10 July 2012

CYCLING NICARAGUA



21 June - La Cruz, Costa Rica – San Jorge, Nicaragua - 64km

We headed towards the border, and what a busy border it was. Trucks lined the road for at least 5km before the border. At least the crossing into Nicaragua went smooth. The first thing you notice after crossing the border is Lake Nicaragua, a large fresh water lake. We continued down the road in the direction of Rivas, the first biggest settlement on the lake.

Once at Rivas we turned down to the lake and found a room in San Jorge, a tiny village on the lake and also the place where one can get a ferry to Isla De Ometepe, an island just 15km off the main land. Isla De Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes rising out of the lake. Concepcion (1610m) is still considered active but the last eruption was in 1957, so I would think not so active anymore.

The most interesting part to me is that Lake Nicaragua, despite being a freshwater lake, has sawfish, tarpon, and sharks. Initially, scientists thought the sharks in the lake belonged to an endemic species, the Lake Nicaragua Shark. In 1961, following comparisons of specimens, the Lake Nicaragua Shark was synonymized with the widespread Bull shark, a species also known for entering freshwater elsewhere around the world. It had been presumed that the sharks were trapped within the lake, but it was discovered that they were able to jump along the rapids of the San Juan River (which connects Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea), almost like salmon. Bull sharks tagged inside the lake have later been caught in the open ocean (and vice versa). Just how amazing is that?

22 June - San Jorge - Isla De Ometepe - By ferry

We took the car ferry across the lake to Isla De Ometepe. Along the way we spotted a water spout; what an awesome sight it was, it only lasted about 5 minutes and completely disappeared again. From the little harbour at San Jose we cycled the 12km to Moyogalpa, one of the bigger villages on the lake. There is really not much happening in these places, just a few backpackers wandering around aimlessly. The harbour is the busiest place with locals loading and off- loading goods to and from the main land.

After sunset street food appeared and tables and chairs were put on the sidewalk. Both locals and visitors reappeared from the midday hideouts and enjoyed the cooler evening air.

23 June - Isla De Ometepe

We explored the island and turned down onto small dirt roads. At the end of one of these dirt roads we found a cabana right on the shores of the lake. There was no getting me away from there. We swam, sat on our little veranda and watched life go by on the lake. There was a surprising amount of activity on the lake. Seeing that it is a freshwater lake, people bath in it, do their laundry and fish, seemingly all at the same time.

24 June - Isla De Ometepe
The following morning I woke early, as it is the coolest time of the day. I took the camera down to the lake and found just about everyone already out doing their chores. Ladies were doing laundry, men fished and horsemen were washing and breaking in their horses.

We finally left our cabana and cycled the short distance to the other side of the island. The island is really beautiful and the road offered some stunning views. In the small village of Altagracia we located some ancient stone statues. We eventually returned to Moyogalpa and decided to stay one more night and take the ferry back to the main land in the morning.

25/26 June - Moyogalpa – Granada - 78km
We headed down to the harbour and waited for the ferry back to the mainland. Once on the mainland we cycled to Granada, which was not all that far. On reaching Granada we were pleasantly surprised to find a very pretty colonial city. Granada is situated on Lago Nicaragua and has a rather interesting history. Its location on the lake gave it easy access to the Caribbean Sea via Rio San Juan but also made it an easy target for the French and English pirates.

Today Granada is a peaceful, pretty city with a lovely Mango tree covered central plaza and many colourful restored houses. Needless to say there are quite a few impressive churches scattered around, but the most impressive is the cathedral on Parque Central. We fortunately arrived in time to snatch a few pictures just before the sun went down.

We stayed one more day as there was plenty to see around the town. Our room was so incredibly hot that it was impossible to stay much longer after sun rise.

26/27 June - Granada – Masaya - 21km
It was a rather short cycle from Granada to Masaya, well known for arts and crafts. It is also the easiest place from where one can reach the top of Vulcan Masaya. We soon found a hostel and set off to the artists’ market, which is a huge walled structure selling everything from stuffed frogs to hammocks. Far more interesting, however, was the municipal market and bus terminus. The dusty place was fascinating, with busses coming and going in a seemingly chaotic fashion.  The market was not only dusty, but jam-packed with traders and shoppers, food vendors and scrawny-looking dogs. You could find just about everything there, from rice and beans to homemade cheese and handmade leather goods.  We sat down and enjoyed a plate of baho (plantain and beef stew).

I tried to book a night tour to vulcan Masaya, but I could only go there the following night. So we stayed one more day so that I could go on the volcano-tour the following night.

