Archive for the ‘Nicaragua’ Category

Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica – Pure life

Freitag, September 9th, 2011

The emigration from Nicaragua at border crossing-point Peña Blanca is a bit long-drawn-out, but done in half an hour. First we have to pay 1 $ pp special charge for whatever (we get a receipt) at a pay station at the entrance, and another 2 $ for the emigration stamp. Behind the building where we park, the Aduana man roams about and checks that the exported vehicle corresponds to the papers. This has to be confirmed by the police. The officers roam around; we have to somehow get hold of them. Leaving Nico-territory passports are checked again and the import paper withheld.

The so civilized Costa Rica has the – until now – worst organized border crossing with completely missing signposting and not selected courtesy. There is a lot of running a round, but we make it in 90 minutes. We pass the disinfection sluice gate (5 $) and as a result miss the insurance agency which we wouldn’t have identified anyhow due to missing signs. The customs officer in his cottage sends us back on foot. It is a bit confusing since he mixes left and right (a Central American disease). Beside the office of the nice insurance agent (14 $ for three months) we get the copies requested by the customs officer. Just back the man sends us to Migracion to get the immigration stamps and back to the copier since he also needs a copy of the stamp (apparently only of the vehicle owner). We use our own copier this time, that’s faster.

Then we have to fill a form where all drivers have to be mentioned. For the first time a customs officer enters our camper cabin, but not for long. Do we have a laptop? Sure. No refrigerator? Oh yes, but the content isn’t interesting. What is behind the door? The bathroom, but he doesn’t want to see it. The Aduana building is a bit remote to the right. Here it emerges that the second driver has to produce a passport and stamp copy as well, but there is a copy station right on the opposite side. The temporary import paper is handed over to us and a small handwritten piece of paper. Don’t throw it away, it will be collected when exiting the border area where passports and importation certificate are checked again. This officer is of the friendlier kind, he greets us with the country’s motto „Costa Rica – pura vida“, pure life. The complete procedure was complimentary.

Road conditions of the Pan Americana improved significantly since our last visit about 15 years ago. The attractions are a bit remote, so that we quickly retreat to also acceptable side roads. In Nuevo Arenal at Lake Arenal there is a recreational area that’s administered by the town council where pick-nicking, swimming, fishing and camping is without any costs. The gate is locked between 6 pm and 6 am, then the site is guarded. View to lake and mountains are dreamlike, although Arenal volcano is not visible from here (N 10°32’13.7’’ W 84°53’36.6’’).

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – The ticket and beach camping

Donnerstag, September 8th, 2011

The Pan Am takes us south where we have an encounter with the police. We won’t find out if they would have liked to get a bribe since the situation develops into the unexpected. They stop us since Joerg passed a truck despite a continuous line. That’s true. A useless continuous line was painted on a two kilometres long straight road. All drivers pass the slower trucks there since it is the only opportunity on a long stretch. We do so. But that wasn’t correct. We don’t trust the policemen and hand over only copies of the requested documents. The officers don’t realize the car license to be a copy but the driver’s license. One officer asks to get the original but Joerg insists that he already has it. When the policeman tries to rip the license some tensions occur. We write down the badge numbers of the guys and mention the German embassy, when it becomes suddenly official. Joerg gets a proper ticket that we have to pay in a bank in the next town (around 11.50 $). With the receipt we return and get back the slightly damaged driver’s license; herewith the problem is solved.

In front the border to Costa Rica there is the question where to overnight. The La Flor National Park is expensive with 45 $ (10 $ pp entrance fee, 25 $ camping), and it is usually difficult to find something at the beach. Close to San Juan del Sur we find two options to the north at Pacific beach Playa Madera. The beach has two accesses. Keeping to your left at the junction @ N 11°17’51.2’’ W 85°53’19.6’’ you will reach a small parking lot after some hundreds of metres (max. vehicle height 3.5 m). Camping is FOC and said to be safe. Another option would be to ask in the restaurant to park in their attended car park, but its surfer bar is open until midnight. The beach consists of course pebbles here.

If you head right at the junction instead you will reach Camping Matilda @ N 11°17’51.5’’ W 85°54’53.1’’. It is not a designated campground, but an empty lot in front of the sea is good for parking (maximum Unimog size, the access road is narrow and the turn into the lot sharp). The hostel on the other side of the feeder road provides bathrooms and showers. Access is o.k. with some clearance. With facility use we are asked to pay 200 NIO, for parking only 100. The sandy beach is good for swimming, although there are some non-treacherous waves, but no undercurrents. It’s just great here!

