Logbook: Nicaragua & Costa Rica Inland Travel, August 2006
A couple of weeks after returning from Guatemala, we were ready to hit the road again. Actually, we weren't quite "ready" but our tourist visa was running out, and we needed to exit the Union of Central American Countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras) for a few days. Since Nicaragua was next on our list of places to visit, the easiest way to solve our visa problem was to travel a few hours further to Costa Rica for our required "time-out" of 72 hours. After that, we could re-enter the Union and get a new 90-day visa.
We first took a bus to Managua (11 hours from San Salvador), but since the capital city didn't really offer much of interest to see, we shared a cab with another bus rider and continued on to Granada (45 minutes further). After a few days in Granada, we traveled to Liberia, Costa Rica. We then returned to Nicaragua and visited Isla Ometepe, Masaya, Matagalpa and Esteli.
Like most of its Central American neighbors, Nicaragua's past is filled with civil strife. Ever since its colonial days (the 1600's), the Liberal and Conservative Parties in this country have been at odds. Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821, and since then, the country has been run by some notorious presidents and dictators - they and their nefarious activities fill pages of books. In recent history, in 1978, the Sandinistas overthrew the tyrannical Somoza dictatorship, but then instituted their own brand of political oppression. Sandinista President Daniel Ortega held office from 1984 to 1990, and war with the Contras escalated during that time. In a 1990 special election, Ortega lost the presidency to Chamorro (a member of the UNO party opposing the Sandinista Government), and shortly thereafter the Contras stopped fighting. Since then, the country has struggled to make progress, and scandal and corruption has continued in its government. Daniel Ortega has tried to regain the presidency and ran for re-election in 1996 and 2001, but both times he was defeated. Nicaragua will be electing a new president again this fall, and we understand Daniel Ortega is running again and enjoying new popularity. We are waiting anxiously to hear the outcome of these elections.
Nicaragua has also suffered its fair share of natural disasters, including a devastating earthquake in 1972, which killed over 6,000 people and left 300,000 homeless. (Most of the international aid money ended up in the pockets of the dictator Somoza and his cronies.) More recently, Hurricane Mitch in 1998 dealt a severe blow with its heavy rains and ensuing floods and mudslides. Nicaragua is also dealing with environmental problems including rapid deforestation
Although the people here are very poor and the country has had an unsettled history, Nicaragua does not have a reputation for violence or crime, and we felt safer traveling here than in Guatemala. (In Guatemala, we would not venture into remote areas without the accompaniment of a guide or tourist police. In Nicaragua, we went most places on our own, and it was not a concern.)
The country has three distinct geographical regions:
Granada, Aug. 5-9
Founded in 1524, Granada is Nicaragua's oldest Spanish city and finest colonial town. It lies at the foot of Mombacho Volcano and on the northwestern shore of Lake Nicaragua. Granada can be accessed from the Caribbean Sea by the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, so it was an important trading center in colonial days. Granada was the center for the Conservative Party, and in 1856, the city was torched by William Walker, an American engaged by the Liberals of Leon to help them seize power. Fortunately, Granada was rebuilt.
Granada is part of the Pacific Lowlands, so the climate is hot. The city's present population is about 85,000, and it was the wealthiest city we visited in Nicaragua. We found many of the colonial buildings to be well cared for with fresh coats of paint on the exteriors. This city appeared to be working hard to attract tourism, with success.
That day, we also visited Granada's Central Park, their cathedral and the Convent and Church of San Francisco, which was burnt to the ground by Walker in 1856, but completely restored and now houses the city's best museum. We also walked down to the lake front, which we did not find all that impressive, but we enjoyed the walk through the neighborhood, and on our way back, we passed the local baseball diamond where a game was in progress.
Our final day in Granada, we visited Volcán Mombacho and took their zip-line canopy tour. We had some friends who did similar tours in Mexico, and although it sounded like a lot of fun, the cost of $70/person was a bit steep for our budget. Our guidebook indicated that the cost here was less than $30/person, and the tour was highly recommended.
Liberia, Costa Rica, Aug. 9-12
From Granada, we were able to catch a TransNica bus directly to Liberia, Costa Rica, which is just a couple of hours south of the Nicaraguan border.
Costa Rica is different from its Central American neighbors in many ways. It has had a primarily democratic government since the late 1800's, and after a short civil war in 1948, it abolished its armed forces. Costa Ricans ("Ticos") enjoy the highest standard of living in Central America, primary education is free and compulsory, and a nationwide system provides free healthcare. With these impressive social services, however, the country has huge public debt. Tourism is one of Costa Rica's top sources of foreign income, and ecotourism is a primary focus. More than 27% of the country is protected lands, and over 14% is within the national park system. Although environmentally focused, deforestation has been a problem in this country. However, they are instituting reforestation programs. Travel here is easier, but more expensive. Ironically, Costa Rica also has a reputation for theft, so we kept an eye on our belongings and our hands on our wallets at all times here.
