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November 19
We are up well before the crack of dawn to be ready for our guide, who appears at 5:30.  Today, we are visiting the island of Ometepe, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and we have to be at the port of San Jorge in time to catch the 7:00 am ferry.  While we wait for our large and sturdy ferry, El Che Guevara, to depart, we watch a smaller and somewhat elderly wooden boat arrive.  Mozorola is the chicken bus of ferries!  Battered and shabby, it is loaded to the gunwales with people, livestock and luggage.  The lake can get quite rough and those passengers are obviously made of stern stuff, as even in the shelter of the breakwater, La Mozorola rolls and heaves.  We say a silent thank-you that we are on the much larger steel vessel, even if it does cost a dollar or two more.

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Our ferry:  El Che Guevara

Mozorola:  the chicken bus of ferries

The island of Ometepe is formed from two volcanoes, connected by a low isthmus.  The larger is Volcán Concepción, which rises to a height of 1,610 meters.  It is an active volcano; its most recent eruption was in 2010 and a wisp of steam can always be seen trailing from its peak.  It is stunningly beautiful and our guide tells us only Mount Fuji in Japan has a more perfectly symmetrical cone.  The smaller volcano is called Volcán Maderas.  It is considered extinct or dormant and rises to a height of 1,394 meters above sea level and has a crater lake.

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Volcán Concepción

The island of Ometepe; Volcán Concepción, upper left;  Volcán Maderas, lower right

Our ferry takes an hour to cross the lake to the port town of Moyagalpa.  We are met by Osman’s confederate with a battered van to tour us about the island.  Our first stop is for food, as we left our hotel well before breakfast was served.  There is no sign or anything to suggest it might indeed be a restaurant, but our driver knows the people and we are treated to a long overdue Nica-style breakfast.  The place is quite primitive; we sit at a wooden table on a dirt floor, with chickens scratching nearby.  Food is cooked over a wood fire and the “facilities” are an outhouse in the back yard.  Breakfast is delicious:  gallo pinto (rice and beans), scrambled eggs with a tasty salsa, fresh bread and coffee.  Our hostess, noticing my interest in her flowers, takes me proudly into the back yard so I can admire her gardens and flower beds.  On the way, we pass through her husband’s woodworking shop, where I take obvious delight in the tables, chairs, cabinets and even a small casket that he has crafted.

We head on around the bottom of the volcano, to Altagracia, the largest town (pop. 4,081), on the east side of the island This area has been inhabited for thousands of years and has a rich archaeological heritage.  We tour the town museum with many pre-Columbian artifacts and stone carvings.  The guide is pretty uninspiring, but then we meet the Director of the museum, an archaeologist, who has been excavating and studying the area for decades.  Sensing our interest, he takes us for a short walk to his house, where he proudly shows us his personal collection of artifacts.

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The road to Altagracias

Prehistoric stone carvings

Another short drive takes us to Playa Santo Domingo, a beach on the east side of the isthmus connecting the two volcanoes.  There are several simple lodges here that offer accommodation.  It is a beautiful spot and we could easily see ourselves spending a few days on a future trip.  Just as we are leaving the beach, we stop to watch the antics of a troop of Capuchin monkeys frolicking in the trees by the side of the road.  What an appealing place!

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Playa Santo Domingo

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Capuchin monkeys

Two kilometers from the beach, we stop at Ojo de Agua , a natural spring that forms two pools of perfectly clear water.  An enterprising campesino built a dam and walkways around these pools and now charges a modest admission.  The pools are surrounded by old growth rainforest and it is cool and shady, while the sparkling clear water is refreshing.  There are plants, flowers, butterflies and birdsong to make it a lovely place to relax.

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Ojo de Agua

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A short drive to Puerto Las Brisas, where a ferry waits to take us back to the mainland.  While the ferry is loading, I watch Nica children playing and swimming on the nearby beach.  Suddenly, two horses appear, intent on their destination – right into the water up to their bellies for a big drink and to let the waves wash over them.  The horses depart and a few minutes later, a whole herd of cattle is in the lake, drinking their fill before heading home for the night.

Ometepe Island is a very special place.  One day we will come back here for a longer visit.  It is possible to rent small motorbikes and we could spend several happy days, exploring the whole island.

We are about done in after a long day of being tourists, but Osman insists we have to visit San Juan del Sur to watch the sunset.  SJDS is a picturesque village on the Pacific coast with a pretty little bay, filled with yachts and fishing boats.  It has recently become a full-fledged tourist mecca and even a popular stop for cruise ships.  We aren’t much on places where cruise ships stop, but it is a very attractive place and we can see why it appeals to so many people.  The sunset is spectacular!

Osman teases me about falling asleep in the car and we are both ready for bed by the time we arrive back at Hotel Kekoldi, well after dark.

November 21
The faithful Osman arrives at our hotel to take us on another sightseeing excursion.  Today we are off to visit Masaya Volcano National Park, just a few miles from Granada.  The park contains a volcanic complex, consisting of an ancient caldera and five more recent volcanoes, one of which, the Santiago crater, is very much still active.  At the gate, we pay our admission and are issued with hardhats to wear while inside the park.  Apparently, in April 2001, Santiago exploded and formed a new vent in the bottom of the crater. The explosion hurled rocks with diameters up to 60 cm as far as 500 m from the crater. Vehicles in the visitors’ area were damaged and one person was injured.  We aren’t sure how much protection a yellow plastic hardhat will be against a two-foot flying rock, but we dutifully put them on.  Osman wears his usual baseball cap. 

