Capital – Managua Currency – Cordobas (C$) Language – Spanish and English
29th January – Really pleasant people at the Nicaraguan border, full of smiles and very helpful, Two young guys ask if they can help us, they’re not pushy, just helpful and polite, so we agree for them to take us to the various places.
First the Land Rover has to be fumigated on the outside. They also want to do the inside but I say no as we sleep in there and have food. Fortunately they agree but one of the guys has a massive machine like something out of Star Wars and is obviously itching to turn it on and blow the inside away! We get our passports stamped very quickly and pay a 12 US $ entry fee. We are given 90 days and this has to be shared between Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Another desk to pay a small amount for Municipal tax and another 5 US $ required for something else. The Aduana next for our vehicle papers and for this we are given 30days, these then have to be stamped by the Policia….the only people who can’t manage a smile! Finally we need to take out insurance for our vehicle and 12 US $ for 30 days is very acceptable. There’s even a Duty Free shop for another bottle of our favourite gin…….G&T’s are very welcome at the end of a long, hot day! Our two guys don’t even ask for any money but of course we give them some, as everything has been completed in a couple of hours…..rapido! It is necessary to show all our papers and passports as we leave and so we are ready to explore another country!
Enormous Lago de Nicaragua appears almost immediately on our right, with the Isla de Ometepe (formed by two volcanoes) rising from the lake – Volcan Concepcion at 1610m and the smaller Volcan Maderas at 1394m. Lava flows created an isthmus between them, creating the island whose name means ‘ two hills ‘ in Nahuatl. Concepcion’s last major eruption was in 1957 and it is still active. Both volcanoes can be climbed but are often wreathed in cloud.
It’s a hot drive as we continue north to Granada past fields full of banana trees. Until Managua was named the capital, Granada was for a long time, a rival of Leon in the race to become the premier city. Today, it is hard to believe that there were once so many conflicts between these two cities, many of which erupted into civil war. Situated on Lago de Nicaragua, at the foot of Volcan Mombacho, Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city and has many fine examples of architecture with a real Andalusian feel.
As we pause in the main square on our arrival, a tourist guide comes to our aid and suggests Hotel Posada El Sol. Parking is around the corner of the street with a guard. All seems fine, although we are a little concerned as to why the gate is not locked at night and the dog stays curled up in a corner, not seeming a likely guard dog! No restaurant in the Posada, but it is only a 5 minute walk away from Calle La Calzada, the main street and the place to be in an evening. Restaurants and bars line this street, with tables and chairs spilling out on to the pavement, many people enjoying the warm evening. Street performers and musicians entertain above a loud band that strikes up nearby. Children wend their way between the tables hoping to sell various crafts and dogs come to life after sleeping the heat away in shady corners. Huge, colonial buildings line the street, their open doors leading through to courtyards full of greenery. We decide on an Irish pub and restaurant – O’Sheahs, with a menu that included beer-battered fish and chips, Irish stew and Shepherds pie and the most amazing smoothies using just fresh fruit…….delicious!
30th January – Granada is an impressive beginning to our visit to Nicaragua, full of energy and with many colourful buildings. This city is the sort of place where you can spend a lot of time simply exploring its streets.
There are some interesting churches, shops selling beautiful craftwork and a multitude of cafes and restaurants to choose from. Horse-drawn carriages are lined up in Parque Central and can be hired for an hour’s ride around town if you wish.
Nicaraguans have a lot of pride in their artistic, literacy and cultural history, despite their turbulent past. Poetry is probably the country’s most important and beloved art and there is a huge poetry festival coming up shortly. Many of the buildings have their doors open to art galleries, which in turn open out to inner courtyards full of greenery and where we find the artists at work. Granada is a city that should definitely not be missed.
We leave Granada on the road for Masaya and take directions for Laguna de Apoya, a crater lake whose pristine waters are said to be full of minerals and perfect for swimming. The Monkey Hut, which is situated right by the lake, allows camping in their secure yard entrance, but 16 US $ each per night is almost the price of a room here. Very helpful people but it’s expensive and the laguna gets surprisingly rough once a strong wind blows up.
