Cruising through a colonial city

After hearing so much about Granada, Nicaragua’s “colonial gem” of a city, I have to admit I was a little defalted when I saw it. Not that it isn’t beautiful, because it certainly is. Colourful colonial houses line the streets, a gorgeous bright yellow church and town hall preside over a shady town square, and on every second corner men are offering rides in horse-drawn carriages decorated with flowers. It is indeed a lovely place to roam.

But the city seemed to be lacking in something. Perhaps it was because every resturant and bar seemed to be unashamedly geared towards tourists, perhaps it was because doing anything seemed to involve signing up for a tour, perhaps it was travel fatigue. But for me where Leon was loud, hot and bustling, Granada was sedate and even a little bit soulless.

We did inevitably join a tour. Three of us spend the morning being ferried around the shady green islands of Lake Nicaragua. The lake itself was beautiful, with all manner of tropical plants and trees lining the banks and covering the islands. But for me the real interest was in looking at the houses. The islands were actually tiny, with most only big enough for just one house and a backyard. But not just any house. To own one of these islands is quite the status symbol, so the houses have to reflect that. We cruised past luxury mansions and stately homesteads belonging to Nicaragua’s parliamentarians, prominent business owners and – of course – US expats, with our guide pointing out the homes of the country’s rich and famous.

Not every island was like this though. In fact many weren’t. Many were home to local Nicas, who were often squatting on the island in basic mudbrick homes. We stopped on one island where a local family lived – in basic accommodation – and were promptly served up fresh coconuts. Sipping our coconut water, A and I launched several poor attempts at a conversation in Spanish, before giving up and relying on our guide to help us out. It wasn’t long before the father and the son of the family invited us to see their baseball field. I was slightly puzzled. Baseball field? What? Here? Well, yes, actually.

A series of strategically placed logs and planks led us back to the mainland and to a clearing, where yes, there was a baseball field. Basic and far from anything professional-looking, but the baseball diamond was there. It came complete with two large and irritable cows who stood guard. Both the father and the son were keen baseball players and their team was competing for the championship. This was their place to practice. A mansion they do not have, but then I doubt many people can say they have their own baseball field.

During the cruise around the lake I also had the pleasure of meeting Lucy, a monkey with a serious taste for coconut. When we pulled up to her island, she leapt into our boat in a heartbeat, quickly snatching all the coconut we offered to her. A few hundred photos later, and it was time to shoo her from the boat – except Lucy wasn’t so keen to leave. We pulled away from the island, thinking she had left the boat, and had driven for some time before Lucy made her re-appearance. Back to the island we went.

Cruising the islands, taking in the scenery and listening to the bird calls, was a really pleasant experience. Which probably best sums up Granada for me; pleasant. Not amazing, not eye-opening, not buzzing with life. Just pleasant.

Volcano boarding!!!

I said I wouldn’t do it. In fact I had decided I wouldn’t do it. I had heard the stories from other travellers, and had seen the unsightly scars that went with them. I was not going to get on a sled and scoot down the side of a volcano.

Except.

Well after speaking to a tour guide – who went to great lengths to reassure me that I could go as slowly as I wanted to – I changed my mind. After all, when would I ever get another chance to get on a sled and scoot down the side of a volcano?

So the next day I found myself scaling Cerro Negro, a volcano just on the outskirts of Leon. It is still active, and when it last erupted in 1999 it coverd itself, and most of Leon, in a layer of black ash and fine gravel. The ash is the reason you’re able to slide down, though there are enough rocks to make it very uncomfortable if you come off.

The boards we were given weren’t exactly high-tech pieces of sporting equipment with advanced steering and brakes. The boards were just a plank of wood with a piece of polished metal nailed to the underside. Steering was by leaning left or right, the brakes were our feet. Easy enough.

The hike up to the start point took 45 minutes, which wasn’t exactly an easy stroll with wooden planks strapped to our backs. Huffing and puffing we reached the top where, after a few snaps of the view, it was time to suit up in our dashing protective gear. Then we were ready to go.

I watched as two others set off before me, sliding at what seemed a surprisingly sedate pace. A and I were up next. I settled on my board, held on to the rope grip, pushed off…pushed off again…and again…and finally the board began to move and pick up speed.

