A (Very) Brief History of Chile

  • The territory of Chile has been populated by migrating Native Americans, for the last 10,000 years, or since at least 3,000 BC, depending on which part of Wikipedia you believe.
  • By the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors began to colonise the region of present-day Chile, and the territory was a colony between 1540 and 1818, when it gained independence from Spain.
  • The country's economic development was successively marked by the export of first agricultural produce, then saltpetre (from guano) and later copper.

Facts and Factoids

  • Chile is one of the longest countries in the world, with a coastline around 6500 kilometres long. However, it is also one of the narrowest in the world with a width of just over 200 km.
  • At a count just over 1300, Chile is one of the countries with the most volcanoes and several of them are still active.
  • The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. Average rainfall measures about 0.6 inches a year. 
  • Chile is one of the few countries on Earth that has an officially funded and recognised UFO research bureau.
  • Chileans are the second biggest consumers of bread in the world - just behind the Germans. 
  • The wine is good…(The Spanish brought at least one useful thing with them...)
  • The Chileans like to refer to their country as 'The Land of Poets'. This is because two of the country’s most well-known and beloved literary figures were the Nobel prize winners, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda.

Why is Chile Called Chile?

No-one really knows why Chile is called Chile. . ... One theory says  Chile may derive its name from the indigenous Mapuche word chilli, which may mean “where the land ends,” “the deepest point of the Earth." Another says it is based on the Mapuche imitation of a bird call, which sounds like “cheele cheele."

Is Chile a Safe Place to Visit?

Chile currently ranks as the 27th safest country on the planet. It is usually considered the safest country in South America, together with Uruguay.

Is Chile a Poor Country?

Chile has poverty rate of 8.6%, which is relatively low and it ranks overall as a developing, but middle income country.

Where to Visit in Chile?

Chile has some incredible scenery - as well as the wine:

South American Fillers

This trip, I'm visiting the countries in Latin America that I haven't been to - so it's a slightly odd journey - Uruguay, Paraguay and El Salvador. Starting with Uruguay. In essence, Uruguay is three giant river deltas. Mostly agricultural, either flat or very gently undulating, sprinkled with silos and cattle. Think Essex livened up with the odd palm tree and eucalyptus. So, the view from the Pan American Highway, Route 1, wending its way slightly inland isn't very exciting. But the sky is blue and the buildings in the small towns are Wild West saloon style clay in vivid colours. Tangerine is a favourite.

Uruguay - in a Nutshell

  • Uruguay is officially the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, which is a little surprising, but I suppose it's because its on the eastern side of South America.
  • It's geographically the second-smallest nation in South America (after Suriname).
  • Also, possibly surprisingly, according to Wikipedia, Uruguay is ranked first in Latin America for democracy, peace and low perception of corruption and is first in South America when it comes to press freedom, size of the middle class and prosperity.
  • Europeans came late to this part of South America. Colonia del Sacramento was the first settlement, originally a smuggling paradise, set up by the colonial Portuguese, to needle the Spanish. Until the Spanish annexed the whole country and put a stop to it.
  • Uruguay won its independence between 1811 and 1828, following a four-way struggle between Portugal and Spain, and later Argentina and Brazil

Narbona Wine Lodge

And my wine lodge perched on the edge of the River Plate on the eastern side of Uruguay is fabulous. Only a hundred years old but totally preserved in character, complete with stone walls, iron doors and original vehicles. Though the odd John Deere intrudes, as does the electric buggy I'm invited to use. I'm considering that. There could be carnage! Especially as they have left bottles of the honey sweetened estate grappa out for guests to help themselves.

Food Has Become a Preoccupation

More importantly, at the moment, lounging by the pool, I'm considering what to order from the menu - it's supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Uruguay - all local queso, jamon and pasta and I'm trying to dredge up enough Spanish to do it justice. Nobody speaks English. I'm not sure what I would do without Google Translate.

There is nobody else at dinner - maybe it's because everyone eats so late. Though I think I'm the only person staying here.

Food has become a preoccupation. Sleep is followed by a wonderful breakfast which doesn't augur well for the waistline - jam, yogurt, more ham and cheese, all produced onsite, together with the most sublime croissants baked in the little stone panaderia next to the restaurant.

Adventures at the Finca

It's extraordinarily windy, which is just as well, as it's sizzling hot. I feel (and probably look) like a sausage grilling. And I intend to do nothing today, except sit by the pool and possibly wander the finca. There is a relentless cacophony of parrots squawking in the trees and an iguana is limbering up below me. Over the pool a cloud of dragonflies is zig zagging as they struggle to maintain position in the wind - a dash of iridescent humming bird is zipping through them. The next victim of the gusts is my umbrella, which does a Mary Poppins and has to be rescued from the next field by a gardener. He then removes them all in case I'm stupid enough to raise one again.

By the River Plate

I'm told that there are views of the River Plate up the hill so I decide to abjure the buggy invitation and hike through the rows of vines. Ten minutes later, lost, covered in dust and pursued by barking dogs I regret that decision. Eventually I stagger up to a small pavilion on the hill top. Even at this narrowing of the estuary the river is huge, stretching to the horizon.

Back at the ranch (good to say that literally!) more adventures await. There's a huge spider clambering up my curtains. The owner assures me it's not poisonous and wafts ant killer (!!) around the suite. But I'm not convinced. It looks just like my internet picture of the South American wandering spiders - described as aggressive and deadly.

Colonia Del Sacramento

Next day, I'm driving back along the edge of the giant Plate estuary. Blue signs suggest it is filled with submerged battleships, from the Second World War, some of them English. Colonia Del Sacramento, a world heritage site, is a favourite day trip for Argentines hopping over the river, on the boat, from Buenos Aires. This is also the route for the Pan American highway - via the ferry.

The Old City is a UNESCO site. It's all cobbled streets, museums and bijoux restaurants. The highlights are: the City Gate and wooden drawbridge, a lighthouse, church and convent ruins, the Viceroy's House – the Casa del Virrey, reconstructed from the original ruins and an abandoned bullring.

Montevideo, the Capital of Uruguay

Another two hours along the bay is Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, proper name San Felipe y Santiago de Montevideo. Surprisingly, Montevideo is the southernmost capital in the Americas. Even Buenos Aires is further north. Wikipedia also adds that it has the best quality of life of any city in Latin America. Less encouragingly, the FCO section on Montevideo warns of street crime like bag snatching and pick-pocketing, car break ins, muggings and armed robberies. So much for all the plaudits about Uruguay.

Montevideo is compact and very easy to walk round. It's a café society, supplemented with a few old palaces, a sprinkling of art deco and some hefty colonial buildings. It revolves around the Plaza de la Independencia and the Ciudad Vieja (the old town). The most impressive palace is the Palacio Salvo, with a huge unwieldy tower. It was briefly. the tallest building in Latin America. Another must see landmark is the neo-classical Solis Theatre.

