland who had been in Granada for four months helping them design and plant a garden. Asides from offering accommodation they also dried and sold herbs, made various drinks and food using natural ingredients and had a wonderful wood oven which was staffed by the aforementioned baker of questionable human characteristics who would stay up all night baking the most delicious bread and then lumber around town with bread stuffed bags swinging off every part of him
The strange outfits worn by the people carrying the model
trying to sell his tasty wares.
This place was great and bizarre all at the same time. Never before have we stayed in a hostel where just as we are sitting down to eat our fresh bread and salad, up pops the owner with a little salad dressing she has wisked up for us just in case we didn´t have any. When we told them we hadn´t slept very well because the branches of a large tree outside were banging on the roof, Honey the older and smaller of the two ladies was straight up onto the second story roof with nothing more than a small saw and French determination.
By now it was Wednesday and with a long Easter weekend about to start all the churches were gearing up for the occasion. Stautes of Christ in various agonising positions were either being mounted and polished or paraded through the streets. We came across one parade which had real people dressed in costume being carried on floats. There was a Jesus, a Virgin Mary and some disciples as well as some nasty romans and their even nastier leader. Each float was being carried by guys in bright purple
We don't think this guy was thinking about chocolate though!
Ku Klux Klan style outfits, complete with the pointy hat and little eye slits to peer through. Completing the atmosphere was a band playing a loud and sombre dirge that everybody was marching too.
Where´s The Freaking Easter Bunny
This is going to sound ridiculous, but it was quite strange to be in a place where Easter was all about Jesus. There were no Easter eggs to be seen, nor will there be anywhere in the country. There were no (cue TV announcer) ¨Huge Easter weekend sales¨, instead nearly all the shops were closed. And Easter time was definitely not time to build a conservatory or concrete a BBQ or any other DIY project that back home all the home improvement stores would be telling us to do. Here, nearly everybody was busy with the sole business of celebrating Jesus. Whevever we peeked in, a church or cathedral was always part way through a sermon and as we walked around we were never far from a parade or people crafting various shapes and structures out of palm leaves. Neither of us are particularly religious but it was a nice feeling to be caught up in
Great Place For A Market
The outside of the handicraft market in Masaya
the buzz of the big days ahead and the true, original reason for Easter.
(We will admit to finding and scoffing six small soccer ball shaped chocolates. We couldn´t help it, the evil advertising gods have manipulated our minds)
For our second day in Granada we left it, taking a short trip to a nearby market down called Masaya. This place is supposed to have one of the best arts and crafts markets in Central Amercia. It turned out to be pretty good but, as always seems to be the case in places like these, after a while you start to see exactly the same stuff over and over again. We tried hard to find something we liked and could post home but in the end we left empty handed.
Perhaps we have seen just one too many beautiful cities or maybe the overly poetic description in the guidebook unfairly raised our expectations but we were a little disappointed with Granada so after devouring our second delicious loaf of bread in two days we decided to head to Leon.
In Leon we found an almost perfect hostal, Lazy Bones. There
Four Hours Work
Each carpet takes ages to design, sketch out and fill in with sawdust
are three main hostels in this town and each has their own distinct style. One was a dirty, loud party place full of American students on spring break. No thanks. The second was quite a bit nicer, but with hardly any amenities. Then there was Lazy Bones. This place had large sofa and hammock filled chill out areas, free (nice!) tea and coffee all day, five fast, free internet portals and a big swimming pool. Even the dorm rooms were nice with large bunk beds, plenty of space and a huge free locker next to each bed. If there had been a kitchen it would have been perfect. We liked this hostal so much that we stayed an extra day just to sit around the pool and read.
Like Granada most of central Leon was closed except for some local eateries and a big market where David got a haircut and shave from a one handed barber. The guy used a sports sweatband on his wrist to hold a cleverly adapted comb in place. Despite a few nicks David thought the cut was better than he had received from many two handed barbers in recent years. There was also
A busy Good Friday in Tracey´s World
a constant hive of activity from food sellers and tat merchants around all the churches and cathedrals. We both have a serious weakness (possible addiction) for popcorn and David is averaging around four icecreams a week so we were very happy to see all of these treats and more in abundance.
Very Temporary Art
A fantastic surprise was the discovery of a local indigenous tradition of creating large biblical-image street art out of coloured sawdust. This was a giant stroke of luck as this art is created and distroyed on Good Friday only. The area where it happens is called Subtavia and we made our first trip down there at 2pm. At this stage there were around 50 pictures in various states of creation. All of them were lined up down the centre of two roads. This we found out, was because later on there would be a parade which would honour the work by walking over the top of it!
It was really nice to see people of all ages working together. Some pictures were quite basic with only a few colours and large shapes while others were incredibly complex undertakings. It makes
Hard At Work
Creating the ¨carpets¨ for the procession that night
sense that if you do this every year you would better and better at it, but given they were working purely with dirt and coloured saw dust it was still a surprise to see things like depth and shading in their work.
As it was so hot and as our swimming pool was calling we headed back to the hostal for the rest of the afternoon before returning to see the finished pictures and watch the parade. By now the streets were packed so we found a good spot to watch the action, got a few plates of tasty food and waited for the parade to begin. In time the familiar sound of the Easter dirge graced our ears and eventually we watched it draw near and pass us by while trampling all the beautiful work to oblivion.
In a surprising moment of age-old tradition meeting modern practicality the final thing in the parade was a street cleaning truck. Given every street corner, gutter, park, river and bush is full of rubbish we´re not sure if we were more surprised to see a truck or to learn that such a powerful cleaning device existed here!
These guys have finished already
If It´s Tuesday This Must Be Honduras
After debating whether we could justify another day around the pool we have decided to up sticks and farewell Nicaragua. We were amazed to discover we have only been here a week, it feels much longer. Perhaps all those free teas and coffees have made time (and our hearts) speed up or pehaps hot, slow, friendly Nicaragua is just one of those places where time moves at its own pace. We have certainly enjoyed the amount of good, fresh, cheap fruit and veggies around here. We have been buying 12 bananas for around 30 pence in some places. Hopefully that will continue throughout the rest of the continent! Whatever the case, tomorrow we are off to Honduras so hopefully the bus will move us a little bit faster.
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