Central America, Travel

Volcanoes! Turtles! Revolution!…. further adventures in Nicaragua         

The monster is alive, a molten red beast of fire that spurts and belches out of the deep, its searing redorangeyellowredlight turning, twisting, and changing in front of us, mesmerising in the total darkness. Bats swoop into the belly of the beast, daring each other to get closer, before swishing back into the night, laughing, chirruping to each other. I am standing on the edge of a live volcano.


It was one of those moments where you realise just how small, just how utterly insignificant you are, in the history and vastness and power of the earth. Where you feel high on just looking at the power of nature, sucked in by it, at war and at one at the same time.

Nicaragua is born out of its geography and has been blessed and devastated by it in equal measure. It is home to nineteen active volcanoes, which could erupt at any moment, and its people have suffered from earthquakes and tsunamis in very recent history. It is also home to lush jungle, wild sloths and monkeys, rare turtles, and the most mind-blowing sunsets you will ever see.


Living in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua was not fun in the way that a lot of my time travelling in Latin America was. I would honestly admit that at times it was a bit of a challenge. It is very sketchy in places, with taxi drivers casually dropping into conversation about the time that police commander was shot in the head at those traffic lights, robbery on busses widespread, and sexual harassment and abuse of women at an all-time high. In the otherwise lovely little house I shared in a local barrio, there was no water for most of the day, the washing machine was a drum outside you filled with a hose, and there was an infestation of cockroaches.  I volunteered during the week with the fantastic organisation CANTERA, a Nicaraguan NGO which works in empowering communities through loads of amazing programs: workshops on gender-based violence, sustainable agriculture, supporting the education and development of children and youth, and so much more, and met some amazing, interesting, and lovely people. But at the weekend, I was very keen to escape the chaos, the smell, the filth, and the sardine-tin busses, and explore the rest of the country.


The Laguna Apoyo is a bus ride out of the city, a vast lake where you can cool off from the searing heat with a swim, a paddle, or just enjoying  a cold beer or fresh mojito in a hammock on a perfect lazy weekend. Go a bit further and you get to the tourist hot-spot of Granada. Sure, this is gringo-ville, but it’s popular for a reason- attractive in every way Managua is not; the iconic, butter yellow church, the colourful houses on pebbled streets, the horse and carts, the volcano omnipresent on the horizon. If you rent kayaks on Laguna Nicaragua you can glide through las isletas and the isla de los monos- monkey island in particular- which lives up to its name- as you paddle up, the monkeys descend slowly by their tails to greet you, hoping for food. In the Reserva Mombacho we also spotted a sloth momma and baby hanging lazily from the branches of a tree.


If you make it out to Isla Ometepe  you can hike volcanoes, swim in natural mineral pools, kayak with crocodiles, or just watch the most fantastic sunset over the lake and the undulating landscape. You can either get the ferry over, which was easy, fun, and not that slow, or you can get a tiny plane onto the most precarious looking airport I’ve ever seen- a slim strip of concrete between the sea and a volcano. Your pick.


Though you should come to Nicaragua primarily for the nature, the cities are pretty interesting too- particularly Leon, la ciudad de la revolucion, where you can learn about Nicaragua’s history of oppressive dictatorships, war, revolution, and the huge death toll suffered by the people in the name of freedom. In the museum, the guides are survivors who will tell you how they were personally affected- about their mothers, brothers, friends, and lovers, who were all killed. The  current political party situation seems to an outsider to resemble a so called ‘benevolent’ dictatorship; somehow seemingly less threatening because of the party-sponsored rainbow coloured playgrounds and benches, and yet undeniably corrupt and worryingly, increasingly censorious. However, when you look at the past, you can understand better the loyalty of the people to the Sandinista party, or FSLN, given the brutality of the Somoza regime, and appreciate the progress it did make possible in the early days for improving the lives of the people through universal literacy programmes and healthcare.


