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.

Up, up and away

Our last couple of days in Matagapla, Nicaragua were pretty full and interesting. Here’s some of the memories.

We’ve remarked on the number of used clothing stores here… and we’ve been shopping. As we purposely left any really warm clothes behind along the way, it was time to find something for our trip into the ‘canopy’ – the high mountains to the north. We both found hoodies – Heather’s was more deluxe than mine – she paid $3 and I paid $1. It’s great to see these stores that everyday people depend upon and use – a lot.

El Mirador Calvary

We went for a walking tour on the peak of one of the nearbyhills – called Mirador Calvary, it’s a lookout waaaay up on the west side of town.

Definitely worth the trip. We took a cab up and walked back and we’re glad we did.

Amiga

We made a new friend. Ana Marie owns a shop that sells gifts for all occasions. She is about to open up a small hotel/guest house up the hillside from downtown Matagalpa and we offered to help her by letting YOU know. Her English is impeccable – a good thing to have when you need it!
Ana Maria Amador
Casa Las Lomas
505-8853-6216
anamariadetalles@gmail.com

A haircut?

One last thing before we leave… I had the most, well, comprehensive haircut I’ve ever had. As I’ve taken to shaving the top pretty well off, the ‘numbering’ system works internationally for my coiffure. I point to the top – say “cero” and the beard tapers from “dos to quatro” – it works. At one of the most popular ‘barberias’ in town, I was lucky to get a new trainee (I didn’t worry there’s really nothing he can mess up) – he had all sorts of enthusiasm… I was in the chair for over an hour. Once I looked up and I saw the bearded face of a raccoon in the mirror. A black mask had been applied – I was having a facial! Anyway the boss finished off the fine tuning – like I’m such an aficionado of hair styling… The whole job was only $5 – I felt like a million cordobas. The top’s almost shiny!

Let’s go north

The next morning we were ready to head to our next stop – San Rafael Del Norte. It’s known to be a very small town – no major tourist presence there… yet. We understand there are tours of the forest ‘canopy’, so we were open to finding out what’s available!

We took a cab (20 cordobas instead of the 50 we paid the first time) to the Matagalpa bus station.

It was all quite painless as there was a kind fella asking where you were going then he’d point to where you should wait for your bus. For us, there wasn’t much waiting. A beautiful blue and white bus pulled up in front of us destined for Jinotega the town just south of San Rafael Del Norte.

We had heard that one must sit on the left side of the bus to get the beautiful views as you roll up into the mountains. We did just that – secured our seats and waited. When the 80’s metal music started we knew we were ready to pull out. Off we went!

The ride up the hills out of Jinotega is breathtaking. We climbed and climbed and climbed – we could feel the temperature cooling off and we could see the vistas off to the west.

The volcanoes near Leon were even visible! And then… we descended… Down and down we went, air brakes getting a workout. Jinotega loomed on the horizon below.

Jinotega is a busy, but small town – lots of school kids, people going about their business and quite a few taxi drivers. One thing we learned… they have a beautiful bus depot. Spotlessly clean.

We had been advised at the Buena Onda hostel to just take a taxi to San Rafael Del Norte. We found a willing driver and off we went.

He made a few gestures as we left that seemed to have something to do with road checks but we thought no more of it. Sure enough, almost to San Rafael Del Norte, we came across one of those road blocks and our cab was flagged over.

He had taken the cab sign off the roof before we got there and we wondered why. He turned around and made the sign with his index finger “shhhh”. Now we knew why.

He appeared to be fabricating some kind of story for the officials. They talked back and forth and before we knew it we were headed off down a side road. Fair enough, as long as it went to San Rafael Del Norte. It didn’t. In fact it didn’t go far. It just stopped at a washed out bridge and it’s construction zone.

The cab driver mumbled… “Uh oh.” Really? Have we got this guy into trouble? Are we going to spend the night in a Nicaraguan jail?

He turned the cab around and headed back to the road block. He pulled off, turned the motor off and got out. He talked directly to the not-so-cooperative guy and then he got back in the cab. Now he was dragging out his permits and licenses. Geez. The official was a bit of a jerk but I guess he was just doing his job. Our cabbie had all the right documentation except, he wasn’t allowed in this road. You see, there is a bus system. People are supposed to use it. The bus ‘lobby’ has created a monopoly here and the cab was not allowed. Wow. So… he had these two passengers so a solution was found. Our cabbie surrendered his cab license papers to the official and he could pick them up after he dropped us off. We felt sorry for him. We tipped him generously in case there was some kind of fine. Not that it was our fault.