Since we intend to return to Costa Rica on Slip Away in November, we didn't plan to spend much time here on this trip. Our primary goal was to spend the requisite hours outside the Union of Central American countries so that we could re-enter and get a new tourist visa. Since we needed to stay a couple of days, however, we thought this would be a good opportunity to visit a couple of their national parks.
The town of Liberia isn't a major tourist draw, but it's pleasant and a good base for visiting Rincón de la Vieja and Santa Rosa National Parks. When we arrived in Liberia, we thought we would spend a day in each park, but we liked Rincón de la Vieja so much the first day, we went back the next.
Hiking in Rincón de la Vieja gave us an opportunity to try out our new "hiking" boots. In Guatemala, our good hiking boots took a thrashing from a couple of muddy hikes. Since it was rainy season, we expected hiking would continue to be muddy. We noticed that the local guides wore rubber work boots - what a great idea! We bought some for $5/pair at a hardware store in San Salvador. They were comfortable (no blisters on that first 6 mile hike), and the bottoms had good treads that gripped well in slippery areas. They weren't great on rocks, but that was the only negative. The best part was when the boots got dirty and muddy, we just walked through a stream or stuck our feet in a pool of water. They were great!
After a couple of days in Liberia, we'd done our time and could return to Nicaragua.
Isla Ometepe, August 12-14
While waiting for the boat to Ometepe, a local guy gave us a brochure of tours that were offered on the island - most of which involved hiking on the volcanoes. Both of us were recovering from colds and feeling a bit run down, and the six- to ten-hour hiking tours sounded like too much for us. Our hotel (Charco Verde Inn) was located inside an ecological reserve, and there was a hiking trail of reasonable length (about an hour hike) through the reserve. We hiked the trail the afternoon we arrived and saw howler monkeys and lots of birds. It was beautiful! Our hotel also offered kayaks, but the brown lake water didn't appeal to us. (Yes, we know we're spoiled and snobbish from spending so much time on clear blue ocean waters!) We did enjoy sitting on the beach, and each afternoon, a local rancher brought his herd of cows and horses down to the lake for a drink and a swim.
When we arrived back at our hotel, we took another hike up a hill to a mirador (viewpoint). The views were OK, but the trail was steep, hot, unshaded and had very little wildlife. We wished we had re-hiked the trail we did the previous day.
The next morning, we caught a bus back to Moyogalpa and boarded the rickety wooden old boat for the trip back to San Jorge. Winds had been blowing all night long, so the lake wasn't as calm as the trip to the island. It was a bit unsettling traveling on this boat filled with people with five-foot swells on the lake. This boat had a TV and VCR on it, and the captain had a tape of "Big Time Wrestling" which he played during the crossing. That was interesting ...
Masaya, Aug. 14-15
Masaya (population 110,500) is a working-class town, but it is known for work produced by local artists - cotton hammocks, colorful basketry and woven mats, carved and painted gourds, wood carvings, paintings, ceramics and pottery, jewelry and leatherwork. This looked to us to be a good one-day stopover on our way to the north-central mountains.
Upon arrival, we found a hotel, ate some lunch and then checked our e-mail since we'd been out of touch for a few days. It was then that we learned that Rich's mom had passed away two days earlier, so we sat down and talked about what to do and then made arrangements to get back to the U.S.
As a city, Matagalpa did not appeal to us, but we never saw the mercado where the artists crafts are sold. We did walk down to the Malecon, a lakeside promenade along Laguna de Masaya. The lake looked pretty, but the promenade was pretty deteriorated. We read that a series of earthquakes in 2000 left much of this city in ruins. Reconstruction has unfortunately been slow.
The next morning, the hotel owner helped us negotiate a good cab fare to get us to Managua (30 minutes away), where we caught our flight back to the U.S.
Matagalpa & Selva Negra, Aug. 22-23
When we arrived back in Managua after our trip to the States, we caught a bus and headed for Matagalpa, a town in the north-central mountain area. Matagalpa is a town of 76,000, and the mountain climate is very pleasant. From Matagalpa, we wanted to visit Selva Negra, a private reserve and coffee plantation just outside the city.
The next day, as we waited for our bus to Esteli, Jan made another new friend. A little boy sat down next to her on the bench and wanted to speak English with her. He was eleven years old, well mannered and cute as a button, and they had a nice little conversation as we waited for our bus.
