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Posts Tagged ‘Granada’

The boy was still quite weak from whatever stomach bug he caught before arriving in Nicaragua. We needed him to save energy for the grand finale of the trip: a night tour to Volcan Masaya and the smoking Santiago crater.

Since walking around town was out of the question, we decided to spend part of the day at Laguna de Apoyo, a 200-metre deep, 200-centuries old crater lake whose water is kept warm by underground volcanic vents.

Finding it, however, was a bit of a trick. There was a sign pointing in the general direction but after that we were on our own. We might not have found it were it not for a group of young, hitchhiking German students.

 

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The kids were a bit befuddled, as we’ve never picked up hitchhikers and always warn the kids about strangers. But as you can see, they looked pretty harmless and we were lost. And it was worth it, because as we reached the top of the crater and the water inside became visible we were awestruck. Its vibrant hues reminded me of the pristine, emerald lakes in the most remote areas of the Rocky Mountains that can only be reached on foot.

Though it came close, our crappy camera did not quite capture the purity of the colour. 119

There are a smattering of houses and a few basic lakeside restaurants where you can enjoy a coolish Tona, lay on a patch of rocky beach or swim in the water.

Though surely a national treasure, there is seemingly no protection or monitoring of the area and though it appears the locals do try to keep it pristine we found a chunk of glass along the shore where the children were playing and some garbage. Still, it was amazing.

From the lake, we moved onto the artisan market in Masaya, a bigger and much less pretty town about 20 minutes from Granada.

The market is hidden behind tall fortress-like walls that ooze history.

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Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to spend and we could have used at least three. The market was filled with all kinds of handcrafted goods, from traditional cotton dresses to chachkes to beautifully woven hammocks to leather shoes and handbags. There was also an impressive array of local art, the canvasses mostly reflecting the rural agricultural life of Nicaraguans.

When we departed, the young man of about age 15 who had pointed us to a parking spot had washed the car, without our asking. Of course, for his entrepenurial efforts he wanted $10 — for school, he said. It was a Monday, when he should have been at school so I’m pretty sure the poor kid is, well, poor, and has to work so we handed over the money without complaint.

From there, we raced over to the Volcan Masaya national park for a night tour — the highlight of the trip and the only thing that kept the sick boy going.

We were able to drive to the top of the volcano’s cone, and peer over the edge of the smoldering Santiago crater, said by the Spaniards who first conquered the New World to be the gate to hell. We were told to park the vehicle facing out, in case of an emergency evacuation. This became mandatory after a 2001 eruption hurled hot rocks into the air and landed on some cars and narrowly missing some tourists.

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These pictures show the crags of the crater’s edge and the sulphurous gases rising from its depths. We climbed to its top, where a gigantic wooden cross reaches into the sky. Visitors are only permitted to stay 20 minutes in one spot, due to the toxic gases.

From there, we explored two lava tubes, caves created from historical eruptions where a very knowledgeable and English-speaking guide explained their formation and how they were historical used for sacrifices by the ancient Mayans.

Can you say excited!

Can you say excited!

Another cave was inhabited by bats and we stood inside it, flashlights off while hundreds of bats took to the air; the wind from their wings felt on our cheeks. If you look very closely at the photo you will see them. It was snapped in complete darkness and the flash captured their silhouettes.

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Just incredible.

This was one of the most impressive natural wonders we’ve seen during our eight months in Central America, and there are many. It rivals ArenalVolcano in Costa Rica, where on a clear night you can see lava flowing down the side of the always rumbling cone.

The only disappointment was a small scam perpretrated by the ticket seller at the national park, who took my $40 entrance fee ($10 per person for the two-to-three-hour tour) then told the tour guides we’d only paid $20 and tried to get them to collect the additional $20.

I thought I’d seen every scam, but this was a new one and annoying that it happened at a national park. But I’m also a seasoned veteran in this game now and have a learned a few tricks of my own. So, I simply explained that I had paid the correct amount and if they had a problem they had better discuss it with the man who pocketed the other $20.

And we drove off. Adios amigos.

Nicaragua isn’t perfect.

About half its population remains painfully poor and it’s not unusual to pass by houses without indoor plumbing and dirt floors alongside the highway. A child rapped on our windows begging for money when we stopped for gas in Granada while a blind man with a cane grasped my hand and kissed it when I dropped some change into his as we passed on the sidewalk in the colonial city. At the border, there is a mother who regularly parades her disabled son past the lines of people waiting to get passports stamped with an outstretched bucket while a pregnant hawker refused to move away from the car window until I relented and gave her some money.

It’s not always easy to cope with these things, both emotionally and financially. Yet Nicaragua remains in my mind a place of beauty and inspiration.

