Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ometepe Island--Costa Rica and Bali 40 years ago

We've been privileged over the past decades to experience some cool places before they became mainstream and overrun with tourists, cruise ships, high-rise resorts or war.  Nepal, Burma, Bali, Afghanistan, Iran, and parts of India,Thailand, Costa Rica, Greece, and Malaysia, come to mind.  Facilities were minimal and catered to
View for our deck each night
mostly  backpackers. These places retained their unique character and culture in spite of the few tourists who visited. We thought there weren't any more left.

Then we discovered Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, which takes about an hour by ferry boat to get there. Shaped like an hour glass defined by a volcano on each end, it's about half the size of Oahu, Hawaii (but shaped like Maui) on Lake Nicaragua, which is about 1/3 the size of Lake Erie.
Ometepe is he island in Lake Nicaragua

The ferry to Ometepe
Mt. Conception--the larger one

Volcan Maderas, the smaller inactive one,
as seen from our kayaks

A road of paving bricks covers a small portion of the perimeter, but the roads are mainly dusty dirt with rocks the size of small Yukon gold potatoes.  A number of small resorts line he shoreline here and there, sporting one to 15 rooms.   The taxis are mostly four-wheel drive pickup trucks.  But you can also flag down a crowded "chicken bus" (which we did) with everyone and their chickens and goats on it.
Hot, crowded, but fun "chicken bus"
Ometepe sports three ATM's, a very small port town, lots of 20-somethings in short-short and tank tops with backpacks, and a good number of  grass shack cafes serving delicious food, smoothies, and cold beer.  We stayed in a wonderful two-room B&B on Via Verde Organic Farm, pioneered 17 years ago by Eileen and Darren from California.

Via Verde Farm, Home sweet home for
three days

Our common area deck with a killer
view of Mt. Conception

They slept in a tent the first three years while they built a home and planted trees, shrubs, and crops.  We shared a common bath and deck area with a spectacular view of Mt. Conception, especially at sunset.  (Check out their website link above for more photos).

One of the best swimming
holes, ever!
It was so fun hanging out with Peace Corps Volunteers Nati and Jasmine, both fluent in Spanish and willing to compare their Peace Corps experiences with ours, separated by 6,000 miles and 39 years.  More on that in our next blog.
A nice 3-mile hike to
a refreshing waterfall

We hiked to a waterfall, kayaked in a fresh water bayou, and played Tarzan and Jane at a crystal clear 
swimming hole.

kayaking in a fresh water bayou

An Ibex and an Egret from North America

Eileen gave us a tour of her farm and
 Jasmine some planting starts and seeds
for her school garden.
We enjoyed spectacular sunsets, walked star-light roads at night and hot dusty ones by day to great meals (including pizza!).  At night we got into some cutthroat pinochle games over beers and the local rum.

Lunch on a tropical island with chickens underfoot

Pinochle, rum, beer, and going "set."
Catching the sunset from our kayaks

We hated to say goodbye to both of them and Ometepe.  We're spending our last three full days in a five-room inn at Laguna de Apoyo, which is inside a volcanic crater, about 200 meters from the rim.  The crystal-clear fresh water lake is three miles across and 525 feet deep.  It's a nice place to just chill, which--for those of you who really know us--is hard for us to do.  But we're coping, and the food is amazing.
Breakfast, lunch, happy hour, and dinner hangout
at Casa Marimba
Overall, it's been a very fun trip--much better than we thought it would be, especially after spectacular Tanzania. But connecting with five Peace Corps volunteers and getting the back story on the country has made it all worthwhile. We're so proud of them! We get to go home to get out of the heat, humidity, and dust, but they still have to (or get to) stay for eight more months.

This is an extremely poor country, still recovering from years of civil war and a corrupt kleptocracy by the politically-connected ultra wealthy. But the Nicas are very friendly, hospitable, and laid-back; not as reserved as Asians we've met in our travels and living abroad.  Although the countryside is somewhat dusty, barren and extremely hot at the end of this dry season, it's still beautiful.  Believe it or not, the water, ice cubes and food are relatively safe, and we've had no health problems.  And we've felt very personally safe the whole time.  See Nicaragua--and especially Ometepe--while you still can, while it still retains its charm.  It's Costa Rica 40 years ago.

