Author Archives: Rachel Kristensen

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El Salvador – Volcanos, Ruins & An Indigo Farm

Let’s get to know El Salvador a little better with the help of traveller Dale of the Maritime Explorer as he takes on our Central America tour.


 

Well, here we are in El Salvador, one of the last countries I ever expected to visit, but this is Victor Romagnoli’s Central American odyssey on behalf of Adventures Abroad and you can’t visit every country in the region without including this tiny nation. Actually, in my last post I described how El Salvador surprised me with the urbanity of its capital San Salvador and how quickly any sense of unease was dissipated by just walking around a bit. Today we are going to sample a little of what El Salvador has to offer starting with a visit to a volcano, our first Mayan ruin (finally!) and then a return to hippiedom with some tie-dyeing at an indigo farm. Remember, Adventures Abroad specializes in trips for over 50’s and you’d have to be that old to remember the tie-dyeing craze, but even if you aren’t, join us for this fun day in one of the world’s least visited countries.

El Boqueron

San Salvador Volcano

Visible from almost everywhere in San Salvador is a huge mountain to the northwest that bears the same name as the city. San Salvador is what is known as a stratovolcano which means that it it was built up by a series of eruptions, often over many millennia. They are especially bad news when they go postal as evidenced by some of the most famous ones – Krakatoa, Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens to name a few. This volcano has two craters, one of which is El Boquerón, or in english, ‘big mouth’ and that’s our first destination today.

In my last post I noted that our bus was considerably smaller than the one we had in Nicaragua and the reason becomes apparent on our way up to El Boquerón. The road is extremely narrow with a number of hair pin turns that even this smaller bus navigates with difficulty. It’a very pleasant drive through a tropical forest passing local transportation along the way like this one. No need to worry if the air conditioning is working or not.

El Salvador Bus

After a long climb up a dead end road we get to the parking lot where there a just a few other cars. Our local guide Dio buys our entry fees, USD $1.00 per person and we set out on the path to the rim of the crater which is the big attraction although I’ll never downplay the pleasure of a walk through a tropical forest anytime, anywhere.

El Boqueron Sign

It’s a fairly steep path and by the time we reach the top I’m pretty winded, but it’s definitely worth the short hike.

El Boqueron Trail
On the Trail to El Boqueron

This is an aerial view of El Boquerón to give you a better idea of what you are looking down at from the several viewing platforms.

El Boqueron Aerial View

This is what it looks like from the crater’s edge.

El Boqueron Crater

The tiny crater within a crater is boqueroncito which only appeared in 1917. Believe it or not, before that this was a crater lake where San Salvadoreans used to go boating. The birth of boqueroncito literally evaporated the lake in a matter of days.

Boating on El Boqueron Lake

People do hike down into the crater and you can see a number of places where there are paths, but thankfully we are contenting ourselves with just looking from the top.

Back on the bus we grind our way down the hill in low gear until getting back on the main highway heading for our first set of Mayan ruins at San Andres.

San Andres

I have been fascinated by the Mayan culture since I first read about the sacrifice of virgins at Chichen Itza by throwing them into the natural wells called cenotes to appease the rain god, Chaac. That was considered suitable material for our grade five reader at the time. Turns out that further study on the bones found at the bottom of these cenotes reveals they were in fact boys and young men and not girls as previously believed. Chaac was a blood thirsty bastard who even demanded that some of these children as young as three, be flayed alive before being tossed away like human detritus. At least that’s what the Mayans believed – ain’t religion wonderful?

Leaving aside their more sanguine traits, the Mayans were an incredibly advanced culture in mathematics, astronomy, architecture and language. They were only people in the Western Hemisphere to develop a written language. Although most often associated with the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico the Mayans in fact had major cities in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and at the very southern extent of their empire, El Salvador.

Map of the Mayan Civilization

Although by the time the Spanish arrived in the late 15th century the great Mayan cities had all been abandoned, the Mayans themselves still remain to this day, but not in El Salvador. The Indigenous people here at the time of the conquest were Pipils who spoke a Nahuatl language and descended from the Toltec/Aztec peoples of central Mexico. One of the great archaeological mysteries which is still hotly debated today is why the Mayan civilization collapsed. How did they go from being urbanites living in cities of up to 200,000 people in the case of Tikal to a bunch of disorganized feuding tribes that fought the Spanish guns, dogs and horses with obsidian spears? We won’t find the answer on this tour, but it’s going to be a lot of fun looking, starting with the small site of San Andres, just north of San Salvador.

San Andres was first settled almost 3,000 years ago, but was abandoned in the fifth century A.D. due to the explosion of nearby Ilopango an event so cataclysmic that it is now thought to have been responsible for a world wide cooling that took place in 535 and 536. What you see today dates from the period named the Late Classic – 600-900 A.D. The city had direct ties with Copan in modern day Honduras which we will visit later on this trip. It is quite unusual in that many of its structures are made from adobe bricks and not cut stone like almost all other Mayan ruins. It’s not a large site, but given that it’s our first, I’m pretty excited.

Here is a map of San Andres. You enter from the south side and basically explore all the structures within the Acropolis area. Structure 5, La Campana is now completely overgrown and the area between it and the Acropolis is fenced off. There is also a small, but pretty good museum on site which features artifacts from San Andres and from a later period when there was an indigo farm here.

Map of San Andres

This is an aerial view of San Andres and as you can see, unlike many of the sites we will be visiting later on in this trip, the major structures are all fenced off.

Aerial View of San Andres

The closest you can get to Structure 1, which is the largest one in the picture above, is to stand in front as Alison an I are doing in the photo taken by Victor.

At San Andres

By Mayan standards, at less then 50 feet (15 metres) this is a pretty puny pyramid, but it’s a start.

This photo shows some of the adobe brickwork that makes up most of the building material at San Andres

Adobe not Stone

This is Structure 7 which sits outside the Acropolis complex and is actually the first one you come across at San Andres.

Structure 7, San Andres
Structure 7

This photo which at first looks like not much of anything, was taken standing on the northern edge of the Acropolis overlooking what would have been the Grand Plaza with La Campana being that mound on the far right. At one time this area was totally cleared out, but too many looters were coming to the site doing unauthorized digs so it was allowed to regrow, It’s a good illustration of just how fast and completely the tropical forest can overrun and hide even something as large as La Campana.

Campana on the Right

Ok, so were weren’t exactly bowled over by San Andres, but it has definitely whetted our appetites for more starting with Tazumal tomorrow. Originally Victor had planned to take us to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Joya de Ceren which is nearby and preserves a small Mayan village that was completely engulfed by volcanic ash during an eruption in the 7th century. Somewhat ambitiously dubbed “The Pompeii of the America”, it was recently closed for safety upgrades and scheduled to reopen in May of this year, but with Covid-19, who knows?

Hacienda Los Nacimientos – Visit to a Working Indigo Farm

What exactly is indigo? Well actually a lot of things starting with one of the seven colours on the spectrum, landing between blue and violet. The colour was actually named for the dye produced from a variety of plants of the indigo family. What is this dye used for – think no further than blue jeans and you’ll know why for a long time in history indigo production was one of the most important industries almost all around the world. The oldest indigo dyed cloth discovered in Peru, dates back over 6,000 years and the Mayans certainly used it long before the Spanish arrived. Tiny El Salvador turned out to be a great place to grow indigo and by the 18th century it was the country’s most important crop, often called ‘blue gold’. I noted that there was an historical indigo farm and production facility at San Andres, one of hundreds in the nation.

But then along comes Adolph von Baeyer who invents a synthetic dye in the late 19th century and poof, the entire industry disappears almost overnight.

Fast forward another century or so and a revived interest in ‘natural’ products breathes life back into indigo dyes from actual plants and El Salvador is once again seeing a growth in this once dormant method of production. So we are headed to one of these new indigo farms right now; not just any indigo farm, but one of only two in the world that is apparently truly ‘organic’. Hacienda Los Nacimientos grows a number of organic crops including indigo plants and creates the dye on site using traditional methods that are similar to what they were doing at San Andres centuries ago. The farm also offers the chance to make your own creations using their own dyes. It’s not that easy to get to, being well off the main north/south route from San Salvador to Honduras. We go from pavement to gravel to a country lane that would be impossible for two vehicles to pass each other in all but a few spots. In places sugar cane as tall as the bus impedes the view, but mostly it’s a very pleasant rural countryside with the mountains all around in the distance. For a country as densely populated as El Salvador this place is virtually empty.

The farm is large, but the area where the tourism takes place is a mostly wooded and shady arbor of hardwood trees. Our guide explains that we will start out with a walk to the indigo processing area along this path.

Heading for the Indigo Obraje, Hacienda los Nacimientos indigo farm

Along the way Alison stops to take a picture of what I thought the guide described as an empire flower, but I must have heard him wrong because I can’t find anything about such a flower/tree/shrub anywhere. Whatever it’s called, it’s a nice specimen.

Alison Photographing Empire Tree, Indigo Farm
Alison Photographing Empire Tree

We arrive at the indigo production facility, technically an obraje and nothing’s happening. Obrajes were first developed in Puebla, Mexico to process wool from start to finish and the name has stuck for any type of facility that produces some type of finished product – ‘workshop’ would be a good sysnonym.

Indigo Obraje, Hacienda Los Nacimientos Indigo Farm
Indigo Obraje

Our guide explains the process that we would have seen had we been here in the season when the indigo plants were harvested. We saw a few fields of them on the way in and you would never know that these scraggly looking plants we saw today will produce beautiful purplish blue flowers (that would be indigo you twit) in a few months.

Walking back by a different route we passed through a cashew grove. I had no idea that there was such a thing as cashew fruit or a cashew apple as the thing Alison is holding is called. It is quite tasty and very juicy which explains why it so perishable. You eat it at the tree or not at all in most cases.

Cashew Fruit, Indigo Farm
Cashew Apple

Now if this was a real apple there would be seeds inside, I mean after all, everyone knows that seeds or nuts are found inside the fruit, right? Not in the case of the cashew where the nut grows outside the fruit in something that almost looks vaguely obscene.

Cashew Apples with Their Nuts
Indigo farm cashew nuts
Cashew Nuts

Once the fruits fall away you are left with these little suckers which encase the actual nut that we eat in a coating of anacardic acid, the same thing found in poison ivy. That’s why you can never buy cashews in the shell. They need to be removed and cleansed before they are edible.

Ok, now that you know everything there is to know about cashews let’s finally get to the tie-dyeing.

Not being known for my artistic prowess, I’ve never tie-dyed in my life and don’t intend to break that record today. I’ll act as photo-journalist instead recording every detail of this event that I’m told is a first for Adventures Abroad. Essentially tie-dyeing is nothing more than creating cool looking patterns on cloth by exposing some parts of the cloth to dye and keeping others away from it. Today my subjects will be working with just indigo so all the patterns will be indigo & white.

The first part involves some intricate folding – a prior knowledge of origami will be a definite asset. Inside the folds you wrap various objects to get different results. Here Alison is using small glass oval beads which is quite time consuming and would involve patience I don’t possess.

Alison Folding at the Indigo Farm
Alison Folding

Then you come to the tieing part of tie-dyeing as Victor demonstrates here.

Victor Tieing Up, Indigo Farm
Victor Tieing Up

A little help from an expert is never a bad thing. I didn’t realize that Mike Myers retired and moved to El Salvador.

Ready to Dye

Next is the part that kids would love. You need to dunk your cloth in the indigo dye three separate times. It’s very messy and you probably should be wearing jeans. Alison and Sherrie actually seem to be enjoying this.

Sherrie & Alison Dyeing

Lastly the things are all hung up to dry will we all head for lunch.

Hung Out to Dry, Indigo Farm
Hung Out to Dry

While my subjects have been toiling away, so has the indigo farm chef preparing a great al fresco mixed grill.

Preparing Lunch

And here it is.

