Monday, March 30, 2009

Nicaragua: Masaya

Masaya is located about eight miles northwest of Granada and is a center of culture and art for all of Nicaragua. This is a city that celebrates annual events and every religious event extravagantly, unfortunately when we were there, nothing big was going on. I read that there are really only 2 reasons visitors go to Masaya and that is for Volcan Masaya and to shop. Masaya has two huge markets selling indigenous handicrafts from all over Nicaragua....and anything else under the sun. We decided it would be a perfect day trip from Granada.  
So, back to the bus station...
Amazingly enough, those beautiful baskets on top of the bus only cost about $3...if I ould have fit them, I would love to have 4 or 5 of them in my studio (imaginary at this point, but someday) holding scraps of material, yarn etc.  
We headed straight for the market area. There are two markets, old and new, and being gringos, when we asked for directions we were not pointed to the old "authentic" local market called  Mercado Municipal Ernesto Fernandez
We were pointed to the new, clean, ridiculously priced gringo market that seemed staged for stupid, eager Americans.  Really, the prices were 3x more.  BEAUTIFUL stuff,  but Im not a sucker!
Brightly colored outfits and masks are much a part of the cultures and festivities in Nicaragua.
woven goods, fresh mango batidos (smoothies) 
Wood letters painted with everyday scenes of Nicaraguan/Latin American life 
I have something special planned for mine.  You will be sure to see them around!  I heard what I can easily identify as a parrot in the market.  I followed the sound and was lead to this cute little girl.
In the central square in Masaya, the boroque Parroquia de la Asuncion stands since 1750.  (the Spanish government offered the latest renovation)  
Mexican food?  That sounded so delicious to us.  Ernesto read about La Jarochita, a well known Mexican restaurant in Lonely Planet
We sat outside on the patio, ate tacos and drank several [read: too many] cervezas talking about everything. Laughing.  The three of us laugh a lot together.  Great conversations...oh how times flies....on a Wednesday afternoon.  (Yes, I do realize how lucky we are)
Although we were not hungry at all,  there was a restaurant on the way back into Granada that Ernesto really wanted to go to.  It specializes in exotic meats.  The bus driver dropped us off in front of Aeropuerto 79.
We wanted to try something we have never had before.  Can you tell what it is? 

Oh my God, we ate an armadillo!
Again with the serenading.  Maureen requested her new favorite song.  "Pobre Maria" 
The next day we decided to head back to the beach for one last day of sand and sun.  I really enjoyed  Nicaragua so much, I think it is a country so rich in history and culture.....and COLOR!  I loved how all of the women vendors wear these beautiful elaborately ruffled aprons.  I was eyeing them all week.  I had to have one. 
For days, I couldn't find "the one" and then I saw it.  Problem was, that a lady was wearing it.  She took it off right there and sold it to me for a fraction of what they were being sold for in the markets.  Good thing, because we were heading out on a bus, and it was a must have for my trip to be complete.  Here I pose like a local.  Selling treats to the bus riders.
Here is the lady with her drinks for sale in plastic bags. 
I hope you enjoyed my posts about Nicaragua.  

Nicaragua: Grenada

Grenada, is said to be Nicaragua's most photogenic city. It was founded in 1524 and is the oldest city in the New World. (also argued to be the oldest European city on the American mainland) It was constructed as a showcase city by the Spanish, and that it still is today. (ok, after some restoration from when William Walker set the whole city on fire in the 1850's- I can't go into all of that- please check your history books)

It's a great city, I say.  The Spanish colonial buildings are drenched in rich tropical colors, there are carved wooden doors, some cobblestone streets with horse carriages, great restaurants and hang out places, and my favorite part, a Zocolo, or town square, that is full of activity. Latin. American. Activity. Vendors selling foods from their little push carts, craft tables set up on the perimeter and locals approaching you with hammocks, and tchotchkes that you really don't wan't but their little kids are with them looking hungry, so you do.  The key ingredient to a Zocolo?  The people who are just sitting on the park benches watching all this activity. Love it! I imagined living in this city instead of San Jose and really liked the idea. (sometimes I am a 'grass is greener' girl, but come on is a walkable city to much to ask?)  We were happy to arrive in a bustling city after spending a couple days in rural Ometepe. As soon as we exited the bus, we were surrounded by madness. With no idea where we were sleeping, Ernesto sat down for a moment to consult LP for our options. We were looking for a budget place (as usual) close to the main square, Parque Colón, and there were many to choose from. However, the one we ended up at was recommended by a guy selling something on the street corner. Kalala Lodge is located just two blocks from the square and is only $6 per person. Done. We got a room with four beds, but it was just the three of us, so it was perfect.

