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Published: June 15th 2011
Sardines in a bus
It's a hot day, the temperature around a humid 30 degrees, and we are wedged onto the rattling, old bus as tightly as sardines. It feels like we will have to be peeled apart eventually, as limbs slowly stick to those next to us. A sign at the front informs us this school bus was built in Ottawa in 1986, designed to hold 86 school children. There are at least 250 people on today. Three local people hang out the front door, holding on for dear life as the bus chugs on over the potholes in the road. With each stop for the first hour, another few people manage to squeeze on, until, eventually, people start to get off at the larger towns we pass through, creating much needed space so we can expand our chests to breathe once again.
It is the Wednesday of Holy Week (Semana Santa in this part of the world) and this is the final bus before a 2 day stoppage for the celebrations. Everyone wants to get home to see loved ones. We are on our way to the colonial city of Leon to witness the major celebrations
in the lead up to Easter. Luckily the spectacular scenery as we cross the Los Maribios volcano range makes up for the discomfort of the journey.
Before this typically uncomfortable bus trip we had spent a day in Somoto, near the border with Honduras, primarily stopping in this small town to spend the day going down through the spectacular Somoto Canyon. We had heard of this canyon through another traveller we crossed on his way north, and there wasn't a lot of info on it generally, but we found a guide locally to take us there. We therefore weren't sure what to expect, only knowing we would be walking and swimming a bit of the journey. What followed was a beautiful and exhilirating morning clambering over rocks on the bottom of the canyon, but mostly floating down deep ponds in the river which wound its way down the gorge bed. At one stage there was a high jump from the rocks into a plunge-pool. All the while the river sides became a narrow, steep canyon towering over 100m above us at river level.
With just the two of us and our guide in the quiet early morning light
filtering down to the canyon, it was a magical journey as we floated silently down river, watching colourful birds and butterflies darting from side to side across the cliff walls. It was a great introduction to the natural beauty of Nicaragua.
Celebrating Easter week in Leon
On finally getting to Leon, we could relax after all the recent travel. Most of Central America shuts down for the Semana Santa celebrations so, whether we liked it or not, we were stuck in Leon for the long Easter weekend. This was fine by us, as we'd heard much about the grandiosity of the celebrations in this beautiful colonial town.
Leon at its present site, a former capital of Nicaragua, was relocated in 1610, replacing the former Leon 32km away which was completely flattened by an earthquake the previous year. It was a very important city to the Spanish, as is evidenced by the style of many of the impressive buildings in town and particularly so by the many grand, colonial churches that dot the city. Narrow streets wind through the city lined by colourful houses and open out into grand plazas.
For much of our time in
Jesus in a pensive mood
Intricate sawdust carpets are prepared in advance of the parade
the city, many of the businesses, even restaurants and bars, were closed up for the holidays, making finding food other than hotdogs on the roadside quite a mission. We eventually learned to track down the few places that remained open through the weekend.
On our meanders through town, we would often see religious parades winding through the streets. These were typically composed of a number of people carrying a float with a model of Jesus either shackled or carrying his cross. This would be accompanied by a brass band playing melodic, slow tunes resembling a deep south funeral march, and a person with a microphone who would recite prayers at frequent intervals, when the parade and music would stop.
Our favourite float was on Thursday evening and consisted of a model of Jesus in white robes, shackled and blindfolded. Beside him stood a (real) small child dressed as a Roman centurion, holding the chain, complete with stubble drawn on his face with makeup to make him look extra evil. The child was doing really well at keeping his footing on the moving float, which looked really heavy by the looks on the faces of the men carrying it!
Throughout the day on Good Friday, the parades became bigger and more ponderous as Jesus carried his cross through town, on the way to his cruxifiction. These all culminated in a final parade on Friday evening in a barrio near to the centre of town which was a real spectacle. Throughout the day, local artists and church groups had been creating huge, elaborate carpets on the streets using coloured sawdust, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus and other religious symbols. These carpets are incredibly ornate, some with 3D effects painstakingly drawn by hand, using layers of sawdust. The most amazing part is just how many carpets are made, somewhere around 100 creations, each trying to outdo its neighbour in detail and skill. We spent quite a bit of the afternoon watching the incredible dedication of the people at work in the extreme heat, crouching over the intricate detail under the blazing sun.
