Do you know the way to San Jose?

very pink bandstand with green stepsOur last morning in Rivas was spent shopping for food, and briefly exploring the town.  Negative first impressions of Rivas when we had passed through on our way to Ometepe, admittedly formed purely on an experience in the crowded and noisy bus station, were cast aside as the girls had a chance to look around.  It is a friendly, busy place with a very quirky and very pink Parque Central.  Market stalls line the streets where it is possible to buy anything and everything. The Lonely Planet suggested that with only two hours to visit Rivas, the museum was the place to go.  Unfortunately, we got there to find it was closed and was seemingly in a very bad state of repair; one whole wall was being reconstructed! Peeping through the windows it did look like there were some interesting exhibits but they will have to wait for another time!
large white church on the corner of the main square. tuktuks in the foreground
A few of us took advantage of tuktuk transport to get back to the hostel, made all the more exciting as the two drivers raced each other down the streets, cutting corners to overtake each other!
street in Rivas with men cleaning shoes sitting on the side of the road.  One man having his shoes cleaned, a bicycle propped against the kerb.I am always fascinated by the everyday lives of people and although I sometimes feel uncomfortable taking photographs of people I just can’t resist snapping scenes in the streets that capture what real life is like.  It is wonderful when sometimes the people spot me and wave and smile.  Rivas, just like Granada and Moyogalpa is multifaceted.  Initially you see the veneer, the commercial streets but if you head away from the main streets you find the little lanes that tell you so much more about how people live.  I loved the “shoe shine boys” sitting along the road as their clients sat on stools, the “auto motorbike and car wash” – a space where someone supplied water and sponges so you could wash your own motorcycle, and the men and women sitting in entrances of rooms repairing and creating garments on old treadle sewing machines.
Street in Rivas, bicycles propped against the kerb, woman, child and man in the foreground talking, two men sitting in the doorway to a house one sewing on a treadle sewing machine
Penas Blancas - the border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  A white and green building to the left, bare earth and phone towers. The rest of our day was spent travelling – another long wait for a bus that didn’t come at the appointed time but did eventually arrive and our first rain in ten days.  It came out of nowhere, bucketed down for about 15 minutes and then cleared away leaving us wet and steamy!  Crossing the border at Penas Blancas was uneventful. Off the bus on the Nicaragua side, hand over passports, back on the bus, drive through the 1km corridor of no man’s land, back off the bus with all bags to go through passport control and baggage scans to enter Costa Rica. Done!  Hola Costa Rica!
By now it was dark and scenery gazing was impossible so I slept!  Awoke to see the lights of a big city spread out as far as the eye could see.  Costa Rica only has a population of about 4.5 million, but the metropolitan area of San Jose accounts for more than a third of that.
Our hostel was basic but comfortable and we had an early start the next day so straight to bed!

Adios Nicaragua, Hola Costa Rica

Ferry port, very much a building site, a car in the foreground, signs and cones with barriers. In the background the volcano of ConcepcionWe were welcomed into Rivas by some very friendly taxi drivers.  Experience has taught me to be circumspect at the descending hordes of people offering taxis, buses, accommodation but sometimes you have to trust to instinct and these guys seemed genuine enough.  They assured us that the bus we had intended getting was not available; it had already left and there were no more that evening.  It was getting dark, and the thought of navigating the building site that was the San Jorge port with full packs and weary girls, to find a bus and then to negotiate a busy bus station and still have to get taxis to our hostel was rather daunting. twin monuments in a town square remembering the heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1970s.So we negotiated a price and off we set.  Our taxi driver proudly talked about Nicaragua and its people and he even showed us his house!  He also showed us where the Spanish conquistadores and Nicaraguans signed the Declaration of Independence in 1821.  A cross and a statue mark the point in the road.  He told us about how Christopher Columbus came in 1492 and the Spanish stole the land of the indigenous people and drove them out.  He was proud of how all the countries that were colonised by Spain have now achieved their independence and their freedom.  There is a real sense here of patriotism and pride in who they are; poor but free after the struggles they have had in the latter part of the 20th century. In the Parque Central there are statues of the people from the FSLN who were instrumental in overthrowing the dictator Somoza.  It has taken the country many years to get over the damage caused to the economy by Somoza and whilst the poverty here is clearly evident systems are in place and seem to be working.
The lady at the Hospedaje Lidia welcomed us in a much more friendly manner than the Señora in Ometepe but she was still quite dour! However, once the girls greeted her in Spanish and made efforts to communicate she relaxed and was much more chatty. We were ready to eat so headed out towards the Parque Central where our taxi driver had recommended a cheap place to eat local food. Drummers with large bass drums playing in a town square in the eveningAs we got closer we could hear the sound of drums and presumed it was some sort of procession – another bit of information from our taxi driver.  We have been hearing fireworks all the time we have been here and he said they are set off during the processions which are part of the nightly celebrations leading up to Christmas.   When we arrived at the square an area to the right was filled with drummers drumming all different types of drums, there were also trumpeters and percussionists.  On the stage a large group of girls were dancing to the beat.  It was fantastic to listen to and watch.  They threw the large bass drums over their heads and swirled them around without missing a beat! Each section played and then passed on to the next or accompanied each other.  It was totally mesmerising and we stood there for over half an hour. Gallo Pinto, a traditional Nicaraguan meal, plantain chips with rice and red beansThere seemed to be no sign of them finishing so we made our way to the restaurant which was actually at the corner of the square so we ate our delicious Gallo Pinto whilst still listening to the band.
To finish the evening off the girls danced to the very cheesy Christmas music playing from the bandstand in the Parque Central.  It is interesting how differently we behave when we know that the people who are watching us will never see us again!  It makes me think about how that idea plays out in an online environment where we can maintain a certain amount of anonymity or even re-invent ourselves completely.  Food for thought.

