Nicaragua - Tracy Comes to Town
Dec 27, 2006
|I started to view the approach of the Christmas season as both a blessing and a curse. A "blessing" because it would bring some friends to Junquillal and a much needed break from book writing. A "curse" because it meant the eventual packing up and moving out of the beach house. Yes, the place had come with its abundance of challenges - the constant invasion of insects, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and let's not forget the leaky roof and long list of house repairs - but it also had come with Victor the gardener and Odalia the housekeeper with whom I had developed a friendship, and after living there for 3 months it had really started to feel like home. And the view...man, was I ever gonna miss that view.
My American girlfriend Tracy was the first to arrive about a week before Christmas. We spent a week being "lazy" by taking walks on the beach and afternoon siestas, and "energetic" by exploring other towns and beaches along the Pacific coast, window shopping, and getting things prepped for Xmas dinner which I had insisted on cooking. My tastebuds were craving turkey, and I had decided that there was gonna be a turkey on the Christmas dinner table even if I had to cook the darn thing myself!
Easier said than done. You try finding a turkey in the middle of rice and beans country! But eventually I did, in Junquillal's tiny mini-supermarket of all places. It was the most sorry-ass looking thing I had ever seen, and expensive to boot, but once browned and served with all the trimmings it tasted heavenly!
On December 27th, Tracy and I packed up (thanks for all your help Tracy!), said farewell to the beach house and hit the road. Foreigners who arrive in Costa Rica are given a 90-day visitors visa, after which time they must exit the country for 72 hours before returning. My 90 days were up and it was time to leave. Tracy and I decided to make the most of my visa renewal trip and headed north to Nicaragua for a couple of weeks.
First stop was Granada, not only the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua but in all of Central America, founded by a Spanish conqueror in 1524. At the time, Granada was the main center of commerce and the most important city in Nicaragua because it sat on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and was thereby connected via navigable river to the Caribbean Sea and beyond to Europe.
Granada is known to be one of the most beautiful cities of Central America because of its rich colonial heritage and architecture. We spent a number of days exploring the city by foot, and I absolutely loved it. Every house and storefront gives way to a beautiful inner courtyard. Horse-drawn carriages, not just a tourist attraction but a main form of transportation in Granada, add an almost old-worldly charm to the city.
Inside Lake Nicaragua and just a few kilometers from Granada are "Las Isletas", an archipelago of 365 little volcanic islands rich in flora and fauna. Tracy and I went on a boat tour that lazily wound its way through the narrow canals that divide the islands. The islands come in all shapes and sizes; some possess large luxurious weekend homes for the rich and famous, others are so tiny you couldn't even pitch a tent.
A monkey colony lives on one of the smaller islands. Anticipating food, they excitedly arrive when the boat comes near the shore. One monkey swung onto our boat, went through the boat in record time opening and digging through packs (thankfully didn't steal anything!) before hopping off again. Last stop was to one of the islands that has a couple of bars and restaurants where we enjoyed a couple of cold Toñas (Nicaragua's finest beer) and took a dip at the local swimming hole.
To celebrate the last day of the year, we went to "Parque National Volcan Mombacho", about 10 km from Granada. Although inactive for many years and totally covered with vegetation now, the Mombacho Volcano is one of the most prominent volcanoes in Nicaragua because its four craters are covered in a unique cloud forest and a rich ecosystem that supports an abundance of flora and fauna, including several endemic species.
The entrance of the reserve park is situated at the foot of the volcano. From there, you have to take a heavy-duty 4WD transport vehicle that rumbles its way up the steep and narrow road, through coffee plantations, into the cloud forest, and eventually drops you at the interpretive center from where the hiking trails begin. The ride uphill is a real adventure in itself! In fact, Tracy almost tumbled out the back of the truck when she went to grab a bag that was sliding out.
What a difference a thousand meters of altitude makes. We had clear blue skies, sunshine and full-on heat in Granada, but when we arrived at the top of the volcano (1200 meters) the temperature had dropped significantly, the humidity was high, it was windy, and we were completely surrounded by fog (guess that's why they call it a "cloud" forest!).
Visitors can hike around the main crater on a self-guided trail, or hike with a guide around the other craters. We started with the self-guided trail but were so completely sopped-in with cloud that our views were non-existent. A few hours later it cleared up a bit and we tried the trail again, this time getting some views. Vegetation was lush and trees were thick with bromeliads and ferns, but other than one colorful red/white/black snake (a non-venemous Milk Snake, I think), we didn't see much in the way of animal life.