And alas, we had arrived in San Rafael Del Norte. A very beautiful little town. Three nights in the Casa Real hotel booked through Airbnb. Can’t wait. Maybe we’ll get into the mountains while we’re here!

So, how ARE things in Nicaragua?

Our time in Matagalpa has given us a chance to reflect upon the day-to-day realities for people living in this country.

A scarred history

The first factor to take into account is… all these people are living in a country where conflict and strife are an integral part of its history. Where forces both within and outside of Nicaragua openly took advantage of the people and the land they lived on. The Sandinista Revolution was an ‘enough is enough’ response to years of oppression.

Nicaragua’s long history… pre-Columbian, after the Spanish arrived, and since then, is a convoluted, immeasurable and at times contemptible story. A common constituent in there somewhere… exploiting the Nicaraguan people to profit others.

Today?

Looking at the present big picture, some fear Nicaragua is inching closer to another dictatorship.

“Scared by the possibility of another bloody struggle, Nicaraguans have opted to take what they can and keep their opinions to themselves.”
That quote is taken from a 2016 opinion piece written by a famous Nicaraguan poet, author and novelist Gioconda Belli. You can read more of her very interesting article via this link: Giaconda Belli article

What’s the word?

On the street, most people appear to be happy but talking to a few revealed some discontent.

One lady we met ran a business and the building she’s rented for 11 years was sold out from under her – with no notice – apparently a common occurrence. She was born in Matagalpa and implied the government was not to be trusted. She was also adamant the education system is sadly lacking. “It used to be much better but today schools graduate students who are not able to complete college level programs successfully”.

Because of this she noted that many small colleges with minimal entry requirements are opening to capitalize on the opportunity… and the people.

As we learn more about the past it’s apparent that the conflict and struggles of yesterday echo into the future.

Las Tunas

A relatively recent protest – September 11, 2002, 3000 unemployed farm workers from Matagalpa formed a human roadblock near the village of Las Tunas. Protesters demanded emergency food for their starving families, temporary employment, and some control over the lands they had been living and working on.

This all came about following layoffs and farm foreclosures as a result of the rapid decline in farm gate coffee prices. The “neo-liberal” state had been indifferent to the hardest hit poor folks as a result of the economic crisis. Their protest eventually resulted in reforms and better conditions for workers. It has also left a lesson for future governments who “must now listen to the necessities of the people”.

What about the coffee?

When you’re having your next cup of coffee consider this…

“A cup of coffee from Nicaragua has a social taste, just and human, and to consume it contributes to the development of a people fighting for their rights.” – El Museo de Café, Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

So, back to the day to day realities… We see people carrying on with their lives but as Giaconda Belli suggests, maybe they’re living with a dose of denial and a deep need to just get on with it.

New friends on the street?

I love to make eye contact with people if for no other reason than to be friendly. I smile and say ‘ola. Sometimes there is no response but more often there is a nod, a smile, an ‘ola or… Adios. Doesn’t that mean goodbye?

Actually, not always. It’s known to be used as a greeting as well. I asked and it was explained this way… “Adios” is meant to be “a Dios”, or “to God.” It’s a form of a blessing from the person. And, on the best of days, I receive a warm handshake, and a “mucho gusto” – ‘pleased to meet you’ from these, typically older men.

Yes, and religion?

One faction of history I haven’t addressed is of course, religion. It’s abundantly clear that a great number of Nicaraguans reinforce the equilibrium in their lives through a devout belief in God. Many people are poor and cannot travel and religion becomes part of their ‘community’. As well, many Christian faiths are practiced. Catholic, Protestant, Jehovah Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, and Mormon.

Surprisingly, we stumbled on one more religion… Judaism.

Jewish Nicaraguans

One evening, we witnessed a rally in Matagalpa’s main square. At first we thought it was a political get together and from a distance we saw the familiar blue and white flag being waved from the stage.

When we got closer, we realized the flag was Isreal’s and we were witnessing an evangelical style presentation. To show respect, we took no photographs. We have since discovered that there is in fact a resurgence of Judaism in Nicaragua and the very animated speaker was likely Rabbi Mark Kunis. Really. It’s a fascinating story – one that goes back 525 years to the “Edict of Expulsion”. Check out this Times of Israel article:

Times of Israel story

NGO’s

One other force working in Nicaragua is non-governmental organization or NGO’s. It’s said there are over 3000 different NGO’s working here and one has to assume that the work is having a positive effect – as long as the projects are directed for the people, not ‘at’ them.

