Monday, June 9, 2014


June 5, 2014

It did not rain on my last night at the Surfing Turtle Lodge, so it was hot and buggy.  I didn’t get to sleep until after midnight and woke at 5:00 am.  I got up at 6:30, so as to be ready to leave as soon as someone was ready to share a cab.  The first group to leave was taking the chicken bus to Leon, but I finally left with a German couple about 9:00.  We crossed the island on a horse cart, plodding through a muddy mangrove swamp to the shore where we met our launch to the mainland.  A couple of minutes and 25 cordobas later, we waded ashore at the launch ramp where our taxi was waiting.  It took us about half an hour to drive to Leon.  The bus terminal was a zoo of vehicles, waiting people, market stalls, vendors, and conductors shouting out their destinations.  I had just enough time to find the proper bus for the Germans, who didn’t speak Spanish, before I made a dash for an express bus to Managua.

The Road to Masaya
The ride to Managua took a little over two hours and cost about $1.75.  We drove through dry countryside with volcanoes in the distance.  Western Nicaragua is dominated by lakes.  Eventually, we reached Lake Managua and followed the shore to the city of Managua.  Managua was a big sprawling place, but not as frightening as Guatemala City or Tegucialpa.  The most frightening thing about it was trying to find one’s way about.  Unfortunately, my express bus didn’t go to the bus terminal.  I had to take a taxi clear across the city to get to the bus terminal, which was actually kind of interesting.  There were a lot of statues of Sandino and some big, wide avenues, one of which was lined with 30 foot tall stylized metal trees covered with hundreds of little yellow lights.  The taxi ride cost about $2.00, which was cheap for a taxi ride, although more than it cost me to come all the way from Leon.  The bus terminal was chaotic, but it didn’t take long to find the bus to Masaya.  There were no luggage racks on the bus, so I shared the seat behind the driver with my bag and two other people.  The ride took about an hour.  We passed the entrance to the Masaya Volcano National Park along the way.

Bus Terminal in Masaya
We actually drove right past my hotel on the way to the bus terminal but, since there are no street signs or addresses in Nicaragua (and therefore no one knows the names of the streets) I had no way of knowing that at the time.  Eventually, we arrived at the small dusty bus terminal on the edge of town.  Fruit vendors were set up in the center of the lot and the buses circled them.  I dragged my bag through the dust to where a taxi waited and asked my taxi driver to take me to Mi Casa Hostel.  Unfortunately, the driver was not familiar with the hostel.  We drove around and around, but even my map was useless because, without named streets or an address, we could not orient ourselves.  Finally, the driver convinced me that the hostel did not exist, so I agreed to go to the Hotel Madera in the same neighborhood.  While the hotel was marginally acceptable, it was quiet and did appear to be the center of tourist activities in Masaya.  I got a room with a bathroom, TV, and fan for $20 a night.  The desk clerk assured me that I could join a group going to the Masaya Volcano if I showed up in lobby the following morning.

The Parroquia in Masya
Mosaic Sculpture at Entrace to Masaya
I dropped off my baggage and went in search of food.  It was my intention to walk down to the lake and get something to eat there.  My map showed a park on one side of the church near my hotel and I thought I could use that to orient myself, but there turned out to be parks on both sides of the church.  I first walked around the block, trying without luck to locate the Mi Casa Hostel.  Then I set off in what I hoped was the right direction.  After walking several blocks, I came to the highway back to Managua and realized that I had gone the wrong way.  There was a chicken restaurant across the highway, so I stopped in there to get something to eat.  I managed to get chicken that wasn’t fried, although it was the smallest chicken quarter I had ever seen.  It was tasty, although not as filling as I might have liked, but they had free wi-fi, so I hung out for a bit to catch up on my communication.  By then, evening was falling and it looked like it might rain.  I decided to leave my walk to the lake for another day and returned the way I had come.  By the time I got back to the neighborhood of my hostel, it was hot.  I had seen a smoothie shop on my walk around the block, so decided to indulge my watermelon ice addiction.  As I sat in the shop, trying to figure out how to drink my smoothie through a tiny straw, I looked across the street and spied the Mi Casa Hostel.  It didn’t look any better than where I had landed, so I decided to stay put.  I went back to my hotel and spent a quiet evening watching American television.  There were thankfully no bugs.

