Monthly Archives: March 2016

Viva La Revolución! – Nicaragua

Leon rev - first

L: Good graffiti. Look – about the revolution.

They are walking through the Nicaraguan city of Leon, after supper.   They have crossed the central plaza, past the wide white façade of the cathedral, and the Christmas tree all lit up in January, and the strollers and the step-sitters and the snack-sellers, and the bar spraying mist at its entrance to keep its well-heeled patrons cool, and the group of dreadlocked dudes and jewellery makers sitting in that spray on the curb.

They look up at the huge figure painted on the wall.

Leon rev - graffitiL: D’you know what it all means?

D: Some. But there’s a hundred years of history in that picture.

L: Oh. Sounds rather indigestible. Can’t you just tell me a little bit?

D: Which little bit?

L: How about…..his leg. Just one leg. There – why does it say “US Out Now” on his shin? What were the US doing in Nicaragua?

D: They were worried about the canal.

L: What canal?

D: The Panama Canal.

L: Which is in Panama, not Nicaragua. So what crazy shit are you talking, man?

D: How much wine did you have at supper?

L: One wine. Carry on.

D: What does one wine even mean? Never mind. Are you listening? Once upon a time, over 100 years ago, a Nicaraguan general from the Partido Liberal deposed the country’s president. Which America wouldn’t have cared about, except that once he’d become Nicaragua’s dictator, the general started talking about building a cross-country canal.

L: So what?

D: America were busy building the Panama Canal at the time. They absolutely didn’t want another canal just up the road. So they encouraged Nicaragua’s other main party, the Partido Conservador, to rebel, which would incidentally put a stop to the general’s fiendish canal scheming.

L: Did it work?

D: Yes, but the Liberals killed a couple of US mercenaries that were helping out the Conservatives. Which made America quite cross. So they sent in 2,500 marines.

L: Blimey. Then what?

D: The US stayed in Nicaragua for the next two decades, supporting presidents that it liked and getting rid of ones it didn’t.

L:   Oh. That can’t have been very popular.

D: No, it wasn’t.

L: Tell me a bit more.

D: OK. Which bit?

L: His tummy. Who’s Sandino? It says “Sandino Vive” across his belly.

D: Right. As you said, some people, specifically the Liberals, didn’t much like all the US involvement and the Conservative regime. Augusto Sandino was the leader of a Liberal rebel group that grew up as a result.

L: But you said the Americans left after two decades. Wasn’t everything OK after that?

D: No – they left in the 1930s, but only after training up a Conservative National Guard – a military force led by a fellow called Somoza – to put down Sandino and his rebels.

L: And did they?

D: Yes. In 1934 Somoza invited Sandino to some peace talks and then had him assassinated. Shortly after which Somoza became Nicaragua’s new dictator.

L: Oh. So if Somoza killed Sandino, why does it say he lives – Sandino Vive?

D: Ah. It’s his revolutionary spirit that lives.

The following day….

Leon rev - streetLeon’s streets are alive. There are bursts of colour wherever they look. Long vistas down cable-crossed streets, to crumbling churches with Baroque pillars and portals, glowing cream and golden and pink, and the dark peaks of volcanoes against the sharp blue sky.   Dazzling bougainvillea overflows walls, and ripe fruit, for sale on the street, overflows baskets and crates: pineapples, persimmon, plums, apples, bananas, melons and limes.

There is movement and noise wherever they turn, from cars and vans and open back trucks, from canvas-clad lorries carrying goods and people, from motorbikes, bicycles, bike-carts and hand-carts.

Leon rev - bougainvilleaIn a quiet, sleepy side street, an ivy-walled courtyard hosts a medical clinic. And, humbly, in one corner, is the understated Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs. Here are displayed 300 small portraits, photographs of earnest-faced teenagers killed in 1978 and 79, resistance fighters for the revolution. The museum is free, and was set up their mothers. On the wall is a quote:

“The Sandinista has the hands to work alongside others on the land, the wide eyes to see the horizon, and the ready courage to be a martyr.”

L: They were so young. Just boys. Why did the revolution happen?

D: After Augusto Sandino was killed, the Somoza family were in power here for over 40 years. By the 1960s, a lot of people had had enough – the Somozas were running the country into the ground and building themselves a vast personal fortune in the process. A rebel guerrilla force known as the Sandinistas, named after Sandino, started steadily gaining support. But what really pushed things over the edge was the earthquake.

L: What earthquake?

D: In 1972, a massive earthquake flattened Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Something like 6,000 people died and 300,000 were left homeless. As you might expect, international aid poured in, but it was promptly embezzled by the Somozas.

L: No wonder people were ready for a revolution.

D: Yes. Anyway, things escalated through the 70s with kidnaps, assassinations, strikes, street violence, uprisings in towns all over the country, guerrilla warfare, and shelling by Somoza’s National Guard. It was a real mess.

L: From the dates here, it looks as though it all came to a head in 1978-79, when these poor boys died.

D: Yes, in 1979 the Sandinistas launched a final push, taking city after city through Nicaragua, supported by thousands of civilians. Leon had a tough time of it – there was a lot of fighting here. You can still spot bullet holes in some of the buildings around town. Somoza even had the air force bomb the city.

L: But the Sandinistas won?

D: Yes, and Somoza fled the country. That was the end of the dictatorship.

L: Viva la revolución!

D: It wasn’t much of a fairy-tale ending.   The Sandinistas inherited a country struggling with terrible poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. 150,000 people had lost their homes during the revolution, and 50,000 had died.

L: And presumably the new government had no money.

D: No. But America helped out – providing them with aid to help rebuild the country. That was Jimmy Carter.

Later that day….

They have spent the afternoon in the remarkable Ortiz-Guardian Art Museum, which is lauded as the finest contemporary art museum in Central America. The art is spread between two rambling single storey colonial buildings, with creaking wood floors and beautiful enclosed courtyards. There are some European big names on display, but it is the extensive Latin American collection which captivates. They leave as the day begins to finally cool.

L: I loved that, but I’ve got art fatigue.

D: I’ve got museum back.

L: Let’s go back to our room and lie down.

D: Just one more.

L: Just one more what? Picture? Museum?

D: Yes.

L: You’ve got to be joking. No way!

D: Yes way. Just one picture.   It’s interesting. I promise.

L: How interesting can it be? My feet hurt.

D: it’s not far. Follow me.

10 minutes later….

L: How bizarre! Come and look at this. It’s a picture of….

D: That’s the one.

Leon rev - ReaganL: ….. Ronald Reagan sitting on someone’s head. What’s going on?

D: You’re right. It is Ronald Reagan. Squashing the downtrodden Nicaraguan.

L: Why? What did he do?

D: He took over from Jimmy Carter as US President in 1981. By then the Sandinista government was getting a lot of help from the Soviets and Cubans, which made Reagan nervous, so he stopped the US aid to Nicaragua.

L: That was mean.

D: Remember this was the 80s. The Soviet Union was still threatening to take over the world and turn everybody Communist. Everyone had nuclear weapons pointed at everyone else to stop it happening. It was all a bit fraught.

L: OK.

D: Anyway, Reagan was so worried about the involvement of communist countries in Nicaragua that he started funding counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras, to destabilize the Sandinista government. Many of the Contra leaders had been in Somoza’s Guardia Nacional, which had been Conservative and US-friendly.

L: What did the Sandinistas do?

D: They built a massive army, and got lots more military and economic help from Russia and Cuba.

L: So what did Reagan do?

D: Imposed trade embargoes on Nicaragua, and encouraged other countries to do the same.

L: This is going nowhere good.

D: In the mid-80s, US Congress decided to stop interfering and stopped military aid to the Contras.

L: So did the Contras fizzle out?

D: No, because Reagan’s administration just kept on going – only in secret. They were a bit embarrassed when the US media found a Contras training manual written by the CIA, encouraging Sandinista assassinations.

L: They must have been.

D: And then they had their wrists slapped when a CIA scheme to mine Nicaragua’s harbours was deemed to be against international law.

L: I should think so.

D: But their most uncomfortable moment was probably when it was discovered they were still funding the Contras through the CIA by illegally selling arms to Iran and diverting the proceeds to the Contras.

L: Are you sure you’re not making this up now?

D: Truly not. It was known as the Iran-Contra affair. You can look it up. I just did.

L: I will. So then what?

D: In the late 80s it all settled down and peace agreements were put in place. But although the Sandinistas had dramatically improved literacy and healthcare since the revolution, Nicaragua still had huge economic problems, and they lost the election in 1989 to Violetta Chamorro, who was supported by the US.

