We left Costa Rica on a Monday morning. Blue skies at Tamarindo gradually faded to grey as we rode into a heavy front of rainy weather. We stopped just on the edge of it to don wetsuits and rode the last 30 or 40 miles to the Nicaraguan border at Peñas Blanca in a downpour. The border crossing was a little chaotic with busloads of day-trippers, but we soon had the services of another Tramitadore who efficiently lead us through the proceedings and formalities. Within around 30 minutes we were stamped out of Costa Rica and another hour and a half were expended on entering Nicaragua with all the necessary stamps and bits of paper. On the Nicaraguan side we parked up beside an XT 600 Yamaha bearing British plates – the first bike from home we’ve met on the trip. It had to belong to someone as crazy as us travelling Central America in the rainy season and a few moments later we were welcomed by the beaming smile of Martin Ellis from Lincoln, currently on his 3rd year going round the world. He’d ridden from England across Europe, the Ukraine, Russia, Siberia, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, finally shipping into South America where he had been following some of our route and like us was headed now for the USA. We agreed to ride together to Granada our first planned stop in Nicaragua.
The road North took us along the edge of Lago Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. We caught glimpses of the lake on our right and could make out the peaks of Volcan Concepciòn and Volcan Madera in the hazy background. These two pointy cones are joined in the middle by a thin strip of lowland to form the island of Omtepe looking like a huge condiment set plonked out on the water. It was an unremarkable road today, an undemanding line shooting us straight through pastoral farmland now lush green from all the rain. Everywhere was quiet, with red and black Sandinista flags the only sign of life in many of the small towns and villages along the lakeshore (we later found out that today was a national holiday, the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution that ended the dreadful grip of the Somoza family in Nicaragua). Yes, it was an unremarkable road today but ultimately it would leave the morning rain behind and lead us to blue skies and a very remarkable place indeed – the city of Granada.
Granada was founded at the base of another volcano, Mombacho, on the shores of Lago Nicaragua in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba. It was the main city in the region and continued as a major trading centre even after the Spanish had plundered all the local riches. It has retained its colonial atmosphere with long streets of low highly individual dwellings all painted in the brightest, richest shades of pastel you could dream of, all so soft on the eye, inviting you to drop down a few gears and take it easy. It is an artist’s paradise that within minutes of arrival had us twitching for a set of watercolours. The central plaza, the Parque Colon was very inviting, a cool palm shaded jewel set in this pastel heaven. In the trees above bright green parrots screeched their welcome and when we stopped for bearings we were soon set upon by a horde of smiley, happy kids who were soon all over the bikes, pulling levers, wrenching throttles open, tooting horns and flashing lights and indicators. A local guy on a bicycle welcomed us to his city and gave us directions to a rather posh hotel. Here we found a tourist map and used it to find the less posh but far brighter ‘Hospedaje Central’, one of the liveliest but laid back accommodations of our entire trip. A buzzing bar restaurant lead us to a maze of cool tiled corridors and on into a series of jungly patios surrounded by rooms, everything from a dorm bed for $2 a night to little apartments with private bathroom and kitchen for $16. Banana, Lime and Palm trees provided cool shade the little courtyards, stirred every now and again by a lazy breeze from Lago Nicaragua that casually wafts the city streets. Everywhere the walls were festooned with graffiti, poems and brightly coloured murals with handmade furniture painted in every colour under the rainbow. We wheeled the 3 bikes through the bar and into one of the little patios where they would rest for the next few days while we took in the delights of this treasure find. The other guests at Hospedaje Central represented the full range of the travelling community – from general tourists (mainly North Americans on short vacations), student backpackers (‘doing’ Central / South America) and grizzly overlanders (like us!) with the odd hippy here and there, deep in meditation or making jewellery to sell on the streets. The days that followed in Granada were a procession of lovely ambles by day through the cool stone paved streets as we totally immersed ourselves in this wonderful city. In the evenings we cooked dinners, dining al fresco in the patio and shared with the great company of Martin and a young Canadian chap called Tom who is also doing round the world, but in a Toyota Van. Martin introduced us all to ‘Caña de Flor’ – the local dark rum, available for 4$ a litre from the local supermarket and delicious in ‘Cuba Libres’, made with Cola from the fridge and limes straight off the tree. They were late nights, regaling tales from the road into the wee small hours.
