Tuesday 11 October 2011

Nica Living

On the road to Cerro Negro
There's something about Nicaragua: something that forced me to stay for a longer period than the time I spent in Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica combined. Whether it be the low prices, friendly locals, incredible variety of both natural and man-made wonders, or simply the presence of solid backpacker infrastructure, it's easy to get stuck here, only half-aware of the days drifting by. Even with the knowledge that I should really have been getting a move on down to South America, I found it very hard to leave every place I visited in Nicaragua - something reflected in the fact that I spent 5+ nights at almost every stop here, when the average in other countries has been closer to 2 or 3. Looking back now, even with how enamoured I still am with Mexico, or the strength of my fondness for Guatemala after my 7 weeks there, Nicaragua is now firmly in the running for my favourite country of the trip so far. So, I suppose I better tell you why.....

Crossing Borders

As is the norm when travelling overland, the first obstacle to overcome when entering a new country is the border crossing. Borders are strange places - difficult and dangerous also, on occasion - but always very strange. I've now crossed a couple of dozen land borders in my time and like to think I'm sufficiently experienced and prepared for every new one, but they still manage to throw up new, weird and wonderful challenges nearly every time (often amplified if you're travelling solo on cheap local buses). Using such transport methods means that you have to disembark from one bus on one side of the border, head across on foot, and board a new bus in the new country. Sounds simple enough, right? Not necessarily.

Big cow in Esteli
The highly tourist-trafficked crossings are often the worst: as soon as you look up after exiting the bus, you'll find yourself surrounded by people shouting at you and really, really wanting to 'help' (i.e. really, really wanting your money). The best thing to do is be persistently firm, but polite, while declining their assistance - "No, gracias" x 10 - and make sure you don't do anything that could possibly be construed in any way as using a service (i.e. letting someone take your bag off the bus or carry it even the shortest of distances, accepting any immigration papers shoved under your nose, and make sure you aren't confused enough to be shepherded into a completely unnecessary taxi, tuk-tuk or moped). Accepting any of these offers will soon be followed by demands for money; let your guard down for a second and you've suddenly got three different bills to pay - all grossly inflated and leading to trouble if you don't come up with the cash. All this before you've even reached the quick-fingered money changers (with fictional exchange rates) and, worst of all, the border guards.

Sometimes everything else is legit and above board, but speaking from my experience at borders in Asia and Central America, border officials are among the most corrupt professionals around (which is saying something in these impressively corrupt countries). If they decide it's a $10 charge to cross the border today, even if you know it's definitely free, you'll be paying $10 to cross the border today. Who are you going to complain to? The guys in authority are on the other side of the glass... the guys asking for $10. You may also be one of the unlucky people who are randomly asked to provide proof of onward travel from the country you are entering. If you don't have the necessary documentation (which is often the case with long-term, multi-nation travel) then, don't worry, coincidentally the guy standing next to the immigration office sells return bus tickets for $20 - a bus ticket you're never going to use: you know that, as does the border guard and his friend selling bus tickets, but they've just made another $20, so welcome to your new country!

Smart name for a boat?
Then comes the often-eerie stroll between border posts - the no-mans land that doesn't officially belong in either country but can sometimes cover a couple of kilometres or more; often featuring houses, shops and even casinos along the way. I've often wondered what the laws are on this stretch of land - who has jurisdiction over this gap between nations? Is it completely lawless? Who are the people that have chosen to live here, and for what reason? Before you've had time to answer these questions, the earthly void has been traversed, and you have to face all the same challenges again on the other side (this time in reverse) - more unpredictable border officials, moneychanging touts, and other opportunists. Don't get me wrong, I love travelling overland and everything that comes with this sort of travel - border crossings are often some of the most exciting and eye-opening experiences - but there's nothing quite like the sigh of relief when you've successfully reached your transport on the other side and started your next adventure in a brand new country.

The reason I bring up the issue of border crossings is that I opted for the 'easier' option of entering Nicaragua: For the first time on this trip, I took an expensive, private, inter-country bus that went all the way from the capital of Honduras to the capital of Nicaragua. The advantage here is that you don't need to worry about multiple changes of rickety public buses either side of the border, and you also don't have to deal with any of the challenges mentioned above as you stay on the bus for the duration of the crossing. However, as it turned out, I ended up feeling more screwed over here than I have on any of my previous independent border crossings in CAm. The bus driver collected all the passengers' passports just before the border, along with a $15 fee (just from the foreigners). I wasn't the only one to question this, under the belief that it was actually free to enter Nicaragua from Honduras, but he insisted there was a $15 charge. So, with all this dosh and the passports collected, off he went, returning on the other side of the border with just the passports. Passports without any stamps or receipts to show exactly where this money had gone, or even to prove that we'd entered Nicaragua at all. This was when I decided the 'easy' option at border crossings isn't really for me, and I've now returned to the cheaper public bus and walk across option - it's always an experience, and I prefer to get ripped off first hand, rather than through a middle man.

Colonial Cities

Coffee break in Leon
Once safely inside the country (although without the documentation to prove it) two of my first stops in Nicaragua were the much-visited colonial centres of Leon and Granada. There has always been something of a rivalry between these two popular cities, dating all the way back to 1524 - when they were both founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. They are similar in many ways - each city has a rich history and a story to tell, along with a pretty central plaza, numerous cathedrals and churches, genuinely interesting museums, and everything else required by tourists and expats - countless hotels, restaurants and bars. Nowadays the main competition between the towns is who can attract the most visitors, but traditionally the rivalry was a lot more bitter, politicised and even hateful.

Through the grill (Granada)
In the years directly following the establishment of these two dwellings, Granada became a rich and important trade centre, while Leon was gifted capital status, became the countries ecclestical centre (still boasting the largest cathedral in CAm today) and developed into a liberal-leaning and politically progressive city. With Granada housing the countries conservatives, and both cities vying for more attention and status, they were always going to clash, but few would have expected tensions to explode in the way they did - climaxing in full civil war in the 1850s. A couple of years later, in order to try and quell the fighting, the capital was moved to the place it remains today, Managua. However, Leon continued its revolutionary road well into the 20th Century with the whole city rising as one to fight and overthrow the conservative dictatorship led by the notorious Somoza family between 1937-1979. Around 50,000 people lost their lives in this relatively recent revolutionary struggle and some scars are still in the process of healing - some of the older residents I spoke to in Leon had fought for the Sandinista National Liberation Front against the Somoza regime, and they were incredibly proud of the prominent role their city played in freeing this country from the four decade long dictatorship.

I very much enjoyed my time in both Leon and Granada; wandering the cobbled streets through the historic centres. There is a slight feeling of over-tourism in Granada, though (and all the unsavoury sights that come with this: grey-haired, white men openly fondly very young local girls in the bars, for example). This, combined with the beautiful old-town square and huge cathedral in Leon - plus it's close proximity to tranquil beaches and not-so-tranquil volcano-related activities - means that my vote just goes to the latter.

Volcanoes (....again) 

Yes, I just mentioned volcanoes.... again. My ash-covered, cone-shaped obsession has showed no signs of abating since it was first ignited in Guatemala and I managed to find time to frolic on three different volcanoes in Nicaragua. (I have also recently authored another 'Top 5' article for Journey Latin America, this time looking at the best volcano hikes in CAm - see here).

Steep slope on Cerro Negro
My first volcanic experience in the country was distinctly different from all my previous expeditions. The 'volcano-related' activity just outside Leon (hinted at above) isn't so much about ascending, but the focus is rather on descending... fast. Cerro Negro is one of the most active volcanoes in CAm (with 23 eruptions in the last 150 years) but you don't spend enough time hanging around at the top for it to be dangerous - it only takes 45 minutes to reach the summit (728m) and then less than 45 seconds to go back down again. That's because the descent is taken down the steepest, hot, black ash slope while sitting atop a thin plank of wood. Yes, this is volcano boarding, and it definitely earns the 'extreme sport' title - the slope steepens to a 40 degree angle towards the end of the descent and the current speed record stands at 87km/h (held by a young Israeli girl). I have to admit that I didn't even come close to that velocity - my multiple wipeouts prevented any sort of real momentum - but I did receive a nicely-grazed arm for my efforts, and a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime experience that won't be forgotten in a hurry.

My two other volcano visits were a lot more traditional in nature, but no less enjoyable. The longest trek was a 9-hour jaunt to the summit of Volcan Maderes (1394m) which, along with Volcan Concepcion (1610m), forms the spellbinding Isla de Ometepe - a large island in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua formed entirely from these twin volcanoes that jut straight out of the water; reaching high into the sky and joined by a thick isthmus created by millennia-old lava flows between them. The island is beautifully lush (except for the barren slopes of still-active Concepcion) and unexpectedly large - it's home to a friendly population of 30,000 and a bus ride from one side of the island to the other can take up to 4 hours. I like volcanoes, I like islands.... and I absolutely loved this volcanic island!

