Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Under the Volcanoes: Exploring Nicaragua

Coming of age in the 80’s, I associated Nicaragua with guerilla fighters, Iran Contra and banana republics. If I dreamed of traveling to Latin America, it was to jungle-thick Costa Rica or Panama’s canal zone, where I imagined I could buy a fine straw hat and catch a glimpse of howler monkeys. A few years ago, though, word began trickling out of the Central American isthmus that Nicaragua, whose name had been virtually absent from Americans’ tongues and minds for 20 years, had a new persona worth checking out.

While we Americans occupied ourselves the last two decades with exploring Europe and the Internet, Nicaragua quietly transformed itself into a peaceful democracy. While it was interesting to see the conversion of a war ravaged country into a peaceful one and to talk to Nicaraguans about their experiences, I discovered other decidedly worthwhile reasons to visit the country: sleepy colonial towns, pristine coral reefs, organic coffee farms, cloud forests, undeveloped beaches, hair-raising canopy tours, and above all—literally and figuratively—volcanoes. Most intriguing, I’d been told that on an ancient island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, you could climb a perfectly conical, storybook volcano and peer into its smoldering crater, and this I had to do. But before climbing the volcano, there were a lot of other places for my friend Terry and me to explore.

Managua: Somnolent Capital

My first impression of the country was molded from the plane window. I wonder where the farms are, the towns and the roads, because from the air, I see only rolling emerald green forest, then cartoon-like, conical volcanoes and finally, the immense, milk chocolate-colored lakes surrounding the capital city, Managua. But where is the city? As we glide into somnolent Managua on a late Sunday afternoon, I’m struck by the lack of traffic and how the empty streets feel so much like the sleepy suburb I grew up in.

The view from the postage stamp-sized—but ultra-modern—airport, offers little different. No traffic jams, little street life. Destroyed during an earthquake, the central downtown was never re-built and even today, the country’s largest and capital city lacks a core—and even skyscrapers (not a bad thing in a country visited by hurricanes, earthquakes and erupting volcanoes).

After a few months of a gray Chicago winter, Managua’s towering, blooming plane trees and swaying palms appear idyllic. The verdant charm of the place, however, soon wore off. After exploring the primitive modernist National Cathedral (the original having been left in ruins after the earthquake of 1972), we high-tailed it to smaller and nearby colonial Leon.

Sleepy Colonial Town Number One: Leon

A few hours’ drive west of Managua sits Leon, a dusty and somewhat dowdy colonial town. Known for its churches and massive cathedral (the largest in Central America), this historic, former capital serves as the intellectual and cultural heart of the country. Because of its liberal university and active community of artists and writers, the town served as fierce battleground during the civil war. However, the only sign of the city’s bloody past are government-sponsored excavations at a few sites around the city and some bullet holes in buildings.

As we pull into town during rush hour, hemmed in by mule-drawn carts, buses and cars, the late afternoon sun burnishes storybook colonial buildings a vivid gold. Nearing the central plaza, our taxi driver—the first of many providing stories to go with the scenery—points out teams of excavators working under the intense sun at scattered sites. Uncovering what? I ask. But our driver never really answers.

We explore Leon, wandering its quiet streets and avoiding an occasional passing automobile, but see only a few other tourists. As far as I can tell, the modern world is a place that exists only in books and magazines; there are few signs of it here.

In an even dustier, quieter quarter of town originally inhabited by Indians, the unusual Church of San Juan Bautista rises from a windswept, packed-earth plaza. Equal parts Spanish Baroque and primitive, the stolid church continues to serve Indian parishioners behind its crumbling façade—which appears untouched since Indian laborers completed the building in the 1700’s.

Leaving the already intense mid-morning sun, I arrive in the cool and breezy shadows of the sanctuary. A caretaker rhythmically mops an already shiny tile floor. Looking heavenward, I see pinpricks of blue sky through the decaying, aged tile ceiling. While the immense wooden beams that hold the church’s roof appear intact, and marvelously carved with traditional Indian designs and characters, the walls and underside of the tile roof appear scant years away from utter disintegration. As far as I know, the 400-year-old church has survived in this condition for at least a few hundred years. I enjoy the immense chamber by myself, with only the sound of a buffeting breeze sweeping through the immense yawning side doors and cracked windows, creating ephemeral clouds of dust that settle on the floor.

