Nicaragua- The Country of Lakes and Volcanoes
01 May 2011 | Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua
Hiking in the Mombacho Volcano Mist Forest
May 1, 2011
Nicaragua- The Country of Lakes and Volcanoes
We quietly slipped off our mooring ball at 0515 and followed our panga guide out of the estuary. By 0645 both Perfect Wave and us had safely made it through the surf line and were on our way to Nicaragua. Not many boats it seems stop in Nicaragua, and we had mixed reports from the few that had about what the marina was like. One of the many things we love about our Perfect Wave family is not only their energy, but their enthusiasm to check out new places. Crossing the Gulf of Fonseca was not an easy or comfortable feat due to the short steep waves. (see photo gallery "Welcome to Nicaragua" for some incredible shots of Perfect Wave crashing over and under the seas) The mouth of the gulf is 21 miles wide and the bay is about 25 miles deep. This allows the wind to build up short, steep wind waves off shore. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua all meet in this bay as well. We wanted to go in, anchor, and check out the old CIA base from the Reagan/Ollie North/Sandinista contra guerillas era on El Tigre Island. As stated in our Sarana Cruising Guide: "This cone shaped jungle island is a perfect base if you're an evil genius or perhaps just a CIA operative." However, the Port Captain in El Salvador firmly recommended that we not enter this bay due to theft and gun running that had recently picked up. "No problem," I said. I'm adventurous but I'm not crazy! So, these sea conditions are apparently pretty normal for this area but it made us feel very ill and it sounded like our boat was going to fall apart every time it crashed through a wave and slammed down in the trough of the next one. Thankfully by 3 PM it was all over and we pulled into the very pretty and quiet Marina Puesta del Sol.
Nicaragua is about the size of New York State yet is the most sparsely populated country in Central America at about 4.8 million. It is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as the occasional hurricane, the latest being Hurricane Mitch in 1998. 48% of the people live below the poverty level and lack of clean water is a serious problem. Much of the ground water supplies are contaminated due to improper waste disposal, chemicals, and pesticides. We were mortified to learn of the serious rate of kidney failure in the people, and that the causes have not yet been discovered. However, there seems to be a local knowledge that its cause is from the use of agrochemicals used in the growing of sugar cane, and the use of DDT when cotton farms were popular. As Larry and I walked one day on the dirt roads out of the marina, past ramshackle homes with small children and chickens running around, seeing the families pulling up a bucket of murky brown water from their well for their children to drink just made us cringe. We take so much for granted in the states. I wish I could just wave a magic wand over these third world countries and give them clean drinking water. I give thanks every time we are able to turn on our water maker and produce clean, clear water out of the sea.
On a happier note, we really loved our time at Puesta del Sol. There is a boutique hotel built on the property and a nice restaurant that our friendly waiter, Cinar, would serve us our dinner and drinks poolside while we enjoyed the warm evenings. Ben and I played tennis almost every day. I was even surprised on Mother's Day with a beautiful bouquet of flowers that the concierge, Maria, had made. What a special touch!
One evening, as we were lounging by the pool, a very, very, VERY skinny black lab mix of a dog wandered up sort of close to us and just sat there. Not begging for food, but patiently waiting...hoping maybe a morsel would find its way to his mouth. I was shocked at his condition, reminding me so much of the dog we had rescued near the Puerto Vallarta city dump, who has gone on to have the greatest life ever (thank you Teapot Tony and Ronnie for taking "Kruiser"!). We of course fed him and gave him fresh water and learned that all of the employees were familiar with him and named him "Negro", or in our language, "Blackie". This dog had the sweetest soul and I just could not, not follow through on him and figure out a better way of life for this dog. We figured out where he slept and spent the majority of his day. So we started feeding him three meals a day while we were there. We gave him a bath, picked ticks out of his fur, and even hired a taxi to take us in to the nearest town, Chinandega, with a veterinarian, an hour and a half round trip. We stood in the store front of the veterinary office while a very gruff man asked me in Spanish what was wrong with the dog. (Darn it....Rosetta Stone doesn't cover this one!) "Muy flaco", I said. Duh, he could see the dog was skinny. One shot of Ivermectin for the parasites, a bottle of injectable vitamin B (to be injected once daily for five days), a distemper and parvo vaccine for me to give at a later time, two syringes, a bar of soap for fleas and ticks, and two bags of food. All for the whopping price of $15.00. Heck at that rate I asked, "Could I get more syringes?" I hated using a syringe on this dog more than once, his skin was so hard to get through it had to have hurt. The cab ride by the way, was $50.00!