The Mercado del Puerto is an old port market, now transformed into another foodie haven, a maze of steakhouses. Perhaps the pleasantest part of my exploration is a wander along the Rambla, an esplanade that hugs the many beaches of Montevideo Bay. It turns out to be the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. The sand is good for a nap before I turn back. It's a shame that there is a faint whiff of hydrogen sulphide over the whole bay area - and an even stronger smell in my bathroom.

My hotel, the Alma Historica, is well placed in the old city and has character - themed character. My room is named after an actress - Dona Trinidad. There are chandeliers and display cases packed with fans and travelling alarm clocks, like the one I had when I was a teenager.

Jose Ignacio, The Riviera of Uruguay

Another day and I'm heading east now. This side of Uruguay is reminiscent of the south of France - pine trees, dunes and mile after mile of sandy yellow beaches. It's a huge international playground overlooked by the little hills that gave Montevideo its name. I haven't seen anything remotely approaching a mountain. My destination is a beach resort called Jose Ignacio, an upmarket fishing village, the St Tropez of this Riviera.I 'm told.

A Posada with a Problem

My posada is described as stylish, set back from the beach in beautiful gardens with little swimming pools. No one has passed on the information that it was almost destroyed in a bush fire last week. It's not exactly picturesque. The surrounding vegetation is charred, the little pools are half empty with specks of charcoal floating in them, the umbrellas and sunbed cushions are pocked with ember burns and workmen are clearing away the ruins of surrounding buildings. Everything reeks of smoke. I suppose it's better than bad eggs.

The guys running the place have me organised in a jiffy, though. Three taxis booked for the next three nights to take me to three different restaurants. I'm not allowed to go before 8.30 or it will be too quiet. OMG that's 11.30 at home. I will need matchsticks.

My room has a glass multi coloured wash basin, a wood burning stove and a jacuzzi that looks over the sea (and the blackened landscape). It's a surreal scene.

There are towels, chairs and more umbrellas, and I'm told that the beach is 200 metres walk. Double that. The chair is heavy and keeps trying to unfold and the umbrella even more cumbersome. It's slow going on the sand trail through the dunes, so I take off my flip flops. The sand burns my feet and evil little prickles attack my toes. When I finally arrive the beach is beautiful but deserted. The perpetual wind is blasting sand so fast that dunes are appearing in front of me. The umbrella takes off. I should have known better.

Jose Ignacio Beach

The next day I wander up the beach to the lighthouse and the little town. The waves crashing on the empty sand are energising, but the Atlantic in Uruguay is murky and uninviting. It's also icy. One toe dip is enough to convince me that there won't be any swimming. It's a great view from the top of the lighthouse.

More Food and a Theft in Uruguay

The three restaurants are all amazing. Michelin starred chefs, Spanish staff wintering here, log fires and bags of atmosphere. It’s definitely very Mediterranean, with prices to match. Who would have thought the Uruguayan USP would be the cuisine?

Later, I take out my cash stash from the separate little wallet I've been keeping it in only to find that I've been robbed - 300 dollars or so! Whoever did it was very crafty and lifted six fifty dollar bills from the back so I didn’t notice till I took it all out just now. Also, I think some sterling and euros.

I’m distressed and shaken but there is nothing I can do about it as I don’t know where it went. Perhaps I should have taken more notice of those FCO warnings. My bag has been left out in the room a couple of times. There was no safe in Narbona and the one in Montevideo wouldn't work for a while. So I don’t suppose I can claim on insurance either. I just hope I have enough cash to last me till the end and I'm really cross with myself for being naïve and trusting. I hope I do better in Buenos Aires. The omens aren't good, my flight has been cancelled.

Colombia?

Colombia, I’m told, is now more peaceable than it was and safe to visit. Well, most of it. And it’s a big country. I'm supposed to be on a group tour of Colombia for two weeks, but there is only one other person in my group. Richard is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum and it's like travelling with a very self centred demanding child. I think he's also gay. This is not going to be a romantic liaison.

I got here (to encouragingly named El Dorado Airport) via Madrid and I’ve been trying to spot the drug cartel mobsters on the plane. The glitzy ones up front I assume. I was assured that Colombia is much safer nowadays and is gearing up for tourism. That might be true and there is certainly a lot of restoration, but I’ve already seen a knife fight in the road (from the safety of a car) and been warned not to walk round Bogota on my own (great when I’m travelling alone - as I don't think I can count Richard). Apparently, muggings are almost a given in certain areas.

Colombia, the Gateway to South America - in a Nutshell

  • Colombia has territories in North and South America, as it stretches into the Isthmus of Panama, the land bridge joining the two continents. This was the only route south, so, as a result Colombia has a very diverse population. Colombia has been inhabited by various indigenous peoples, since at least 12,000 BC. Today’s heritage reflects various Amerindian civilisations, European settlement, forced African labour, as well as immigration from Europe and the Middle East
  • Colombia is named after Christopher Columbus, who ’discovered South America’. Colombia was initially intended to refer to the whole of the New World. The area now called the Republic of Colombia was known as New Granada, when it first became independent.
  • Colombia achieved independence under the renowned Simon Bolivar, who was the country's first president and is much venerated. But the years since then have been plagued by various forms of civil war. American influence led to the secession of the department of Panama, which became a country in its own right. (The Americans wanted to build the Panama Canal). Internal conflict then became more centred around the drug cartels, who were more firmly established in the last decades of the twentieth century.
  • Colombia has the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world, with areas of Amazon rainforest, mountains grasslands and deserts. It is the only country in South America with coastlines and islands along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Wow.

Bogota, Capital of Colombia

New Year in Bogota

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a pleasant surprise though; a strange juxtaposition of old and new. My hotel is in colonial La Candelaria, all cobbles and red tiles, interspersed with plate glass for optimum views. Bogotá was originally founded as the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada in 1538, by Spanish conquistador de Quesada.

The main square, Plaza de Bolivar, celebrates the Great Emancipator. Around it, are the Palacio de Justicia, the Mayor of Bogotá’s offices, the oldest school in the country and the Casa de los Comuneros, named after the leaders who began the movement towards independence from Spain.

Fernando Botero Angulo who was born in Medellín has a dedicated gallery. His signature satirical style, mainly consists of people with generous proportions, and is known as "Boterismo". Zona G is for eating ( Zona Gourmet) and the Zona Rosa (or T) is for shopping centres, pubs, cafes, fashion boutiques, jewellery stores and night time entertainment. There is also a feast of museums: emerald, gold (astonishing with a permanent exhibition of some 32,000 pieces of gold, 20,000 stones, ceramics and textiles), churches (of course) and a rainbow of street art.

Montserrate

And a funicular up sacred Montserrate - I've been told not go to to the bottom of the lift area on my own - and especially not at night. The sunmit rises 10, 000 feet over Bogotá, Up top, are beautiful mountain views across the Andes, as well as those back across down town. And the winding paths lead to a church (built in the seventeenth century), with a shrine, devoted to El Señor Caído ("The Fallen Lord"). The track is edged with illuminated sculptures - this is how the Colombians celebrate Christmas and New Year,

Salt Mine Cathedral - Zipaquera

Now, I'm off exploring Colombia. Our first stop is a visit to a very new, huge, cathedral, carved out of the tunnels of a salt mine 200 metres underground in a halite mountain. This is the Colombian attempt to rival Poland. The name Zipaquirá refers to Zipa, the leader of the Muisca tribe and the chief of these rich salt mines. The bottom part has three sections, representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus. The icons, ornaments and architectural details are hand carved in the halite rock.

