Category Archives: Nicaragua

Best of Nicaragua, part II: A dining guide

While we’re having a great time in Costa Rica, let us take a quick step back to Nicaragua for a minute. In particular, I’d like to consider Nicaraguan food. After conducting a family poll, I have found that the island of Ometepe is the dining sweet spot for most of our family in this Central American nation. Three of the five of us indicated our favorite meals and our favorite thing to eat in general came from Ometepe.

Ometepe loomed large in our family dining poll.

Ometepe, and Moyogalpa in particular, loomed large in our family dining poll.

In fact, Zoe, Lanie, Nadia and I all picked our dinners from the same restaurant as our favorites, even though we all ordered different meals. This restaurant was the unassuming La Galeria on the main street of Moyogalpa, where we ate on our last night before heading for the border. It was actually our second-choice dinner spot for the night — we were all set for the pizza place across the street from our hostel, but for some reason the pizzas were backlogged and we were facing an hour-long wait before getting our food. It was all to our benefit, as Lanie ended up loving her pasta marinara and Zoe rated very highly the two plates she shared with Nadia — four cheese pasta and terryaki chicken.

The Galeria’s menu was flexible enough to allow me to continue my pursuit of the traditional Nico dish, chicken with jalapeno sauce. Typically, I don’t go out of my way to eat spicy things, but this one caught my eye at the Nicaraguita restaurant in Leon and I ordered it a couple of times after that. It consists of a grilled piece of chicken smothered in onions and jalapino slices and a light cream sauce. It is usally accompanied by rice, slaw and plantains. The plates varied slightly every time I ordere it. At the Nicaraguita, the onions and peppers were uncooked, giving a nice crunch and a fresh flavor. On the pedestrian promenade in Granada they were pretty well sauteed, adding extra sweetness to the cream sauce. At the Galeria, the vegetables were lightly sauteed giving a little crunch and a little sweetness, but I have to admit, I liked this restaurant’s version the best because it was the biggest. It featured a really nice piece of chicken. Nadia felt the same way about her liberally seasoned terryaki chicken.  There was a lot of food that night and no leftovers.
I should add that I liked eating chicken in Nicaragua because they know how to treat their chickens there. That is to say they let their hens, chicks and roosters walk around freely, scratching away in the leaves and twigs. These are happy chickens.

The breakfast, lunch and dinner table at Finca Ojos Lindos saw has seen the end of many a good pancake.

The breakfast, lunch and dinner table at Finca Ojos Lindos has seen the end of many a good pancake.

Jen has trouble deciding, but when pressed, she votes for the breakfasts at Finca Lindos Ojos in La Miraflor. The pancakes were excellent and the coffee was welcome in the chilly mountain air, but the steamed milk, fresh from the early-morning milking of finca’s cows, is what put these breakfasts over the top for Jen. She also says nice things about the Gallo Pinto and eggs put out by Marcial’s wife, the Lindos Ojos cook (she was also the bookkeeper). Remember, too, that the coffee itself was harvested at the finca, and we could see the bushes growing from where we ate our breakfasts.

Other meals mentioned during my poll were: the macaroni casserole on our first night at the Finca Lindos Ojos, all the fresh fruit that accompanies everything, the waffles at the Rancho Esperanza, the Japanese curry at the Rancho Esperanza, the banana pancakes at the Cafe Imperio in Meridia on Ometepe, and the club sandwich at the Casa Veccio in Esteli.

Nadia is about to meet the Casa Veccio's club sandwich.

Nadia is pleased to meet the Casa Veccio’s club sandwich.

I know.  You’re thinking: Pizza?  Pancakes?  Club sandwiches?  They’re not in Central America, they’re at an Applebee’s in Central Florida.  One look at that list confirms that not everyone got into the spirit of eating Nico food. We visited a lot of Italian restaurants and pizza places.

Besides my beloved chicken with jalapenos and a nod by Jen to the Gallo Pinto at the finca, the only other local dish to make our most-remembered list was the family plate at the swimming pool restaurant on our first night in Nicaragua.

Welcome to Nicaragua.  Here's a big plate of food.

Welcome to Nicaragua. Here’s a big plate of food: The family plate.

Perhaps this can be expected after two weeks of pristinely healthy food at the Mariposa School. I myself admit to being excited upon walking into the Hollywood Pizza in Leon and encountering a few pies, some beer and pitcher of orange soda.  Oh, and breadsticks, too.  I’m surprised that place didn’t make the list.

Good wife happily eating virtuous food.

Good wife happily eating virtuous food on the patio at La Mariposa School

The food at the Mariposa should not be discounted, though. It was all grown locally and prepared well. It was mostly vegetarian and the fresh vegetables shone. Even Jen was eating beets there. The beets were so sweet! (Also, they were omni-present, so they might have just worn Jen down.) I have often heard of people going on purges at home, cutting out sugar, alcohol, caffeine, salt and/or processed foods. Eating at the Mariposa was like that for us (except for the caffeine and alcohol, of which Jen and I partook, but only moderately). We were served very little wheat or dairy.  The mere absence of cheese help my waistline immensely.  There were deserts, but they weren’t over-the-top with sweetness.  It was a very easy way to accumulate two weeks of healthy eating.

Gallo pinto in Granada.  If it comes with eggs, it must be Jen's.

Gallo pinto at our hotel in Granada. If it comes with eggs, it must be Jen’s.

One more thing before we move on to desserts. Beans and rice are very popular here — particularly for breakfast, but some people eat it for every meal. Our farm guide Marcial claimed to eat it exclusively. He never ate any fruit, he said, even though all around him trees were bursting with mangoes, bananas and papayas. I tried to eat Gallo Pinto very chance I got, and I have concluded that, while the dish is fairly standard and straightforward, my favorite version was served at the Cafe Luz in Esteli because it had more onions and peppers mixed in with the beans and rice. Marcial may not have liked it, but I did.

The only other Nico dish that I can remember trying was a Nacatamale, which I also tried at Cafe Luz. It was cornmeal cooked in a banana leaf with some pork thrown in. It was good.  It maybe picked up a little banana flavor from the leaves.  I did not feel the need to order it again, though.

We had to eat so fast we didn't get a picture of the milk shakes.  It was not far from this spot that we got them, though.