Caterpillar on Maderes
Needless to say, there was never any question that I would try to climb at least one of the peaks and I ended up opting for Maderes as it seemed like the most interesting hike. It was completely different to all the other slopes I've scrambled up on this trip - the dormant status has allowed thick cloud forest to envelop the volcano; preventing any real views from the top and causing profuse humidity along with obscene sweating on the way up, but the lost-world ambience and plentiful wildlife more than makes up for this. We saw multiple monkeys and many interesting smaller animal specimens; armies of leaf-cutter ants and vividly-coloured caterpillars. The serene crater lake at the top adds another incentive to the climb. It was a long, hard day, but yet another fantastic volcano experience.

The final volcanic expedition during my time in Nicaragua involved tackling the peak of Volcan Mombacho (1345m). Located just outside Granada and inside a natural reserve, the environment around this volcano features incredibly rich biodiversity and changes from coffee plantations to cloud forest and finally to dwarf forest, as you ascend.

Camera fun on Mombacho
I tried and failed to book a recommended guided tour for this trip (an issue that's arisen a few times now is that I don't have any friends and tours often won't leave without a minimum of two people) but decided I could easily tackle the climb solo, anyway. What I didn't realise is that a paved road actually covers the whole distance from sea level right to the summit, and almost all people take an 'eco-mobile' ride to the top (from where extensive hiking trails begin and fan out around the two craters). In my ignorance I arrived just after an eco-mobile departure and, as a vastly-experienced volcano conqueror, decided there was no need for me to wait another 2 hours for the next departure - I didn't need vehicular-assistance, anyway: I climb volcanoes on foot, not by truck!

I soon found out that it's actually a lot harder to climb a constant, steep incline up a thick, concrete road, rather than scrambling up muddy foot trails. The unrelenting steepness and solid surface are mercilessly unforgiving to walkers, and I was woefully unprepared for such a challenge. Completely exposed to the midday sun, I don't think I've ever sweated so much (see pictures below) and I was miserable.... determined, but miserable.

Two hours into this horrible hike, the eco-mobile pulled up beside me. My foolish pride almost made me wave them on, but when I learnt that I had only just reached the halfway point, and the road got steeper still, I relented and shamefully accepted a lift for the remainder of the climb. The drivers open-mouthed astonishment that I was actually attempting to walk up on my own did go some way to healing my wounded ego, and all was forgotten when we reached the summit and were gifted with phenomenal views back down over Granada and the sweeping shore of Lago de Nicaragua (the second-largest lake in Latin America).

Coffee break in the Treehouse Hostel
My world became a little more complete when I heard of Poste Rojo 'Treehouse Hostel' - situated a couple of hundred metres up the western slope of Mombacho. As the name and location suggest, this is a hostel, but also a treehouse, and it's on the side of a fricken' volcano! The reality didn't disappoint either, and the elevated, west-facing vantage point provided the most incredible, vividly-coloured sunsets. I also managed to time my visit to coincide with 'free rum Thursday'. Now, this is a dangerous promotion, especially considering the mixers were free as well, and also considering that everyone present was as foolish and unrestrained as you would tell yourself you wouldn't be. As far as my memory tells me, the night finished around 9pm, but the early morning 'wrestling' photos and numerous bruises I woke up with testify otherwise.

Contrasts: Esteli & San Juan del Sur

Esteli web
I made two further stops of note during my time in Nicaragua, and they were at hugely contrasting locations. The first was the mountain town of Esteli. This place isn't exactly a hidden secret, but it is slightly further of the tourist route than everywhere else I visited. As with Gracias in Honduras, I always endeavour to visit at least one place where tourists are still a novelty - in order to get a truer flavour of the country. As I said, Esteli is by no means an unknown; it is, in fact, a world famous producer of cigars and coffee. However, it is also criminally under-visited, especially considering the astonishing natural beauty and rambling activities offered by the two natural reserves just a stones throw from the city - Miraflor to the north, and the smaller Cerro Tisey-Estanzuela to the south. I chose to visit the latter for my only full-day in the area.

Taking the first bus from Esteli at 6.30am, I travelled to the top of the reserve and then spent the next 9 hours making my way back to town on foot. Sometimes I have just loved being alone on my travels, and this was one of my best solo days - the location was stunning and serene; tall miradors with panoramic vistas, 40m high waterfalls, hidden caves and rolling hills, and it felt a lot more secluded and remote than the actual proximity to Esteli dictates. I saw almost no other souls for the entire hike. It was a blissful, brilliant day.

Alberto and his work
I did have one human encounter that stuck in my mind and contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the hike. I had previously read about an interesting 'character' who lives in the foothills outside Esteli, spending his days carving designs into the rocky hillside. Curiosity piqued, I ventured off to find this guy. He turned out to be a little elusive and I had to ask numerous locals for directions to 'the gallery', but I eventually discovered his dwelling. The reality was even stranger than the reading: Don Alberto Gutierrez is a 70-year-old local man, with a shock of white hair and a bushy moustache - also white, but with a thick yellow stain in the middle thanks to the cigarettes he has chain-smoked since the age of 12. This doesn't seem to have affected his vitality much, though - something he proved by leading me on an energetic, fast-paced tour of his fantastic workspace; jumping up to pick fruits from the trees, skipping over steep stone steps, enthusiastically pointing out every intricate detail of his carving and gibbering excited explanations (along with poetry) in speedy Spanish... I understood 'un poco'.