There are some interesting illuminations, but for me, this place is totally devoid of any spirituality. Apparently, the cathedral is a functioning church but it has no bishop and therefore no official status as a cathedral. Perhaps that explains it. There is more atmosphere on the roads, where the holiday traffic is terrible and the driving manic.

Villa de Leyvva, Colonial Colombia

Through pea green cattle country, to the dry glowing aridity of mountains and restored whitewashed towns, like Villa de Leyva. Located away from major trade routes, in a high altitude valley of semi-desert terrain, and with no mineral deposits nearby to exploit, Villa de Leyva has undergone little development in the last 400 years. As a consequence, it is one of the few towns in Colombia to have preserved much of its original colonial style and architecture. The streets and large central plaza are still paved with cobblestones, and many buildings date from the sixteenth century. There are museums dedicated to battles for independence from Spain and statues of Simon Bolivar.

Everyone thinks I'm married to Richard so I'm hastening to put them right. His laptop screen has been damaged and it is all he has talked about for the last three days.

Valle de Cocora

The next destination, driving from Bogota, is the Valle de Cocora. It's located in the central mountains of the  Parque Nacional de los Nevados and the home of the “Quindian wax palm”. This is the national tree of Colombia.  A wander is scheduled, so that we can marvel at the palms, but Richard has heard that there is rare bird life. So, we have to wait while he lugs his huge tripod with him, along the narrow muddy tracks. beside the river. Some of the trees reach a staggering 60 metres. But there's not a bird in sight.

Colombia Coffee Country

New Year is to be spent high in the mountains in the coffee region of Colombia. We're visiting the traditional towns of Salento ( Plaza de Bolívar with vividly painted balconies, handicrafts shops and a Cocora viewpoint) and Filandia (Plaza de Bolivar, coffee shops. viewpoint, colonial homes and viewpoint). I detest coffee, so I'm not participating in plantation tours. But the views (from the many viewpoints) are gorgeous and the villages here are more colourful and Caribbean in style. I think. I can’t see very well as the streets are piled high with bodies; the locals clearly enjoy a New Year drink.

The Colombian people are incredibly friendly (those that don’t want to rob you or run a cartel anyway). The hotels so far have been very atmospheric, although the plumbing is creaky. I'm in a beautiful old bougainvillea covered hacienda today, tiny vermilion birds zipping across the swimming pool. And a maintenance man has just walked along my veranda, carrying a sink pedestal.

An interesting last night in coffee country, as I find myself eyeballing a cockroach on my bedside table. I try to spend the rest of the night with all of me, including my head, well tucked under the sheet.

Getting to Pasto

A flight – business class this time – I assume cattle class is full – to Pasto for the Blancos y Negros carnival. Made even more interesting, as the baggage truck servicing our plane catches fire. First of all, they try to put it out by swatting at it and then they find some small extinguishers. These still don’t dampen it down fully and flames keep licking up again; a fire engine arrives ten minutes later and sorts it out. No-one thinks to move it away from the plane. Thank goodness, the bags are already loaded.

Pasto, Carnival in Colombia

In Pasto (in the south of Colombia) for four nights, my ‘small group tour’ gets really interesting. The itinerary bears little relation to the original programme I was given. We have now been included in a group with over 40 Colombian tourists. We have our own very helpful guide, who promptly goes sick, to be replaced by another, who is also lovely, but very young and inexperienced.

Initially, we are transported on a large bus, with the other tourists too (and told that our next transfer will be on a public bus) but I protest and we get our own car. Nevertheless, we still have to wait and do everything with the whole group and eat mass produced tourist food with them, which rather defeats the idea of small group travelling. My hotel room has no window - just a skylight. It's above the kitchen, which runs every machine known to man, from six in the morning till 10 at night. Then, my new 21 year old guide tells me I must have been very beautiful when I was younger. I'm confused. Is this an insult or a compliment?

On the plus side, the carnival is amazing - fabulous colour and music. It is obligatory to wear ponchos, paint your face and indulge in foam fights using giant aerosols. Unfortunately, Richard takes to this rather too enthusiastically and provokes large numbers of locals by squirting at them. Consequently, I spend rather too much time trying to escape the inevitable retaliation. We visit twice. The first procession celebrates Familia Castañeda, who journeyed to the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas (see below). The procession of the master artefact makers, on the last day, takes four hours to go past.

Laguna de la Cocha

In addition, we get to do several things that aren't even mentioned on the programme - like a visit to a lake high in the mountains. This is Laguna de la Cocha or Lake Guamuez. There's a boardwalk alongside a little port, with picturesque bridges and traditional wooden houses with flowers trailing from the balconies. And gardens with guinea pig farms.

Then, a boat trip from Isla Larga with with its floating trout hatcheries, to the tiny Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna, on the island of La Corota, where we tramp in single file along the circular trail.

Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas

Next surprise event, an excursion to a church built into the rock in a canyon of the Guáitara River - the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas. (It's lit up at night, when it's a little gaudy). According to my Columbian guides, it is classified as the second wonder of Colombia and was designated the most beautiful temple in the world in 2015 by The Telegraph. Really?

This is a very popular pilgrimage site, for Christians from both Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador (as I'm about to discover), due to a purported apparition of the Virgin Mary here in 1754. Amerindian Maria Meneses de Quiñones and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a very strong storm and sought refuge between the gigantic Lajas (slabs of stone). Rosa then saw a lightning-illuminated silhouette of Mary over the laja. As if this wasn't enough, a brightly coloured image of the Virgin, appeared inset in the wall of stone. There was no explanation and it is believed to have been created by divine intervention.

I can't decide whether this story or the Telegraph claim is the most credible. But the site is crowded with happy pilgrims.

Tulcán Municipal Cemetery - in Ecuador

The sanctuary visit is part of a side trip to a cemetery in Ecuador, which is fun, but a surprise to say the least.

Ecuador? We just sail over the border from Colombia, no passports required.

A cemetery? Well, it’s a very grand and elaborate one.

The caretaker, Josè Maria Azael Franco, in charge of Tulcán Municipal cemetery, took his work very seriously and created ‘a jaw-dropping topiary wonderland'. Huge marble tombs surrounded by amazingly intricate clipped hedge figures, cascades and statues. Franco died in 1985 and is buried, fittingly, in the cemetery. As he said, 'it's a place, so beautiful, it invites one to die.'

The scenery on the journey is extraordinarily beautiful, This area is known as "Tapiz de Retazos” (the Patchwork of Tapestry). There's a song about it. Most of Colombia is stretched across the Andes. This also means that I'm gasping for breath every time I go up a flight of steps.