We had to eat so fast we didn’t get a picture of the milk shakes. It was not far from this spot that we got them, though.

Ok, on to dessert, which is what gets represented when you ask my family what their favorite things to eat are and you don’t pin them down to an actual meal. Three of us still remember most fondly the banana coconut milk shakes we shared at the end of our waterfall hike in Ometepe. The idea of the milkshakes may have been as a bribe to keep everyone moving on the path.  In reality, they were expensive, but huge and very good.  Sweet, rich and refreshing after an eight-kilometer hike.  (We have all decided that the last kilometer of the reportedly six-kilometer hike had another kilometer hidden in it.)  I was not going to have any milkshake, but it was clear that as hungry as everyone was, they were going to have trouble getting through them. Also, our bus driver was waiting to bring us home. They were less milkshake and more of a consistency of a Blizzard at Dairy Queen or a Friendz at Friendly’s, and they were a perfect combo of big size and great taste. Using fresh ingredients surely helped.
Other dessert highlights mentioned: gelato in Leon, mango and chocolate ice creams at the Laguna de Apollo, and the banana cream pie at the Mariposa School.

Lastly, while we’re still in Nicaragua, I should recount a story that I’m surprised Jen left out of her account of our Volcan Maderas hike. While we were at the summit, peering into the crater, we spied the Shaman of the Volcano. Our guide said the Shaman, whose name is Tom, only appears on very clear days. If you see him, you can ask one question and he’ll answer it.

We approached the friendly looking man. His twinkling eyes beheld us from between his bushy beard and his Red Sox cap pulled low.  Before we could even get a question out, he answered in slightly Manchester-accented English (that’s Manchester, NH): “You had 16 pounds of laundry in Granada.”

It was not exactly the answer to life, the Universe and everything, but it at least was pretty accurate.  The truth is that we had 17 pounds of laundry in Granada.  There may have been a wet bathing suit in there or something.  It cost close to $20 to get it washed, dried and folded, but it was worth it.

That, friends, is why you should all hike up volcanoes when you get the chance.  At least on clear days.

A few of our favorite things: Nicaragua edition

Now that we have left Nicaragua behind, below is a round-up of the favorite Nicaragua experiences of each member of the family.  There is a bit of overlap, but not as much as you might think!  To read our original posts on these subjects, click the underlined link.

Bob’s List

Thats more like it.

None more white.

Tour of Leon Cathedral roof: This surpassed any expectation I had by at least 1,000 percent.  Never have I seen such a pristinely white environment (at least one that did not involve snow).  The sight of it was shocking.  The sensation of walking barefoot on the clean roof, with its warm — but not hot — surface was a pleasant experience and also a good lesson in why things in sunny places get painted white.  If the roof were black, it would have been at least 30 degrees warmer up there and significantly less comfortable inside the cathedral.  The contrast between the crumbling facade of the cathedral (it was still beautiful, in a rustic way) and the gleaming roof was also interesting.  It is pristine like nothing else we’ll experience in Central America — certainly the antithesis of the nearby (and scarringly sordid) folklore museum.  At $9 per adult, this is expensive for Nicaragua, but to me it was definitely worth it.

Crew at La Mariposa.  There's a real diversity here -- people young and old, from various countries of origin.

Crew at La Mariposa. There’s a real diversity here — people young and old, from various countries of origin.

Dinners at La Mariposa School:  I think I’ll comment on the food at Mariposa elsewhere, but the environment at the school reached is high point, in my opinion, at dinner time.  It was quiet and calm once the teachers and day students went home.  Those staying at the hotel gathered at the sound of a bell and enjoyed conversation (almost entirely in English), a $2 Tona or two, and whatever food they served up on a given night.  There was no troublesome plowing through menus and ordering.  We got what we got, and at it all up.  I did, at least.  Usually, I ate some of the girls’ leftovers, too.  If the Spanish classes, excursions and interactions with staff helped us get used to Central American culture, the dinners helped us acclimate to the physical environment, eating outside in shorts and t-shirts in February was a palpable, if slightly guilty, pleasure.  The warm silky breezes and “tranquilo” atmosphere helped soothe any culture shock we experienced during the day.  We happily noted the absolute absence of mosquitoes.  The compound’s dogs and cats were always close by, often enjoying the attention of a pet-starved child. These dinners also allowed the girls to display a previously hidden talent: conversing with adults.  This is something they tend to do at home only under extreme duress. Without other children to talk to, ZN+L chatted happily with our fellow adult guests, many of them grandparents who clearly delighted in talking to young people.  Jen and I enjoyed multiple compliments about them.

P1000923

Picture the UNH Outdoor Pool with a tarzan swing.

Ojos de Agua:  I thought swimming in this natural spring-fed pool was enjoyable until Jen commented on its similarity to the now-destroyed UNH Outdoor Pool.  She was onto something.  There were surely differences:  palm trees, a slack line and tarzan rope, waiters carrying trays of food (we never found out how to order any).   The similarities became more obvious as I looked for them.  The clear, bluish-tinted water was cool and comfortable.  The sides of the pool were concrete and stone (and a little muddy at points).   People were there to swim and socialize and relax.  It should be noted that this attraction featured the best mix of tourist and locals of any place we’ve visited in Central America.  We even saw a car with a Costa Rican license plate in the parking lot.  One of the workers at our hotel told Jen that the Ojos de Agua is one of his favorite places in the world.  My favorite part, though, was that I felt a little like a time traveler, able to skip back into the near past to snatch one more afternoon of an experience that I never thought I’d get to have again.  Anyone missing the UNH pool can find solace that it still exists, in spirit at least, on Ometepe.

Jen’s List
1. Volcan Masaya night tour

Up, up, up the hill

Up, up, up the hill

I’ve already written about this extensively, but it remains a highlight in my memory.  I think part of the appeal was that we had no idea what to expect.  If we had arranged (and paid for) this tour ourselves, we would have known what to expect every step of the way.  But since this was done through La Mariposa, the extent of our preparation was signing up on the whiteboard.  And as it turned out, it was one fabulous experience after another: the steam pouring from the active crater, the beautiful sunset from the highest point in the park, the awe-inspiring spectacle of thousands of bats issuing forth for the night, the cool walk deep into the mountain through a lava tube.  It was a magical evening.