At another church off Leon’s main square, unmentioned in my guidebook, I wander the cream-colored interior of this much smaller, purely Baroque temple alone. Plastic and real flowers alternately festoon the aisles, windows and altars, and lace curtains flutter in ghostly fashion. I enter and leave without seeing anyone.

As the tropical heat wanes in the evenings, Nicaraguans open their doors and windows to the street, sipping beer, rum or Coke. We walk the uneven cobblestone streets, catching glimpses of shady courtyards framed by vibrant bougainvilleas, potted palms and splashing fountains.

While Leon appears light years from having a luxury hotel, it does boast El Convento, one of those serene, laidback hotels that haunt your daydreams on hectic days after you’ve returned to the office. Mornings are possibly best at this former convent, when the bougainvilleas turn screaming pink, orange and purple, while manic parakeets and garrulous parrots squawk overhead, occasionally landing in one of the courtyard palms to feed. A steady stream of hummingbirds visits the flowers, or darts toward the fountain for a drink. Middays lull, too, with their quietude and breezes, which sweep through wide, shady corridors and deep loggias, encouraged by a small army of ceiling fans. Finally, in the early evenings, chirping swifts announce the completion of the rapid tropical sunset, taking to the sky above the hotel in flocks that dart, swoop and fall in unison. After sunset we sip local Flor de Caña aged rum (a prize winner in international competitions), sitting in the cavernous lobby serenaded by crickets, the splashing fountain, and the occasional night breeze that whispers through the lobby.

Sunny Days in the Cloud Forest

Rather than endure a crowded van, Terry and I hire a taxi to drive us up the winding, pothole-ridden road toward Matagalpa and the relative coolness of the highlands. As with nearly anyone we meet over the age of 20, our driver has a tale to tell. Having served with the Freedom Fighters, he fled the country for North Carolina after his side lost. A few years ago, he returned with his family and describes the country as peaceful now.

Away from the ocean, the landscape turns brown, parched and dusty. Hulking on the horizon, omnipresent volcanoes. Miles of small farms, dusty villages and vast open spaces fill out the landscape between Leon and Matagalpa. We encounter some of the smallest of this awakening country’s entrepreneurs—children, of grade school age, who patch potholes on the gravel road and gaze expectantly at the occasional passing car or truck, leaning on their small shovels or rakes. Our driver slows, tossing coins which the kids pounce upon before the dust has cleared.

We head for another perfectly shaped volcano, but then skirt it and begin climbing out of the dry, sun-baked lowlands. Already, the air rushing into the car tastes fresher, of moisture, earth, vegetation—and on occasion, sweetly fragrant flowers. As we ascend, the browns and dusty olive-greens of the lowlands give way to massive blooming trees, more colorful bougainvillea, palms and the lush greens of the wetter and cooler highlands. We pass enormous warehouses surrounded by rows of neatly sculpted beds of coffee beans drying in the sun.

Our next stop—one of the most talked-about spots in the country—is the organic coffee farm cum resort run by a German immigrant, Mausi Kühl. While the farm itself serves as a draw, it is Selva Negra’s cloud forest reserve that attracts a steady trickle of tourists to this out of the way spot.

I know we’ve arrived when coffee plants line the mountainsides and a well-maintained road. Beneath the coffee bushes sprout impatiens and bright-blooming hibiscus, their bright flowers contrasting sharply with the deep green surrounding them. Finishing for the day, workers trudge up the neat rows and onto the road, carrying burlap sacks bulging with bright red coffee berries. Giant trees with gnarled and epiphyte-covered limbs twist toward the sky, standing watch over the fields. I know from my reading that further up the mountain, such arboreal splendor is writ even larger.

Nestled under towering trees, petite, Spartan cottages with a decidedly Bavarian feel offer haven from frequent rain showers, bugs and wildlife, including the raccoon-like coatimundi, snakes, wildcats and monkeys. Our Lilliputian, three-room casita sports epiphytes on its red-tiled roof and chirping geckos on the porch. The first night, a downpour pummels the roof and enormous trees above, sending torrents of water, epiphytes and branches onto the roof. At first, I imagine we are experiencing nothing short of a hurricane, but the roof and windows hold, so I eventually fall back to sleep.

Breakfast’s main attraction, not surprisingly, is the dark, rich coffee made from the farm’s coffee beans. Accompanying the fragrant coffee are eggs from the nearby chicken house, sausages made on the premises—and rice and beans, a Nicaraguan staple. An otherwise bland meal—excepting the coffee, of course—is made flavorful by one of the country’s many hot sauces. Within view of the restaurant terrace, the cloud forest begins, and the early morning sounds of howler monkeys, parrots, and parakeets complement the whir of the wings of hummingbirds visiting nearby feeders.

