[051017; 2200 UTC,
Bahia Santa Elena, Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, Costa Rica
N 10 degrees 55.44/W 085degrees 47.66]
When we last wrote we were projecting days more of rainy weather in Nicaragua; what we couldn't anticipate was weeks more of rainy weather. Rainy season finally caught up with us and the mold and mildew followed!
Unfortunately for many in Central America, the rain included a drenching associated with tropical storm Stan. Rivers raged and mountainsides turned to slippery mud and fell, leaving tens of thousands homeless from Chiapas, Mexico, through Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Our friend Jose Osorio lost his roof and most of his property near San Salvador and he and his family are now living with relatives. Thankfully no one in his family was hurt and a relief fund of cruisers and friends has raised over $1,100 to date to help him rebuild or relocate.
Stan's rains also hampered but did not stop our inland travel adventures to Granada and Leon, 16th century Spanish rivals and political polar opposites in the ever-tumultuous Nicaraguan government. But let's back up a bit.
Marina Puesta Del Sol ("sunset"), is a small hotel and marina complex built on Estero Aserradores, Nicaragua, about ten miles by sea northwest of the commercial port of Corinto. Roberto Membrano and his wife Maria Laura have been developing the lovely facility for about three years on this isolated peninsula near the tiny village of Aserradores. Roberto was born in Nicaragua but spent his career in the USA and is a US citizen; Maria Laura is from Guadalajara, Mexico; they live aboard a large trawler-style powerboat within the facility. They currently have twenty-four hotel rooms outfitted with shaded verandas filled with comfy wicker furniture, a lovely waterfront palapa restaurant, pool, and about 20 completed slips all with a view of the estero and distant Volcan San Cristóbal, the tallest of Nicaragua's volcanoes.
The location seems perfect; surfing is available a short walk across the peninsula (where they have another large palapa bar and pool) and the access by water for yachts does not require crossing a bar. The road into the facility is the only significant drawback. The last nine kilometers were impassible during some of our stay due to flooding. During dry season it's merely a rocky, bumpy ride with chicken bus service twice a day.
Nicaragua would be the poorest country in the western world if Haiti just didn't happen to be poorer. Horses, horse-carts and bicycles are the predominant mode of transportation, except in the bigger cities. Buses, where available, are periodically unavailable due to disputes over fares. Entrepreneur/drivers want to raise fares in response to escalating fuel prices; the government will not allow them to do this. The most significant highway hazards are weaving bicycles and herds of cattle grazing the roadsides (herded by a caballero on horseback).
We arrived at Puesta Del Sol from the Golfo de Fonseca with the express intent of completing a list of projects and planned to stay only one week. Unfortunately, we had only a few days of favorable weather before the pattern changed and the skies opened up. Talking with others who had over-summered there, we quickly gathered intelligence on inland travel and decided to wait out the bad weather (and vicious seas) while safely moored in the calm confines of the estero.
We set our sights on Leon, Granada and Isla de Ometepe. Ometepe is the sister island to Bainbridge Island, WA and BI imports Ometepe's coffee at a fair price and sells it in a number of supermarkets. Unfortunately, we had to scratch Ometepe off our list since it was the farthest away and was the most difficult to get to, especially with a rental car in tow. It also has the most dramatic setting since it is an island in Lake Nicaragua that was formed long ago when two volcanoes erupted and the resulting lava flows converged. Leon and Granada are long term rivals and have completely different political climates; Leon is considered liberal and Granada, conservative.
We decided to rent a compact car in Chinandega and travel first to Granada, 5 hours away, stay two nights and visit Leon on the way back, also staying two nights. Before we left Chinandega, we purchased a "Nicaraguan" SIM chip for our cheap little Nokia GSM cell phone; this turned out to be a good use of $17 USD.