  1. Sunset on Ometepe after a 20-km hike
The sun sets; Lanie snags the hot tub.

The sun sets; Lanie snags the hot tub.

Our hotel on Ometepe (La Omaja) has to be one of the best places in the world to watch the sunset.  Located in the lower slopes of a volcano, it features an open-air restaurant (with great mojitos), fronted by an infinity pool and hot tub, with Lake Nicaragua stretching away in the distance.  To the right is the dramatic cone of the Volcan Conception, rising 1,600 meters above the lake.  Behind the restaurant, Volcan Maderas rises in green waves.

It was the latter that we’d hiked that day, and it was an extreme challenge to us.  Having left the hotel at 7:30 am, we staggered back in at 5:30, just in time for the nightly display.  Sinking our exhausted bodies into the warm hot tub as the sky glowed with every color of the rainbow was an exquisite pleasure.  Later we would eat enormous dinners poolside, then return to the hot tub as the colors faded and thousands of brilliant stars (far more than we have ever seen at home) emerged above our heads.

  1. Evening in Granada
Serenaded by street performers during dinner

Serenaded by street performers during dinner

Though we loved our time at La Miraflor cloud forest, Granada presented a welcome contrast – hot, sunny, full of people and life.  In the late afternoon, the glare of the mid-day sun would soften, and cool breezes from the lake seemed to blow away the day’s heat in the blink of an eye.  Around the corner from our hotel was a pedestrian thoroughfare with a grand old church at each end.  The street was lined with colorful buildings housing bars, restaurants, and shops, with café tables scattered across the cobblestones outside.  The air was filled with laughter and the sounds of roving musicians playing traditional music (and thrilled to serenade you for a $1 tip).  For another $1 we could enjoy a mojito made with fresh mint, lime and Nicaraguan rum.  It felt graceful and old-fashioned, like something out of a Hemingway novel.

Zoe’s List
1.  Climbing the strangler fig

The strangler fig is empty because the tree it grew around died and rotted away.  This left space for Zoe to climb in.

Part way through our trip, we hiked to a giant strangler fig in the cool, misty cloud forest of La Miraflor. The fig had killed the tree it had lived on long ago, and was completely hollow in the center. We ducked through an opening in the interlocking vines and into the cave–like space inside. It was cool and damp and filled with shafts of sunlight from holes in the web of tendrils. I grabbed a vine and started to climb. The fig’s bark felt cool and rough beneath my fingers, and the different strands were the perfect size for me to wrap my hands around. When I looked up and down, the fig was like a vertical tunnel made of intricate patterns and designs. I could see my family standing in the small circle of packed earth far below. I felt as if I could keep climbing all the way up to the tree’s topmost branches high above. I peeked out of the small windows made by the fig’s stems and waved to my dad standing on the ground outside the tree. When I climbed down, I wanted to do it again.

2.  The Chocolate Museum

IMG_6474In the city of Granada, Mom booked us a tour of a chocolate museum, but not just any tour. This was a workshop where we got to see how chocolate is made and make some ourselves. This was the perfect tour for me because I love both chocolate and cooking. It was really cool to see how one of my favorite foods is made. Central American chocolate is different from the chocolate we have in the U.S., which is made from beans grown in Africa. It has a darker, richer flavor. I liked it. Even the plain roasted Central American beans taste good. We got to try them after roasting them ourselves over an open fire and peeling them by hand. Then, we ground them using a mortar and pestle. The whole beans seemed dry, but once they were ground, the oily cocoa butter seemed to appear from nowhere. After that, we used the cocoa paste to make two chocolate drinks. The first was made by the Aztecs. It had chili peppers in it. It was much too spicy for me! I liked the second though. It was made by the Spanish and tasted like hot chocolate. At the end, we got pre-churned chocolate to make our own bars. We could put anything we wanted in them. I put coffee, sea salt, almonds, and nibs (pieces of roasted cocoa beans) in mine.

3.  Sunset surfing

Zoe surfs

Zoe surfs

My whole family learned to surf in Jiquilillo, a town on the beach. We all took surfing lessons. I loved surfing and rented a board for the next couple of days. I surfed a lot during those days, but one time stood out. Jiquilillo had beautiful sunsets and we would go to the beach to watch them, but I wanted to keep surfing. So I surfed during the sunset. It was amazing. When you watch a sunset over water from land, the glows orange from the reflected sun. While I surfed, that color was all around me. It was like surfing on the sun.

Nadia’s List

1.  Second La Mariposa horse ride

IMG_6654It was my favorite because I really missed riding and I had a lot of fun because I got to canter a lot. The ride went through the countryside, a village, and some woods. I rode the same horse but I can’t remember his name. He was a brown and white paint.

 

  1. Gelato in Granada

IMG_7067It was my second favorite thing because the gelato tasted really good. It also reminded me of Italy. The flavors were also very unique. It was special because there isn’t much gelato in Nicaragua.

 

 

  1. Zip-lining

P1000812Zip-lining was my third favorite thing because it was really fun. I was a little scared at first, but by the end I wasn’t. It was special because it was a really unique and singular experience. We also got to fly with a guide, go upside down, and swing on a long rope.

 

From Lanie
1.  Piñata fiesta at La Mariposa

IMG_6607On our last day at La Mariposa, we had a party with great music in Spanish, dancing and piñata breaking.  Zoe, Nadia and I made the piñatas with our teachers and went into town to buy candy for them.  I felt happy, excited and good.  I liked the taste of the candy and the smell of the fresh air.  It was special to me having my friends from La Mariposa all gathered around me.

  1. Zip-lining

I felt as light as a feather.  I was zip-lining at Volcan Mombacho.  It was special because I felt a good sense of accomplishment.  I tried going upside down, and the guy was jiggling my legs as we zip-lined.

  1. Night volcano (Volcan Masaya)

IMG_6732The volcano hike was hiking up a volcano to see the sun set, then hiking to see two caves.  I felt very good.  It was nice to walk in to a nice cool cave.  It was one of the best experiences of my life because I got to see so many cool things.

Next stop, Costa Rica

After this I didnt walk anywhere at night without my headlamp.

After this I didn’t walk anywhere at night without my headlamp.

