Category Archives: Nicaragua

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.

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.


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


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.


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

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

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


Four Tales of Folklore – Leon, Nicaragua

Leon folk - first

D: What the hell is that?

L: What?

D: What d’you mean what? That!

L: That what?

D: That 30 foot tall woman with the huge chest and the top hat!

L: Where?

D: Now you’re just being annoying.

L: Oh. OK. She’s called La Gigantona. The Giantess.

Leon folk - GigantonaThey are crossing Leon’s central plaza, where the figure, in her rainbow striped dress, stands the full height of the two storey municipal building running along one side of the square.

L: Where’s her little friend?

D: What little friend?

L: Usually she has a tiny fellow with her, with a really big head. He’s called Pepe Cabezon.

D: No sign of him. Anyway, who are they?

L: She’s the tall, white, rich Spanish woman who arrived with the conquistadors in the 16th century. He’s the Nicaraguan – short, dark, poor but very intelligent – hence the enormous head. It’s about class struggles and Spanish oppression of indigenous Nicaraguans, and about making fun of the Spanish colonialists. They have a drummer with them. And they dance.

D: Don’t be ridiculous – she’s no dancer. Have you seen the size of her?

L: Maybe not her. But other versions of her. Normally she’d be smaller – about 3 metres high. And he’d be less than half that. So the drummer drums, and they dance and whirl. The drummer controls the dance, making La Gigantona start and stop as he plays, showing that although the Spanish might appear to be bigger and taller, they’re not the ones in charge.

D: Right.

L: Also, I think poor Pepe Cabezon might have a massive crush on La Gigantona but she doesn’t love him back.

D: Didn’t we see them dancing in the street in Granada?

L: Yes! Pepe Cabezon was tiny – he was being danced by a child. There’re street performances of La Gigantona all over the country. Nicaragua loves its folklore and legends.

They sit on the cathedral steps, from where they can see her in all her glory, six times life-sized, peering down at them over her formidable bosom.

D: Right – it should be open now.

Behind them is a doorway, in which sits a man in uniform.

D: Buenas dias, señor. Two tickets for the cathedral roof please.

He shakes his head. They are in the wrong place. He explains and gives directions. They thank him. They walk the full length of the cathedral’s outside wall, to the rear, where there is a hobbit sized door. It’s locked. They walk all the way back to the man in the doorway. He tells them it should be open now, but to come back if it’s not. They walk all the way back to the hobbit door. It’s open. They buy two tickets, and look for the onward route.

D: Disculpe, how do we actually get on to the roof?

They are directed all the way back round the building, to the man in the doorway.

Man: Ah, there you are. This way.

He asks for their tickets, tears them in half and points them up a stairway in the alcove behind him.

L: We’ve walked so far already, I might be too tired to get up the stairs.

At the top, a second man takes the other half of their tickets. It is not clear what could happen between the bottom and the top of the stairs, to warrant ticket checks at both ends. They are in a bell tower with views over the plaza. A small side door displays a sign. “Remove your shoes”.

L: Really? Curiouser and curiouser. What with the giant woman and the hobbit door and the ticket men, today’s beginning to feel a bit Alice in Wonderland.

The man looks sternly at their feet. The sign is serious. They remove their shoes and step outside.

L: Oh my goodness. It’s so beautiful! It’s just SO beautiful. Isn’t it beautiful? Look how beautiful it is.

D: Yes. It’s beautiful.Leon folk - roof and Momotombo

The roof is beautiful. They are in a pristine white world, walking barefoot on a smooth whitewashed surface, under a perfectly cloudless blue sky. They have access to the whole of the top of the building, with its white domes and balustrades and pinnacles and views on all sides.

L: It’s just so beautiful.

D: I think you’ve said that already.

L: Look, come and look at this. It’s beautiful.

D: Yes. It is.

The whole of the city is visible, from edge to edge, and silhouetted on the western horizon are the outlines of several volcanoes.

D: You know Leon started out somewhere different.

L: What d’you mean?

D: Leon was Nicaragua’s first capital city, built by the Spanish over there by Lake Managua, near the volcanoes. But in the late 1500s it was shaken up by several earthquakes, and then in 1610, Volcan Momotombo, which is the pointy one on the right, blew up big time and buried the entire town under ash.

L: Blimey. Like Pompeii.

D: Yup. So the Spanish moved a safe distance and built another town here instead. Now this is Leon, and that’s Leon Viejo – Old Leon.

L: What’s it like now?