31st January – On the outskirts of Managua, Galleria Domingo we discover, has an Apple store inside the Mall amongst its many other luxurious shops. We need a new charger for our laptop and can’t believe our luck when they have one! We celebrate with cinnamon buns and coffee before leaving for Masaya and the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. For 50 cordobas each, we can camp by the Visitors Centre of the park, which also happens to be a very interesting place to visit. A lot of work has obviously gone into setting this centre up and it provides lots of information on Nicaragua’s volcanoes and the flora and fauna in this area.
Nicaragua’s volcanoes form part of what is called ‘The Pacific Ring of Fire’. Volcan Cosiguina on the peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Fonsecva, begins the chain, which continues in a diagonal line ending with Volcans Concepcion and Maderas, that make up the island of Ometepe in Lago de Nicaragua. The most famous eruption of the Masaya Volcano, happened on March 16th 1772 when the flow of lava continued for several days into the Laguna de Masaya, which we can see from our camping place.
Once the Visitor Centre closes, we have a security guard arrive for the night. He carries a gun and puts up a hammock under the eaves of the building. He is only young and a nice guy so we give him a few things to eat to help him through the night!
1st – 2nd February – The Masaya Park consists of a pair of volcanoes – Masaya and Nindiri, which together comprise five craters, Crater Santiago being the most active. From the Visitor Centre we drive the 3km to the Plaza de Oviedo, the main observation area for this latter crater which is still actively smoking. Fortunately the wind is blowing the toxic fumes away from the parking area and trails. Amazingly, green parakeets have adapted to this toxic atmosphere and nest and spend their nights amongst the walls of this active crater, preferring to live in this dangerous place because it provides protection against their natural enemies.
The steep climb of steps to the top of a hill near the parking area, is closed due to landslides down into the crater. The hill has a replica of the cross originally erected by the Catholic priest Francisco de Bobadilla.
We climb another path for a view of the San Fernando crater. With a diameter of 650m and a depth of 200m it has many trees and other vegetation now covering the walls and floor. This path gives a higher viewing point for the Santiago Crater and for a view of the plains below that show the direction that the flow of lava took towards the lake. Riders pass us against a backdrop of smoke-filled sky.
Heading for Leon now but we first visit Leon Viejo (Old Leon), where the remains of the original, colonial provincial capital lies buried under layers of ash from Volcan Momotombo. We have a fabulous view of the near perfect cone of this volcan from the northern shore of Lago de Managua. In 1609 Volcan Momotombo erupted violently and the inhabitants decided to move their city (Leon Viejo), away from the foot of the volcano. The city of Leon has been rebuilt some 30km to the west, but Momotombo still continues to threaten smaller settlements close by. As temperatures of certain parts of this volcan can exceed 500 degrees C, a geothermal plant has been created at its base, using this heat to produce energy.
Leon was Nicaragua’s capital for most of the colonial period and has an impressive collection of churches and colonial buildings, having been the ecclesiastical centre for the whole region. However for us, there is no comparison to its rival city of Grenada. Its faded streets are lined with large, old colonial buildings, their eves jutting out over the streets and massive wooden doors closed, to keep out the heat of the day. Later in the day however, these open and families bring their chairs outside on the pavements to enjoy the cool of the evening. We do however, pass some wonderful churches glowing in the late afternoon sun.
The deep yellow exterior of the Iglesia de la Recoleccion, is considered to be one of the most important churches in the city with its outstanding Mexican facade.
The enormous Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Leon, has not only survived many earthquakes but also volcanic eruptions from Volcan Cerro Negro, plus bombings during civil wars. It is said to be the largest cathedral in Central America and is presently having its exterior walls renovated.
Iglesia San Juan is just around around the corner from where we are staying at Hotel Europa and is one of the oldest churches in Leon.
We took a while to discover the above little hotel, but we think our room with its orange walls and bright red satin bed covers is great. The colour scheme may not be our choice, but it is clean with air con. and a fan and definitely one or the other is needed, as this city is incredibly hot! There is a modern flat screen TV and wifi in every room plus laundry and a restaurant. Moby has safe parking in their leafy yard with a guard. He is parked right outside our door and the owner has no problem with us cooking in our vehicle. What more could we want?
3rd February – We head north out of Leon through their busy, local market, squeezing between the stalls full of clay pots, vegetables, fruit, clothes….you name it! At Telica we turn west. It’s very dry here……a flat valley of scorched, brown grass under a fierce sun, with volcanoes still to our right and left. The single storey houses of brick blocks, wood and thatch are set in the middle of well swept, earthen areas, washing hanging out, saddled horses standing under the shade of big trees and people swinging in hammocks. We stop to take photos of two enormous and very handsome oxen pulling a cart, so docile I can even stroke them!