With a seemingly straightforward map in hand, we enter the reserve, avoiding the “Lost Trail” and opting instead for a loop which promises quetzals and howler monkeys. While the outspoken howlers are quickly sighted (they grunt and stare right back), the quetzals prove elusive. By following the occasional trail marker, we find ourselves on a barely discernible trail, scrambling on hands and knees beneath tree roots, through dense vegetation offering barely enough space for passage. Later, at a nature center, I learn about the myriad snakes and poisonous spiders that prefer just such places and shudder. But for the moment, I carelessly shuffle through decaying vegetation and grasp at root and sapling alike, seeking handholds on the steep trail.

Once atop a false summit (doesn’t there always seem to be one more ridge that reveals itself once you’ve reached the presumed mountaintop?), our labors, evidenced by sweat-soaked shirts and mud-stained khakis, seem rewarded. While the morning breezes may have subsided down below, on the ridge they wrestle with tree boughs. Cottony clouds drift pass, grazing towering treetops that seem Disneyesque with their limbs crowded with epiphytes, bromeliads, ferns and even orchids—brightly blooming specimens in preternaturally vibrant shades of pink, orange and red. Warm rays of sun strike us through the trees, and are just as quickly chased away by clouds and a refreshing breeze.

On our return, we see brightly colored trogons, immense strangler figs, parrots, and more howlers, but no sighting of the elusive quetzal with its exquisite, over-the-top plumage. I don’t care, though, as I’m confident I’ve discovered one of the most beautiful spots on Earth and it sits atop a mountain in Nicaragua.

No Movie Stars, No Cocktail Umbrellas: The Nicaraguan Coast

Our small boxy plane (circa 1970?) has hardly descended when I can smell the sea. Our first stop on the Caribbean, Bluefields offers one remarkable experience. Staying in one of but a few fleabag hotels in the town, I sit in an entry courtyard, serenaded by gekkos and swooping swifts, and watch a small crowd gather on the dusty street. A whistle blows, drums throb, and a mass of humanity swarms into the street and begins dancing. More drummers arrive as the last rays of sun strike towering clouds, bathing the street, dancers and thick emerald forests across the nearby inlet in pink and purple light. The street erupts into a raucous party, led by a few women who direct the still-growing body of dancers and drummers with piercing whistle blows and hand signals. Cars back up on the street, but instead of laying on the horn, their drivers sit on hoods or join the street party.

Reachable only via boat or plane, Bluefields sits in strange and splendid isolation. Similarly, our next stop, Little Corn Island, is reached via a quick flight to Big Corn Island, and then a boat ride on rolling seas. In addition to some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world, tiny Corn Island (which can be circumnavigated in a few hours) has the quirky, intimate, Casa Iguana. Photographers from Outside Magazine virtually order me to stay at the hotel. Owned by a couple from the States, the environmentally friendly, laidback cabanas and inn advertise “No movie stars, no cocktail umbrellas, no phones, no TV”. And they mean it.

Its casitas situated on a promontory on the island’s south side, Casa Iguana easily has the best views on the island. Best of all, each rustic casita has its own private, hammock-slung porch—albeit petite—with inspiring views of crashing surf and a sea of an almost ridiculously blue hue. After a morning snorkeling trip (arranged through the certified dive shop on the opposite side of the island) my thoughts returned to the covered, hammock-slung porch on our casita where I would shortly find myself lulled by waves instead of bobbing in them and cooled by a constant trade wind.

As good as the views and the Casa’s Nirvana-esque tranquility are nightly cocktail hours (freshly-blended piña coladas being a specialty) and enchanted dinners. Given the small number of guests (around 20) and the dearth of nearby restaurants, cocktail and dinner hours constitute the day’s main social event. Organized around candle-lit communal tables and fueled by jazz CDs and crashing surf in the background, dinners have a decidedly international flavor—literally and figuratively. Guests hailed from New York City, Vancouver, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. One dinner consisted of amberjack—caught earlier that day off a reef 100 yards distant—covered in a lemon-cream-caper sauce, fried cassavas, carrots sautéed in garlic with caramelized onions and bananas in rum with tasty—if rapidly melting—ice cream. Wind and solar power generators provide clean but limited electricity to the inn (which makes the jazz and ice possible) and meals rely heavily on locally-sourced foods.