Granada, Nicaragua – Colonial romanticism and beggars

Mittwoch, September 7th, 2011

Granada is the unquestionable centre of tourism in Nicaragua with a historic old town and lavishly restored colonial buildings. Among them is the yellow cathedral with red domes, landmark not only of the city but of the entire country. For 1 US$ / 20 NIO we are allowed to climb up the narrow spiral staircase to the belltower of La Merced church from where we have a wonderful 360° view to the city and the lake. Close to the church we find Tio Antonio Centro Social that belongs to La Merced but is religiously independent. The social institution has opened a hammock manufactory with handicapped or socially excluded adolescents. Their doors are always open, so that we can watch the production of high-quality hammocks from organically dyed cotton. Even if there is no room to store a hammock, the visit is worth it. All purchases come in useful to the kids.

Another of Granada’s specialties is horse and carriage for sightseeing tours (from 20 $ on). But don’t be deceived by the romantic tranquillity and peace in the historic district. Leaving the touristic area we discover a vivid and lively city with 120,000 inhabitants. Of course supposedly prosperous tourists attract beggars, and especially kids can be unnerving. But in all travel guides as well as in menus of many restaurants we are asked not to give kids anything but to better donate money to local aid organizations that will sensibly use it. Many kids are encouraged or even forced by their parents to beg since they get hold of more money than adults. But this produces in a long term just another generation of beggars. Why learn something if life is that easy? Other kids just don’t feel like learning something, skive off school, and roam around. With the money obtained by begging they buy something useful like a can of glue to sniff. Their life has ended already before it even started.

A cooler night than Granada is promised by Mirador de Catarina, 20 km south-west at Laguna de Apoyo in 540 m elevation. The viewpoint in Catarina is said to be the best in Nicaragua. From here we overlook Granada, Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho volcano, and of course Laguna de Apoyo. The country’s largest and maybe oldest crater lake has a perfect round form. It measure six kilometres in diameter and is 200 m deep with clear blue water. It is not very quiet here; it is a tourist attraction with many restaurants and souvenir shops (they all close at 11:30 pm). We may camp for free, but we have to negotiate the entrance fee. 100 Córdoba for a coach seem to be excessive. We aren’t that big, and only two passengers. The lady reduces to 50. Only the security man needs a tip for having an eye on us. He’s not too happy about 20 Córdoba (1 $), but accepts finally. Mirador de Catarina: N 11°54’47.7’’ W 86°04’11.9’’.

Granada, Nicaragua – Gigantic, unique: Lake Nicaragua

Dienstag, September 6th, 2011

In fact the volcano’s emissions diminish this morning so that we can hike up to some viewpoints and to San Fernando crater without risking our health. This crater is covered with forest and green while Santiago has coloured bare walls and a huge hole from where steam escapes.

The city of Granada just 30 km east is situated at Lago de Nicaragua, a lake of superlatives. It is Central America’s largest lake with 8100 sq km. It houses Ometepe Island, the world’s largest island in a freshwater lake. Not yet enough: Lake Nicaragua is the only stretch of water on earth where freshwater sharks live. Probably they came from the Caribbean Sea via River San Juan and got accustomed to the lack of salt by time.

Like in most cities camping is difficult in Granada. The traveller-known Turicentro right on the lake shore allows access for 50 Córdoba per vehicle and camping as well. Unfortunately there is actually no possibility to do that. The one-way road is too narrow, the only option is in front of one of the restaurants (small lots only). The parking lot we were told to camp in the end of the Turicentro road is behind an open-air live discotheque. Besides the noise to be expected it doesn’t seem to be a good place to overnight. The man who runs the discotheque describes the site as absolutely not safe. We continue to drive down the road where we find a long and wide hard shoulder of gravel with beautiful lake view. It is not attended, as the place in the Turicentro would have been, and it would have been free of charge.

Turicentro Granada, unattended, N 11°55’31.9’’ W 85°56’30.1’’, 50 NIO, or right after at the lake, FOC, along the road, N 11°54’50.4’’ W 85°56’00.3’’.

Volcán Masaya, Nicaragua – Volcanoes stink

Montag, September 5th, 2011

In the early morning a new sound is added to the howling monkeys and the many other unknown sounds. It is a bird type “electronic clock”: “Teeleeleet, teeleeleet, teeleeleet”. Three times, exactly like the standard clock, and after an exactly measured period of time: “Teeleeleet, teeleeleet, teeleeleet”. Can’t anybody press the stop-button? Since nobody does me this favour even I have to understand that the night is over. Sound inventors have to have studied in the jungle. These similarities can’t be coincidence. We wanted to get up anyway to see the parrots with sunshine. This time we might go without guide and without paying another entrance fee. And see, if we don’t rush through the jungle like mad we don’t chase all animals away and get to watch something. The convergence to the Chocoya breeding ground can be noticed according to the background noise, parrots aren’t really known for their delightful singing. Like nearly all parrots the Chocoya are monogamous. Not only that: They spend their whole life together, fly together, leave and return together. Not without announcing that strongly.

