We are travelling through Central America for a few months including Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone they are part of one journey.
Managua: is an eight hour trip, three hours which were spent hanging around the border to get customs and immigration clearance. The good part is that everyone else is hanging around as well so we all get have a few snacks and to have a good chat.
The road goes through some nice countryside including lots of mountains and past a couple of volcanoes. It even takes us past Leon our preferred destination, but it seems we can’t get off here because we have paid for a trip to Managua and they want to make sure we get there safe. From one of the several bus terminals we walk half a block east and one and a half blocks north to find a little hotel – Los Felipes.
The bus terminals are crowded and chaotic but somehow they work, so the next morning we are at another bus terminal boarding another bus, heading back to Leon, but this bus has two metres of foam mattresses tied on the roof and we’re thinking if the bus rolls we’re cushioned. Bus rides like this one can be uncomfortable when they are crowded especially if the roads are rough, but they’re invariably entertaining and often relaxing.
Our aimless gaze out at the horizon is interrupted by a family sedan aggressively beeping the bus as it speeds past with its own foam mattress tied to the top. This distracted us, the rest of the passengers and especially the conductors, much Spanish confusion follows, the bus screeches to a halt, the driver yells, the two conductors scramble onto the roof, the load of mattresses and the ropes checked, there is more yelling, it seems all is secure, so off we speed again. Inside the bus, much conversation continues at volume but we were unable to get an English explanation so the event remains a mystery us.
Leon: is a classic university town and the centre for much activity during the Civil War in the 1970s. Our accommodation is a huge old villa, each of its original rooms now making four hotel rooms complete with plumbing and pigeons. It is set around a big courtyard garden with traditional rocking chairs. The obligatory town square has the largest cathedral in Central America and the other 13 churches all have parks as well.
A couple of times we have been caught walking out of bus stations thinking we are heading north when we were heading south or going to accommodation that was in the north of town, but actually heading to the south of town. In a crowded market we buy a couple of small compasses that fit onto our watch bands, we decide for a $1.00 each they seem to be more or less pointing us in the right direction.
One of the things about travelling is that you are always making decisions based on very limited information. The Nicaraguan navigational system adds a whole new meaning to imperfect information. Few streets are named and addresses are provided in a flowing descriptive style based on the number of blocks from a particular landmark that may or may not still exist.
Our hotel in Leon is two blocks north of the Park Central and one and a half blocks towards the Church of San Francisco. It seems to work perfectly well if you are a local, otherwise you can spend three hours finding the travel agent who DOES NOT have the direct bus from Leon to Granada. It seems it also may not work between one landmark and another landmark. We ask for direction from the Park Central [landmark] to the post office [landmark] ‘not possible, you must take a taxi for $1.00’.
Granada: is a pleasant historic colonial town on the edge of the lake with an interesting history including being raided and razed by pirates over the years. It has a scattering of historic moments and on display at the local museum are some fantastic large basalt pre-Columbian sculptures taken from the lake islands.
The church overlooks the central park where Australian native gum trees are found amongst the palm trees. It’s a popular tourist destination for travellers and locals offering horse drawn carriages. Looking for somewhere to eat we catch one down to the lakeside park which has several restaurants. However, it turns out to be a sleazy disco area, so the driver drives us back to the town to a more suitable restaurants near the square. On the way back a car nearly has a head-on with our carriage creating mayhem and havoc, it seems one of the problems with horse carriages is they don’t have lights.
We consider a 15 hour ferry ride across the lake and then a boat ride down the San Juan River to San Carlos on the east coast. It’s an overnight trip on a ferry without beds so we pass on that idea.
From Granada the Pan American highway hugs the lake for most of the trip south, the geography has created some interesting history. The land bridge between the Lake and the Pacific is only 20km wide, the narrowest landmass between North and South America. The lake flows out to the Caribbean via the navigable Rio San Juan. This was a major transport link for gold prospectors heading from the East Coast of America to the Californian goldfields. The journey involved a sea journey down to the Caribbean, then up the river, across the Lake, and a short land journey to San Juan, and then back on a ship and up the Pacific coast to California. A canal was proposed through the 20 km land bridge but for many reasons – mostly political we suspect, only one kilometre of it was ever dug and as a result we have the Panama Canal instead of the Nicaraguan Canal.
San Juan is a pleasant little bay, with several restaurants on the beach where lots of locals and expats congregate to drink beer and watch the sunset while the fishing boats and international yachts bob up and down. It’s is also a popular take-off point for surfers, with an Australian surf retreat 12kms up the road.
Accommodation ranges from five stars on the hill overlooking the bay to hostel dormitory down in the centre of town. We spent US$22 on a pokey room in the hostel and then splurge on a great candlelit lobster dinner around the moonlit pool at the five star hotel on the hill!
We had a terrible night in our pokey, sweaty room that we paid too much for. So up early, we take a deep breath, walk around town looking for transport to get us to the border. We see a couple of Nicaraguan immigration officers and follow them figuring they should know the way. We catch the local bus to the Pan American Highway and then wait by the highway with them for the bus going south. The bus stops in the middle of the border market everyone gets off and vanishes into the crowd leaving us to discuss the ins and outs of the exchange rate with a handful of money-changers and touts.
We eventually find the gate to the Immigration compound, where we were promptly adopted by another tout named Juan who for $2.00 escorts us through the process of exiting Nicaragua and entering Costa Rica. Doing this as an individual on foot at a busy crossing with trucks and international buses is very bewildering but several checkpoints, queues and a kilometre walk later we are on a bus entering through Costa Rica and heading to Liberia for lunch.