Indigo farm lunch
Lunch at the Indigo Farm

Before the group reassembles at the indigo farm tie-dye clothes line, some of us take a brief detour to see a Pacific Screech Owl, a species found only in Central America and parts of Mexico. He’s just as curious about us as we are of him.

Pacific Screech Owl, Indigo Farm
Pacific Screech Owl

Back at the farm the artisans line up with their creations. Actually pretty damn impressive.

Indigo Farm Artisans

Here is Alison’s.

Finished Product

It’s time to leave the indigo farm and head back to San Salvador using a different route that takes us through the town of San Martin.

San Martin

Another great day of varied adventures, but now it’s time to head for Churchill’s for another one of their great martinis. Tomorrow we explore more of the country as we leave San Salvador and discover the Ruta de la Flores and the Mayan city of Tazumal. Hope to see you on board.



Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for his wonderful insights. Can’t wait to read about how you liked the next part of our tour.

License-Plate

Unexpected El Salvador

Have you been anywhere recently that has surprised you? For Dale of The Maritime Explorer, El Salvador was this place. Read why.


This is my first post on El Salvador, the fourth country on Victor Romagnoli’s guided tour of all the Central American countries for Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad. I am writing this from home in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and really have no idea how or when things will return to a semblance of normalcy. In the meantime travellers who have not been stranded abroad have plenty of time on their hands as they practice social distancing and are for the most part prisoners in their homes and apartments. I considered just forgetting about writing up the rest of this amazing trip, but that would be defeatist and non-productive. The world is not going to end and eventually people will start traveling again and maybe in some small way my posts will contribute to that. Even if most people aren’t interested in going to El Salvador it helps to have some insight from someone who has actually been there.

El Salvador License Plate
License Plate

Let’s face it – El Salvador has a terrible reputation. Of all the Central American countries it probably has had the longest periods of repressive regimes and domination of all aspects of political and economic life by an oligarchy of fourteen families that continues to this day, although the fourteen has now been winnowed down to eight pre-eminent groups. But that’s not what’s behind El Salvador’s reputation today. It’s something that started in United States and was actually exported to El Salvador from the streets of east L.A. I’m referring of course to the notorious El Salvadorean street gangs MS-13 and MS-18 which President Trump has vilified in his anti-immigrant rants. He has also blamed Obama for their rise in the United States, but as this BBC story reveals, that is complete bullshit. The gangs first arose in Los Angeles in the 1980’s to protect El Salvadorean immigrants who had fled the long standing civil war in their home country. Like many gangs that start with a ’cause’ like the IRA, they quickly evolved into criminal organizations. The period when the gangs actually thrived the most was during the Bush-Cheney years.

Regardless of who is responsible for the rise of these criminal organizations there are certain undeniable facts. They are among the most brutal people on earth and the most brazen. Members of both gangs adorn themselves with tattoos that leave no doubt about their gang affiliation. They don’t care who knows it.

The rise of the gangs in El Salvador began when members of the L.A. gangs were deported back to to their native country and brought their rivalries with them. In the United States there was at least an organized legal system to keep their violence in check, but not in El Salvador. The violence here exploded and El Salvador became one of the most dangerous countries on earth. Victor tells a story that if it weren’t so cynical at its core, would be amusing. He was in San Salvador during the height of the violence and heard a celebration in the streets break out. When he went outside to see what was going on, it turned out that El Salvador had just officially been declared to have the highest murder rate in the world. Finally this tiny country was #1 at something, even if it was in killing its own citizens.

So who in their right f***ing mind would want to got to El Salvador?

Well first of all the historically high murder rates topped out in 2012 and have declined ever since. With the election of President Nayib Bukele in 2019 the murder rate has declined to its lowest rate in three decades and the gangs apparently have called a truce in the face of the Territorial Control Plan implemented by Bukele. He is a charismatic independent not affiliated with either the traditional left and right wing parties both of whom have produced regimes that collaborate with rather attempt to suppress the gangs. He is a figure of hope in a land that desperately needs one.

Secondly, the gang violence in El Salvador is overwhelmingly directed at each other and the local, mostly rural communities that they terrorize with extortion, rape and kidnapping. While there certainly are not a lot of tourists going to El Salvador, foreign business people making regular visits are relatively safe.

Third, El Salvador marks the southern limit of the Mayan civilization and that is a major reason Alison and I are on this trip, to see Mayan ruins. It is also noted for its many volcanoes and beautiful mountainous terrain. Also, we are slated to visit a working indigo farm, a product that hundreds of years ago was El Salvador’s primary crop, but since has virtually disappeared. So, if not for its bad reputation, there are plenty of reasons to visit.

Fourth, I put my trust in Adventures Abroad and Victor not to take their patrons to any destination that is in fact, inherently dangerous. There is a wide distinction between perceived danger and real danger. We already found that out in Nicaragua, so let’s get going.

In my last post we explored the Nicaraguan city of Leon while staying at the wonderful Hotel El Convento. On the morning we were to leave we boarded our bus and drove back through the capital city of Managua and its international airport on the south side of the city. Usually there is a fairly long entranceway to a county’s largest and busiest airport, but not in Managua. The airport, named after Sandino, is literally not more than 100 yards off the Pan-American Highway and reminded me more of something you’d find in a small city like Sydney, Nova Scotia or Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, although it is quite modern looking.

Our flight to San Salvador was with TACA, a subsidiary of Colombia’s national airline, Avianca which is a member of the Star Alliance group so if you are an Aeroplan member you got points for this flight.

Our Plane to El Salvador

The flight departed on schedule and we got a great view Lake Managua and Momotombo volcano as we headed northwest towards San Salvador.

Momotombo from the Air

As we reached the Pacific Ocean I was surprised to see miles of deserted beaches on what would be the southeast coast of El Salvador. Somehow El Salvador and beaches didn’t seem to go together. This would be the first of many surprises over the next few days.

El Salvador International Airport is the second largest in Central America after only Panama City and according to my research has a safety and security level exceeded in North and Central America only by airports in Canada and United States. That becomes apparent almost from the moment we step off the plane and we have our first inkling of what the Covid-19 virus might mean for travellers. Up to this point Covid-19 had been restricted to China and Trump was calling it another one of the hoaxes he seems to uncover on an almost daily basis. It really didn’t seem a concern, yet every single airport employee was wearing a surgical mask. The lineups were not overly long by international airport standards, but they were moving very slowly. The reason was, as we found out when our turn at customs came, they were checking each passport to see if any had recent stamps from China. Luckily no one in our group had been there within the past six months so it was not a problem. Some were also asked to fill out a form indicating that they did not have the virus which seemed kind of self defeating, but fast forward six weeks and we are using similar forms in Canada.

We were greeted at the exit by our local guide, a young man of about thirty with the unusual, but prepossessing name of Dionysius. Who wouldn’t want to be named after a god? However, he said just to call him Dio, which we did. His English was quite good, but I immediately noticed that when he pronounced the name of his country it didn’t come out as El Salvador. It took me a few days for my ears to pick up that he was saying ‘El Saldor’, eliding the ‘va’ portion of the name as we pronounce it.

After making sure everyone had cleared customs Dio led us out to our bus which was a lot smaller than the one we had in Nicaragua. Over the next two days we would find out there was good reason for a narrower and shorter vehicle. The airport lies 50 kms. (30 miles) south of the city and there is a good four lane highway connecting the two. There was a lot more traffic than in Nicaragua and the cars were generally newer and more high end than Nicaraguan ones. Once again I observed that Latin American drivers are generally less speed crazy than their European counterparts and not in love with the sound of their horns. The one negative I did notice was the amount of trash on the roadsides. It was pretty bad in Nicaragua, but far worse here. For some reason I tend to associate littering with low self esteem, but in reality its a learned behaviour that’s passed from one generation to another until finally the light bulb goes and it stops. El Salvador isn’t remotely there yet.

San Salvador and its suburbs are home to over two million people or about one-third of the country’s population that’s contained in an area only the size of Massachusetts. The temptation would be to think, “Boy, that’s crowded”, but guess what? Massachusetts has half a million more residents than El Salvador and most people don’t consider it over populated. Just as Massachusetts has lots of places to get away from the cities like the Berkshires, so I expect to find in El Salvador.

San Salvador is in a valley surrounded by mountains, many of which are volcanoes and it’s actually quite nice looking from the bus, but one thing above all stands out. Almost every single business has at least one uniformed security guard all toting 12 gauge shotguns with pistol grips. Most seem to be middle aged and Dio explains that after the civil war ended in 1992 there were a lot of ex-fighters on both sides with nothing to do. There was also a lot of crime so most of these guys drifted into security and spend the rest of their working days just standing in front of one building. They are meant to be a type of security blanket and the presence of so many seems to make that work. If you are a criminal looking for a target you are not going to look for a place where you might not get shotgunned in the process of robbing the place. The reality is that the businesses that can afford guards are in the more affluent neighbourhoods which means they are safe and the poor districts are not. End of story.

Barcelo Hotel, San Salvador

The street where our hotel is located is in the older suburb of Colonia San Benito and there are really a shitload of guards around so it must be extra safe. I am surprised by the number of quite large modern buildings including the Hotel Barcelo San Salvador which reminds me of a new version of the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. It’s a large, modern urban hotel run by the Spanish based Barcelo group and during our two days here I didn’t see a lot of other tourists, but I did see a lot of wedding parties. In fact it seemed to be wedding central El Salvador.

After checking in we had some free time so I went for a stroll which is a euphemism for picking up some wine and beer. San Benito is a very leafy suburb with some impressive buildings like this one almost across the street from the Barcelo.

Modern Building, San Salvador, El Salvador
Modern Building, San Salvador

At first all the armed guards made me a bit tense, but after a few minutes it was like they were a natural part of this environment. They were not unfriendly and mostly just ignored me as I walked the three blocks or so to the nearest Super Selectos which is the largest grocery chain in El Salvador. I don’t know why, but whenever I go into a grocery store in a third world country for the first time I always expect it to be run down with half empty shelves, poorly dressed customers and a bad smell. I’m almost always wrong. This Super Selectos was bright, had a produce section that would be the envy of any in Canada, smartly dressed patrons and a great selection of wine and beer. Since the official El Salvador currency is the US greenback there’s not even the problem of not having a clue at how much anything costs.

Walking back to the hotel I keep a furtive eye out for anyone with gang tattoos, I mean they’re supposed to be running this country according to you know who. I don’t see anyone with a tattoo of any kind, let alone the facial tats that gang bangers favour. I’m slowly starting to realize that once again, my negative expectations about a place I’ve never been, are not going to be met and that I might even like El Salvador.

Any negative thoughts are further put to rest when we meet Victor and the group at the Cadejo Brewing Company which is a craft brewery and restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. The selection of beers is very large for a craft brewery and no matter what your taste in beer you’ll find something to your liking here. Oh, and the food’s great too.

Back at the hotel there is time for a nightcap at Churchill’s whose dark lighting and leather chairs remind me of a London men’s club, not that I’ve ever been allowed in one.

Churchill’s Bar, San Salvador

It’s been an interesting day going from the contrast of colonial Leon to the urbanity of San Salvador. Life is always interesting traveling with Victor. Tomorrow we’ll get out to see some of the countryside and out first Mayan site and then do some tie-dyeing at an indigo farm which I am told is a first for Adventures Abroad. Hope you’ll join us.


Many thanks to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for continuing to entertain us with his wonderful stories from our Central American tour.

Chavez-Monument

Managua And Leon Viejo- Nicaragua Now & Then

How often do you find places more interesting than you expect? This was the case when Dale of the Maritime Explorer travelled with us to Managua in Nicaragua. Read on to the highlights he discovered.


 

 

This is my fifth post on Nicaragua from Adventures Abroad’s just completed Central American odyssey designed and led by the company’s veteran tour guide Victor Romagnoli. In this post we’ll make our way from the city of Granada which I was frankly disappointed in, but not the surrounding area, through the capital city of Managua and then to the ruins of Leon Viejo. It promises to be a fascinating day and I hope you’ll come along to enjoy it.

