Friends of Casa Iquana

In Search of Memories

In our first few days on Little Corn Island, we made the trek from Ensueno’s at the north end to the south end to see what remains of the once prosperous resort, Casa Iguana.

When we worked there in 2002-03 it was a sought-after destination for adventure travellers from around the world. Many came there to fly fish off the beach while others came to dive in the cerulean waters cradling the untouched reefs. Island people we’re meeting now talk of how great the place was and many praise the efforts of Grant and Kathy the original owners.

As we got closer to what was our home for 4 months, the scene became heartbreakingly bleak. Roofs had collapsed or were blown off in the last high winds, decks were rotting and everything that could rust had. Carefully, we walked up on the main deck in front of the lodge.

The deck has the best view of the eastern side of the island – a sight we remembered. Nature had taken its toll with the beach below us. Significantly reduced in width, we could see the damage to the shore as it headed north.

We sat for a while on the bench seat just north of the lodge. It was the place where we would come to sit and take in the beauty of the island.

It was also a place where we used to take portraits of visitors. I offered a service where visitors would pose and for a small fee I’d process the photo and email it to them!

This is Pami and Danielle. Their baby was born on Little Corn:

On this day we sat there surrounded by the literal devastation of a Little Corn icon.

This was our little house:

We’re hearing stories and opinions but most people just shake their heads and wonder like us, how this could happen. The current owner, Mary from Chicago has been silent according to long-time residents.

As we walked away, we happily remembered the good times we had there. Goodbye Casa Iguana.

We find some friends!

And… on a lighter note – we were reunited with our dear friend Maribel – a lovely lady who worked hard in the kitchen of Casa Iguana. We formed a deep and loving relationship with Maribel and we were very sad to leave her in 2003. She wasn’t hard to find as she runs a small store and a restaurant called “Mango’s Pizza”. As we approached Maribel’s place we came face-to-face with another lady Marta, who worked along side Maribel!

She was just walking down the path with Elsa who we now know is the Mum of Vilma – (we stayed at her place “Villy’s” on Corn Island). We used to hang out at Elsa’s to take a break from Casa Iguana.

At that time, she served a limited menu… “Fish or lobster, Coke or beer.” We exchanged hugs with Marta and Elsa, walked up to Maribel’s store.

As she turned around, Maribel said, “Oh, Chris and Heather!” There were LOTS of hugs… and a few tears too.

We reminisced about the fun we had and talked about our lives since. And, we also talked a bit about Anjelito. She was very sad when we mentioned him. Her store was busy so we didn’t stay long. We agreed we’d come back for dinner – the next evening. Going to be fun!

Pizza Night!

Maribel’s little business is perched on the edge of the south west shore of the island. The absolute perfect place for a sunset dinner. We arrived and her waitress brought us a couple of beers to watch the picture perfect sunset.

Maribel’s store was very busy so we didn’t have much time with her – we enjoyed her yummy pizza instead!

When we went to pay her, she refused and insisted she buy our dinner. Thanks Maribel!

Another reunion

The next morning, we were walking into the village after breakfast with Dave when we walked by two young, very beautiful island ladies. As we passed on the path, one of them said, “Chris & Heather?’ “Yes?” “Hi, I’m Doris, Maribel’s daughter and this is my friend Karen. It’s so nice to see you!” We were flabbergasted. Feels like we never left. Although, Doris did look a bit more grown up!

Doris before on the right:

Doris today – on the left and her friend Karen on the right:

Recycling?

Before we wrap up this installment of our Nica adventure, a number of folks have been asking us about the state of recycling on the island. We’ve discovered they do in fact have a plan.

Metal is collected around the island and stored in woven plastic bags. We’re told four times a year the collected cans etc. are loaded on to a boat and shipped to the mainland where they continue to their destination for processing.

Recycling on Little Corn Island

A similar thing happens for glass. Plastic is the the demon. NO plastic is recycled here. Instead, it is collected by most residents and then it’s burned along with other burnable garbage. Not the best solution, but it’s better than ignoring the problem and the plastic ending up in the Caribbean.

Coming next time… A look at Ensueno’s and our new home called Troy’s Place. More chats with Dave and just enjoying the incredible natural beauty of this island.

Our Return to the Little Pardise

The panga trip from Corn Island to Little Corn is a legendary thrill-a-minute ride . And, good to see the only thing that has changed is the approach to safety. Due to the tragedy in 2016 when a panga capsized and 13 Costa Rican tourists died, there is a new approach. When buying your $5 ticket in the building next to the wharf, you must provide your passport so the number can be recorded. (Not the first time in Nicaragua we’ve done this) Most people on our boat wore the life vests provided.