Our second-to-last day in Nicaragua, we found a tarantula in our hotel room.  The next day, we found a scorpion attempting to hitch a ride in Lanie’s backpack.  Apparently we were no longer welcome in Nicaragua, so it’s just as well that we headed to the border the next day.

Look who wants to come home with us.

Look who wants to come home with us.

Costa Rica logistics have already proven to be far more complicated, for some reason.  For the few days preceding our travels, I was spending much of my time hunched over the computer, trying to figure out where we were going to go and how we were going to get there.  In the end, we were forced to conclude that we’d need to rent a car for a while.

Our travel day looked like this:

  • P10009549 am ferry from Ometepe to the mainland
  • Taxi ride to the border (we’d been planning to take a taxi to the bus terminal and the bus to the border, but for $25 we decided to take the shortcut)
  • Walk across the no-man’s-land border area, which involved having our passports checked three times by Nicaragua and three times by Costa Rica.
  • Bus to Liberia, Costa Rica.
  • Taxi to the Liberia airport where we picked up our rental car.  (In shock from the price of the cab ($40!  For 9 km!  Nicaragua, we miss you already), we go the cheaper route and do not get an SUV.  We will regret this decision later.)
  • Drive for a couple of hours to the place I’d managed to rent last-minute for the night, from airbnb.  It was not exactly a palace, and was in the middle of nowhere, but the drive was beautiful.
  • Drive back out to the nearest town to stock up on groceries, since we have a kitchen.
  • Drive back to the house because Bob forgot his wallet.
  • Drive back to the store again and back to the house again.  (For the most part we haven’t lost/forgotten things too much on this trip.  But this house proved to be some kind of Bermuda-triangle type location with a magnetic pull over our belongings.  This will also come up again later.)

P1000934I guess the novelty of restaurants really has worn off, because the kids were thrilled to shop for groceries and cook dinner.  Bob and I were instructed to sit down and mostly stay out of the way while they worked together to whip up pasta with chorizo, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese.  (Afterwards, they fought bitterly for about four hours about who would sleep where.  But it was nice while it lasted.)

In the middle of the night, Bob and I were abruptly awakened by a very loud, very strange sound.  It sounded like someone saying, “HHHHHHahhhhh” in this raspy voice, and must have P1000941been right outside the window.  (It was so loud, we initially thought it was inside the house.)  Bob asked the caretakers here about it the next day, and it turns out we heard an ocelot!  (They called it a “tigrillo”.)

Being more aware of the road conditions, we decided we were too far to attempt our original plan of spending a day in Rincon de la Vieja National Park.  Instead, we went to a nearby resort that featured hot springs, mud baths, and pools, plus hiking along a beautiful canyon in the forest, with a warm thermal river running through the middle.

IP1000951t was a very fancy place (though bizarrely, as it was even more in the middle of nowhere) with fluffy white towels and deferential waiters.  However, the price for a day’s admission seemed exorbitant.  We elected, therefore, to forgo add-ons like zip-lining and white-water tubing.  It was very pleasant soaking in the hot river in the middle of the woods, and took the last of the soreness out of our muscles from our previous hike.

P1000940Dinner brought another misadventure.  We thought we were buying salt in the grocery store, when we saw a packet of white crystals labeled, “Sal ingleterre”.  Nadia put some into her signature guacamole, then grimaced as she tasted it.  We quickly determined that whatever it was that we’d bought, it was not edible (Epsom salts, maybe?)  It was horribly wrenching for us to throw away that big bowl of otherwise perfect guacamole.  (Luckily there was another bowl that was untainted.)

As we packed up and headed out the next day, the Bermuda triangle effect struck again.  About 20 minutes into our journey, Bob asked, “Did you take the water bottles out of the fridge?”  Nope, even though I’d checked the place about 20 times, we’d forgotten all our water and bottles.  Back we went, down the rough dirt road, to the amusement of the caretakers.  On the road again!  Except, about 15 minutes later, Nadia: “I don’t remember packing up my kindle!”  After a check of the bags, AGAIN we headed back.  This last time, Bob told them, “Anything else we left here is yours.”

P1000957

Living the easy life

 

Nicaragua Farewell

Ometepe was our last stop in Nicaragua. From there, after a comfortably uneventful ferry to the mainland (aided in some quarters by Dramamine), we accepted a taxista’s offer of a $25 ride to the border — about 45 minutes south — and began our walk into Costa Rica.

A family of five from the USA makes for a fine seminar in document checking.  Most of these people are trainees for the Nicaraguan border service.

A family of five from the USA makes for a fine seminar in document checking. Most of these people are trainees for the Nicaraguan border service.

The border crossing was not really straight forward. It was more of a zig-zag across a large tractor-trailer parking lot. It suggested some acrimony between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as if they needed 300 meters and a double row of semis to keep the respective populations from throwing rocks at one another.

Our taxista pointed out disused buildings on both sides of the road about 10 km from the trucks and the parking lot that he said used to be the border. “They were having problems in San Jose and we took some land from them,” is what the taxista appeared to say. “It was many years ago.” I asked him if San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica when I don’t call it San Juan) got angry over that. “Who knows what they think?” the taxista said.

You have to love the Nicaraguans. They took very good care of us, from Leopoldo the night watchman at La Mariposa, to the guy with the potleaf hat on the microbus to Managua, to Marcial in La Miraflor, to this last taxi driver, who gave me tips on speaking Spanish with the Costa Ricans. Basically, after the first major city we got to, Liberia, where many Nicaraguan emigres live, everyone we’ll meet will speak very fast and use strange words. Instead of saying “tranquillo,” the Costa Ricans will say, “pura vida.”

After a long line of tractor trailers, Costa Rica beckons.

After a long line of tractor trailers, Costa Rica beckons.

It’s more expensive in Costa Rica, too. Many people have told us. “Any question you have, you’ll have to pay $5 for the answer,” somebody once told me. When I express how much we’ve liked Nicaragua, a common response from Nicaraguans has been, “yeah, it’s cheap here.”

