A 5am start in what can only be described as a brisk, overcast and windy day by the standards of these climes. Our aim 1,200m up the active volcano of Concepcion. The summit was highly unlikely; even if the weather conditions had been favourable, I think it would have been foolhardy to attempt the last 400m of exposed, loose volcanic rock to the summit with a group of inexperienced walkers. We had been talked out of Maderas which we had hoped we could summit on the basis that it was not so high and did not have an exposed top. However, Eduardo, our local contact, told us it was a muddy, uninspiring walk with not so many views, fewer possibilities of seeing wildlife and that the summit was in the trees so there was no real view from the top or sense of being on a summit. We felt a little “bulldozed” by him but in reality we have no option but to trust local knowledge especially when we are responsible for a group of teenagers.
We were thankful of the cool breeze as we walked up the steep hill. The first part on the flat was hard work because of the deep layer of volcanic sand we were walking on but the girls set a good pace. Once the ascent started we were in the forest and the terrain was hard going because of the roots and the uneven ground and the pace slowed. We were excited to hear the calls of Howler Monkeys and even more excited to see them high up in the branches of the trees. They seemed quite alarmed at the wind and howled even more as the branches shook as the gusts blew stronger. We could also hear the calls of the Uracca – the national bird of Nicaragua. It has bright blue and white tail feathers like the flag and we saw them darting between the trees but they were just too difficult to photograph.
We stopped for a break at a large tree the low branches of which made great perches for us. Moses, our guide, explained that we were sitting in the upper branches of a tree that had been buried by ash from an eruption of Concepcion. All the other trees around were new and had grown in the new layer of ash.
We saw more Zanate birds and some smaller green birds in the trees and large birds of prey rode the thermals and the wind high overhead. One of the girls spotted a shy little Capucin monkey scampering along a branch; he sat still for a moment but not long enough to take a photo before he darted away again. Very exciting to see animals we have only before seen in zoos!
As we slowly ascended the tortuous path, placing our feet carefully between and on the network of tree roots, butterflies of all coulours fluttered around. A beautiful black and green one landed on a twig, closed its wings and immediately blended into the environment and looked just like a browning leaf. We also saw brilliant blue ones, red, orange and pale yellow as well as the impressive “Owl” butterfly.
The wind seemed to be getting stringer as we climbed and the sky became more overcast. The base air temperature was still warm though and we were glad of the cooling effect of the wind.
As we climbed the forest changed; amongst the coffee trees there were bananas and then the trees were smaller untilo we reached an area of quite compact shrubs. The sense that we were close to our end point was strong and as we walked aloing the tunnels between the shrubs, we started to be able to see over them at the view beyond. Not far from the bush line, but still in trees we came to an abrupt halt. At the back we didn’t know why but the message was passed back that a large white bull was blocking the path. Even Moses the guide was scared when it put its head down and started to charge! There was a stand off for a few minutes then Moses valiantly cut into the forest to get above it and chase it downwards to where the rest of its group were waiting.
Small pink, white and purple flowers poked their heads out of the long grass as we emerged from the scrub and in to the open grassy slope. The wind was really strong now and it almost blew us off our feet. We almost had to crawl to keep ourselves from being knocked over by the gusts. There was already a group sitting in the lee of a tree from where we could hyave had a view down into a funnel. We decided that caution was the better part of valour and stayed where we were, crouched on the slope all together for safety. It was an exhilarating yet scary time all at once. Some of the girls were genuinely afraid of getting blown down the hill and when we moved, linked arms to make themselves a bigger entity to knock down! After taking photos, marvelling at the view and the stupidity of two Americans who seemed hell bent on becomiung Darwin Award contenders by climbing to the top, we retreated to the shelter of the forest to have our lunch.
Going down tested some of those who had seemed like mountain goats on the way up and gave others new found confidence in themselves as they picked their way agilely over the roots and stones.
We were back at the hotel by 1pm – sore legs, hot and tired but buzzing with a sense of achievement.