By Central American standards Nicaragua is a fairly large country, just a little larger than the state of New York. However, its principal cities are almost all located along a short stretch of highway just inland from the Pacific Coast starting with Granada then Masaya where we visited the volcano of the same name then a short distance away Managua, and finally Leon. Originally the tour was slated just to drive through Managua as a necessary evil of getting to Leon on the other side, but our local guide Aura Munguia has convinced us that there are a few things worth seeing in the capital city.

Managua – More Interesting than Expected

Managua is a city of just over a million people with another 400,000 or so in the metropolitan area. It was chosen as the capital city in 1852 as a compromise between the much older cities of Granada and Leon that were constantly at each other’s throats. It has a convenient location on Lake Managua almost equidistant between the two rivals, although that also put it smack in the middle of one of the most earthquake prone areas in the Western Hemisphere. Earthquakes, floods and fires have left virtually no traces of much that is older than a few generations with a couple of notable exceptions. After a devastating earthquake in 1931 the city was almost rebuilt from scratch by the Somoza family dictatorship that ruled the country from the 1930’s to the late 1970’s. It actually had a reputation as the leading city in Central America until 1972 when one of the worst earthquakes of the 20th century destroyed almost the entire city and killed nearly 20,000 inhabitants.

Hugo Chavez Monument, Managua
Hugo Chavez Monument

It has never recovered its fleeting moment of international recognition and today is securely in the grip of the Sandanista elites who prefer form over substance as demonstrated by the hundred or so Trees of Life that adorn or blight (depending on your point of view) the main thoroughfares of the city. These were designed by the first lady of Nicaragua Rosario Murillo, a very controversial and divisive figure in the country’s politics. The 2.5 million bulbs needed to light up all the trees cost a fortune  every year in a country where electrical blackouts are common. But hey, everyone needs to be reminded of what a great guy Hugo Chavez was and all he did for his fellow Venezuelans as well as propping up the Sandinistas with cheap oil for decades. During the uprisings of 2018 many of the Trees of Life were toppled by cheering mobs, which may account for the brutal response by Daniel Ortega or as many believe, the power behind the throne, Rosario.

I did not have any real preconceptions about Managua which led me to look at the city with unjaundiced eyes and frankly, despite the ridiculous Trees of Life, it seemed quite liveable compared to negative reputation of Nicaragua in the western press. Probably because it is such a poor country and most people can’t afford cars, the streets were not overcrowded or smoggy. In fact getting into and out of the city was really a breeze. I saw no real barrios lining the hillsides, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In general, the people, while perhaps subdued, were not unfriendly and life seemed to be going on pretty decently in Managua – at least at the superficial level that a passing tourist such as myself would observe. Maybe it was all a facade, I honestly don’t know.

We had two stops in Managua, sort of an after and before in that order. The first was to see the absolutely ghastly Immaculate Conception Cathedral which was built to replace the old cathedral that was permanently closed after the 1972 earthquake.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Managua
Immaculate Conception Cathedral

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved this stop because it has such a great story behind it. Somebody forgot to tell the Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta that he was designing a church and not a mosque. Somebody should also have reminded him that Buitalism as an architectural style has failed, brutally. While many mosques feature a collection of small rounded domes or cupolas I’m not aware of any churches that do – usually one or two cupolas are sufficient, not more than twenty. In this case the addition of the small projections at the top inevitably led the locals to compare them to chichas and thus the nickname for the church La Chichona or to put it somewhat crassly, The Tits. I’m sure that’s not what Tom Monaghan the founder of Domino’s Pizza and the guy who footed the bill for this monstrosity had in mind when he hired Regoretta. Well let’s go inside and see if things get any better.

They do. The sparsity of decoration on the outside continues on the inside, but here it works. There is a sense of awe and reverence created by the huge open space.

Interior of Managua Cathedral
Managua Cathedral Interior

Although I am not a religious scholar, I do fancy that I know a thing or two about the Catholic religion, if only from osmosis in visiting so many of these churches around the world. The one set of items I always look for are the Stations of the Cross which often contain some of the finest and most expressive art work in the church. Traditionally there are fourteen stations ending with the entombment which I always found puzzling because isn’t the real message not the death of Christ, but his resurrection?

So I was pleasantly surprised to actually see a 15th station in this cathedral depicting the Resurrection and learned that this is an increasing trend around the Catholic world. I could make a reference to a certain infamous 20th century cult leader whom this portrait resembles, but I won’t.

Managua Cathedral Station of the Cross
15th Station of the Cross

One final comment on the new cathedral. Less than three months before our visit, seven mothers went on a hunger strike here protesting the imprisonment of their children for political reasons i.e. they dared oppose Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas. It didn’t last 24 hours as a ‘pro-government’ mob went on a rampage in the church and the mothers, for their own safety and probably more-so of their children, left the building. So much for peaceful protest.

From the new cathedral we made our way to the centre of Managua and a spacious open area where the old cathedral and the Palacio Nacional are both located.

Old Cathedral, Managua
Old Cathedral

Although it could pass for a much older Spanish colonial church the old cathedral or more properly the Catedral de Santiago, is not really that old. It was built by Belgians and only completed in 1938. It was so heavily damaged in the 1972 earthquake that it was condemned, but not demolished and makes for a suitably grand relic. We will be seeing a lot more of these and a lot older ones at that when we get to the Guatemalan city of Antigua.

At right angles to the old cathedral is the Palacio Nacional which is grand neo-classical structure from which the Somoza regime ran its dictatorship until in 1978 when the Sandanistas stormed it and arrested the puppet deputies, putting an end to forty years of oppression or so it was hoped. The Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez dubbed it the ‘banana Parthenon’. He had a way with words.

Palacio Nacional, Managua
The Banana Parthenon

Not wishing to continue the building’s reputation as a seat of the abuse of power, the Sandanistas turned it into the Cultural Palace that every communist government seems to think is de rigeur in legitimizing their iron grip on the people. Despite this obviously tremendous draw there was only one woman pushing a baby carriage in the entire plaza. Three ice cream salesmen were so desperate for business that they kept circling us on their little pedal driven carts with each ringing their bells louder and louder in the apparent belief that if they made enough racket we would buy them off with a purchase. It didn’t work.

We headed back to the bus leaving only the woman and her baby and the ice cream peddlers to bring life to what was otherwise a pretty bereft scene.

Leon Viejo

Next we headed north from Managua along the shores of Lake Managua where another of Nicaragua’s famed volcanoes, Momotombo soon comes into view looming ominously on the north shore of the lake. I say ominously because this is an active volcano and like Vesuvius, has a reputation for burying entire cities under a mountain of ash. In fact, our next stop is at the site of one of its victims, León Viejo, the original location of the city of León, abandoned in 1610 and buried into oblivion by subsequent eruptions, not be be rediscovered for three and a half centuries and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Leon Viejo Mural
Mural at Leon Viejo

One of the highlights of my travels is to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites as they usually are not only amazing, but greatly informative as well. Go to enough of them and you truly do get a much better world view than you would if you confine your travels to resorts, theme parks and element of self-criticism here, golf courses. Or even if you eat up cultural and historical sites, but ignore natural wonders or vice versa. One of the reasons Alison and I signed up for this trip was that it does visit so many World Heritage Sites and León Viejo is the first for us on this trip. For those who started in Panama they have already visited the two sites in Panama City that have received the UNESCO designation, Panama Viejo and the Historic District which I wrote about in this post from 2018.

After that build up I’m sorry to say that León Viejo will almost certainly be underwhelming for all but the most ardent of archaeological fans. In fact, it’s fair to say that our group spent more time birding on the site than in actually touring the ruins, but in fairness, the birding here is really good. The reason for this is that León Viejo is a truly almost unscratched archaeological wonder that perfectly preserves, without subsequent development, a very early Spanish Colonial city. The burying of the city and its subsequent abandonment have made it unique among New World colonial settlements, only Jamestown in Virginia comes close.

It is the integrity of León Viejo that makes it so remarkable as this quote from the UNESCO website makes clear.

Integrity

The space on which the Ruins of León Viejo lie contains the main material, architectural and urban elements of the old town of León founded in 1524 and which disappeared in 1610. The main urban roads (Calle Real – the Royal Road – and Plaza Mayor – the Grand-Place), and the most important buildings (religious, civil, and those for housing and military installations), which are fundamental and characteristic elements of the Spanish-American cities founded in the 16th century are clearly defined.

The abandon of the city in 1610 and its gradual burial helped preserve the ruins unaltered for over 350 years, until their discovery in 1967. Since then, excavations, building surveys, scientific studies and conservation works were carried out, which would ensure the preservation of the existing ruins and their exploitation in a sustainable manner with the participation- and for the benefit — of the community.

Anthropogenic risks remain minor, because the ruins are in a sparsely populated area not developed an urban scale. The main threats to the integrity of the site are natural phenomena.

So if I haven’t put too much of a damper on things, let’s explore León Viejo.

Getting here involves turning off the main Managua/León highway and heading to the tiny, dusty village of Puerto Momotombo where despite what happened in 1610 and many times since, people still live under the shadow of an active volcano.

Entrance to Leon Viejo

Despite this somewhat grand entry sign there are no other vehicles in the parking lot and nobody apparently in charge. There is a map of what the place looked like in 1610 with a list of 19 identified sites.

Map of Leon Viejo

There is a very small exhibit centre with not a lot in it other than a model of the old city with the most impressive buildings the cathedral.

Model of the Cathedral

And the Citadel which looks like it might have been made from lego blocks..

Model of the Citadel

The original León was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, the same guy who founded Granada earlier in the same year. As noted in my post on Granada his reward was to be beheaded for treason in 1526, which event occurred right here in León Viejo. In 2000 his remains were discovered on the grounds we are walking today. There was apparently a substantial  existing Indigenous population in the area which the Spaniards viewed as human fodder for slavery and/or extermination. The savagery of the onslaught is memorialized in this statue not far from the entrance which is dedicated to those who died in the insurrection of 1528, by which time the native population knew that the newcomers were only bringing death and destruction to their way of life. Perhaps most galling to them was the idea that this was all being done in the name of some omniscient god who claimed to be merciful and forgiving.

Indigenous Monument

This statue shows an Indigenous cacique being attacked by one of the infamous Spanish war dogs that were trained to kill and spread terror with their ferocity. The Spanish mastiff was far larger than the dog portrayed here and could weigh up to 250 pounds. They would not have bothered with the leg, but gone straight for the throat. Man’s best friend? Not if you were their perceived enemy.

The site was utterly deserted aside from the numerous birds including mot mots and trogons that deflected our attention with their bright colours and loud calls.

The first building you come to is the Governor’s Palace which is anything but palatial looking. It takes a while to realize that we are standing a good six to eight feet above the level of the ground at the tim León Viejo was abandoned. Unlike Pompeii it was not totally covered with volcanic ash in one terrible event, but subject to major earthquakes in 1594 and 1610 which convinced the people to move some twenty miles further away from Momotombo and found the present day city of León. Subsequent eruptions did completely bury the site, proving that it was indeed a wise decision to relocate.

Governor’s Palace

Our group ambled its way along the Calle Real to explore some of the more prominent buildings that have been excavated.

Rambling on the Royal Road

As with all early colonial settlements founded by Catholic nations, whether Spanish, Portuguese or French, religious orders tended to dominate. There were no less than three monasteries and this complex which Aura identified as a convent.

Leon Viejo Convent

The most important building excavated so far is undoubtedly the original Our Lady of Mercy, one of the oldest churches in the New World. It was here that the remains of Cordoba were unearthed.

Our Lady of Mercy

The most interesting building for me was one that has not yet been excavated, but whose existence is easy to identify by the large man made mound at the outer extremity of the site. This was the former Citadel and standing on top of it you get the best view of Momotombo and her supposed son Tombolito who rises directly from the waters of Lake Managua. She’s still smoking and who knows when León Viejo might be buried again?