So there is a bit of an inferiority complex here, but the Nicos persevere. And they have made a great impression on us. Among the things we’ve appreciated the most has been the public transportation system, which promises to take you anywhere you want in the country provided you switch buses enough times and can get across the larger cities from one terminal to the other. Some American told us early in our time here, “Well…you have to understand that the buses don’t leave until they’re full…” This is a slanderous remark, in Nicaragua at least. Every bus we took (ferries, too, for that matter) left exactly at the posted time. Of course, they have been pretty full, and they tend to get more full as they go along. Still, we found them a very efficient — and yes, cheap — way to get around.

Just a quick word on the term “Chicken Bus,” which is what some people call the local buses.  It should be said that while almost all of the local, intercity buses we took were converted school buses, often heavily laden with people and produce, we did not see a single chicken in or on top of a bus. True, we did see one tied to a pillar in the Esteli bus station, but it might have been part of the concession. There was just about every other kind of food imaginable at the terminals.

In fact, I came to the conclusion that it would be pointless to take a chicken on a bus from anywhere to anywhere in Nicaragua because no matter where you ended up, as soon as you got off the bus, there would be more chickens there waiting for you. Chickens are ubiquitous in Nicaragua, except on the buses. In a land of poultry saturation, where almost every night of sleep was perforated by crowing roosters, the chicken buses have been for us a chicken-free zone.

But buses are just one part of the appeal here. I have enjoyed the food, more so than the rest of the family, perhaps. I have become a connoisseur of gallo pinto and I’ve had several fine dishes of chicken with jalapeno sauce. The fruit and vegetables have been very fresh — I even eat beets now, though Jen seems to have abandoned the habit rather quickly. Most dinners have come with a side salad of chopped cabbage that I have liked. Tona beer has been a fine acquaintance on this trip, and the two-for-60 $C mojitos on the main tourist strip of Granada were fine friends, too.

The country boasts two tremendous assets even beyond its budget mixed drinks. The first is its people, kind and patient with my Spanish. Knowledgeable and cheerful, too, as a general characteristic. We have made many friends in Nicaragua. The second is the landscape and natural diversity. It’s been said that we’ll see more animals in Costa Rica, but I don’t know that we’ll have an experience as amazing as the bat cave at the Volcan Masaya National Park, or the crater of Volcan Masaya itself. We may not get as close to a sloth as we did on Mombacho, or as deep in the mud as we did on top of Volcan Maderas. Really, we have no complaints about our experiences in Nicaragua.

It was like a little bit of Durham history, right there in Ometepe.

It was like a little bit of Durham history, right there in Ometepe.

Especially since the country rolled out a special gift to us on our penultimate day in residence. Traveling from Hotel La Omaja back to Moyogalpa, where we would spend the night before taking the ferry back to the mainland, we stopped at a natural spring pool called Los Ojos del Agua. It was a beautiful spot that caught my attention because it seemed to attract Nicaraguenses and tourists in equal measures. Then Jen pointed out that the pool reminded here of another spring-fed pool we used to frequent. Seacoast NH readers of this blog might recognize a little of the dearly departed UNH Outdoor Pool in the greenish blue water of Los Ojos del Agua. Nicaragua gave us a chance to remember one of our favorite places in Durham — albeit with a tarzan swing, grass-roofed huts, and palm trees — one last time before the future takes over our local outdoor swimming lives. It made us even more sad to say we’re on our way.

When I’ve told Nicaraguans how much I like it here, they frequently ask (after noting how cheap it is) if we’ll come back. I almost always say yes, though I’m not really as sure as I sound. There are many places to visit in this world and we have a limited amount of time to travel. We definitely plan to stay involved in the country, possibly by helping to fund Paulette’s projects in La Concepcion or the orphanage in Ometepe where our hotel owner volunteered.

If we do ever return, it’s not clear that we’ll be coming back to the same place. Most tourists we’ve talked to seem to agree that Nicaragua is poised for major changes in the coming decade. It’s likely we’ll find more paved roads with extra lanes, more walled communities, more mega resorts, fewer drink deals. I hope that the Nicaraguans don’t get left out of this. It’s worth noting that every place we stayed in, except for our hotel in Granada, was owned by foreigners. I don’t think we consciously discriminated against Nicaraguans. It’s possible that foreigners are more savvy about marketing themselves online, where Jen does her research. I hope that some Nicaraguans studying at UCA in Managua today learn to use this tool and become able to grab some of the flood of tourist dollars for themselves. There certainly are tons of reasons why people reading this blog should consider coming down for a week or so, and it would be nice to think of some of our friends, or their children or nieces, benefiting from your patronage.

They said it couldn’t be done

IMG_7173…or at least, they looked us over, raised their eyebrows, and smiled condescendingly when we said we were going to try to hike the Volcan Madera on Ometepe Island.

I actually thought they were probably right.  We had read and heard a lot about how hard the hike was — 9 km one way, much of it straight up.  But we figured we’d give it a shot and maybe at least get to one of the viewpoints partway up.  So we hired our guide, ordered sandwiches from our hotel, filled up all available water bottles, and headed out at 7:30 the next morning.

Petroglyph on the mountain

Petroglyph on the mountain

Ometepe is a figure-eight shaped island composed entirely of two volcanoes — one active, one inactive.  The active one, Concepcion, is a steep, smooth brown cone, rising dramatically from the lake like a child’s drawing of a volcano.  Madera is slightly smaller and more irregular, covered with trees and vegetation.  We thought we were attempting the easier of the two, but our guide disabused us of this notion.  “No, that one is longer, but less hard.  You walk the whole way.  This one…”  Here he mimed climbing vertically with hands and feet, a look of great exertion on his face.

IMG_7180Undeterred, we set off through the already hot sun.  Adding insult to injury is that our hotel is on the slopes of Volcan Madera, but in order to get to the trail we had to descend the long, steep driveway — only to climb back up on the trail about a quarter mile down the road.

The previous day, we had cleverly stocked up on small candies to distribute as bribes when the going got tough.  The kids began asking for them about half a kilometer in, but we managed to hold off for two or three.  The first half of the hike was not easy — it was pretty steeply uphill, and we were all huffing and puffing — but we were still walking upright.  A couple of hours in we weren’t hot anymore; we’d entered the cloud forest and a damp wind made us chilly.