L: She’s the one who sold the trains. And the sharks.

D: Yes. And once she was in charge, the trade embargo was lifted and international aid poured in. Things have been improving since then.

L: And now?

D: The Sandinista’s Daniel Ortega has been back in power since 2006. He’s managed not to fall out with the US, and continues to rebuild the country’s economy, healthcare and education. The country is on the way up.

L: Good.

D: Good.

L: Now can we go back and lie down?

D: Yes. I think we need to.

Leon rev - last

 

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Masaya, Apoyo, Mombacho

Mas - first

Chapter 1 – Masaya

The chicken bus is waiting.

Conductor: Masaya-Masaya- Masaya!

They jog down Granada’s market street to where the battered yellow American ex-school bus is parked, and hop on. They are the only tourists. The conductor collects their fares – around $0.25 for the half hour journey.Mas - Chicken_Bus

Along the route, the bus slows frequently, the conductor hanging out of the open door, shouting over the cheerful music blaring from the radio, at anyone by the edge of the road, standing, walking or cycling. He drums up steady business.

Conductor: Masaya-Masaya-Masaya!

People are returning home having sold their produce – fruit, vegetables, bread – early that morning. The conductor hurls huge empty baskets onto the roof of the bus, and two bicycles.

D: So what’re we going to buy?

L: Don’t know – we’ll see when we get there.   But the book says Masaya Market has the highest quality crafts in Nicaragua.

D: Where are all the other souvenir-seeking tourists then?

L: Don’t know – maybe they all take the 25 dollar tour to Masaya instead of the 25 cent bus. Can’t imagine why. The bus is great!

D: Why’s it called a chicken bus?

L: I think sometimes the passengers include chickens. Or people are squashed in like chickens.

D: Oh. No chickens on it today though.

He looks a bit disappointed.

L: At least it’s chicken coloured.

D: Yes, there is that.

They reach their destination. The bus pulls into a wide open space – several acres of bare earth – and parks among ranks of other brightly coloured vehicles of a similar vintage. Most are emblazoned with a religious message: “With God we are Invincible”, or simply “My God”. It is not clear whether these messages of devotion act as protection for the passengers or are seen as a cost effective alternative to an MOT.

They look around. The large area serves several purposes. In addition to being Masaya’s bus station, to one side is the town rubbish tip. Sorting is in progress among organised lines of blue garbage bags and piles of waste, hampered by the breeze which swirls litter and dust across the yard. On the opposite side people are clustered in front of a wall of tin huts, around which vendors are selling produce.

The other passengers have melted away into the crowd. They look for clues on which direction to head for the town centre – a church tower or taller building perhaps, but there is nothing.

L: Which way, d’you think? I can only see trees and tin roofs in all directions. There’s no obvious way out.

They spot one other pale-skinned figure, and follow it, deeper into the ranks of parked vehicles, but it is soon apparent that he is lost too. They turn around and head back towards the huts. People mill around baskets piled high with plantains and peppers, carrots and cucumbers, plaits of onions and garlic, limes, melons, pineapples and mysterious gourds, sacks stacked like sandbags, of rice and beans and coffee, and cool boxes of chilled drinks. Smoke rises from street-food hand-carts.

L: Which way?

D: I’m looking.

L: I can’t believe we can’t find our way out of a bus station. I’m going to ask.

D: No need. I can absolutely find our way out. I’m just thinking.

L waits. D thinks.

L: Right, while you’re busy doing that, I’ll just go and ask.

She approaches a woman with a wide-based bucket balanced effortlessly on her head.

L: Desculpe señora, which way to Masaya Market?

The woman looks uncertainly at her. This IS Masaya Market.

L: El Mercado Artesanias.

She nods, and points them towards a narrow alley between breezeblock walls topped with sun-warmed tin.

D: (muttering) Precisely where I was thinking.

They venture in, snaking through the slow-moving mass in single file.   To each side are vendors, with baskets of ripening tomatoes shaded under beach umbrellas, stalls stacked high with bags of aromatic spices, and tiny shops selling clothes, plastic kitchen equipment, and bottled drinks. Elsewhere, unrefrigerated meat lies displayed on trays.

They reach a street. Here, larger shopfronts are festooned with multi-coloured goods – as though all their stock is hanging from the front wall like a great curtain of dustpans and dustbins, T-shirts and tablecloths.

L: Now which way?

D: I’m thinking.

L looks longingly at a veranda in deep shade, displaying a collection of hand-made rocking chairs, each subtly different, each equally inviting.

D: OK, follow me.

They turn left, lured away from the traffic by a newly painted footbridge leading to a quiet residential street. At the footbridge they are approached by an unsmiling youth.

Youth: Where are you going?

D: The town centre. El parque central.

Youth: Not that way.

D: No?

Youth: It’s dangerous.

D looks in surprise at the tidy street leading them temptingly away from the tangle of people and stalls and heat and noise.

D: Really?

Youth: Yes.

D: Surely not.

Youth: Yes. There are bad people and drugs that way.

D: It looks fine.

Youth: It’s dangerous. You should go right, then left along the main street. There you will be safe.

He shrugs, giving up on them, and walks off.

L: This would all be a bit bewildering for a lot of the tourists staying in Granada. Maybe that’s why   they take an expensive tour to the Artisan Market rather than just hopping on the bus. I’m a bit bewildered.

D: I suppose, if you think about it, the two towns are just really different.

L: They’re both the same size. Ish.

D: Yes, but Granada’s absolutely dependent on its tourism and so is incredibly visitor-friendly. It has to be. Whereas Masaya is an agricultural and industrial town and is just getting on with its life. It simply happens to have a tourist attraction in the middle of it.   Don’t be bewildered.

L: OK then, I won’t. Which way?

D: I’m just thinking.

They step out of the way of a reversing truck.

L: Are you bewildered?

D: No. Follow me.

Mas - marketThey about turn and, heeding the advice, leave the residential street behind and instead take a parallel route on a busy main road lined with electrical and clothing shops. After a kilometre or so, they reach the distinctive Gothic-fortress style walls of the Mercado de Artesanias. Inside, a hundred dark little stores and stalls are crammed with Nicaraguan craftwork, each merging into the next. There are hammocks and hats, handbags and jewellery, paintings and weavings, leather goods and woodcraft, and a multitude of ceramics.   They are greeted but not pursued by stall holders, left to wander calmly through the maze. At 10.30 in the morning, there are no other tourists. They have the place entirely to themselves.

From the Artisan Market, they walk west, towards the lake. The residential streets are empty of people. Even the traffic seems to have stopped. They pass front yards and open garages displaying hammocks for sale – vivid happy stripes of colour with decorative scalloped edges.   Mas - volcanoThe buildings peter out at a sweep of gravel. To the right is the town baseball stadium, to the left a couple of restaurants, quiet at this time of day, and an empty playground. Ahead is the lake, view framed by slender trees, bare during this time of tropical winter, dry leaves crunching underfoot. A walkway and a sun-bleached balustrade provide perches for half a dozen couples, their backs to the view, entwined. Graffiti speckles peeling paintwork – declarations of loves past and present.

They pick a good sized strip of unoccupied balustrade and look out across the crater lake. The Laguna de Masaya is below them, encircled by steep wooded slopes dropping straight into the water, and on far side, a thick plume of smoke rises from the summit of Volcan Masaya.

D: (cheerfully) That pumps out more poisonous gas than any other volcano in Nicaragua.

L: Yikes.

D: And there’s lava bubbling away in the crater, though I gather it’s difficult to see through all the gas.

L: Difficult for who? Presumably no-one goes near it, if it’s that dangerous.

D: Oh yes, there are daily excursions. You can drive right up to the crater rim. They know how to do things properly here – none of this letting health & safety get in the way of a good volcano.

L: Don’t all the visitors get gassed?

D: They don’t seem to. Though there was a splendid eruption in 2001 which had rocks half a metre wide flying half a kilometre high. Squashed a few tourist vans I think. But only one person was injured.

L: (nervously) Do we have to visit?

D: I’ve tried quite hard to get us on to a tour, but sadly, everything’s booked up. Drop a few hints that it’s way too dangerous to visit and people can’t get enough of it.

L: (happily) Well, that IS a pity. Good marketing strategy though.

 

Chapter 2 – Laguna de Apoyo

Sometimes one comes across a place which is just outstanding for the simple reason that nothing happens there at all.

The Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo is one of those places. Between the bustling Nicaraguan towns of Granada and Masaya, is a steep sided crater filled with lush woodland and a deep blue lake of pristine clear water. And that’s it.