June 6, 2014

There was no purified water available in the hotel.  The owner’s wife suggested I go across the street to buy water and get breakfast.  The breakfast was truly excellent (eggs, sausage, cheese, beans, fried plantanos and sour cream with coffee and a bottle of water for about $4), but I soon discovered that they also owned the restaurant.  Kaching!  I had been suckered.  I showed up at 9:00 for the proffered tour to Masaya volcano, but I was the only one who showed.  This was not surprising, since I think I was also the only guest.  Despite the hundreds of backpackers in Leon and, I assume, in Granada, none of them seemed to have found their way to Masaya.  Rather than forego seeing an active volcano (the whole reason I came to Masaya in the first place), I elected to pay double for a private tour.
Painting of Parrots Nesting in the Crater

View of Lake Masaya from the Museum
The owners’ son drove me to the national park and waited while I visited the surprisingly interesting museum.  There were well curated displays about volcanoes and the local flora and fauna.  I discovered that the names for different types of lava derived from the Hawaiian words for “lava upon which you cannot walk barefoot” and “lava upon which you CAN walk barefoot.”  While I was there at the wrong time of day to see them (they return in the late afternoon), I learned that parrots nest in cavities in the wall of the volcano’s crater.  The museum had a nice overlook from where I could see Lake Masaya and the town.  Lake Masaya was formed when a former volcano collapsed in on itself.  The current Masaya Volcano is slowly filling in the previous crater as it builds a new cone.  The current volcano has two craters, only one of which is presently active. 

Cross on the Summit of Santiago
Steam Rising from Santiago Crater
After visiting the museum, we took a very pleasant drive through the jungle to the edge of the Santiago crater.  I may have picked an awful time to go surfing, but I hit the perfect time to visit the forest on the side of Volcan Masaya.  The jacarandas and plumeria were all in bloom.  If it weren’t for the distinctly different culture, one could easily think of Nicaragua as a budget Hawaii.  Spanish clerics planted a cross on the summit of Santiago hoping to exorcise the demons issuing from what they believed to be the mouth of hell.  This cross is today represented by a more modern construction, but the stairway to the summit was closed due to landslides.  Lava bubbles at the bottom of the Santiago crater, although the view is obscured by clouds of sulphrous steam.  The crater walls are fairly shear and the whole effect is pretty spectacular.  My driver waited while I climbed up to the crater of San Fernando which, while higher, was pretty tame in comparison to Santiago.  The view from up there was worthwhile, however.  I could see both the Santiago crater and the ancient crater now occupied by Lake Masaya.  The original volcano must have been massive.  The volcanos of Nicaragua are the result of the collision of the Caribbean and Cocos plates.  The Cocos plate is diving under the Caribbean plate, melting and spewing up magma as it goes.  According to the displays in the museum, the Central American isthmus has undergone tremendous changes over the millennia, being at time a series of islands or even just open ocean between South America and the Yucatan.

San Fernando Crater

Walls of the Artisans Market
After I got back from the volcano (and finally having oriented myself), I set off for the Artisan’s Market.  I usually avoid such places, since I am not interested in buying souvenirs and hate being hassled by vendors.  The interesting walls of the market lured me in, however, and I was glad they had because the market was very low key and there was a great band playing in one of the restaurants.  The center of the market featured a performance space for live music and dance.  I was sure it was a happening place during the tourist season.  Unfortunately for me, it was the low season and even the Museum of Folklore was closed.  I did, however, discover a modern supermarket across the street and managed to buy a gallon of water and a small bottle of Flor de Cana, the Nicaraguan rum.
Stage in the Market

Lake Masya
Unfortunate Accumulation of Litter
After I finished shopping, I walked through an attractive residential neighborhood to the edge of town where a shady malecon bordered the lake.  The water is at the bottom of a steep cliff, but the view was lovely as long as you ignored the drifts of litter just below the railing.  I was there on a weekday afternoon when everything was closed, but there were numerous bars and discos lining the malecon and a carnival was setting up in preparation for the coming weekend.  Masaya (90,000 inhabitants) seemed to be a fairly prosperous place, probably due to its proximity to Managua and Granada.  I traversed the malecon and then returned to the center of town through the neighborhood of hammock factories where men were weaving (or should I say tying) hammocks on open porches lining the streets.  Many of the hammocks were quite beautiful and intricate.  If we hadn’t already had more hammocks than we could use, I would have been tempted to buy one.  Not wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon at the hotel, I bought an iced coffee and spent a couple of hours surfing the internet at a café adjacent to the parroquia (parish church.)  Something was brewing in Masaya.  All the children seemed to have been released from school early and adolescent boys were setting off firecrackers everywhere.