You can also ramble over the rooftops of the iconic white cathedral, the building materials of which bizarrely include eggs and milk (unless I BADLY misunderstood the guide). You will also see las gigantonas – giant parody puppets of Spanish women from colonial times- lurching around the city at up to thirty feet high- pretty scary to bump into on the way back to your hostel.


From Leon you can catch one of the crazy ‘chicken busses’ to Las Penitas, a very tranquilo beachside town which is approximately a thousand degrees, but popular because these beaches are home to some very rare breeds of turtle, including, as I was lucky enough to see, leatherbacks. People in Nicaragua have historically eaten turtle eggs, so in order to protect them, when the mother has laid they are collected and kept secure until hatching time, when they are released into the sea. In comparison to how respectful of nature turtle guides were in Costa Rica, I was kind of shocked that they encouraged us to pick up and hold the babies and to release them ourselves into the sea. I felt uncomfortable about this but since they were all being roughly manhandled by others anyway, thought it would be better to let some of them go free gently, but as much as it was amazing to see them so close, in retrospect I wish we hadn’t touched them. It can’t do them any good. Watching them scramble towards the lapping waves and finally being washed away while the sun beat pink down across the water, though, was a very special moment.


To escape the heat, Matagalpa is an otherwise average-looking city that is surrounded on all sides by a phenomenal landscape of green mountains, and is blissfully, wonderfully, cool. You can hike up to the mirador, explore the reserve, or catch a bus down to the waterfalls. It’s also far less touristy- we saw only two other chelas during our time there.

In the north of the country is the  Somoto Canyon, where, between two chasms of rock, you can scramble, swim, and jump into the depths of the water at the bottom. This was my last weekend, and the most fun.  Being carried on my back, like a human pooh-stick, with Nicaragua on one side of the rock face, and El Salvador on the other, and watching the world rush by, I couldn’t help reflecting happily on how many amazing things I had seen in the last few months, and couldn’t imagine returning to grey and cold London the next week.


I learned so much from my three months in Nicaragua, meeting people and having experiences I will never forget. At times I found it frustrating and sad; life is difficult and many people live in severe poverty. Nothing runs properly, everything is broken, everything is late, or doesn’t exist at all. But it is also a country has also achieved so much in the face of all of the things it has overcome, when it could rightfully have been wrecked by the natural disasters, dictators, and war. The people are positive and loving, and with more than half the population being youth, there is a lot of potential for positive growth the future, in spite of the challenges that lie ahead. I will remember it with fondness forever. Hasta luego Nicaragua, and Latin America. Until next time.


Central America, vegan, vegetarian

Surviving Nicaragua on a plant-based diet

Nicaragua is undoubtedly the hardest place on my Latin American adventure to be a vegetarian or vegan- the former is a barely grasped concept, and veganism really barely exists. That said, there have been some fantastic spots I’ve been while roaming the country with delicious, healthy food. Unfortunately because it is mostly gringos that go there, the prices are a lot higher than the average food in a local comedor, and I’ve mostly eaten in.

Being gringoville, Granada is an easy place to find vegan food. Although there aren’t any specialist places, most of the cafes and restaurants offer something. The Garden Café is a haven with a vegan salad comprising of cucumber, tomato, onion, leaves, hummus, chickpeas, grains, flaked almonds and pitta. They also do a chunky hummus and avo sandwich. Pita, pita also does a hummus falafel salad plate, though at great expense.


In Managua, the amazing Ola Verde has a huge range of delicious options including this lentil moussaka with an amazing cashew cheese topping. Portions are a bit small for the price, but they also have a deli counter selling the sexiest tomato hummus, natural peanut butter, tofu, and pots of pre-made couscous salads, marinaded tofu, proper dark chocolate etc. For other staples head to whole food shop La Naturaleza, which is basically the only place you will find a good range of soy based burgers, smoked tofu, and other healthy things.  The bookshop Hispamer has a gorgeous café which is a haven in the city which serves the best smoothies ever and an amazing quinoa salad, which you can ask for sin queso. A bit out of town but near to my house was the Restaurante Andana, worth a cheap taxi ride for a low-cost, local style vegetarian buffet meal, which when I went included the usual gallo pinto, plantains, salad, and a veggie burger. They also do a big range of salads and smoothies.