Momotombo & Tombolito

And with apologies to Malcom Lowry, for sure you are going to want that great picture under the volcano.

Under the Volcano

That concludes this post. Next we’ll visit Nicaragua’s most interesting and dynamic city, León the Younger. Hope you’ll join the Adventures Abroad group.

At-Lake-Nicaragua

Ometepe – Lake Nicaragua’s Must Visit Destination

With two volcanoes dominating this island, Ometepe is a feast for the eyes but also features a great insight to Nicaragua’s culture. We follow along with veteran guide Victor as Dale of the Maritime Explorer explains how their group trip to Ometepe went.


 

This is my fourth post on the country of Nicaragua which Alison and I are visiting as part of Victor Romagnoli’s Central America tour on behalf of Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad. One of the attractions for me in choosing this trip was the opportunity to see volcanoes, lot’s of them and Nicaragua fits that bill perfectly. In my last post we visited the active volcano Masaya and stared into what the Spaniard’s called ‘The Gates of Hell’. Today we are going to take a ferry to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua where we will see two of the country’s most famous volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas as we do a near circumnavigation of the island. It promises to be a great excursion and I invite you to come along.

At Lake Nicaragua

Almost from the moment you cross the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua the presence of Lake Nicaragua and the two huge volcanoes that seem to sprout right out of its waters are a dominating feature of the landscape. Long before we reached our destination of Granada our bus pulled off the highway near a small lane that led to the lakefront and we got out to survey the amazing scene which simply demands that you stand in between the two volcanoes and take a picture like the one above. Victor promised that in a few days we would get a much closer look as we crossed to Ometepe Island and today’s the day.

As an aside I couldn’t help but notice these little girls having a mud ball fight near the shoreline. Nicaragua might be a police state and a dictatorship, but they don’t know it yet; they are still Babes in Toyland.

Playing in the Lake

Some Facts About Ometepe Island

Map of Ometepe Island
Ometepe Island Map

Ometepe is a Nahuatl word meaning ‘two mountains’ which for once makes plain sense as you can see from the map. For an island in a lake it’s quite large at 267 sq. kms. or 107 sq. miles with a length of 31 kms. (19 miles) and a maximum width of 10 kms. (6.2 miles). Surprisingly, to me at least, there are almost 30,000 people living here, most making a living as agriculturalists, fishermen or in cattle raising although tourism is beginning to be a major employer. People a lot younger than me are drawn here to climb to volcanoes and veg out along the shores of the lake. Victor was once one of them, having climbed Concepción on more than one occasion. Nobody on our group will be doing that today – in fact, just the thought of it makes my knees ache.

Historically, people have inhabited Ometepe for thousands of years and we will be making a stop to look at some of the ancient artifacts that have been found on the island. Not long after the Europeans arrived in the New World Ometepe became the frequent target of pirates who came up the San Juan River from the Caribbean and pillaged and looted the place forcing the inhabitants to flee to higher ground. That lasted well up into the 18th century before a sense of normalcy returned and now the pirates all live in Managua. Given the beauty of the island with its two volcanoes, lush tropical forest and bucolic atmosphere away from the few towns, it’s a natural magnet for people like me who relish nothing more than boarding a ferry to explore a new island destination. I suspect most in our group have the same heightened sense of expectation.

Heading for the Boat

It’s about an hour or so drive south from Granada to the small city of Rivas and the nearby port of San Jorge where the ferries depart for Ometepe. They take mostly passengers, but also a few cars and trucks, one of which was loaded with frozen chickens destined for the island’s markets. The lake is a lot calmer than a few days before when we first sighted it, which is a pleasant surprise. All are required to wear life jackets and most of us head to the top deck for the best view.

On the Ferry to Ometepe
On the Ferry

The trip takes a little over an hour to the small town of Moyogalpa and while I was hoping that the mist that shrouds most of Concepción volcano will lift, it doesn’t. Maybe later.

Coming in to Moyogalpa

There is quite a welcoming crew awaiting us as we approach the landing pier. Well actually they are just passengers waiting to board and head back to the mainland. As you can see they are mostly young and white – the proverbial backpackers from Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Waiting to Board

Our local guide Aura leads us off the boat and up the main street of Moyogalpa which fashions itself a city, but is actually a town of about 1,500.

Welcome to Moyogalpa, Ometepe Island
Welcome to Moyogalpa

At the intersection of the two main arteries a street meat vendor has her works on display. Remind me to go for the chicken at lunch.

Meat for Sale

After the mandatory, but mercifully brief stop at the town’s Catholic church we board two vans and begin our exploration of Ometepe Island.

Not far out of Moyogalpa we turn down a narrow country lane and stop at the end of the road where the only other vehicle is an RV with a French license plate. How it would get to this remote place is beyond me, but sure enough just a ways down the beach we are headed to is a young family speaking French. Looking around I can certainly see the attraction – a beautiful black sand beach that leads out onto a spit of land where our group gathers, taking in the view of Concepción.

End of the Line

This is the view looking back to Concepción. I don’t think the words ‘tropical paradise’ would be out of place here. The water is deliciously warm on my toes and there are a number of interesting shells that Alison and I gather to add to our collection back home.

Concepcion from the Beach

There are a number of palapas back from the beach including one under construction the old fashioned way – using just one tool, a very sharp machete and some swift and accurate blows upon the small trees that have been felled. Somehow the noise of a chainsaw just wouldn’t seem right in this idyllic spot.

Building a Palapa

Walking back to the vans we come across a beautiful shrub with this flower which Aura identified as a tiger claw flower although that name is given to a number of flowers around the world. No matter what you call it, this is a nice plant with an even nicer Latin name, glorioisa superba. Alison is much more diligent than I am a taking pictures of the many varieties of flowers we have seen in Nicaragua. Suffice it to say that the countryside is a riot of bloom and a treat to the eyes.

Tiger Claw Flower

Our next stop is still on this country lane where we come upon a crop that, to my knowledge is no longer grown in Canada, but once was a staple of southwest Ontario and Prince Edward Island. I’m talking about that most evil of plants, tobacco. We are constantly told of how many millions of people from the New World died from diseases, wittingly or unwittingly introduced by the Europeans. However, the New World gave the Old World tobacco and the number of deaths it has caused over the centuries would dwarf those killed by disease from the 15th to the 18th century. So the last laugh goes to the Indigenous chief who first gave Sir Walter Raleigh a smoking plant to inhale and got the world hooked.

I’m being facetious of course. No plant is good or evil, but it is the use we make of it that matters, whether for good or bad purposes. This a field of Nicaraguan tobacco which will become a component in cigars that Aura assures us are now the best in the world, surpassing Cuba’s, despite it’s reputation. A little research confirms indeed that the deep rich black volcanic soils of Nicaragua are the perfect growing medium for high quality tobacco. If you are a gardener you will be familiar with nicotiana or flowering tobacco which is very fragrant and a Canadian garden favourite.

Tobacco Field, Ometepe
Tobacco Field

Moving back onto the main road and deeper into the countryside it quickly becomes apparent that Ometepe Island still relies heavily on domestic animals for transportation like this plantain salesman heading to market.

Plaintain Deliverer

It’s been decades since oxen teams were used to haul logs from the forests of my home province of Nova Scotia, but here I saw many, using the brahman cattle that originated in India, but were actually developed into a source of beef in United States over 140 years ago. They are inured to hot and humid weather and are perfect for a country like Nicaragua.

Oxen Team, Ometepe Island
Oxen Team

After a while we arrived in the town of Altagracia which was bustling with activity. Aura led us to a public area beside the Catholic church where a number of pre-Columbian artifacts are on display. For years these were kept hidden in the basement of the church and considered blasphemous. They were put on display only after there enough of a public outcry about the church trying to bury the Indigenous past of Ometepe which, not surprisingly given the two volcanoes on an island in a lake, was considered a sacred site. Even now the church cannot resist describing the artifacts as ‘idols’, a clear reference to the first commandment forbidding ‘idolatry’.

Ometepe Monuments

In the centre of Altagracia there is a huge model of the island and looking at it you can really visualize just how much of Ometepe is dominated by the two volcanoes. There’s really nothing else like it on earth – Ometepe that is, not the model.

Model of the Volcanoes

Leaving Altagracia we continued along the lakeshore to Villa Paraiso where we stopped for lunch at their restaurant that overlooked a playa on Lake Nicaragua in a another beautiful tropical setting.

 Villa Paraiso, Ometepe Island
Villa Paraiso

Almost immediately upon being seated we were greeted by a flock of bold magpie jays who couldn’t wait for us to get our meals so they could try to steal some. These are very pretty birds with all of the mischievous instincts of both jays and magpies.

Magpie Jay

I remembered my self-admonition to avoid the red meat and ordered the grilled chicken skewers which turned out to be a very wise decision – not because there was anything wrong with the beef, just that this chicken kabob was amazingly tender and flavourful. Easily the best I’ve ever had. Go figure.

Grilled Chicken Skewers

After lunch we headed back to Moyogalpa, but made a quite stop at the airport along the way. Say what?

They’ve built a new landing strip on Ometepe that crosses the main highway just outside of Moyogalpa and of course closes it when the once weekly flight comes in, similar to what happens in Gibraltar. The upside is that the runway is perfectly positioned to provide great views of Concepción. By now most of the cloud that was hiding it earlier in the day had dissipated and the volcano was at its finest as demonstrated by this photo I took of Alison.

Alison & Concepcion

Arriving back at the ferry terminal just in time for the next ferry to dock I couldn’t help but compare it to those boatloads of migrants that try to make the crossing of the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats. It seemed that for every person leaving Ometepe another dozen were arriving.

The Arriving Boat

Our trip back to the mainland was an uneventful three Toña crossing and by nightfall we were back at the hotel in Granada with the trip to Ometepe now a memory and not an anticipation, but once again on this tour a memory that will last a lifetime.

Next we are off to the other old colonial city of Nicaragua, Leon. See you there.


Many thanks again to Dale for his wonderful insights and allowing us to share his words and photos with you. 

Our-Group-at-Masaya

Masaya Volcano on a Nicaragua Tour

It is said that looking into this volcano is like looking into the Gates of Hell. We follow along with writer Dale of The Maritime Explorer as he recounts a wonderful day on our Central American tour.


 

At the end of my last post on Granada and Los Isletas I promised that on the next post we would travel to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua. I lied; I’ve decided to go to hell instead. This is day two of our sojourn in Nicaragua as part of Adventures Abroad Central America tour designed and led by veteran guide Victor Romagnoli who has spent a great amount of time in many of the seven countries on this tour. Adventures Abroad is returning to Nicaragua for the first time since the uprisings of 2018 that were brutally suppressed by the Sandanista regime and so far everything is copacetic. Let’s hope it stays that way as we head for the nearby city of Masaya and its active volcano of the same name, which the Spanish on first climbing to the rim and looking down, likened to the Gates of Hell.

Masaya city is only 14 kms. (8.6 miles) from Granada and is actually the third largest city in Nicaragua. It is most famous for its enclosed market which we stopped at briefly and I was not impressed. Most of what was for sale was the same from booth to booth which tends to make me think it is not a local product, but possibly made in you know where. Over the course of this Central American adventure we visited many markets that were much more lively, colourful and authentic than that of Masaya. The real reason to come here is to visit the volcano which is just on the outskirts of the city.

Masaya Volcano National Park

Masaya Volcano Model

Masaya Volcano National Park is the first and largest national park in Nicaragua, but it’s still quite tiny at only 54 km² or just over 20 square miles. We’ve just come from Costa Rica where national parks and refuges abound and cover more than 25% of the country so Nicaragua has a lot of catching up to do. I can only hope that the government realizes the value of preserving what wild spaces and unique biomes it has left – at least Masaya volcano is a start.