Seeing some amazing looking volcanoes off in the distance, our adventurous spirit kicked in and soon we found ourselves on a day trip to sled down the volcano Cerro Negro and have lunch in Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua. Cerro Negro, meaning black hill, is the youngest volcano in Central America and last erupted in 1999. Some slopes are covered with rock and others with black volcanic sand, making it challenging at times as we hiked up the trail carrying our equipment. It was very windy and at times I thought for sure I was going to blow off the ledge! The view from the top though was amazing and even though there was no vegetation, the stark rugged beauty of the crater was impressive. So, what is sledding or surfing down a volcano you ask? Well, it's just a really cool way to come down quickly! Surfing would be hard, so we chose to sit on our wood sleds and one by one slid down easily. Very cool!
Now that we had been bitten by the "land travel bug", liked and had confidence in our guide Luis, we decided to take a weeklong trip with a private driver in a van and really do Nicaragua. So, the seven of us (Larry, Ben, and I, and Eric, Dawn, Whitney, and Tommy) loaded up and our first stop was Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. In the city we picked up a local English speaking guide to show us around. We visited a museum that embodied the whole country and its history in one, followed by a delicious lunch at a very nice restaurant serving traditional foods. I was just happy because they actually had a vegetarian dish on the menu! Yes folks, I know I complain a lot, but traveling in these countries and not eating meat is incredibly challenging. Let's just say, there aren't a lot of vegetables available and "tofu" doesn't translate down here! After lunch we stopped in a village to walk around a local artisan market, Ben finally buying a machete with his own money. He has asked for months to get one, thinking he can pick coconuts and cut the tops off so I can drink the coconut milk. It's actually harder than it looks. We chuckle thinking back, how at home he would be wanting to get the latest video game, now he wants a machete! How things have changed. We made our way back to the van, waiting for Perfect Wave to finish their shopping and we learned that our guide for the day also works at a local Managua radio station as a DJ. "Do you mind if I interview you live right now?" Absolutely not we said. The next thing we know, he's called the station and we are live, on the air, being interviewed. Wow! Who would have thunk!
Our next stop was my all time favorite volcano so far called Masaya. This huge smoking crater is constantly emitting gas so the white plume can be seen from far away. It is only about thirty minutes outside of Managua and has a nice road you can drive all the way to the top. Because of the smoke and sulfur gases it is recommended that you only stay up near the crater for about 20 minutes, as well as back your car into a space as opposed to pulling straight in, therefore allowing for a faster escape in case of a sudden eruption! (Say what?!) This crater was something else! The volcano was greatly feared by the indigenous people and the Spanish conquerors. The Spanish naming it "The Mouth of Hell", planted a cross on the crater lip in the 16th century hoping to exorcise the Devil. Sacrifices had taken place here, being thrown into the boiling cauldron, as well as executions. With the heat and the smell from the volcano, it felt evil and sacred.
