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.


South America, Travel

The country of wild bears, seals, dune buggies, the Inka trail and Rainbow Mountain… Peru, I love you!

Peru is a phenomenal country. I loved it a hundred times more than I was expecting it to. The people are incredibly kind, the nature is fantastic, and the cities are fascinating and steeped in culture. After one month I boarded my plane to Ecuador wishing I didn’t have to leave.

Peru’s Arequipa is called the ‘white city’ because of the number of resplendent colonial buildings, which gleam against the perpetually blue sky, and it might be my favourite city in Latin America (so far). I spent a week here having Spanish lessons, visiting museums, and partying on the weekends. One thing you shouldn’t miss is seeing Huanita- the mummified body of a young Inka sacrifice, whose body was found frozen and well-preserved on the side of the mountain where she was left to the gods.


The main reason most people come to Arequipa is to visit the spectacular Colca Canyon, which, after much refute, has been proved by National Geographic to be the world’s deepest canyon.

The hike is hard.  Though the views of the dramatic rock faces, sudden drops, and wild landscape descending into the valley below are worth it, you basically have to descend very far, very fast- to get to the bottom on the first day. The Canyon itself is like nothing I have ever seen, particularly because of the famous condors which circle high over it. Condors, a kind of vulture, are the largest flying land bird in the western hemisphere… and they really are huge. Even from a distance they’re quite intimidating when they swoop over you when you’re not expecting it.


After an overnight stay in the little valley at the bottom of the canyon, it’s a 5am start and a hike three hours straight up a steep zig-zagging path through the rock face to reach civilisation again. Which would be hard at the best of times, but given the horrendous altitude (which makes a lot of people ill staying still) it was the biggest physical challenge of my life. .  I deliberated before booking it because of the reputation it has of challenging even experienced hikers (which I decidedly am not), but it was good experience prior to the Inka Trek, and actually, I think it was harder.

Huacachina is known as the ‘oasis’- a town which seems to have been dreamt out of the sand in the middle of the Peruvian desert. There’s only really one reason to come here: sandboarding. I was a bit apprehensive given that when I tried this last year in Namibia, I managed to be the exception to the instructor’s promise that ‘it’s literally impossible to fall ALL the way down the sand dune’. Nonetheless, I’ll given anything a second chance (except bungee jumping).

19578081_10212918200165681_870903985_n.jpgIt was totally worth it just for the epic dune buggy ride to get to the top of the dunes. Our driver said for a small tip he would go ‘mas extremo’…and he meant it. Like a real life rollercoaster, I regretted sitting at the front as we hurtled up over peaks we couldn’t see the other end of and came crashing and swerving back down and up the next dune. The sandboarding itself was actually fun- but tame compared to Namibia. We were only allowed to go on our front, and the peaks were considerably less high. I also wasn’t (quite as) hideously hungover, which I suspect had a lot to do with how much more I enjoyed it.

We briefly stopped in Nazca to look at the famous ‘Nazca lines’, but since I suspect it’s a scam I couldn’t be bothered to pay for a flight up to see them.  So my next stop was the little beach town of Paracas. There’s not a lot to do here except to visit the nearby Ballestas Islands. So called ‘poor man’s galapagos’, I actually loved this trip (since I am too poor to visit Galapagos) and was ecstatic to see penguins and seals thriving in the wild, instead of a zoo, for the first time. I especially enjoyed meeting the world’s smuggest sea lion.

DSCN8260 (2)I hated Lima. It was the only place in Peru I hated. I’m not really a fan of big cities anyway, and it lived up to its expectations of being ugly, grey, expensive, ugly , and grey. It didn’t help that I got hideously ill here, and had my first experience of having to pay for a private doctor in South America (£80 and an injection in the butt later and I wasn’t that impressed).

However, from here I flew to Cusco for the main event- the Inka Trail!  It was four of the best days of my life. Seriously. I’d started to regret having forked out so much to do the official Inka Trail when I learned how much cheaper other options were, but it was so, so worth it. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, varying views in one day in my life. I’ve also never had the chance to completely cut off from modern life, communication, and just be in nature with my own thoughts for so long before. I came out genuinely feeling like a different person.

The first day is relatively easy, as you get into the pace of the trail, wending your way over beautiful rivers and streams, slight inclines, but nothing hard. The second day is known as the toughest, because you have to conquer ‘dead woman’s pass’- an extremely steep trail ascending to an altitude of 4,200m. It was hard- but I was not as dead a woman at the end as I anticipated, which thrilled me. I must have somehow got a bit fitter! Fat teenage Helen would not have believed it. And the view here was PHENOMENAL. However the best part for me was recognising the shout of ‘Oso! Oso!’ and getting an (apparently extremely rare) glimpse of a real life Paddington-  a baby Peruvian spectacled bear!

DSCN8350.jpgDay three was actually the toughest for me; though you don’t go as high as rapidly, there is a lot of ‘Peruvian flat’ (i.e. constant up and down) which is hard on the feet and the knees. You finish at an Inka ruin that is a taste of the next day- complete with llamas.

The last day you get up at the crack of dawn, and everyone literally pelted it the last 5k to get to Machu Picchu. This is rough after three days of walking, and I had to literally drag myself up the scramble at the end to reach the Sun Gate.


I can’t really express how I felt to see Machu Picchu actually spread out before me. I often think you get over-exposed to ‘wonders’  of the world from TV and postcards, so nothing as impressive when you see it in real life as it would be without the anticipation. This was not so here. After our guided tour, I spent a good hour just sat looking at the view- not just the ruins of an ancient civilisation- but the depth of the landscape around that is impossible to capture on camera. Jagged, rugged mountain faces, piled layer on layer into the mists that shroud the rest of the landscape. It was hard to leave.

19401257_10212806659057223_1344888174_o.jpgThere was one more thing I wanted to do before leaving Peru… visit the so called ‘Rainbow Mountain’.  I geared myself up for one last push, having had one day of rest after the Inka Trail, and left at 3 am to get to the village where the hike starts.

I’d been quite lucky with altitude sickness until now, but I guess everyone has a tipping point, and mine is over 4.5k above sea level. I’ve never felt so terrible in my life. I managed to hike half the way, then gave up and took one of the many offers for a caballo  (horse) to the top. Which was an adventure in itself- the last time I rode a horse it had thrown me off and I’d not trusted on getting one since. Thankfully this girl was a lot more chilled, and I had the luxury of watching the view to the top of the mountain. So, thank you Peru, you wonderful country, I will leave you with this last view before I continue on to Ecuador.

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