Masaya Malecon
La Jarochita
I finally returned to the hotel in the late afternoon and wrote for a couple of hours before going out to dinner.  It was very noticeable how little the hours of daylight changed with the seasons so close to the equator.  Despite being only a couple of weeks before the summer solstice, it got dark before 6:30.  While that would have depressed me at home, it was welcome in a place where average daytime temperatures hovered around 90 degrees and seldom dipped below 70 degrees at night.  While I usually tried to be home before dark, Masaya on a Friday night was busy enough that I waited until 7:00 to go out to dinner.  I walked a few blocks back towards the parroquia and at dinner at a Mexican restaurant called La Taqueria Jarochita.  It was an attractive place with colorful tables and chairs set on a vine shaded terrace.  I had excellent enchiladas suizas and a spicy michelada.  Even the chips were excellent.  The food in Nicaragua was generally quite good, but it was still a treat to find good Mexican food.  I took Mexican food for granted in California, but truly came to appreciate its complexity and variety once it became difficult to find.  If you like fish, however, Nicaragua is the place.  The fish was excellent and affordable.

June 7, 2014

Yes, That's a Live Pig!
I had a leisurely morning and then grabbed a latte and a piece of cheesecake on the way to the bus terminal.  I walked to the bus terminal, which was really humming on Saturday morning, complete with squealing piglets.  My plan was to visit the three villages known as the Pueblos Blancos: Catarina, San Juan de Oriente and Diria.  Of course, none of these villages were mentioned in the destinations painted on the buses, but I eventually deduced that I could get at least as far as Catarina on the bus for Diriomo.  Of course, the bus was packed.  The conductor motioned for two large Nicaraguans taking up three seats to make room for me, but the best they could do was to make room for one cheek.  I balanced precariously all the way to Catarina.  The fare was seven cordobas (about 28 cents.)

Laguna de Apoyo from Catarina
Horses for Rent at Catarina Mirador

Catarina Mirador

     While I had enjoyed busy, but relaxed, Masaya, Catarina was refreshing.  Catarina lies on a ridge between Masaya and Granada and is just high enough to be noticeably cooler and greener.  The entire town was made up of nurseries.  I later learned that growing plants on your patio was a current fad in Nicaragua and people were even tearing up pavement to plant trees in their courtyards.  Catarina was capitalizing on this trend.  Every kind of tropical plant seemed to thrive there.  I saw the most humongous hibiscus flowers I had ever seen in my life.  Nurseries and shops selling gaudy ceramic garden ornaments (made in San Juan de Oriente) lined the highway (and every other street.)  The place was gorgeous.  The big attraction in Catarina is the Mirador, an overlook with a spectacular view of Laguna de Apoyo (a crater lake) and the Mombacho Volcano.  The way to the Mirador was uncharacteristically well marked.  There was a pretty hillside park with lots of benches overlooking the view.  Elaborately caparisoned horses were available for rent if you wanted to make the descent to the lake itself, a ride of about an hour.  There were crafts, food and drink for sale surrounding the Mirador, but it was too early for lunch.

Mombacho Volcano from Catarina
San Juan de Oriente
Calves in San Juan de Oriente
On my way back to the highway, I decided to make a detour to the Laguna de Apoyo visitor center, also well marked.  I followed the signs downhill and did eventually find the visitor center, but it was closed.  Across the street from the visitor center, however, was a monument welcoming visitors to San Juan de Oriente.  San Juan was my next stop, anyway, so I continued on down the hill.  I wandered around the back streets of San Juan de Oriente for most of an hour, but never did find the downtown area.  It was very pretty and I was treated to lots of lake views and cute baby animals.  The housing was often primitive and piglets trotted in and out of homes with impunity.  Many of the corrugated metal shacks had million dollar views of the lake.  After I had raised a blister or two, I located the highway again (it turned out the village center was on the other side of the highway along the stretch I had skipped) and continued following it downhill to Diria.  I wasn’t sure where I was going, but there was a nice sidewalk and lots of traffic, so I figured I was going someplace important enough to have a bus back to Masaya.

