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Posts Tagged ‘Nicaragua’

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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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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With brains in your head and feet in your shoes, if you saw this what would you choose?

Paying heed to Dr. Seuss and his wise words, we faced up to our fears and headed to Nicaragua.

It was with some trepidation that we opted to do our visa run to the small fishing village of San Juan del Sur. My knowledge of the country and its history is limited to the bloody and politically controversial civil war that happened 20 years ago and we wondered whether it would be safe to travel with two small children here.

This was foremost on my mind when we were dropped off a bus, after five hours on board and two hours at the border, on a lonely road some 20 kilometres from our final destination. We knew we’d have to take a taxi to San Juan del Dur from Rivas, a border town just inside Nicaragua, but no town appeared before us. Just a fork in the road with a couple of buildings alongside.

According to Lonely Planet, we were to expect a crush of locals competing for a $15-$20 fare to the tiny tourist village. But here, there was just one car, parked at the side of the road.

The driver called out to us, “Taxi,” as we stood bewildered.

What were we to do but climb in, and hope we wouldn’t be driven to some remote jungle location and robbed of our bags and left to our own devices?

Our fears, it turned out, were completely unfounded and we were delivered to our destination in a jalopy of a car without incident, on well-paved straight roads not unlike any North American highway.

The town is quaint and full of charm and colour, its crescent-shaped beach alive with activity.

By Nicaraguan standards (more than half the country’s inhabitants live in extreme poverty) it is prosperous. And aside from the odd street robbery and petty theft, it is safe and peaceful with tourism and foreign investment providing opportunity for jobs and a better future.

The co-owner of the hotel where we’re staying, Hotel Villa Isabella, started a mobile library that provides books to school children and workers at coffee plantations. Another community project also resulted in the recent installation of a beautiful playground where the local children gather to play outside the church and main square.

But there are signs that the region is still very much a Third World,  a place where children go hungry and the lights often go out for hours, if not days, at a time.

While eating lunch at the local market, where a meal can cost as little as $1, a small boy hovered near our table along with a dog, both with sad eyes begging for food.

The dog I could ignore but the boy tugged at my heart, his dark eyes boring into me. I offered him some of our lunch, and he quietly accepted, sitting at the end of the table next to my son.

What happened next filled me with pride and brought tears to my eyes: my son, 5 1/2, offered the boy the last of his fries and Coke — a special treat that he relishes and would ordinarily not relinquish for anything.

He even spoke to the boy in Spanish, asking him if he liked it.

“Te gusta?” my son asked the lad, who quietly nodded.

I kissed my son on the forehead, and told him I was pleased with his gesture.

On our way into Nicaragua we had passed many shanty homes alongside the highway and I had explained to him that this was a country where many children didn’t have enough food, let alone toys.

I wondered, was his act of kindness the manifestation of this message?

Later, I asked him why he gave his food and drink to the boy, curious how he would answer.

“I wanted to share. He wanted to eat with us and didn’t have any food, so I wanted to share with him,” my son replied, again bringing me to tears.

In this moment, all the misgivings about our year-long trek to Central America, where it is a continuous struggle to adapt to the culture and language evaporated like the mist over the mountains that hug the bay at San Juan del Sur.

Like the sun disappearing into the horizon, memories of the beach will eventually fade. But the development of a conscience and kind heart is something that — hopefully — can’t be forgotten because it’s now part of my boy’s essence.

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