Prison, overloaded boats & Sneaky Bugs
The border crossing from Nicaragua was expedited by a sneaky “additional service fee” we happily paid. I found the idea of paying an underhanded, small bribe for quicker service quite amusing and really felt like we were experiencing authentic life in deep, dark, Central America. At border control there was much fuss over my South African passport. As was the case in Belize, it was rare for Nicaraguans to see a visitor from SA. They had to look up visa requirements as it was so long since they last saw a traveler from SA in their country. Of course there is always the double take and mild confusion when I am not black, which still makes me smile. A local told me that I don’t sound South African so I can’t possibly be from Africa. I gave up arguing eventually and told the guy he was right and I was actually from Australia. This he approved of and we moved on avoiding the debate.
Nicaragua is the largest, poorest, cheapest and safest country in Central America. The Maya only travelled through the area never settling. From my brief experience there, I could see why. So we were secretly relieved not to need to visit another Maya site on this leg of our tour. The novelty wears off after the 600th (or so it felt) pyramid. What a fabulous problem to have!
Nicaragua (thank goodness for spell check as I can only just pronounce that, never mind spell it) is hot and on entry seemed more arid than its neighbour Honduras (I still can’t spell that, either). It is 130km squared which is slightly smaller than New York State and has around 6 million people. Unemployment dropped from 47% in 2008 to 7% in 2012. It was initially Socialist and then run by a dictator for over 50 years. After a revolution where over 50 000 people died, the country improved and has grown over the last 20 years.
Their economy is reliant on exports such as coffee, gold, lobsters, tobacco & textiles. We luckily visited at a good time, as the country is susceptible to hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides (don’t tell my gran). The Mot-mot is the national bird, which is the most beautiful creature. The base of trees are all painted white to prevent insects, a common site throughout Central America. Baseball is surprisingly the number 1 sport, followed by boxing, then soccer. People sit outside their homes in rocking chairs on pavements and converse with their families and passes-by. A community focused nation, family time is valued and on weekends families visit parks and eat delicious street food together.
Named after the ancient Spanish city of Grenada to honour the defeat of the last Moorish stronghold. It is a colonial city built in the 1530’s in Western Nicaragua. A warm city surrounded by dry forests and 3 volcanic lagoons. Our hotel was an oasis of happiness as it was built around a pool. It served strong coffee and had a well stocked bar. The city is quaint, safe and pleasant to wonder around. The local market buzzes with vendors, strong local smells, clanging of pans, tired looking people, undersized crabs, meat covered by flies, parrots in cages, tamales (seasoned meat wrapped in cornmeal dough and steamed or baked in corn husk), open drains, scooters and bikes, ladies energetically sweeping, vegetable vendors shouting loudly, smell of trash in the thick heat and neatly stacked stalls all selling anything from bars of soap to batteries. The local market wonder was enjoyable to meander through and a not so subtle reminder of my privileged life. I felt invisible as I walked around by myself thinking that if I disappeared nobody would ever find me in this foreign world.
There is much to explore in the area. Ramon Parra, proudly the number 1 Trip advisor guide in the area, took us on a full day tour. He bought a bottle of the local Flor de Cana Rum for the bus trip so we knew it would be a most enjoyable day. We started off at the abandoned Coyote Fort Masaya Prison. The view from the fort is impressive, overlooking the city below and volcanoes in the distance. The real reason to visit though is to explore the horror that is the prison below the ground. International Ghost Hunters did an episode at the prison that you should totally Google when you never want to sleep again:
The underground cells were gruesome and dark. Metal bars stuck out the ground as we carefully walked with torches attempting not to tread on a coral snake, boa constrictor or a scorpion spider we were told could be found in the now abandoned prison. The inmates were all prisoners of war.
They were innocent men who were violently tortured. People were hung so their guts dropped into cells below to scare prisoners. Sleep torture was used to keep them awake for 72+ hours. Bodies were dropped dead and alive by helicopter into active volcanoes. Fingers, toenails and teeth were pulled out to get them to talk. The contents from toilets from above fell straight into cells below so the walls were brown and let’s just say there was no loo spray in sight so years later the stench was still unbearable. The most horrific story for me was that female prisoners had sleeping rats sewn into their genitals, yes really. The smell and blood on the walls was testimony to how cruel people can be. I hadn’t felt so ill since visiting Mauthausen in Austria or the Cambodian concentration camps. After being bombarded by bats and feeling like frowns were imprinted on our foreheads we eagerly jumped onto the bus happy to never return.