Food in Colombia

The food in Colombia is an education. Nearly everything comes with queso - cheese - including the fruit, (especially bananas) and the delicious flat doughnuts. The specialty around Pasto is cuy - roast Guinea pig. We have been made to pay for lunch, which was supposed to be included and we have been given several lunches we didn't expect. Twice, we have been told that dinner was paid for - to my surprise - only to be told it wasn't, after we ordered it. Glorious confusion!

Getting to Popayan

The transfer to Popayan is fraught. We are told we will leave at seven, as it is a long drive. That gets changed to eight as the driver is wanted elsewhere first. He eventually turns up late, in a tiny car. It’s a real battle to get all four of us in, with our luggage (the driver and the guide don’t have any). I reflect that the public bus might have been more comfortable after all.

Imagine my astonishment, when we finally arrive in Popayan, after a six hour drive, to be asked where we want to stay. The guide insists that no accommodation has been booked and that we have to choose. I indicate our programme and the hotel listed therein. So we drive to that establishment. The guide goes in and returns shortly to say they are full. I ask has he checked for our names and he insists adamantly that he has.

The Tour of Popayan

We chase round town for half an hour, trying to find a hotel that isn't full and end up in a very nice five star place. We check in there and get settled in, only to then be told by the guide, that we should pay for this ourselves. I explain again that we have already paid for a hotel and will not be paying again, if someone has made a mistake. Many phone calls follow and a great deal of wasted time. It transpires of course that we had been booked in at the first hotel all the time. Our guide had just asked for vacant rooms when he called in. There aren’t any, as we have already booked them.

So, we have to do the walk of shame, out of the very nice hotel, receiving pitying glances from the porters, to this one, where the receptionist is rude and the walls stink of paint and only the worst rooms are left. It is now late and it is also bucketing with rain. The driver takes us up the hill to see the view, which of course we can’t see at all. And that is the whole of our tour of Popayan - which is reputed to be gorgeous.

A Night in Popayan

I spend the night without water in the basin and no hot water in the shower and no one prepared, or able to do anything about it. Our packed breakfast is one chopped up mango. I want to use Google Translate to complain to the staff on duty, but I can’t, as Richard is using it, to obsess over the lack of an f on the Spanish keyboard. The guy at the desk laughs when I eventually get to ask for a refund. 'We have your money - you're not getting it back'.

I have only a little Spanish - though enough to understand the driver moaning that he won’t get a tip because I am a typical woman, upset about a little hassle. So he doesn’t get one!

I’m now stuck at the airport in Popayan, ironically because of the bad weather. It seems that virtually all the planes on the country are grounded. Bogota airport is on the news, so we may be here sometime and will almost certainly miss the connection to Cartagena. In the end, we arrive just in time to make the original connection, but they insist we wait for the next flight. Another two hours at the airport. I hate Colombia today!!!!

Cartagena, The Jewel of Colombia

We eventually arrive in Cartagena and this mellow colonial city is beautiful. Cartagena is often referred to as the jewel of Colombia. Colourful houses with bougainvillea spattered balconies, countless battered churches in the old walled town, oodles of atmosphere. (Though it’s swarming with tourists and beastly hot.) San Felipe fortress, on San Lázaro Hill, was built in honour of Don Luis Carlos López, the poet from Cartagena, who wrote about the city. But its main purpose was to defend the city from pirate attacks. There are plenty of tunnels, passageways and guns.

The Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is the famous and picturesque part of Cartagena, with its Convent and Church of the San Pedro Claver compound. The Bovedas is the handicraft zone, a collection of archways built into the city wall, originally used to house armaments and then later as a prison. Nowadays, it’s beloved by the cruise ships.

My hotel has a terrace with views out over the old walls and huge plaza. Me encanta Cartagena! It’s a good way to finish an adventure. Before I take the plane to the Bahamas.

Caribbean Windmills in Suriname

We depart Georgetown, this time by minibus, which wends eastwards along the coastal road towards the frontier between Suriname and Guyana, the Corentyne River. It’s fascinating to see how each former colony reflects its different European imperial masters. Suriname was under Dutch control from the end of the seventeenth century and for a time part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Suriname became independent in 1975, but Dutch is still the official language.

This is a region of sugarcane and rice plantations. And it's low lying, so is threaded by drainage canals – and yes the odd windmill. Crossing the estuary by ferry, we can already see signs of the clapboard colonial architecture, with its distinctive shutters and curves.

Suriname -in a Nutshell

  • Perched just above the Equator, Suriname is the smallest country in South America. Suriname is mainly covered in rainforest, (over 90% of its territory, the highest proportion of forest cover in the world), but much of its wealth depends on the extraction of minerals: bauxite, gold, and oil.
  • Suriname was inhabited as early as the fourth millennium BC by various indigenous peoples, including the Arawaks, Caribs, and Wayana. Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century and the Dutch had established control over much of the country's current territory by the late seventeenth century. The colonial economy was underpinned by sugar plantations worked first by slaves imported by Africa and then indentured servants from Asia.
  • In 1954, Suriname became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but it then negotaed independence, which followed in 1975.
  • Suriname continues to maintain close relationships with the Netherlands and culture and society reflect the Dutch legacy. This is the only sovereign nation outside Europe, where Dutch is the official language.

Paramaribo, the Capital of Suriname - A Melting Pot

We hug the coast to Paramaribo - a great name for a capital. Fifty percent of the population live here as, like Guyana, most of the country is covered in rainforest. The Suriname River valley is a much more attractive proposition.

All the guide books refer to Paramaribo as a melting pot of cultures. The largest ethnic group is Hindustani, but thousands of indentured labourers were also shipped in from the Dutch East Indies to work the plantations. So there is Indonesian cuisine and mosques are a common sight, even next to a synagogue. It’s certainly a mélange of colour and smells.

We take a water taxi across a river confluence to  a sombre fort in a small park.  There's not a lot to see, the signs are faded and the highlight is the gun magazine. The seagulls come to admire us. There are (also faded) fishing boats drawn up on the shores and there are views of a broad bridge spanning the river in the distance. It's all very sedate.

UNESCO Paramaribo

Inner Paramaribo is  a UNESCO heritage site. The colonnaded brick and wooden architecture here is very rewarding. The  imposing Presidential Palace faces a whole row of black and white structures on  Independence Square. It's backed by another, pretty park, full of palms.

Braving the Paramaribo Market

Sauntering around the docks and into the market is much less sedate. The stall holders clearly don’t feel they have any vested interest in encouraging tourists to visit Suriname. They are extremely surly. A raised camera, just to take a general panorama and carefully aimed away from any individual, generates a hurl of abuse. It looks as if worse might follow, so I make as rapid an exit as I can, with a crutch. At least I have a weapon.

Wandering in Suriname is proving a little too exciting, so I return to our hotel.  Early bed seems like a good idea.

French Guiana next.

The Road from Brazil to Guyana

Another local bus to visit Guyana - they’re not too uncomfortable - from Venezuela, via Boa Vista in Brazil (which is on a super long road that continues south, all the way to Rio). Over a nifty little river crossover bridge to change us over to driving on the left and then our own chartered bus. We’re supposed to be using local transport, but a bus out here is a bridge too far - to confusingly mix my metaphors.