IMG_7183We had expected this hike to be long.  We’d expected it to be strenuous.  What we’d failed to foresee — and what no one had warned us about — is that hiking in a perpetual cloud forest means mud.  As we ascended, the ground got ever more wet and slippery, at the same time that it grew ever more steep.  Soon we needed to use our hands to grab roots and pull us up the slippery inclines.  Did I mention that we were hiking in Keen sandals?  Soon we were covered in wet mud, squelching along with every step.

IMG_7204At this point Bob and I began to fixate on an unpleasant prospect: getting back down.  We were afraid it would be just too treacherous, especially with our legs growing more tired by the minute.  Bob talked to the guide, who suggested a good turn-around spot about half an hour distant, and we resolved to give up our attempt on the top.

Well, 3/5 of the family resolved this.  When we eventually reached the spot in question, Zoe and Lanie were extremely determined to go on.  A couple of hikers from our hotel passed us on their way back from the summit, and said it was only another 45 minutes or so.  This convinced Nadia that we should try as well.  Our guide, impassive the whole day, said it was up to us — so in a moment of weakness, we agreed to go for it.

Our guide (who, by the way, was 68 years old and had done this hike for the past 7 days running) shepherds Lanie to the summit ridge.

Our guide (who, by the way, was 68 years old and had done this hike for the past 7 days running) shepherds Lanie to the summit ridge.

At this point the really difficult part began — at least for Bob and I.  The kids were now in their element, because scrambling up the almost vertical inclines was easier and more fun for them than plodding up hills on foot.  They were ahead of us with the guide, who, now that we’d committed, clearly wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.  (We kept hearing his voice ahead: “Keep going.”  Resting was not permitted.)

And half an hour later, muscles aching and soaked with mud, we made it.  And we were rewarded for our efforts.  Usually the summit of the mountain is in a permanent cloud, and hikers who complete the arduous journey get rewarded with only a view of swirling white.  But our day was crystal clear (according to our guide, the first clear day in at least four weeks).  We were able to peer down into the crater and see the hidden lake within it, and look down the other side and see the two perfect circular coastlines of the island, Volcan Concepcion looming between them and Lake Nicaragua stretching away into the distance beyond.

IMG_7188Going down was as bad as we’d feared.  Lanie, who had shown truly superhuman strength in making it the whole way up, had a very hard time getting back down once the adrenaline of the ascent had left her.  The rest of us weren’t feeling so great either.  Unlike most hikes, the descent was the worst part of this one, and seemed truly intermnable.

By the time we’d gotten back to the hotel (this involved going back UP the steep hill, which nearly finished me off) I was definitely at the end of my strength, which made me further marvel at the kids’ accomplishment.  Our first stop had to be at the outdoor shower outside the pool, where we discovered that the mud was more tenacious than we’d hoped.  Days, and several showers, later, I still don’t think we’re 100% clean.  And I’m pretty certain our shoes will never be the same.IMG_7201

But after an outdoor shower, followed by an indoor shower, we had the reward we’d been thinking about all the way down — sinking into the hot tub as the sun set brilliantly behind the lake.  Eventually we were able to drag ourselves out and consume large dinners before staggering off to bed.

Welcome to Fantasy Island

 

Ometepe is the first place Jen described to us when she starting laying the plans for this trip.  It is an island with twin volcanoes rising  more than a thousand meters out of the middle of massive Lake Nicaragua.  On the map the figure-eight-shaped land mass seemed very remote and exotic.

Nice view from the bar, eh, Tattoo?

Nice view from the bar, eh, Tattoo?

From the ferry,  taking in the imposing cones draped in their own cloud tops, we felt like we were arriving at Fantasy Island.  Those of us who are older than 40 felt that, at least.

The port city of Moyogalpa welcomed us with a few blocks of multi-colored houses and a very Carribean feel.  Our hotel was less than an hour away, on the south half of the island.  It is at the base of the shorter, dormant volcano, Volcan Madera.  It is the most posh place we’ve stayed at during our time in Nicaragua.

Straight from the guidebook?

Straight from the guidebook?

We did not find Mr. Rourke at the Hotel Omaja, but after a quick glance at the infinity pool with the cone of the the larger volcano, Volcan Concepcion, strategically placed in the background, Jen realized that the scene was familiar.  “I’m almost certain that this was in the one of the Nicaragua guidebooks I used,” she said.  It definitely was a view worthy of a guidebook cover.  Anyone who wants to check up on Jen’s suspicion can visit the travel guide section of the Durham Public Library and compare it to the pictures in this blog.

The sun sets; Lanie snags the hot tub.

The sun sets; Lanie snags the hot tub.

The hotel treats us to sunsets that compare to the sunsets from the surf camp in Jiquilillo.  It also has plates of pasta that the girls can’t finish, which is impressive.   It has satellite tv with gloriously unadulterated, non-subtitled English programming.  And, an almost complete novelty for us in Central America, when you turn on the left handle of the bathroom sink, hot water comes out.   The shower has hot water, too.

Jen takes a break from Mojitos.

Jen takes a break from Mojitos.

So there’s not much more we can ask for.  But here’s what we do ask for:  mojitos for Jen (this is her new favorite drink); fruit smoothies for the girls (the restaurant in the pueblo at the bottom of the hill has two types: one mixes the blended fruit with milk and another mixes the fruit with water.  They are both very enjoyable.);  pancakes (the banana ones at the restaurant in the pueblo are world-class, particularly with local honey on them; and extra towels.   Also, the girls don’t ask, but they wait patiently for the heat to be turned on in the hot tub — then they wait no-so-patiently for the 20-somthings visiting from Canada to get out of the hot tub.

Did we mention there are volcanoes on this island?

Did we mention there are volcanoes on this island?

Mostly, Ometepe has simply been a pleasant place to be — more than worth the uncomfortable ferry trip from the mainland.  We have hiked around a little, once to a waterfall on the side of Volcan Madera, and once through the pueblo to a few beaches on Lake Nicaragua.  We’ve gotten to know the pueblo, Merida, a little bit.   The girls have a favorite little tienda where the lady is very nice and has lots of candy on her counter that costs a half cordoba apiece.    She also sells these fried round pastries with sugar on them.   I asked her what they’re called.  She said donuts.

This is a seriously tall waterfall.

This is a seriously tall waterfall.