There has been a move towards NGO’s participating in a collective effort to know who is doing what… basically. The few NGO teams and people we’ve met have been well-meaning and appear to be contributing to the betterment of people at-large. At least somebody is doing SOMETHING. Every bit helps I’m sure.

Wow. Just writing this I’ve ealized how difficult it is to sum things up about life in Nicaragua, given all the factors at play. It’s a huge subject.

Good Neighbours

It kind of brings me back to those smiles in the street. And really, isn’t that where we should be? Interacting with other common people, who are living life like millions of others around the world – wanting the best for their families and those around them?

It makes me think about all the “good neighbours” we’ve met on our bike tours. These folks are no different – in their hearts. They just happen to live in the poorest country in Central America – not by their own making. In OUR hearts we wish them well.

Into the mountains

El mejor taxi

On our way through Leon, our cab driver Marcello was an invaluable help to us. He agreed to drive us to the station where we would catch the bus to Matagalpa and… he made sure we got on the right one.

Pulling up to the rear of the parked bus, he pointed to the large Matagalpa label and double checked that we saw it.

He then helped us with our backpacks and gently guided us past the lineup of three-wheeled taxi drivers waiting to take our money for a “ticket to Matagalpa”. Cheeky buggers. Marcello gave us both a big, genuine hug. We wished him all the best and we boarded the bus – with an hour until departure. We were happy with the timing as it ensured a seat on a potentially full, Friday afternoon bus.

On board, it was an oven. Outside the oven it was 35 deg. C… so inside? But, it was a nice oven. An oven that would get us to our next destination.

How many seats do you need?

Like many autobuses, this one had a ‘crew’. Our crew was the driver and another fellow that did everything else. When I first saw him, he was selling Heather our two tickets but later on he was selling bottled water, lifting bags into racks and generally running a tight ship. At one place where we entered a main highway, he got out and directed traffic. Our tickets were purchased after a bit of confusion. He tried to sell Heather an extra ticket, but she didn’t really want one. No way. However, as communication degraded, the fact wasn’t discussed that the 2 person bench seat we had was actually for 3 people. It wasn’t apparent until the third person came and asked to sit down. Wow. So, I was up against the window on my left, my knees were under my chin because the floor was raised up under our feet and Heather was very cozy with a nice young Nica lady on her right. And the autobus still hadn’t moved.

La sinfonia de cuernos

When the autobus leapt to life right on time, we backed out to a blistering cacophony of air horns.

The symphony was courtesy of our bus saying – “OK we’re backing up!” – and a bus behind us saying, “Not OK, you better not back into me as I have to turn left out of my spot before you can even move!” One more bus was leaning on the hooter as if to say, “Uh, can’t you see I have to move before either of you guys?” And to create a shrill crescendo to the moment, the taxis started in with the beep-beeps. It was thrilling… and one of the those things that really should put a smile on your face and little chuckle under your breath. And guess what… it all worked.

On the road again…

Out on the road it was a fantastic commute. When do you get to ride in a stinkin’ hot bus, latin music playing and people singing as you zoom by active volcanoes smouldering away? As it was the express bus, there were very few stops. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway – I couldn’t move my legs and my butt was numb from being welded to the naugahyde seat.

As we neared Matagalpa, a few folks were gradually let off one or two at a time. Finally… the pressure was relieved and Heather helped me straighten my legs. I felt like I had somehow appeased the gods. Thank you!

Matagalpa

The wonderful chaos of the Matagalpa COTRAN Sur bus station greeted us. There are specific slots for the buses to pull into but we had to wait just a moment while a shiny new casket was unloaded from the top of the bus to our left.

We shared a collectivo taxi and for 50 Cordobas, within minutes we arrived at La Buena Onda Hostel. This hostel is well-run, super clean and yes, close to the core of Matagalpa.

It had been quite a day, so we dumped off our gear and put on some sweaters as it was cool and raining. (Yes, it was ONLY 21 degrees C… Bloody brrrr…)

We went for a walk and had dinner around the corner at the Luna Flor Bistro. Nice folks there – Salvador, Mina and their daughter Sochi run this very cool little spot. We were liking Matagalpa already.

Zzzzz…

We slept like sedated seniors and woke to a beautiful fresh morning in this busy little city. We had no firm plans for the day other than getting acquainted with the layout of the city, the landmarks and, of course the people.

A brief early history

Like many regions of Nicaragua, Matagalpa was originally indigenous land. It’s said that the Spaniards were fearful of the native fighters as they were very brave and knew how to use their weapons such as bows and arrows. It took the Spanish over 300 years to subdue them and even then there were some still free in the hills of the region. In 1856 the Matagalpa Indians were instrumental in ending the much-hated, William Walker’s time in Nicaragua.

Today, Matagalpa is a busy city with exports of coffee, cattle, milk products, vegetables and flowers. Ecotourism established by access to the mountainous regions nearby is growing steadily.

Que pasa?

Meeting people, learning more about this part of the country, drinking some of the best coffee in the world, enjoying the moderate climate – what could be better?

Thanks for reading our blog!

In our next blog, we’ll try to dig a little deeper into the history of this area and how people here feel about life in Nicaragua.

Las Penitas and the turtle haven

We left our hotel in Leon, backpacks on, hoping to catch a taxi on the streets nearby. Within minutes, we were in the capable hands of Marcello the cabbie. Las Penitas beach is just over 20 kilometers from Leon so the cab fare was very reasonable. We made sure to agree on the fare before jumping in… 350 Cordobas? Just fine. ($14.00 CDN)
Marcello was another one of those genuinely super-friendly Nicaraguans. We enjoyed his chilled Nica music and watched the landscape change to dry farmlands as we buzzed along.

The volcano Cerro Negro made a beautiful backdrop to the northern vista. As volcanoes go, it’s a newbie. Originally formed in 1850, it’s considered to be the youngest volcano in Central America. It’s consistently active – some of the volcano’s slopes are covered by massive volcanic rocks, others by volcanic sand.

At the end of our relaxing ride, Marcello dropped us at the door of the Simple Beach Hotel and agreed to pick us up Friday at “Diez y media”… 10:30.

The few days we’ve been in Las Penitas have been quiet and relaxing. Lots of walking up and down the long beach, good seafood, new friends,
…and lot’s of watching the surfers catch the waves.

OK, I’ll attempt to put that in surfer lingo…

So… right in front of Simple Beach, there’s a beach break with a line up area just next toa big pile of volcanic rock. Mostly, the waves are off the hook but some are blown out ‘cause of the Nica winds. To get started, most of the Kooks wait ‘till the waves knock them off their feet but the Dillas duck dive to get out to the line up. They’re the guys that finish the ride with a snap! And, we actually saw a couple of young Groms that put the others to shame!

Phew! Did you get all that? Totally.

Certainly one of the highlights of our stay here was a boat tour we took to the Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve. We enjoyed the tour with two new friends we met at the hotel. Katherine and Howard were from England and we got to know them over the past couple of days after having dinner together and chatting about our travels.

Separated from the mainland by quiet mangrove-laden waterways, the island is really just a thin, 22 kilometer-long strip of sand next to the ocean. The nature, however, is spectacular.

The mangrove forest, which houses up to 80 species of birds is also home to crocodiles. As well, there are lots of crabs, other crustaceans and of course, fish. (After our tour we saw and crossed over many fish nets).

As we slowly cruised along, the environment appeared primal. Mangroves suspended over brown, soupy water with alligator eyes just peeking over the surface here and there. Even our sense of smell was impacted by the huge amount of decaying life in and around the waterways. Our Captain, Miguel had an eagle-eye for anything that moved or was hiding in the forest.

Perfectly camouflaged birds stood quietly on top of huge termite nests while other birds like White Egrets with their yellow booties were obvious against the ultra-natural background. It was absolutely beautiful.

Miguel signalled for the driver to slow down… slow down… and then stop. We pulled up to a muddy bank with mangroves growing in and around it. Miguel could see it, and at first, we couldn’t. Once we learned how to separate the various species of flora and fauna living right in front of us it was obvious. Lying quietly in the water, there was an alligator a couple of meters from the boat.

The little alligator was pretty tranquillo – Miguel estimated he was a couple of meters long. It was a little like swimming with sharks… you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing.
It would be hard to top that sighting but we moved on to something even more wonderful.

The boat pulled up to a jungle dock and we clambered out. We walked about five minutes to the coastal side of the island and there we found the Palo de Oro Ecotourism Project, where a permanent sea turtle nursery has been developed.

Olive Ridley turtles have chosen this place to raise babies since the dawn of time and now humans are actively helping them! If you’re into it, you could rent a rustic cabin there and a restaurant is available as well!

We first saw the tiny creatures in a large plastic bin.

At the nursery, eggs are collected after being laid and they’re stored in sand, in bags for around 55 days until they hatch. This phase of the project is designed to protect the eggs from all the natural predators in the area – and it looks like it’s working. The little turtles in the bin were now ready to enter the ocean – with our help.

Lines were literally drawn in the sand and tourists were cautioned to stay behind them.

