After the volcanic episodes of Part One of mum and dad’s visit to Nicaragua, we stayed in the colonial city of Granada for a few days. It was a small city, its streets narrow and lined with colonial houses painted in pastel colours, topped with traditional red tiles and decorated with carved wooden balconies. Most of our exploring consisted of wandering around, but we also did the touristy thing of taking a tour of the historic city centre and the lakeside promenade in a horse-drawn carriage. Then we departed and headed for unknown horizons.
Nicaragua has had a complicated, often bloody, history, and the last several decades have seen a lot of political and social change. Apart from a few expat spots, tourism is still generally in its infancy, with little in the way of infrastructure and development to support it at the moment. If you don’t speak Spanish, several of the places we next visited would be extremely difficult to get to and enjoy if travelling independently. This was where Sam and I came into our own; after months of travelling through Latin America, our Spanish was at a decent level and this underdeveloped tourism would simply mean more of a challenge, and hopefully a greater reward.
Still, as we bounced around in a shabby local bus (part of this challenge meant opting for local transport rather than infinitely easier option of domestic flights), I looked over at mum and dad to see how they were taking things. They had chosen the six hour bus journey from the capital city of Managua to reach the port town of San Carlos at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. If the seats were a little hard, the entertainment more than made up for things, the highlight being what I can only describe as a catwalk of venders at one stop: dozens of venders marched onto the bus selling all manner of (mostly edible) goods, unleashing a cacophony of catchphrases and bargain prices, and piling on in such great numbers, that someone had to open a hatch at the back so that they could all stream off again.
We arrived in San Carlos and found accommodation for the night, and the next morning caught a small launch from the jetty, travelling downstream along the San Juan River. Officers decked out in faded blue uniforms, Nicaraguan Navy I presume, presided over the embarking process, ensuring that all luggage was packed onto the boat well and that each person had a lifejacket. The engine started up and we set off down the river, then it was as though an unspoken signal had been given: no sooner had we turned a bend and were out of sight of the pier, every single person took off their lifejacket and tucked it into the roof racks. Every single person except mum and dad that is, who were perfectly content to sit there bulging slightly for the rest of the journey.
Messing Around on the River
A couple of hours later we docked in El Castillo, a small settlement built into the fairly steep bank of the river. It didn’t take us long to explore. Our hotel was at one end of the village, looking out across the rapids of the shallow river, whilst the fort after which the place was named, sat on a hillock at the other end. They were joined in between by a narrow concrete walkway, lined on either side with restaurants, shops and houses on stilts. Though there did seem to be a kind of tourist infrastructure here, by way of several guesthouses and tourist-aimed restaurants, we saw only a handful of foreign tourists in our several days there. Apparently the place usually attracted national tourists, though we didn’t see many of them either.
That first evening, we visited the fort. The fort was small but had a fascinating history; for centuries before the Panama Canal was built, the interconnected rivers and lakes of Nicaragua acted as a Pan-American thoroughfare with which to traverse Central America, which meant that the fort was very strategically located and susceptible to pirate attacks. It did indeed offer a great view both up and downstream, as well as over the village and the farmland and forest on the opposite bank.
The next morning, we met Orlando, our local guide for the day. We all climbed into a small boat and travelled a short way downstream. Shortly after leaving El Castillo, the land on the same bank became Costa Rica, the river acting as the border between the two countries.
We disembarked at the edge of the Indio Maiz Reserve. Only two small areas of the vast reserve are accessible to tourists; only scientists and researchers can venture further. For the next few hours, Orlando led us around a trail which ran for several kilometres through the rainforest. He pointed out medicinal plants, a highlight being the Mimosa leaf he gave each of us to chew, to test out its anaesthetic properties. Sam and I were less cautious than mum and dad and happily chewed away, until our mouths suddenly felt fuzzy and numb and started producing more saliva than was manageable, so we walked along spitting out for a good few minutes. We spotted several beautiful species of frog along the way, including the tiny red and blue Strawberry poison-dart frog. Right at the end of the route, we ran into a troupe of howler monkeys, who were so unconcerned by our presence that we could stand beneath them, mere metres away, as they foraged for food, called to each other, and flopped around languorously in the branches. This incredible experience was topped off by a swim in the stream, during which a lone, probably male, spider monkey came crashing down through the branches until he was close enough to peer at us. He sat watching us for the duration of our swimming stop, which we mostly spent watching him back.