Mas - apoyoA punishingly steep paved road drops from the lip of the crater to the lake shore. There is a small charge for vehicle access but pedestrians may enter freely.   At the bottom, a pretty lane meanders its way along the shore, shaded by trees, giving glimpses of deep blue water and lighter blue sky between vivid green leaves.   There are half a dozen discreet hotels and hostels tucked away, a few luxury villas, and some locally owned shacks, each with their own little piece of waterfront heaven. There are no shops, no bank, and not much public waterfront access. Visitors can pay a day-rate to enjoy the low key facilities of one of the hotels – a shaded beach chair, a wooden dock to swim from, a stretch of sharp volcanic shingle beach, towels, bar, restaurant, restrooms. Some have kayaks.

Once there, there is nowhere to go, no bars or restaurants or entertainment or nightlife. Just the deepest, cleanest lake in the country, and the protected woodland harbouring orchids, monkeys, anteaters, jaguarundis, falcons and hummingbirds. And an enormously steep hill between you and the rest of the world. It’s a secret oasis. It’s a little bit of paradise.

 

Chapter 3 – A Funeral Procession

In a small rural village, the taxi comes to a halt. It has encountered the tail end of a funeral procession moving slowly along the road ahead. A great mound of greenery and flowers has been built atop a truck, which is being driven at half-walking pace. A hundred or more mourners walk beside and behind the vehicle, spreading the full width of the road. Oncoming traffic halts, and the procession flows around it and on. However from behind there is no question of passing. Cars, taxis, buses and motorbikes tuck in respectfully at the back of the procession, where they remain for an hour as they all make their way gently along the road. At the front, beside the truck, a lone trumpet plays poignantly. Adults and children come out of their houses and watch in silence as the gathering passes slowly by. The taxi driver says the funeral is for a little girl.

 

Chapter 4 – Volcan Mombacho

Mas - sloth 1If you get a chance to visit Volcan Mombacho, do. I think you’d like it.

There’s a lost world crater, bursting with animals and birds and orchids and never accessed by man, not even scientists. I like the idea of that. You may not see them, but they’re there.

There are awesomely awesome views – of Lake Nicaragua and the 365 islets spat by Mombacho into the lake, of the town of Granada, the Laguna de Apoyo, and of smoke rising from Volcan Masaya. You really can see for miles.Mas - sloth 3

And there is my friend the sloth. He’s on the right, close to the path, only just above head height, towards the end of your circuit. You can’t miss him – he doesn’t move much, so will probably still be there when you go. He may be asleep when you find him, but pause for a while. He will wake up, and yawn, and stretch, and smile at you.

Mas - last

Granada & Las Isletas, Nicaragua

Gran - first

L: What’s that bird? It sounds fantastic.

D: Where?

L: No idea. I’m asking you. Listen.Gran - street

They walk out of the hotel and along the pedestrian street towards the cathedral, following the trilling and whistling, peering into trees. At this time of the morning, Granada is peaceful.

L: It’s louder here. Get the camera ready. Where can it be?

D: Got it! Wow. It’s impressive. Beautiful colours. Can’t you see it yet?

L: No, where? All I can see is a man with…. Oh. You’re mean. It’s not a bird. It’s a guy selling song stones.

D: D’you want one?

L: (crossly) No I do not.

They cross the wide open central plaza, admiring the grand and brightly coloured buildings around the edges of the square. In the middle is a park filled with mango trees, where locals are sitting on shaded benches reading the papers, and drink sellers are setting up stalls. Gran - horsesA line of ponies and traps stretch along one edge, waiting calmly for tourists seeking a city-tour circuit. The ponies seem painfully thin. Beyond the plaza, shop keepers are opening up, washing down pavements, bringing out displays. Further still, paintwork turns faded and streets residential.   Doorways secured by wrought iron gates open into elegant parlours with bright polished floors, rocking chairs and low tables, beyond which are glimpses of green courtyard gardens. As the day warms up, occupants rest in the cool dark interiors, and rock, eased by the through breeze between courtyard and street.

This morning they walk, keeping to the shade like everyone else, strolling through bustling markets, and around several small museums. They admire church facades and peaceful interiors with dark wooden pillars and ceilings. At the Iglesia San Francisco, they stop.

L: Right – this is the highlight.   Are you excited?

D: By the façade?   It’s quite pretty, I suppose.

L: No – follow me. There’s a museum next door. It has some amazing black-basalt statues.   1000 years old. They come from the nearby island of Zapatera. They’re ceremonial – of gods in human or animal form. You’re going to love them. Here we are.

Ticket office: Welcome.

L: Two people please.

Ticket office: The museum is closed. For restoration. You can walk around the cloister but there’s nothing to see.

L: What about the statues?

Ticket office: I’m sorry.

D: Oh.

L:   Damn. But I’m not sure you would have liked them anyway. Right – now for the highlight. Follow me.

They walk for a kilometre, in rising temperatures, to the white painted Fortaleza la Polvora at the west end of town.

L: It’s got the best views, from the towers. You’re going to love it.

They reach the main gate, which is closed. They speak to a guard.

L: Buenas dias. Two people please.

Guard: The fort is closed. For restoration. You can take a photo through the gate but there’s nothing to see.

L: What about the views from the towers?

Guard: I’m sorry.

D: Oh.

L:   Damn it. Never mind – it might not have been that great anyway. Now, for today’s highlight, follow me!

Gran - churchThey walk the increasingly hot kilometre back towards the centre. At the Iglesia de La Merced there is a service going on. The large space is filled with people, standing and sitting and milling and singing. They climb the narrow winding staircase to the top of the bell tower. Views stretch in all directions, across terracotta town roofs, to the lake, to hills and volcanoes and green wooded plains.

D: It’s great up here – you can see for miles! This is better than statues. And forts.

L looks towards the blue line of water visible behind the cathedral dome.

L: It’s odd, don’t you think, that although Granada’s on Lake Nicaragua, it doesn’t feel much like a waterfront town. It hasn’t got a harbour or a quay for fishing or leisure boats. And the street layout hasn’t really included the lake shore as part of the town, has it? All the beautiful stuff seems to have sort of turned its back on the lake. The poor lakeshore must feel a bit left out.Gran - view from belltower

D: You’re right – it does look a bit left out, a bit unloved. I ran out along there this morning. There are some parks and playgrounds and a few bars, but I’m not sure how much anyone goes there.

They circle around the bell tower, gazing across the carpet of terracotta rooftops spreading out in all directions, with bursts of greenery and colour from courtyard gardens.

L: D’you think it was named after Granada in Spain?

D: Yes, I do. It’s one of the oldest colonial cities. The Spanish built it in the 1520s as a sort of showcase to prove that there was more to them than just guns and Catholicism. And it’s still in good nick despite earthquakes and wars, because it’s always been rich, so if things fall down, they get “closed for restoration” and rebuilt. As we’ve seen.

L: Why’s it rich?

D:   It was a trading centre. Between the two oceans. We’re only a few miles from the Pacific on one side, and on the other the lake and the Rio San Juan mean that boats can get all the way here from the Caribbean.

L: And sharks.

D: What?

L: There are bull sharks in the lake, which have also come all the way up the river from the Caribbean. Weirdly they’re happy in both salt and fresh water. And they eat people.

D: Right.

L: I’m serious! They’re famously aggressive, and they like warm, shallow water so they come much closer to the shore than other sharks, as well as up rivers. Bull sharks have probably attacked more people than any other type.

Later …

Gran - boatIn the afternoon they take a boat around Las Isletas, several hundred tiny tree-covered volcanic islands scattered just offshore. Some are uninhabited, while others have just one property – their own little kingdoms. D admires the gardens, the quays and the varied architecture.

D: I didn’t expect this. It’s just like being on a Thames river cruise!

L: Don’t put your hand in the water. Apparently Jaws was a bull shark.

D: Of course he wasn’t. He was a great white.

L: In the film, yes. OK, and in the book. But the shark attack on which it was based was probably done by a bull shark. Say some. So. Keep your wits about you. That’s all I’m saying.

They pass two men, standing chest deep in the water, fishing.

L: Yikes, aren’t they afraid of the sharks?

Their guide, Ramon, laughs.

Ramon: No, they stay on the other side of the lake, by the river mouth. And anyway, there are very few of them now. We sold them all to China.

L: Sorry?

Ramon: Violeta Chamorro, our President in the 1990s, sold the sharks for their fins and skins and meat. Now they’re rare.