Iwokrama Rainforest

Then, it’s unpaved roads and even these disappear after a while, as we arrive at the village of Annai, which lies on the edge of the transition zone between the savannah and the Iwokrama Forest Reserve. We just drive through any gaps in the grassland. The village is a mixture of brick and wattle-and-daub cottages, shops, school and church, all thatched with palm fronds and scattered haphazardly around.

Our lodge is a handful of little rondavels up a hillside and a scramble through chickens and flowerbeds to a larger dining room rondavel. The dining room also acts as the stage for local native dancing in the evening – performed in our honour. The children accompanying the dancers are more entertaining, as they loll and romp on the floor, laughing at their costumed parents.

More muddy walks in the rainforest and a trip on the river. Most of the wildlife is in hiding and it’s hard going. My ankle isn’t getting any better.

When it's time to leave we loiter on the edge of the forest (80% of Guyana is covered in rainforest) and our charter bus eventually emerges. The roads are red soil, still unpaved and after much bumping a ferry is involved. It’s another long wait while the bus is perilously edged onto the ‘boat’ – it’s a contraption of wood planks with an engine attached. No roads, no scheduled planes. More ignominious weighing as we embark on light aeroplanes to reach the capital,  Georgetown.

Guyana - in a Nutshell

  • The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle this part of the north coast of South America, but the British seized control in 1796.
  • Guyana became independent in 1966 and this is the only English speaking country and only Commonwealth country in South America.
  • Guyana means 'Land of Many Waters'.

Georgetown, Capital of Guyana

Three nights to visit Georgetown, capital of Guyana.

Georgetown is famous for its colonial architecture, especially the great white wooden cathedral. It’s friendly, relaxing and very Caribbean with a botanical garden to wander round. The latter has ponds, canals, kissing bridges and a bandstand. There’s huge variety of palms to enjoy, as well as a fine collection of tropical flowers: a pond full of lotus in bloom and the immense Victoria Regia Lily, Guyana’s national flower. Surprisingly, there are also manatees lurking below the waterweed, in some overgrown lakes. I can just make out their bulging eyes disturbing the plants as they come up to breathe. It’s a bit creepy - the real life Guyanese  version of the Loch Ness monster.

I’ve decided I should do probably something about my ankle which is now about twice the size of my other, so I take myself off to hospital. It’s the first medical facility we've been near, since I fell on the waterfall in Venezuela over a week ago. I come back in plaster – the doctor says it’s broken, though the X-ray is inconclusive. He insists that the swelling is so bad that it must be ‘something of that nature’. It’s not a very reassuring diagnosis. I’ve got a crutch now, as well. That's not ideal on a pioneering, fairly basic journey.

Our last Georgetown visit is a trip to the vibrant market, complete with huge wooden red-brown clock.

Kaieteur Falls

More weighing, another small aircraft. I’m getting blasé about these now. This time we’re off to Kaieteur Falls. It takes about an hour, the first 10 minutes over cultivated land, and thereafter over the inevitable tropical forest (it covers four fifths of the country)  to a small airstrip at the top of the falls. The pilot does a fly-past first, wobbling the plane over the canyon and right over the edge where the water plummets 226 metres to the boiling pot below. Kaieteur Falls is the world's largest single-drop waterfall by volume. It’s five time higher than Niagara and couldn’t be more different. There's a tiny settlement of three huts, one of which serves as an airport lounge.

This is advertised as an ‘easy walk’, back to the waterfall and I hobble along to the three viewpoints. The first, from the cataracts, gives a face-on view of the falls, stained chestnut brown with tannins. The third viewpoint is right on the very edge of the falls, on a rock platform less than a metre away from the torrent. We are encouraged to inch forward on our bellies if we want to look. I’m opting out - again. There are copses of photogenic giant bromeliads all along the canyon top - minute frogs have set up home in the tiny rain ponds created in the centre of these.

Next stop Suriname

Venezuela

Venezuela – a pioneer trip with an ‘adventure travel company’. We’re a motley crew and it’s described as a trip ‘which emphatically goes off the beaten track’. That’s a bit of an understatement, especially as pioneer means that this is the first time the company have run this trip. So anything can happen.

A Brief History of Venezuela

  • Panama was of course, a Spanish colony. The Venezuelan military and political leader, Simon Bolivar, led what are currently the countries of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama to independence from the Spanish Empire. He is clearly idolised and the formal name of the country is Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
  • Venezuela became, firstly, part of the Republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Nueva Granada (Colombia), Ecuador, and Venezuela. Venezuela separated as a full sovereign country, in 1830.
  • During the nineteenth century, regional military dictatorship was the rule. After 1958, the country became more stable with a series of democratic governments. But, more recently, there has been autocratic government, severe corruption, civil unrest and economic turmoil.

Caracas, Capital of Venezuela

 Caracas, (officially Santiago de León de Caracas, abbreviated as CCS), is the capital and largest city of Venezuela, and is suffering one of its ongoing political upheavals. We are advised not to walk out alone. (Caracas has the highest per capita murder rate in the world outside a war zone). We venture out with trepidation and don’t encounter anything to worry us. But there isn’t much to excite us either. The next day, however, suggests that Caracas is spectacular in its own way, as we travel up a cable car for panoramic views and see that it is dramatically engineered across forested valleys. It is close to the Caribbean Sea, separated from the coast by a steep mountain range, Cerro El Ávila.

As we can confirm from the cable car, Caracas has some of the tallest skyscrapers in Latin America. We also visit the historical centre of the city, where nearly every building shop and gallery seems to feature Simon Bolivar.

Flying to Canaima National Park

We are very quickly taken off the beaten track. First a flight to Puerto Ordaz, in the heart of Los Llanos. This is a region of vast savanna, increasingly punctuated with ancient sandstone plateaux, Then we take ‘light’ aircraft to Canaima Park. There are no passable access roads across the savanna in this part of the Llanos, so we have no option but to fly.

I’m not wildly looking forward to this section of the trip. I have read that the pilots are very laid back and even read newspapers whilst flying. In the event, the pilot is very professional, though we have to suffer the ignominy of being publicly weighed, luggage restricted to a measly 10 kilograms. (I don’t understand this logic when people’s weights vary so much.) And two of us are then crammed into a four seater plane with bags of flour and a stack of other perishables.

The Lost World

And the journey is magical, smoothly wafting in and out of puffy clouds with the most incredible vistas opening up below, the bluest of pink edged lagoons and the greenest of forests, grasslands and swamps. This is the Gran Sabana, setting for Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which I’m reading as I go along. Dozens of ancient sheer-sided, pancake topped sandstone mountains called tepuis, rise dramatically from the mist of the plain. It’s only too easy to imagine dinosaurs and other exotica roaming in a lost wilderness, cut off from the rest of the globe for millions of years. This flight is unique, totally stunning and utterly memorable.