Waterfalls and Mineral Pools

view of mountain through trees and vegetation. Porridge with honey and fresh fruit for breakfast to set us up for another long climb – this time up the flanks of Maderas to a waterfall.  The road around the island (78km circuit) is paved between Moyogalpa and Altagracia but the rest is metalled and very variable in quality so we had a bumpy ride!  At one point the road crosses the airstrip which is rather odd.
cart being pulled by oxen on a road in Ometepe Island, NicaraguaWe passed through several settlements of varying sizes and our driver seemed to know everyone as he waved to them all and tooted at every vehicle! Life seems very simple here, in some ways very modern – technology such as mobile phones, internet cafes and free wifi in every cafe and hotel, and every home has a large television in the living rooms which have dirt or concrete floors and uncovered walls. However, we also saw women washing clothes by hand in the lake and streams and men mending fishing nets and laying them out to dry.
yellow and white church at the top of a hill in Moyogalpa, OmetepeHorses seem a common mode of transport especially for herding cattle.  In fact, horses, carts and cattle share the road quite happily and congruously with scooters, 4WDs, quad bikes and cars.  There are dogs and cats EVERYWHERE!  Some are clearly cared for others are clearly strays but they all seem docile enough. House and churches seemed, at first, to be half built but then we realised that windows are often half unglazed in large buildings and troofs are elevated above the walls, presumably to let the air flow through and keep them cool. Looking into some houses from the street, doors are open so it is difficult not to, many of them have no flooring or wall coverings, plastic chairs and tables and, at this time of year Christmas decorations, and a large television that the family would be sitting watching. People seem to watch a lot of TV; in all the houses I could see in to two or three people would would be sitting watching television, they may also have been preparing food or sewing. In the hotels we have stayed in TVs have also been a constant; the girls have delighted in finding music channels and the hotel staff, often an elderly member of the family, will be sitting watching TV all day.
interior of church with wooden pews and white drapesThe church in Moyogalpa is impressively positioned at the top of the hill as you walk up the street from the port. It is painted the same deep yellow that reflects the sun so beautifully as the cathedral in Granada.  It has no windows but has white drapes that hang from floor to ceiling in all the alcoves.  It made me think of a whole row of giant four poster beds, but it is quite beautiful.
waterfall with the water being blown by the wind so that it falls in a wide arc.But back to our walk. It was uphill, steep, exceedingly hot, 3km that seemd like 30km, but on terrain that was variable enough to ease the monotony of the “uphillness”. We started in full sun on an open track which was unremitting but turned into a more shaded track in the forest after about one and a half kms and then into a dry river bed with huge overhanging cliff – a real gorge.  Although the river was dry we could hear water and only needed to climb a little more along a narrow track to emerge at the waterfall. Reminiscent of Bridal Veils Falls but a wider span that seemed to spray out more. We guessed that in winter there would be a much heavier fall but it was very refreshing to stand underneath and cool down.
a group of girls playing in the pool at the base of a waterfallThe girls had started the day quietly.  They seemed rather down and struggled to motivate themselves after the big walk yesterday.  the heat and the climb had not helped and a few struggled.  The water was a godsend.  After a happy half hour splashing in the knee deep pool at the base of the waterfall and standing underneath the spray they were rejuvenated.  Going down was a cinch and they all but flew down, pausing only to look at the spider monkeys in the trees.
Our next stop was the “Ojos de Agua” which the Lonely Planet guide says is a short walk through banana groves to natural mineral pools formed by underground springs. Well, either there is more than one place called Ojos de Agua or, since the guide was written, what sounded like a quiet natural beauty spot has been highly commercialised!  Never mind, we had a blast there; the girls were quite happy about being driven directly to the pools which have been “captured” with a concrete wall to create a sort of swimming pool. We spent a happy hour swinging off the rope swing, teetering on the tight rope and generally gaining the benefits of the minerals which, according to the guy at the entrance taking our money, would make me look 40 years younger and cure all my arthritis and rheumatism!woman swinging into natural mineral pool on rope swing.

Concepcion: Volcano Climbing

early morning cloud over volcano
Our goal “Volcan Concepcion”

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.
Howler monkey in tree
Howler monkey

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.
trekkers resting in the branched of a tree buried by volcanic ash
Sitting high up in the branches!

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.
large tree half buried by volcanic 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!
view of Lake Nicaragua from halfway up Volcan Concepcion.  clouds in blue sky
View of Lake Nicaragua from Concepcion

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.
cloud line on Volcan Concepcion.  trekkers battling against the wind.
Reaching the cloud line

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.
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White bull in the forest.
Little White Bull!

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.
soft spiky pale pink flowers on the treeline of Volcan Concepcion trekking group having lunch in the shelter of the trees.
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.

Day 6: Acclimatisation trek, Mombacho

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.

10th December: Part Two

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.