An early start carrying our packs through Granada’s busy market – even at 7am it is bustling. The bus station is at the bottom end of the market and as we approached a man came out asking if we were going to Rivas and guided us to the bus. We were excited to see that we would travel on one of the old rickety, 1950s old style school buses which have so much character. We watched carefully as our bags were loaded on the roof and tied on tight and then climbed on board. It was lucky we had arrived early to get a seat as the bus soon filled up with people and chickens! The man who had guided us to the bus turned out to be some sort of public announcement system; he stayed with us the whole way calling out the names of each stop and loading and unloading deliveries in different places. During the two hour journey, more and more people piled on, squashed down the aisle, people selling plantain chips and nuts also climbed on, pushed through the crush of people and exited out the back. It would certainly be a mission to get off at a stop so we were glad that we were going to a terminus station.
Rivas bus station was manic and some of the girls found it totally overwhelming and scary. As soon as the bus pulled in, in fact, even before it stopped, people were jumping on offering taxis to San Jorge. We had been told that “Eduardo” would be there to meet us so sat tight as the bus emptied. Then a man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the bus in front and said “San Jorge autobus” I started to say “No, gracias” when he said “Estais con Eduardo?” I said yes and he said that Eduardo had called him to meet us and make sure we got on the right bus. I was unsure – my instinct now is to be circumspect but he assured me that he was telling the truth and since the bus was clearly marked and we would probably have got it anyway we climbed aboard and accepted his help.
Ten minutes later and apart from the splendid view of Ometepe’s two volcanoes in the distance we could have been at any short ferry terminal any where in the world. We could see Concepcion standing tall wearing it’s cap of cloud and it was difficult to believe that this was a lake and not a sea especially since the wind was causing quite big waves to lap the sides of the boat.l The crossing was was very pleasant – I love going on ferries especially when it is warm and I can sit as high up as possible and watch my destination getting closer – the promise of what is to come is delicious!
Moyogalpa is essentially a one street town but it is the biggest on the island and actually bigger than we had expected. It is a bustling port with everything that goes with that; industry mixed with tourism and as soon as we landed the hawks descended. They offered taxis, tours, accommodation but we had our accommodation sorted and only needed to walk a short way up the hill to the Hotelito Aly.
What a strange little place! And it gets stranger the longer we stay here and interact with the owners who seem to own a fair chunk of the commercial outlets in the town! As I already mentioned, we had expected Ometepe to be a small island with a couple of settlements, a few hostels and some food outlets. So a bustling little town full of tourism was a bit of a surprise. Ometepe was formed by the two volcanoes – Concepcion at 1600m is still active and vents every few years, Maderas at 1300m is inactive so the vegetation on the two halves of the island is quite different.
Anyway back to the hotel which has definitely seen better days, its cleanliness is of dubious quality, but it is a roof over our heads and a space to meet and I do have a fairly spectacular view from my balcony! Unusually for a Hispanic country everything shuts up shop at 5pm which makes shopping for supplies difficult when we go out early and are not back before 5pm.
This evening we finally met up the elusive “Everywhere and nowhere man” Eduardo. We are sure that he must be involved in some sort of covert operation under the guise of being the man who knows everyone and has a finger in every pie. It is clear that he has an agenda and that despite there being some element of choice for our trek on our World Challenge information sheets, in reality we were going to do what suited Eduardo! After some heated debate and it was “agreed” that we would climb Concepcion the following day.
Today was going to be our first test of walking in the heat; a four hour walk on the top of Mombacho and after a few days chilling we were ready for a challenge. Unfortunately, some crossed wires and mis-communication between World Challenge, El Cafe de las Flores and us meant that we only did the short walk. A little disappointing but it was a beautiful walk nonetheless, with fantastic views of the lake which is almost like a sea. It is definitely much bigger than Taupo but I wonder how close it is in size to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva)? Having seen both I think that possibly the French one is bigger but would have to check. Our guide was very informative and told us all about the different orchids that we could see along the path. Delicate little white ones in the forest and larger bright ornage and pink out in the open areas. The pink flowers only last a day but are large and showy. I think we were too late in the day to see the sloths that apparently hang out on the trees but we were excited to see the vultures (zopilotes) that circled overhead.