While L knows that this is a bad thing, she cannot help but be a little bit relieved.

Ramon: And she sold all the trains.

L: Sorry?

Ramon: We used to have railways up and down the Pacific coast, but Chamorro sold all the trains. Now we have no railways.

L: Oh.

They ponder that for a moment.

L: Wasn’t that rather inconvenient?

Ramon: I’m not sure they were used much. And lines were often closed because of flood damage. Or earthquakes. But it’s the principle. Now we are a country without railways.

He looks despondent. L tries to lighten the mood.

L: Costa Rica’s got no railways either, and they seem to be alright.

At this, Ramon’s face falls further. L has blundered into an age-old rivalry between the two countries.

Ramon: Costa Rica. We’ve got everything that they have, and more. In 20 years Nicaragua will be as rich as Costa Rica. We’ve got wildlife and volcanoes. And mountains and beaches. And activities and adventures for tourists. And coffee and cows. Have you ever tried our churrasco?

D: Last night, actually. Best steak I’ve ever eaten. Seriously.

Ramon: Exactly. And we’ve got things they haven’t got, too! We’ve got beautiful islands in the Caribbean. And beautiful cities, full of history.   AND, we’ve got the river.

He smiles triumphantly.

D: Ah, yes, it’s true, you’ve got the river.

They nod and grin at each other.

L: What are you talking about? What river?

D: The Rio San Juan. Nearly half the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is the river. Before the Panama Canal was built, it was seen as part of a possible alternative route. But get this – although pretty much all the border rivers in the world are shared between two countries, not this one.

L: How come?

D: Someone reckoned it would be easier for any potential canal developer to be negotiating with one country instead of two, so the border was fixed on the southern bank, giving the whole of the river to Nicaragua. Costa Rica has been extremely cross about it for 150 years.

Gran - boat and islandRamon nods happily at this. He has cheered right up. The sun sparkles on the water, which is murky but clean. They spot egrets, herons, ospreys. In the distance is the craggy backdrop of Volcan Mombacho.

Ramon: They say there are 365 islets, one for each day. Mombacho threw them down, 10,000 years ago.

Electricity cables stretch from islet to islet. They pass an impressive villa on one.

Ramon: Owned by Carlos Pellas. Flor de Caña – you know, our famous Nicaraguan rum? He’s the richest man in Nicaragua. In all of Central America. At one time he talked of becoming our President. But he was too busy.

Gran - isletThey pass another, even grander.

Ramon: He owns that one too.

Nearby is a third islet, with an extensive jetty.

Ramon:  And that one. It’s a miracle he survived the plane crash.

L: The plane crash?

Ramon: In Honduras, in 1989. Terrible – but 10 people survived out of 158. He and his wife were two of them. She was very badly injured, and burnt. Now they give millions to charity, for burned children.

Ramon continues as they pass by each islet.

Ramon: That one is owned by Canadians. That one by Swiss. And that one by Americans.

They watch children playing on a wooded slope above the shoreline, and two pigs rootling under the trees.

Gran - islet 2Ramon: There are local people on the islands too. Some of them live as they always have, and some look after the houses of others – the foreigners are a good source of income. A few of the islands can be rented for a night or a week, by tourists.

They pass a boatyard, a half built ferry on the slip.

Ramon: That’ll be the biggest ferry on the lake when it’s finished.

L: When will that be?

Ramon: Who knows? They’ve been building it for two years. Another two? Maybe longer. Work has stopped. I think they’ve run out of money.

They continue.

Ramon: Over there is a cemetery island. That one has a Spanish fortress. And this tiny one has only monkeys. They bite.

Gran - collecting woodA rowing boat makes its way slowly along, close to the shore, heavily laden with wood.

Ramon: Collecting fuel. For cooking.

The gaping discrepancy between richest and poorest, both making a home on these islands, sits uneasily, like an elephant in the boat.

They return to the mainland and disembark. Ramon looks around. He taps his phone.

Ramon: OK, guys…ummm.   Let’s take a walk. My driver hasn’t returned quite yet.

They follow a dusty track from the boat quay back towards town. To their left are parched pastures and to the right is the lake. In contrast to the neat and tidy islets, the shore is an untended expanse of earth, gravel and scrubby yellow grass. There is litter by the track, on the shore, around the remnants of bonfires. Families picnic under trees, or from their cars, ignoring the plastic bottles and carrier bags left by others.   The muddy water is shallow – too shallow even for bull sharks – and people are wading, knee deep, 100 yards out from the shore.

They pass several cows, meandering along the verge. Ramon walks ahead, talking impatiently into his phone. They are overtaken by a pick-up, a dozen people sitting or standing in the open back. It is followed by a skinny pony pulling a roughly-made wooden cart, not much more than a flat platform, on which are sitting another half dozen people. A kilometre further, the driver arrives, cheerful, chatty and entirely unrepentant. They set off, only to pause again almost immediately by a bar. The driver gets out.

L: That’s nice. He’s going in to buy us some cold drinks, to make up for the delay.

The driver heads over to a fruit stall next to the bar, buys a melon, gets back into the car, puts the melon under his seat, and drives on.

D: I think he was just buying his supper.

Later….

That evening, they join the throngs on the pedestrian street. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed. They walk towards the central plaza, where both locals and visitors are standing in clusters, chatting. Music drifts out of the cathedral interior. Several Italian ice cream parlours are still open. For less than the price of an English ice-lolly, D receives such a mountain of ice cream, balanced precariously on top of a wafer cone, that he is afraid to move. And a little embarrassed to leave the shop.

L: Don’t worry – I’ll help you eat it.

D: You most certainly will not.

They amble back through the crowds and the music, the kids and the bicycles, the buskers and hawkers, and look up at their balcony, feeling fortunate to belong, in some small part, for just a few days, to the noisiest street in town.

Gran - last

Into Nicaragua

Granada - first pic

L: What if I need the loo?

D: Then go. There’s one at the back of the bus.

L: But lots of men have already used it while we’ve been swerving round corners. It’ll be vile by now.

D: Do you actually need to go?

L:   No. But what if I do? Would you go and clean it for me first?

D: I most certainly would not.

L: Oh. But what if I need it?

D: But you don’t. Anyway, we’re nearly at the border.Granada - Ticabus

The bus they are on is travelling from Panama through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to eventually arrive in Mexico three days later.   Their journey, however, is only a small segment of this, a mere 8 hours from Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

The bus stops at dusk. An announcement is made over the tannoy.

L:   Did you get that? What did they say?

D: No idea. We’d better copy everyone else.

They disembark at Peñas Blancas, on the Costa Rican border, clutching passports, completed immigration forms, and receipts for exit taxes collected from all passengers – the tariffs many times higher for tourists than residents. An orderly queue forms, stretching in through the door of a new glass and concrete building.

L: Blimey – how long is this going to take? Some people seem to have been here for days!

Next to the building is a cluster of tents, people dozing on benches, children milling about, and women hanging out laundry on washing lines.

D: That’s the Cubans.

L: What Cubans?

D: Cubans trying to get into the US.

L: So what are they doing here?

D: Nicaragua won’t let them through. They’re stuck.

L: But Cuba’s next door to the US.   About 1000 miles north of here. Why on earth are they all the way down here?Cuban-map-route_21

D:   Lots of Cubans fly to Ecuador and then travel 5000 miles overland back up through South and Central America, rather than risk the incredibly dangerous 90 mile crossing of the shark infested Florida Straits on an overloaded homemade raft.

L: Right.

D:  And there’s the wet foot-dry foot policy.

L: The what?

D: The US have an extraordinary policy – if a Cuban can get into the country, they can stay. But only if they have dry feet – if they arrive overland. If they come by boat, the US can still turn them away in US waters, before they get ashore.

L: OK……. But why go all the way down to Ecuador?

D: Direct flights from Havana and no visas needed. It’s hellishly difficult though. First most of them get robbed of their life savings in Colombia. Then they pay through the nose to get into Panama in one piece – seeing as most of the land on the border is full of impenetrable jungles and swamps and gangs with machine guns that are best avoided. And now they’re stuck here.

L: Why won’t Nicaragua let them through?

D: It’s political. They’re generally a bit touchy about their borders with Costa Rica, and Nicaragua also has a lot of Communist history with Cuba. I found an interesting article about it. You should read it. Here.

http://fusion.net/story/229892/exodus-of-cubans-walking-to-the-u-s-is-quickly-becoming-the-americas-own-refugee-crisis/

L: Thanks. I will. What makes them leave Cuba in the first place? To make all this worthwhile?

