Lost in the mountains of Nicaragua

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Another Night in Paradise

Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Saturday, April 17, 2004

If you happen to be planning a driving trip in Central America in the next little while, and are figuring on two border crossings in one day, be warned: don't do it! When we say two border crossings, we actually of course mean four separate transactions (out and in, out and in), well it's really eight because of the extra paper work for the vehicle temporary import licence....."cuantas fotocopias necesita, señor?!!" We thought it would be quite feasible as we didn't plan on spending any time in Honduras, only the two or three hours needed to drive through on the way from El Salvador to Nicaragua. Border crossings in general are maybe a topic for a future episode of TravelPod, but suffice to say that if you notice a lot more grey hair in future photos, you'll know why!

Nevertheless, we did make it in to Nicaragua, and thus are steadily working our way down through Central America (albeit at a much slower rate than anticipated - there is always too much to see and do!). Our first stop was in small town called Estelí where we heard about the Reserva Natural Miraflor in the mountains to the north. "Of course, the road is not very good" said the helpful young señorita in the tourism office "you'll need a 4WD vehicle". As you probably realize by now, the Channers are always game for a challenge, so in spite of not having 4WD off we set - after all, it's still dry season so the road can't be all that bad.

We climbed steadily out of town, and soon we were driving through what seemed to be a petrified forest as all the trees were heavily draped with spanish moss - at times, it was almost as if we were on a tour of Universal Film Studios in Hollywood. We eventually left all traces of civilization behind us, and the road got steeper and rougher, and at 5,000 ft the views ahead revealed nothing but mountains, mountains.....and more mountains. Never mind, we're sure to be there soon, and it's still an hour until sunset. That was when the rain started.......

At about that time we discovered a little known fact about Nicaragua (one that both the guide book and the tourism office had neglected to mention) - road signs are an extremely rare commodity! So there we were in the dark, slithering around in the mud on a rock-strewn road, not having the slightest clue where we were headed. Well, as we said previously, if we didn't expect a few adventures on this trip we should have taken a five star package tour or stayed home and watched the Discovery channel! About then we decided to do what any sensible person in a VW Camper Van does when all else fails - pull off the road onto a relatively level spot, pop the roof, slip a disc into the CD player, and cook dinner.

Despite raining all night, the next morning dawned bright and sunny. We soon discovered that in fact we had taken all the right forks in the road, and were in the middle of the very beautiful forested reserve area. After some hiking and exploring, we pressed on through the mountains and then came down through some remote villages where horses seemed to be the main mode of transport, and finally reached a very potholed, tarmac road at the small town of Jinotega. This used to be a prosperous coffee marketing centre, but was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and has since been further ravaged economically by the drastic drop in world coffee prices. The small coffee farmers here earn between 25 and 40 cents of the $10 that you pay for a pound of coffee in the supermarket, for an average annual income of $500. If you buy certified fair-traded coffee you'll be giving these farmers a major break as they then receive up to $2 per pound, and can earn over $2,000 a year. Something to think about as you sip your next $3.50 latte at Starbucks! Jinotega was also a major centre of resistance to the Somoza regime, and the heavy fighting of the Sandinista revolution is still reflected in large murals in the town plaza. Fortunately, there are no murals portraying the shenanigans of the politicians of various stripes since then.

The road between Jinotega and the next town of Matagalpa is reputed to be one of the prettiest in Nicaragua. Colourful roadside stands were bursting at the seams with a wide array of flowers and vegetables, and the surrounding valleys were lush and green. We stopped for a break at the Selva Negra coffee plantation, established in the 1880s by German immigrants, which is now famous for its innovative organic production techniques, ecological rainforest conservation, and diversification into agri-tourism.

After a quick stop in León to check out the colonial architecture of the previous capital, we headed to Managua. Although we have managed to avoid most of the crowded and dirty capital cities of Central America so far, this time we were paying a visit to one of Sharon's cousins who is Project Director of a CIDA-funded MEDA sesame project. We were rewarded with a nice family evening with Robert and Lisa and their four children - swapping development stories and munching on pizza. We stayed in Managua only long enough to explore the original downtown area abandoned after a devastating earthquake in 1972, which now has an eerie ghost-town atmosphere. The city has subsequently developed in a decentralized, sprawling fashion and is almost devoid of a typical city skyline, but is dotted with revolutionary statues.

Our next destination was Granada, another major colonial city, beautifully located on the shore of Lago de Nicaragua. Not too many campsites in this neck of the woods, so when we discovered a small guest house called "Another Night in Paradise", how could we resist!
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