With tiny pieces of gravel flicking past me, it felt like I was tearing down the slope. But I’m under no illusions that I was any kind of speed demon. To be honest on the first run down, my one and only concern was staying on the board. I even tore up part of my trainers, so firmly were my heels dug into the ground. No matter, it was brilliant fun to fly down a volcano , spraying ash and dust in my wake.  (And no, that isn’t me in the picture, but you get the idea…)

At the bottom of the slope we were then invited up again for a second run. Forty-five minutes later and we were there. This time I was determined to go faster (but not too much faster) so I made a conscious effort to keep my heels up, and even dared to lean forward every so slightly. A decided to take it one step further, standing up on his board and literally surfing it down the slope. Show off.

Despite having to wash my hair twice (under a cold shower) to get all the gravel and dust out, volcano boarding was a blast. It was absolutely worth the 45 minute hike – twice – for the exhilerating 45 second ride. And even better, when people ask me what I’ve been up to, I get to say: “Oh you know, volcano boarding…. You?”

Canyons and Waterfalls

 For the majority of this trip, it must be said, we have been following a well worn tourist track. To be honest, I hadn’t expected there to be such an established route through places such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, but there is no denying it.

So it was with some excitement that we signed up to a two-day trip to the Somoto Canyon, which while accessible to tourists, isn’t yet entrenched in the standard ‘to do’ list. The canyon itself was “discovered” in 2004 by some Czech scientists, and has recently been declared a national monument for Nicaragua. And then of course there is the fact that it has plenty of ledges and rocks to jump off of and scramble over.

The tour started obscenely early by anyone’s standards. At 5am A and I were waiting, bleary-eyed at the local bus station with our guide Gerard, who I can only describe as uncommonly jovial, and two Leon locals Miguel and Payayo. Taxi, bus, chicken bus, taxi and 40 minute hike and four hours later we found ourselves standing at the entrance to the canyon.

The first opportunity to launch myself off something came at the entrance to the canyon, which was marked by two towering cliff-faces. Here we were given the chance to try our hand at abseiling, which both A and I have done a few times before, and did again without flinching. Our two Nica friends, however, preferred to stay at the bottom and thus stepped into the role of our personal photographers. They loved taking photos with other people’s cameras, as we would later discover.

So, the first cliff face conquered – we kitted ourselves out in some delightful safety equipment – and we headed into the canyon itself. A few steps in and the grey walls rose steeply on either side of us, casting the canyon floor and the river below into complete shade. As a result, the dark green waters were fairly chilly, as we quickly learned. But not chilly enough to stop us wading, swimming and scrambling through the narrow passage.

At several points our guide led us up to a ledge and encouraged us to leap out and into the river. For the most part I was happy to oblige, but then I noticed that the ledges were getting higher and higher. Miguel and Payayo stopped jumping off rocks early on, and I stopped not too long after. Eventually it was just the guide jumping from what I considered ridiculous heights – I am sure one of the ledges was close to 20m high.

Soon enough we reached the end of the canyon and walked out into some welcome sunshine. Following a small track we walked up and up until we had looped back to the ridge of the canyon. If we hadn’t been worn out by the swimming, the two-and-a-half hour hike along the ridge soon took care of that. Eventually we came to the finca or farm where we would spend the night with the hospitable Don Juan and his family.

More hiking and abseiling were scheduled for the next day. After two hours of hiking through the rolling hills of the northern Nicaraguan countryside we came to our next abseiling point. Down a small forest path, hidden from view, as a small waterfall. Here clear water splashed down over mossy green rocks and into a small pool below. Our next task was to abseil down the waterfall.

Miguel and Payayo once again opted out of the activity, and we handed over our cameras. I’ve never abseiled down a waterfall before, so was slightly nervous about slipping on wet rocks. It was tricky going over the edge but hardest part was not squealing like a little girl when the water splashed down on me. It was icy; it took my breath away and when I reached the bottom I was frantic in unhooking myself and getting the hell out from under that waterfall. Once we were both down, Gerard suggested we try it again. A and I looked at each other; there was no way. Instead we scrambled back to the top and hurried into some dry clothes.

Back at our bungalows I had a chance to look at the photos from the two days. They were good, Miguel and Payayo had indeed taken some excellent snaps of our various descents. But what was this? They had also taken a few photographs of themselves in various poses and positions at the waterfall. By a few, I actually mean 84. I counted.