In the past, life vests were used as seat cushions due to the panga’s contortions during the ride. If your seat is in the front, half the time you’re suspended in mid-air waiting for the boat to crash back into the sea after rocketing over a huge wave. If you’re in the back, you’re guaranteed to get wet as the ensuing splash engulfs everyone. We noticed a lot of young Lonely Planeteers covering their backpacks and some even had plastic garbage bags to shove everything in. Our ride was as described above, except for the added cheerleading team! Five lovely young people from Spain were sitting up front and the girls screamed every time we became weightless! Waaaahh! It was definitely too much fun!

With our vertebrae still attached, we made it to the little island safe and sound. We had a water taxi ($8 per person) take us from the panga dock to Ensuenos, a rustic resort on a spectacular northern beach.

Caretakers Phillip and Brigit from Switzerland welcomed us and we moved into the work-of-art cabana called ‘Casa Roca’. With it’s woven palm roof and free-form concrete floor created over rocks (rocas) we were treated to a very close-to-the-earth experience.

Our bed was suspended above the undulant floor and were happy to see a cube shaped mosquito net to keep the bugs out. It worked not only for the bugs but the land crabs that crawled up the walls during the night.

Over dinner prepared by Ensueno’s staff, we got to know our new Spanish friends from the panga ride. They were all teachers on a work exchange program between Spain and Florida.

Wonderful to chat with them and three other members of a German family. The Mum was a EU diplomat who worked at the embassy in Managua. Fascinating to hear all the countries this lady has worked in all over the world. Oh, and the dinner? It was way more money than we usually spend on a meal ($20) but it was worth every penny. Three courses, the middle one featuring freshly caught fish – it all made for a very yummy treat. And we didn’t feel like making the 30 minute walk back to town.

We slept very, very well. Thanks to a comfy bed with only the familiar sound of the surf crashing on the reef offshore… it was a good night.

Sunrise at Ensuenos:

The next morning we had our own quick breakfast of PB and coconut bread and we headed off to our friend Dave’s place.

If you’ve just joined our blog, Dave is an old friend we’ve known since we were teenagers. After our first trip to Little Corn, we told Dave about the island and he ended up buying a piece of property and building a dome shaped ferro-concrete house. (Guaranteed to withstand a hurricane!) We hadn’t seen him in over 11 years and this was going to be a big surprise…
We walked over to Dave’s place but it was locked up.

Hmmm… “He must be in the village”, we thought. We continued to walk down the hill to the west side of the island where breakfasts were being served by the various restaurants. We looked in all of them but still no Dave… Then, as we were headed south on the path, there he was, coming towards us! We sat down on a bench and waited. Just as he flip flopped by, we said, “Hey Dave. What’s happening?” He looked sideways, saw us and said calmly, “Holy shit. You made it back.” BIG hugs all around and we just reveled in the beautiful feeling of long-term friendship.

We followed Dave to his favorite breakfast spot and spent the next hour or so just catching up.

He has some incredible stories about his early days in Nicaragua and building the house on this remote island. Knowing some of his life’s history, we told him he should write a book!

After our first meeting with Dave, we’ve been over to his place for a number of breakfasts and dinners and along the way… We’ve met Rob Lloyd of YouTube’s SHABL (Stop Having a Boring Life) fame. Now if you don’t know Rob, he’s a world traveler who now has an intimate relationship with Little Corn…

Heather, Dave and Rob:

He’s built two houses here… and the big one “Alta Vista” is an incredible structure he’s now renting out for a year.
Turns out, Rob has formed a great friendship with Dave. In fact he’s been very helpful and supportive to our dear 76 year old friend. Thanks Rob!

We first discovered Rob when we were searching online for any mention of Dave. Didn’t take long for Rob’s YouTube Vlog to come up – the episode where he was helping Dave to sell a piece of his property here.

Selling Dave’s property on Stop Having a Boring Life – YouTube

So, our first reunion has been super successful! In the next blog entry, you’ll meet more of our friends on Little Corn Island.

Anjelito

When life offers us a different pathway, there is no possible way to predict what, or who we’ll find down that road. When the resulting chain reaction of new experiences results in a personal relationship, a wonderful one, the new path lights up one’s life and will likely put a smile on your face.

In 2002 when we considered taking jobs at Casa Iguana on Little Corn Island Nicaragua, we had no idea it would be one of those pathways.

OK, so what’s our job?

Prior to our arrival, long distance negotiations with the Floridian owners of the place took place over the phone and via email. We would be working in the vegetable garden, doing some laundry, carpentry/building maintenance and running the lodge’s restaurant for the evening meal. Heather would be the hostess/waitress and I was to be the cook in the kitchen.

We had all the necessary skills and we were really, really excited to take the jobs. We had never been to Nicaragua and it felt like we were diving into a whole new adventure. It was.

In the kitchen the daily menu was typically one dish – no a la carte. The only exception was vegetarian. We had to be prepared for that eventuality. And, the protein for the typical non-veg dinner was either fish, chicken or lobster. Usually heavy on the fish.

El Pescador

The fish would come into the kitchen after the resort’s fisherman Anjelito had completed his catch of the day.

He would fillet the fish outside and bring me a huge gleaming filet of barracuda or red snapper. Handing me the fish the first day, I remarked to him, “But Anjelito, this fish is warm. It needs to be kept cold.” He replied, “Meester Chris, it is because it has come out of the warm ocean!” …Duh.

My job was to cut it into 6 oz. portions and put it on ice which was readily available on the island from the lobster packing plant – one of the main exports from Little Corn. We would take those filets, splash them with garlic/butter sauce and grill them over a real hardwood charcoal fire.

Tuesdays was fish and chips day – filets were rolled in corn meal and immersed in oil so hot it was almost on fire! The chips were a cousin of plantain cut into circles, deep fried and dusted with seasoned salt. Touristas loved it! Other days we would make our own corn tortillas and create barracuda fajitas! Yum!

Over the 4 months we worked and hung out with Anjelito he became a true friend. We started calling him “Anjel”.
He had skills for sure. Yes, he could fish but he had also graduated from a technical school and was an expert at small engine repair. That’s handy in Nicaragua.

He had a cheeky side and was always making fun. And… there was of course a language barrier. Somehow, one day the English language term “pussy cat” came up. Anjel couldn’t understand why one couldn’t say “pussy dog” because as far as he knew ‘pussy’ meant ‘baby’! His way of learning English was to read the dictionary.

He liked to play cards – but he liked to deal from the bottom of the deck when you weren’t looking and would argue (in a happy way) if you challenged him on the rules of the game. In an endearing way, at times we called him “Brat!”

The first goodbye to Little Corn.

When we got close to leaving in April 2003, it became clear we would miss him. He held a special place in our hearts. As we got ready to board the panga for the last time, he showed up with Alec and Marabelle, two other good folks we worked with at Casa Iguana. It was a tearful goodbye. We loved Anjel.

From left to right… Chris, Megan, Anjel, Marabelle, Heather and Alec.

Back home in Canada, it took some months of adjustment to make us comfortable in the groove again. We eventually achieved a happy place surrounded by family and friends in our lovely community of Quesnel. But we always remembered Anjel.

One of our good friends Dave, was really interested in our visit to Little Corn. He had always wanted to live on the “Continental Shelf” of Central America and Little Corn is bang on. He was so inspired and, long story short… he went to Nicaragua and bought a piece of property on the island with a mind to building a permanent home there. In his ‘60’s at that time, he was looking for a place to live the life he’d always wanted… self-sufficient, in a tropical place and no winter to worry about.

In 2007, I went back to the island to help Dave work on his house. I could only afford a few weeks but a little help is better than none. I was also super excited to see the island again. As I approached the shore the adrenaline started to pump. Wow! I was really back there! I jumped off the panga and walked towards the sidewalk that skirts the beach. There, in the crowd, was a familiar face… Anjel. He had no idea I was coming and I didn’t expect to see him right off the bat! It was his day off and he was just hangin’ out. So, we spent the day together, recalling some of the fun things we did together.

He still worked at Casa Iguana but was not the fisherman anymore. He was in charge of Maintenance at the resort. It was now under new ownership and was undergoing some progressive changes. I also found out he was married, and had two kids. He and his family lived on Corn Island. He “commuted” to Little Corn.

So, I helped Dave with his house and in between, I spentsome time back at Casa Iguana. The new owners allowed me to use their woodworking tools for a community project. I had visited the school and noted that all the books were stored on the floor. Bookshelves! I CAN do this! The wood for the shelves was donated by Brigit (who still runs a restaurant on the little island.) Beautiful pieces of 1” thick mahogany… covered in concrete. The wood had been used as forms for a foundation. No worries – it took me two full days to claw and scrape the muck off. Fasteners? Casa Iguana donated a box of 2 ½ galvanized nails. Great. We’ll make it work.

And… I got to see Anjel and his brother Dixon who we had never met. I was really lucky – it was going to be Dixon’s 16th birthday and Casa Iguana was throwing a party for him. Cool! I happily attended the get-together and met many other islanders I didn’t know. A really great time that made leaving… hard again.

I said my goodbyes to Dave and Anjel hoping the next time Icame to the island, Heather would be with me.

One of the new managers at Casa Iguana was a young lady named Kelly. Full of life, keen to help the community, she was instrumental in bringing my school bookshelf project to fruition. After I left the little island, she stayed in touch with Heather and I for a while and then as is usually the case, contact tapers off. Until one day…

Our phone rang, we answered and it was a very distraught Kelly on the line. She had very bad news. She was crying as she said, “I’m so sorry to tell you Anjelito has been killed. He was riding a horse near Bluefields and he was hit by a car.” We assumed and hoped, he died instantly… … … Absolutely shocking news. Something that would resonate in our family’s soul forever… … Rest in Peace Anjel.

In the past couple of months as we made our way around western Nicaragua, we would sometimes fast forward to our time on the Corn Islands at the end of this adventure. Could we track down Dixon? What happened to Anjel’s family? It would be wonderful to meet them.

Once we arrived on Corn Island, we weren’t afraid to ask. “We used to work with a young man named Anjelito on Little Corn Island. We know he lived on Corn Island. He died in 2008, Did you know him? Do you know his brother Dixon?” We first asked our Airbnb host Errol. He had spent many years away from the area so he apologized.

Our next inquiry was with a shop keeper just down the road from our cottage. Bingo! The lovely lady had heard of Dixon and KNEW someone who could give us more information. She asked us to come back in a day or so. We did just that. When we returned, her eyes lit up and she said, “I have something for you!” She made one more phonecall to confirm. Another number was dialed and before I knew it, I was speaking to Dixon’s step father Christian.

On Corn Island, many people are speaking English but as we found out, Anjelito’s family were not “islanders” but rather they were Spanish-speaking from Bluefields. Christian spoke Spanish. We did our best and in the end we learned that Christian knew Anjel well. That made me choke up… I couldn’t speak. He was a direct family connection to my friend. He also said that Dixon no longer lived on Corn Island but he too, was back in Bluefields. It became clear that our quest was winding down. Closure so to speak.

That brings us to tomorrow. We’ll take the early panga and make our way to Ensueno’s run by an old friend Ramone. We’ll update when wifi permits.

Oh, and Dave? We’re going to surprise him. Dave is NOT into the New Age of Communication and he kind of lost track of us.

We’re also going to look up the people we worked with at Casa Iguana. Marabelle runs her pizza place now so she won’t be hard to find. Who knows, maybe another one of life’s pathways will appear?

Blog entry with some photos of our time on Little Corn

The Big Island

Our Express Bus ride to Managua was great. Matagalpa’s bus station is so organized complete with a wicket to buy your ticket with a seat number on it. (110 Cordobas each. $4.70 CDN for a 2 hour comfortable bus ride) There’s a slot for the bus with the destination clearly labelled above and friendly staff asking where you might want to get off. Wish our bus system was like this. We’ve recently heard that all Greyhound service in Northern BC is being withdrawn. Those guys could learn from the bus experts here!

Here’s a photo of one of hte large coffee production facilities south of Matagalpa. You can just see the coffee in its various stages…

All photos from the bus:

The Hostel Monti Christi was a short 1km walk from theAugusto Sandino Airport where we were dropped off. It’s in an interesting gated community with, yes, guards at the gates. Even though we were on foot, the guard smiled and opened the gate – no problemo when we told him we had a reservation. We’d recommend the hostel – comfy bed, costs way less than the Las Mercedes Best Western near the airport and the Korean people that run the place are lovely.

The Next Adventure

The next morning signalled a major crossroads in our tour. Flying to the east coast of Nicaragua is something we remember from our working adventure there 15 years ago. Like many things we’ll come across in the next month, we can’t resist reflecting on ‘then and now’.

Our flight in 2002 was something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Looking like we were about to embark on a mission, (well… we were) a C-23 Sherpa aircraft waited for us on the tarmac.

The thing was a rattletrap and a whole lot of fun! After a free rum and coke we landed safely on Corn Island.

There was no rum and coke this time but the aircraft is waaay updated and it was a really great flight.

We even pre-booked the flight on their website months ago from our little house in BC… At the airport just show your passport, pay the $2 tax to fly to the island and you’re there! Thanks Costena! All that said, we admit it was a little emotional on the plane just flying back to this place that had such an impact on our lives.

Now that we’ve seen a good chunk of western and northern Nicaragua, it’s incredible to think this Caribbean region is part of the same country. And, in some people’s minds, it may not be.