Getting to Granada was hampered by Stan's torrential rains, poor signage, flooded roads and poor visibility. In Managua, we missed our turn and ended up on the narrow winding carratera sur (south highway) heading up, up, up and up still into the clouds and through the tiny and unattractive mountaintop town of El Crucero. Once on our way back down the mountain we had to re-plot our trip and ended up with the pothole tour of central Nicaragua. Watching the vehicle ahead of you is the only good way to avoid serious damage to your own vehicle. From their behavior swerving right and left across the full width of the road as they hit or avoid the biggest of holes, you acquire ample time to plot a safe course through the most cavernous hazards. An oncoming vehicle doesn't seem to deter this dance through the potholes, buses and other cars simply perform the same dance in parallel though it's disconcerting to have a huge chicken bus swerve at you and then away from you just in the nick of time!
Actually, a cottage industry has developed in Nicaragua as the result of its lack of road maintenance. Children (usually, but not always) fill potholes with dirt they dig from the adjacent roadside and stand, shovel in one hand, with their other hand pointed at the (now filled pothole) in a gesture much like the famous Michelangelo painting of God and Moses nearly touching. Passing cars (including us when we had change or moneda to give) slow down and pay small tokens for work done.
Granada is one of the oldest Spanish settlements still in its original location. It was built by the invading Spaniards on the banks of Lago Nicaragua on land occupied by peoples for thousands of years. The local museum includes artifacts - pottery, six to eight foot tall carved rock sculptures of indigenous people in zoomorphic dress, etc. - from at least 2000 BC. Granada is also rich with European and American history, having been burned by the retreating William Walker during his hasty departure from Central America, the first time. (WW thought he could establish a country that exploited slave labor, similar to that in the US south, by taking over all countries of Central America and installing himself president). He was wrong; the third time this persistent but tiresome Norte Americano entered the territory with troops, he was captured and put before a Honduran firing squad.
The museum at Granada is sited at the recently restored Convento y Iglesia de San Francisco with its lovely broad square façade and pre-Spanish indigenous catacombs. The restored convent and church reveal small segments of the original, now termite-ridden wooden support beams and disintegrating mud and grass block construction.
The city remains poor but small and warm; real estate prices though are not inexpensive and many fear this small city will be gentrified quickly. A local merchant whose farmacia was sited a half a block off the square, died shortly before we arrived. A vigil at his business included scores of residents and many public servants (police, etc.). The funeral the following day at the cathedral included a spectacular horse-drawn black hearse with large glass windows smothered in the floral arrangements sent by the deceased admirers. In the Parque Central are stands selling frito, a layered concoction of meat and fried plantains topped with a cabbage salad. The dirt-floored public market, housed in and around a seemingly disintegrating nineteen century building with impressive architectural features, offered the usual fly-covered unrefrigerated meats, a great selection of vegetables, eggs and even offerings from bathtub-sized galvanized vats of vinegar-soaked peppers of red, green and yellow with chunks of onion and cloves of garlic.
The area around Granada offers many natural resources that the city hopes to exploit to mimic the successful eco-tourism model of Costa Rica. Unfortunately for us, weather prevented us from indulging. A volcanic crater lake (Laguna de Apoyo), the lowest point in Central America, offers wilderness hiking and birding in the surrounding dry tropical rainforest, canoeing, kayaking and diving (alongside mansions of wealthy Nicaraguans). Adjacent Volcan Mombacho includes a fecund cloud forest and overlooks Lago Nicaragua and the bio-diverse archipelago of 365 islands called Las Isletas.
Finding accommodations in Granada turned out to be easy. It is still off season and hospedaje (hostel) accommodations, some quite nice with private rooms, were plentiful and inexpensive ($23 for two people). We didn't have much luck finding true Nica food though we stumbled upon a young man from Mexico who was the chef/owner and sometimes doorman of Tequila Vallarta a few blocks from La Pérgola, our hostel. Thirty-something, broad smiling Rosario is warm, enthusiastic and possesses an obvious passion for food. Walking away after talking with him for awhile was difficult and though we weren't thinking it would make sense to eat Mexican in Nicaragua, we were drawn back and enjoyed every scrap of the fine dish of huachinango (red snapper) Veracruz-style, and beef burritos, washed down by delicious and frosty margaritas.