We dumped our stuff and walked to the Parque and took in the sights. The most striking building (to me) is the huge church, Catedral de Granada which was built in 1583, but has been destroyed countless times. The latest version was built 1915, and stands on the east side of the square in all its glory. It has four chapels, many stained glass windows and a bright gold paint job. Its impressive!

We wandered down a colorful street called Calle la Calzada which is lined with restaurants with outdoor seating, boutiques and small hotels. It was about 3 pm, 90 something degrees and time for a Toña. We weren't too picky as to which restaurante we sat down, I just wanted the beer to be $1 and the wall color to be pretty. I didn't however, want the name to be Grill House.  Come on, in Nicaragua? I didn't notice this until we had already ordered our beers. I tried to convince my companions to move over one table to the bar called Nectar (the purple walls) but they thought I was crazy.
We saw several other churches while we were walking. The delapidated Iglesia de Guadalupe, was built in 1626, originally as a fort. Still gorgeous, it reminds me of St. Mary's in Massillon Ohio, the church where we were married.
...and the oldest church in Central America, Iglesia San Francisco, which happens to house what is said to be the best museum in the region as well. (we didn't check it out) Originally built in 1585, it was burnt to the ground by pirates and then again by that damn William Walker. It was most recently restored in 1989...and in my humble opinion could use a nice paint job. The baby blue does no justice to the architecture.The food in Nicaragua is very similar to Costa Rica's.  Gallo pinto in the morning and rice and beans at every other meal.  I did get to try a couple new interesting things, like vigarón.  Yucca and cabbage salad topped with a big chicharon (fried pork skin) served on a banana leaf.  There are 2 little round kiosks in the park selling this. Here Maureen and Neto put in their order.
Another new thing for me was a drink called chicha, a bright pink corn drink. We ordered one of those too. It's unique, to say the least. Its kind of sweet and there are actual particles of corn floating around, not to mention a bunch that settled to the bottom of the glass. Ernesto told me a gross story as I was drinking it and I prayed that this was not the case. (that indigenous women chew up the corn in their mouth to break it up and then spit it out in a tub to make the chicha) Please no, please no! I marched right back up to that kiosk and asked the young girl who was working there. She said some is made like that, this however was not. whew!
I know what you are thinking, but I chose to believe.
Living in Costa Rica, good coffee is nothing new, but Nicaragua also produces some of the best coffee in the world, which is why it is wierd that they commonly serve instant coffee (stirred into hot milk)???  No, I don't want instant coffee! The coffee is so rich here, you just need to find the right place.  We discovered Don Simon Cafe on the park square (I saw several locations) and yes, it was a bit more expensive, but just look at it.  A picture says 1000 words.While sitting enjoying that coffee, Neto couldn't resist to get up and give this little old lady some money. She had her English line down pat "I hungry, one dollar" After that lady it was this lady with her sweet little girl. We did we walked away with a pretty hammock. After that we decided there must be a daily limit for handouts.  My husband is so generous, and there are too many hungry people.  Seriously Nester, we are on a budget here!  We never did come up with an actual number as our limit. Same old story, we have never been good budgeters. Neto brings out the spender in me. A little coin here, a little coin there, buy some cashews, fresh fruit on the street, coffee here, cervezas there.
And then there was the fur coat.
I know, I know. But to use the words of my sister Jenny "how could I not buy it?" It was only $2. Its the most glamorous coat in great condition.  Look at that huge collar!  $2! I even bargained her down.  I know, that is rediculous, but they expect it, and Im a bargain any country!

Do you know that I am crazy for parrots? Have I mentioned that there are parrots everywhere in Nicaland? This shop owner only paid $70 for that green baby, and she wanted to sell him! UGH! He is at least $600 in the states. I could've had him fro $50, I know it!