Not even 30 km away from here the national park Volcán Masaya is located with two volcanoes and five craters. One of them, the Santiago, is the only permanently active crater in Nicaragua. Poisonous sulphur and hydrochloric acid gases escape permanently from its 450 m wide throat, and sometimes it spits bigger chunks, why the car has to be parked back-in. Sometimes it’s possible to see the lava or glowing stones in the inside, especially during the guided night walks, but right now the surface is – perhaps due to rainy season – more chilled and just dark. Only the smoke and gas production is enormous. Park rule recommend not staying longer than 20 minutes, but today nobody stays voluntarily longer. The wind is inclement and blows the smoke into our face. The eyes start to water. It penetrates into the lungs and causes a tickly throat. I can taste the smoke, a strange mixture of sulphur, battery acid and the perfumed aftertaste of aluminium acetate, then it runs down the throat into the stomach. The head starts to ache. All brain cells shout in chorus “get out of here”!

Since visibility is mist-filled, we keep it short, walk along the wall at the edge of Santiago crater and up the stairs to the viewpoint with the large cross where we can see the lava rock-mottled surrounding and Lake Masaya. There is only one hike allowed without guide to some other viewpoints, but we delay it to tomorrow, hoping for more favourable wind. Chocoyas, the small parrots, live and brood in very poisonous surroundings of the crater walls. Over time they got accustomed to the gases that offer a very effective protection against natural enemies.

The crater looks back to a long tradition of artificially caused deaths. The Chorotega Indians that lived here probably threw virgins into the lava to sacrifice them to the goddess of fire to placate her. The Spaniards used the magma hole to get rid of unbelievers and criminals. The Somoza dictators were particularly perfidious up to make people disappear: Opponents were flown with helicopters above the crater and dropped.

It is allowed to camp on both parking places at the visitor centre some kilometres below the crater. There is a moderately interesting museum. Per person 100 NIO entrance fee plus 50 NIO for overnight. Parque Nacionál Volcán Masaya, N 12°00’11.3’’ W 86°08’54.6’’.

Ticuantepe, Nicaragua – Parrots and Star Wars frogs

Sonntag, September 4th, 2011

The Pan Americana passes Lake Managua, second largest lake in Central America, but polluted by the capital’s waste waters. Managua’s advantage is that you don’t have to pass it if you don’t want to go there. None of the colonial buildings of bad quality survived the many earthquakes, therefore Managua’s attractions consist of the lake and some museums. Between Managua and Masaya we turn south to Ticuantepe where the nature reserve El Chocoyero – El Brujo is situated in the rainforest. The seven kilometres long unpaved access road is made from odd black dirt that doesn’t get soggy by the rain and is hardly slippery.

Unfortunately the soil isn’t immune to washouts. They don’t disturb me too much when perpendicular, but I don’t like it when the Unimog crawls with one wheel in a parallel rivulet in absurd declination. And we never know: Will it stay like that or is it getting worse? Turning is not possible on the one-lane road anyway. And then there are the trees that especially hang low with rain. Becoming insensitive, we just pass under the branches. Only an upper arm-thick branch has to go, with it a third of the tree-top. Since the last events we have our own machete with Finish high-performance steel blade handy. That’s more suitable for the soft wood soaked with water than an axe. At least we reach an average speed of 5.6 kph.

At the park entrance we pay each 50 NIO pp for entrance fee and guide, they won’t let us go without one. I respect that one more man has a job, one more family has to eat, but otherwise those guides are useless, because without the racing guide we might have seen more animals, and it is not so difficult to find the right way. However, the main attraction is the Chocoyas, a small kind of parrot that live in small holes in a clay wall at the waterfall El Chocoyero. It is nesting season, so most of them are at home, and there is continuous coming and going. It is raining too heavily to take photos.