Facts and Factoids

  • Venezuela’s name comes from the Italian word “Veneziola” which literally means “Piccola Venezia” (Little Venice). It was named by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who saw native stilt houses built in Lake Maracaibo, which reminded him of Venice
  • Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and Venezuelans enjoy the cheapest petrol in the world
  • Despite this, Venezuela's economy has been in a state of total economic collapse since 2013. Hyperinflation (up to 80,000% at the end of 2018) has led to a poverty rate of nearly 90 percent of the population.
  • 96% of the people of Venezeula are Roman Catholic.

Canaima National Park

Canaima National Park is one of the largest parks in the world. Our goal is the Angel Falls - the world’s highest. But first we fly in over Canaima Lagoon Falls, that are worth the visit on their own. The surrounding scenery is brooding and stunning. We are offered a boat trip on the adjacent lake, to be followed by a ‘short stroll’ round the falls themselves. So I opt for my flip flops. The weather has been kind so far, but the clouds are thickening ominously, and there is a downpour as we set off. What with spray from the falls (the boat dips behind the screen of water) and the storm, we are very quickly drowned. I’m very proud that I’ve been organised enough to bring a plastic poncho.

Near the falls, we disembark and set off on a rocky path that leads behind the cascade. It’s treacherous and not easy going in flip flops. It’s also very windy and as I pass behind the sheet of water a gust lifts the skirt of my poncho and I slide over on the rock. Fortunately, I don’t go right over the edge, but I wrench my ankle and am left battered and bleeding. Scrambling painfully through the rest of the falls I look for the tour leader and assistance, but he’s  busy. Another of our group has already fallen and seems to have dislocated or broken his shoulder. I keep quiet.

And it seems that our boat has disappeared. We continue our ‘stroll’; the mud path has become a river. I squelch along in my flip flops, but the sludge is so slippery -and I’m ankle deep in water- that it seems best at times to walk bare foot. My ankle is throbbing. Five miles later we arrive back at our 'rustic settlement'. The streets are knee deep in brown torrents. Well at least we’ve anticipated  travelling afloat tomorrow.

Upstream to Angel Falls

The following morning we take to the motorised canoes and journey upstream on the Carrao River (which eventually feeds into the Orinoco) to the Cherun Meru Canyon. It's another magical journey – and the sun peeps out at times. The canoes zip along - 80 kilometres in four hours. Our guides are Pemon Indians. These are the indigenous people, who believe that the tepuis are inhabited by spirits. It's not hard to see why.

The walls of the rainforest and the cloud-scudded tepuis close in and we arrive at a camp - with hammocks. They are slung in rows across the trees and it’s not the most comfortable night I’ve ever spent. Alcohol and magic displays are provided before we climb in, but attempts to sleep are not aided by a middle of the night loud cry, ‘Get off.’ One of our number shrieks that he has been attacked, someone kicked him. We can only assume it is one of the donkeys that roam the site when not being used for portering.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Next day, there is a very fatigued uphill scramble to the viewpoint Laime’s Lookout.at the foot of the Angel Falls. The falls were named after a U.S. explorer Jimmie Angel, who, in the 1930s, crashed his plane onto the table-top mountain, Auyán-tepui, where the 980 metre drop begins. (That makes them about 15 times taller than the Niagara Falls.) Since my trip, President Hugo Chavez has rechristened the Falls with the indigenous name, Kerepakupai Meru (Waterfall of the Deepest Place) as they were not 'discovered' by Angel. Chavez initially said the waterfall was to be called Cherun-Meru, (Dragon Falls). He changed his mind when his daughter pointed out that was the name of a smaller waterfall in the Canyon in the same region.

My ankle hurts and the falls are elusive. There is only one really good vantage point at Laime’s Lookout,so there is much pushing and shoving, to claim the spot for the few moments, when there is a break in the clouds. We also take to the canoes for a clearer view from the river. The falls though tall, are narrow and, though the views are amazing,  it’s still  impossible to get a shot that does them justice. After that, we take the canoes back up to Canaima and fly onto Santa Elena, from here a three hour bus ride over the border into Brazil and Guyana.

Antigua, Guatemala

Two visits. to Antigua, which is a great base for exploring Guatemala. One in the Easter holidays, going onto Belize and another coming from Honduras. So, what am I looking forward to? Spanish colonial architecture and 37 volcanoes, three of them active.

The city of Antigua was the third capital city of Guatemala, according to the Spanish conquistadores. But it was then named Santiago de los Caballeros, as previous capitals had been. It functioned as the seat of the Spanish Empire, reaching up to southern Mexico and was home to many churches and religious orders, including the Jesuits. .However it suffered badly from earthquakes, as well as the odd volcanic eruption. It was eventually ordered abandoned in 1773, After that it was referred to as La Antigua Guatemala (the Old Guatemala).

Antigua has survived, despite this. With its rich but battered colonial heritage and stunning setting, it claims to be one of the most picturesque colonial towns in Central America. I won’t dispute that. It’s beguiling, built in a beautiful valley between three volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. There are churches, ruined and restored, baroque buildings and museums, as well as markets, shops and street hawkers galore. It has a shabby chic and crumbling pastel beauty and it's one of those places where there’s a surprise round every corner. Another church tower, a carving, a glimpse of one of the three volcanoes.

Guatemala - in a Nutshell

  • Guatemala is famous for its gorgeous landscapes and historical heritage. The name 'Guatemala' originates from a word meaning 'place of many trees’. Modern day Guatemala was home to the core of the Maya civilization, which extended across Mesoamerica.
  • In the sixteenth century, most of this area was conquered by the Spanish and ruled by them. until Guatemala attained independence in 1821. Succeeding decades were turbulent, as Guatemala first became part of the Federal Republic of Central America, and was then ruled by a series of dictators. backed by the United Fruit Company (of banana republic fame) and the United States government.
  • In 1944, a pro-democratic military coup, took place, to be followed by a U.S. backed military coup in 1954 and another dictatorship. The bloody conflict that followed was not resolved until 1996. 200,000 people died, and at least 400 villages were wiped off the map. More than half of Guatemalans are descendants of the indigenous Maya peoples, who suffered badly during the civil war. Since then, Guatemala has achieved both economic growth and successful democratic elections, although it continues to struggle with high rates of poverty and crime.
  • Guatemala has been dubbed the 'Land of Eternal Spring' due to its invigorating climate.
  • There are more than 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, but only three are active: Fuego, Pacaya and Santiaguito. The tallest however, is Tajumulco ( 4, 202 metres).
  • Chocolate is an important export and Guatemalans invented the first ever chocolate bar.
  • But coffee is Guatemala's largest export
  • On All Saints Day Guatemalans honour their dead by flying kites.

Semana Santa

It’s the week before Easter (Semana Santa) and Passion Sunday processions are taking place. The gaudy, bewigged saints, Jesus and Mary, have been removed from their dusty niches in the cathedral and are out parading the streets, hauled by struggling youths in purple hooded robes. The strain shows on their faces and the air is heavy with incense, wafted by those who drew the easier jobs. The girls’ role is to fill the many churches with the most intricate of floral arrangements and produce the most gorgeous elaborate carpets of flowers in the streets. These are trampled and left in total disarray as the processions pass. I am more distraught at the destruction than the carpet makers seem to be. It’s all utterly fascinating.