There was Miguel pointing to waterfall, Payayo pointing at the waterfall. Miguel sitting on a rock, Payayo sitting on a rock. Miguel in close-up, Payayo in close-up. It went on and on. I couldn’t help but giggle at the number of shots; who uses another person’s camera to take that many photographs of themselves? At the end of the trip Payayo shyly asked if he could have a copy of the photos of the trip, and Gerard helped out by burning them a CD each.

I still have the 84 pictures on my computer. I’m not sure why I kept them all, but then they do crack me up every time I scroll through them. I guess that is reason enough to keep them.

Freedom, fighting and the other Ernesto

I’m standing on a corrugated iron roof in the baking midday sun, looking out over Leon, when my new friend Ernesto begins taking his shirt off. He wants to show me something. He turns to show me his back, but more to the point, the pink welts that dot its lower half. Shrapnel scars.

Ernesto was a member of the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) the revolutionaries who fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. He was 15 years old when he took to the streets of Leon with a gun.

Ernesto is my guide at Leon’s Museo de la Revolucion, and despite my lack of Spanish and his lack of English, this tour is exceptional. And it is Ernesto who makes it so. With simple Spanish, charades and a lot of patience, he walks me through the story of the revolution.

He talks of the half-century struggle against the dictatorship and the suppression and persecution the people who lived with during that time. He tells the story of Sandinista, who was kidnapped and executed by the National Guard during peace negotiations, of Rigoberto Lopez Perez, the poet who died while assassinating one dictator and of the scores of revolutionaries who simply disappeared during the Somoza regime.

The weapons room is also quite interesting. Here the weapons the FSLN had to fight with are lined up side by side with those that the National Guard was fighting with. While the FSLN had grenade launchers made from poly-pipe and duct tape, the National Guard had weapons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in, say, the US military…

Then its up to the roof, and I creep along the creaking sheets of corrugated iron taking care not to place foot wrong. Ernesto leaps lightly across the roof like a cat and starts pointing out tactical positions taken up by both the FSLN and the National Guard in the fight for control of Leon. Evidence of the battle for Leon is still very much visible in the central square; bullet holes still riddle the walls of most of the buildings in these streets.

“Where were you?” I ask. With general charades and much pointing, I soon work out where he fought. Then Ernesto begins to tell me his story. He was born and raised not far from Leon, and was named after that other famous revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Gueverra. He was 14 when the FSLN began gaining serious momentum, and 15 when the revolution came to Leon. He – and many of his friend and family – took up arms and took to the streets.

“Were you scared?” I ask. “Terrified,” he said. “But what else could I do?”

He hadn’t been fighting long when there he was thrown off his feet. He tried to get up, but found he couldn’t used his legs. Lying in the street he reached to feel his back and when his hand came away covered in blood, he was convinced he had been shot in the back. “I thought I would never walk again, and I cried,” he told me.

But 15-year-old Ernesto made it to safety, and later it was found that it hadn’t been a bullet, only shrapnel that had torn across his back and injured his spine. He did walk again too, and there is a great deal of pride in his step.

I’ve thought a lot about freedom and liberty since leaving that museum. About how at home, in Australia, we have had our freedom handed to us on a silver platter. From the time our country was created, freedom was birthright. Yes, we have fought wars, but on the home front we have never had any genuine threat to our freedom. Our right to vote, our right to speak up, our right to live – mostly – as we please. We’ve never known persecution, never known real fear, people have never “disappeared” at the hands of our government. And I dare say that – thankfully – we never will know it.

But I do wonder, if we haven’t known – or will never know – any of this, do we really, truly know the value of our freedom? Ernesto knows it and it was my privilege to spend the afternoon with this man, and to be given a hint of just how much we take for granted back home.

Poets and revolutionaries

The Lonely Planet describes Leon as “refined, intense and politically progressive”. While the first adjective may not be one I would use, the second definitely is. Houses of faded reds and yellows line the pot-holed streets, smells of dust mixed with petrol fill the air, and car horns, barking dogs and latin-pop beats can be heard from all directions. Power outages are common, and we spent part of our first night eating ice-cream in the dark at a local parlour. And then there is the stifling heat which forces you indoors everyday between the hours of 11am and 2pm. It is indeed an intense introduction to Nicaragua.

But despite its less-than-refined appearance, this city – more than the capital of Managua and more than the tourist hub of Granada – is the heart and soul of this country. This liberal minded city was the breeding ground of three revolutions, and that has left a permanent impression on the psyche of those who live there. Everyone here has an opinion about governments past and present and, of course, the United States.