Esteli, Aug. 24-25
Esteli has a population of 88,000, and it is the principal town between Managua and the Honduran border. Esteli saw heavy fighting during the revolution and afterward the town remained one of the Sandinistas' strongest support bases. Seventeen miles (28 km) northeast of Esteli is Miraflor Nature Reserve. When we lived in Ensenada, Mexico, we became friends with a man named Alberto, who was originally from Nicaragua. Alberto highly recommended visiting Laguna de Miraflor where he once had a summer home, and our guidebook said it offers some of the best hiking in the country.
Our hotel in Esteli told us which bus we could take to Miraflor, but they had no further information, and although our guidebook mentioned Miraflor, there were few details. We finally found a Miraflor office in Esteli, and they gave us a map, confirmed the bus schedule (6 a.m. departure), and told us at which stop to get off. They told us the bus would take 1½ to 2 hours to get there - since it was only 17 miles away, we figured the roads must be pretty bad. The Miraflor office also told us that we could pay for meals and a guide through their office. We paid for breakfast and services of a guide, and although they gave us a receipt, we walked out of the office wondering if we just made a donation to the Miraflor Nature Reserve.
When we caught the bus the next morning, it was still dark, so we didn't notice the heavy clouds overhead. The route to Miraflor was uphill from Esteli, and as the bus climbed the bumpy, unpaved road and the day dawned, it started to rain. When we got off at our stop, there was a nice shelter, and we stopped to don our rain ponchos. Another local lady got off the bus with us, and we noticed she had several things to carry - too much for one person. We asked if she needed some help, and she said someone was supposed to meet her, but she seemed concerned that they weren't there yet. We showed her the map given to us by the Miraflor office, and she showed us where her house was, and it was on our way. We would have felt bad leaving her at the bus stop with all that stuff, so we offered to help her carry her packages. One of them was a large basket, and as we lifted it to help her put it on top of her head, we realized it was full of live chickens! With the chickens flopping around, it was a real challenge for her to keep that basket balanced on her head! We each took a shoulder bag and carried a heavy cooler between us. We walked with her about a half mile (in the rain, through some big puddles), and then her daughter showed up on a horse to help her take the things the rest of the way home. The woman offered to make us coffee or breakfast, but we graciously declined since we were expecting to have breakfast a bit further down the road.
We continued walking toward the area shown on our map and saw a few signs which gave us come confidence that we were heading in the right direction. The woman at the office in Esteli told us the walk was about a mile, which should have taken about 20 minutes, but we walked for about 45. We finally came upon a couple of local houses and saw a sign for a Visitor Center, but the gate was locked. There was a hole in the fence that looked well used, so we climbed through it and continued a short distance until we came upon a large building, which we assumed was the Visitor Center. But it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and the gate was locked. We stood for a while in the rain, hollering "Hola" at the house, and finally, two people came outside. They got on a motorcycle and came toward the gate. We talked to them and told them we were here to visit the park, and that we had paid for breakfast and a guide. The guy on the motorcycle was a guide, but he was headed to Esteli for the day. The other guide whose name was given to us at the office wasn't there either. Fortunately, this young man said he would help us find our way, and we followed him back to the couple of local houses near where we climbed through the fence. The one house had a mother and five or six kids in it, and they sent one of the kids off to find "Juliana." Rich kept looking at this house and saying "No way am I eating here!" Jan told him to remain calm, and in short order, the kid returned with Juliana, who was a young girl of maybe 13 or 14. We showed Juliana our receipts, and she seemed to be somewhat informed. She said she could be our guide, and she would talk to someone about getting breakfast for us. She came back a few minutes later and told us that the woman in the other local house would make us breakfast. She asked if we wanted to walk around a bit while they made breakfast, but since it was foggy and rainy and we were hungry, we told her we would just wait.
While eating breakfast, we discussed our options for the day. It was continuing to rain outside, and it was foggy (perhaps that was the cloud forest). Bus service along this route was infrequent. We thought we could catch a bus back at 11:30, but if we didn't catch that one, the next one was at 4 p.m. We had an additional concern that we had paid a travel agency $60 for bus tickets back to San Salvador the following day. We had a receipt, but no tickets as yet. The travel agency was closing at 6 p.m., and they knew we went to Miraflor for the day. They told us if we weren't back 6, they would deliver our tickets to our hotel. However, given our experiences so far, we were not confident that would happen.
We made the decision to call it a day. Juliana seemed disappointed but agreed it wasn't a good day to go hiking in the reserve. She told us that maybe we could go by the Miraflor office to get a refund for the guide service, but since she had been so helpful, we gave her our receipt so she could get the money for it. Our guess is she doesn't get many opportunities to guide tourists, and she was really a sweetheart.
We walked back to the bus stop, and it continued to rain. As we waited for the bus, several local teenagers showed up and waited for the bus with us. Many of them didn't have umbrellas and were soaking wet, but it didn't seem to bother any of them, as they laughed and joked and goofed around while waiting for the bus. They were quite entertaining. In short order, the bus showed up and took us all to Esteli.