We drive for several km across the floor of the caldera, stopping to admire a recent lava flow.  It looks like a bizarre moonscape, with plants and trees valiantly trying to grow on it.  We stop at an interpretive centre and museum where we learn more about volcanoes than we probably want to know.  There are displays about the different kinds of lava, the activity of the tectonic plates that underlie Central America and the characteristics of all the different types of volcanoes.  Nobody knows when the original Masaya volcano blew up but from the size of the caldera it left behind, it must have been pretty dramatic.   We eventually arrive at the parking lot close to the Santiago Crater, the only volcano in the western hemisphere where you can drive right to the rim.  Sure enough, we can lean over the guardrail and peer straight down into the steam and smoke, trying not to choke on the acrid sulfur dioxide.  The deep rumble of bubbling lava in the bottom of the crater is just at the lower limit of our hearing.  We learn that a species of little green parrot has evolved the ability to tolerate the toxic fumes and nests in the walls of the crater to avoid predators.

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The floor of the ancient caldera, some 10 Km in diameter

Santiago crater – still very much active

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Peering into “La Boca del Infierno” --  The Mouth of Hell

A long series of steps and walkways lead up to a high outcropping that provides a spectacular view into the crater.  At the highest point, is the Cross of Bobadilla, originally erected by a Spanish priest in the 16th century to exorcise the devil, because the Conquistadores believed this was La Boca del Infierno, The Mouth of Hell.  Unfortunately, Osman explains, the volcanologists have determined that the rock of the outcropping is unstable and the whole mountaintop could slide into the crater with the next seismic tremble, so the viewpoint is currently off limits.  A short hike uphill in the other direction leads us to a viewpoint where we look down into an old, long-inactive crater.  This one is picturesque and peaceful and the steep slopes are covered with trees, plants and grasses.  I take pictures of several different flowers blooming alongside the trail.  The views from up here, of the strange volcanic topography, are stunning.

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Older, inactive crater nearby

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Pretty flower

View of La Cruz de Bobadilla and the steps leading up to the lookout

After lunch we wend our way to the small town of San Juan de Oriente, which is a renowned centre for artisans, particularly potters.  No, I am really excited!  Osman takes us to a pottery and ceramics workshop and school.  The craftsmen are descendants of the Náhuatl, the aboriginal people, who populated the area before the Spanish Conquest.  The potter demonstrates for us every step in the process of making  beautiful ceramic objects, using only traditional techniques.  They mine the clay, mix it with sand and water and knead it with their feet for three hours until it is just the right consistency.  Our host throws some clay on his traditional potter’s wheel and spins the wheel with his foot while he shapes the clay with his fingers.  He is a master of his craft and makes it look easy, as a graceful vase appears before our eyes.  I know that it is much more difficult than it looks.  He uses a piece of bamboo to smooth the surface and then removes the vase from the wheel by severing it from the base with a string as the wheel revolves.  Each piece is then allowed to dry for four hours. 

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Master craftsman throwing a pot

Potter with a finished vase

During the next phase, he uses a piece of stone to smooth and polish the surface.  Then the item is dipped in clay washes of different colours.  It is set aside to dry and then polished with some sort of large seed between each coat.  All the colours are natural and come from different types of clay used to make the washes.  When the colouring process is complete, he freehand etches an intricate design onto the vase with a sharpened bicycle spoke.  The man is an artist and has the steady hands of a surgeon.  Then he leads us out back to see the wood-fired kilns.  The finished pieces are fired at 900o.  The ceramics are very hard when done and the colours are permanent.  When the pieces first come out of the kiln, they look a little dull, but a coat of wax and a polish brings their finish to a bright luster.  These are authentic pre-columbian techniques of pottery-making and centuries-old artifacts found by archaeologists have almost identical colours and patterns.  The colours of the archaeological examples are still nearly as bright as those we watch being made today.  They offer courses to teach their craft and I would love to come back someday and take lessons.

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Pottery made using traditional techniques

Wood-fired kilns

Back in Granada, we are walking down a street, looking for a place for dinner, when we are accosted by a couple sitting at a tiny table on the sidewalk in front of a small restaurant.  “Come on in and eat here,” says he, a jovial Irishman, “the food is really good!”  It’s hard to ignore an unsolicited recommendation like that, so we go in.  El Camello was started four months ago by an ex-pat from Grimsby, Ontario, who has been living in Granada for nine years. The food lives up to its billing and we enjoy a very nice meal.

November 26
Sadly our visit to Nicaragua is at an end.  Osman picks us up at 5:00 am for the one-hour drive to Managua airport.  We travel together on the flight to Houston, and then we head off in different directions; Susan on a flight to Calgary and a connection to Fort McMurray, while I go through Chicago to Winnipeg.

We love Nicaragua!  It is an attractive and beautiful country, filled with friendly and charming people.  There is, like most Central American countries, a certain amount of crime, but on the whole, we feel noticeably more secure than in either Guatemala or El Salvador.  We never, at any time, feel threatened or worried about our personal safety.  The city of Granada is a very appealing.  There are enough tourists for it to have lots of hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops; but at least so far, it is not overrun with gringos.  We are very comfortable here and we have definitely put Granada on a list of places we might like to spend a few winter months some day.   A search on the internet suggests a small furnished apartment can be rented for four to five hundred dollars per month.  Perhaps we should start thinking about retirement!

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Country road – there are volcanoes everywhere

Typical street in Granada

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Beautiful restored colonial building

Local restaurant. Gringo tourists probably shouldn’t wear shorts!

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Supposedly the oldest house in Granada

Gringo tourist admiring colonial architecture

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