That afternoon, we moved from El Castillo to a wooden riverside cabin further downstream. There were only four rooms available to begin with, but we were the only guests, so besides the caretaker’s family we had the place entirely to ourselves. The afternoon was therefore spent in quiet bliss, reading, writing or simply sitting and watching the river flow past. As darkness fell, fireflies began flashing in the long grass. Dad and Sam used the light of a couple of faint bulbs to play a game from my dad’s childhood which involved stones on a board and a fair amount of strategic thinking.
The next morning, we were supplied with two canoes, paddles and lifejackets, and merrily rowed our way downstream and along a small stream through the reserve. As I am notoriously bad at rowing, Sam did most of the work, enhancing the romance of the beautiful setting by rapping the Fresh Prince of Belair in a BBC English accent for my entertainment.
When we got back to El Castillo that evening, we raced to the reception to use the incredibly slow internet connection to check out the results of the national election back home. An air of disappointment accompanied our dinner that evening.
We caught the small launch back from El Castillo to San Carlos, and on the same day, took an even smaller boat out to the Solentiname Islands, an archipelago of thirty-six islands clumped together in the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. The journey was only an hour, but the waves were against us, and as Sam and I were sat in the front row, we received a drenching.
We landed on Mancarrón, one of the most inhabited islands; next to the pier there was a ‘town’, with the excessive population of forty-five people. As there were no vehicles or roads on the islands, we carried and pulled our bags around the narrow concrete walkway to view a couple of potential places to stay. We settled on a wooden cabin, whose several rooms could hold about fifteen guests but as we were the only ones staying there we essentially had private accommodation with a lake view, and, as we found out the next morning, a full breakfast spread served beneath a thatched roof only a few metres from the water’s edge.
For a couple of days, we simply relaxed and explored the island. The main vocation of the town’s people was as artisans of the very lightweight balsa wood, which they carved into objects and painted, so that as we wandered along the path past the few houses which made up the town, we saw tables laid with colourful creations, often depicting local animals, such as toucans, parrots and turtles. A local artisan acted as our guide, and led us through the dry forest outside the town, climbing up the mount there until we found a break in the trees and had a lovely view across the lake and a few surrounding islands. We also popped into the one room museum, with its collection of indigenous stone and ceramic objects, and the whitewashed church, with its bright murals of animals and plants of the island. In the evenings, we ate at another hotel, which seemed to have only one guest despite its fairly extensive grounds. The food was amazing, three courses made from the limited supplies grown on the island or brought over from San Carlos, each time different and always tasty.
After a couple of days we wanted to explore more of the archipelago, so we hired a small local boat, complete with captain, to transport us between islands. We passed Isla de Padre, where a troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys sleepily peered at us from the top branches of the forest, and continued on to Isla Venada, where we pulled into a small bay, fringed by a cluster of basic houses. We had come to this island to particularly visit this village: its population was comprised of three generations of the Arellano family, a family of artists headed by Rodolfo Arellano, who all painted in the primitivism style, depicting the wildlife and landscape of the Solentiname Islands. Rodolfo had taught a number of his children who taught their children, so as we walked from house to house we met several Arellanos, and chatted to them as we admired their collections of work. Although it was all the same style, if you looked carefully you could see how the work of each artist differed: the details, the use of colour, the animals they included. The pieces were beautiful, so incredibly detailed that the longer you looked at each one, the more you noticed. Finally we came to the house of Rodolfo himself, who was now confined to a wheelchair, but was still painting and warmly welcomed us in to look at his work. Dad was particularly struck by one of his pieces, a depiction of the island of Mancarrón where we were staying, so soon he was the lucky owner of a painting by the great man himself.
We got back into the boat, with much waving and thank yous, and drove around to the other end of the island and moored. As we clambered over the rocks to look into a small cave, a huge iguana came crashing through the undergrowth, fell into the water and swam away hurriedly. Along the walls of the cave, now home to many bats, we could see the faint traces of pre-Colombian petroglyphs carved by the indigenous of the island.