To make up for our disappointment at not being able to do the longer walk, when we got back down to the cafe, we were offered the opportunity to have a coffee tour. We jumped at the chance and having learned about cacao, we now learned about coffee. Unlike the cacao bean the coffee bean is ripe when it is red and if you pinch the bean between your fingers the bean pops out easily from the skin. It is covered in white flesh that is sweet to suck. the taste reminded me of pomegranate and it was nice sucking the sweet juiciness. We were shown the whole process of harvest, cleaning, shelling but the beans from Mombacho are all sent to be roasted in Managua. Some are combinbed with beans from other plantations others are kept apart so they can sell them as Mombacho coffee.
The water used for washing the beans is brought down from the top of the mountain, it is diverted from a waterfall that falls into the crater that we looked into on our walk. The plantation on M ombacho has been organic since 2006 and the water and the coffee is all recycled and eventually goes back into the soil as fertilisation and irrigation. The discarded husks are composted and used to fertilise the soil and the water runs through irrigation beds to clean it once it has cleaned the beans and then is used to water the crops. It seems that the only pests to the coffee tree are a small beetle and the coffee rust fungus. Trees can grow as tall as 12 metres but they are kept short so that the hand picking of the beans is easier. The harvesters wear baskets around their waists so that as they pick the beans drop straight into the baskets. Apparently instant coffee is made from the inferior beans before the last two layers of husk are removed – I have always been a coffee snob and now I know why I prefer “real” coffee! Interestingly espresso coffee beans have less caffeine in them than medium and light roast.
Tomorrow – on to Ometepe to climb a volcano.
Today we rode in a 4wd truck up to Mombacho to go ziplining through a coffee plantation . It was a great way to see more of the town and the size of the churches amazed us all. For a small town there are so many churches and they are all huge! The cemetery too was an eye opener for the girls; the tombs were very impressive and they seemed more so because they were all white and almost shone in the bright sunshine. One of the girls asked me how it was that such poor people could afford such grand tombs. I think the sign over the gate answers that question “Estaremos siempre con el Senor”. Interestingly, we haven’t seen much evidence of nativity scenes, which I had expected, but the churches certainly seem well-frequented as there are always people in them quietly praying. We have also seen two weddings and a funeral!
So back to zip lining… The truck turned off the main road and we chugged up the hill past coffee plantations, rickety houses made of wood and corrugated iron, others that looked better built of stone, gardens planted with flowers and vegetables, the local school and the church. Life is clearly not easy up here but to me it is preferable to the narrow smelly streets around the market where people live on top of each other and the homeless sleep in doorways.
Once at the top we were soon harnessed up and ready to go. Our guides, Eric and Mario made the wires bounce up and down so that we swung rather than glided down the first two short wires. Shrieks and delighted cries rung out through the canopy as we swung and zipped along. There were also a couple of extras challenges; a shuffle wire – three at a time “walked” across and back while Eric bounced the wire up and down to try to make us fall off! There was also a Tarzan swing and, to finish the morning off, the vertical free fall. This was a 15m controlled “fall”, carefully managed by our two skilled guides. The giant ants in the trees kept us amused as we waited out turn between wires as did the views through the trees and a poisonous spider pointed out to us by the guides sent some into mild hysteria. “It´s only a baby,” said Mario “When it´s bigger, it will hurt!” Very reassuring! Fortunately we didn´t see any more!
The afternoon was spent exploring a little more and doing some planning and preparation. I walked along to one of the other churches, the Iglesia De Mercedes, and found that you could climb the bell tower. What an amazing view of the rooftops, the cathedral standing out tall and proud resplendent in the late afternoon sun, and we could see Mombacho overlooking the town. There was a funeral going on in the church but as the entrance to the tower was off to one side we could go in without disturbing. From above we could see the funeral carriage which was pulled by a horse and adorned in black finery.