Raked clean and hidden in the shadows of giant coconut palms, sand paths meander around the grounds. Rustic casitas are similarly swept clean and have smallish bathrooms with flush toilets and sinks. Air conditioning is provided—and more than adequately during the winter month of my visit—by trade winds which cranked all night through enormous windows overlooking the turquoise sea. While there’s little electricity and no marble bathrooms, rainwater cisterns provide ample water for showers taken in private outdoor wooden stalls.

Though Casa Iguana has a relatively captive clientele, prices for ice-cold local Victoria beers, wine and food is relatively inexpensive. In season, lobster dinners, which can be ordered in the morning, ran $12, Dinner with drinks ran about $15. And with breakfast running about $5 and casitas $35 per day, my share of the daily bill amounted to just over $30—for lodging, more than satisfactory meals twice daily, and evening cocktails.

Sleepy Colonial Town Number Two: Granada

If you tire of towns that haven’t been spiffed up for tourists and are hungering for some Charleston-like charm and somewhere to check your email, then it’s time to head to Granada. Just a few hours from Managua, this small, historic town, its cobblestone streets lined with spectacular colonial buildings and impressive churches, is the first place that I saw tour buses. You’ll want to skip the bus, though, as horse-drawn carriages ply the streets. Still utilized as taxis, the carriages provide cheap, but romantic transportation to virtually anywhere in this small city.

We stay at one of the best hotels in the country, the historic and antique-filled Hotel La Gran Francia. During the day, when not exploring, I swim in the luxe oblong pool tucked into a two-story courtyard of the hotel and wolf down a tasty seafood lunch (grouper in a mango-coconut milk sauce) on the balcony of the hotel restaurant overlooking a quaint intersection. In the evenings, I amble corridors and loggias illuminated by torches and lanterns after eating more tasty seafood at the La Gran Francia’s restaurant, one of the country’s best.

Granada’s plaza, one of the best-preserved in Latin America, serves as a hub for activity at sundown as locals gather in small cafés, stroll, or just watch the golden sun transform the cathedral and other grand buildings into glowing amber monuments. Disorderly and garrulous flocks of parakeets and parrots dart overhead, noisy occupants of palms and jacaranda trees. As in Leon, evening walks provide glimpses of the lush and shady courtyards of colonial houses in the historic town center. Along with tourists, restaurants, sophisticated hotels and tour companies come Internet cafés which allow me to catch up my life back home.

The Outside photographers I encountered also recommended that I take a canopy tour in Granada. The first time I heard of canopy tours during an earlier trip to Costa Rica, I thought they were for bird watchers and nature lovers. In reality, they more closely resemble a roller coaster than a bird watching outing. (Call them Mother Nature’s amusement park rides.) In short, a canopy tour involves gliding (and swinging Tarzan-like on one occasion) between tiny platforms perched atop towering rain forest trees. Gliding over coffee farms or directly through the jungle, I’m provided the perspective of the parrots and monkeys which typically occupy these trees.

Before leaving Granada, we head up the slopes of dormant Volcán Mombacho looming just outside of town, finding blooming orchids tucked next to steam vents that emit strong fumes laced with sulfur. Here vegetation crowds the crater like some hidden Garden of Eden and the volcano is hardly recognizable as such. But I know that at our next stop, a better volcano awaits.

Lost Island of Omotepe

I feel like I’m in a movie, on a boat straight out of African Queen. I’m below deck, with breezes pouring through open windows like the rush of air from fans. The water of Lake Nicaragua is muddy, marked by the occasional clump of seaweed or lily pads. On my right rises another huge conical volcano, and it is to this volcanic island that we’re headed. A thumping, antique engine pushes the old boat across the lake toward ancient islands that bear few traces of former inhabitants, but plenty of signs of wildlife and a relaxed, carefree air that’s further exaggerated by the islands’ remoteness. You can’t get here by train, car or plane—merely the chugging, brightly-painted ferries that bring locals and the occasional tourist to a somnolent island of farmers and little towns sitting in the shadow of two towering volcanoes.

On Ometepe, you cannot escape the presence of the volcanoes. They rise monolithic from the lake floor, standing perpetually shrouded in plumes of steam or puffs of fog. I feel like I’m on the set of Jurassic Park. The soil and volcanic ash, redolent of sweet talcum, mixes with the scent of jasmine and gardenias, giving the entire island a perfumed, Elysian air.