Leon was a bit more difficult for us to get to know. It's a town that's suffered from blights of modern architecture and aging modern public art, though many of its churches (we saw every one within 100 blocks!) are spectacular. Its cathedral on the Parque Central is truly spectacular once you pass through its massive wooden doors and, according to some sources, in the largest in the Americas; certainly the largest in Central America. A small donation allowed us to roam the building and even climb the bell tower and wander around the domes on the roof, looking miles away into the countryside.
Behind the cathedral is a bustling public market, neat and full of sellers and buyers of everything from foodstuffs and staple commodities, to children's clothing, cell phones, toys and CDs. Our favorite church by far was the golden colored, baroque-styled Iglesia de La Recolección with a carved vine wrapped pillar motif on its graceful pointed façade, though we sat quietly in many iglesias and saw beauty in every one.
Leon is a university town and a liberal stronghold in Nicaragua. Students reign here; quality restaurants are few and those we found were disappointing and overpriced. We sought out but were unable to find the Galeria de Héroes y Mártires (gallery of heros and martyrs) run by the mothers of fallen FSLN revolutionaries. We also missed (after getting lost walking for an hour and a half) meeting the US volunteer at the Minnesota-Leon Project, a US based organization that provides many services to the rural poor in the Leon region. When we tried to find the arboretum, our guidebooks failed us again and we only found a dead end street overlooking a river filled with garbage. It was about this time we received an email from friends back in the marina explaining that the road back into the marina was impassible and that we may have to stay in Chinandega. We were just a little frustrated. Tired and hungry, we decided we'd skip trying to find cena (supper) in a restaurant, we would just visit the grocer and snuggle up into the lovely courtyard garden of our hostel, Posada Del Doctor. Coming back onto the street with our bags filled with bread, cheese, veggies, wine, etc. we encountered a teenaged mother with an infant asking for milk. Philip looked at Leslie and her at him and without two words being spoken, Leslie took the bags and Philip returned to the supermercado being trailed by the girl and her baby.
Returning the next morning to Chinandega after many cell phone conversations with the marina's manager, we were still being advised that we could not reach our boat (or, gasp!, our cat who was being cared for by friends). We knew that they were working daily on the road and that all-terrain vehicles were passing, so we formulated a plan. We dropped off our rental car and, taking advantage of a local marina employee we happened upon on the street, negotiated for a dilapidated taxi to take us out of town down the very, very, very bad (paved) road to the atrocious dirt road, where we would begin to walk. The fare would cost most all of the rest of our cordobas, so there wasn't much room for negotiation. We'd called Puesta del Sol again and told them this was our plan and they seemed a little shocked and said they would try to send a vehicle out to meet us. We only had to walk about a mile over the muddy, flooded track before a mud-encrusted Jeep caught up with us and brought us in. If you can visualize movie clichés where vehicles try to travel in wet jungles of Africa and you'll get a pretty good idea. At least we weren't dragging the boat through leeches!
The trip was an adventure and we are happy we saw something of Nicaragua other than the marina resort. Unfortunately for us, the swell has been high and southwest, precluding comfortable or secure anchorage in San Juan Del Sur, the favored jumping off point for Rivas and the ferry to Isla de Ometepe. With this in mind, we chose to sail out of Nicaragua (requiring an international zarpe rather than a domestic zarpe) to Costa Rica with a hope we'll be able to come back overland once the dry season begins in order to finish our exploration of this lovely country and its warm people.
We sit as we write in a large, secure and beautiful anchorage (Bahia Santa Elena) just inside Costa Rica within the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. We arrived here on Thursday, October 13, 2005 after an uneventful passage of about 146 miles through a bit of unsettled weather. We've explored only a little but are in awe of the wildlife sounds emanating from the tropical dry jungle and the noisy calls of the wild parrots as they fly overhead complaining about whatever wild parrots complain about. We also hear howler monkeys though we have barely ventured into the seemingly impenetrable jungle and captured a coveted glimpse. Today is the first day it has not rained and it may be awhile before things begin to dry. We are in no hurry.
Philip and Leslie with el gato supremo, Jake
Bahia Santa Elena, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica