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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Negotiating Nicaragua (and Honduras)

 

It was a sight for sore eyes, a mirage in the desert, a tranquil oasis.  Okay, it was just a nice hotel with a glistening pool but after three days of tough travelling from Guatemala, through Honduras to Granada in Nicaragua it looked pretty amazing to us…….and only $28 a night!

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It was bliss to have some luxury after the odd seedy hotel and several days of tiring bus rides. Our first trip from Rio Dulce to San Pedro Sula was six hours.  The second biggest city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula has a serious crime problem and the world’s worst murder rate -generally just between rival gangs….but a good reason not to stay! 

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We spent the night in a safe suburb on the outskirts and next morning caught an early bus to the capital city of Tegucigelpa, another crime ridden spot we didn’t want to linger. So yet another hair raising bus ride – this one a two-hour high speed run to the town of El Paraiso.

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It wasn’t a memorable stay – the taxi driver ripped us off, the only hotel we found was a tad seedy and the town shut down at 5pm (it was Sunday). So we resorted to eating frijoles and bananas in our room!

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Next morning we caught a 6am chicken bus to the border and walked through into Nicaragua (after first being forced to pay customs an illegal exit fee…..but what can you do when the man has your passport and refuses to hand it back until you cough up?).  At the border another distinctly average chicken bus was waiting.  We just couldn’t face it - these buses are notoriously uncomfortable, noisy and painfully slow and we’d already had our fair share of rough rides.

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As we stood on the side of the dusty road weighing up our limited options a luxury air con bus pulled up.  Cheekily, we went over and, in our best Spanish, asked the driver if he’d give us a lift - anywhere.  In his best English he said yes, for $10 he’d take us all the way to Managua.  Hooray – five hours of luxury travel. 

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Just as well we didn’t get too used to it as from Managua it was back to basics…..a hot, steamy, noisy, crowded and painfully slow collectivo (shuttle bus) to Granada.  Hmmmm.

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Granada is considered Nicaragua’s tourism jewel and deservedly so.  Many of its colonial buildings are beautifully restored in vibrant colours.   The central plaza and main street are dotted with mango and malinche trees and the ancient and elegant churches are stunning landmarks – some restored and some left to age naturally.

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While Granada attracts tourists it’s not nearly as well known, popular or crowded as other Central and South American colonial cities such as Antigua in Guatemala or Cartegena in Colombia.  In fact it’s still rather ragged around the edges which adds to its charm

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          Forms of transport….for the living and the dead

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Founded in 1524 Granada has survived tumultuous times including the reign of colourful American William Walker who came to Nicaragua in the 1800s.  Backed by the Liberals of Leon, Walker was elected president and immediately reinstituted slavery and mortgaged the entire country to fund his personal spending.  Eventually he was driven out but torched the city as he fled.  He was murdered in Honduras.

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You don’t have to go far in Granada to see evidence of Nicaragua’s appalling poverty.  Some houses are shockingly basic with no power or running water and many residents use horses or bicycles for transport.  The majority of cars are in dreadful condition – one taxi we took had no back windscreen, no seat belts and the doors didn’t shut.  There are lots of street people.  The poverty does make life exceptionally cheap here – we could eat a really good meal out for less than $10…but it’s hard to enjoy it when a kid is beside you begging.

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We spent several days exploring Granada - walking and biking around the town, visiting the fascinating markets, going to churches, joining an early morning yoga class and when it got too hot we lay by the pool. We were lucky enough to catch the FSLN’s (ruling party) massive street parade a few days before the national elections.  Nicaraguan pride was out in full force with bands, banners and lots of noise.

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The twin volcanic island of Omatepe on Lago Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border was next on the itinerary and we caught an early morning chicken bus (sigh) from Granada to Rivas - an hour away. 

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As usual the bus was crowded and stopped dozens of time along the way allowing us to get a good look at the amazingly lush countryside where tobacco, rice, bananas, papayas, coconuts and coffee grow.  From Rivas we shared a battered taxi with another couple to San Jorge where we caught a rumpty old ferry across to Omatepe.

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Public transport on Omatepe consists of a handful of ageing chicken buses (they come here to die) that circumnavigate the entire island at snail’s pace so we opted for a shared taxi.  We stayed in a fantastic eco retreat on the slopes of Mt Maderas with amazing views to the other volcano Concepcion.  Very remote with no wifi or tv and only cold showers…but a steal at $20 a night…and great food.

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Highlight was biking to Ojo del Agua (eye of the water) an amazing clear fresh water spring.  A bit similar to NZ’s Pupu Springs only the water is a balmy 25degrees and you’re allowed to swim.  So we spent a few hours just relaxing and swimming.

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The bike ride there and back was intriguing.  We passed men harvesting, threshing and collecting rice by hand (in 30 degree plus heat).  They were more than happy to chat and let us take photos.  We also saw kids driving (and riding) cows and dozens of men painstakingly laying the island’s concrete block road by hand. 

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Everyone we met was incredibly friendly and all keen to chat so a good chance for us to use our Espanol.  Mostly we find people want to use their English but on the island little English was spoken.

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We didn’t swim in Lago Nicaragua as the water wasn’t very inviting.  The afternoon breeze stirs it up but no doubt there is a fair bit of pollution – the lakeshore at Granada was disgusting.  Also the lake is home to the world’s only freshwater shark – a very good reason to stay out.  Omapete has some interesting petroglyphs which are ancient and intricate stone carvings.  The ones around our eco resort were covered for protection.

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After a few days of tranquility we braced ourselves for yet another round of local transport – shared taxi/ferry and bus – to San Juan del Sur, a beach retreat on the Pacific Coast just a few miles from Costa Rica.  Purported to be what Costa Rica was like before the crowds arrived we were a bit disappointed to find it crawling with tourists mainly because there was a massive cruise ship at anchor in the bay!!  It was also full of young people and a few ageing hippies.

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Deciding to have an evening drink at a beach bar with a crowd of young travellers we’d met on Omatepe we were gutted to discover that due to the election, the sale of alcohol had been banned.  Oh well – a round of banana smoothies then?

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Was great to meet a bunch of young people travelling the world – they are so energising and refreshing without any hangups.  Inspiring!  Oh….and the alcohol free night meant we got plenty of sleep – no discos, nightclubs or karoake bars open to disturb us.

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