D: Poverty. Lack of opportunity. Temptation of all things golden just across the water in Miami. Following family.   Read the article.

L: I will.  So what’s going to happen to these people? They’re not even half way.

D: All the countries between here and the US, except Nicaragua, are rallying round to get them moving again. They won’t be here for ever, but it’ll take some time. There’s 8,000 of them waiting. Read the article!

L: I will! But not now – look, our turn next.

The queue moves, they reach the front and, unlike the beleaguered Cubans, have their passports swiftly stamped, and get back on the bus.

The bus drives on. For 500 metres. And then stops again. An announcement is made over the tannoy.

L:   Did you get that? What did they say?

D: No idea. Just copy everyone else. This must be the Nicaraguan border.

They hand over entry taxes to their bus driver, along with their passports. He disappears. This time everyone removes all their hand luggage from the bus, and their suitcases from the hold. They stand around in a hot dusty car park. It gets properly dark. A man tries to sell them a hammock. They stand some more. Money-changers circulate, fanning 4-inch thick wads of cash.

L: Are you excited?

D: About getting back on the bus?

L: About being in Nicaragua.Granada - lake and volcano

D: What’s everyone waiting for?

L: It’s got 28 volcanoes.

D: Good. I might ask someone.

L: And the largest lake in Central America.

D: Great. I can’t see anyone to ask.

Eventually a couple of officials are spotted wearing blue T-shirts and carrying clipboards. The crowd drifts towards the officials, dragging their bags until they are all standing on a large raised platform, as though waiting for a train. Lollipop sellers weave through the melee, men with baskets on their heads brimming with cigarettes, women selling leather goods: belts and wallets. There are no counters, no instructions, no clues.   They stand around. The T-shirts with clipboards are passing randomly from one traveller to the next.Granada - architecture

L: And there’s wonderful Spanish architecture, dating back to the 16th century.

D: I want to join a queue.

L:   There isn’t one. And they had a revolution.

D: What, in the 16th century?

L: No, in the 1970s. Which ended a 40 year dictatorship but left the country massively in debt.

D: I’m miserable. Don’t they understand the British are only happy when queuing?

L: It’s the poorest country in the Americas.

D: Right. Shall I start a queue? Stand behind me.

L: But they’re on the up. They reckon they’re about half way through a 50 year economic recovery. You’re not actually listening, are you?

They spot a Clipboard riffling through a suitcase on a wooden workbench, and shuffle towards him. Another Clipboard approaches from behind. He gives D’s rucksack a brief squeeze.

Clipboard: Clothes?

D: Yes.

Clipboard: OK.

He inclines his head, suggesting that they are now free to leave the platform. They haul their luggage back to the bus, which is locked. They stand around. They buy lollipops.   They wait. The bus driver opens the hold and the passengers surge forward. He is impatient.

Driver: Managuamanaguamanagua!

Some passengers are waved forward, others have their luggage rejected. They wait.

Driver: Granadagranadagranada!

D: Granada – that’s us. He’s shouting the destinations and grouping the bags together.

They hand over their backpacks. At the bus door, the crowd regroups, and a uniformed female calls out names. People push through, take the proffered passport and board the bus. They wait. D’s name is called. He claims his passport and returns to L. They wait. The woman is cross. She waves a passport.

Woman: Honey. Honey?

No-one steps forward.

Woman: Honey?

L: Maybe that’s me.

D: That sounds nothing whatsoever like you. Why would she call you honey?

L: Maybe she’s saying “Jane”. In Spanish. My middle name.

D: That’s really quite a big stretch. But we can go and check.

L steps forward and reclaims her passport. The woman gives her a long, weary look, for being stupid, and foreign.

Two hours after disembarking, they get back on the bus.

D: Well, that was all fairly straightforward, wasn’t it?

They see nothing of Nicaragua beyond the windows of the bus, until they pass through the small town of Rivas. An important baseball game has just been won. Everyone is out in the streets, thronging both sides of the main road. Hundreds of vuvuzelas are crowing triumphantly and scooters and motorbikes buzz to and fro, carrying pairs of youths or whole families, bare-legged children wedged between parents. Bicycles weave through the crowd, with passengers perched on crossbars or handlebars, some with toddlers tucked under one arm.

In Granada they are left in a dark scruffy side street. No other tourists get off.

L: We need a taxi. A proper licensed one. The fare should be two dollars, but they’ll ask for five. Let me do the talking.

They approach a battered looking vehicle. It’s the only taxi in sight.

L: How much to the city centre?

Driver: Ten dollars.

L: Oh. How about five?

Driver: (looking resigned): OK.

D:   Neatly done.   I am impressed. You really told him.

L: Shut up.

They are driven through a grid of deserted streets. The buildings are low, just one or two storeys, colonial in style, all peeling ochre paint and wrought iron window grills.

L: We’re staying right in the centre so that we can walk everywhere easily. Accommodation in Nicaragua’s a lot cheaper than Costa Rica.

D: Great – so we’re saving some money.

L: Err…no. I just spent the same amount as I would in Costa Rica, but got a much nicer hotel.Granada - hotel courtyard

They are dropped outside a large and pretty colonial building on a pedestrian street.   Inside, beyond the reception desk, terracotta roofs enclose a beautiful central courtyard, with porticos, greenery and a fountain. They walk up creaking highly polished wooden stairs to a wide open balcony overlooking the courtyard, off which open several pairs of immense double doors.

L: Here we are.Granada - hotel

Their room is high ceilinged with parquet flooring, and a large bathroom. At the far end of the room is another set of double doors.

L: I booked one with a balcony. Apparently it’s got a volcano view.

She throws open the doors and steps out, leaning over the stone balustrade. D comes out of the bathroom, looking alarmed.

D: What the hell is going on?

A great wave of noise washes into the room. Below them is the pedestrian street. It is lively.   A dozen restaurants have outdoor seating, crowded with diners, all talking and laughing. A cacophony of music drifts out from the interiors, mixing not altogether harmoniously in the street. Directly opposite their window is the proud green sign of an “Irish Pub”, music and drinkers overflowing out of the door. Street vendors sell jewellery, drinks and snacks, lottery tickets, and song-stones of painted birds, all shouting out their wares. A pair of traditional dancers performs to the beat of a drum, whirling and clapping, before moving on. Pedestrians and cyclists amble up and down, chatting and eating ice creams. Children run shrieking, chasing a puppy. A group of acrobatic breakdancing kids set up, beatbox booming, spinning on their heads and contorting impressively. A mariachi band pass by, a trumpet solo soaring up to their balcony.Granada - street 1

L: I’m afraid I might have booked the noisiest room in town.

D: You think?

L: But it’s fantastic for people watching. It’s all happening, right here, under our balcony.

D: Yes. It certainly is.

Later….

L: Are you awake?

D: No.

L: I wonder how soon it’ll quieten down?

D: Go to sleep.

Much later…..

D: Why don’t you shut the windows?

L: They are shut.

D: I hate mariachi. Go and tell them to leave me alone.

L: You do it.

D: I can’t. I’m asleep.

Much, much later….

D: That bloody trumpet! What time is it?

L: 4.17am.

Granada - last

A day in the life of Playa Samara

playa first

5-9am

Before dawn, the howler monkeys start to roar ferociously, like lions, or dinosaurs – huge terrible sounds to burst from such small herbivores. Great-tailed grackles fly to and fro, warming up their orchestra of whistles and rattles.

On Playa Samara, hermit-crab trails criss-cross the dry sand, looking like tracks from a team of unicyclists, while the wet sand is strewn with the swirls and doodles of a thousand unseen snails.

The Joggers are out, heading east towards the pinkening sky, nodding to each other as they pass. There are some who are serious, their sneaker-shod feet staying well above the tide line, sweat shining on toned muscles as they push themselves on. And others who splash barefoot through the shallows, tiptoe over scattered coral, and stop to pick up shells.playa - romantics

The Romantics are out to catch the sunrise, sitting side by side on driftwood logs, waiting patiently with cameras poised, for the brief flare of orange to rise from behind the palms, before swiftly strengthening and paling to yellow.

The Walkers with Purpose are out, ladies sporting visors or large floppy sunhats, pastel-coloured sports shoes, marching in pairs across a mirror lake of sky reflected in wet sand.

The Dogwalkers are out, both owners and animals relishing their social mingling, the early morning breeze cooling warm skin and carrying messages to wet noses of excitements to explore.