Panajachel, Guatemala

Panajachel sits on the shores of spectacular Lago de Atitlan. There are excellent views of the volcanoes on the boat trip across the lake, itself is an old caldera. This is an old Spanish settlement, but one of its most important tourist sites is the wooden effigy of Maximon, a god/saint (no-one is quite sure which) of the Mayan religion. He has a large cigar in his mouth (one of many donations or bribes) and numerous ties round his neck (also donations). Maximon is interesting. A sign says that  petitions should be accompanied by gifts of alcohol, cigarettes, and cigars. Legend has it that one day, while the village men were off working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives. When they returned, they became so enraged they cut off his arms and legs. He is also known, more peacefully, as St Simon.

Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is an obligatory visit from Antigua. It has a world famous open-air craft market and an indoor food market, both bustling and infinitely colourful. It’s also a hotchpotch of indigenous Maya culture and Catholicism.

The 16th-century Santo Tomás Apostol Church is used for both Catholic worship and Maya rituals. Herbs, petals, wool and wood arranged in careful symbolic patterns emit plenty of smoke as I clamber up the steps. In special cases, they burn a chicken for the gods The church is built atop a Pre-Columbian temple platform, and the steps remain venerated . Each of the 18 stairs stands for one month of the Maya calendar year.

There’s also the Maya shrine of Pascual Abaj picturesquely situated on a hilltop to the south. This home to an ancient and venerated carved stone. Writing on the stone records the doings of a king named Tohil. There are rituals and a lot more smoke there.

Guatemala City

I’m warned  not to go there!

Tikkal, Guatemala

This is the iconic Mayan site. Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that eventually became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Buildings at the site dat back as far as the fourth century BC, However, Tikal reached its height during the so called Classic Period, (200 to 900 AD) . Eventually, the population declined, culminating in the site's abandonment, by the end of the tenth century. It's even believed that some of the more important buildings were burned. The site was 'rediscovered' in the nineteenth century, though it was relatively inaccessible, being buried in the jungle. A small air strip was built in 1951.

Tikal is huge and impressive and well worth the effort, though it’s tiring (and dangerous) climbing up the many stairs, for the (worthwhile) views. The roads, which now exist, are terrible and there’s plenty of earthquake damage evident - huge rents in the tarmac. Over the border and into Belize.

Tegucigalpa, Capital of Honduras

My tour group cross the border from Nicaragua into Honduras and continue to the capital, Tegucigalpa (great name). Our guide says of Tegucigalpa: ‘its ideal location must have made it a pleasant respite from the oppressive heat of the coastal regions’. Nevertheless, it’s deemed too dangerous to visit. We're flying out to the Bay Islands.

It’s a small airport and there’s some debate amongst the ground staff, about which plane we will be taking. (Or whether there is actually a plane for us at all.) Eventually, we meander out onto the tarmac and I scramble onto the diminutive prop aircraft that has been pointed out, just after the pilot. ‘Where are we going?’ he asks.

Facts and Factoids

  • The five stars on the Honduran flag represent the five countries of Central America. The middle star represents Honduras, because it’s the only country that touches four of the other countries.
  • More than three-quarters of the land area of Honduras is mountainous; lowlands are found only along the coasts and in the several river valleys
  • There has been ongoing political instability. in Honduras, so this is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. More than 50% of the people (known as Catrachos/Catrachas) live below the poverty line.
  • Honduras was the first country to ban smoking in your own home, in 2011. It isn’t actually illegal to smoke in your own home, but if a visitor or a family member complains, it could result in a visit from the police and a US$311 fine.

Roatan

The beautiful Bay Islands are reputed to be home to some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean. There are three islands, lying some 50 kilometres off the Honduran coast. The blonde haired, blue eyed Hondurans here are direct descendants of the British Pirates, who lived on the islands over 500 years ago. The Bay Islands are covered with palm fringed lanes. Macaws, toucans and parrots lurk in the trees. It’s a little slice of Caribbean paradise.

For the next two nights, we are based on Roatan, the largest of the islands. It’s a perfect haven of colonial shabby chic, with little bars on overwater piers. The offshore reefs, are part of the chain that run up to Mexico, second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef itself. Whilst the snorkelling isn’t exactly ’second to none’ as advertised, it’s definitely worth the time. Guide Pierre is in his element. He can stay horizontal on the beach, or in the bars.

A Brief History of Honduras

  • This is another ex Spanish speaking, ex Spanish colony, Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ Honduras. His first words were: “Thank God we got out of these great depths!” And so the country was named 'Honduras' (Great Depths).
  • It remained in the Spanish Empire, as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, with silver mining a key factor. African slaves were brought in to replace indentured labourers, who were prey to disease and not always amenable to their working conditions. Independence, initially came, in 1821, as part of the First Mexican Empire, along with the other Central American countries: Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua. (That only lasted two years.) This was followed by membership in the Federal Republic of Central America (the same five Central American countries and parts of southern Mexico), from which it formally declared independence in 1821.
  • Wikipedia says:' Although Honduras eventually adopted the name Republic of Honduras, the unionist ideal never waned, and Honduras was one of the Central American countries that pushed the hardest for a policy of regional unity.' There have been almost nearly 300 small internal rebellions and civil wars in the country, including some changes of régime, since independence.
  • In 1904, the American author O'Henry coined the term Banana Republic in his satirical stories, Cabbages and Kings to describe the exploitation of Honduras (and neighbouring countries) by U.S. corporations, such as The United Fruit Company. Every so often the US army dropped in to support them. For a time, the country economy was dependent on just the one export - by 1929, Honduras was the main exporter of bananas in the world.

Copan, Honduras

After two idyllic days we head back to the mainland and the ‘magnificent’ Mayan ruins of Copan. I’m quoting from the guidebooks again. Copan, near the Atlantic coast, is the most informative and biggest of the Mayan sites in Honduras, but the Mayan civilisation was, for the most part, inhabiting the western parts of the country. Copan was the capital city of a major kingdom from the fifth to ninth centuries AD. However, the city was in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Maya peoples. Caught between two pre Columbian civilisations, once powerful Copan, after 2,000 years of occupation, declined in the early tenth century.

Copan is not huge, like Tikkal in Guatemala, but it’s impressive. The entire UNESCO World Heritage Site (pre UNESCO obviously) was bought from a local farmer, by American explorer, John Stephens for US $50 and excavated in the nineteenth century. He had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in the United States. It has, supposedly, the greatest collection of Mayan sculpture anywhere in Meso-America. Among the five plazas is the Ceremonial Plaza, an impressive stadium with richly sculptured monoliths and altars. The Hieroglyphic Stairway is composed of 2500 individual glyphs; its sides flanked by serpentine birds and snakes. And there are real birds and snakes peeping out from under the stones.