Around 8pm, a parade with a model of Jesus lit up in a clear casket, post cruxifiction and covered with blood (no gore is held back for the sake of the kids!), is carried through town. After taking hours to create each sawdust carpet, the
20 or so coffin bearers, accompanied by the local priests, walk over each carpet with the coffin of Jesus as they make their way slowly along the streets, destroying all the creative work in seconds. This elaborate parade is watched by thousands of people who line the route and walk along with the coffin, reciting prayers and chanting hymns, the sticky evening air thick with religious fervour. It was quite an amazing spectacle.
Volcano-boarding: The sport taking Nicaragua by storm
Good Friday was really the pinnacle of the events in Leon, with the rest of the weekend being a quieter, more reflective affair. During this period we embarked on the must-do activity for adrenaline seekers passing through Leon - volcano boarding. Take one baby, steep, ash-covered volcano, a modified snowboard, and a devil-may-care attitude and you have volcano boarding.
150 years ago, a small mound appeared in a farmer's maize field near Leon. That mound has grown and erupted 23 times to date to become one of the most active volcanoes in the region, Cerro Negro, today standing 450m above the surrounding plateau and covered in layers of ash from the many eruptions. This place, devoid
of all life and gently steaming from it's crater, is home to volcano boarding. The empty, steep sides of the mountain provide the perfect terrain for hurtling down, some people reaching speeds in excess of 70 km/hr (nearly 50 mph!). After slogging up the mountain for 45 mins, slipping and sliding over the ash, boards strapped to our backs, it takes less than a minute to reach the bottom again.
Standing on top of the slope and looking down, it's a pretty steep looking drop down. As we got into our protective boiler suits, gardening gloves and goggles, adrenaline levels started to rise. Watching a couple of others going first didn't help calm us as they hurtled down the side, out of view at the bottom. Nothing else for it, we sat on our boards and off we went, racing each other down, an exhilirating woosh to the bottom, desperately trying to hold on to the straps while keeping a little control of the board too. We came off a couple of times, tumbling in the hot ash and feeling like kids again! In no time it was over and we landed, breathless, black with ash and dust and
Volcano boarding down Cerro Negro
Dust invades every part of your body on the way down
sweat at the bottom of the volcano.
It was a lot of fun and we managed not to face plant in the ash, which is more like fine but rough basalt pebbles. We saw someone afterwards with pretty bad cuts all over his face after he had come off trying to break the speed record. He didn't beat it! It really is possible to build up quite a speed, although keeping going without veering off to the side is quite difficult. The video at the top shows how it should be done (it's not either of us we have to say!)
As fun as the boarding itself is, the highlight of the trip was the view from the top of Cerro Negro along the Los Maribios, a chain of highly active volcanoes, some of which belch out huge clouds of gasses from their craters, dominating the skyline and creating a barrier between the inland plateau areas and the Pacific.
Our other reason for staying in Leon over the Easter weekend was that it coincided with a couple of Helen's ex-colleagues at JLA passing through town with a group in tow. On a rare night off for Zoe
and Joanna, we caught up over some Flor de Cana, the rum that is found everywhere throughout Nicaragua. It was a good night and a chance to catch up on all the gossip from back home.....but of course what is said in Leon stays in Leon!
Granada - Not the ITV network but the town!
From Leon we moved on to the other big colonial town in Nicaragua, Granada, passing straight through the capital Managua. Conservative Granada, the age old bitter rival to liberal Leon, is similar in style with a cathedral and many churches. It is a very brightly painted place with beautiful, slightly crumbling houses and religious buildings decorated a multitude of colours, giving a very pleasant feel to the place. The main square in town is vast and dotted with big trees, a tranquil, scenic spot to hang out and try and find respite from the often crippling heat of the day.
Another noticeable aspect of the square is the odour of horse faeces that lingers in the air. Horse and cart is still a popular method of transport around town, and as they all line up around the square touting for business,
the smell is inescapable. In a effort to get away from the smell, as well as to still manage to get around when it was just too hot to walk, we actually took one of the carts on a tour around the city, taking in some of the landmarks around town including a rather beautiful but dilapidated hospital, an old fortress and many of the aforementioned churches.
The downside of our time in Granada was that the extreme heat was starting to take its toll on us. Temperatures in Nicaragua had regularly been in the late 30's, with no breeze at all to help cool things down. Afternoons were spent finding ways to stay out of the sun, while it was pretty difficult to sleep at night when the temperature didn't fall much. While we could admire Granada's undoubted beauty, this tempered our enjoyment a little, making some trips within town a bit of an ordeal.