After paying the entry fee our bus heads up the side of the mountain to the interpretive centre which is well worth visiting. Here our excellent local guide Aura Munguia gives us the history of the volcano and its relationship with the local people who have lived in its shadow for thousands of years. As an active volcano Masaya would erupt with unpredictable frequency which not surprisingly made it an object of fear and reverence for these pre-colonial peoples. It is reported that human sacrifices, especially of children, were made to abate the fury of Masaya and that is what is depicted in this painting. The spirit of Masaya is depicted as a horrible witch that needs to be appeased and the children on the right are the objects to be sacrificed.

Human Sacrifice, Masaya
Human Sacrifice

Pedro Arias Dávila, the same guy who ordered the beheading of the founder of Granada and Leon, Hernandez de Cordoba, initiated Spanish conquest in the Masaya area beginning in 1524. The Spaniards were no more able to protect themselves from the volcano’s eruptions than the Indigenous peoples. This huge mural depicts an eruption of 1670 when Jesus was called upon to stop the flow of lava. I don’t know if that worked or not, perhaps it was the barking of the dog that did the trick.

1670 Mural, Masaya
1670 Mural

Also of interest in the interpretive centre is this model of the Nicaraguan portion of the Central American Volcanic Belt which is perhaps the defining natural feature of this country, El Salvador and Guatemala. Over the next few weeks we will be visiting or at least seeing many of the most famous of these Central American giants.

Nicaraguan Volcanoes

During our visit to Los Isletas Victor spotted bats sleeping on the upraised keel of a sailboat and today one of the group spotted these bats hanging from the ceiling in a darkened area. There are 94 species of bats in Nicaragua and they are vital for insect control and flower pollination. Unfortunately the fact that three of the species are true vampire bats has caused people to overreact and persecute all bat species, not only to their detriment, but ours as well. Only belatedly are countries like Nicaragua realizing just how important bats are to a healthy environment. The fact that these have been left alone here is a good sign.

Bats in the Interpretive Centre

Boarding the bus we take the winding road that goes right up the a parking area just below the rim. Along the way there are telltale signs of recent eruptions like this lava flow that occurred quite recently.

Lava Flow, Masaya Volcano
Lava Flow

Masaya is not a prepossessing volcano to look at like Concepcion on Ometepe Island or Momotombo; in fact it’s only 635 metres (2083 feet) high. It’s claim to fame is that you can stand on rim and actually look down and see the steam rising from the vents. Yes, you are standing on the very edge of a live volcano and this is what you see.

Gates of Hell, Masaya
Gates of Hell

I think this short video gives a better idea. Not sure who I was talking to at the end, but I think you’ll agree this is a pretty cool experience.

Here is a photo of some of the group at the crater’s edge. Like many of the places we have and will visit in Nicaragua, Masaya, despite being high on the list of must see attractions in Nicaragua, is virtually deserted.

Our Group at Masaya

The trail to the cross on top of the hill is currently closed, but there is another trail you can take to get a higher viewpoint.

View of Masaya from Above
View from Above

And of course everyone will want a shot of themselves at the edge of the Gates of Hell.

At Masaya

Lastly something completely timely. See that rope stretching across part of the crater. On March 4 Nik Wallenda, last of the famed Flying Wallendas will attempt an 1,800 foot crossing of Masaya which will be broadcast live on ABC. During our visit preparations were well underway to get the tightrope properly positioned. I certainly have March 4th marked on my calendar to find out if Nik makes it across or goes straight to hell.

Nick Wallenda Preparations

Next time I will keep my promise and we’ll get to Ometepe Island.


Many thanks again to Dale of the Maritime Explorer for sharing his insights with us. We look forward to his next post.

License-Plate

Nicaragua – Some Random Thoughts by Dale the Maritime Explorer

As part of a larger Central American tour, a visit to Nicaragua is a worthy and interesting country that shares historical attributes but also has a unique cultural within the region. Follow along with Dale of The Maritime Explorer as he explorers Nicaragua with Victor.

 

License Plate of Nicaragua
Nicaragua License Plate

We have just completed the Nicaragua portion of Adventures Abroad’s Central America trip designed and guided by Victor Romagnoli who is one of the few people who has more than a passing interest and knowledge of this misunderstood country. While I will be writing specific posts about many of the places we visited in Nicaragua much as I just did with Costa Rica, e.g. Monteverde cloud forest I thought a general post about my impressions and random thoughts about the place might be a useful introduction. So here it goes in no particular order.

Nicaragua is a Police State

This is the harsh reality of dozens of countries around the world and the words ‘police state’ usually act as a deterrent to most tourists’ plans, unless they don’t. Canadians flock to Cuba by the millions and many more Americans would if they could, and the fact that it is a police state with the Cubans strictly under the thumb and control of the Castro family empire doesn’t matter a wit to them. Likewise Communist China, at least until Coronavirus, and many other popular destinations. So Nicaragua should not be written off on that account. The next question is.

Is it a Dangerous Police State?

A few years ago we did an Adventures Abroad trip to Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica with the option of going on to Nicaragua which at the time we put off for a future trip. Then in April 2018 Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan dictator announced plans to dramatically increase the cost of certain social programs including pensions. This set off an unprecedented level of protests, at least under the Sandinista regime. The response from Ortega, who once claimed to be a simple ‘man of the people’ was deadly – at least eighty people were killed and a crackdown every bit as severe as anything in the hated Somoza regime began. What was particularly vicious was the fact that many of those killed were done so by government snipers shooting high powered rifles from afar in places like the national baseball stadium in Managua.

Obviously you don’t bring tourists into volatile situations like this and Adventures Abroad has not had a tour enter Nicaragua since, until ours. The plans to enter Nicaragua were always tentative with Victor making the decision based on current happenings and not what transpired two years ago. Like it or not, Ortega and the Sandinistas, despite worldwide condemnation, are firmly in control and for now the population has been pacified, although subjugated is probably the better word. So the danger in Nicaragua has always been getting caught in the middle of some type of confrontation between the army or police and ordinary Nicaraguans. It is not from fear of gangs or other criminal activity. So it’s a go.

Entering Nicaragua

Entering Nicaragua

This will be the first time Alison and I have ever crossed a border by land in Central America. Based on our experiences in Africa in places like Zimbabwe and Botswana it could be interesting. The first thing that one can’t help but notice is the lineup of trucks waiting to cross. I’m not talking about an ordinary lineup, but one that begins well over ten miles (14.5 kms.) from the border. Apparently it can take over two days to make the crossing and the poor bastards driving those trucks need to stay awake the entire time or lose their place in line. Unfortunately that has led to tons of litter lining the roads – the first we’ve really noticed in Costa Rica.

Our bus driver and other savvy travellers know not to stop behind the trucks when you reach them, but to simply drive down the opposite lane, squeezing in when somebody comes the other way. After what seems like an eternity of driving past the trucks we reach the Costa Rican side of the border. Here we have to go to a hut to purchase a $9 USD departure voucher and then take it to the official customs office to get our passports stamped. After that you grab your luggage and walk across no man’s land like members of our group are doing in the photo above.

Once you turn around and see the Welcome to Costa Rica sign disappearing behind you, it is too late to turn back.

Leaving Costa Rica

The first surprise is that there is no surprise. We just show our passports to an unarmed civilian who glances at them and waves us onward where our Nicaraguan guide Aura is waiting. She leads us onward to the modern customs office where she and Victor collect our passports and disappear for about thirty minutes. They then reappear, hand out the passports which have all been stamped and we head for our waiting bus. Not once do we ever get face to face with a customs official or fill out any forms.

Later I learn from Victor that long before we make this crossing that our names and passport info have been provided to the authorities in Nicaragua and they have tentatively approved our entry. Once at the border a call is made to Managua to confirm that we are still welcome and once that’s given we are free to leave.

Nicaragua is a Poor Country

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It has a per capita GDP of $5,681 USD. Compare that to Costa Rica at $18,394 USD and Panama at $28,810 USD and you understand why Nicaraguans who flee their country don’t head north, but prefer to simply go to their southern neighbours where they perform most of the grunt work.

However, I’ve learned in my travels that being statistically poor does not translate into actual living in poverty and this is definitely the case in Nicaragua. If you come here expecting to see starving people with hollowed out eyes and distended bellies you won’t. Nicaragua produces a great variety of fruits, vegetables and grains, fish from the oceans and Lake Nicaragua and poultry and beef. This is what you might see for sale in a city market along with quite a few other things I’ll describe on my post on the Leon Market.

Fruit for Sale, Leon Market

In the small towns and villages that make up a good percentage of the population local vendors provide the basics. And every family has rice and beans at least once a day if not more.

Vegetable Saleswoman, Ometepe, Nicaragua
Vegetable Saleswoman, Ometepe

The bottom line is that a low GDP does not translate into malnuritionment in Nicaragua. Their diet is probably much more healthy than most North Americans.

Another tell tale sign of dire poverty is poor clothing, often filthy because of the inability to access clean water and soap for washing it. In Nicaragua the people take great efforts and pride in making sure their clothes are clean and in the case of school uniforms almost sparklingly white. These two children Alison photographed are typical of what we saw – spotless, at least until they get to the ice cream cart.

Nicaraguan School Children

The one thing any visitor will notice is that the lack of money in rural areas means that methods of transportation and agriculture are definitely not up to 20th century standards, and that is not a slip of the computer keys. Horses are still a major part of the Nicaraguan economy, both for transportation and farm work. Here is a combination of both as this fellow is taking his plantain to market on horseback.

Taking Plantain to Market

My home province has a tradition of using ox teams in the lumbering business, dragging the felled trees out of the woods to a sluice or awaiting wagon. Except that ended a century ago. Here in Nicaragua oxen teams are still in use.

Nicaraguan Oxen Team

Need to build a structure quickly and don’t have a hand held saw, let alone a chainsaw? No problem, that’s what machetes are for.

Using a Machete

Let’s face it. As tourists we love to take pictures of these activities that we associate with not having the modern tools to do the job and are ‘quaint’. But the reality is that this is the way of life in Nicaragua. My mother’s forebears lived an agricultural life in the Annapolis Valley using oxen teams, horses and other methods of making a living that today we would call antiquated, but do I really think they lived a life of poverty or deprivation? Not for a minute and neither do I think the Nicaraguan people do today.

There are a few interesting ways of doing things in Nicaragua that we certainly wouldn’t get people in North America to do. This is a Granadian recycling operation. These guys pick up the bags of garbage that have not been sorted, rip them open and do the sorting on the go. Not a job you or I would sign up for, but these are actually government employees who earn a decent wage by Nicaraguan standards and get to keep whatever they can earn off the glass, plastic etc. they can sell to a recycler.

Granadian Recycling

The Roads are Good

The three principal cities of Nicaragua are the capital Managua and the two colonial cities that flank it on the north (Leon) and south (Granada) and this is where the Adventures Abroad tour was focused. Once you get inside Nicaragua from Costa Rica on the Pan-American highway and get past the lineup of trucks going the other way, it is a very pleasant drive on very good roads. Because most Nicaraguans can’t afford a car, most of the traffic is semi-trailers heading north and easily passed, local buses, lots of motorcycles, horse drawn carts, tuk tuks and pedicabs. Most of the last four travel on the right side of the lane and don’t usually hold things up. The biggest slowdown in Nicaragua was waiting at construction sites where they were widening the highway to four lanes.

In terms of the type of transportation we used, it was a modern bus with room for everyone to have their own row so no one had to sit with their better half unless you wanted to. Our driver Jairo was completely sane and not once did I think we were in imminent danger of a head on collision or a cliff dive.

Our Nicaraguan Bus

Whether it was fear of attracting the attention of the police or not, Nicaraguan drivers are quite reserved, with little to no horn honking and next to no passing on blind curves.

The Accommodations Were Great

We spent five nights in total in Nicaragua, three in Granada and two in Leon and both places were great, the latter outstandingly so.

In Granada we stayed at the Hotel Casa de Consulado only a block away from the main plaza.

Hotel Consulado

In Leon we stayed in a restored convent, El Convento that had one of the most interesting collection of art and artifacts I’ve seen in any hotel. I plan to do an entire post on this place.