While we didn't quite accomplish what we set out to do this day, we still had a good day. The area was very pretty and we enjoyed the walks in the rain, but mostly we enjoyed all of our interaction with the local people. Our biggest regret was that with all the rain, we didn't take any pictures. The memories of this day will have to stay in our minds.
When we got back to Esteli, after a couple hours of follow-up, we finally got our bus tickets back to San Salvador for the next morning. When the travel agent gave us our tickets, he thanked us for coming to Esteli. He told us they had tourism in this area in the past, but since the Sandinista revolution, tourists have been rare.
Esteli to San Salvador, Aug. 26
The travel agent told us our bus was coming from Managua and would pick us up at Star Mart, a large Texaco gas station on the edge of town, at 7 a.m. "official" time ("hora oficial") the next morning. We showed him our watch, and he assured us we were on "official" time. We showed up at Star Mart at 6:30, and by 7:30, we were getting a bit concerned. Jan asked the security guard if he knew what time the King Quality bus would show up, and the guard told her it would come at 8 a.m. Thank goodness "hora oficial" was an hour later and not an hour earlier!
The bus showed up at 8, and we boarded and settled in for the 8½ hour ride to San Salvador. King Quality is a luxury bus line, and they have comfortable seats, air conditioning (so cold we needed blankets) and movies. The also serve meals, and although the passengers who started the trip in Managua already had their breakfast, the attendant saved two meals for us, and she brought them to us shortly after departing Esteli. (We were the only two passengers who got on the bus in Esteli.)
Our trip to San Salvador took us through Honduras, and although Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are part of the Union of Central American countries, we still had to clear customs and immigration (and pay some money) as we crossed the borders. While in Honduras, our bus had to go through a drug inspection stop, where we got off the bus, men and women were lined up separately, and a very surly man scrutinized each of us and our passports. He was especially rude to a couple of Korean tourists. The El Salvador immigration official was also quite gruff to us when he saw we were on a second tourist visa, asking us what was our purpose here and how much longer were we staying. (He obviously hadn't received his lesson from the Department of Tourism on welcoming tourists into the country!)
After crossing the border into El Salvador, we were served lunch - a box which contained a small bag of quesitos (like cheetos), a twinkie and a piece of candy (one of those sugar-coated jelly things). Rich waited patiently for them to bring a sandwich or something to go with it, but realized this was "it" when the attendant started to collect the empty boxes.
We arrived in San Salvador at 3:30 p.m., which was too late to catch a local bus back to Bahia del Sol, but we had called our friend and taxi driver Jose the day before, and he met us at the bus station. On our way back to Slip Away, Jose stopped at a grocery store so we could buy some provisions. Our friend Boris dinghied us out to Slip Away. It felt especially good to be home.
Final thoughts ...
We enjoyed our travels in Nicaragua, but it did not come without its challenges. Traveling to areas where there are few tourists has its appeal and gave us more of an opportunity to interact with the locals, but it required more effort to figure out where to go and how to get there. Initially, we enjoyed the challenges and got a sense of satisfaction from figuring things out, but it eventually wore on us and sometimes really frustrated us. Although not planned this way, our trip ended up being less about seeing sights and more about insights into life in a third-world country - more of an education than a vacation.
In spite of the extra effort expended traveling in Nicaragua, we enjoyed it. Our excursion to Miraflor, although a day full of challenges, was very rich in terms of our experiences and the local people we met. The Nicas were always friendly and helpful to us. We often found ourselves asking people on the street for directions, and on buses, we usually asked a seatmate and/or the money collector to tell us when we arrived at our stop, and they were happy to oblige. As we've mentioned before, the kids in this country were a delight. Most were friendly and happy, and enjoyed an innocence we rarely see. It's amazing how these folks get by so well with so little. Going back to the States in the middle of our Nicaragua travels was a bit of a culture shock. I just kept thinking - we have so much!
We've given ourselves a little pat on the back for taking the time to learn some Spanish, because traveling in Nicaragua would have been much more difficult without basic language skills. We met very few people who spoke more than just a few words of English. We are far from fluent in Spanish and often had a hard time understanding some people, especially those from outside the cities. (Imagine someone learning English and trying to speak with an American from the hills of Tennessee.) But, we could get by, and the locals appreciated our efforts - no matter how badly we butchered some words or sentences.
Although we intended to also visit Honduras during these travels, after our unexpected trip to the States, we decided to cut our journey short and return to Slip Away. We enjoyed our last few days in Nicaragua, but after the challenges of that travel, coupled with the emotional toll of losing Rich's mom, we were quite happy to get home to the familiar surroundings and comforts of Slip Away.