We missed several sites in Granada, such as Las Isletas, an archipelago of more than 360 little islands that were formed over 10,000 years ago when Volcano Mombacho blew up.   Also the petroglyphs, or drawings that were carved into volcanic basalt.  They are said to be 800 to 2000 years old.  
For those reasons and many more, I highly recommend Granada.  
Nicaragua, to be continued... on to Masaya (HERE)

Nicaragua: Isla de Ometepe

Just to give you some orientation (I'm sure all of you already know this ) but Nicaragua is bordered to the south by Costa Rica and to the north by Honduras. In the south part of the country is where I was touring last week.
As you can see on the map above, there is a huge lake, and in the lake are two huge volcanoes. The map to the right is of Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas. These two volcanic peaks rise out of the Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. They are connected by an isthmus and make up the island called Ometepe. Isla de Ometepe is Nicaragua's candidate for the 'Eighth wonder of the World' It is truly an amazing sight.

To get there we all jumped in a pirated taxi (its called a pirate when its not really a taxi, just someone's car working as a taxi-these are everywhere) to the port called San Jorge (30 minutes away) and waited for the ferry to the island.
At the port, mangoes, and other great fruits were being sold all up the street and behind one of the vendors in a tree? Another 2 monkeys on leashes. Ernesto made friends. The ferry only runs 3 times a day, but there are also little boats (lanchas) that make the trip more frequently, but as you can see here, on a windy day the water is it would be a very choppy ride, plus take over an hour to get there. It was hot as h@$$ but we stood in line with everyone else.
Once on the ferry we climbed to the top level and were able to put our bags down and relax. It was on this ferry where I broke my cardinal rule "do not get sunburn" What was I thinking? I have done so well, I haven't gotten a burn at all in Costa Rica. One hour on the water, in a tank top, no sunscreen. Ahhh, and I look so peaceful as it's happening. While on the ferry, Neto started talking to a Nico (from Nicaragua) named Victor.
By the end of the trip they were buddies and we were all really hungry. Victor lead us up the road in Moyogalpa (port) to a place for lunch. I still am not sure if he knew this place or or the people living there. Yes, It was someones house. Well, there was a small sign out front indicating that they serve food, but definitely a house.
We sat down in their outdoor kitchen, the man of the "house" left to buy us beers and cokes, and a meal of chicken beans rice and platanos was stated as the menu.
As I looked to my right I saw little chickies with mama and I felt sad, because I was sure we were about to eat a relative.
The meal was delicious and well worth the $5 each of us paid.
Maureen would probably not eat there again, as we saw a big rat hop into the burner of the stove, after we were done eating. In their defense, this was not the stove used to prepare our meal, and it's an outdoor kitchen, of course there are rats!

We were only going to be on the island for 2 days, so we wanted to see as much as we could. There is only one road that runs around the island (78k) and after seeing the condition of it (horrible!) and not seeing any taxis around, Ernesto struck a deal with a van to take us around the next day. That night it dropped us in Charco Verde on the south side of the bigger Volcano (Concepcion).
We rented 2 rooms with 2 double beds each at Posada Chico Largo and the cost came to $7 per person. It was a simple place, but the surroundings were beautiful. The rooms were clean and had hammocks on the front porch.
There was also a great area on the water where you would hang out with a beer and order food from the kitchen.
One of the must-do activities in Charco Verde is to climb to the Mirador del Diablo (devil's lookout) a hill in between the two volcanoes that supposedly has the best sunset in Nicaragua. We liked the sound of that. Here you can see Volcan Concepcion through the bouganvilla.It is about a 30 minute climb to the Mirador...and I am talking a steep steep climbSometimes my little Casio Exilim amazes me with the pictures it captures. Like these of Volcan Concepcion and and, as promised, the best sunset in Nicaragua
The next morning we woke up early and sang happy birthday to Kate and enjoyed coffee out on the water.I really liked this little "sail" boat, I think he was a fisherman.The van picked us up at 830a and we drove through a banana plantation to reach Ojo de Agua, a shady swimming hole that was created by partially damming the Rio Buen Suceso, the islands' longest river.Honestly we were not too excited with this, we thought it would be better to jump in AFTER we did a hike and were hot, but with the one road, it made more sense (to the driver) to stop first. Ok, I jumped in, it was refreshing, we left. We tried to leave....
It's a Stampede! (also my favorite slot machine in Vegas) This happened to us several times during the day. Our tour guide Oscar was used to this and just pushed through while laying on the horn. Here is Oscar, and yes, he is drinking a beer.