Taking a secondary road off the main road now, which passes through the Reserva Cerro Tisey Estanzuela toward El Sauce.
Very little traffic on this dirt road apart from local buses that pass in a cloud of dust.
El Sauce is a hot and dusty but very active little town, with plenty of stalls and small shops where you can probably find all you need inside their dark interiors. Rivers have only a trickle of water but there are a surprising number of trees in flower, struggling against the heat and dust. Must be 40+ today but hopefully we are heading for some cooler weather up in the hills of Esteli.
Partly because of its location on the road to Honduras, Esteli suffered heavy fighting during the revolution and was severely damaged in April 1979. These days, the city is best known for producing world class cigars. Surrounding fields are full of tobacco and we watch them planting out hundreds of young plants that have been grown in long, plastic-covered tunnels. Lots of employment for the local people but such hot work in this heat!
Looking for somewhere to stay, we discover that Villa Riviera B&B owned by a Dutch lady is full, but she recommends Hotel Los Arcos as it has secure parking. At 50 US $, the room is fine but a bit overpriced compared to our room in Leon for $35…….however, it does include breakfast.
4th – 5th February – We head south and then northeast for Matagalpa, the capital and a coffee growing area, surrounded by mountains with a more refreshing climate. The Rio Grande de Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s second longest river, flows by here on its journey to the Caribbean. Between Matagalpa and Jinotega, we find the Selva Negra Mountain Hotel and coffee farm in a beautiful setting at the foot of cloud forests. In the 1800s the Nicaraguan government was offering free land to European settlers, as long as it was cultivated. The coffee farm here began with German settlers and goes back many generations. Organic Arabica coffee is principally grown here and sold abroad, including some luxury shops in New York and London. We had hoped to camp here and use a bathroom but to do this costs the same as a room, so we take the latter, especially as it is raining, windy and cold! What a change in climate…….our winter jackets are out of the cupboard once again! Really friendly people running this farm where all the vegetables used in the restaurant are also grown organically.
The next day however, is bright and sunny and everything looks so different, particularly the beautiful lake in front of the restaurant.
A map showing the hiking trails is provided and we set off along the Quetzal trail but doubting whether we will actually see this elusive bird. Many of the trees are magnificent in this forest and must be hundreds of years old. It’s great to be out walking again and the temperature is perfect.
6th February – Heading north to Jinotega after an enjoyable stay at Silva Negra. Situated in a fertile valley and surrounded by towering, forested hills, Jinotega is another coffee growing area. The market has stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables, whilst beautiful bunches of flowers, huge cabbages and bunches of carrots that we have seen being washed by the roadside, using water that is gushing down from the hills, are all for sale by the roadside. We skirt round a cow sitting peacefully in the road chewing its cud and a large pig is enjoying the mud in a gully at the side of the road. A little further on we have a near miss with an overtaking vehicle, as we have to swerve to avoid running over mother hen, who decides at that moment to bring her tiny chicks out on to the tarmac.
After San Sebastian de Yali, the paved road changes to dirt, taking us through real rural Nicaragua, where life has slowed down amongst some of the most beautiful green and hilly countryside that we have seen so far in this country.
We pass a girl sitting on a chair outside her home, busy with her mobile phone. Next to her, sitting on the ground, is a huge cow with a pair of magnificent horns. Apart from the local buses, it is oxen and horses that are used for travelling and carrying loads.
We eventually pick up tarmac again north from Esteli after crossing the RIo Esteli. Still very rural but much drier. There’s a big coffee factory as we meet the main road, coffee beans out on sheets drying in the sun, plus mountains of white sacks also full of beans. The road takes us up to Condega and then on to Somoto, where we plan to visit the Canon de Somoto tomorrow. We drive beyond the town to see where the entrance to the canyon is and discover numerous signs along the way. However, every time we stop at one, we are accosted by touristic guides wanting us to camp at their homes and have tours. This is not what we want, are beginning to feel unhappy about this whole situation and so decide to find camping for the night at the Turistico Mirador that was recommended by a German traveler. It’s a dirt yard and parking area for the cars that will arrive later for the Karioke night! Another tour guide arrives to explain the 3 different tours in the canyon and the cost but we tell him that we are not really interested in the swimming, wading through water or in taking a boat. Am sure we could do a hike by ourselves.
