Crossing the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua this morning, a short drive brings my tour group to San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca). Our tour vehicle now, is an old yellow, American school bus. 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.
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.
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. (Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821, but politics has been fiery and government contested for much of the time, with the USA being overly involved.)
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.
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.
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 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’
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.
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