Panoramic view from our beach

Our last sunset at Laguna de Apoyo

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Colorful Granada, Nicaragua

At the crater of Mt. Maysaya.  We could hear the
lava rumbling below the sulfur cloud.
We ended our last evening in the town of Granada the same way we started it four nights ago: a nice meal and drinks on a street closed off to vehicles.  Lots of locals were also there to enjoy the cool(er) 85 air with a breeze, people watching, dining, and live music.  Just a block or two off the main street, the ordinary townsfolk watch TVs inside their sweltering two room homes from the sidewalks outside where it is cooler.
A typical side street

Granada is one of the most colorful and tourist user-friendly towns we have  visited in quite awhile.   Founded in 1524 by the Spaniards, it is one of the oldest cities in the New World.  It was burned in 1856 by William Walker, an American filibuster (one who conducts unauthorized warfare), then rebuilt and fairly-well maintained ever since.  It has many huge haciendas, now mostly converted into hostels, B&Bs, and hotels.
A former hacienda that's now
a good restaurant 

It's too hot after lunch to hustle stuff

The people are friendly, but pretty much ignore the tourists unless they have something to sell, and even then they take a polite "no" for an answer and move on.  We wish we knew more Spanish (or even some Spanish) to strike up conversations with them.

With so many 20-something travelers in short-shorts and tank tops sporting backpacks, we're probably in the upper age demographic here. (But, hey, we also have backpacks.) But every now and then we see a procession of older tourists being herded around by a tour leader, and occasionally families or older couples in one of the many fine eateries here.
Fishing among the islets of Lake Cacibalaca

Cruising among the small islands

Granada sits beside the huge Lake Cacibalaca, conveniently located to volcanoes, island resorts, and the Pacific Ocean.  In fact, it was the main overland transit point for the California Gold rush.

We visited the Mombacho and Masaya volcanoes and enjoyed a boat ride among some small islands that were created by Mt. Mombaco belching giant boulders into the lake.  We also briefly visited the town of Masayya at the foot of that active volcano.

Mt. Mombacho.  We hiked partly around it

An old fortress in Masaya, now an artisan market

It's been a pretty laid back four nights here.  It is so unbelievably hot and humid here that we basically accomplish one big  thing per day, then retreat to our $50 per night hacienda and it's plunge pool, read, and rediscover the lost art of afternoon naps.

A slot canyon near
the rim of Motombu

The overgrown Mombacho crater

On Thursday we finally get to meet Jasmine, a Peace Corps volunteer (and Nati's girlfriend) an hour south of here.  The four of us will take the ferry to the Ometepe Island and stay at a B&B on an organic farm.

Ahhhhh!   The plunge pool
in our $50 per night hacienda.
Most hostels and hotels have them

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lovely Leon

After Managua, the Leon area (about two hours north on a congested road) is a breath of fresh air and a feast for the eyes. 
A few of the countless murals in Leon
Sharing a Peace Corps-authorized taxi with a volunteer we met the night before in Managua, our arrival in Leon was a delight.  (Because of the crime in Managua, Peace Corps has vetted a few taxis for PCV use when volunteers are in the city on official and unofficial business.)

Meeting up with Nati Zavala, a local PCV was a special treat and he highlight of our trip so far. We've known him since he was a six-year old at Richmond Elementary in Salem when I started mentoring him weekly.  He's been the son we never had, and he's been a phenomenal guide to Nicaragua and its backstory.

At different points, Leon has been the capital of Nicaragua, dating back to the Spanish colonial days.  It's been a breeding ground for poetry and the revolution. 
Cathedral de Leon.
Today, it's a university town filled with cathedrals, cafes, and brightly-painted adjoined homes on narrow streets.  It's also surrounded by beautiful volcanoes. It's what Managua could have or should have been.