Both hotels had decent internet, pools and hearty breakfasts.

Hotel El Convento, Leon, Nicaragua
Hotel El Convento

The Food was also Great

El Zaguan

We did not have a bad meal in Nicaragua and had several that were excellent including the first night in Granada when we had a variety of steaks at El Zaguán. I usually avoid steaks in third world countries because they are often tough as the proverbial shoe leather, but Victor chose this place and the filet with jalapeno sauce was remarkable.

On the island of Ometepe we lunched at El Paraíso along with the magpie jays and I’ve never had a tastier chicken kabob skewer anywhere.

Sandino is Everywhere

Sandino

Augusto César Sandino or just Sandino as most people call him, is a national hero to the Nicaraguan people and maybe second only to Che Guevara as a figure of resistance to American Imperialism in Latin America. Between 1927 and 1933 he led a guerrilla campaign against the occupation of Nicaragua by United States Marines and unlike most of these undeclared wars, the underdogs won and in 1933 the marines left, leaving an elected government in place to which Sandino pledged loyalty. Unfortunately for Sandino and all of Nicaragua the marines were replaced by a National Guard headed by Anastasio Somoza Garcia who would go on to assassinate Sandino and establish a family dictatorship that lasted 55 years.

The Somozas were eventually ousted by Daniel Ortega and his Sandinistas who, of course, took their name and cause from Sandino. Today, everywhere you go in Nicaragua you will see tributes to Sandino including some giant black cutouts very much like the bulls you see in Spain. From what I can gather he was a true patriot and not a wannabe dictator like Ortega turned out to be.

Toña is the Beer to Drink

Nicaragua Beer
Tona, The Beer to Drink in Nicaragua

On a lighter note, there are a few beers available in Nicaragua, but Toña (pronounced tone-ya) is definitely the beer I saw most Nicaraguans drinking despite a bigger advertising campaign for Victoria Classico. It is a typical light lager of Latin America with just enough bitterness to make it flavourful and almost excessive carbonation that can handle temperatures close to freezing which is the temperature that most Nicaraguan coolers seem to be. So don’t worry, you won’t have to settle for crap like Coors Light or Bud in this country. In fact I never saw any for sale.

Nicaragua is Extraordinarily Beautiful

Lake Nicaragua with Concepcion & Maderas

Nicaragua is unique among Central American countries in having a combination of both volcanoes and the second largest freshwater lake in Latin America, which creates a landscape like none other on earth. Coming from a country with despite its massive size has no active volcanoes, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the Nicaraguan ones, particularly Concepcion and Momotombo which are what a proper volcano should look like; almost perfectly conical with a little puff of smoke coming out of the top. There is no other place on earth that you can get a photo like the one above.

Aura Munguia is a Great Guide

Aura Buys Fruit

From the moment she greeted us at the Nicaraguan border and guided us through the customs procedure until we said goodbye at the Managua airport Aura Munguia proved herself one of the best local guides Adventures Abroad has ever hired. Her English was very good, her knowledge of all matters Nicaraguan beyond question and most of all, her passion for her country made her the perfect ambassador for this nation. If you are contemplating a trip to Nicaragua I urge you to get in touch with Aura at auraelena1@yahoo.com.

In summary, as long as Nicaragua remains stable and you can put aside your qualms about its government, it is more than worth visiting.


Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for sharing his experiences with us as he explorers Nicaragua with Victor.

Tarcoles-River

Manuel Antonio – The Most Popular Park in Costa Rica

Many of you will have heard of Monteverde National Park but have you heard of Costa Rica’s most popular park, Manuel Antonio National Park? Join us as we tag along with Dale of the Maritime Explorer for another exciting adventure in Costa Rica.


This is the first true post on the Adventures Abroad’s 2020 tour of Central America led by guide extraordinaire Victor Romagnoli. In my last post I extolled some of the virtues of the Costa Rican capital, San Jose before joining up with the rest of the group who began this tour with Victor in Panama a week earlier. After spending a second night at the excellent Gran Hotel Costa Rica we are now boarding the bus and heading for Manuel Antonio National Park just outside the small town of Quepos on the Pacific Ocean. Although Alison and I have been to Costa Rica before, we’ve never been to the Pacific side of the country which is where most of the seaside resorts and attractions are located. It’s about a five hour drive even taking what is a newly opened portion of highway to shorten the distance to this popular part of the country. However, Victor is a great raconteur and between his history and biology lessens combined with some great stories from past trips the time to our first stop passes quickly.

The highway first reaches the Pacific Ocean at the small town of Tárcoles where a river of the same name drains into the sea. We get off the bus to observe this tranquil looking sight from the bridge that crosses the river here.

Tarcoles River

And then I look down and see this. Altogether I count 17 or 18 decent size crocodiles or cocodrilos as the Ticos say which just rolls off the tongue, but in either language it means the Tárcoles is literally ‘croc infested’.

Crocodile Infestation

Looking down from the other bank directly below is this enormous specimen who would easily run fifteen feet. I’ve seen big crocs in Africa, but had no idea they grew this big in the Americas. A little research finds that crocs in the Tárcoles have been known to reach a length of twenty feet. One of the reasons apparently is that because they are a tourist attraction these ones are fed regularly to keep them reliably near the bridge. Even if they are well fed and maybe not up for a human snack I would not want to get any closer to this guy than this.

Giant Crocodile

Not far past Tárcoles is the town of Jaco, very popular with Canadian tourists, especially Quebecois, but we just breeze by. Then I start seeing the unmistakable signs of palm oil plantations which causes me to go on this mini rant. Palm oil is by far the highest yielding source of vegetable oil on the planet and is found in over 50% of all consumer products. That includes bread, ice cream, soap and the original product from chemistry hell – margarine. Oh, and it’s also a big component of biodiesel. As a product, it definitely has it’s uses, and it’s not as unhealthy for consumers as was once believed, in fact it might actually be beneficial. But, it is unquestionably bad for the planet. Since the dawn of the 21st century an area of rainforest the size of New Zealand has been cleared to plant palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. Goodbye orangutans and thousands of other species.  The WWF does not advocate abandoning the use of palm oil, but finding better ways to grow it sustainably.

Now here’s what really ticks me off about palm oil. It’s in every bloody vegan concoction going. Vegans, like my daughter, think they are saving the environment by following a vegan diet. Well I’m sorry, you’re not and you are in fact contributing to world wide deforestation. It’s sad to see it taking off in areas of Costa Rica that were previously dedicated to fruit growing. The town of Parrita is dedicated almost solely to palm oil growing and refining. After jumping out of the United Fruit Company fire it has now landed in the palm oil pot.

Okay, back to being a brainless tourist. We stop for lunch at the small town of Quepos which is the entryway to Manual Antonio. As a town it’s pretty ordinary, but Alison and I have lunch at a stall in the local market which is tasty, filling and very inexpensive. A walk around town takes us to a view of Quepos beach which looks lovely, but has few people on it.

Quepos Beach

There still time for a beer before the bus leaves so we stop into a hole in the wall bar where a tattooed bar tender gets our Imperials and then proceeds to talk to a bluish fish in a tiny goldfish bowl. It listens to her when she shows that it will rise to the surface or sink to the bottom on command. I kid you not.

Back on the bus, the countryside changes dramatically as we head up high into the forest and suddenly there are McMansions on every hillside and a variety of resorts running from simple hostels to true five star wallet breakers. This is definitely a side of Costa Rica we have not seen before.

La Mariposa Hotel

Our accommodations for the next two nights will be at the luxurious La Mariposa Hotel  which has absolutely stunning views from the top floor balcony that overlooks the islands and beaches of Manuel Antonio far below which remind me a bit of the Amalfi Coast. And being compared to the Amalfi Coast is never a bad thing. It was also the first hotel opened in Manuel Antonio after it became a national park in 1972 and so got the choice location.

View of Manuel Antonio from Le Mariposa
Le Mariposa View

The rooms are ultra modern with large balconies. The only problem with ours was that the view was obscured by a bamboo stand. If you do stay here, insist on a room with the million dollar view; it won’t cost nearly that. With nothing else planned for the day but dinner, there’s time to take a dip in the infinity pool or have a drink at one of the two small pool bars. Aah, life is tough on these Adventures Abroad tours.

Infinity Pool, Le Mariposa

Seriously though, this was one of the best places we’ve ever stayed on an AA trip or any trip for that matter. Oh, and it’s listed as one of the 1000 Places to See Before You Die in Patricia Schultz’s runaway bucket list best seller.

Ronny’s Place

Ronny's Place, Manuel Antonio
Ronny’s Place

For dinner that evening we didn’t eat at any of the fancy places right in Manuel Antonio or Quepos – I never did figure out where one stopped and the other started. Instead we took the bus down a tiny dirt lane not wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone a bus and arrived at Ronny’s Place high above the ocean and apparently famed for its sunsets. There were already a lot of people there just for that, all hoping to see the ever elusive ‘green flash’. One person in our group claimed she had seen it and I believed her, but tonight conditions were not right and we got about a C+ setting.

C+ Plus Sunset, Manuel Antonio
C+ Plus Sunset

What was well above C+ was the food, especially the seafood. This is my ceviche, a dish I could eat at least 200 days a year.

Ceviche, Ronny’s Place

This was described as red snapper, the special of the day. Never sure what you’ll really get when you order red snapper, but whatever this fish it it was delicious and very photogenic too.

Red Snapper, Ronny’s Place

So even though this was billed as a travel day on the itinerary, it was pretty damn full. Tomorrow Manuel Antonio.

History of Manuel Antonio National Park

Nobody knows who Manuel Antonio was or even if he was a real person, so why the park bears this name is unknown, but paraphrasing Shakespeare – a park by any other name would be as sweet, so it’s not important. Agriculture and forestry had so devastated the natural biota of Pacific coast of Costa Rica that by the 1970’s only two patches remained of which Manuel Antonio was one. The residents of Quepos, whether in boom times or busts, liked to hike in the nearby mountain forests and especially to walk, swim and play on the four beaches just west of the town.  Following the example of many other places around the world, including my native province of Nova Scotia, foreign interests found the beautiful land and seascape to their liking as well and bought it, the last landowner being Arthur Bergeron of France. Stupidly, he erected fences to stop the locals doing what they had been doing for centuries and the public outcry ended with the expropriation of Bergeron’s interests and the creation of the park in 1972.

Bergeron’s loss was the world’s gain as Manuel Antonio regularly makes the lists of best national parks in the world. It has become so popular that Costa Rica has had to limit the number of daily visitors. What that number is depends on what website you visit. I have seen figures from as low as 600 to as high as 1600. Fortunately for our group Victor has bought tickets in Quepos the day before and we won’t have to go through the lineups that regularly occur when the park opens each day at 7:00 AM. We also don’t have to run the gauntlet of scam artists claiming to be official guides or ticket sellers who plague the entrance. Why the government of a country as allegedly progressive as Costa Rica allows these guys to operate in broad daylight is ridiculous.

With rant #2 of this post disposed of, let’s visit the park.

Visiting Manuel Antonio

It’s a short drive from Le Mariposa to the bus parking lot near the entrance to Manuel Antonio after which we follow Victor through a not obvious gravel entry lane to the actual park entrance. Here is where he points out and tells us to ignore the scam artists and gives us our tickets. Manuel Antonio is very strict about preventing idiots from feeding the wild creatures of the park, so they do a cursory search of backpacks for elicit items like nuts, chips and anything else that will turn a perfectly normal wild animals into crazed junk food addicts that will sell their souls (if they have one) for a friggin’ peanut.

This is a map of the park. It is small enough that you could walk the entire trail system in one day, but most people, including our group will follow the tan coloured trail from the entrance to where it ends at the restaurant and gift shop. This is where most of the wildlife spotting is done. After that, the most logical route is to return via Espadilla Sur Beach to the boardwalk marked in blue and back to the entrance. This route also offers the option of doing the circular Punta Catedral trail around the tombolo that is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus with beaches on each side.