Isla Ometepe - the big volcano in the lake
To get away from the worst of the heat, we headed out into the vast Lake Nicaragua and the volcanic island of Ometepe, which benefited from a little more of a
breeze. The main volcano of Conception really is the typical textbook cone of a volcano, a huge pyramid rising out of the waters, soaring 1,610m above the lake. Approaching by boat, the picture postcard scene develops more clearly out of the mist, details of the mountain becoming more apparent, along with the smaller, neighbouring volcano of Maderas, a tiddler at 1,394m. These two volcanoes, once separate, are now joined into one by a narrow spit of lava to form the island of Ometepe, the largest freshwater island in the world.
We spent most of our time on Ometepe on the slopes of Volcan Maderas at a beautiful, half cultivated, half wild finca (farm), now owned by a cooperative of local families who have semi converted the barn into rustic rooms. The serene nature of the spot is only really apparent once you have recovered from the 1km uphill slog in the heat to get there! But at dusk the real beauty of the place becomes apparent, as the sun sets behind Volcan Conception, bathing the wild flowers around the finca in an orange glow, while in the distance the howler monkeys can be heard calling to each other across
the trees. A very special and atmospheric place.
Being on the slopes of a volcano, it was clear to us that the walk to the top would have to be completed and so it was, at 6:30am, we were ready for the 3 hour climb to the crater lake (going early to avoid the heat of the middle of the day). It was a steep, tough climb, getting very damp near the top as the surroundings changed from jungle to damp cloud forest, making the path very muddy and slippy. It would be great to say the crater lake at the top was worth the climb, but unfortunately it was difficult to see due to the dense cloud, and thick mud near the edge of the lake meant we couldn't get too close to the water. One where the climb itself was better than the final destination. The views on the way up and down of the island and lake were pretty spectacular though, as was watching in the trees for the parrots flying between them.
Nicaragua's national sport - baseball
All through our time in Central America, football has been the sport of choice. Everyone
Volcano Conception at sunset
From the rooftop of Finca Magdalena
it seems supports either Real Madrid or Barcelona, and buses are often decorated with logos of one or the other. However, unlike pretty much all of its neighbours, the national obsession in Nicaragua is baseball, with stadia throughout the country and a national league.
On our last night in Nicaragua we managed to catch a game in a small town near Lake Nicaragua called Rivas. We got to the stadium a couple of innings into the second game of a double bill, featuring the local team. The game was finely poised at 0:0. We didn't really have much of an idea what was going on, but Preston, a self-confessed baseball nut from San Franscisco we'd been bumping into regularly helped fill in our blanks. It was good fun and obviously the choice family entertainment for the day, although we couldn't help but notice how inebriated the supporters were, many of them swigging from bottles of cheap local rum (not
classy Flor de Cana!). This probably somewhat added to the carnival atmosphere around the ground...certainly it seemed to be perfectly acceptable to hurl outraged abuse at the players, and even pelt them with mangoes!
Despite vociferous support for the
Rivas team and encouragement from their mascot who was dressed.....as a baseball player, they managed to lose 2:4 in the end, a little bit of a let down for the rummed up locals but unlike a football match, they went home quietly to reflect on their loss, or sleep off the hangover.
Royal Wedding fever hits Nicaragua
On getting back to our accommodation for the night, a very genteel set of rooms in a family house, we remembered what we had missed out on while out of range of the intenet on Ometepe. The Royal Wedding of course! And thus Helen found herself spending her last night in Nicaragua sitting in a drawing room with 8 elderly Nicaraguan ladies, watching a re-run of the wedding on TV, as the ladies excitedly brought her up to speed on who was who and what was going on - they knew far more than we did! It was slightly surreal, but having been fairly uninterested in the whole thing, H actually started to feel little nostalgic at the sight of such Britishness!
And so came the end of Nicaragua, a country we very much enjoyed our time in, catching
the religious fervour of the area and the natural beauty of the volcanically inspired landscape. As well as having developed a (we suspect) life-long taste for Flor de Cana rum, our over-riding memory of the country will be the extreme heat we endured during our time there, really making us feel pretty tired by the end. In addition to the warm climate however, we found the people to also be warm and friendly, happily carrying on the Central America trend.
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