Today was a rest day.  We’re recovering from yesterday’s six-kilometer hike to and from the waterfall (possibly the highest waterfall I’ve ever seen) and preparing for a summit attempt of the mighty  Volcan Madera, 1,400 or so meters above our hotel.  We currently have no plans to take on 1,600-plus-meter Volcan Concepcion, but we’ll see how our legs feel tomorrow.  Actually, we’re not sure how far we’ll make it up Madera.   Several people have suggested a lookout point about half way up as a good stopping point for us.  Then again, they don’t know about the boot camp training Lanie went through this winter.

 

 

 

On the ferry to Ometepe

Thankfully, this was not our boat.

Thankfully, this was not our boat.

The ferry ride was very long.  Luckily we took the one that was one hour instead of four hours.  All the other people in my family felt sea sick.  I did not. It was fun sitting there with the boat rocking on the waves.

Lanie enjoys a mango before we embark.

Lanie enjoys a mango before we embark.

The man who was collecting money for the ferry solved the problem of feeling sea sick! He took out some hard candies and gave them to us.  They were delicious. They helped my whole family.  They were little cherry candies with gum inside!

The rest of the ride I was happy.  I sang songs to keep myself occupied.  I watched Lake Nicaragua and saw we were getting closer to Ometepe Island.  It was awesome to see.

As the ferry rounds the island, the waves calm down and the view of Volcan Concepcion gets even better.

As the ferry rounds the island, the waves calm down and the view of Volcan Concepcion gets even better.

On top of Mombacho

Mombacho is an active volcano.  Zoe sticks her hand in a steam vent., just to check.

Mombacho is an active volcano. Zoe sticks her hand in a steam vent, just to check.

The other day we returned to the cloud forest. First we went on a hike around the main crater of Mombacho Volcano. We got a ride to the top.  When we got there, it was cold and misty.

Perezoso!  Did you know they can swim.

Perezoso! Did you know they can swim, too?.

About five minutes into the walk, we saw people pointing to something in a tree up ahead and and taking pictures. When we got to where they were, our guide pointed out a sloth in the tree.
It was much smaller than I expected sloths to be. Our guide said that was because it was only so eleven months old. He also said that sloths are great swimmers. That really suprised me!

It's a porcupine, but it looks fuzzy.

It’s a porcupine, but it looks fuzzy.

Later on our guide pointed to what looked like a fluffy ball in a tree. I couldn’t figure out what it was. After looking at it for a while, he said that it was a porcupine. It looked soft, not spiny. The guide lead us along a small path to the back of the tree to see its white face. It was asleep.

After the hike we drove down the mountain a little ways for ziplining. I had been looking forward to ziplining for a long time. It was so fun! After getting all our equipment, we drove up to a large tree with a platform. There were eleven zipline segments with platforms and sometimes bridges connecting them. On some of the segments, our guides helped us do special things like getting in a superman position or going upside down. On the last segment, our ropes were longer so we got to swing back and forth. That was my favorite segment.

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Lanie did tricks, too, but they’re mostly on video. Look for on on Youtube soon.

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Lovely Granada

IMG_7072    IMG_7068

Backpacker-type people will sniff about Granada being a town that caters to tourists.  This is indisputably true — but I say, it’s not such a bad thing to be catered to once in a while.

IMG_7067We already took a day trip to Granada when we were at La Mariposa.  Though we enjoyed it, we weren’t necessarily planning a return trip — until we did some calculations and found that trying to get from the cloud forest of La Miraflor to our next destination of Ometepe Island would involve at least three buses, four taxis, and a ferry, which we weren’t Herculean enough to attempt in a single day.  Luckily, Granada was in the middle, and a couple of days of city life, with all its attendant comforts, didn’t sound bad at all.

P1000738Granada is the perfect city for strolling, with its houses of every color, striking churches, and vibrant market.  Our hotel was right around the corner from a cobblestone street that was closed to cars (although, inexplicably, one still rolled by every now and then) and lined with bars and restaurants with outdoor tables.  As the lake breezes swept the heat of the day away, it was heavenly to sit outside with a mojito (2 for $2), listening to the roaming musicians and the Latin music drifting out of the bars.

Of course, the other side of the tourist coin is the street vendors that approach every few seconds, looking to sell you sunglasses, cashews, hammocks, and jewelry.  However, in almost all cases we find that they retreat immediately when we say, “No, gracias”, so they really aren’t so bad.  (Sometimes they’re even convenient.  One day the girls decided they wanted to buy sunglasses, and had them in hand about 5 minutes later.  And once we ALL were wearing sunglasses, the sunglass vendors at any rate no longer approached.)

Bob and I snuck out for happy hour around the corner.

Bob and I snuck out for happy hour around the corner.

And there is still plenty of genuine Nicaragua around the edges.  One day, looking to arm ourselves for a picnic, we headed into the huge street market, which takes up a couple of blocks with warrens of vendor stalls.  (Bizarrely, there were seemingly hundreds of stalls all selling the same types of fruits and vegetables — I don’t know how they possibly survived.)  There were booths with huge sacks full of beans and grains, being sold by weight (also dog food!)  We successfully procured avocados, tomatoes, a lime, and a stack of homemade tortillas.

Serenaded by street performers during dinner

Serenaded by street performers during dinner.  Bob was very excited about the lefty guitar player.

It was crowded and chaotic, but as with everywhere in Nicaragua pretty much everyone was polite and helpful to us.  And with the exception of cab drivers, we haven’t found anyone who has tried to cheat us, despite our sometimes shaky grasp of exchange rates.  (You can pay with dollars anywhere here, but you usually get your change in cordobas.)  Yesterday we were walking through another section of the market on our way to the bus station, weaving through the crowds and stalls while wearing all our possessions on our backs, and someone started shouting, “Rivas?  Rivas?”  (This is the name of the town where we were headed by bus.) P1000743 My instinct is to ignore things like this, assuming they either want to sell us something or somehow get our money, but luckily Bob has more faith in humanity.  He said “yes” to the man, who then helpfully told us that we should take a left at the next corner since the bus station is hard to find.  Not an experience I’ve ever had in an American city!