The Northern Autonomous Region of Nicaragua

“For a little over two centuries, between 1650 and 1860, the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (historically known as the Atlantic Coast) was subject to different forms of foreign control, the main being the British Protectorate in place to the mid 19th century. This British outpost ‘conditioned’ the process of integration of the Atlantic Coast to the rest of the Nicaragua which began only late in the last decade of the 20th century.

The judical status of autonomy enjoyed by the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast, is the culmination of a long quest for peace, national unity and reconciliation among coastal families and communities. It is the means by which an intense period marked by armed conflict, political confrontation, and historical differences came to an end.

The North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) was created in 1987 and elected its first regional government in 1990.

The Statute of Autonomy notwithstanding, the territory of the Atlantic Coast remains markedly isolated in regards to the rest of the country, due to a historical lag evidenced today in limited social and productive investments, scant transports and communications infrastructure, poor articulation of the regional productive structure, citizen insecurity, low coverage of basic services, and a still fragile institutional framework.”

Thanks to fadcanic.org.ni for that.

Interesting and essential knowledge of this region.

So… here we are!

At the Corn Island airport we saw the familiar blue uniforms of the National Police and, cabs have the same authorization stickers. Yes, there are Daniel Ortega billboards here and there too. Roads are paved (they weren’t 15 years ago) and things feel prosperous – because of tourism? In the background you can feel a difference though. A LOT of English is spoken here and there is a definite relaxed Caribbean aura. We’ll have to do some more digging to find out how things are here.

Here’s some photos of our lovely cottage at “Villy’s Cottage” and the neighbourhood nearby.

Next day:
We’ve had a cabbie tour around the island and it’s apparent some areas are more ‘together’ than others. We’re staying on the North End – it feels tranquillo and safe, people here like to be known as “islanders”, unlike “those people over there”, as they point towards Brig Bay. It’s home of the freight boats, the Little Corn Island panga, a bunch of little stores with a variety of stuff, a couple of restaurants and some ragged, down-at-the-heel guys who need help. Fifteen years ago, Brig Bay was the place you might find the ‘bad guys’ who would follow close behind you in a drugged stupor – looks like some of them are still here. NOT EVERYBODY is like that here though.

Most of the residents of the North End where we’re staying are of creole descent. Language? Overall, you will hear Creole, English, Spanish and Miskito languages spoken here as well as around the island.

The North End is home to some great restaurants, lodges, cottages (like ours) and… the bakery!

Every day except Sunday they offer delectable goodies but the main thing you NEED to know is… At 3:00PM every day, their coconut bread is ready for sale. The aroma in the bakery is heavenly – it can only be described as “Tropical Heaven”. When it comes out of the oven, the main ‘spice’ coconut, is in the air but there are some added exotics that add a lightly floral and slightly sweet scent. Maybe it’s the honey, the arrowroot?
If you’re into it, there’s a recipe somewhere in this link. Let us know if it turns out!

Mmmm… coconut bread!

Shopping on Corn Island

Because our little cottage has a kitchen, we’ve been shopping.

The bottom line with shops here is, you have to go to a bunch of them to pick up the variety of things on your list. Fruits and veggies in the store on the corner opposite the ferry in Brig Bay, spices in the store next door, rum in the store next to that, tomato sauce and cheese in the Commissariato store in Southwest Bay, and meat in the Sally Peachy store near Long Bay on the east side of the island.

All our trekking paid off. For 1600 Cordobas we got most of the food we’d need for five – six days (equiv. to $10/day) You could spend C1600 for a nice, fancy dinner for two here.

So, other than drinking freshly ground Nicaraguan coffee, the occasional Nica Libre, lazing on what feels like our own private beach across the road and enjoying the company of our two lovely neighbours from Seattle – Ivan and Katie, life is pretty easy… Ahhh… it’s all coming back to us…

Get Back to the Land

We had arranged to have Jurg pick us up in Jinotega. Jurg owns and actively runs the wonderful hotel, Aguas de Arenal high up in the mountains between Jinotega and Matagalpa.

As we left the bustling little city we looked back and watched it disappear as we drove up the first major mountain south of town. He stopped at an incredible viewpoint where we could see the valley far below and hundreds of kilometers to the west.

He also stopped at a roadside stand to buy some vegetables for dinner. He could have bought some flowers too…

Self described hippie

Jurg is quite a character. Totally gregarious by nature, he’s a great conversationalist and wanted to know all about our journey. We too were keen to find out how he came to settle in the hills of northern Nicaragua. As it turns out, he always wanted to settle in a place where he could develop his own sustainable farm. Since then this hotel/farm has become a destination for many people wanting a quiet retreat in a very beautiful setting.