It’s a noisy night, the music beginning at around 7pm. The singing is awful, flat and completely out of tune, the woman singing sounds as if she is in pain. I go to investigate and am amazed that people with children and babies can sit there and listen to such an awful noise. Surprisingly, it appears to be recorded karioke vibrating from two massive speakers in the bar! The music stops abruptly at midnight.
7th – 10th February – I climb to the Mirador just behind where we are camping, but the look-out is closed. As I begin to walk back down, grandma comes out of her house and beckons me to meet all her grandchildren. Noticing my camera she wants me take photos of them, including her two daughters who emerge from the dark interior with a beautiful baby. They live in such a poor house with only the bare essentials but everyone looks happy with big smiles, although grandma has no teeth. I show them the photos and they laugh again. What a lovely family.
Canon de Somoto turns out to be a disaster but in an unexpected way. We decide to have one last try to find the entrance to this canyon now that we are here, after all our guide book highlights a visit to this place and also states that for a simple hike, guides are not required, something that we have also been told by other people. We finally find it, a dirt road on our left that doubles back sharply on itself. About half a dozen guys are all lounging around at the entrance. One very pleasant guy who has followed us from the main road on his bicycle, presents us with a brochure and prices that appear a lot cheaper than we were quoted yesterday evening. Suddenly, the guide who visited us at the campsite yesterday appears from nowhere, removes the brochure from my hands and waves away the guy with the bicycle. He then once again begins to explain the tours using a big map on the wall, his prices being more expensive than in the brochure, which seems to have miraculously disappeared. We listen patiently about the 2hr. 3hr.and 5hr. tours that involve swimming through the canyon, wading waist deep and taking a boat, none of which we want. However, to just hike for 1-2hrs and take photos on our own, is apparently not possible.
Suddenly a dog (a greyhound type) appears at the door of the office, the most emaciated dog that I have seen so far on our journey……and we have seen some thin ones. I ask the guide why this dog is so thin and he just laughs and waves it away. I can’t concentrate anymore on this conversation about the canyon, which is obviously a waste of time anyway. I disappear outside to get our bag of dry dog food and take handfuls over to this poor dog which can barely wait for me to put it down on a concrete slab. Another dog arrives from a house opposite, just as emaciated and just as starving and then another that can barely walk, as its back legs can barely support it. It’s all very upsetting and for the first time on our trip I lose my temper and storm over to all the guys standing watching and with a bit of spanish and demonstrative hand waving, demand how they can feed themselves every day but these dogs are given nothing. They obviously think I am very strange, most keep silent but I also hear some talking and laughing. Bill is feeding the dogs some ham and we leave them water….he knows there is no point in trying to stop me. I tell the guide I am not pleased with this place and we get ready to go. A paper is waved in front of my face but I don’t even look. An older guy who has been silent all this time leaning against a tree, suddenly comes to life and says we owe 2$ for parking. “Parking for what,” I say, “To feed starving dogs!” A visit to Somoto Canon was obviously never to be and this episode completely saddens our day. It is also terrible to feel so helpless in not being able to do more, 3 dogs would never fit in our land Rover. Can only hope that some good will come from this and the dogs will get fed, but I also hope that I haven’t made it more difficult for them. Even grandma’s little dog appeared well fed compared to these.
We drive way north to Jalapa, almost to the border with Honduras where we will be going next, to a camping place that Bill discovered on the internet……Camping Campestre El Pantano run by a Dutch guy. It’s a lovely place, very relaxing and with cows, goats and chickens wandering amongst us. We are the only people camping here but it is also a social gathering place for the locals. We meet Simon and Marie and their two children from Quebec but who have been living and working in Jalapa for just over a year. We join them one evening for a meal in an excellent French restaurant in the town where gauchos ride through on horseback. A guy is singing and it’s great to see the local children getting up and dancing with their parents. We would definitely recommend Camping Campestre either before or after crossing the border with Honduras.
And so we are warned of being very careful in Honduras, just as we were warned about Nicaragua. However, apart from the Somoto Canon episode, we have really enjoyed this country, have visited some very interesting places and have met many kind and helpful people.