My only regret is that it took visiting there to appreciate the plight of people in the Third World and start thinking about ways that I can make more of a difference.

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Nicaragua and Costa Rica are starkly contrasting countries, as much for their respective landscapes as for their inhabitants, history and culture.

While Costa Rica is a well-developed paradise for sun-seekers, it is mostly bland in local colour. Nicaragua, meantime, offers a less developed tourist infrastructure but is teeming with native culture and unexplored adventure opportunities.

Despite its turbulent history of civil war and violence, Nicaragua is an incredibly safe country, as well. In fact, according to a variety of sources, the tiny and poor tropical country is the safest in Central America. One study posted on-line actually shows that, statistically, rates of crimes such as robbery burglary are dramatically lower in Nicaragua than in the United States.

Yet for many foreigners, myself included, the mere mention of Nicaragua conjures up all kinds of scary images.

Now, based on two experiences travelling  in the country, I can honestly say that the image in my mind will forever be changed. The people are amazingly friendly and helpful and I felt safer driving and walking on the streets of Nicaragua than I ever have in Costa Rica, where crime has seemingly surged in the past year that we’ve been here.

This feeling of relative calm allowed us to enjoy the incredible drive from the border to Granada, about two hours inland and about midway to the country’s capital of Managua.

The first breathtaking and dramatic sight is Isla de Ometepe, which consists of two volcanic peaks rising up tall and proud from the middle of Lago de Nicaragua. There’s something awe-inspiring about volcanoes; perhaps it’s their sheer power and unpredictability that makes them so enchanting.

The well-paved highway runs alongside the grand lake and though there are a few small, run-down properties advertised as hotels the area remains largely untouristed. Lonely planet offers instructions on how to get the remote volcanoes and island connecting them, but having along two small children means we are restricted somewhat in how and where we travel and sadly, such a visit was out of the question.

The last seven or eight months has taught us that dragging along a three-and-five-year-old around Central America is adventure travel in and of itself.

But I digress.

Along the peninsula bridging Nicaragua and Costa Rica is also another dramatic sight that is changing the lives of many Nicaraguans — wind turbines providing a steady and reliable source of renewable energy.

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Late last year, when we visited San Juan del Sur, a tiny fishing village on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, the 126-metre tall windmills were not yet operational. Many hoteliers and local business operators were eagerly awaiting relief from the blackouts that frequently left them without power for hours an even sometimes days.

The turbines have been turning now for just a few weeks.

According to a news release on-line, “the wind farm provides 19 windmills with an expected generation of 40 MW of energy. Six percent of Nicaragua’s energy demand is projected to be met through this $90 million project.”

Amazing that a such a poor and undeveloped country is taking such progressive measures when the installation of additional turbines in the southern part of my home province in Canada is the source of much controversy amongst area residents.

It’s yet another example of how our values are out of whack in North America, in my opinion. I think we wouldn’t be so quick to complain about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines if it meant the difference between having electricity or not, like it does in Nicaragua.

Perhaps it would help if we looked at them through the eyes of children.

The boy loves windmills. Despite his ill state, he lit up at the sight of the turbines that edge Lake Nicaragua and both sides of the highway north of the border. He screeched with excitement at one point, saying he didn’t know which side of the highway to look at because he didn’t want to miss seeing a single one.

As they faded on the horizon, so did the boy, anxiously asking when we would arrive in Granada.

A little over an hour later, we finally made it to the colonial city, arriving smack dab in the centre without a good map to tell us where to go, or how to get to our hotel.

Cathedral de Granada

Cathedral de Granada

 

Iglesia de Guadalupe

Iglesia de Guadalupe

No matter, a local resting along the street jumped on his bike and showed us the way when we stopped and asked him for directions.

It was a warm welcome that continued throughout our stay; almost every Nica we encountered smiled or waved whether it was while we were in the car or on the street.

We were anxious to rest and check-in at Hotel con Corozan, an incredible gem and new lodging located a few blocks from the central plaza.

Just a few months old, the small hotel was founded by some Dutch fellows who have for the past two years donated their time and own money to building the non-profit lodging.

All of the profits go toward assisting in local development projects, primarily programs ensuring Nicaraguan children continue with their schooling.

Decor in the rooms was made by locals; each bed was covered in a colourful patchwork quilt and there were beautiful baskets weaved from old newspapers.

Aside from its sustainable elements, the place was an amazing value at $65 per night — including a heaping breakfast each morning that kept us full until dinner.

It even has a courtyard pool.

It even has a courtyard pool.

From the “hotel with a Heart” we explored Granada’s rich colonial streets and architecture.