A day of exploration and a little bit of learning. We went to the Mansion de Chocolate and participated in a chocolate workshop – always a subject close to a girl`s heart! In the course of the two hour session we learned all about how the cocoa beans grow and then we made chocolate drinks and a bar of our own chocolate.
Ishmael from Israel was the chocolate chef – what a job! – and he was so excitable and enthusiastic that we couldn`t help but also be excited and enthusiastic!
He started off telling us about the cocoa plant and how important it was as currency to the indigenous people. Apparently, 10 cocoa beans could be exchanged for a woman, 100 for a monkey and 1000 for a snake! It fruits twice a year but the better crop comes off the second fruiting, it produces 80 to 100 pods and each pod holds 40 to 60 seeds. They are ripe when they turn from green to yellow but once they turn red they are over ripe. To see if the pod is ripe you shake or tap it and it should sound hollow and the seeds will rattle.
Next stop was roasting which we did over an open fire. Ishmael had us all dancing round the fire stirring the beans as they popped and crackled singing “Bate, bate chocolate”. Once they were roasted – they changed colour – we had to extract the beans from their shell. They were still a little hot but a quick pinch and twist and the shells came away easily. We reflected on what a satisfying activity it was but then considered that if you had to do it every day the chore might lose its charm!
Grinding came next and all armed with a stone pestle and mortar and a handful of beans we set to grinding the brands into a paste. We added no water but the humidity can account for about 20% of water in the beans which is why they are ground to a paste and not to a powder. The results of our labours were pooled and Ishmael made three drinks;
Mayan hot chocolate – cacao, water, cinnamon, honey, pepper
Aztec hot chocolate – cacao, water, cinnamon, chilli, honey, pepper, cardamon, vanilla
European hot chocolate – cacao, milk, sugar, cinnamon, star anise
We all had our favourite but I preferred the Aztec drink, it was quite earthy but had a bite at the end. As we stirred the drinks we all had to sing another song; Bate, bate, chocolate, estedad, estedad,………. He made us sing the second part on our own as we stirred and Charlotte won the prize for doing it the best!
After that we made our own chocolate. Ishmael had prepared the chocolate as normally it takes several hours to spin. We chose our own additions though and I went for an Aztec theme and added salt, pepper, chilli, cinnamon, cacao chips and chopped cashews. Muy rica! He finished off as all good teachers do with a quiz to see what we had remembered. It was quite nerve wracking but everyone passed with flying colours.
Still Day 2! LA to Miami, Miami to Managua, Managua to Granada. Dinner in LA, breakfast in Miami, lunch in Granada. Sunset in LA, sunrise in Miami….. my poetic creativity has abandoned me! More planes, more airports, more waiting, finally a bus ride and we are here and can sleep in a real bed again after what seems like a very long time! First impressions of Nicaragua – after the flat lands of LA and the swamps of Miami which were barely indistinguishable from the ocean (viewed from the window oif a plane, anyway) it was a welcome sight to see the green, lush vegetation of forests, and the undulations of mountains and valleys as we flew in to Managua. I was lucky enough to get a window seat and so had a great view. I love that first glimpse of a country from above as you dip beneath the clouds and can see the shape of the land. Managua airport is a similar size to Hamilton although hotter and stickier and definitely has that developing world feel about it. Security is far stricter though and we all had our temperatures taken as we arrived which bemused the girls. I guess it is a capital city.
Ebert was waiting outside with a makeshift sign that said ” Waikato Team 1″ and a welcoming smile and we were soon on our way. The girls were particularly bemused by the way the luggage was loaded into the back seats through the open window but this is something I am now used to after being in Fiji, Cambodia and Vietnam. The similarities continued as we drove; shanty houses with tin roofs, bright pink bougainvillea climbing and straggling across anything it could, stalls at the side of the road selling all sorts of things from petrol for scooters to fruit to spare tyres, tuktuks braved the two lanes laden with happy, chatty, shouty people of all ages, scooters zipped in and out carrying more people and goods than seems feasibly safe, workers harvesting cross in the fields, emaciated cattle grazing the grass verges and horns hooting as cars, buses, and trucks zoomed along overtaking, undertaking and generally vying for road space. Differences too; there are babana plantations but we saw predominantly wheat growing; the bright carefully tended gardens of Cambodia and Fiji are not so evident athough there are plenty of smallholdings; there are horses everywhere – pulling carts but also being ridden and lots in the fields and grass verges grazing; the roads and infrastructure seem better maintained and churches and signs and slogans about God`s wonder abound.