D: They lost it, completely, for 300 years. It was only found again in 1967, and they’ve been excavating it ever since.

L: Wow. We should visit. But not today. It’s so beautiful up here, I could stay all day.

D: Actually you couldn’t. You’re burning. Your nose is pink.

L: Damn – quick, let’s find some shade. Where next? Can it be something completely different? otherwise it’ll be disappointing after this. Oh, and it’d better be indoors.

D: There’s a folklore museum. In a prison. It sounds a bit eccentric. The woman who founded it made a collection of weird papier-maché figures of various Nicaraguan legends.

L: Sounds perfect. Very Wonderland-esque. Maybe we’ll meet a White Rabbit. Or a Cheshire Cat. Vamonos!

They take a hot walk south down the Avenue Central. Vendors sit in shaded doorways selling melons and limes from baskets on the pavement. They find the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones in a fortress turned prison turned museum, opposite a bombed-out church – a victim and reminder of the revolution in 1979.

A walkway runs along the top of tall stone walls, and there are murals depicting horrendous tortures inflicted on the prisoners by Somoza’s National Guard in the ‘70s. In startling contrast, in the courtyards and cells, the splendid Señora Toruña has arranged an eclectic collection of home-made life-sized figures of Nicaraguan legend, and around the walls of a pretty enclosed garden are a series of mosaics illustrating the country’s myths and folklore. The combination is disturbing. And eccentric. And fantastic. Alice would be quite at home.  Leon folk - Pepe Cabezon

L: I’ve found him!

D: Who? Oh yes – La Gigantona’s sidekick, Pepe Cabezon.

L: There’s a man throwing a hand grenade at him.

D: He’s a revolutionary. I think he’s just throwing the grenade generally.

L: Oh. That’s all right then.

They recognise the two figures again, in mosaic form on the wall, The Giantess with long blonde hair and her tiny companion wearing revolutionary khaki uniform.

They explore the cells.

L: Who’s this fine fellow on a dear little pony?

Leon folk - ArrachevalaD: Let me check. Oh – he’s not a fine fellow. He’s called Arrechavala and he was vile. Now he’s a ghost. You should be looking a bit more terrified.

L: OK. It’s difficult though – his horse has such a sweet face. Look at its lovely eyelashes. Anyway, tell me the story.

D: Right – let’s see. Arrechavala was an extremely unpleasant Spanish Colonel who hated Nicaraguans and used to beat them as he galloped around through town. He was also seriously corrupt, and made a deal with the devil, who made him exceedingly rich in return for being given the souls of virgins and unbaptised children.

L: Nice.

D: Now Arrechavala’s ghost can’t rest until he finds one of his descendants, so he can pass on where he’s hidden his fortune. But Nicaraguans have decided he doesn’t deserve to rest in peace. They’ve vowed never to tell him where to find his relatives, so he‘s likely to haunt the city for ever.

L: Seems a bit unfair on the adorable horse – condemned to ghost-hood for eternity just because his owner was so beastly.

She pats the pony on the nose, and they continue.

Leon folk - cart of deathL: Yikes – is this the Grim Reaper? This one does look terrifying – quite nightmarish. What’s going on?

D: It’s La Carreta Nagua – The Cart of Death. It dates back to when Spanish caravans used to ride through the country capturing Nicaraguans for slaves.

L: Have you noticed that all the legends we’ve come across are connected to the Spanish conquistadors?

D: It makes sense, I suppose. If you think about it, folklore is a sort of cultural reaction to the important stuff. Once the Spanish turned up here, things would have been pretty traumatic.

L: Yes, and for a very long time. Carry on.

D: What was I saying?

L: The Cart of Death.

D: Right. So here it’s being driven by Death and pulled by two dead oxen.  Apparently if you’re ill or dying, you can hear the wooden boards of the cart banging as it makes its way through the streets at night, collecting the souls of the dead.

L: Don’t worry – we’ve got no chance of hearing the cart over the din of our air-conditioning. We’ll be fine.

D: Hold on, there’s more. Curiously the cart can’t cross intersections – it just disappears before it reaches a junction.

L: Oh. That’s handy to know I suppose. So junctions are safe zones. From the Cart of Death.

They leave the cells and return to sit in the walled garden, watching the shadows lengthen.

L: It’s so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine all the unpleasantness that must have gone on while it was a prison and during the revolution.

D: Except for the murals.

L: Yes.

D: And the tank over there.

L: Yes.

D: And the fellow with the grenade.