local fisherman With the help of Lonely Planet we picked a smaller hike to do. The biggest volcano is a 12 hour hike round trip and the smaller is a 6 hour. (so says Lonely Planet) We picked a hike to a waterfall that is on Volcan Maderas, it is called Cascada San Ramon. (LP said it was a 4 hour hike round-trip, when really it ended up only being 2.5 - I am not knocking LP-they truly write the best guide books, well...on the planet)

The starting point for the hike was at Estacion Biologica de Ometepe which is a center for research in tropical ecology. It also has some rooms for rent and a restaurant. The chef asked if we would like to have lunch after the hike, we said si, and he said perfecto. It had a beautiful view of the lake.
We didn't started the climb until about noon, and the sun was blazing. I would recommend starting earlier. 100 degrees is pretty damn hot, especially while exerting yourself for a couple hours. Unfortunately most of the trail was in the sun, you can see here how dry it is. Nicaragua, like Costa Rica, has only 2 seasons, wet and dry.
The waterfall is 40 meters high (122ft) and mossy green, I couldn't even fit the whole thing in one pic. Look closely, Ernesto is the little ant at the bottom.
At the restaurant they served us "family" style which is not too common. We ate fish and of course the other staples, rice, beans, bananas and beer.
Our waitress took a group photo of all 8 of us out on the front stairs. The five Habitaters and 3 Nicos.
We were debating what part of the island to stay on that night. In the LP book, we read about Finca Magdelena, "the Ometepe classic." LP describes it as "the rambling 19th century farmhouse has everything you need- sweeping island views, fresh organic coffee and a cheap restaurant serving farm fresh goodies." It is also a starting point for the hike to Vocan Maderas, which I really wanted to complete. I just thought the finca sounded so unique. It was about a one hour drive on the most horrible dirt road. Ernesto stopped for some "refreshments" and came out to the van with......another monkey on a leash. It was a baby and so sweet.
He made me think of my Rare rare becuase he slobbered a little.
We arrived at the finca (farm) and it was almost dusk. Im glad we got a look at the property before dark. (we ended up leaving before light)
One cloud had settled at the peak of the volcano.
For Kate's birthday we sang, arranged cake with candles (I didn't have cake because I gave up sweets. Im very ready for Easter, please bring lots of candy Brrrian!) I did have a delicious organic cup of coffee though, so dark and rich! I think I would really pick coffee over cake anyway (unless its carrot cake)
We taught everyone, including Oscar our tour guide, to play Pass the Ace (a family favorite) We used cordobas (the money here) and had a good time laughing.
Lauren won one game and Ernesto won the other. 15 Cordoba jackpot! (75 cents)
Maureen passed on the card playing and created a little "Marriott" for herself. The rooms were very primitive, and each bed had a mosquito net, which lead her to think there must be lots of bugs. She looked so peaceful, her pajamas were all white and under the white sheet and net, but she kept saying she wished she was at the Marriott.
We had a little visitor in the bathroom and Maureen didnt want to leave the Marriott. It was the biggest, scariest spider I have seen. He was on the outside of the toilet, and ernesto somehow pushed him into the water, but he stayed there, seemingly unable to drown.
We had to pee in the yard until Ernesto finally scooped the balled up spider on a magazine and took him outside. Our hero!

I was out-voted to stay another day on the island and hike the volcano. You know I can be pretty persuasive at times, but they wouldn't budge. They wussed on the hike! Lauren and Kate were already planning to head back to San Jose. Ernesto Maureen and I wanted to visit Granada.
4 am rolled around so quickly and Oscar, our driver was conveneintly passed out in his van, so he was ready to drive us back to the port. Kate and Lauren took a 7am ferry and due to my "camera fiasco" (i wont go into details, but could 'Picture Ass' herself, leave the island without her camera? I thought not.) Ernesto maureen and I the 10am ferry and were back at the bus station again.

On to be continued (HERE)


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