Ometepe and south to Costa Rica

2017/02/16: Ometepe 90 km
It was time to get on with southward travel, so we left the hostel and Gerry, the amiable Irish host-owner, at 6:a.m., inadvertently leaving behind our granola, oranges, cheese, and my sun hat. We ate watermelon at the roadside and proceeded to the ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa on the island of Ometepe, which lies in lake Nicaragua and is dramatically formed by the two volcanoes: Concepcion and Madera. On the hour-long ferry crossing, we chatted with John, a fellow traveller with local contacts. On his advice, we rode about 15 km on the island to stay at a hotel at Charco Verde.

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Us on the crossing with the two volcanoes of Ometepe behind

2017/02/17: Butterflies and Walks
Part of the appeal of Charco Verde (“green pond”) was a butterfly enclosure as well as a network of hiking trails through dry tropical forest. We dressed for cycling, planning to hit the road for a day trip after a quick visit to the butterflies. The displays of larvae and chrysalis and the fluttering mariposas in an enclosure kept us peacefully fascinated for far longer than we expected. The bike jaunt could wait a day. We strolled on trails instead, and decided an afternoon siesta was in order after the fairly long and very hot day.

2017/02/18: Island Day Tour 51 km

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A petroglyph

Taking along little more than bathing suits and camera, we rode first to petroglyphs and then Ojo del Agua where a depression enhanced by stonework is filled by a natural spring. The water is clear and cool making a really fine swimming hole, and the rope swing was great fun! After our swim, we went to the on-site café where we ate the worst hamburgers we’ve ever eaten. Great location; awful food.

Trundling back past our hotel, we turned down a sandy track to the small museum recommended by our waiter. There a local lad gave us a structured tour of the 1,500 pieces of locally found Prehispanic pottery, describing the technical and artistic advances which define each era in mercilessly rapid-fire Spanish. I congratulated myself on translating about 80% of his spiel for Chris without having to ask the earnest lad for clarification. Phew!

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Pottery items found recently in a nearby volcanic mudslide. Road signs would warn of areas where these often occur.

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Sandy track to museum

We bought mandarins and passion fruit on the way “home”, chatting to two women (a Brit and a Kiwi at my guess) on rented bikes.

2017/02/19: to San Jose, Costa Rica, taking bus from border

Till recently, there was a ferry from Granada to Ometepe and on to San Carlos at the SE corner of the lake. Taking this might have put us onto a relatively quiet route in Costa Rica, but it’s no longer running. Instead, we got ourselves to the smaller port of San Jose del Sur well in time for a 7:30 a.m. ferry back to San Jorge, and pedalled southward on the Panamericana, a relatively quiet road in Nicaragua.

It was lunchtime as we neared the border. We had cordobas to spend, so we pulled into the last Nicaraguan comedor. I had already sat down while Chris was still looking around warily. We ordered chicken and rice, and ate most of our meal while two very drunk men sat precariously on a wall a few feet away. They swigged clear liquid from a bottle, wrapped their arms around each other to support their swaying selves, and gestured and grimaced at us as they clutched the back of Chris’s chair. He moved to the opposite side of the table.

We prepared to pay and leave, having left some rice and beans and chicken bones on the plates. A desperate-looking local man swept in as if to clear our plates, but sat down instead to gnaw the bones again and eat the leftover rice with our cutlery. We indicated to the concerned waitress that we didn’t mind him eating our leftovers, and she gave him a tortilla as she took the the basket away. As we were leaving, one of the two drunks fell backwards off the wall into an inebriated heap, knocking over several chairs. Things can be tense and strange near borders.

We changed our last 500 cordobas into colones, and pressed on through the various steps of the Nicaraguan exit procedure: two small payments at different locations, another place for an exit stamp that we missed on the first run through, a check point from which we were sent back for having missed the stamp, and then finally a successful pass through the checkpoint.

The Costa Rican side would have been a breeze if we hadn’t been crossing at the same time as a busload of tourists, mainly Ticos returning from Nicaragua. We leaned our bikes in a corner as we approached the immigration counter for our entry stamp. On our entry forms, there was a space for “ticket number”. I understood they wanted to know our means of transport, so here we had both entered “bicicleta”, having come almost 3,000 km from Cancun by that method. The immigration officer queried this, and I pointed to our bikes behind the pile of wheeled suitcases. He raised his eyebrows, and stamped our passports. We were waved past scanners by customs, and emerged into searing heat, loud hawkers of cold drinks, buses and booths selling bus tickets.