L: Yes. Shut up.

D: Right.

They inspect the colourful mosaic panels on the opposite wall.

L: Who’s the fellow with no head?

D: Errr….just a minute….He’s El Padre Sin Cabeza – The Headless Priest.

L: I can see that. But what happened to him?Leon folk - headless priest

D: I’m getting to it. He was a much loved archbishop in Old Leon – the original Leon by the lake. One day some men came into his church, chopped off his head at the altar, and walked around the city, chucking his head around between them until they somehow lost it. This made God so cross that He made the Momotombo Volcano erupt and wipe out the city.

L: So that’s why it happened!

D: Apparently so. Anyway, the headless priest is still seen over there, praying and looking for his head.

L: Poor man.

D: On Thursdays and Fridays.

L: What?

D: Those are the days when he looks for his head.

L: Oh. Right. Well hopefully they’ll find it for him in the excavations.

Leon folk - last

A Scorpion in the Promised Land – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 1 - first

L: Why have we stopped?

Ometepe 1 - driveThe minibus is full. Every seat is taken and the roof is piled high with rucksacks and surfboards. It is heading south from the city of Leon, through flat dry landscapes reminiscent of Australian outback, towards Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific surfing town of San Juan del Sur.

The driver gets out and crosses the road to a ramshackle food-stall. He returns with his lunch and sets off again, the bus now filling with mouth-watering wafts of hot barbecued meat. Fifteen bellies growl with hunger. There are hours of this journey left yet.

The roads are straight and paved. Every so often they pass a flat-bed wooden cart drawn by a skinny pony. Rural dwellings are scattered along the roadside, with walls of wooden planks and roofs of tin, each with their separate outhouse a few metres away – wood-framed and sheathed in tarpaulin or corrugated iron. Hens peck in the dust and livestock stands in the shade.

When they reach the dock, the ferry is loading. Half a dozen vehicles squeeze on to the tiny aft deck. The rest of the space is for foot passengers. They find a spot at the railing on the upper deck, next to a tall gringo. 20 kilometres across Lake Nicaragua rise the perfect twin cones of Volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, on the island of Ometepe.

The American: It’s something, isn’t it?

D: Yes. It certainly is.

Ometepe 1 - ferryThe American: She can get lively from time to time.

D: Which one? Concepción?

They look at the taller of the two volcanoes.

The American: Yeah. She grumbles and smokes and spits ash every coupla years. She’s about due now. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American cracks open a can and drinks deeply.

The American: Been here 18 months, and that view still gets me, every time.

D: Is it a good place to be?

The American: The best. Got two Nica kids in the local school system – getting a good education, and it’s free. And you know what? No uniform, so no poverty barrier – all the kids get to go. Island feels like a real community – everyone’s proud of where they live, and they care, you know? That it’s safe and clean and friendly, so it stays that way. Best place on earth.

D: I heard a Chinese company’s about build a canal here bigger than the Panama Canal – going right across the lake and past the island. Are people worried about that?

The American: Nah. Personally, don’t think it’ll ever happen. The guy just lost all his money in the stock market crash. But if it does? Sure there’d be plenty of short term disruption. And sure it could change life completely for the islanders. But in the grand scheme of things – would that be a bad thing? Don’t think so. It’s progress. Opportunity.   Across a region where opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

D: But the environmental impact….?

The American: Sure. There’s that. Don’t have much time for the tree huggers myself. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American opens another can.

D: Nicaragua seems to have a thing about becoming bigger and better than Costa Rica. I suppose the canal would help with that.

The American: Lived in both countries over the last 20 years. Nicaragua’s too Nicaraguan, man!

D: What d’you mean?

The American: Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing. In some ways, Costa Rica’s sorta lost its cultural identity. Sorta sold out to the US. Nica’ll never do that. Way too much national identity. Sure, the country’s getting more stable, the infrastructure’s getting better, the tourist bucks’re getting bigger, inward investment’s getting stronger. But, if you ask me, Nica’ll never be CR, man. Being a Tico (Costa Rican) is about attitude and way of life. Being a Nica is about blood and history and hard-won freedom. Goes deep.Ometepe 1 - croc

The ferry is approaching the island. The American picks up his bag.

The American: Nice meeting you, man. Big croc – see him?

He points at a huge log floating in the harbour, which blinks and disappears.

D: Gosh – is that really….?

The American has gone.