For lunch we stopped by San Fernando Island. We were the only customers in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the beach and several other close islands. After eating, we followed the path running through the village and up a steep slope until we came to a small museum. It contained an eclectic mix of very large, incredibly beautiful, collaborative pieces painted by several members of the Arellano family, diagrams and photos of petroglyphs found across the islands, and other artefacts, both older and modern, relating to the Solentiname way of life, such as old fishing canoes.
On the way back to the port, we looked around a workshop, with a collection of Arellano work at one end, and balsa wood pieces at the other, the tables laid out chock-a-block full of colourful animals and objects, the walls covered. Finally, our short tour complete, our captain motored us back to Mancarrón island and our wooden cabin.
Religion and Revolution
After a few days staying on the Solentiname Islands, we made the return boat journey to San Carlos and from there caught a bus back around the lake to Managua. This time we added on an extra stretch north from Managua, to reach the city of León. On recommendation from a couple we had previously met, we stayed in a small posada, a guesthouse in a colonial building which had been in the family of the owner for more than a hundred years.
The heat in León, much like everywhere else during our wanderings through Nicaragua, was not conducive to a lot of activity, so our sightseeing was spread over several days. We began with an amble through the historic city centre, then returned to the main square and entered the large white cathedral in the hopes that we would spot where to buy tickets to climb its bell tower. A service seemed to be in full swing, and the queue for communion stretched all through the knave, several hundred people long. We spotted where to buy tickets and left the crowds to climb the tower. We emerged at the top, right beside several large bells and were asked to take our shoes off and told not to walk on the domes. Odd instructions considering we didn’t really know what was going on, but we followed the steps around a bend and found spread beneath us the bright white roof of the whole cathedral. It was a surreal landscape, dreamlike and glowingly white, and great fun to wander around, the views in all directions splendid. When we looked down in the main square, crowds were gathering, and just as we wandered back into the bell tower, several boys began ringing the bells, the vibrations so loud that my head buzzed.
By the time we climbed back down the tower, the communion queue was so long that it snaked several times through the cathedral then out its front doors. One of us clicked that the celebrations were in aid of the beatification of John Paul II, and indeed, that evening after dinner when we walked through the main square again, there were crowds stood on either side of the road as a procession and marching band slowly made its way through. Like any interested tourists, we gathered to one side to have a look, and several minutes later a news camera crew came along, filming the crowd’s reaction as the procession passed through. The cameraman lingered on mum and I, and then I made the fatal mistake of answering the question ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ with a yes. Suddenly the camera light was on me and a presenter was asking me questions and holding out microphone, and the locals around me were giggling and pointing as they realised a news interview was happening right in front of them. As the procession filed into the cathedral, fireworks began bursting overhead, and we were treated to a long display before we decided to head for home.
Our sightseeing continued the next day with a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. We found the museum on one side of the main square, an old building with a small group of elderly men sat on the steps leading in, all former revolutionary fighters during the overthrow of the Somoza regime during the 70s. We were introduced to Ricardo Lopez who gave us a tour of the place. The walls of the downstairs room were covered in faded photographs and information boards which Ricardo used to talk us through the events of the twentieth century, leading to the downfall of the dictatorial regime of president Samosa in 1979. There was even a photograph of Ricardo himself, armed and peering around the corner of a building during the fighting.
After the downstairs tour, Ricardo led us up a grand staircase, past what were formerly offices of Samosa’s military, and up onto the roof. We carefully trod along the corrugated iron and gazed at the view around us, as he explained what happened at various points of interest across the city during the revolution. As we left the museum I sat down amongst the former revolutionary fighters, who were keen for a photograph, especially with what my mum referred to as ‘a young lady’.
On our final day, we headed for the coast and spent the day on the beach. The waves were ferocious, and dad, Sam and I had great fun playing in the shallows, being tossed and pulled about. Mum sat reading and watching us under a thatched roof constructed on the beach for sun cover, surrounded by beach dogs. We watched the glowing sunset, then headed to the second floor of a restaurant bar for a drink.
And with that, the three weeks were up. The next day we hugged mum and dad goodbye in Managua Airport, watching and waving until they were through immigration and out of sight. It seemed very quiet with just the two of us after all the chatter of the last few weeks. We swung our backpacks onto our backs and headed for the small, somewhat shabbier domestic terminal.