Of course, this is but a very brief snapshot on a one hour journey from Managaua to Granada and so is unlikely to be representative of the country as a whole. I am sure we will see more as we travel. We have only had a brief foray into Granada as yet but I love the brightly coloured houses. They are painted in all different coulours – pink, blue, green, yellow, purple and they add a certain carm to the streets and the Spanishy bcolonial style houses. They look straight onto the street but if you peer through the open doors you can see cool courtyards with plants within. The huge yellow and white cathedral dominates el Parque Central and the pretty square is dotted with street stalls selling hotdogs, quesadilas, tourist gifts and trinkets and is over hung by large trees that provide shade. They also provide roosts for the noisy Zatane birds which only really makje themselves heard as dusk falls when their raucous calls fil the air and they swoop and dive between perdches in the trees. They are like children at a playground who can`t decide which thing to play on so they dart from one to the other! We clearly chose not only a bad place to eat but also a bad time as we struggled to make ourselves heard and we also had to dodge the missiles they blaunched at us! We all left with white splodges in our hair or on our tee-shirts! The noise of the birds competed, and possibly just about won, with the ringing of the cathedral bells every quarter hour but as night fell the cacophony ended as suddenly as it had begun and peace reigned once again. Despite the chalenge of noise our dinner was delicious. We opted for a traditional meal and we all had beans and rice with either chicken or pork. It was served with a deliciously spicy slaw. We were also adventurous when it came to drinks and went for one of the unusual names of juices – chia, chichi, grama, which all turned out to be delicious althyough I think Grama was the favourite.
But back to the hostel to dip our feet and plan for tomorrow.
A day of chilling and planning; we booked buses, bought food, found places to eat, contacted the trekking people, researched cultural activities and slept in! We all woke at different times and so by the time we were all up it was time for brunch and we were hungry. The girls went off in groups to find their own food and explore the town. Most of them didn’t go far from the Parque Central and none of them went downhill so they didn’t find the main market. However, they enjoyed the tourist marketed in the square and came back with ideas for dinner and bellies full of pancakes!
We went downhill it being the least line of resistance and the opposite direction from the day before and we found the market. A fairly typical town market teeming with people and goods. The stalls lined the crowded streets on both sides, the stench of rotting food, dog faeces and urine was strong, stray dogs and scrawny cats roamed and scavenged from the piles of waste food in the side streets, stalls selling all sorts – clothes, household goods, fruit, veg, phones…and behind them, more shops; dark caverns with more things for sale. The bright sun was hard on our yet to be acclinatised eyes and we shouted an entrance to an indoor market. The dark coolness was welcome but it was the calm and quiet that hit us too. Outside a cacophony of noise, music blaring, people shouting, laughing, talking, constant movement, a mother chasing a child, a child chasing a dog, youths joking and reading, parents calling and scolding, children laughing and playing, a mother feeding a baby and girls and boys helping and working the stalls.
Inside stall holders at clothing and show stalks sat quietly, a few words as we passed to encourage us to buy but clearly realising that we were not prospective customers. Men and women working at old treadle sewing machines making and repairing clothes and cobblers tapping, flirting and sewing. As we made our way through the maze of aisles I had a sense of being in a church, an oasis of calm amid the maelstrom.
But we were looking for food ; we came to the meat hall where lumps of liver, kidney, whole pig heads, ribs, and every other bodily part were laid out on the concrete slabs. Surprisingly the smell was not as pungent as I had expected after my experiences in Dalat, Vietnam. Meat have way to fish then vegetables and we were on the outside again. We made are way towards a plume of smoke and a smell that promised cooked food. Enchiladas sizzled in huge woks on charcoal fires. We bought a couple for 80 centavos and they were served on a bed of banana leaf wirh traditional Nicaraguan slaw and a fragrant gravy and chilli sauce. Muy rico!
