Tag Archives: Lake Nicaragua

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.

Later….

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

 

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

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