If you are thinking of doing Spanish lessons, the beautiful La Mariposa eco hotel and Spanish school is set less than an hour out of the city in the small town of La Concha and includes vegetarian, organic, home-grown food as part of the bundled price.

In Leon head to the beautiful Casa Abierta, the most peaceful eco-hostel with a lovely relaxing vibe. Or if you’re just there for the day, still drop into their restaurant which has an all vegetarian, and largely vegan menu including salads, burritos, pastas, and really unusual smoothies. I had the falafel salad with the best vegan mayo- or if you are a veggie, my friend had the goat’s cheese topped with cashews which was also delicious, especially paired with a colibri smoothie of fresh orange, passionfruit, and basil.


24172567_10214344485781930_501166124_nThough I generally prefer independent places to chains, Casa Del Café, which is omnipotent in Managua, does an exceptionally affordable lunch menu where you can get a salad, soup, and drink for just $5 which is great when you’re on the run or need an easy, cheap place to go. Their chia pudding is also creamy and immensely satisfying. It’s also worth knowing the supermarket La Colonia does a breakfast for just 45 cordobas (just over $1) which includes gallo pinto and a tortilla (which is vegan) or if you are a veggie, also a fried egg, and a slab of Nica cheese, with a coffee.


On the whole it’s not easy- I tried to explain in multiple ways not eating meat and still got served ham- but if you can find the right places, there’s lots to choose from in Nicaragua and supporting those business supports a better, healthier, and more sustainable lifestyle- so go for it!

Central America, Travel

Nicaragua diaries: trying to adapt to life the Nica way

On my first day in Nicaragua, the door of my taxi fell off while we were driving. The driver, seeming irritable, got out, forcefully kind-of reattached it, then said grumpily to me ‘you need to hold it’.


Welcome to Nicaragua.

No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the most chaotic country I’ve been to on this trip. Every day seems to have brought new and unexpected challenges, perhaps more so in reality because this time I wasn’t just here as a tourist, I came to stay for three or four months and volunteer, live in a local barrio and try to understand the culture better. It’s a country which has made me feel inspired, bemused, and sometimes just frustrated in turns, as I’ve tried  to adjust to living in a very different culture, and always standing out as an extranjero, or as the locals call white girls, a chela.

I started living in the small town of Ticuantepe, which is on the outskirts of Managua. I was lucky to have been given a home for the first few weeks with a lady who has now become a close friend, and her four cats. I spent three weeks trying to improve my Spanish at the fantastic La Mariposa school in La Concha, a very tiny pueblo which seemed worlds apart from the capital city of Managua I now call home. Every day I caught the local interlocale microbus for the 20 minute terrifying break-neck journey up through the green hills and valleys to get to La Concha on narrow, winding roads. Locally, the busses are referred to intermortales- literally, ‘between deaths’, or as I came to think of it, ‘the death bus’. You hailed it down wherever you were, and it would barely slow to a stop as you launched yourself through the doors, desperately trying to reach a seat before falling into your neighbours lap, and if not, trying to stand up with nothing to hold onto in a bus so small even I, at the height of 5ft5, had to crouch. Sometimes people would have whole vats of produce, mechanic tools, live animals with them- you name it. (In a later adventure with a friend, we brought her two cats on the microbus-  and tuk-tuk- and regretted it.) What was nice was the way people would help each other- they would hold my bag for me if they got a seat and I didn’t- or even hold each other’s babies or children, and pass them forward when it was time to get off. That would never happen at home. When it was my stop, you had to yell out bajar aqui or grab the attention of the guy hanging out of the window, who took the money, to get it to stop, before being somewhat bodily thrown out again.

cat on tuk tuk

Bringing a cat on a tuk-tuk- NOT recommended.