Laguna de Apoyo was our last stop for the evening before we reached our hotel in the colonial city of Granada. This volcano top was blown away in a huge violent eruption, 22,000 years ago, leaving behind a tranquil crater lake 7km wide. From our view point, overlooking the pristine blue water, we could see Granada and it was a spectacular view. Just the drive up to the top was beautiful as this area is known for its nurseries. Every home had a garden. My partner in crime, Dawn, had been eagerly searching for the herb basil and this area looked hopeful to possibly buy a plant. (Yes, it's the little things that we miss!) But, we didn't know how to say it in Spanish. Have you ever thought about how you would try and ask for something like that in a foreign language? Thank goodness I had my handy dandy Webster English to Spanish dictionary and lo and behold...the word is Albahaca. Hmmmm....how are we EVER gonna remember that? Easy! Just remember Jessica Alba and hack a loogey I said! Voila! Did we ever find it you ask? No. But that's okay because as I write this we're sitting in Costa Rica, in the land of fruits and veggies, so it's a mute point!)
Granada, located on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, was founded in 1524 and is rich in colonial heritage, having a Moorish and Andalusian appearance. We really expected another Antigua, Guatemala, in atmosphere, but in the one evening we spent there it fell short for us. Although I have to say, we didn't give it much time. During the colonial period this city maintained a growing level of trade with ports on the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Nicaragua which drains to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River. The city has been victim to many invasions from English, French, and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua. It was also where William Walker, the American filibuster, took up residence and attempted to take control of Central America as a ruling monarch. One of Walker's generals, set the city ablaze before escaping, destroying much of the ancient city and leaving the printed words "Here was Granada".
Sadly, the condition of Lake Nicaragua is a huge concern, seriously polluted by sewage - up to 32 tons a day, as well as industrial dumping. Once again we have learned how a country's economic situation has seriously hampered the building of sewage treatment plants and supplying clean drinking water. As Larry says, this country is still in survival mode. It's hard to worry about ecology when you're trying to meet your basic needs. It's so sad, as we have seen in the third world countries. We also learned here that the average family of four needs $400.00/month, just to put three meals a day on the table. The average salary being roughly $8-10/day makes this practically impossible. Which is probably why the more kids you have the more bodies that are out there working, even at the tender age of six, as we have witnessed. For example, our tour director's wife is a teacher at a private school, making $250/month.
On an interesting side note; even though Lake Nicaragua is a fresh water lake it has Bull Sharks who have actually been seen being able to jump along the rapids of the San Juan River entering and exiting the lake. As well as farmed Tilapia. Can I just say, "Ewww!".
Up early the next morning we were scheduled for a zip line tour and cloud forest hike on the volcano Mombacho, which is a huge strato volcano bordering Lake Nicaragua, 10 km from Granada. At the summit is a wet tropical forest, also called the cloud forest. Coffee plantations are plentiful. If you have never been to a coffee plantation and learned the processing of coffee, then all I have to say is DON'T complain ever at the price you have to pay for coffee. It is laborious to say the least.
Zip lining was a ball, but if I never do it again that would be okay. Once or twice in a lifetime is nice! We had a wonderful guide to escort us on our nature walk in the cloud forest, educating us on all the flora and fauna. I can't help but feel excited for Ben, exposing him to so much that he couldn't learn from a school book. And even though I know he doesn't necessarily appreciate it all now, we pray that someday he will go on to do great things in this world...or at least be a really happy person.
When we set this tour up with Luis at www.thetourstogo.com, he set up some very specific things for us to do to see the best of Nicaragua. However, we also wanted some freedom so he built in time for that as well. So, off to Punta Teonoste we went, a nature lodge and beach spa that we thoroughly enjoyed several nights at, albeit buggy nights to say the least, but great fun! First, let me explain that we had to do some serious "off roading" in our not so serious off road van. This cost us extra, for the wear and tear, not a problem we said. Our driver, Sergio, was such a sport and even though he didn't speak English and we really don't speak Spanish, we had a great time together and laughed a lot. He had left his wife and young son at home to drive us for almost a week, which was good for him to have a job, but we were very grateful and especially appreciated how safe he was with driving (which is a rarity in some of these countries!).