Ometepe 1 - ConcepcionThey disembark and find a taxi. The driver gives them a map of the island. There is one road, shaped like a pair of spectacles, circling the foot of the two volcanoes and joining up in the middle. Two thirds of it is unpaved. The landscape is stunning – the volcanic soil rich and fertile. Lush green pastures, woods and plantain groves spread like skirts around the bare cone of Volcan Concepción, whilst lower Volcan Maderas rises as a thickly wooded clump of peaks and ridges and gullies. Along the road, vivid splashes of bougainvillea tumble over garden fences. Ometepe 1 - beachHouses are of brightly painted breezeblock, or brick, or wood, with corrugated iron roofs. Sun glints off the clean waters of the lake whose shores include long swathes of sandy beach. The taxi slows frequently, easing across drainage ditches and speed bumps. The traffic is heavy – there are mopeds and bicycles, there are pedestrians, families, children, and men carrying huge tree branches home for fuel. There are chickens, and dogs, and cows, and horses and pigs. There are almost no other cars.

They visit the Ojo de Agua – a local favourite. The spring-fed swimming pools are surrounded by forest. Ometepe 1 - Ojo de AquaThe water is cool, clear and blue. Families sit around the edge, in or out of the water, picnicking and drinking pipa fria through straws – cold coconut water straight from the shell. A few swim solemn lengths. At one end is a tightrope – teenagers wobble and flail for seconds before crashing headlong into the water. At the other end is a rope swing. Fathers and sons climb into a tree, launch themselves out over the pool and let go. The boys flip and somersault to cheers and applause, the men hit the water heavily, swamping those at the edge who squeal in delighted protest.

Later, they walk through the gardens and orchards of the hilltop Ecolodge Porvenir, hunting for petroglyphs.

L: Some of these rock carvings are over a thousand years old, maybe even older. No-one really knows. There’s more than 1700 of them across the island, and they’re still being discovered. The ones here are still pretty much where they were found.

They study the soft swirls and circles, spirals and doodles, carved into boulders.

L: That pair of spirals could be the island.

D: Who did them?

L: Possibly the Nicaraos. Or the Nahuas from Mexico before that. No-one really knows. But “Ometepe” means “two hills” in Nahua. It was seen as a sort of promised land, and you can see why, with all this sunshine and fresh water and fertile soil. This half of the island, under the peaks of Maderas, was the place of the sun, whilst Concepción was brother of the moon.

Ometepe 1 - man with hairThey walk on, distracted from their search by trees dangling breadfruit, gourds, cocoa pods and other exotic mysteries. D looks sceptically at a lively looking fellow with his stone-carved hair on end and a monkey at his side.

D: Are you sure the dates are right? He’s excellent but he looks a bit frivolous to me.

L: Mmm…he does, but some of the carvings might be serious and symbolic whilst others could be more like graffiti, like your friend here. No-one really knows.

Ometepe 1 - petroglyphD: Humph. Oh, come over here. This’s more like it!

They stop at a huge boulder. It is elaborately decorated with depictions of a monkey, a fish and other symbols – maybe a bird, a river, a snake.

D: What does it all actually mean? Does anyone really know?

L: Err, no. Memories. Stories recorded for future generations. All the way down the line to us, standing here now. Makes you feel connected, doesn’t it? Part of the place somehow.

D: Makes me feel a bit thirsty.

L: Oh. OK.

On the way out, they pass a couple earnestly discussing the importance of fertility symbols and phallic engravings left by ancient civilisations, as they study a nearby rock.

L: (whispering) That’s not phallic. That’s a crocodile.

D: (whispering) Is it though? It’s all open to interpretation. No-one really knows.

L: (loudly) It’s got teeth.


Their hotel is small, with beautiful hillside gardens looking west across the lake. There is a magnificent sunset to be seen from the infinity pool and a gigantic brown scorpion in their room. L waves at a housekeeper who is emerging from a nearby building.Ometepe 1 - scorpion

L: Ummm… disculpe, està un scorpione muy grande en el habitacion.

The housekeeper looks baffled, and comes to take a look.

Housekeeper: Ay, un alacran!

L: Es peligroso? Is it dangerous?

Housekeeper: Si.

The creature is in the top corner, where wall meets ceiling. Its body is close to 3 inches long, its tail at least that again. The three of them look up at it doubtfully. The housekeeper fetches her broom. As the tallest, D takes it and prepares to brush the scorpion off the wall. The housekeeper shakes her head.

Housekeeper: No, no!