Map of Manuel Antonio

Victor has procured two guides, Daniel and Andre to assist us in spotting the wildlife. They have binoculars and spotting scopes and trust me, without a guide, you would miss 90% of what there is to see. One last caveat. Even with restricted numbers, Manuel Antonio is still going to seem overcrowded, especially when someone spots something interesting and a number of groups converge. But, hey, that’s the price of popularity. If you want solitude visit Costa Rica’s Cocos Island National Park some 550 kms. (341 miles) off the Pacific coast.

Our Guides Daniel & Andre for Manuel Antonio
Our Guides Daniel & Andre

Ok, let’s get started. The main things you are going to see in Manuel Antonio are monkeys, sloths, lizards, birds and butterflies. You are not going to see jaguars, queztal birds or other exotic species that from the Costa Rican tourist literature you would think are as common as house flies. Still, it’s an interesting menagerie and well worth the walk.

I almost forgot. The weather forecast was for a 7% chance of rain so despite ominous looking skies I foolishly believed the weatherman and did not take rain gear or my waterproof camera. So of course the skies opened up the minute we started our guided walk, The result was that I did not get more than a few decent pictures.

We did see both three-toed and two-toed sloths as well as lots of white-faced capuchin monkeys, but I due to the lighting and the rain I got no useful photos of them. What was endlessly entertaining was watching the monkeys cross over the trail directly above us. In order to do so they had to make a leap of about six to eight feet from one tree to another and while the adults had no problem, the youngsters were apprehensive and you could see them weighing their chances. A fall directly down could be fatal. Eventually, all but one made the attempt and succeeded. The smallest one that wouldn’t jump was retrieved by his mother who leapt over with him holding on. It was interesting to see that, just like humans, monkeys are not necessarily born with the ability to do certain things, but must learn how to do them using the tools that Mother Nature provided them with.

This is a male common basilisk, a lizard famed for its ability to ran so fast over water that they don’t sink. Hence the nickname ‘Jesus lizard’.

Male Common Basilisk

Another species of basilisk is the brown which we observed on several occasions.

Brown Basilisk, Manuel Antonio Park
Brown Basilisk

There are also lots of land crabs in Manuel Antonio, all very brightly coloured.

Manuel Antonio Land Crab

The most creepy thing we saw was this butterfly or moth that was perfectly still on this branch and perfectly dead. It has been attacked by a species of zombie fungus that literally takes over the insect’s brain and turns it into a zombie while the fungus slowly grows and grows until at last there nothing but a husk. It would make a good subject for a Far Side cartoon. I can just see the adult butterfly reading a bedtime story to a bunch of enrapt caterpillars about one who wouldn’t eat his milkweed and got turned into a zombie.

Zombified Moth

After the wildlife walk the guides left us at the beach, but not before taking a group shot, a rarity for Adventures Abroad. That’s your humble servant and Victor on top.

Group Shot in Manuel Antonio
Group Shot

Victor then explained our various options before returning to the bus.

Victor Explaining how to get back to the Bus

About half the group opted for the hike around the tombolo on the Punta Catedral trail which has several lookouts with views of the offshore islands.

View from Lookout at Punta Catedral

If you look closely in the lower right hand corner of this photo you can see stand up paddlers heading towards another island. It’s just one of the many things you can do at Manuel Antonio and on a calm day like this would be fun.

Stand Up Paddlers, Manuel Antonio
Stand Up Paddlers

From here we made our way to Manuel Antonio beach which is truly beautiful.

The Manuel Antonio Beach
Manuel Antonio Beach

Victor had warned us about rip currents with such conviction that none of us decided to risk going in.

On the other side of the tombolo and the way back to the entrance is equally beautiful Espadilla Sur Beach which you can see in this video I shot.

The prefect ending to this morning in the rain forest and at the beach was a cold Imperial at the open air restaurant right beside the bus parking lot.

Next we head inland and upward to the cloud forest of Monteverde. Hope you’ll come along.


Many thanks again to Dale of the Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share hos thoughts and photos of our Costa Rica tour. Looking forward to his next experience he shares.

Toucan

Monteverde Redux, Costa Rica – The Second Time Around

Have you ever adventured to the same place twice? Dale of the Maritime Explorer has. However, this time he is joined by our beloved Victor for a journey in Costa Rica’s most famous national park. Read on to find out what they got up to.

 


I first visited Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica in 2018 and was blown away by its beauty and birdlife which I described in this post. I have returned early in 2020 on the Central America trip led by Victor Romagnoli for Adventures Abroad the same Canadian company I traveled with on the first visit. At first I was simply going to do an update on the original post, but this visit included a number of new adventures as well as a repeat of the highlights of the first. Please join our Adventures Abroad group in exploring this magnificent area of Costa Rica.

We started the day in Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast where this toucan put in an appearance at breakfast, no doubt looking for the Froot Loops with which Kellogg’s has long associated the poor things.

Morning Toucan

Monteverde could not be more different than Manuel Antonio, the latter being a Pacific Coast paradise with great beaches while Monteverde is a cloud forest so far high up in the Central Cordillera that it is, more often than not, hidden in the mists. The first time we visited Monte Verde the road into the mountains was under construction and reduced to one gravel lane with drops of up to a thousand feet just inches away from the buses’ outer wheels. Getting there could take an entire day from the Pacific Coast. Today after we reach the turn off from the Pan American Highway things are completely different. The road has been completed and paved the entire way and getting to Santa Elena, the small tourist town where most of the services for Monteverde are found, is a breeze.

Somewhat paradoxically, the town itself is far quieter than it was on our first visit, with lots of backpackers still, but only a handful of tour groups such as ours. The reality is that Costa Rica, relative to other Central American destinations, has become quite expensive and that’s apparent in the reduced number of tourists, but I’m sure not complaining. Less really is more in terms of the number of people visiting a place like this.

Our accommodations are at the Ficus Lodge, the same place we stayed before and little has changed which is all good because it has very nice large rooms and plenty of good birding just on site including a gray-headed chachalaca outside the window.

Gray Headed Chachalaca, Monteverde
Gray Headed Chachalaca

Monteverde Butterfly Gardens

Another place we returned to that was as good as I remembered was the Monteverde Butterfly Garden where Canadian Bryna Belisle once again put on her comedic stand up on the sex lives of insects that was as funny as any you’ll find in a comedy club and it was all new material from our first visit. What was not new and eagerly anticipated was the encounter with Timmy the giant cockroach, especially when Bryna pops him in her mouth and he slowly crawls back out.

Timmy the Cockroach, Monteverde Butterfly Gardens
Timmy the Cockroach

After Bryna’s introduction we were given a guided tour of the various butterfly gardens, but not before I got to ride the giant rhinoceros beetle. Yeehaw!

Riding a Rhinoceros Beetle

There are a great variety of butterflies representing various environments from high in the canopy to the much darker forest floor. Here are just a few.

Monteverde Butterfly Gardens
Owl Butterfly
Orange Beauty

Curi-Canchi Reserve

On the first visit we birded the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve which was the first of a number of privately owned nature preserves that you can visit to experience a walk through a cloud forest, which as you would expect is a rain forest that is usually literally ‘within the clouds’. At Monteverde warm winds from the Caribbean blowing west hit the Central Cordillera and are cooled to the dew point as they rise up the mountainside creating an almost perpetual blanket of cloud over the upper levels of the forest and a type of habitat found only in a few places in the world.

This morning we are going to visit Curi-Canchi Reserve which is another private reserve in the Monteverde cloud forest. The reason we are visiting this reserve and not one of the others is because our guide, Adrian Mendez, with whom Victor has been working for over twenty-six years, has determined that today this is the most likely place to see the one bird that almost everyone is here to see – the resplendent quetzal.

With Adrian Mendez at Monteverde
With Adrian Mendez

I’m continually amazed at how the weather always seems to do the opposite of what it is supposed whenever I visit, like rain in Death Valley for instance. Yesterday it rained in almost always sunny Manuel Antonio and today of course it’s sunny as hell in the alleged cloud forest. However, for once that’s not such a bad thing as the birds will still be here and with the sun shining their colours will be more apparent. I’m not complaining so let’s go birding with Adrian and Victor.

Curi-Cancha Sign

The first difference I noticed between this reserve and the first we visited is that there are a fraction of the people here that there was at the other. Whether this is because of a decline in tourists or not, I can’t say, but in contrast to Manuel Antonio, our group is the largest in the reserve and it doesn’t feel overcrowded.

The symbol of the reserve is not the quetzal, but the tiny slate-throated redstart that you see on the sign and all over the place close to the ground, but they are so flitty that getting a good photo is not easy. God knows I tried.

Curi-Cancha has some tremendous old growth trees like this enormous fig that Adrian estimates to be well north of three hundred years old.

Giant Fig Tree, Monteverde
Giant Fig Tree

While I did say Curi-Cancha was not overcrowded, you could think differently once a quetzal bird has been sited. So what’s the big deal with quetzals? Lots. The resplendent quetzal is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world and it is intrinsically linked to a number of pre-Columbian Meso-American cultures including the Mayans. It is the official symbol of Guatemala and appears on its flag. In the Archaeological Museum in Mexico City you can see one of the most famous pre-Columbian relics – a cape made entirely of quetzal tail feathers which were plucked from the birds that were then released to let them regrow.

Luckily for birders and I suppose the tail feather collectors of yore, quetzals are birds of habit and usually return to the same avocado trees to feed every day. Adrian knows where these trees are and sure enough, the quetzals are there. This draws  a crowd as virtually everyone in the area congregates under the tree looking upward.

Looking for the Quetzal

And there he is. A beautiful male showing his bright red chest and long tail feathers. This picture was taken on a smart phone held up to the eyepiece of Adrian’s spotting scope which can actually work as well as a telephoto lens. Regardless of what else we see or don’t see the morning has been an unequivocal birding success with this sighting.

Quetzal, Monteverde
Quetzal

But there’s more. We see a quite rare highland tinamou and a pair of mottled owls and this also rare white-naped bushfinch.

White-Naped Bushfinch

However, I have to confess that as much as I enjoyed seeing the quetzal, I like the variety of hummingbirds even more. There is a clearing at Curi-Cancha with about a half dozen hummingbird feeders and its alive with the loud buzzing of these tiny creatures. If you even wonder why they are called hummingbirds come to a place like this and you’ll know in a minute. Adrian identifies at least five different species and while I’m not positive I’ve got these photos properly identified, I’m pretty confident in their identifications.

Purple-Throated Mountain Gem

The largest of Costa Rica’s hummingbirds, the oxymoronic lesser violetear.

Lesser Violetear

Caught in mid-flight is this magenta-throated woodstar, an absolutely beautiful little bird.

Magenta-Throated Woodstar, Monteverde
Magenta-Throated Woodstar

Finally, a rare shot of a sitting hummingbird, in this case a male white-throated mountain gem.

Male White-Throated Mountain Gem

Birds and flowers were not the only things spotted in Monteverde today. There were agoutis in the undergrowth as well as this variegated squirrel who deigned to pose for me, the agoutis didn’t.

Variegated Squirrel, Monteverde
Variegated Squirrel

The Monteverde cloud forest and the butterfly garden are by no means the only attractions in the Monteverde area. On the first visit we went to the Selvatura Adventure Park and did the very worthwhile canopy walk via the suspension bridges high about the forest floor. You can read about that in my first post on Monteverde. This time Alison and I opted to spend the afternoon in Santa Elena visiting some attractions there. She chose the Monteverde Orchid Garden which is right in downtown Santa Helena and very much enjoyed the experience. This is a not for profit establishment that is now focusing on the very rare and only recently discovered, miniature orchids of Monteverde cloud forest. Here are a few of her pictures. Probably not what you expected to see at an orchid garden, but interesting nevertheless.