There are tenting areas in the park that bear a charge, but in front of the door we can camp on the parking lot without a fee, and with impressive background noises and deep darkness. Cricket and cicada make a tropical concert, but somehow I can’t get anything romantic out of it. The electric buzzing sounds like being in the transformer station of a medium city. What’s romantic there? Howling monkeys defend their territory, their bad mood, and whatever with the loudest noise in the animal world. And then there are also the Star Wars frogs, as we call them. Amazingly enough they sound as they would shoot each other with futuristic laser weapons. Oink, oink, oink-oink-oink, oink-oink. After a while they take a rest, probably to reload. Oink, oink-oink-oink-oink-oink, oink-oink…

Riserva Natural El Chocoyero – El Brujo, N 11°58’46.0’’ W 86°15’26.7’’

Matagalpa, Nicaragua – Hiking in Matagalpa area

Freitag, September 2nd, 2011

In Matagalpa, a small town at a distance from Pan Americana, we visit Centro Girasol where we can get coffee, cake, some souvenirs and some homemade dairy products like yoghurt, cream cheese, and ice cream. All earnings are for the benefit of families with impaired children. There are also maps with directions available for hikes in the area under certain themes like “traces of the revolutionary heroes” or “petroglyphs of the Maya”. It is all day hikes that might require to overnight in Matagalpa, but camping is difficult in town.

Another beautiful hiking area is Selva Negra north of town, heading to Jinotega. Access is via the coffee finca with the same name that doesn’t allow camping. Alternatively we could book two beds for 15 US$ or hike as a day user for 3 $ pp. Another option is Finca Esperanza Verde that also grows coffee and runs an eco lodge. Advance notice in their office in San Ramón is practical since parking space is limited. (Office in San Ramón: Take the first parallel road north of the main road, and then drive to the end of the dead end.) After another 15 km gravel road (the last four kilometres better with all-wheel drive) we are expected at the finca. For camping they request 7 $ per person, but we agree on 7 $ for the camper. There are some hiking trails on the plot. (N 12°56’23.4’’ W 85°46’48.4’’)

Estelí, Nicaragua – America, not Africa

Dienstag, August 30th, 2011

Nicaragua – a country that sounds as if we would have to search for it in Africa instead of America. But it is right in the middle of the isthmus, it is Central America’s largest and poorest country – even Latin America’s second poorest after Haiti. It shall be the safest country for travel on the continental bridge although vigilance wouldn’t harm.

But the day starts with difficulties, the entry is delayed. First we have to detect that our electronic map for Nicaragua doesn’t function. We are so used to this indispensible combination of classic map navigation, intuition, asking locals, and auto GPS that we don’t want to go without the latter. has Garmin-compatible GPS maps for many countries to download including installation instructions (for Nicaragua for instance US$ 49.95 – not distinctively reasonable). Navigating is a bit more complicated than with the software provided by Garmin, but it works.

Next the gas station in El Paraiso refuses all my credit cards. (Fuel is most inexpensive in Mexico, and then it’s slowly getting more expensive to the south via Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua; fuel up in front of each border.) Right before the border I don’t have enough cash left what I usually do. The cashier has a bright moment and splits the amount in two sums, that works. Immediately in front of the border crossing Los Manos (around 500 m / yards) there would have been a tax-privileged gas station that offers fuel for a better price.

But we don’t get that far. The access road to the border is obstructed with waiting trucks on the right and left side, the only lane in the centre is blocked by a bus broken down, which can’t be towed for any reason. More than an hour passes before the parking vehicles are shunt back and forth so that there is a gap to pass the obstacle. From then on it goes fast. The aduana puts a stamp into the passport to verify the vehicle export, the migración provides the emigration stamp, and there are no costs. A young overbearing border helper wants 20 $ for his service for immigration, but sometime even he gets the meaning of the simple word, just consisting of the two letters N and O. Before leaving Honduran territory there is an animal check, but we neither transport pets nor breeding cattle. The exchange rate offered for Lempira to Cordoba is fair (100 Nicaraguan Córdoba / NIO are around 4.20 US$).

The Nicaraguan entry starts with vehicle disinfection (68 NIO). Nicaragua requests for the granted 30 days of stay a local insurance (12 US $). The insurance agents are official, and the paperwork can be done easily with them. The customs officer fills the forms, but she is happy to be helped. Another officer only peaks from outside into our opened cabin door to confirm the detail “RV”, but again we get off without vehicle search. This process is complimentary, unlike the immigration card for the passport at the migración. 12 US $ per person mature. It is important to get a receipt for all payments. Finally the border police check all papers and might ask for some copies (they forget to collect ours); title and vehicle registration document are necessary. There was nothing to complaint about friendliness and helpfulness of the Central American borders so far, it was even fast.

After 40 km we reach the Pan Americana, single thoroughfare in Nicaragua. First city is Estelí. At the UCA Miraflor office (ask around in town) we check for a place for the night in the Miraflor nature reserve (no entrance fee) where there is ecologic farming besides hiking and horse riding. They confirm we can take the road, but 4WD is necessary in rainy season. There are some pretty deep brooks to cross. Finca Lindos Ojos was recommended to us, it has some space for parking., camping 5 US$ per night, N 13°14’30.2’’ W 86°15’21.7’’.