The afternoon was spent on admin sorting out accommodation, transport, and activities for the next few days. Some girls ventured down to the market to buy food which they brought back to cook for our evening meal. A great first day in Nicaragua.
Sitting in Los Angeles airport waiting for our flight to Miami. It’s been a long day. Crossed the dateline, city tour of LA with the lovely Tony who guided us with a smile around the sights. Huge six lane freeways, triple decker fly overs, crazy drivers… I was surprised by rise the majority of LA is – residential areas are much like NZ with single storey town houses although the sprawl of suburbia spreads further. Through the haze we could see some mirrored glass towers in the distance with the hills behind. The Hollywood sign was elusive and proved difficult to photograph as it slipped behind billboards and trees as we spotted along the road.
Los Angeles is a city of surprises; beautiful, old (well in US terms but not European – stone buildings with intricate carvings, mixed with stunning modern glass, concrete and metal designs. The European, especially Spanish, influence is clear. You can imagine the immigrants from long ago coming over from Spain, Italy, France and England with their skills and artistry and recreating familiar images from home. But there is also the dirt and the rubbish which seems to be all over and we were shocked by the number of down and outs that were quite evident, even in seemingly affluent areas of the city, but especially in Broadway and Santa Monica where we had chance to get out of the bus and explore. Huge multi-million dollar houses nestled in the hillside and on main streets rubbed shoulders with the old and run down. Advertising everywhere, massive billboards and cars – flash and expensive and seemingly only driven by young men wearing shades and looking very cool! They zipped in and out, cut across lanes and in front of the bus, squeezing through gaps and generally uncaring about coming off worse in an argument with a bus! Tony told us that they don’t worry about getting bumped as they will just sue the bus company. That led to an interesting discussion with him about the litigation culture and gun laws, racism, the power of police and a whole lot more.
Tony stopped to let us hop off the bus to take photos and stretch our legs – we needed it after 14 hours on a plane. So in brief, what were the take away moments of LA?
Walt Disney Concert Hall – a stunning burnished metal building that had to be made less shiny because the reflections were too much for local residents and drivers.
Old and new churches all over the place all decorated for Christmas.
The oldest street in LA – hispanic kitchness but pretty and full of character all the same. I bought a ¨Dia de los Muertos´ tee-shirt from one of the many stalls selling all things ¨Mexicana¨ – had to get something from LA!
Following the Broadway stars – we spent half an hour ‘star gazing’ and like kids were delighted whenn we saw names we recognised both from the past and the present and then posed for photos with them! I definitely got a bit carried away with the photos! But was delighted that Winnie the Pooh was there and we had to find Peter Jackson as he had only just had his star put there.
No beer allowed on this trip but we couldn’t resist going into the ‘Rusty Mullet’ for a soft drink – definitely a bar with character!
Dinner was out at Santa Monica Beach. the sun was already going down as we arrived at 5.30pm and it went dark very quickly. Whilst most of the girls headed to the bright lights of the Ferris Wheels and hotdog stalls onthe pier, our stomachs led us in nsearch of more substantial fare. Third Street (and first and second for that matter ) could have been any street in any retail district in any western country. However, as the darkeness fell and the festive Christmas lights shone brighter it had an undeniable charm. Of course, we had a burger in the US of A and an excellent one it was too from ‘La Cucina’ – a traditional Italian place serving American food! We juts had time to run down to put our feet on the beach (just to say we had done it!), peer at the pier from afar and get back toi the bus.
Tony, our bus driver was one of those special souls who clearly loves his job; he went out of his way to make our tour special. He was genuinely upset when roadworks or other building projects stopped him from being able to pull in and let us jump ut to get better photos. He also had a treasure trove of stories to embellish the banal.
Back at LA airport with 5 hours to kill until our flight to Miami …..