We loved Nicaragua and Granada in particular. Today it is a real paradise, a heaven sent place on Earth, but in the past it has been hell. At one time it was considered as a possible easier engineering option than Panama for putting a canal through the Central American isthmus, by digging channels to Lake Nicaragua from each coast. This stimulated US interest and interference in the region. American renegades and adventurers have plundered the country; the most notorious – William Walker – took over Granada and set up his own presidency in 1855, later burning the city to the ground when he was ousted. The 20th Century saw Nicaragua wrecked by that classical Latin American recipe of war, corruption and natural disaster. Starting in 1934 the country had 50 years of the Somoza regime – a family dictatorship based on corruption, torture and terror. When asked why the US supported and upheld such a corrupt regime, Franklin D Roosevelt replied “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. Their excesses were to spawn the Sandinista rebel group who finally ousted the Somozas in 1979. In 1972 a huge earthquake flattened Managua the capital, killing 6000 and leaving 300,000 homeless and starving (with the Somoza clan embezzling large chunks of the overseas disaster relief funds). The Sandinistas started implementing social reforms but in forging ties with places like Cuba, they fostered US hostility leading to the formation of the Contras, a counter–revolutionary group funded by the US and supported by trade embargos, plunging the county into civil war throughout the 80’s. The President of Costa Rica finally brokered a peace deal in 1987 and the US embargos were lifted in the early 90’s when the Sandinistas lost the election to a new coalition government. As if this wasn’t enough, in 1998 Hurricane Mitch left a further swathe of devastation across the land. Today Nicaragua is recovering but there is still a way to go. The economy undergoes restructuring and the country’s infrastructure is slowly being repaired. There is a lot of poverty – Nicaragua is still the poorest country in Central America. We met some US doctors down on a volunteer programme, helping out in a small town hospital. There, whilst the people can get medical assistance, medicines themselves are in short supply and are expensive so treatment is not always as good as it could be. In other places we saw other foreign aid at work. Granada has a new hospital sponsored by Japan and we saw signs in the mountains regarding a fresh drinking water programme sponsored by the German government. Whilst we cannot personally vouch for the effectiveness of these programmes, it was very reassuring to see that somebody is doing something. Places like Granada and Leon are being revitalised, bringing in lots of tourist dollars, which will all hopefully help stimulate the economy. Nicaragua is a beautiful land and the people here are amongst the friendliest we’ve met anywhere on our trip and deserve all the help they can get. Given a few more years of political and economic stability, Nicaragua will easily be the jewel of Central America.
We used Granada as a base to explore the Masaya National Park that lies between Granada and Managua. The centrepiece is Volcan Masaya and the Santiago crater in particular, throwing plumes of sulphurous clouds up into the atmosphere, making it one of the world’s largest sources of natural pollution according to our guidebook. A road let us ride to the crater rim, where we pondered the vast cauldron boiling in the mists below. Early inhabitants took the rumblings of the volcano to be signs of displeasure from their angry gods, which they sought to assuage by hurling sacrificial virgins and young children into the pit. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, they reckoned the crater was the mouth of hell itself and one of their priests, a Father Bobadilla, erected a cross over the chasm to keep the devil in his lair. There is still a cross there today and it made for some stunning photography as the boiling clouds of steam rose to blend with puffy white cotton balls in the blue sky above. As we gazed at the scene I couldn’t help thinking that the clouds represented some sort of bridge between heaven and hell, as they rose from some brimstone pit deep in the bowels of the Earth to spiral their ascent to the Sistine sky above. Maybe God is using this as a channel to join the international relief for Nicaragua, to bring peace and harmony to the country. Then again, maybe I’ve been hanging out with hippies too much and drinking too many rums. Time to move on!
We rode next into the Central Highlands and pleasant cooler climes. Our target was a place called Selva Negra – the Black Forest or to be more accurate ‘Schwarzwald’. Selva Negra was a coffee plantation started by German immigrants back in 1890 and still run by their descendants today. The coffee plantation is still here complete with a hotel and outlying cabañas all set against jungly mountains. Our arrival was greeted by the weird cry of nearby Howler monkeys somewhere not too far off in the trees. Dense jungle can be a fairly daunting place at the best of times and the first settlers here must have been scared out of their wits by this spooky and threatening sound, like some King-Kong monster beast lurking somewhere in the jungly gloom. The cabañas all have a fairytale Bavarian / Mad King Ludwig touch in their construction. The small brick buildings, their pitched roofs festooned with greenery looked like so many Snow-White cottages nestling quietly in the forest, waiting for the dwarves to come home from work. The roof plants, on closer examination, actually turn out to be ferns, epiphytes, bromeliads and other jungle plants to which a dash of vibrant colour has been added by splendid red/pink and orange Busy-Lizzies. We spent a day hiking the jungle trails around the area, in the company of Ajoutis (little Jungle rats related to the Capybara), hordes of butterflies and the ever-present wail of the Howler monkeys. It was great fun in the slippery mud from all the recent rain and we were both in a right state at the end of it.
Next day we spent the morning riding the silky ribbon road of the Pan American Highway north, leaving it to cut through Ocotal to the next border. It was a beautiful piece of road, winding gently through tree dotted hilly countryside, becoming ever more mountainous as we approached Honduras. We only spent a week in Nicaragua but it was one of our favourite countries of the trip, striking us as a gentle land full of easygoing people in spite of its turbulent past. At the border, the customs people were friendly and helpful and we were processed out of the country in around 20 minutes. The last sight was a sign wishing us a safe onward journey and beckoning us to come back soon. Across the line, hordes of Tramitadores were touting for our business to help us through supposedly the most difficult border in Central America with a vehicle – Honduras. Ah well! Once more into the fray!!!