The rest of the day was laid back as we slowly recovered and got our sense of humor back. We visited a local market and bought more trinkets we didn’t need and some cigars for friends who don’t even smoke. We ate tongue for lunch, to a German tour mate’s horror and my absolute amusement. We drank fresh fruit smoothies while sitting on giant high chairs in a park. Visited a pottery manufacturer and learned about their intricate, ancestral, still unnecessarily primitive process, which I lacked any appreciation for. We swam in a chilly volcanic crater lake. Lay in hammocks listening to a mariachi band. Walked through a cemetery where the graves of the wealthy people were buried above ground. As is the case in New Orleans, the water table is too high so to avoid corpses floating down the street in rainy seasons, this is necessary. Unlike the colorful graves of Guatemala these were predominantly white. We ended off the day on a sunset, cocktail filled speedboat cruise looking at spider monkeys on an island and the fiery red sunset over Grenada. An action packed day and exactly how a Monday should be spent!
I write every word about this part of my trip, with a deep set frown. Ometepe is an island formed by 2 volcanoes that arises from Lake Nicaragua, which is the largest lake in Nicaragua. It is the largest volcanic island inside a fresh water lake in the world. It is the only lake in the world with a fresh water shark & sawfish (which not only did I not get to go fishing for but didn’t manage to spot either). Referred to as the ‘sweet fresh water sea’ it has tides and waves, which we found out all about on the boat trip to the island. We boarded a boat, gulped down some motion sickness tables and then sat as fearful spectators as the boat not so slowly piled up. The boat isles were lined with motorbikes, wooden furniture and luggage. For at least 30 minutes we watched as heavy packet upon heavy packet of salt and then flour were loaded onto the medium sized boat. I felt certain we must be touching the bottom of the lake and was utterly surprised when we eventually started floating fairly effortlessly to the island. I kept looking around wondering why nobody else was surprised that we were able to move, as I felt certain I was going to need to swim to get to the island. We were thrown about but my audio book kept my mind off the fact that this rocking boat was surely at least 178 times over the weight than it should legally be. The fiery red sunset made me feel like it was a fair place to die so I calmed down to a mild panic.
We drove about 30 minutes across the island to Hotel Finca Venecia. Here we were isolated and we quickly learned that the only things of any worth to do on the island are one of the 2 intense volcano hikes or visit the natural springs.
Some girls battled through the 12 hour volcano hike with a guide that didn’t speak English. I chose the lazy last option and visited the natural springs. It was lovely, besides the relentless infestation of bugs and wildlife. Although my photos may tell a different story, Ometepe was my least favourite of the 23 places I visited in Central America. Others wishing to spend a full day tirelessly hiking up a steep, black volcano in 35 degree heat may see the point to visit the island. I did not. The lake is green and the black volcanic shore is less than impressive. Food was average.
We were in an isolated resort so we did not get to meet many Nicaraguans who are said to be a warm and friendly nation. This defeated the point of visiting a place for me personally. The temperature was 30 degrees at 5am, which was also about the same time I started moaning. The rooms did not have functioning aircons. Then the final nail in the coffin for me was after a sleepless night I was covered in red bites from some vicious bug that attacked me during the night. The bites itched for several days afterwards and none of the 486 creams I had with me would relieve the crazy itch. Most other people enjoyed the island, however I had mammoth sense of humour failure. This girl from Africa, couldn’t wait to get back to a city where all the bugs are already dead.
Overall, spending only a few days in Nicaragua was certainly not enough to accurately judge the entire country. Each time I scratched a bug bite on my back, legs, arms, neck or butt I cursed the entire country and so my perception of arrival to leaving were modified incalculably and potentially unfairly. A friend who stayed on in Nicaragua claimed it was her favourite country in all of Central America, due to the warm people, affordability and surfing beaches. The take out I had was that the people live in dire poverty and work hard. The people, dogs, cattle and horses look under-nourished. There are incomplete homes scattered around the countryside. There is little sign of foreign investment or plans to improve the tourist trail. Trash is plentiful and I saw no signs of the environment being nurtured. Men and women both work physically hard. To me the people weren’t particularity friendly or welcoming. I saw no sign of any imminent improvements. Nonetheless I certainly enjoyed the drive to the border and smiled happily to move onto the next country, Costa Rica.