Copan Ruinas is a lovely village of adobe buildings, adjacent to the ruins themselves and is well equipped for tourists, with some atmospheric pubs and restaurants - griddled steaks are good. The waitresses entertain the punters by balancing pots on their heads. And there’s a butterfly garden too.

Next stop, Guatemala

Ometepe, Nicaragua

Crossing the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua this morning. Our tour vehicle now, is an old yellow, American school bus. Ashort drive brings my tour group to San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca). This is the departure point for ferries to Ometepe Island. The name Ometepe means 'two hills” and as the ferry (complete with beer, dispensed by the captain while his mate steers, and hammocks) draws near, we get an increasingly clear view of the two volcanoes connected by an isthmus. Two perfect cones, Little and Large (or Concepción and Maderas).

Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and highly polluted, with sewage, but still home to numerous fish species. Even sharks live here. It was first thought this was a freshwater species, but zoologists later discovered that the sharks travel to and from the lake, to the sea, using the river system and jumping the rapids, like salmon.

We have free time to explore on our own. This involves searching out pre-Colombian petroglyphs, carved by the indigenous people, visiting the Charco Verde Nature Reserve and scouring the canopy for howler and capuchin monkeys, parrots, sloths and hawks or lounging on the black sand beaches, drinking in the stunning views across the lake.

Artistry in Action

It’s come to our attention that passenger Artist has been concerned that sometimes her room is inferior to those allocated to others. My rooms have been bit hit or miss, but it seems to come out evens overall. Artist is less sure and it appears that she has been hijacking Leon and demanding he show her the rooms before the keys are issued, so she can have first pick. Naturally, there is a furore at this news and Leon is beginning to look a little pale.

Facts and Factoids

  • Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America.
  • Nicaragua has 19 volcanos - seven of them are still currently active.
  • Around 18% of the country’s total land mass has been dedicated to 78 national parks and protected areas. Nicaragua has the second largest rainforest in the Americas (the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve), after the Amazon rainforest.
  • So it's not surprising that Nicaragua is growing increasingly important, as a tourist destination.
  • The national dish of Nicaragua is Gallo Pinto - the traditional dish of rice and beans. (Gallo Pinto translates to spotted rooster, representing the dark beans against the white rice.)
  • Nicaragua is one of five countries in the world where abortion is illegal, with no exceptions.

Granada, Nicaragua

We return by boat to San Jorge, this morning and from there drive to Granada. This is an atmospheric and colourful gem, situated at the foot of Mombacho Volcano, on the northwest shore of Lake Nicaragua. It was the first Spanish colonial city in Nicaragua, founded in 1524 by the conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba and named after the Spanish city.

We are indulged with a walking tour of the baroque and renaissance buildings (mainly churches of course). The red and yellow cathedral towers above the city and the bell tower of the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes, has to be climbed, for its views across town, where we can see the cathedral..

We also fit in visits to the Parque Central, the monument to the war of independence, the plaza and the convent of San Francisco. Perhaps surprisingly, the convent is home to a large collection of native American stone sculptures. And then, we are taken to a tobacco factory, to see the giant local cigars being produced.

There are myriad narrow lanes and alleyways, cobbled streets, horse carts galore. This is Leon’s home town and he disappears for a well-earned day off. It is a marathon tour and just getting us all through the border posts and check points (official and unofficial)is a major endeavour. So, today, we are led languidly by a Frenchman, Pierre, who is so laid back he is horizontal.

Our hotel is a delightful colonial palace on the corner of the main square. You can see the whole world clatter by in horse-drawn carriages, from the terrace bar. Much better than Starbucks.

Las Isletas

Then, I take to Lake Nicaragua again. Las Isletas are a cluster of 365 (that number again) tiny islands in the shadow of Mombacho. The boat nips us past holiday homes. more howler and capuchin monkeys, parrots and local fishermen, casting their nets.

The lake has also been at the centre of politics. According to some sources, a trans American canal would actually have been cheaper and easier via Lake Nicaragua, - less actual land to dig out. It was seriously considered (see Panama). But the Americans were hand in glove with Panama and not at all keen on the plans. One of the reasons they supported Ortega and other opposition against the Sandinistas.

Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua National Park

We set off for the old colonial capital of Leon, via the market town of Masaya (and its attendant volcano). Masaya is Nicaragua's first National Park. It includes two volcanoes (one the most active in the country) and five craters and glowing lava is promised, though it does not materialise. We have to be content with lava tubes and a steepish climb, up steps. Up top, the caldera belches smoke and gas. The absence of trees on the slopes of the mountain provides 360 degree views of the area. The car park, where we have left the bus has signs that read: ‘Park your vehicle facing the exit’

A Brief History of Nicaragua

  • Nicaragua remained in the Spanish Empire, as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, until attaining independence, initially as part of the First Mexican Empire, along with the other Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. (That only lasted two years.) This was followed by membership in the Federal Republic of Central America (the same five Central American countries and parts of southern Mexico) Nicaragua definitively became an independent republic in 1838.
  • Since Nicaraguan independence, politics has been fiery and government contested for much of the time, with several coups and military dictatorships. The USA has been heavily involved and actually occupied the country from 1909-1933. They were particularly concerned to oppose the building of a Nicaraguan Canal to oppose the Panama Canal. The overlapping Somoza regime (dictatorship) lasted until 1979. This overlapped, in its turn, with the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led into the Contra War of the 1980s. The USA continued to be heavily involved, at one point illegally supporting the Contra rebels, fighting against the left wing Sandinistas regime. Both sides were accused of human rights violations, murder, torture, rape and mass executions. 30,000 were killed. The Sandinistas, despite further accusations of sham democracy, are still in power, with Ortega, the president, in his third term.

Managua and Leon

Next, the current Nicaraguan capital of Managua. We’re told there will be a short tour to see Managua's ‘curious, if somewhat unorthodox, charm’. This rings alarm bells and fortunately, the trip doesn’t last long. Managua was badly damaged in the 1972 earthquake, and is still, gradually, being rebuilt. There isn't much to see. except for the shell of the cathedral.

Leon, however, lies in the shadow of the Cordillera de los Maribios Mountains. It is today considered the intellectual centre of Nicaragua. It was the capital for 200 years. It’s also the namesake of our guide, who is today complaining of nausea and stomach pains.

Yet another walking tour, yet another Plaza del las Armas, yet another cathedral (arguably the largest in Central America and a UNESCO heritage site). There's also the Sandinista Murals. The city of Leon was home to the revolution that shaped Nicaragua's future. Since then it has played a crucial part in the social and political history of the country. It’s an interesting account of the country's turbulent history and a thoughtful counterpoint to the friendly welcome of the people.

Next day, we're off north, over the border. Or we try to. Eventually, we realise that our late departure is due to the absence of our guide. The driver makes umpteen phone calls and finally announces that Leon has been taken into hospital with stress. Pierre has been summoned to act as replacement, but he will be some time.

When we reconvene, three hours later, it is apparent that Pierre is still suffering from the after effects of indulging in some kind of recreational experimentation with plants or chemicals. Horizontal mode is more or less permanent for the rest of the day.

Next stop, Honduras.

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.