Down every bustling street there was something new to see, and most of it with a distinct political bent. There is a mural celebrating Rigoberto Lopez Perez, who died assassinating one of the country’s dictators, another mural dedicated to the country’s many revolutionaries along with a park celebrating Ruben Dario and three other great poets of Leon. I managed to navigate my way to the Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Guardián, and spent a good two hours wandering the halls of this art gallery. The best part about Leon, however, was the the Museo de la Revolución, and learning about the history of this complex country. That, and playing with a grenade launcher. Defunct, of course – no one in their right mind would hand me anything more lethal than a butter knife.

For the most part we used Leon as a base, venturing out into the northern part of the country. But then it was always good to return to this city, as loud and as intense as it was, it was never dull and never felt like tourist trap.

A place to lay our weary heads

Most of the time when we are travelling, we plan ahead. We research the hostels in the towns we are heading to and we book them online well before we arrive. We don’t rock up to a town without a place to lay our weary heads. Most of the time.

But dodgy internet connections and combined with a rather relaxed attitude about our next destination saw A and I leave El Salvador on a bus destined for Managua, capital of Nicaragua, without knowing where we were going to stay. We had some addresses of hostels scratched down, but that was about it. We’ll be right, we thought.

The bus ride was supposed to be an 11 hour bus ride, which would see us arrive at the late but still reasonable hour of 10pm. So we board the bus and settle in for a long and fairly uneventful bus ride, entertained by various movies in Spanish.

It was at the borders that things got held up. First at the El Salvador-Honduran border, things were very slow. Then later, at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, for no apparent reason our bus was left waiting for about 45 minutes, about 20m from the border. We knew we were delayed, but didn’t think too much of it. We’ll be right.

For whatever reason, the bus did not make good time, and combined with the delays we found ourselves outside the Managua bus station at 12.30am. We had no idea where we had been dropped and there was no map we could lay our hands on, but then at that time walking anywhere in an unfamiliar city was out of the question. There was no taxi in sight, but then even if there was, we had no local currency. The only thing we had was $5 US between us.

We were starting to resign ourselves to spending a night curled up in the bus station waiting room, before we chanced upon an English couple who had managed to find a taxi. They had a booking at a hostel, the taxi driver knew where it was and we were welcome to share the cab.

We cruised through the sketchy looking streets, and eventually pulled up outside their hostel. Except it was shut for the night, and reception were not answering the bell. Our driver volunteered another place nearby, which proved to be shut, and then another, also shut.

Eventually we found a place – god knows where – that was willing to give us a room. While I am so very grateful the hotel owner did in fact take us in, I have to say it was the worst place I have ever laid my weary head. I could go on for some time about the cracked windows and peeling paint and the fact that the toilet was in the room, hidden behind a crumbling. But really what made me cringe was the fact that there was blood on my sheets. Not a lot – no, it wasn’t a murder scene – but enough for me to recognise it and just shudder. I was on the verge of throwing a tantrum (I do that when I am tired – doesn’t everyone?) but sucked it up and went to bed instead.

The next morning we were up and out early, in search of food and a cash machine. I thought that perhaps I had judged the neighbourhood harshly, everything looks a bit scary in the dead of night right? Well this place looked just as scary in the day. Rubble, rubbish and just general debris littered the roads and the pavements, traffic screamed around the streets and the place just looked dodgy.

We found breakfast, found the cash machine – stashed the money in our underwear – and headed back to the hotel. On the way back I was more jumpy than usual when carrying money, I just felt like I had a big red target painted on my back. At one point I saw a man headed towards us and saw him carrying something long and slim in his hand.

A knife! He’s going to use it to mug us!

No over-active brain it’s not a knife, it’s a screwdriver.

A screwdriver! He’s going to use it to mug us!

Except he didn’t – of course he didn’t – he didn’t even glance at us and we got back to the hotel with zero problems. Within half an hour we packed, paid up and got the hell out of there.

We were on the collectivo on the way to Leon when I mentioned to A that I thought that was the worst place we had stayed on this trip, recounting the blood on the sheets.

“Yeah, well there was something else too,” he said. “When you went to the bathroom, I put my bag on the bed to get some stuff out, and about three or four cockroaches ran out from under my pillow. I didn’t tell you, cause you were already on the verge of a tantrum, and there was no way we were moving. So I just didn’t mention it.”

Awesome. Next time I’m sleeping at the bus station.