In addition to hiking, we had one more Mombacho adventure in mind...the zip-line canopy tour. I had done a canopy tour once before in Chile so knew basically what to expect, but this was Tracy's first time...and did I mention she's afraid of heights! Who knows why she lets me talk her into these things!!
First we were assisted into harnesses, helmets and thick gloves...only to strip them off again as we decided that maybe going to the bathroom first was a good idea...and in hindsight this was a wise decision! Once suited up again, we climbed to the first treetop platform where our harnesses were snapped onto a steel cable suspended above the platform. And from there we pushed off and, in true "Janes of the Jungle" style, zipped from one treetop to the next along the steel cables.
I made Tracy go first...we both knew that if I went first she'd just chicken out. With me behind her offering words of encouragement (as well as the occasional prod, poke and bullying), she'd be more inclined to "take the leap". She didn't smile a lot during the tour, nor was she game to try the "Superman" or "Upside Down" poses like I was, but in the end there were no bruises or broken bones, nor was she crying, so I figure our Canopy Tour was a great success!
The Mombacho interpretive center also offers "rustic" guest dormitory lodgings, and in advance we had booked to stay the night, thinking it would be kinda cool - albeit quiet - to bring in the New Year at the edge of a volcano. After the place closed and the day-trippers left, Tracy and I basically had the place to ourselves, except for one cook, one guard, and one "nocturnal hike" guide.
By nightfall the wind was howling like a banshee, the temperature had dropped again, and the thick fog had returned. Not exactly perfect hiking conditions but off we went! After a considerable amount of searching we finally found one little "Mombacho salamander", an endemic species that can only be found in this particular cloud forest. We probably scared the poor thing half to death with our flashlights beaming down on him! We also searched for the green-skinned-red-eyed frog, apparently another endemic creature, but no luck there.
With all the hiking that day, we were (read: "I was") pretty exhausted and I'm sure in bed by 10PM. I completely slept through my alarm which had been set for midnight, so I totally missed bringing in the New Year. Oh well, it's not the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last!
The next morning Tracy and I returned to Granada, stripping off our multiple layers of clothing as we made our way back down the mountain. And from there we were off to Laguna de Apoyo.
The Apoyo Volcano erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago and water, trapped inside the deep crater, eventually formed the Apoyo Lagoon. It's the largest and deepest lagoon in Nicaragua, and the deepest measured point (200 meters) is also the lowest point in Central America. Its sky-blue water makes Apoyo one of the most pristine lagoons in Nicaragua, and its still-active underwater thermal vents maintain water temperatures at levels that make it a popular place for swimming and water sports.
A number of tourist facilities and luxurious private homes have been constructed around the lake. We booked into a nice hostel right on water's edge, intending to stay one night, but we liked the place so much we stayed for 5 nights! We spent lots of time simply relaxing by the lake, but every now and then we found enough energy to do a bit of hiking and a couple of day trips.
Green tree-covered crater walls surround the lagoon. We hiked up to the town of Catarina one day, which sits perched on the crater's rim and offers stunning views of the lagoon. Somehow we detoured onto the "difficult" trail instead of the "easy" one, so we ended up doing one helluva killer hike! But for our greater efforts we were rewarded with seeing numerous groups of black howler monkeys along the trail - from wee babies to big old males - although we did have to keep a watchful eye as they have a bad reputation for flinging poo at those who irritate them!
The next day we took the local bus to Masaya. Although short on charm, Masaya has tried to develop itself into the "epicenter of artesenias" and has two large markets carrying selections of artesan products from around the country. We spent the day browsing at the markets, and each happily walked away with a few purchases. Masaya bus terminal was an interesting chaos of activity. Most interesting though, was seeing rows of old North American yellow school buses...apparently in their next life old yellow school buses become local chicken buses in Nicaragua!
We also visited San Juan de Oriente, nothing more than a small village, but the most important producer of pottery in the country. Pottery making is a tradition passed down from one generation to the next. Small shops are set up next to the road where families sell their pottery, and inside the village there are workshops where you can watch the pottery making process. I think Tracy again added to her collection of purchases.
And with that, our time in Nicaragua had pretty much run out. It was soon time for Tracy to fly back home again. So from Laguna de Apoyo we returned to Granada for one last night, and the next day caught a bus back to Costa Rica. Thanks for another great adventure Tracy!
Although full of cultural treasures and stunning natural landscape, Nicaragua is still striving to overcome the after-effects of dictatorship, civil war and natural disasters. It's one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere but, surprisingly, its also one of the safest. What I saw of it I liked...very much.