As we rolled through the hills and dales we saw families walking down towards the main highway to catch the bus. Jurg waved at them all and they responded with big smiles. Eventually we rumbled down a hill into a small valley… home to Jurg’s beautiful finca. (farm) In the middle of the Reserva Natural Cerro El Arenal “Aguas del Arenal” is a 7 hectare paradise.

(aguasdelarenal@gmail.com)

As we stopped in front of the lodge our first view was a maze of shades of green with a few splashes of bright colour thrown in. Even the tropical birds were welcoming us. They called out “Caww, gawwaa, caww!” and flashed their yellow, red and shiny black bodies as they fluttered in the trees high above.

Everywhere we could see signs of Jurg’s hard work. Over the years he’s planted multiple species of tropical plants, coffee bushes, cedar trees, flowering bushes, and ornamentals like we buy at the nursery or the grocery store.

Farther up the hillsides huge green and flowering deciduous trees sprung from the hillsides. At the crest were rows of large pines swaying in the brisk wind…

The farm had a peaceful aura and was VERY quiet. The only real sound was the rushing of the stream exiting from the jungle nearby. After homesteading ourselves many years ago, we could sense the amount of work to get to this point.

We were made very welcome by Jurg’s lovely wife Anabelle. Together with their son Theo, and workers from the area, they have created a beautiful place to live and share with the outside world.

The food these guys prepare is wonderful. We loved the ‘vegetales’ the most – a nice diversion from typical fare. And in the mornings… we had delicious cups of coffee – from organically grown plants right on Jurg’s finca.

Roasting the Beans

One evening, we were treated to a special event. The kitchen was almost out of roasted coffee beans so Jurg, set up his system for us to see. He started with a small hardwood fire in his fireplace. He suspended a rack and place a large, shallow ceramic dish above. About 5 or 6 pounds of coffee beans were placed inside and the roasting started.

Jurg grows approximately 300 kilos of coffee per year and this is how he roasts every bit of it. Incredible! He sat right next to the fire constantly stirring the delicious morsels. We watched them go from silvery green to shiny dark brown. Mmmm….

After 45 minutes or so, Jurg announced they were done! Outside he had a fine screen suspended where he placed the hot beans to separate the fine fibres from the beans. Fabulous. And yes, we had this very coffee for breakfast the next day. Wow.

We kept busy for the two days we were on the finca by walking and… just sitting, enjoying the aura. Jurg has many trails above and around the finca – some in the jungle and others that weave through his coffee plantation. We covered them all and loved being close to the natural beauty.

On one of our walks, we saw a dam on the stream and discovered it supplies water for his “planta hidroelectrica”. All the power requirements for the main lodge, its four rented rooms and the five cabanas is produced through Jurg’s system. Funky but it works like a charm.

They also get all their water (and it’s pressure) from the stream. Fabulous!

We Felt Like Family

We’ve really enjoyed our time here. Thanks Jurg, Anabelle and Theo! (he’s at school…)

Word to the Wise

One thing to note: if you’ve thinking about visiting here, please bring warm clothing – it’s chilly. If you arrive from Matagalpa, you would be able to easily buy second hand stuff at the many used clothing stores there if you didn’t want to carry it for your whole trip.

Here’s some photos of our morning chores helping spread out the coffee beans…

New Friends

Anyway, we’ve met and made some new friends from Germany – Svend and Stephanie, and Jurg and Heather. (smile Chris…! Open your eyes Heather!)

All lovely people who are here to experience and enjoy the natural beauty of Nicaragua. Jurg and Heather are being Good Neighbours and giving us a ride to Matagalpa.

Off to Matagalpa

UPDATE: The ride to town was great. We were dropped off on outskirts of the downtown and promptly made a new friend. A young boy named Johnathon was on the crosswalk with us and the next thing he was practicing his English with us! Wonderful!

La Buena Onda Hostel is as welcoming as the first stay. Happy to be here!

Thanks for reading, we’ll update more down the ‘road’!

Coffee With the Vice President

We feel so very fortunate. Over a delicious cup of coffee, Heather and I had a conversation with Jose Rizo Castellon. He’s the owner of the Hotel Museo La Casa De Los Rizo where we’re staying in Jinotega. He was also Vice President of Nicaragua from 2002 to 2005. Really. While VP, he was nominated as the PLC Constitutionalist Liberal Party (an opposition political party in Nicaragua) presidential candidate for the 2006 election. Unfortunately, he finished in third place behind Daniel Ortega and Eduardo Montealegre receiving 25.1% of the vote. After speaking with him, I have a better idea of how things are in Nicaragua… today.

As you can see from this newspaper cartoon, he was fully aware of corruption in government and proposed a “New Era”.

He was sitting in the foyer of his quaint little hotel and knowing a little of his background, I couldn’t resist the urge approach and ask him directly, “How is Nicaragua today?” He paused, smiled and his reply was direct and somewhat disconsolate. “Not well my friend.” When I pursued my question, he responded with a familiar theme. “Both healthcare and education are seriously lacking in Nicaragua.” He told us that universities are now mainly privatized and students generally attend 1 day per week. “It’s impossible” he said. “How can our country progress?” Good question – apparently, it can’t. Healthcare became a personal matter for him when he chose to travel to Chile for urgent surgery. He had no confidence in the level of care he’d receive here. He’s recovering now and spending a lot of time in his birthplace – Jinotega.

Here’s some photos of his home – our hotel.

With that question aside, our conversation became a two-way chat about our countries and why we would choose to spend 3 ½ months in Nicaragua. “To see the beautiful country and meet the wonderful people” we replied. It’s true. He smiled and looked heartened. He then showed us some photos of his lovely finca where… he grows the coffee we were drinking! Delicious! What a good feeling to meet such a bueno hombre!

And… breakfast with a Nicaraguan diplomat’s family

After a stormy and very windy night, the morning broke sunny and breezy. A nice combo. As it was Sunday, the breakfast at the hotel included nacatamales. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll remember we had them last in Granada when our homestay Mum Rosita presented them… also on a Sunday. They were super good today!

We had breakfast with a family that lives near Managua. They had come north to ‘escape the heat’. Really. Their son Alejandro who was 12, spoke VERY good English and wanted to have conversations with us. We learned he was athletic and loved to run. He wants to go to university to study ‘technology’. Unlike many other children in this country, we’re sure he’ll do just that – maybe not in Nicaragua though. His Dad Antonio was a fascinating fellow. He was a diplomat for the Nicaraguan government and his current posting is in El Salvador. We asked about the country and he shared some stories of the two vicious opposing national ‘gangs’ who are in control. They dominate and hold sway over 90% of everything that happens in the country. As such, the place is VERY dangerous for residents. Not so for tourists he added. “They want nothing to do with you.”

The two gangs are responsible for over 6000 deaths in the past year. He also added that Nicaragua is very strict about keeping conflict out of the country. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala form a triangle of hostility not welcome here and the northern border is ‘where it stops’. Antonio has quite the job. No wonder he was taking the time off for a holiday with his family in this Nicaraguan paradise.

Another beautiful hike

The day’s activity was to walk up to “La Pena de la Cruz”. Like other towns, it’s a cross placed high on a hill – to signify God watching over everyone.

Looking at the mountain from downtown, it looks like a heck of a trek. In the end, it was a lovely walk on a well-built pathway consisting of 557 stairs and a bunch of concrete sloped parts. Worth the trip.

When we arrived at the top, we saw lots of folks were spending their Sunday with the family walking up here as well. And the regional authority’s guards were up there… listening intently to the radio broadcasting the first major baseball game of the season!

A Common Thread in Nicaraguan towns

The feeling of community and family fun continued when we arrived back in town. The central park was jammed with families and their kids playing on the swings and even in the skateboard BMX park.

Here’s a young boy we met while having a coffee in town. He was hanging around the door begging for money. Heather chose a more direct approach. She bought him juice and some cookies from the café and they shook hands on it.

We really enjoyed our short stay in Jinotega. Like San Rafael del Norte, there is a rural feel to this town and as we’ve come to realize, Nicaraguan people are very free with their smiles. We’re collecting them and we’re getting rich!

Now we’re off to Aquas de Arenal. It’s a small finca run by a German fellow and his Nicaraguan wife. Way up high in the mountains between here and Matagalpa, it will definitely be a retreat. After that… we don’t like to think too far ahead… we’re off to the Corn Islands after brief stays in Matagalpa and Managua. We realize our good fortune every day…

An Adventure to Meet the Queen

Up until yesterday we had no idea we were going to do this. We had arranged to be at the Hotel Casita San Payo at 7:00AM (www.hotelcasitasanpayo.com)

The folks there had arranged our hiking adventure for the day. They had a driver Jesus who, with his trusty Hilux Toyota 4-wheel drive would take us to the start of the trail to the fabled Cacadas Verde. The ‘green falls’. The tour guide would meet us there and we’d go for a 30 minute walk to see the falls. Easy peezy.

4 Wheelin’ in Nicaragua

The ride out in the truck reminded us of when we used to 4-wheel in the 1960’s. A number of times the truck hit the skidplate and the grades were intense. We rolled through small streams and over mountain passes.