She turns the broom around, so the handle is pointing upwards, makes vicious beating motions, and hands it back to him. D understands that she requires the scorpion to be killed and him to do it.   He gamely reaches up and pins it to the wall with the broom handle. It thrashes energetically, waving its full length of tail. D applies more pressure. The scorpion thrashes harder. This goes on for some time. On the far side of the room, L flaps her hands and climbs onto a chair. D and the scorpion continue to wrestle on opposite ends of the broom handle. The scorpion wins, wriggles free and drops to the floor. L shrieks helpfully. The housekeeper picks up a shoe and hands it to D. He hits the scorpion, repeatedly, and squashes it. The housekeeper is pleased and impressed. D is a bit queasy. They inspect the remnants.

Housekeeper: Ay, muy grande!

She picks it up in a paper napkin and disposes of it. D and the housekeeper smile at each other and shake hands triumphantly. L climbs down off her chair.

L: Beer?

D: Definitely.

Ometepe 1 - last

On Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 2 - first

L: Poor things! They’re entirely covered in bandages!

D: Not entirely – only the right hand half of them.

L: They must be SO sore.

L and D are drinking beer, their feet in the hotel pool, watching the sun sink into Lake Nicaragua and paint the horizon gold. Nearby, a couple have arrived, limping slowly to a pair of loungers and easing very gingerly into them. Once settled, they explain to their friends that they don’t think they’ll be quite up to the horse-riding booked for the following morning. They can hardly move.

L: Perhaps Ometepe’s not the place to learn to ride a scooter after all.

D: Perhaps not.

L: Maybe the ditches and speed bumps and potholes and pedestrians and hens and dogs and cows and horses and pigs and bicycles make things tricky.

D: Maybe.

L: Shall we get taxis instead?

D: Let’s.

The following morning….

A 4WD utility vehicle arrives. The driver greets them cheerfully, introduces himself, and ushers them into the car.

L: (whispering) How romantic – he’s called Byron!

D: I heard.

L: (whispering) And he called me chica!

D: I heard that too.

They set off along the island’s one road, paralleling the lake. The surface is stony and ridged, making for a bumpy ride, and progress is slow. A woman at the roadside waves, and they stop. Two small children clamber up into the open back of the vehicle. They remain standing, holding on tight, the little boy protected from the bumps and lurches by the encircling body of his big sister. They stop again, to let the children off at their auntie’s house.

Byron points out monkeys in the trees and answers their questions.

Byron: The brick to build the houses is made here on the island. With mud from the lake.

Ometepe 2 - boat by lakeL: Does everyone get their drinking water from the lake?

Byron: No, the lake’s not used for drinking, though it could be.   On this side, water comes from a crater lake high up on Volcan Maderas, and over by Concepción there are wells.

L: And is there always enough water?

Byron: Yes, though 2014 was very dry. The rainy season didn’t really happen. The government told us to stop keeping chickens for food, as they use a lot of water. They told us to eat iguanas instead.

L: And did you?

Byron: Si, iguana meat is good. But there’s always plenty to eat on the island. The soil is so fertile – it’s the volcanic ash.

D: Is it a problem when Concepción erupts?

Byron: No. Every five years or so, up it goes, and the government tells us all to evacuate the island.

L: Blimey. And do you?

Byron:   No. Nobody takes any notice.

Byron drops them off at the foot of the hill. It is still early, just after 8am. They want to be the first. They follow a farm track, then a footpath for about 3km, through pastures and forest, ascending a flank of Volcan Maderas. They pass a rock painted with an arrow and the words “1 km”. There are caupuchin and howler monkeys in the trees. Magpie jays chatter overhead and a brilliant blue morpho butterfly flits by. They see no-one, but there’s no time to waste. The path ends at a dry river bed, strewn with boulders and enclosed by tall cliffs.Ometepe 2 - to San Ramon

L: Oh. We’ve done about 1km since the rock. Where is it?

D: Just along here. Follow me.

They pick their way up the stream bed, over gravel and rocks and around boulders and small trees. Until it becomes impassable.

L: Are we lost?

D: No. It’s just along here.

They climb out of the stream bed and follow a steep, rocky footpath winding through the woods. And on.

L: This is the world’s longest kilometre. Or we’re lost.

D: We’re not lost. It’s just along here.

L:   You keep saying that. I’ll just stay here. Can I have a biscuit?

D: But I can hear it.

L: Oh.