I was lucky and found a local guide to take me up to the crater. It was fun and at least the guide’s English was slightly better than my Spanish. The car, however, was far from roadworthy and at times I doubted whether we would make it to the top. It was quite a steep and winding road to the crater. The poor car splattered and hiccupped but we eventually made it there. The Santiago crater is an active crater billowing out thousands of tons of toxic gasses causing acid rain and there is therefore very little vegetation at the top. Folklore has it that pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the area threw young women into the boiling lava to appease the goddess of fire. When the Spanish first arrived they called the crater the Gates of Hell and placed a cross overlooking the crater hoping to exorcise the demons who dwelled within.

Just as interesting was the nearby bat cave, home to thousands and thousands of vampire bats. At around sunset they start coming out of the cave in search of food; it is quite a sight to see the constant flow of bats pouring from the cave.

29 June - Masaya – Managua - 30km
We cycled the short distance to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and found a rather disjointed city. The city has been hit by several natural disasters; the latest being the devastating earthquake of 1972. The earthquake completely destroyed the city centre, and subsequently Managua was rebuilt around outlying shopping centres and markets. As a result we cycled around quite a bit before we found the "traveler area" close to the old town. We did, however, find the old city centre which is now derelict, where only the remains of the old cathedral are still visible. Interesting enough, the clock still shows the time the earthquake hit - 12h35 midday.

We looked for a bike shop but were unable to find one selling decent bike spares. We did however get an address of one which apparently sold Shimano spares but it was Saturday and already closed. We decided to stay until the Monday to see if we could locate the shop.

One of the most interesting things in Managua is the Ancient footprints of Acahualinca.  The tracks are fossilised human footprints left behind in volcanic ash and mud, which solidified about 2,120 years ago. The footprints were buried 4 metres underground when discovered and are in perfect condition. The prints indicate that a group of up to 15 people (men, women and children) passed by on their way to the lake. In addition to the human footprints there are also tracks of a deer and a raccoon.

One cannot go far in Managua without seeing a statue of Augusto Nicolás Calderón Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary and leader of a rebellion against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua between 1927 and 1933. He was labeled a bandit by the United States government, and his exploits made him a hero throughout much of Latin America, where he became a symbol of resistance to United States domination.

3 July - Managua – León - 93km

It was a harder day than anticipated as the road deteriorated and we battled along a hilly and potholed road for most of the way. If I ever wondered what two tectonic plates smashing together looks like, this was probably it. It was one of those days that I did not feel my normal energetic self and I battled along until we reached León. By the time we reached León I felt unwell and totally dehydrated.

León is very much a university town and has the best colonial architecture in Nicaragua. Construction of León's most famous building (The Cathedral) began in 1747 and went on for over a hundred years and is the largest cathedral in Central America. According to local legend, the city's leaders feared that their original grandiose design would be turned down by the Spanish authorities, so they submitted a more modest, but bogus, set of plans.

León was the first capital of Nicaragua and is considered the capital of the revolution.

6 July - León – San Isidro - 114km
We turned inland and headed for the hills. It is a slow slog up the mountain; fortunately we had a cloud cover and the gradient was mild. It was however much further than the signboards indicated. We expected it to be more like 90km but the 90km mark came and went and still no San Isidro. We cycled and cycled and started doubting if we were on the right road. Eventually we arrived at the tiny settlement of San Isidro and bunked down in a road side Hospidaje; at $10 for a double room one cannot complain. We got some food at a local roadside stall, watched a bit of TV and that was me done for the day. I´m still not feeling a 100%, don’t quite know what is wrong, just don’t feel well and can’t eat much.



7 July - San Isidro – Esteli - 30km
We cycled to Esteli, a short but hilly ride. Esteli is a bit of a cowboy town where one can find handmade leather boots and oversized belt buckles. The land around Esteli is perfect for growing tobacco for use in cigars, and the town became a refuge for Cuban cigar makers after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Award winning cigars have made Esteli one of the most important cigar-producing cities in the world. No sooner have we arrived in Esteli and we set off looking for their famous cigars, not a very difficult task. That evening Ernest puffed away and declared that it was excellent quality.

There was not a lot more to Esteli as it was mostly destroyed in the revolution. Esteli was the scene of heavy fighting in the civil war against the Somoza government from 1978 to 1979. Today it is a peaceful town with only a few interesting murals reminding one of its more fury past.

8 July - Esteli – Ocotal - 81km
We had a slow start to the morning but eventually set off in the direction of the Honduras border. We were firmly on the highlands and the road continued to be very hilly. It’s amazing what a difference 1000 odd meters can make. It was much cooler up on the highlands and we even had a drizzle for most of the morning. It was cold enough for me to don my windbreaker. Fortunately the hills were not too steep and we encountered just as many downhills.

We arrived in Ocotal in good time, found a very comfortable room on the Pan-Americana Highway for the night, from where it is a mere 25km to the Honduras border.