All the while, cruising by visually stunning vistas of the northern hills of Nicaragua.

We were headed to the Volcan Yali Natural Reserve. Waaay out there.

The walking tour

After a 45 minute drive, we arrived at a river with a suspension foot bridge. Jesus parked the truck and a young Nica man with rubber boots walked up. Jesus was not particularly vocal and we just assumed this was our guy. He was. Like Jesus, he didn’t speak any English but it didn’t matter. For a walk in the woods, our Spanish should be fine. It was.

We had not been given an itinerary of any kind so I asked, “Quantos minutos por la camino?” He replied, “Trienta”… 30. Well that should be fine, we’re ready – “Listo!”

The hike started straight up, and up, and up. We adjusted to the chore and enjoyed the volcanic rock nature had supplied as steps.

Within 15 minutes we arrived at the first set of falls. After walking up, we had to go down now, via a jungle trail clutching the hillside.

The reward was clear. A naturally beautiful little set of falls that we could walk right up to. Cool!

The feeling of accomplishment welled up inside and we were so glad we came. Wow, that was great. So… should we return to Jesus’ truck now? “No”. “Esta mas!” There’s more!

Marlon was right. We kept going up, and up and up. It became a major climb.

We stopped for water every ten minutes or so and before long we passed by a sign. “Finca Modelo – Cascadas Verdes – Proprietario – Alejandro Mairena.

Another short climb and the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. We found ourselves walking into a corral with a saddled horse waiting there. We both muttered that yes, we could ride no problem. The horse wasn’t for us. It belonged to Marlon’s Grandfather – Alejandro.

We met all of Marlon’s family and were invited to have a cup of coffee – from their own coffee plantation and a piece of sweet bun. Happily.

But we still didn’t know what was next. It felt like this might be the final stop and we’d be going back. Not.

After coffee, we were ushered through a back gate and descended to the edge of a mountain stream where Marlon and his Dad Marlon proceeded to guide us through the most incredible Nicaraguan back country tour one could ever hope for.

Rubber boots would have been nice as the mud was ankle deep at times and the stream crossings barely had enough stepping stones – but, suck it up Hartridge this is your day – enjoy! And we did.

The tour took us under immense natural bridges of volcanic rock, along narrow trails hugging the tropical hillsides, into a bat cave, through forested areas where we were cautioned to not touch the trees because of ‘espinas’ – thorns that could lead to infection and all the while… we were climbing.

Ever so gradually we could hear the sound in the distance.

“La Reina!”

And then.. there it was. With a wave of arms like they were introducing a famous poet, Marlon and his had brought face to face with “La Reina” – the Queen.

She was breathtaking. We had to bend our necks backwards as far as they could go to see the top. She created beautiful patterns of water as it cascaded down her face.

We felt an overwhelming sense that this was the best day of our tour so far. And it all happened without a clear plan – to us. What a fantastic adventurous feeling!

And, we hadn’t finished climbing. We still had another level to reach before we turned back. So, up we went. It took us half way up the falls where we could look both up and down the Queen’s face. Wow.

La Reina cascada

I asked Marlon where the water was coming from and he said, “el lago en la volcan.” I didn’t see it but there was a body of water above us in the volcano we just climbed. Over the years we haven’t done a lot of hiking, mostly biking and this felt fantastic. We were a sopping mess.

Our guides knew exactly where to head next. We took a high narrow trail along a hillside above the stream we had just trekked through. It gave us views of the family’s beautiful finca and the hills beyond. We were smiling big time. What a morning!

El Cafe

Back at the finca homestead, we saw the coffee bean production area and were invited to learn about the process.

From pulping, (outer shell taken off) to washing and drying we saw the beans that we take for granted every morning. Not any more. We know now where they come from, how they get from here to the outside world and… whatever we pay for free trade coffee is money well spent.

Oh, and we had one more cup before we left the farm. We sincerely thanked the whole Mairena family. What a visit!

If you’re into maps this is where we were: Find Jinotega in Nicaragua go north to San Rafael Del Norte and find the Reserva Natural Volcan Yali – good luck!

Get down

The walk down was actually harder because it had rained and we were trying NOT to slip and BREAK ANYTHING! We were successful. 4 hours after we left him, Jesus met us after sleeping a bit and washing his truck in the stream. We thanked Marlon for not only guiding us but for introducing us to his family. Faith in humanity restored once again!

We celebrated with a couple of beers at the Hotel Casita San Payo and a steak dinner afterwards. We’d been looking forward to a meal like that and today seemed the right time. Needless to say we were going to sleep well.