Parroquia San Pedro in Diria

Street in Diria

Diria was up a steep road between the highway and the edge of the crater.  It, too, had a Mirador, although I never located it.  Diria was not as verdant as Catarina or San Juan de Oriente, but it made up for it with tidy sidewalks and a pretty park.  Diria definitely got the award for the best pavement in Central America.  It had a pretty little parish church which had been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt twice in its history.  Unfortunately, everything in the town seemed to be closed.  I was hoping for a restaurant with a restroom, but couldn’t find anything other than a stand selling sodas.  Eventually, I gave up and decided to head back to Masaya.  There was a bus stop on the highway near the entrance to Diria and, fortunately, the large group of teenagers waiting there was headed in a different direction.  A friendly fellow was directing bus passengers and, after he informed the other people waiting that the bus to Managua didn’t stop there, we chatted about my experiences in Nicaragua until my bus arrived.  The return bus was less crowded and I got a decent seat.  The fare from Diria was 9 cordobas (something like 36 cents.)

Ruined Building in Masaya
Everybody in Masaya was out doing Saturday errands and the neighborhood between the bus terminal and downtown was a busy shopping district.  I threaded my way through the throngs of people, motorcycles, horse carts and taxis back to the parroquia and then back up the main drag towards my hotel.  Masaya has casinos, although I never went inside.  It also has its share of buildings ruined by earthquakes and never completely demolished or repaired.  This gave it a rather bombed out look in places, although I don’t believe the area saw any fighting during the war.  The sidewalks were deplorable, full of holes and missing covers, and completely absent in places.  Trying to walk on a sidewalk in Central America was always an adventure, as the height of the pavement above the street varied wildly and it was often necessary to climb up and down steps or jump off precipices, all the while being careful not to step in holes or fall into storm drains.  Since cities seemed to ignore sidewalks altogether, residents attempted to improve the curb appeal of their homes by tiling over the broken sidewalks.  This worked at first, but the lack of a firm underlayment caused the tile to break and come loose over time, making the going even more treacherous. 

Smoothie Shop
By that time it was 3:00 and I was hungry, so I stopped at my favorite smoothie stand and got a large smoothie to go.  I returned to my hotel and napped and contemplated my route through Costa Rica until dinner time.  For dinner, I returned to my Mexican restaurant and ate carnitas tosadas.  Every gringo in Masaya (a bus load of them had appeared from somewhere) was in that restaurant.  While I was there, a religious procession went by.  Throngs of people carrying candles were followed by a float with a statue of some saint and a very small marching band.  I heard drums and a trumpet, but all I actually saw was one tuba.  They made an impressive amount of noise, however.  Fireworks were going off left and right.  Masaya has a reputation for being party central and it certainly seemed like the whole town was out enjoying the evening.  Even I wasn’t in a hurry to return to my room, so I stopped for dessert at an ice cream parlor along the way and watched the children enjoying their ice cream cones while I ate mine.

June 8, 2104

My Home in Granada
I had stayed up late the night before, watching Rambo III, and so managed to sleep until almost 8:00.  I wasn’t hungry, so stayed in my room, packing and studying Spanish grammar, until it was time to check out.  Shortly after I checked out, Leticia, the administrator from the Spanish school where I was headed, arrived in a taxi to take me to Granada.  It was very nice of her to do that, as I could easily have gotten there on my own.  Maybe she felt obligated, since they usually offer airport transfers and I wasn’t arriving by plane.  It was certainly easier to come by taxi than it would have been on the bus and definitely made finding my house simpler.  Granada, however, featured actual street signs and even house numbers.  The pressure of being a big tourist destination seemed to have impacted Granada more than Leon.

The house where I would be staying was a pleasant surprise.  It was easily the most elegant building I had seen in Nicaragua.  The outside was freshly painted and in good repair.  The inside was spacious, 
immaculately clean, and elegantly decorated with beautiful furniture and linens.  My room was large and airy and opened onto a rear patio.  There were five other guests, as well as the family living there.  Three of the other guests were biomedical engineering students in Nicaragua for a summer program between their junior and senior years.  They were spending the first month of their stay studying Spanish and would then spend another month helping hospitals maintain donated equipment.  They seemed like very nice girls.

My Room in Granada
I arrived just before lunch, so hung around the house until after we had eaten before heading out to explore Granada.  Granada is quite compact.  On a Sunday during the rainy season, it was very quiet.  I walked over to the school so as to be sure I could find it and then checked out the Ceramics Museum next door.  They had quite a collection of ancient pieces, but what impressed me most were the modern ones.  Most of them originated from San Juan del Oriente where I had been the day before.  The work was exceptional and made me sorry that I had missed seeing the pottery cooperative there.  After the museum, I strolled over to the cathedral and central plaza, which was full of tourists, vendors, and carriages lining the streets.  Everyone seemed to be trying to sell me something and I felt very outnumbered.  I retreated into a coffee shop and passed the afternoon surfing the internet.

No comments:

Post a Comment