We toured the Museum of the Revolution, originally the provincial headquarters that the Somoza regime commandeered for their HQ.  We hired a 62-year old veteran of the revolution who gave us a highly personal tour, based on his experiences.  Bullet holes where the Sandinistas were executed are still there.
Jose, our guide

Inside the Museum de Revolution.  A few
destitute veterans still live there

The revolutionary war from about 1956-1985 is still a big part of Leon's and Nicaragua's psyche, especially from 1972 to 1985.  Between that, two major earthquakes, the US supplying arms to prop up the corrupt Somoza regime, and a US trade embargo have taken their toll.  It's a wonder Peace Corps is even here.  But as the 2nd poorest country in the Americas (Haiti is #1), Nicaragua needs all the help it can get.

Mt. Telica at sunrise
The next morning we got up at 2:15, rode on a steep and challenging dirt road, then hiked for 1.5 hours to the rim of the Telica volcano for the sunrise.  It was spectacular and so worth it.

A view toward the southern volcanoes

Sulfuric gas from the rim  

Around 11:30 am we headed north to Nati's home and job sites.   He proudly showed off his stifling-hot home, and then we went to his three schools via a three-wheeled scooter cab and walking (Normally he walks and rides his bike.)  It was hot (100+), dusty, and the air was filled with ash from the sugar cane field burns.

Nati on his front porch

Before the hour drive back to Leon, we were treated to a HUGE traditional Nicaraguan dinner prepared by his former host mom in her humble home.  Kathy and I had an easier lifestyle 39 years ago in Malaysia compared to Nati's hardships. 
At home in a stifling kitchen

I'll write another post about this later, with more about the other PCVs we've met, including a delightful retired lawyer named Denise who dined with us tonight.

Part of his commute to a school

Today we climbed to the roof of Cathedral de Leon, the largest in all of Central America.  Then a visit to the Museum de Ortiz-Gurdian de Art filled with Central American art in two large haciendas.  Most of it was interesting, some of it was spectacular.

On top of the Cathedral de Leon
Our very nice and
reasonably priced hotel

Chilling after a 100+ day of sightseeing

A delightful dinner in a former convent with
Denise Hollingsworth, a retired attorney-turned PCV
We'll miss Leon.  On Sunday we begin our four-hour journey to Granada, a rival colonial town in a beautiful setting.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Forgettable Managua

"Simply put, Managua is a shambles.  It is chaotic and broken, poetic and mesmerizing, all at the same time. "--Lonely Planet Nicaragua, 2016 edition.  It's also supposed to have a vibrant night life scene.
Fanciful trees on Managua boulevards at night

We agree, but we weren't mesmerized, found no poetry, and we're too old to partake of the nightlife. So why are we here?  Managua is the entry city to beautiful Nicaragua (the next Costa Rica) and we're visiting Salem Peace Corps volunteer Nati Zavala, whom Kathy and I have known since he was a 6-year old at Richmond Elementary.  We're also looking forward to meeting his girlfriend, Jasmine, a fellow volunteer from Atlanta.

A powerful 1972 earthquake devastating much of Managua, killing 11,000 people and leveling 53,000 homes.  Then president Somoza looted all of the international aid money, so not even the national cathedral has been rebuilt.  This energized the Sandinista-led revolution, which was followed by the Contra War.  (Remember the Iran-Contra scandal and Ollie North?  Be sure to watch American Made with Tom Cruise).   As a result Managua is a crazy maze of unnamed streets, shacks that turned to shanties that turned to homes and later buildings without a definable city-center.  Very forgettable.
Enjoying paella with PCVs Arley and Karen
That said, we walked a couple miles to lunch and back from a local market. Walking, however, is not easy because of the lack of sidewalks, the traffic and the crazy drivers. The highlight was a paella dinner at a lakeside restaurant with two of Nati's co-workers who have just completed their two years of service.  It is so fun being around young people!

Our  very pleasant B&B in Managua.  Only $41!
In the pinata section of the market
One really unique--and good thing--about Managua is a series of fanciful illuminated trees and flowers along the major boulevards at night.  Very beautiful, but we hear that they were very expensive to build and maintain.

We're off to the beautiful colonial city of Leon this morning where we'll meet Nati.  One of the girls we met last night will share the cab ride with us.  We've been warned that it will be much hotter than Managua's 90+ temperatures that were tempered by nice breezes.