A pair of whimbrels are at work on the shoreline, their long curved beaks tweaking tiny crabs from the sand. Eleven brown pelicans are fishing in the shallows, diving into water no deeper than their beaks.playa - boats (2)

A lone fisherman reels in a big flat fish, line-caught from the shore. Two black vultures stand expectantly close by. A dozen small fishing boats are pulled high up the beach, another dozen bob at anchor in the bay, and beyond them, two yachts. Skippers come out to check their vessels, to prepare them for the day.

An egret and a small blue heron stand side by side watching the ocean, where a single line of swell rises to a clean green wall before tumbling into white confusion and roaring shorewards, fading to a soft ripple sliding gently up the beach to lap their ankles, and then retreating.

The Early Swimmers head out, first wading, then ducking, then striking out beyond the break, to where the sea becomes smooth.

playa - ternsA flock of black-capped terns takes off suddenly, startled by a mother chasing her arm-banded child, dashing full pelt towards the water, out to enjoy the beach before the sun’s strength sets in.

The Commuters are out – the beach as their highway – a bicycle flying by with the wind behind it, a motorbike briefly ripping the sounds of the morning in two. A high-gaited horse with cowboy-hatted rider, snapping dogs in hot pursuit. Children in dazzling white shirts, heading for school.

On the great length and breadth of Playa Samara each of them has the beach to themselves.

9am-3pm

playa - hammocksThe Shade Loungers arrive, slinging brightly striped hammocks in between trees, spreading towels on soft sand and settling down for the day, breezes rattling through the palm fronds above their heads.

The Sunbathers arrive, lying determinedly in the dazzling light or walking the length of the two-mile beach to top up their tans.

In the ocean-facing camping grounds, iguanas bask on hot tin roofs, and cicadas whirr unseen.

The heat builds as the sun beats down from the cloudless blue and the beach empties of all but the hardiest – most seeking shelter in the shade. From time to time, a wild howling dash is made, barefoot across burning sand, to cool off in the sea.

The temperature peaks, settles and eventually begins to fall.

3-6pm

playa - surfersAs high tide approaches, the Surf Dudes are out, learners and experts, bobbing and ducking out through the breakers, waiting and waiting, turning and paddling, standing and carving, for the brief addictive thrill of catching the right wave just right.

The cooling afternoon beckons all to the ocean, but still on the great length and breadth of Playa Samara each of them has the beach to themselves.

Locals and holiday-makers take to the water, standing shoulder-deep in groups, wallowing lengthily, chatting. The Sunbathers and Shade Loungers venture back out to soak up the sun in its fading ferocity.   playa - volleyballThe Ticos play football with much fancy footwork, shouting and laughing, and at the volleyball nets the Golden Kids pat a ball to and fro, jumping and diving and whooping.

The howler monkeys return, munching leaves from low branches, and once more staking their territory with bloodcurdling roars. Frigate birds wheel overhead, sweeping through the sky like aerial dancers. Shadows lengthen, and colours soften and blur as sunset approaches.

The Dogwalkers return, the bicycle and motorbike heading for home, and the high-gaited horse trots back up the beach, haughtily ignoring the insolent hounds once more at its heels.

playa - barDaytime activities mingle with evening ones, late sun-seekers share space with early cocktail-drinkers, on cushioned loungers.   Four free-range horses stroll through the palms and trample across unguarded towels. They pause at the loungers, roll exultantly, thoroughly, spraying the occupants with sand before standing, shaking, and trotting away. The dogs spot new prey and set off after them, shouting with delight.

The bars fill with people-watchers, observing fitness fanatics perform sand-sticky sit-ups and stretches, over-tired kids coaxed out of the sea, and Smart-phone selfies and sunsets. Then without ceremony, the sun slips quietly behind the headland, and is gone.

6pm-late

After dark the restaurants turn lively, wooing diners with music and fairy lights. Reggae and dance beats bounce from buildings to beach, jostling each other for attention. Geckos gather round decorative lighting, chirruping cheerfully as they hunt, and a band of raccoons scuttles by, snuffing.

Strains of a mariachi band drift along the beach front, and as they move between venues, joyous bursts of trumpet solo – just for the love of making music. In the village quadbikes thunder back and forth on limited stretches of tarmac, and later, revellers shout out to each other as they make their way home, wishing each other goodnight.

The beach is now dark and empty, the sand underfoot almost refreshingly chilly, and out in the black the surf still roars rhythmically, heard but not seen. Overhead the cloudless night displays a spectacular spread of stars on an inky dome stretching all the way down to where sky meets the sea.

playa - last

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall 1

L: I wonder what it means.

D: Rincon de la Vieja? “The Old Lady’s Cranny”.

L: The Old Lady’s WHAT?

D: Sigh. I said Cranny. Cranny as in nook and cranny, or corner.

L: Thank goodness for that. I thought you said….

D: I know what you thought. I didn’t. Obviously.

L: No. Right. Anyway, it should be called “Rincon de las Rainbows.” They’re everywhere!

They drive slowly along empty tarmac lanes skirting the foot of the wooded hillside, under a bright blue sky. Way above, where grey clouds are obscuring the volcano’s peak, it is raining, and the buffeting wind carries a mist of sparkling water droplets. Shimmering rainbows, large and small, spring from the road, from gullies, from valleys, and arch over their heads.

The Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja is surprisingly wild. Although less than an hour’s drive from Costa Rica’s second city of Liberia, the roads leading to it are mostly unpaved, and the landscape in between is dry, dusty and empty. There is no town to host visitors when they arrive, just a few isolated hotels and lodges, hidden away in the forest.   There is a feeling of unpredictability about the place – of uncontrolled energy. The perpetually strong winds feed an extensive windfarm on the barren uplands between two volcanic peaks, and the land within the park bubbles with hot springs, boiling mud and sulphurous gases. A number of geothermal plants have been established to capture some of this unharnessed power.

The park is divided into two sectors, each with their own ranger’s station, 10km or so apart. The main one is Pailas, on the north-west edge. They arrive at a building site, crammed with parked cars and buses. A huge white visitor’s centre is half-finished – workmen with bandana-wrapped faces turning their backs to the wind to keep swirling clouds of dust from mouths and eyes. A ranger is manning a tiny wooden hut in the middle of a field.

Ranger: Buenas dias – welcome! Here’s a map. I’m afraid some of the trails are closed for construction. There are two you can do – here and here, both out and back. No, the volcano summit trail has been closed for four years – it’s very active. Every day.

D: Excellent! I like my volcanoes a bit lively.Rincon - hot mud pot

They choose Las Pailas, a 1½ hour walk through thick woodland, over a rickety chain-link bridge, and out into the open. A maze of half-built concrete paths criss-cross the trail, broken plastic ribbons of “Don’t Cross” tape snapping in the wind. There are whiffs of rotten egg, and a number of muddy pools. The whitish-grey mud is dry in some places, or steaming gently from yellow-crusted fumaroles, but in others is bubbling thickly, gurgling and spitting like an enormous pan of sauce on an over-hot stove. Las Pailas means “Cauldrons”.Rincon - boiling mud

D: (happily) Look – read the sign. We could be scalded and gassed at any moment.

He waits eagerly for a catastrophe, but remains unscathed.

At the far end of the trail, they reach a pretty stream, crossed on a wide log. They pause. L bends to wet her hands.

L: Weird! Feel this – the water’s warm.

 

Their second walk is longer – 2 hours each way – to reach the Cangreja Waterfall.   They check with the ranger that the water will be flowing, despite the dry season, and set off, through deeply shaded woods.

D: I think I’m being bitten by something.

L: Here – put on insect repellent. It’s called “Deep Woods”. It should be perfect.

They stand in the twilight of the forest floor, listening to the wind sweeping through the canopy above, and to the isolated call of an unseen bird. The path ahead is wide and flat, criss-crossed with innumerable tree roots.

D: It should be known as the “Forest of the Stranglers.”

L: Err…why? Are there murderers?

D: No. Well, actually, yes, in a way.

L: Seriously? Have people been strangled in these woods?Rincon - strangler fig

D: Not people. But look. A lot of these trees are strangler figs. They grow in dark forests like this, where they need to reach the light fast to survive. It’s clever evolution.   Their saplings sprout half way up trees, from seeds left by bird droppings.

L: That’d give them a good head start on anything growing up from the forest floor.

D: Exactly. The saplings shoot quickly upwards to get their heads into the light, and downwards to get their feet into the ground.

L: Which explains all these damn roots I’ve been tripping over.Rincon - fig roots

D: But all that frantic growing tends to strangle and kill the original tree.