Ometepe 2 - San RamonJust around the next corner they arrive. The San Ramon Waterfall cascades down the mountain from 40 metres above, ending in a shallow pool. It is so tall and so sheer that they have to tilt their heads backwards, further and further, necks cricking, just to see the top. Moss and tiny ferns line the cliff wall and wet rock glistens in the sunlight. They have the place entirely to themselves, like one big awesome secret. They stand under the waterfall happily, wade in the pool and admire. They sit on a rock, drying off and eating biscuits. Soon a woman arrives with her son, aged about ten. The secret’s out. It’s time to leave.

On the steep scramble down, they meet four people.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 10 minutes.

In the river bed they meet two more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 20 minutes.

On the path through the forest they meet more, and more, and more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 25 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes.

They come across a clump of tethered horses. They meet a school group of girls taking selfies. Back on the track, people are parking, getting out of cars. Motorbikes arrive. In all they count 57 people heading to the waterfall. A long way down, a red faced man is wrestling his way up the uneven surface on a scooter. He stops, sweating.

Man: Is it much further? Will I make it on this?

D: Ummm….maybe. There are other cars and motorbikes up there. Not sure about scooters. You can drive to within a kilometre of the falls.

L: (under her breath) The world’s longest kilometre.

L worries for the rest of the day that the man will skid and fall and end up covered in bandages.

D: He’ll be fine. He’d only hurt himself on one side anyway.


Ometepe 2 - laundry in lakeThey are kayaking along the lakeshore. Women stand in the shallows doing their laundry on rock platforms built for the purpose. Toddlers play on the shore. A fisherman sits on the gunwale of his boat, mending nets. From time to time a rustic wooden dwelling is visible amongst a clump of palm trees at the water’s edge. But mostly the shore is given over to forest and pastures. They spot herons, kingfishers, egrets and ospreys.

The River Istiam is at its lowest. They find the narrow mouth, almost hidden in reeds at the edge of the lake, and glide silently along the shallow muddy stream.   Their guide is a young islander, and he knows his stuff. He reels off the names of the birds as they pass, spotting the invisible, time and again.

Ometepe 2 - great egretGuide: Look, a great egret, and next to him a great blue heron.

D fumbles for the camera.

Guide: There, a green heron.

L: Take a photo!

D: Missed it.

Guide: Look, turtles.

L: Where?

He points. A cluster of sharp little noses poke above the surface and disappear. He scoops up a turtle on the end of his paddle to show them.

Ometepe 2 - kayakingL: Take a photo!

D: Damn, missed it.

Guide: Look, caiman.

D: Where?

But it is gone. They look in vain for the caimans that they know are there, lurking out of sight.

Guide: Look, iguana.

D: Where?

L: There, stupid. It’s enormous! Even I can see that one. Right above your head on that branch.

Guide: In the reeds there. A little blue heron.

Ometepe 2 - kayakGuide: On the bank. Black necked stilt birds.

They watch them pick their long-legged way through the mud.

L: Take a photo!

D: Crap, missed them.

Guide: Green kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

The area is bursting with water birds. They can’t look in all directions at once. They drift past water lilies, duck under overhanging trees and around the spreading roots of mangroves. They pass just one other kayak – other than that the river is empty. And apart from the occasional lap of water against paddle, and the noise of the birds around them, it is completely silent.Ometepe 2 - cows

On their return, they pull their kayak up the beach. A herd of cows ambles past them and down to the shore, all amongst the boats, and into the lake for a drink.

They walk back to the hotel.

L: There’s the man! Oh, I’m so happy!

D: What man?

L: The man on the scooter. He’s still in one piece.

The next morning….

Byron is back, and he’s on a mission. He collects them at 4.45am. They need to make their way across the island to catch the first ferry at 6am. The journey takes a good hour in the daylight.   But at this hour it is still pitch dark. They hurtle along the unpaved, stony, rutted road, accelerating at every opportunity and breaking hard at the drainage ditches, the speedbumps, and the potholes. Every so often, objects loom suddenly into view, without warning, lit up by the car’s headlights. At considerable speed they swerve to avoid a cow, two pigs, a horse, several dogs, a cat, two cows, more dogs, another horse, a bicycle without lights, more dogs, pedestrians without lights, another dog, another bicycle without lights, a horse, a man sleeping by the roadside, a dog, a bicycle without lights, a motorbike without rear lights, pedestrians, a dog, two more motorbikes without rear lights.

They arrive at 5.55am. Byron is triumphant. L is a wreck. D is carsick. They are really sorry to leave.

Ometepe 2 - last