Punta Teonoste was so wonderful. There is a huge open aired thatch roofed building that houses the reception area, gift shop, restaurant, bar, and lounge area where the kids would sit at night playing games like they were in their living room. The chef was from France and fixed us some of the most amazing meals, and we loved the staff who were so warm and gracious. We had the whole place to ourselves except for one other couple that came for one night. Our bungalows were open aired as well, with a living room and bedroom downstairs, and a bed and bathroom upstairs in the loft. On the ground floor there was also a really cool outdoor bathroom which the wasps loved during the day and the mosquitoes loved at night. One night, even though we were all tucked in our mosquito net covered bed, we were attacked by a bazillion giant flying ant type things that somehow would get under the net and just drop on us, keeping Larry and I up most of the night. We all laughed about it the next day but decided it was probably time for us to move on. We hadn't seen our driver, as he had been able to stay in the employees' quarters also receiving three meals a day, but he was ready when we needed him and we all hit the road again. Now, at first we noticed that he kept looking out his window at the back tire. Hmmm... we know we are going to be on a dirt road for a good hour or more, needing to drive through 3 small (we hoped) rivers, with a not so clear map as to how to get back to the main highway, stopping at the occasional small home we came across to make sure we were going in the right direction. But now we know why our driver was looking at the tire, it started locking up, which made the van slide out and turn sharply. About the third time this happened, and I mean we are out in the middle of nowhere, our driver stops and jumps out to start to fix the problem. The three guys, Larry, Eric, and the driver, can totally handle this (I just love the testosterone that comes out in situations like this!). Larry sends me up the road to watch around the corner just in case the rare vehicle that might travel on this road comes speeding around and wouldn't be able to stop in time (accidents do happen this way), and my mind starts wandering. This is it. Banditos are going to find us and kill us. I can see the headlines now. What are our mom's going to think? Choke...I hear a car! And believe it or not, a tow truck (if you want to call it that) shows up! He's towing another vehicle but they stop, get out, see if the guys need help. The van gets fixed up, we all load up, wave goodbye and we're on our way. When I look at the back of the tow truck as they drive away there is a sticker on it that says something like "towing for God". Unbelievable!
Back to the big city of Managua we go, deciding to split the long drive back to our boat into two days, stopping in Managua to provision and spend the night at the lovely Hilton. (Lovely = no bugs!) Yes, Whitney and I can relax again, not having to jump at every tickle on our skin or shrink and hide when we hear a buzz! We got our driver his own room, gave him some money for food, and then realized that he had probably never spent the night at any kind of place like that. How we wished we could have gotten his wife there for a romantic evening. He was delighted and it really was cute. In the middle of the night, poor Eric's body decided this would be a good time to start to pass a kidney stone. So what did we all do? Go to the mall, see a movie, eat out...we really did feel sorry for Eric but there was nothing we could do but give him time, staying in the big city, close to a hospital in case he should need it. All passed well and with the van loaded to the hilt with food and drinks we headed back to our boats.
One thing we noticed that was very different from Mexico and El Salvador was a significant decrease in the number of men/security guards with very serious guns. In Nicaragua, we were told, they were so tired of the fighting and all that goes with it that there are few guns, little security, and no gangs. People were just concentrating on putting food on the table. It was a refreshing change.
What happened to Negro the dog you ask? After doing some checking about trying to bring a dog into Costa Rica, our next stop, we learned it would have been impossible and risked having the authorities turn our boat around. So, we convinced Marina Puesta del Sol that they needed a marina dog! This dog thought this was his home anyway, and there was always someone there 24/7. We loaded them up with months of dog food, a collar and cute bandana, a dog bed, bowls etc...and hope and pray they follow through.
We are so glad we stopped in Nicaragua. We are leaving with many fond memories. Next stop...Costa Rica!
(For all photos see photo gallery, Sledding Cerro Negro and Nicaragua inland trip)