L: Poor tree. That’s a bit evil. Is that why some of the trunks are hollow?

D: Yes, the cavity’s the space left by the dead tree. And see – sometimes the figs grow these great buttress roots, so that when the original tree dies, they don’t just fall over. Ouch. I think I’ve been bitten by something.

L: You can’t have been. You’re covered in bug-spray. It’s psychosomatic.

Rincon - path to waterfallThey walk on, and emerge into open grassland, the path now sloping gently downhill, giving far-reaching views down towards the coast. The strong breeze ensures that even in the midday sun they are not too hot. Occasionally they are “spritzed” with a mist of water blown down from the hilltop.

L: It’s a long way for a waterfall. It’d better be worth it.

D: We’re nearly there. I can hear it.

L: I bet there’s 300 people and no room for us to sit.

D: I can see it. There aren’t 300 people. There are……seven.

A final rocky descent through woodland leads them to a large clear pool fed by a white curtain of water cascading from 40 metres above.

L: It’s absolutely beautiful! Definitely worth the walk.Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall

D wades in. The water is refreshing, but not painfully cold. He swims lazily across, climbs out and stands happily under the fall, which pummels and needles the top of his head. The water is colder here. However, on the other side, in a little corner, a small stream trickles down a boulder and into the pool. The water from this stream is as hot as a bath.

The following morning…

L: Sorry. Not my best choice. But at least we had a bed.

D: Which was too small. You pushed me out.

L: And a bathroom.

D: With no hot water. And bare wires poking out of the shower head. It’s a miracle I wasn’t electrocuted. And dinner was horrid.

L: What are you saying? The pudding was tremendous!

D: There’s nothing tremendous about rice pudding. Unless you’re a very small child.

This morning they are driving to the other Ranger’s Station, at the south-west corner of the park, known as Casona Santa Maria. The 3km track is barely passable in places and they weave their way around boulders and in and out of deep ruts as though on a 4WD obstacle course. Eventually they arrive at a flat manicured grass clearing surrounded by forest. To one side is a dilapidated barn, which is empty apart from a small desk and a filing cabinet in one corner, on top of which are several decomposing snakes in glass jars. A cheerful ranger appears, shakes hands with them, and signs them in.

Ranger: There’s one trail – 3km out, the same back. No, not steep, but it can be a bit slippery in places. Have fun amigos!

They set off along a broad path in the woods. Their first stop is at a waterfall.Rincon - waterfall

L: Gosh – I don’t think we’ll be swimming here!

They admire a torrent of angry white water crashing over a 10 metre drop and into a swirling, frothing pool below.

L: I read somewhere that 32 rivers have their sources in the park. It’s a really important water catchment area for the region, because most of Guanacaste’s so dry.

D: Oh. Fascinating. Can I have the insect repellent? I’m being bitten.

He sprays himself carefully and thoroughly.

Further on, they encounter a large family group, arguing noisily in French.

Teenage boy: We’ve had to turn back. There’s a river to cross and no bridge and our parents wouldn’t let us wade it. You could do it, but you’ll get wet!

On they go.

L: That doesn’t sound right. The ranger would have mentioned it, surely. He just said things might get a bit slippery. They must have taken the wrong path.

D: Umm….Oh.

The broad track stops at a wide, fast flowing river. There is no bridge. Downstream it drops steeply over boulders.Rincon - wading river

L: I expect this qualifies as “a bit slippery”.

D: It’s not so deep.

L: Let’s wade it then.

In the middle, the current tugs at them, the water swirling around their thighs. They stagger across and out, slipping on wet rocks, and carry on, feet squelching. After a while they stop to wring out their socks and air-dry their feet. Then continue.

D: Oh.

L: Another stream. This one’s smaller though.

She wades straight in and across.

L: Shall we squeeze out our socks again?

D: Yes, but hurry up. If I stand still I get bitten.

L: That’s impossible. You’ve sprayed. You’re imagining it.

Further on, they descend to a wide shallow river bed giving off a strong smell of rotten eggs. Rocks have been arranged to form a cluster of knee-deep hot-tub-sized pools. The water flows in clear and peaty-brown, and out white and silty. They wade across the first pool.Rincon - hot springs

D: Cold.

And into the second.

L: Freaky! It’s properly hot, like a bath. And seriously eggy. Where’s the heat coming from?

They sit in it for a bit, trying to work it out. The third and fourth pools are tepid, fed from the hot pool flowing into them and then cooling. However this pool must be being heated from the ground.

D: Well, we’re sitting on volcanic magma – molten rock.

L: Are we? That doesn’t sound awfully safe.

D: Cold water seeps into the ground, and when it reaches the magma, it’s heated up and pushed upwards and back out. Either as hot water, like here, or as steam like in the fumaroles we saw yesterday.

L: What about mud pots?

D: That just happens when the hot water gets mixed up with mud or clay underground and so breaks through the surface as bubbling hot mud.

L: Have you been reading about volcanoes again?

D: Yes. I like them.

When they get out their skins and swimwear smell of eggs.

On the way back, they detour, following a small meandering path through the forest, promising “cold water pots.” Rincon - cold water potsAt a deserted clearing edged with dead trees, is a wide muddy area with water trickling through it. The stream is cold, and yet vigorously bubbling away. Here the fumes are heady, nauseating, almost overpowering. They explore, in places finding holes within which the water is boiling fiercely as though from a jacuzzi on full power.

L: I don’t understand. How can the water be bubbling and cold?

D: It looks like a spring – I reckon cold water is emerging from the ground here, but there are volcanic gases escaping too, through the water, making it bubble.Rincon - cold water pot

L: What sort of gases? Poisonous ones?

D: Umm… carbon dioxide, and the stink is hydrogen sulphide I think. Which is very bad for you.

L: Oh.

D: We’d probably better go – I think my eyes are melting.

L: I thought you liked your volcanoes a bit lively.

D: I do. But now I’m feeling queasy. And I’m sure I’ve been bitten.

L: Do you think you’ve got a neurological disorder? Maybe your imaginary itches are a form of Tourette’s or OCD. I’ll book you an appointment.

They reach the car.

L: Ah.

D: What?

L: I think I might have been bitten.

D: Ha!

Despite all the insect repellent, they are both covered in swollen red bites.

Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall 2

Spanish Immersion in Samara

Samara - palm trees and beach

Chapter 1

L: Oh my goodness. What HAVE we done? It’s so hot!

D: (getting out of the car with a grimace) And sandy. I hate sand.   Why didn’t you tell me that there would be sand?

L: We’ve been planning to base ourselves here in Samara all along. On the Pacific coast. I told you. The idea of the heat seemed blissful when sitting in a cold English winter in the rain. I’m sure we’ll get used to it.

D: (doubtfully) It all looked less itchy on Google Earth.

L: Just look how gorgeous it is! The blue sea, the palm trees. It’s like a postcard. We’re going to love it. You can learn to surf.

D: I suppose….

L: And I can see rocks at the far end of the bay.

D: (perking up) I like rocks. Rocks means no sand.

L: We are incredibly lucky to be able to do this.

D: Yes, we are very lucky. (He mutters) And sandy….

L: So. D’you think you might be able to bear it here in paradise?   As we’ve paid for two months’ rent in advance. And for a week of Spanish classes to start us off.

D: I can try….

L: That’s very brave of you. Here’s the school. Shall we go in?

The Intercultura Language School campus in Samara has an enviable waterfront location, only separated from the beach by a triple row of tall palm trees. In reception they are greeted with a smile, in Spanish, and hesitantly respond, managing to introduce themselves and confirm that they have signed up for one week. The school’s approach is total immersion, and it is taken seriously. There are pledges to be chanted and signed promising to speak only Spanish within the grounds, and notices up around the place sternly reminding people that they could be expelled for not complying.  Samara - Intercultura Language School

L: (in Spanish) Err…there is very heat today?

Reception: Today? It’s what? 37C (100F) degrees? No, that’s about normal. It’s like this every day. Except in the rainy season when it’s humid too. Today, we’re lucky – there’s a breeze to cool things down a bit.

L: Oh.

Like most of the students, they have opted to enhance their immersion experience by taking homestay accommodation with a local Spanish-only speaking family. The receptionist makes a phone call, and before long two young women arrive on a moped, bouncing down the dirt track with a toddler balanced between them. They disembark and introduce themselves.

Woman: (in Spanish) Hola! We’re your hermana-ticas (tica-sisters), and this is my niece. Are you ready to go? You have a car? Follow us.

