As I look back at my notes for our first full day with our group in Nicaragua (Sunday, March 13), I am reminded why I decided that, much to my surprise, I like traveling on small group tours. I learned so much in just one day, things I would never have figured out on my own. Having a guide local to the area I'm traveling in gives me answers to questions I would never think to ask. Not to mention I had the chance to make a dozen new friends.
While traveling in Peru two years ago, I started taking notes throughout each day rather than waiting until the end of the day to do a journal entry (although I did a bit of that, too). I just found I was seeing and doing and learning so much that I couldn't possibly remember it all in those few minutes before I collapsed into bed. My notebook is rather a jumble of random comments, occasional sketches, Spanish vocabulary, and facts about Nicaragua - it paints a great picture of what captured my attention each day. When coupled with my many photos, I end up with a pretty good record of my trip.
I know, I know - get on with the story all ready. Be patient! I just wanted to give you an idea of what I have to muddle through to create a coherent (I hope) tale here.
Okay, Sunday, March 13: we drove from Managua to Rivas, a port town on Lake Nicaragua, or Lago Cocibolca as it's locally known. Here's a map of the country that shows most of the places we visited on our trip.
Lake Nicaragua is not only the largest lake in the country, but also the largest in Central America and the 19th largest in the world. It's the one the Chinese would like to build canals to from the east and west in order to have an alternative to the Panama Canal. I'm sure there's split opinions on the venture among locals as there are on any major construction project, but those to whom we spoke didn't seem to think it was such a great idea. The potential ecological damage alone could be phenomenal. Anyway, I digress.
I never got over the novelty of vehicles on the roads in Nicaragua, whether on highways or city streets. There was always a mix of cars, SUVs, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and rickety horse-drawn carts. City streets were busy, as expected, but the roads between towns were relatively untrafficked, not to mention smoothly paved. As I always do, I assessed the area for potential bike touring and decided that I'd feel pretty safe cycling through Nicaragua, at least from a road-safety point of view. Also helpful was that most gas stations had clean public restrooms. In addition, you could buy nearly anything you wanted from mobile vendors. Rowan had failed to bring a pair of sunglasses with her, but she got a pair of "Ray-Bans" for $5 from this fine gentleman:
We traveled fairly quickly during the two hours between Managua and Rivas, so there wasn't much opportunity to photograph the countryside. I did manage to snap a few shots of people preparing for Holy Week processions. Rowan and I got a good introduction to Holy Week in Nicaragua later in the trip, but this was our first taste of the festivities to come.
Our goal for the day was Isla de Ometepe, the island of two volcanoes in Lake Nicaragua. To get there we had to take a ferry from Rivas. The ferry runs frequently, and ours was pretty packed with locals and tourists. The trip is about an hour long in good weather. I love how colorful everything is in Nicaragua!
While the ferry was lovely to look at from a distance, I doubt that it would meet U.S. Coast Guard regulations. The condition of the mooring lines along was a little frightening.
At least they had life preservers for everyone and were quite insistent that they be worn, if not properly snapped and tightened. I thought Rowan looked especially snazzy in hers, not to mention in those new Ray-Bans.
Ometepe was one of the places I was excited to see after reading an article in Adventure Cyclist magazine about a family which rode bikes around the island. Our first view of it showed that it is indeed part of the long string of volcanoes that makes up the western side of Nicaragua. (On a side note, I found it interesting that this string of many volcanoes seems to alternate active ones with dormant ones. I'd love to know more about the geology of the area to understand why they're intermixed that way.) The taller of the two volcanoes you can see in the photo below is Concepción, almost 5,300 feet high and still active, a fact evidenced by the cap of steam on its summit. Maderas, shorter at not quite 4,600 feet, is dormant. You can also see that the lake was a bit choppy. As big as it is (100 x 44 miles) and as windy as it always was while we were there, I suspect it gets quite the weather on occasion.