The school was fantastic; sustainable tourism at its best. It was also an eco-hostel, built sustainably into the green tropical valleys, but which uses its proceeds to fund a huge array of community development projects: an animal rescue shelter (these things don’t generally exist in Nicaragua), a school for disabled children, a kids ‘breakfast club’ to help make sure children received adequate nourishment, extracurricular activities for children, solar power initiatives, clean cookstoves for people who lacked adequate technology for cooking,  reforestation, and were also building a medical centre in a very rural region which lacked one.  Apart from that, they had an impressive cultural and political program through which I got to go on trips to get to know the surrounding area, and got a thorough history of Nicaraguan politics. Phew.


Most importantly, I learned to understand better  the reality of people’s lives in developing countries. I’m not going to go all patronising/ Barbie Saviour on you, but even though I’ve seen some of this before through travelling, actually living somewhere which lacks those amenities I take for granted at home has given me a whole new appreciation of privilege, and what a lack of it means. According to one of my teachers, most of the people in La Concha did not have access to running water. Instead they collected water from a municipal source for ‘bucket showers’, and used a latrine-style toilet where waste was collected from underneath (rather than a plumbed system where you can simply flush your- er- deposits- away).  Even now where I live in the centre of the capital city, we only have proper running water in the evenings- in the morning it’s just a dribble, and during the day nothing at all. That’s what a lack of infrastructure means in reality- and my experience is relatively plush compared to others. Power cuts were frequent, sometimes lasting twelve hours at a time. Sometimes the water goes completely: you always have to have some stored in case. Cars are too expensive for a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon to see people using horse and carts as a main method of transport.

One day, relatively early on in my time here, I was sitting in the living room doing my homework when I glanced up and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a chicken on the coffee table. A real, live chicken, looking right at me.

Where have you come from?  I implored her. As I slowly got up, the cats awoke from their slumber and clocked her. Oh boy.

Then began a frantic chase to see who would get the chicken first- as I and the cats literally ran in circles, cartoon style, around the poor bird while it hopped back and forth out of our way, until I was eventually able to cover it in a bucket (to the utter confusion and uproar of the cats), scoop it up, and deposit her somewhat unceremoniously outside, where I assumed she had wondered in from one of the neighbour’s back yards.

Another time, not thinking about the fact a second-hand clothes pop-up in Nicaragua might be less substantially built than a regular clothing shop at home, in the changing room I leaned against the wall for balance while trying to wriggle out of my trousers, only to discover the walls are made of cardboard when I crashed sideways through three stalls, ending up a sweaty beetroot mess, half undressed on the floor with my ankles still tangled while a gaggle of Nica women pissed themselves laughing and pointing at me. I laughed with them as they helped me up, trying to act as though I wasn’t dying inside from humiliation as well as from the pain.

The pace of life in Ticuantepe seemed very tranquilo and for that reason I felt very safe there, but perhaps this was naive and I was still far removed, because  I was completely shocked when an incident occurred which I only found out the true nature of later.  Coming  back from eating out one night, my friend Judy and I encountered a police blockade in the road.  It was unusual to see police at all.  There was a woman crying, with blood on her face, and two legs sticking out from a motito (tuk-tuk). We didn’t know what was going on so got out of the way.  I’ve since learned that we had stumbled into a murder scene. After a minor collision, an argument had spiralled out of control, and another very young motito driver, who was not even involved, was shot and killed by a drug-dealer. The legs I had seen poking out were the legs of a young man who had been murdered during the time we’d been eating dinner.

In this way, the first few weeks were a good introduction to life in Nicaragua; a place which is full of warmth and fun, but also one in which people’s lives are shaped by the harsh realities of a country which has come out of revolution, civil war, natural disasters, and for many, poverty.

After living in Ticuantepe, I moved to the capital city of Managua, to volunteer with a fantastic local organisation called CANTERA and continue to learn more about Nicaraguan life.

With thanks to everyone who made me feel happy and welcome when I first arrived here.