My choice for an afternoon visit was the Monteverde Herpetarium which is a fancy name for a reptile zoo, mostly snakes (now you know why Alison chose orchids). With some of most poisonous snakes on the planet including the biggest rattler I’ve ever see, an equally monstrous and deadly bushmaster and plenty of non-venous snakes that are so well disguised that you would never know they were there until …

Let’s just say, don’t go to the herpetarium before going into the cloud forest or else you might not go at all.

Green Tree Snake

Tomorrow we are going to cross into Nicaragua or at least try to. Hope you’ll come along.


Many thanks again to Dale of the Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share hos thoughts and photos of our Costa Rica tour. Looking forward to his next experience he shares.

Fish-made-from-Brakes

San Jose Costa Rica – The Way & the Why

Recapping the start to our Costa Rica tour, we are sharing the words and thoughts of Dale The Maritime Explorer about why you should put Costa Rica on your travel wish list.


(and making sure a song gets stuck in your head) Dionne Warwick famously asked “Do you know the way to San Jose?” in her 1968 hit song lamenting the insanity of Los Angeles and longing for the breathing space of San Jose, California. Fast forward some fifty plus years and I doubt that anyone would consider that apparently once idyllic small city to be a place they would go to get away from it all. As the centre of Silicon Valley it’s now the tenth largest city in the U.S. and totally unaffordable to all but the highest paid hi tech execs. But there’s another San Jose and while it’s not on most people’s radar as a tourist destination, it does have a some good qualities that merit finding your way there. Here’s why.

Costa Rica has long had a reputation as the white sheep in a family of Central American countries that have been notorious for their bad actors. While the others were going through one revolution or dictatorship after another, always with the military involved,  Costa Rica got sick of this shit, had an epiphany and cancelled its military in 1948. Yes, got rid of the army for good. No civil wars or external wars since then. And the added bonus of being able to do a lot more for the people when you’re not spending a ridiculous amount on defence.

On top of that, Costa Rica is ridiculously beautiful with an incredible diversity of ecosystems found nowhere else in a nation this small. A full 25% of the country is protected in national parks, the highest in the world. This has paid off tremendously for Costa Rica in terms of attracting tourists and the big bucks they can bring into what is technically a third world country. Millions of tourists fly into Costa Rica every year and the overwhelming majority start their visit by landing in San Jose. That’s not necessarily a good thing as the immigration lines are long, the baggage area total chaos and there are even long lines to have your luggage scanned before leaving as is the norm in most Latin American countries today.

However, once out into the warm tropical sunshine things improve dramatically. It’s about a $30 USD cab ride into the centre of San Jose and my destination is the Gran Hotel Costa Rica which is a Hilton Curio brand and easily the best hotel in a city that has a dearth of them. Alison and I are in Costa Rica to join a tour an Adventures Abroad tour of Central America specifically designed and led by veteran guide and friend Victor Romagnoli. While it’s a one off tour it follows much the same itinerary as do a number of other Adventures Abroad Central American tours of shorter duration with the addition of El Salvador and Honduras. The tour started a week earlier in Panama and visited a number of places we did on a previous trip with Adventures Abroad led by Andrés Fernandéz. Highlights included a partial transit of the Panama Canal, a visit to an Embera Indigenous village and a stay in the remote Caribbean town of Bocos del Toro. After that the group flew into San Jose and took a bus and a riverboat to Costa Rica’s premiere Caribbean coastal community of Tortuguero where the sea turtle conservation movement began and jaguars, not humans, are their primary predators.

We elected not to repeat these adventures, as fun as they were, but instead to join the group in San Jose on their return from Tortuguero. We flew in a day early which gave us almost two full days to explore the city before continuing on to other Costa Rican destinations. This was not our first time in San Jose and while we did not have a bad impression of the place neither did we rate is as one of our favourites. Having just spent more time here I can say that it definitely rose in our estimation starting with the excellent Gran Hotel Costa Rica.

Gran Costa Rica Hotel, San Jose
Gran Costa Rica Hotel

This hotel was a vast improvement over the hotel we stayed at before which was connected to a casino. The Gran Hotel Costa Rica has a great location right in the middle of the central area and is within easy walking distance of most of the things you might want to see. It also has a great restaurant and lounge on the top floor which lets you people watch the goings on in the plaza below. If you do need to spend a night or more in San Jose, take my advice and stay here, and no, I don’t get any discount or other favour for plugging this place. I just want my readers to stay at a place I know is worth the extra cost (not that much really) and is safe and friendly as well.

OK, let’s explore San Jose.

San Jose Sign
In San Jose

Unlike many of my posts I am not going to spend much time talking about the history of this place because frankly it’s pretty boring. Suffice it to say that San Jose is too new to be a great Spanish-American colonial city like Granada, Nicaragua or Antigua, Guatemala and too old to be a really modern looking place like Panama City. It has a mishmash of architectural styles that don’t blend together very well. What it does have is a large number of pedestrianized streets that make getting around without getting run over a breeze. It also has a good collection of small parks, museums and the Teatro Nacional which make for interesting day on foot in a city that’s easy to walk with only a few mild changes in elevation here and there. I suggest getting a map of the central area from the front desk of the hotel and just heading out without much of a plan as we did. You can of course use Google maps on your smart phone, but you’ll also incur roaming charges up the wazoo on most data plans.

The first thing you’ll notice on walking around San Jose is that there are not many tourists around and pretty well everyone on the streets is a local going about their daily lives. You’ll also notice that the population on average is much younger and much slimmer than what you’d see on a typical walking tour in Canada or the United States, although there are the exceptions. Central San Jose is also a safe place to walk. Yes, there are a few bums in some of the parks, mostly winos it seemed, but in neither of our visits were we accosted or at any time felt unsafe. There are also no scam artists awaiting on every corner as in many cities I could name. Costa Ricans on the whole are friendly and do not view tourists as potential sources of profit other than by legitimate means. I am told that in some of the coastal resorts that this is changing for the worse and will report if that’s the case when we visit Quepos in a few days.

You can hardly miss the Teatro Nacional, San Jose’s most prized public building as it is literally across the plaza from the Gran Hotel. I took this picture from the 5th floor lounge which explains the glare.

Teatro Nacional, San Jose
Teatro Nacional from the Hotel

Opened in 1897, it was one of the last of the great Latin American-baroque buildings to be constructed and while the over the top rococo ornamentation is off putting to some, me included, it is worth paying the small entry fee to take a short peek inside. There are guided tours in English but I would say that unless you are baroque devotee, I would settle for the brochure you get with the entry fee as your guide.

The entry atrium has a number of interesting statues representing the various performing arts including this one of La Musica looking suitably detached as she plucks at her lyre.

Alison & Musica

As expected the interior is sufficiently grand with enough tromp l’oeil to satisfy a Tiepolo or Tintoretto and certainly would have impressed the 19th century Costa Rican coffee farmers who paid for this place by agreeing to a special tax on their products.

Teatro Nacional, San Jose
Teatro Nacional

How about these gold gilt gynosphinxes over the entry door to the theatre proper?

Teatro Nacional Gynosphinxes

Or this huge lobby that must have taken its inspiration from Versailles or the Belvedere in Vienna.

Lobby, Teatro Nacional, San Jose
Lobby, Teatro Nacional

Frankly, too much baroque is the equivalent to eating architectural cotton candy so let’s move on before my neck becomes too sore from constantly looking at the ceilings.

Also just across or actually under the plaza on the other side of the hotel is what is usually referred to as the Gold Museum, but is actually a collection of three small museums correctly called the Museos Banco Central de Costa Rica. As a foreigner you’ll need to pay $14 USD to get in, but I think most people will think it is worth, especially if you have never visited the Gold Museum in Bogota, Columbia.

Gold Museum, San Jose
Gold Museum

The museums were built by the Central Bank of Costa Rica to house and display its collection of pre-Columbian gold artifacts and its collection of Costa Rican numismatics (coins basically) as well as a gallery of modern art. It extends for three floors below the plaza above in a concrete bunker that is humanized by the grand spiral staircase that takes you down each level.

On the Gold Museum Stairs

The first stop is the numismatics exhibit which is inside a giant vault. It is well set out with explanations in both English and Spanish, but unless you are a coin collector this museum will probably not hold a lot of interest. Next is the modern art display which has some very interesting pieces and a lot that aren’t. I particularly liked this school of fishes made from brake parts – innovative and simple.

Fish made from Brakes, San Jose
Fish made from Brakes

However, there is no question that the real reason 90% of the visitors are here is to see the pre-Columbian gold exhibit. This also is contained inside a giant vault which I presume they lock at night. The exhibits are arranged chronologically from the first human habitation in Costa Rica to the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500’s. While the quantity and variety of the pieces is no match for the gold museum in Bogota as Colombia is where most of the gold came from, it is still impressive. The best is saved for last, where a collection of the very finest pieces, each in their own display case is mesmerizing, like this birdman shamanic priest.

Golden Bird Priest

The museum has a nice small gift store with quality works for sale.

Time now to just look at the map and head for some of the parks; you never know who you’ll meet.

With Simon Bolivar in San Jose
With Simon Bolivar

This is Alison with the Great Liberator – Simon Bolivar who never liberated any part of Costa Rica. In fact, he never set foot in the country, but nevertheless he is revered as a saint here and the history of the country is replete with the roles that various ‘Bolivar fan clubs’ played at one time or another, particularly university students.

I came across another guy who never set foot in Costa Rica yet also has a statue commemorating him. Here I am on a park bench with John Winston Ono Lennon and the story behind this statue is very interesting.

With John Lennon in San Jose
With John Lennon

It’s located in front the Church of Soledad at a very special spot. In 1964 John Lennon famously declared in a perhaps joking, perhaps not attitude that ‘The Beatles were more than Jesus’. At the time incensed Roman Catholics rallied on this very spot to demand that The Beatles’ music be banned in Costa Rica. That didn’t happen and in 2011 this statue was unveiled. The irony is that since the remark, church attendance in Costa Rica has plummeted, but The Beatles remain as popular as ever so in the long run John might be right.

One guy who did visit San Jose and apparently even did some writing here was Ernest Hemingway who, as anyone who reads my posts will know, I am big fan of. I’ve written posts about his birthplace, Oak Park, Illinois and his death place, Ketchum, Idaho and many places in between. However, I had no idea that he had visited San Jose until, by pure serendipity I came across the former Ernest Hemingway Inn on a quiet street near Bolivar Park. Sadly, it is now closed, but the website confirms that he did stay here at one time.

Ernest Hemingway Inn, San Jose
Ernest Hemingway Inn

One park and district you should definitely visit is the area around the National Legislature. Although Costa Rica does not have an outstanding capitol building it does have a nice collection of buildings and parks surrounding the seat of government including the National Museum of Costa Rica, located in a faux castle structure across from the Legislature. Unfortunately we didn’t have a time for a visit, so it gives us a reason to not rush out of San Jose on our next visit to Costa Rica which will be sooner rather than later.

Also nearby is the Parque Nacional which is the best of many we visited in the city, adorned with a number of interesting statues and monuments, most notably this one.

1856 Monument, San Jose
1856 National Monument

This is the National Monument of Costa Rica and depicts, what else but a victorious and life changing battle for Ticos. However, instead of defeating the Spanish as almost every other monument of this type commemorates in Latin America it shows the Costa Ricans defeating William Walker and his army of filibusters’ at the Second Battle of Rivas which actually took place in Nicaragua. Walker is one of most fascinating and ultimately, evil characters in all of Latin American history. As a private American citizen he attempted and sometimes succeeded to overthrow governments in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, but not as far as I can find out, in Costa Rica. Why there has not been a movie or miniseries about this man is beyond me.

Anyway, only in Costa Rica could you have a National Monument to a battle fought in another country against an army of mercenaries owing allegiance to an American freebooter that was led by a German. And that’s where I’ll leave it.

Next up Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most beautiful spots on earth or so I am told. Let’s find out.


Many thanks to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share his thoughts and photos with you. Stay tuned for the next post about Costa Rica, coming soon.