We visited museums featuring pre-Colombian artifacts, climbed a bell tower in an amazing cathedral and explored the entire core in a horse-drawn carriage for a mere $10 for an hour.

Granada is truly a treasure and an affordable one at that.

I could go on an on, but at this rate I’m going to have file a whole other post to complete our journey.

Suffice it to say, if Central America is on your list of places to visit you must put Nicaragua at the top.

You will never regret it.

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Three days. Hundreds of kilometres. Two border crossings. Two minor swindles. Two incredible cities. Two sick kids. One gem of a hotel. One incredible smoldering volcano. Swimming in one spectacular crater lake and one positive close encounter with Nicaraguan policia.

Phew. That was fun, I think.

In truth, our trip to Granada was amazing despite a few bumps along the road, so to speak. In fact, there are so many interesting things to write about that spreading it out over a couple of posts would be prudent.

So, I’ll begin at the beginning, with the puke.

The night before our journey the boy woke up in the middle of the night throwing up. Bless his little heart, he managed to actually make it to the toilet so there was no gag-inducing clean-up to endure.

After weighing the options, we decided to go to Nicaragua anyway since the boy would be strapped all day in a car seat with nothing to do but rest and recover from what would end up being a long night of dry heaving. We also opted to split the drive over two days, fearing his condition might worsen after crossing into Nicaragua, leaving us without a medical option in case of emergency.

It had been months since we’d taken this route and everything looked new and different, partly due to the fact that we’d previously travelled the Pan-American Highway to Nicaragua by bus and also because then, it was the rainy season.

From our home in Atenas, the entire journey to the border is about five hours, a tedious drive that goes especially slow at the beginning because of heavy transport truck traffic through the single-lane, mountainous roads.

It was mostly uneventful and we overnighted in the city of Liberia, the gateway to Costa Rica’s northern white-sand beaches, before setting out the next morning for the remaining hour or so to the border and then two more to Granada.

The landscape was like an ever changing painting; the majestic green forested mountains some distance afar looking especially lush against the foreground of the brown leafless trees, baked under the hot summer sun of the high season, alongside the highway.

Oddly, the stretch of mostly straight highway from Liberia was empty of large transport trucks, whose presence is always nerve-wracking because many of them don’t appear roadworthy. In our travels we’ve seen semi-trailers without properly working rear lights, insecure loads and wobbling tires — if they’re all there at all. 

This time it was a smaller pick-up truck that proved worrisome. It was so packed with cows we were sure it was going to tip (see badly taken pic below).

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Fortunately, we knew from someone else’s account of the drive that we were nearing the border when we encountered a massive line of big rigs, completely blocking the right lane of the road, which meant we had to drive around them going the wrong way and hope we didn’t encounter someone on the way.

After a few minutes, we were at Costa Rican immigration and being greeted by a crush of “helpers” at the window of the truck.

No matter how much I prepare for these moments they never unfold the way I envision them. These guys are so savvy they manage to find a way to talk you out of your good sense and your money at the same time.

I agreed to pay one guy $10 to assist with processing our car papers and another $20 for helping us on the Nicaraguan side, where the real hooping-jumping was to happen.

While I took the kids to get exit stamps in our passports, my hubby went with the helper to process the car papers, which really only needed a stamp because we had already obtained the proper permits.

Hubby was back before I even made it through the lineup. And when I came out I pulled out the $10 to pay the guy for his five minutes of work, which in the end was merely showing my hubby to the right window. He stood there, hand out after I put the money in his palm, and asked for a tip.

“A tip for what?” I asked, incredulously.

“Servicio rapido,” he replied, as if he was responsible for the fact there was no lineup at the car processing window.

At this point, I should have shut him down but the “rich gringo guilt” got the better of me and I handed over another dollar, at which he scoffed.

Entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity are admirable qualities but I’m getting really tired of being treated like a walking wallet in Costa Rica. And in my mind, $10 for five minutes work isn’t half bad, whatever country you’re in.

Anyway, we then proceeded with the other guy, whose promise was to help us in Nicaragua for $20, what seemed a fair price given the multiple fees.

As it happened, we faced another throng of guys who helped our helper, while he sat on the sidewalk and someone else did the running around on his, and our behalf.

When it came to the inspection of our car, the border officer repeatedly ignored our helper-hired helper, looking at every other vehicle in the lot until he could no longer avoid ours. Turns out, the officer and the helper, apparently a former captain in the Sandanista army, are political foes and the delay was the result of a power play between enemies, at our expense.