Hot and tired, and hard pressed to make the Osa Peninsula (SW Costa Rica) by a date when a naturalist-friend has offered to guide us in the rainforest, we investigated bus options to San Jose. The larger bus was full and departing, so we loaded our bikes and panniers carefully into the underbelly of what one might call an upmarket chicken bus for the six hour run to the capital. As we disembarked and reassembled in a central bus terminal well after nightfall, the cheerful driver asked us to pose for a photo. We stumbled as directed to the nearest hotel, and collapsed into a windowless basement room. We ate a pack of salty banana chips for supper and fell asleep.

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Granada

Granada is a pleasant colonial city on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. We stayed for five nights, we did the standard tourist things along with visiting the school, Casa de los Sueños, which I covered in the previous post. This post is a photo essay of our tourist undertakings.

Granada and León vied for being the capital city, until a compromise was set and Managua, halfway in between, became the capital. Having once been the capital, its centre has the trappings of a capital city: cathedrals, embassy buildings, museums, and major colonial government buildings. The civil war didn’t really come this far southeast, so unlike León it was not bombed, and most of the original tile roofs are still present.

On our first day we visited the extensive covered market, got our hair cut, and went for a boat ride around the small islands in the lake (Nicaraguan cottage country). The boat ride included a swim in the lake near a natural hot spring, where the water was a strange mixture of warm and cool currents.

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View from a church tower. Showing tiled roofs, colonial architecture, and the lake.

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Visit to the extensive market.

The Mayan civilisation came this far south, but the city museum only had a limited selection of Mayan artifacts, and concentrated more on the colonial and post colonial eras. One of the exhibits was a display of furniture that looked somewhat like the furniture in my grandparents’ living room.

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The museum had an extensive section on colonial era “Native Art”. This one caught my attention because it would seem to indicate that Mayan pyramids were this far south.

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My favourite Mayan piece in the museum.

On our final evening we went to the Masaya Volcano just after sunset. It is a currently active volcano, with much steam and a strong sulfur smell. Looking over the crater’s edge, we could just see the flowing lava (120m below) that is causing all the activity (click on image to view short movie).

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During our stay in Granada there was an ongoing poetry festival, which we frequently ran into.

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Quite why there was a carnival in town as part of the poetry festival was beyond me. But then perhaps that is why physics meetings are comparatively boring. Click on image to view short movie.

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Stepping Outside One’s Comfort Zone

Most tourists do not see Nicaragua outside the centres of old cities, where visitors sip their cappuccinos in pleasant cafes in refurbished colonial buildings. Most probably they never realize that half the population earn less per day than the cost of the coffee. As cycle tourists we see a little more, especially when using dirt roads. But the truth is the roads we travel on are the arteries of the economy, and those that live on them are comparatively well off.

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My $1.30 morning cappuccino

I have to thank Colin, my brother-in-law, for arranging for us to visit an amazing school, in a migrant slum in Granada. This is where the poorest of the poor live, and earning a dollar a day is only a dream. The vast majority of the buildings have dirt floors, perhaps 20% are of cement construction, and most are little more than tin shacks. The inhabitants are too poor to live in single family units, so extended families live together and support each other. But the people here are proud, clothes are clean, and in the vast majority of dwellings that dirt floor is swept several times a day: It’s a clean dirt floor. The first thing done when the dwelling is established is to dig the outhouse.

I don’t generally take photos of poverty, I find something morally wrong with doing so. But I sneaked one picture because I knew my description would fail to bring home the situation without photographic evidence.

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Residence. The outhouse is a the bottom of the garden just out of the picture to the left.

The state school system in Nicaragua was really only setup in this century. There are not enough buildings so children only go to school for half days. There are not enough text books so students have to write everything down. Many children go to school hungry, and it is difficult to learn when you are hungry. Teachers are in short supply, so you only need a grade eight education to be a teacher. Without additional help, students have little hope of improving their lot in life.

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Casa de los Sueños

Within a stone’s throw of that residence is the school, Casa de los Sueños. It is a beacon of hope, staffed by people with a moral code I can only aspire to. I would be happy to place my own child in this school. We sat in on a lesson and saw first hand these children being taught critical thinking. It was impressive beyond words. The library was bigger than at the state school our daughter attended in France. Children are given what we would take for granted: food, drinking water, access to flush toilets, and school supplies. All provided by donations.

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Artwork

We helped in the classroom, but it became evident that we would better to relieve the teachers of other duties. So today we arrived at 8 a.m. to re-paint the welcome sign to the school. This wall was south facing, and the previous tiled sign had fallen off because of the heat. So we prepared the wall and then with ad-hoc help from the students the new sign was painted. No child got paint on their clothes, and they took turns under our edict of only three painters at a time.

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Painting the sign

The resulting sign is not a thing of particular beauty. With suitable materials a much superior quality sign could be made… anybody want to rise to the challenge?