We arrived to the island at San José and gathered into another bus (ours had to come on a later ferry) for a ride to Museo El Ciebo. The ciebo (say-bo) tree is the largest tree in Nicaragua, one I failed completely to get a photo of. Along the drive we started to get a feel for some of the typical home architecture of the area.
Museo El Ceibo is divided into two parts. One has rather rough, homespun displays of artifacts from Ometepe's prehistoric past organized by time period and numbers of colors used to decorate the pottery. Ometepe was settled over 3,000 years ago, and has been inhabited continuously since. The oldest pottery typically has just one color, while more recent (just pre-Spanish invasion) has five to six colors in the designs. There were also examples of metates, grinding stones, as well as a few fossils, jewelry items, and other odds and ends. I mostly took photos of the items whose designs intrigued me artistically.
I especially like the funeria - burial containers. There were two basic designs: a round pot (used for leaders) and a sac-like shape (for everyone else). I really wanted to know how these were used. They were too small (about the size of a large stew pot) for a whole body to fit into, so I thought perhaps they were used to hold ashes. Or possibly people were dismembered and stuffed in, although I don't think they'd fit that way, either. Perhaps only the bones were put in the containers. Who knows? I never asked, unfortunately.
The other half of the museum was dedicated to displays of Nicaraguan money since the country has been independent. Apparently it is the norm for each new President to mint money with new designs. As Nohelia said, each President wants to tell a story with his (or her - there has been one female president) presidency about how he came into power and what was important to him. The imagery on currency is one means of making a point and getting it into the hands of everyone.
All I took a photo of, however, was the Nicaraguan flag. I was interested to find out what the images symbolize. According to Wikipedia, the flag and its central emblem is very similar to that used by the Federal Republic of Central America, a sovereign state in Central America, which consisted of the territories of the former Captaincy General of Guatemala of New Spain. It existed from September 1821 to 1841, and was a republican democracy. "Central American liberals had high hopes for the federal republic, which they believed would evolve into a modern, democratic nation, enriched by trade passing through it between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. These aspirations are reflected in the emblems of the federal republic: the flag shows a white band between two blue stripes, representing the land between two oceans. The coat of arms shows five mountains (one for each state) between two oceans, surmounted by a Phrygian cap, the emblem of the French Revolution."
About 42,000 people live on Ometepe now, a population that has the ability to be largely self-sufficient. They grow a wide variety of crops, including plantain, rice, beans, corn, tomatoes, sesame, and much more. Locals fish for a variety of species in the lake, although only for their own use and not commercially. There is also a growing tourism economy. We were supposed to participate more fully in that economy after our museum tour, but plans changed. Instead, we had a few hours of free time at our "hotel" before dinner.
This was not a hardship. Seriously. Here's the cabin Rowan and I shared for two nights and our view from our porch. Not a hardship at all.
Rowan, much to my disgust, took advantage of free internet access to connect with her friends and the rest of the world while I went for a walk on the lovely tan sand that stretches around the lake. I was joined off and on by a variety of my tour mates...and an alligator. Yep, you read right. We saw a little alligator, about six feet long, that was lolling in the water 20 feet or so offshore. At first we thought there was something wrong with it because it wasn't really doing anything, but it proved itself to be just active enough to convince us it was okay. Unlike a stupid man earlier, none of us had taken enough leave of our senses to walk out to it and try to provoke a reaction. I, of course, had decided not to be burdened by my camera and instead can only show a couple of pics generously shared by Stacy Seibert. Thanks, Stacy!
Food! I haven't mentioned anything about food, have I? Like any AGC trip, it often felt like we just traveled from one meal to the next. I wanted to make a point of eating traditional Nicaraguan food, so on this night Rowan and I each had fritanga. It was a generous serving of seasoned grilled pork, a piece or two of fresh fried cheese, crispy plantain chips, and a helping of gallo pinto, an unseasoned mixture of red beans and rice. I think crispy fried plantain chips may be one of my new favorite foods. ¡Muy delicioso!