The island—maybe because of the forested slopes of the volcanoes and its location in the middle of a giant lake—has even more parrots and parakeets. Flocks of the rowdy birds, acid-green with yellow, blue and red markings, dart through the sky, alighting in giant trees, before abruptly flitting away. Their calls, squawks and emerald plumage seem as much a fixture of the island’s peaceful mornings and amber-lit evenings as the ever visible, smoldering volcanoes. In the evenings from a villa in the lakeside Hotel Villa Paraiso, the gentle lapping of lake surf on the sandy shore, chirping of gekkos and primeval call of howler monkeys merge with the drone of crickets and humming insects.

My friend and I have sought out this island to hike the steep, but navigable slopes of Volcán Concepción (4430 ft.) in order to peek into its bubbling, primordial crater. Our guide, Jorge, leads us on a dusty path that starts on a gentle incline. We start early to avoid the midday tropical heat, but begin sweating and making water stops after an hour. My thighs burn as my legs attempt to slog through volcanic pebbles. I’m relieved when the path turns to ash, but the gray, sweet-smelling pumice turns out to provide even less reliable footing than the pebbles.

Jorge leads us beneath arching strangler figs and a family of howler monkeys who stare at us with mild interest. “Don’t get too close,” Jorge warns. “They throw feces.”

A few minutes later, after the trail narrows and enters dense forest, our guide recoils from what appears to be a coral snake, seemingly lying in wait next to the path. “Very poisonous,” he informs us in a shaking voice. He locates sticks for each of us, and then attempts to find the snake which has slithered out of sight.

“I hate coral snakes,” he announces. “They kill. Sit by the path and wait for you to come by and then strike.”

My friend Terry is doubtful, but I’m suddenly wondering where the snake has disappeared. Jorge wants to kill the snake, but we’re in a national park, and both Terry and I persuade him to let it live—wherever it is. Jorge reluctantly agrees, but strikes the leaves and brush behind us, only to discover that the snake has circled around and lies at our backs. Is this brightly colored, three-foot long snake stalking us? I experience a creeping chill, and hope I don’t regret my environmentalist’s urge to let the snake live.

The path begins ascending the steep cone of the volcano, and though the vegetation has grown less dense, my eyes are peeled for the bright red and yellow of a coral snake. I even glance behind me a few times, feeling ridiculously paranoid, but unable to resist the impulse. The air becomes cooler, so fresh I need the fleece that Jorge advised me to bring, and fog swirls just above us, cloaking the highest and remaining third of the steep cone of the volcano. We scramble up the cinder path on hands and knees, seeking foot and handholds on roots, stumps and the occasional rock. I’m sweating again, despite the chill, and Terry is completely out of breath. We take rests and water breaks every five minutes, and my legs are trembling visibly.

To this day, I’m unsure whether Jorge realized we would never make it up the last 500 or so feet, or whether he simply didn’t recommend it, but he suddenly shook his head, advising that with the high winds, swirling clouds and mist, it wasn’t safe to continue. After having traveled so far to climb this volcano and peer into its perfectly shaped crater, we were unconvinced. But our fatigue and Jorge’s insistence that it wasn’t safe to continue prevailed—and we were soon headed back down the volcano, knees and legs wobbly from the hike up.

Two days later, I was headed home to Chicago, without ever having peered into the smoldering crater of a volcano. On the plane, I recalled my second night at Selva Negra when the electricity had inexplicably failed for a few hours and I stood in the balmy evening air admiring a star-dappled sky, before heading back to the casita and going to bed by candlelight. Recalling the sound of wind-borne epiphytes and branches striking the tin roof as I drifted off to sleep, I concluded that if Italy’s Florence possesses an embarrassment of man-made riches, then Nicaragua boasts an embarrassment of Nature’s riches. And while I never made it to the lip of a volcano’s crater, I discovered a stunningly beautiful and fascinating country that is just as busy re-discovering itself.

Selva Negra, 11-505-772-3883, email: resortinfo@selvanegra.com
El Convento, www.hotelelconvento.com.ni/english/
Email: informacion@hotelelconvento.com.ni
Casa Iguana, www.casaiguana.net, email: casaiguana@mindspring.com
Hotel La Gran Francia (& restaurant), 505-552-6000, www.lagranfrancia.com


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