Hands were washed in the ocean first to avoid any contamination and people were given the opportunity to gently pick up a turtle and lay him/her on the sandy downhill slope to the ocean. Heather couldn’t wait – she was giddy with excitement as she picked up the tiny creature. I was there with the camera to catch the moment. Incredible.

Pretty soon there was a small battalion of Tiny Tim’s fluttering toward the wide open Pacific Ocean. Farewell!

Looking around at the crowd that gathered, it was clearly an emotional moment. The survival rate is slim. 1 in 1000 makes it.

The remainder of our time at Las Penitas has been devoted to watching more surfers and getting ready for our next leg of the adventure.

Tomorrow we’re off to Matagalpa – high up in the mountains of Nicaragua – easily 10 degrees cooler than this area. Fresh coffee brewing, clouds in the sky… in a way, it will be refreshing!

Immerso en la Cultura

Our Guest House Nancite host, John said it would be quiet overnight and he was right. Unlike our time in Granada, there were no bombas going off, no honking horns and no loud music in the distance. It has definitely contributed to good sleeps here in Leon.

Looking for Ruben Dario

Our explorations of the city continued but this time we were on the hunt for the cultural nuggets we’ve read about. One key player in this sphere is the revered Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. He initiated a literary movement called modernismo that blossomed at the end of the 19th century.

Recognized throughout all of Latin America, his extensive body of work is a cornerstone – his significant influence on 20th century Spanish literature is undisputed. Ruben’s ancestral home was in Leon and its now a museum in his honor – El Museo Ruben Dario – one of our morning’s destinations.

It was yet another look through the window of Nicaraguan history. Ruben’s final resting place in the Catedral Basilica de la Asuncion. Appropriate for such a highly regarded man.

To learn more about this fascinating fellow please visit this Wikipedia link:

Ruben Dario

A stunning art gallery

Very near the Ruben Dario museum is the famed Centre de Arte Fundacion – Ortiz Gurdian.

This incredible art gallery of galleries is not to be missed. We’ll let Heather tell the story:

Chris and I went to the Galleria a few days ago and spent close to 3 hours being overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of what we were seeing. It became clear to me that I would need a second trip to fully appreciate the scope of art on display.

Let me start with the first few pieces. 1490 Maestro Alemsa pieces of art mounted in a shutter-like frame. 1490, not reproductions, but the real thing. I have a background of museum work from my days at BCPM (BC Provincial Museum) and to realize that I was literally one inch away from these pieces was enough to blow me away. With only my sense of amazement was I able to keep my hands from touching. What a privilege to be so close to these works of art.

It continued on from there to pieces by Armando Lara (Honduras) 1999, a stunning piece called “La Virgen del Maiz”. Another, new to me favorite artiste was Alejandro Arostequi from Bluefields, Nicaragua. He had two pieces on display…..Cinquo figures Cosminas and Cuidades del Pacifico. These were huge , triptoglyphs, made with brilliant colors and… pop cans!

OK, OK, I’m sure by now you’ve probably skipped to the next paragraph but here’s my last comment. If you have any interest in art, modern or otherwise, you need to fly to Managua, taxi to Leon and spend a week in this incredible city.

Done…..back to Chris!

Well said Heather!

Church heaven

In the afternoon we attempted to visit some of the remaining churches on the tour. It’s said León has more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. And, it’s interesting how different they are. One thing was clear, they marked various districts within the city.

Heroes and Martyrs

One of our final stops on the tour was the Galeria Heroes y Martires. It literally puts faces to the people who gave their lives for independence during the revolution. Wall after wall of photo portraits of men and women chronologically arranged year by year.

Sandino:

It was another moving experience for us. So many normal looking people – they didn’t look like soldiers. So much sacrifice.

After we gazed into some of the many faces, we turned and were greeted by two older folks – custodians to the gallery. They also made a point of asking us where we were from. “Somos Canadienses” was again met with smiles. “Los Canadienses son nuestros amigos.” Within the flurry of Spanish that ensued, I detected the words, “Por la paz.” For peace. Wonderful to hear.

The House of Culture

The final stop was the Casa de Cultura. Actually a school, it offers a variety of classes including music and dance. Very cool to see! It also features various Nicaraguan artists paintings and photographs. One of the suggested artifacts is a painting of Ronald Regan.

A few more pics from the past days:

OK, let’s move on….

It’s been a wonderful stay… We’re leaving Leon tomorrow for Las Penitas Beach. It’s only 20 kilometers from here and very different than San Juan Del Sur apparently. We’ll see…