They all get back on the scooter. D gets busy reversing the car in order to turn around. L looks towards the beach, from where appears a goddess walking towards them: a deeply bronzed, impossibly long-limbed dudette with a surfboard under one arm, wet hair streaming down her back. She passes the car, which swerves suddenly and very nearly hits a wall.

L: What the….? We have to give the car back in an hour. Don’t crash it now!

D: Sorry, got distracted. Lost concentration.

L: Sigh. Why don’t I look like that?

D: You do. You’re just a bit paler. And quite a lot shorter. And of course you’re much older than her. But otherwise you look just like that.

L: Thanks.

Chapter 2

A kilometre west of town, Samara’s tarmac ends and they unwillingly throw up a cloud of dust as they approach. The house is squeezed between its neighbours on both sides, but stretches a long way back. It has a tin roof, which doesn’t seem to always meet the top of the walls. The enclosed front yard leads to a comfortable open-sided living area with sofas and TV, dining table, and kitchen. Whilst providing shelter from the seasonal rains, the design efficiently takes advantage of any breezes, and allows the heat of the day, and of cooking, to escape quickly. Beyond, they are led through a warren of dim rooms, to their base for the week at the back of the house. It is furnished with a double bed, a single bed, and a large fan. Unlike many homestays, it also has the luxury of a private bathroom. They look around.Samara - homestay

L: It’s lovely and clean. I’m going to unpack our clothes into piles on the smaller bed.

D: There are nails around the wall that we can hang things on too.

L: Open the curtains. What’s our view?

D: Ummm….it looks into another bedroom.

L: Oh – better keep them closed then. Never mind – we’ll only be in it when it’s dark anyway.

D: Without an outside window, the bugs and mozzies won’t get in.

L: Good point. And the room’s well lit.

They glance at the bulb hanging from the ceiling which is swinging gently in the breeze from the fan.

L tests the shower.

D: Remember we were warned that houses here don’t tend to have hot water.

L: In this heat, I can’t even imagine needing hot water. The pressure’s good. The water comes straight out of a pipe which is far better for washing my hair than all the half-blocked shower-heads that we’ve come across recently.

That evening, they are given an orientation tour of the school and the village of Samara, and warned of the frequency with which to expect to be fed gallo pinto (rice and black beans) by their host families. Once daily, at the very least. The school itself is well equipped, with small air-conditioned classrooms (maximum class size is 6 students), a large garden with plenty of shady seating, lockers, and outdoor showers for those coming to lessons straight from the beach. There is WIFI throughout the grounds, and one small designated outdoor area where students are allowed to speak in their mother-tongue to make a phone call or skype.   There are free daily activities, in Spanish: yoga, Latin dance, Zumba, cooking, jewellery making. On a tour of the village they are shown where to find the bank, the cheapest supermarket, the doctor, the police, the tastiest tapas, and the best value surfboard hire.Samara - main street

They walk back in the dark. The road is teeming with unlit cyclists, pedestrians, free-range dogs and the occasional grazing horse, in addition to vehicle traffic tearing past with alarming urgency. Miraculously, it seems, there are no incidents.

Back at the house, they meet their mama-tica who has been attending a local council meeting about litter. She speaks quick-fire Spanish at them. Their hermana-tica gently interjects, slowly and clearly, whilst entertaining her tiny niece who is tapping away at a tablet with dazzling proficiency.

Mama-Tica: The weekenders are the worst. They come down from the city, spend one or two nights, leave rubbish all over the beach and then leave again. The kids are educated in school about litter nowadays, but the parents are a real problem. Fines don’t work. Nobody cares enough. But they should. The beach is our livelihood. If it’s covered in litter, what will the tourists think?

She produces freshly squeezed fruit juice, large bowls of spaghetti, and garlic bread. Not a black bean in sight. D eats hungrily. She sits at the table and watches him with evident satisfaction. The family dine separately, later.

Chapter 3

The hermana-ticas find bicycles for them to use, to shorten the commute to and from the language school. D’s is new-looking, black and shiny. L’s is pink and child-sized with a little white basket on the front. They have no gears, and no brakes.

L: How do you stop?

D: Back-pedal. Like this.

He skids.

D: It might take some getting used to.

L: Do I look ridiculous?

D: Of course not.

L: Are you ashamed of me?

D: No, I am proud of you.

L: Tell me the truth.

D: I am proud. And you look ridiculous.

On their first morning at the school, their Spanish skills are assessed separately, and they are pleased to be put into the same group. They are directed into a classroom. As they enter, D trips over a chair leg, knocks a side table and overturns a plastic tub of coloured pencils which cascade onto the floor.

L: What the…..?

D: Sorry, got distracted. Lost concentration.

There, at the whiteboard, welcoming her class for the week with a broad smile, is their profesora, the surf-goddess.

Chapter 4

The profesora proves to be as engaging as she is beautiful. Everybody loves her, and they work hard. The classes are fun, interesting and varied – nevertheless, the week is intense. Four hours of lessons each day with two 15-minute breaks. Only Spanish is spoken in class. And during breaks. Samara - Intercultura GardenThey have lunch in the school gardens and sit in the shade of the palms doing homework, speaking Spanish laboriously to each other and their fellow students throughout. It works – they learn, they practice, they remember. They progress. Their heads are stuffed so full of Spanish that there is no room for anything else.

One morning, for an exercise, they collect images from magazines. They are working together, but D has a problem.

D: Oh.

L: (in Spanish) What’s up?

D: (in Spanish) Give me a minute. No. It’s gone. How is that possible? Oh, I’m so embarrassed.

Profesora-Goddess: (smiling supportively) “Embarazado” means pregnant. What are you trying to say?

D looks understandably startled. The class laugh gently.

D: (in Spanish) Sorry, wrong word. Look, I can’t remember their names.

L: (in Spanish) Who? Those two? That’s easy. Oh. Hang on. Errr….

They stare earnestly at their cut out pictures of two of the best known faces on the planet. Spanish whirls through their heads. No names come. They stare. They think. They open their mouths as though the words will come out. They don’t. They dig deep, and eventually excavate one, and then the other. They write them down: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama.

Chapter 5

Mama-Tica feeds them delicious and healthy meals throughout the week. Quantities of fresh fruit for breakfast, and a continued – almost disappointing – absence of the Tico staple of rice and beans. She returns from another council meeting, peppering them with sharp and rapid Spanish.   They are getting better at grasping her words as they fly past, concentration running at full pelt to keep up with her.

Mama-Tica: The water supply is a real problem. There’s enough for now, but it hasn’t rained for two years.

They gape. Two years without rain is inconceivable to the English.

L: But the rainy season…..

Mama-Tica: Hardly any rain. Not like it’s supposed to be.

D: So where does Samara’s water come from?

Mama-Tica: Wells. There are wells. But they won’t last forever. We need to be careful, plan, conserve water, stop watering lawns and dirt roads to keep the dust down.

This they are familiar with, as in the UK, despite around 150 days of rain per year, there are regular hose-pipe bans. Mama-Tica’s attention is drawn away to her grand-daughter.

Mama-Tica: Come here, mi princesa. Come to your grandma, you beautiful treasure.

She scoops the child onto her lap.

They turn the Spanish conversation to their hermana-tica, who tells them that her sister returned to work eight weeks after giving birth. And that it was tricky – for the next three months, they had to take the baby to her restaurant for hourly breast-feeds. There is a pause. Breast-feeding is not their area of expertise. She changes the subject, and asks how they slept.

L: Very well, thank you. The bed is very comfortable.

L wants to say how unexpectedly bug-free their room is, but stays silent in case the comment would be impolite. She considers, and decides against, saying that the school had warned them to expect scorpions, but there have been none. Or relating a rather horrifying tale overheard today, of a student who woke in the night because she felt she might be being tickled by an insect. Or possibly more than one. So she turned on the light, to find her room swarming with thousands of termites who had broken through from a nest in the roof.

D: But there was a dog.Raccoon

Mama-Tica: Oh yes, barking at the mapache. There was a mapache, on the roof.

They are puzzled by the word, ask for clues, make some guesses, and then look it up. In the process, D notes with dismay that their dictionary is gritty with sand from the beach.

L: Oh, right! A raccoon!

Mama-Tica nods, rocking in her chair, crooning her grand-daughter to sleep.

Mama-Tica: (softly) Mapache viene por bebé. Mapache viene por bebé.

The baby nods off happily to the murmured threats of a raccoon coming to take her away, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of D, in the yard, fastidiously brushing sand from between the pages of his book.

Samara - boats on beach