Tag Archives: Volcan Mombacho

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