When all was said and done, I felt bad for the helper who did all the real work and was going to give him a tip, thinking he would get a little extra from the split the first helper must have agreed to give him. But in fact, he expected us to pay another $10, which he totally deserved but which also meant the other guy walked away with a cool $20 for not even lifting a finger.

I guess one person’s ripoff is another’s business opportunity and to these guys, gringos are like buses, there’s always another one coming.

Despite all this, we got through the border in about an hour and were on our way to beautiful Granada.

For the benefit of those considering doing the journey by car, here’s a rundown of the costs. Note that it is slightlydifferent from what was reported by someone else on the Internet and reposted by me — another annoyance here is that the rules are always changing. We have learned to always expect the unexpected because invariably things never unfold the same way twice.

Costa Rica:

$40 for car permits ($20 for someone to get it in San Jose and $20 for the lawyer to notarize it)

$ 10 for a helper to show us to the car permit window at Costa Rica immigration

Nicaragua:

$20 for helper to show us the way to the Nicaraguan side, about one kilometre away

$10 for helper who did the real work

$28 entry fee to Nicaragua ($7 each passport)

$5 tourist fee

$12 insurance fee

$5 fumigation

$2 municipality fee

Grand Total: $132

Next stop: Granada.

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Every three months since we arrived in Costa Rica we’ve made the obligatory three-month “visa run,” leaving the country for the requisite 72 hours and buying ourselves another 90-day tourist extension.

Outside of obtaining resident status, a complicated and usually expensive process, this is the only way to legally live in this Central American country.

This is the last run before we head home to Canada, which means that we’ve less than three months left on our almost one-year adventure. I don’t know where the time went and thinking about leaving makes my eyes water already.

This morning I woke up and my heart went aflutter with what felt like an anxiety attack. I’m not sure whether it happened because of our impending trip to Nicaragua or because I really don’t want to go home. I don’t yet want to talk about the latter, so I will leave that for another post and focus on our next trip.

Granada.

I’ve dreamed since first visiting Nicaragua last fall of going to the historical city of Granada, a Spanish colonial city drenched is history, culture and regal architecture. Founded in 1524, it is the oldest city in the New World.

When we last visited Nicaragua, we travelled to the quaint coastal town of San Juan del Sur and I fell in love with the place the people.

Costa Rica is beautiful and so are its inhabitants but it’s lacking in something that I can’t quite pinpoint.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, has a special vibe and feel that again, is quite indescribable.

Perhaps its their relative histories and present circumstances.

Costa Rica prides itself on being the Switzerland of Central America. It has no army and is an enduring democracy with the highest standard of living in the region. Pura Vida is the national motto, a phrase some might say is better translated as pure lazy than pure life.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, has a violent political history, ranks as one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and its people are widely known (and hated by many Costa Ricans) for a strong work ethic.

 Anyway, it’s so exciting to be able to return but also a bit daunting.

We’ve decided to take our trusty Trooper on the road-trip and drive over the border into Nicaragua.

Seems easy, right?

Not quite.

First, we had to obtain a permit to take our car out of the country, which was easy enough — $20 for someone to go into San Jose to get it and another $20 for a lawyer to make it official.

But the actual driving of it there and getting it across could be a whole lot more complex, involving exit stamps, entry fees, vehicle inspection, fumigation and a host of visits to a variety of different “windows” on both sides of the border.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect, courtesy of someone who’s done it many times and kindly posted it on the Internet.

  1. Between the CR and Nicaragua sides there is now a spray booth. You pay about $3 to have the car sprayed. They accept US$, cordobas and colones.
  2. Park your car outside the building. A customs person will come over, look in your car and give you a slip of paper. If you have nothing exciting in your car (like a computer) this is about all you have to do. Otherwise, you will likely have to get a technical customs dude to look at the stuff and decide what sort of duty you owe. Careful planning can avoid this step.
  3. Somewhere (and I do mean that, they tend to get lost) will be a police officer who needs to authenticate the slip of paper you just got. Ask around. He will eventually show up.
  4. Show the car paperwork at window and get the next form.
  5. Pay $10 at the bank (in the same building) for your road tax.
  6. Pay $12 for one month of insurance (at a table right near the row of windows–you will likely have a choice of two companies).
  7. Go back to the police window and with this form and get it signed off.
  8. Drive to the border, show your passport and give them the approved car paperwork. You are almost in Nicaragua.
  9. Pay $1 to a guy who asks for it and will get you a receipt. This is a tax for the local jurisdiction.

Next stop, Granada, and then Masaya, a city of about 118,000 nestled next to most heavily vented volcano in Nicaragua.

Yikes. And with two little kids who will already have been on the road for about four or five hours, trapped in their car seats?

Could be interesting. Can’t wait to report back on how it goes.

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