Over the last four decades, Alberto has lived a hermetic lifestyle up in the hills: carving astonishingly accomplished and detailed representations of ancient figures and vast landscapes into a 40 metre high cliff face. When we eventually reached the highest spot (where his oldest and largest works are found) it was a true spectacle - these beautiful, intricate works of art burst off the cliff face, with a stunning backdrop down into the valley below. I spent around an hour in Albertos company, and he was definitely slightly insane, but in a good way: he was genuinely excited to see me, and so passionate about his work that he didn't even request the small donation I left after the personal tour he gave me (and he also insisted I take two small carvings and three world-famous Esteli cigars). One of my favourite interpersonal encounters of the entire trip so far.

Last stop in Nicaragua was about as far from Esteli and Don Alberto as it's possible to get. San Juan del Sur is a popular surf and party town near to the Costa Rican border. There is almost nothing genuinely Nicaraguan about it; it's overrun by gringos and has a very prominent drug scene. Sounds nice, right? And definitely the sort of place I would usually try to avoid. However, I'd heard about this 'amazing' hostel located on a hill-top just outside town, so decided I should check it out.

Naked Tiger pool and vista
The 'Naked Tiger' hostel is a converted family mansion that now houses up to 40 travellers at a time. It's a crazy place with 360 degree panoramic views over the surrounding hills and down to the sea below; views that can be enjoyed through the floor-ceiling windows that encircle almost the whole building, or from the vast balcony that wraps around the second-floor dormitory, or from the flawless pool that perches precariously on the edge of the west-facing hill (think sunsets again!). It is very definitely westernised and party-orientated - I don't think I spoke a word of Spanish during my time here and rarely got to bed before dawn. As such, it could easily be a hell-hole, but I met some great people there, had some of my best nights out, and more fun than would be recommended on health grounds. Sometimes on a trip like mine, with the constant travelling from town to town; so many things to see, experiences to have, volcanoes to climb, and the niggling need to make the most out of everywhere you visit, you can forget how much fun it can be to just stay put in one place and do nothing but have a good time for a while - ideally in a place with a lot of sun, a shimmering pool, phenomenal vistas, way too much rum, and no worries. This is the only place on my entire trip to which I've felt compelled to return for a second helping. I like to think of myself as an adventurous traveller who visits the more authentic, off-the-beaten-track places (like Esteli - which I do, whenever I can) but it's also good to let your hair down once in a while and allow yourself some modernised creature comforts every now and again.

And, on that drunken, sleepless, careless note, it's high time to bring my Nicaraguan tale to a close. This has been my longest-blog by quite a margin so far, but that just goes to show how amazing this country really is. If you'd prefer the short version of this blog, it is as follows.... - Go to Nicaragua! :)

LOADS more photos below (click any photo to enlarge):

Climbing Cerro Negro

On top of Cerro Negro

Waiting to descend....

On the way down!

Inside Leon Cathedral

Leon Cathedral - Biggest in Central America

On the roof of Leon Cathedral

Sunset on Las Penitas beach (just outside Leon)

Rambling outside Esteli

Bovine road block in Esteli

Don Alberto!

Enjoying my gift from Alberto

Relaxing in Granada

Rooftops in Granada

Street scene in Granada

Church in Granada

Fishing in action (outside Granada)


Beer and view (Las Isletas, outside Granada)

Slow sunset outside from a boat outside Granada

Sweating (a lot) on the way up Mombacho

The sweaty imprint I left on a bench during a break in the hike up Mombacho

Summit of Mombacho

Summit of Mombacho

Monkey swinging outside the Treehouse Hostel

Treehouse Hostel

Sunset from the Treehouse Hostel

Sunset from the Treehouse Hostel

Sunset from the Treehouse Hostel

Sunset from the Treehouse Hostel

Sunset from the Treehouse Hostel

Starting the hike up Maderes

On the summit of Maderes

My little friend on Maderes

At the crater lake on top of Maderes

Contemplating Volcan Concepcion

Volcan Concepcion

Rundown house at the foot of Maderes

Hike finished at the bottom of Maderes

Isla de Ometepe in the early morning

Sunset from the pool in San Juan del Sur (Naked Tiger)

Sunset in San Juan del Sur