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Nicaragua

2017/02/06: Chinandega 76 km
2017/02/07: Leon 45 km

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I was surprised to find out that the satellite dish is connected to a large flat screen monitor, inside a straw hut with no sides.

The first 14 km from Potosi was on dirt road through farmland. There were plenty of animals to dodge, mainly cattle being moved to their day’s grazing locations. The hotel we found in Chinandega was basic with “no hot water”, but what came out of the tap was more than warm enough for us in this weather.
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Horses use the bike paths

The day to Leon was even hotter, but we arrived before noon at the relatively fancy hotel Chris had booked. We found a café half a block away where we became more or less regulars.

2017/02/08-09: In Leon
Chris’s front derailleur had bitten the dust on our last day in El Salvador; it was ten years old and the spring had broken. We’d inquired about bike repairs upon arrival in Leon, and set out on our first day in town to the location we’d been directed to. It was an area of stalls geared to keeping local utility bikes moving. A friendly fellow installed a new front derailleur on Chris’s bike (definitely NOT Shimano) for a very affordable 150 cordobas. He even donated a rag to the cause of our next chain cleaning session.

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Fitted while you wait and act as a bike stand

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Returning the bikes to a storage room at the hotel, we set out to the Revolution Museum. Along with a couple from Montreal, we were given a considered account of recent Nicaraguan history as we toured black and white photos and memorabilia inside a former college building. At the end of the tour we were taken to the roof of the building so as to put key revolutionary events that happened here into perspective. We walked carefully on rusting corrugated metal panels, and avoided leaning on crumbling concrete railings as we admired the view.

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View from the roof of the Our Lady of Grace Cathedral, León

On our second day in Leon, we spent the morning at the art gallery Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdian viewing works of a wide range of Latin American artists. This is likely the most comprehensive collection of modern Latin American art in the world, set in two grand colonial buildings.

2017/02/10: Managua 57 km
We knew the ride to Managua was over 90 km, so we got up well before dawn. I managed to step on the night watchman who was sleeping on the floor in the dark storage room where our bikes were parked. Poor fellow!

It was a hot and windy ride. The rolling terrain that we rode across was scrubby grazing land with few tall trees to slow the headwinds and side gusts that buffeted us. We were each pushed off the pavement into the shoulder several times. After consideration of the likelihood of being pushed the other way into trucks, we decided to wait at a bus stop and get a ride to Managua on the next chicken bus.

We helped heave our fully loaded bikes in the back door, and sat near them. Even as the bus became more crowded, no one complained about our bikes blocking the aisle and making some seats hard to reach while passengers stood. As a woman got out of her seat to disembark, something inside her shoulder bag poked its beak out and squawked loudly, proving we were indeed on a chicken bus. The conductor collected the grand sum of 120 cordobas from us as we disembarked at a hectic terminal, and we braved incredible traffic for a short way and collapsed into a hotel.

2017/02/11: Granada 52 km
We ate the hotel’s included breakfast at 6:30 a.m., and set out relatively late. The ride out of Managua was a series of sharp ascents on a six lane highway with traffic of all sizes and speeds including horse-drawn carts. We stopped at a café when we felt we were almost half way, and scarfed tres leches cake with our coffee. As we were leaving, we greeted, a group of road cyclists decked in Lycra and logos who had just pulled in. Chris suggested I ask them about the road ahead. There are times when simply being self- propelled on two wheels creates instant kinship, but this wasn’t one of those times. They were all male twenty somethings. I think our greyness and my gender offended their fragile machismo.

We’ve reached Granada and settled ourselves into the Casa del Agua hostel where Chris had made reservations. One of us has already dutifully cleaned and lubed her bike chain. And we’ve arranged to visit the school for migrants on Monday.

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Excitement of the day: click on image for movie

Speaking of our greyness, there are two memorable roadside comments we received in El Salvador:

The day we entered the country, someone called out ”¡Abuelita sportiva!” at me. Well, I can take “Sporty granny” a whole lot better than “Gringo”. And on our final day, a child shouted out “¡Papa Noel!” at Chris. His beard has grown long and is mainly white.

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Sugar Cane Harvest

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Freshly crushed can on hard shoulder, old cane debris in gutter


For the ride through the lowlands of Guatemala and El Salvador a constant aspect has been the sugar cane harvest. The side of the road is strewn with mainly squashed canes, and a slightly fermented smell prevails. Trucks laden with canes pass frequently, and men work with machetes in the fields. There are even small trucks clearing the roads of un-squashed sugar canes, in much the same way as there are log salvagers on the coast of British Columbia.

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Machete equiped workers

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A loaded double trailer