IMG_7075

Parents are SO embarrassing

Parents are SO embarrassing

 

The day that (almost) had six legs

Beautiful views of La Miraflor as we head for Esteli

Beautiful views of La Miraflor as we head for Esteli.

We started yesterday in the grey mist of a Miraflor morning. One last batch of pancakes, then a short walk to the main road for the 6:30 bus back down towards sea level. Despite multiple offers of substantial money — up to $70 that we would have split equitably with our friend and fellow Lindos Ojos guest Senor Joe — our hosts could not find anyone with a pickup truck who wanted to bring us to Esteli. I even heard Marcial call out to one friend in a coffee finca while we rode past on our horses the other day, but the friend’s truck was out of commission, or so the friend claimed.)

Zoe's LL Bean thermometer, compass, magnifying glass zipper pull is being a little generous here.  It was in the low 60s when we started our trip.

Zoe’s LL Bean thermometer, compass, magnifying glass zipper pull is being a little generous here. It was in the low 60s when we started our trip.

That means we sat at the bus stop with six legs of transportation between us and our hotel in Granada. At least we hope it was our hotel. Without Internet (and without cell phone service due to the poor communication skills of Mobal International Telephones) we had to ask the finca’s owner Katharina to call hotels for us when she went home to Esteli on Sunday. She sent back a note with her ever-dutiful daughter that said Granada was almost full, but there was a hotel with room of five. We would have to call and confirm before we got on the bus in Esteli.

One hint that my backpack made it inside the bus: the Main Street Makery luggage tag hanging from the overhead rack.

One hint that my backpack made it inside the bus: the Main Street Makery luggage tag hanging from the overhead rack.

Leg 1: Although there would be an express bus later in the morning, we chose the 6:30 bus because it was more likely to have space for all five of us (six counting senor Joe) and our luggage. We get up early here anyway, and we pack up quickly. Not only did we not have trouble finding seats, our luggage got to ride with us in the main cabin. (You may remember that my backpack had to ride on top of the bus on the way up to La Miraflor.)
Two and half hours later, leg one was complete. In the hubbub of the Cotran Norte bus terminal — very near the spot where Jen was kidnapped a few days before — we tried to reach the Granada hotel on Katharina’s daughter’s cell phone. Nobody answered. Cue suspenseful music.

Leg 2: Ok, now back to the peppy Benny Hill music to accent our travels. A short walk out of the terminal to a crosswalk on the Pan American Highway. A man assured us that the cars would let us cross if we started walking into the road. Miraculously, no one even beeped. A small taxi stopped for us, even though the taxista’s girlfriend was taking up the passenger seat. All five of us sat in the back this time. The drive is only about a kilometer. It costs 40 $C. Why does every city in Nicaragua need multiple bus terminals? The taxi lobby must be very strong.

Greyhounds on the seat covers -- a true mark of luxury.

Greyhounds on the seat covers — a true mark of luxury.

Leg 3: A man in the Cotran Sur Terminal seemed interested in giving Jen a ride to Managua, then he saw the girls and me and pointed us to the ticket window. We bought tickets for 70 $C per person. The local to Managua was just about to pull out. No way, buddy. Tickets for us. Individual seats. Baggage storage below. An hour more of our lives to enjoy at the end of line.

We decide to break a $20 bill by buing something to eat in the well-appoined terminal. A few pieces of pound cake, a few tortas filled with pina and three packets of Ritz crackers peanut butter sandwiches leave us with plenty of change.

The seats on the bus recline and they even have arm rests. Observant passengers notice the cloth seat covers feature a greyhound pattern. No retired school bus this time.
We’re in Managua in just over two hours.

Leg 4: A few steps outside of our greyhound charriot, Jen encountered a taxista who could take us cross town to the Granada buses. But why not let him take us all they way to Granada? He offered $50. Jen declined. He comes down to $40. Legs five and six of our journey vanished into the air.

One of the nice things about taxi rides, and this should really be factored into the price, is that they become a Spanish lesson for me. I sit up front with the driver and we chat for a while.   It’s great practice with a captive audience.  The taxistas tend to speak a brand of Spanish that is more opaque to me than the Spanish our Mariposa professors used, and it’s a lot closer to what people speak on the street.  I nod my head a lot and say, “Si. si.”  Chances are that’s appropriate.

This ride was only an hour but taxista Edgar was amiable and informative. He drove us through the tony Managua neighborhood where foreign diplomats live. He pointed out the huge estate of a former finance minister who has opened up a chain of Walmart-like stores in Nicaragua in his retirement. I saw a fortaleza on top of a mountain that the Sandanistas liberated and turned into a boy scout camp. We looked out over the Laguna de Apollo from the opposite side from where we swam.

Edgar almost met his match finding our hotel, but after asking directions several times he got us there. Then he gave us his number in case we were ever in Managua again. And he took our names and phone number, too. Who knows when he’s going decide to go New England? I think he even gave his number to the clerk at our hotel. Edgar really gets around.
And guess what — it turned out to be our hotel after all. My new friend Mario had a room for five ready for us, with a/c and breakfast included. A big hurrah for the Posada San Jose, two blocks south of the cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua.

In the welcoming embrace of strong wifi.

In the welcoming embrace of strong wifi.

Everyone quickly settled into the free wifi, but Mario suggested I go across the street to the Corral Restaurant (where, as guests of the Posada San Jose, we get 10 percent off) and watch the Champeons’ League match between Real Madrid — Mario’s favorite team — and Schalke from Germany. I only watched one half but there was plenty of scoring and the beer only cost 28 $C. It was a fine way to spend part of the two hours we gained through greyhound buses and direct taxis.

In Granada later in the day, it got well into the 90s.

In Granada later in the day, it got well into the 90s.

Aside from the wifi and European soccer, Granada offers us many other luxuries. We noticed one of them as Edgar picked his way through the city. It was a laundromat and it will charge us by the pound to do our washing. Our clothes are certainly dirty, the only question is how much it will set us back to get it done.

How heavy does this laundry look to you?

How heavy does this laundry look to you?

What do our blog readers think? How many pounds of dirty clothes can a family create over two days in Leon, two days in Esteli and four days in La Miraflor? Post your guesses here or on Facebook. The person with the closest guess will get his or her name published in our blog in the form of a fictional Nicaraguan who crosses our path. and touches our lives forever.