Lake Nicaragua and Ometepe

Ferry To Ometepe

The recommendations for staying on the island of Ometape (Isla de Ometepe) were overwhelming. I originally planned to spend more time in Costa Rica, but with stories of pot-holed ridden roads, higher costs and lots of rain I was easily convinced to take in the majestic beauty of this island sitting gracefully under two volcanoes. Getting to the island required simple but careful logistical planning. Many boats take passengers to the island from just outside Rivas not far from the Costa Rican border. But the ferry that could take my motorcycle had a limited number of departures daily. My new Canadian father-daughter riding team, Linda and Jan (pronounced Yan) accompanied me to the ferry landing. They too were planning on heading to the islands, only a few days later.

Ometepe Volcanoes

Streets-Of-Ometepe

Ometepe Sunset

By 3:30 I was on the ferry and heading to the tiny island named Ometepe from the language of the indigenous “Chorotegans”, the original people of Nicaragua, meaning “the place of two hills.” The two hills in this case are steep and scenic volcanoes. I wouldn’t have the time to climb any of this legendary peaks, but cruising across the Lago de Nicaragua and watching them grow in size as we approached the tiny port town of Moyogalpa was extraordinary.

I follow a dirt road, through a farm and land nearby the lake and the Laguna Charco Verde – Green Lagoon. For $10 I negotiate a nice cabin with a fan and proceed to have one of my nicest evenings under the tranquil setting of the volcano and a magnificent sunset. Interestingly enough, I find nearly a dozen other travelers from nearly every continent (Australia, Asia, Europe and America) staying at Charco Verde, too. Martin, a colorful vagabond traveler with a guitar strapped to his back entertains us as we deplete the restaurant of all their bottled beer. AS the crowd moves to cans I decide to call it an evening. But not too soon until I have my chance at belting a couple Allan Karl originals for the eager crowd of travelers.

Charco Verde Ometepe

I wish I could spend more time here. The price is excellent, scenery perfect and the hotel offers the use of kayaks, bicycles and hiking trails to the lagoon and nearby volcanoes and waterfalls are just a short distance away. If you go to Nicaragua don’t miss a chance to spend a week on this island — you’ll have no regrets!

Charco Verde Friends

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Photos: (1) Doc tied up for the 1 hour ferry ride for San Joge to Isla de Ometepe; (2) the volcanoes of Isla de Ometepe; (3) a familiar scene in Nicaragua; (4) gorgeous sunset from Charco Verde; (5) The beach front and grounds of Charco Verde on Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua; (6) traveler friends met at Charco Verde, guitar player Martin is leaning on the top box.

Granada, Nicaragua. Oldest Spanish-city in Central America

Granada Street Sweeper

With nearly three weeks of solitary riding and experiencing Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua I had no idea that I’d reunite with friends I met when in Chihuahua at the Creel Horizons Unlimited meeting two months ago.

Pulling into a local hotel in Granada — the second city (some will say first) founded by Fernandez Francisco de Cordoba — I spot a couple KLR’s parked in front. Within a few moments I’m greeting by Suzanne — a leggy blonde from outside Toronto. She tells me she is riding with her father to South America.

Granada Cathedral Biker

“We’re going to dinner with a few other riders we met yesterday,” she tells me. Within minutes Dan comes strolling up the street with his wife Bonnie and fellow rider Rex. I met Dan with his friend John (a Sting look-alike) in Creel and then again in Zacatecas, Guanajuato and San Miguel Allende. Bidding farewell over a month ago they were headed to Mexico City where Dan was to pick up his wife, Bonnie. And since then they’ve been riding through Mexico and Central America. John split to head back to pick up his girlfriend who was scheduled to fly to Mazatlan. Geez. There’s something to having a girl flown in. I should think of such things…

Over dinner we share stories of our travels and then walk the vast colonial section of Granada and through the scenic Parque Central. There’s a huge Christmas celebration and much of the younger crowd are congregated to the east part of the cathedral engaging in what’s the Latin America’s version of running of the bulls.

A harness is strapped to the back of the brave and dozens of fireworks are tied to the harness. The fireworks are lit and the “bull” runs through the crowd while the fireworks explode. A dangerous prospect for sure. But roaming the crowd are several volunteers from the Nicaraguan Red Cross.

Doggy Do Granada

As noted earlier some claim Granada to be the oldest Spanish-built city in all of Central America. The town amassed wealth and a reputation as it was a major transit point for shipments of gold and other minerals mined throughout the Spanish Colonial empire. Forever a stronghold of Nicaraguan conservatism, the city was attacked after the Spanish left by a force of Liberals from León lead by American William Walker. But Walker’s rule ended and his revenge was to burn Granada to the ground. Fortunately some of the city remained intact, but remnants of Walker’s action can be seen throughout the center of the city.

Photos: (1) A street sweeper cleans up after a “running with the bulls” fireworks celebration from the evening before; (2) Biker cruises past the cathedral that still shows charred black remnants from William Walkers’ vengeful burning of the city in the mid 1800’s; (3) Dogs do it everywhere. Why not in the middle of the street of this beautiful city. But this isn’t Paris! Where’s the street sweeper now?

What’s It Mean?

It’s amazing who you just might meet when rolling into a new town. Leaving León was tough. Last night a group of boys in their early twenties approached me in Parque Central. One of them had been hitting the cerveza pretty hard and kept repeating himself. But sans motorcycle they were interested in learning where I was from and practicing English.

Leon Boys

“What’s most important to you to see in Nicaragua?” the youngest asked.

“You.” I said. He responded with a big smile as I further explained that I wanted to learn about their country, history and culture.

The conversation was interesting. The boys were concerned that I came to Leon to see the cathedral, and wanted to impress upon me that it was important to know the people.

“To know and see Nicaragua, is to know the people,” the other sober kid insisted.

Impressed with my Spanish that wanted to know more, but soon the conversation turned to questions about English idioms and colloquialisms.

“What means ‘let dogs dead sleep’?” They wanted to know the meaning behind “let dead dogs lie”.

“You know “Face the music” what does mean?”

I had fun trying to explain these idioms with my limited vocabulary.

Finally, they asked ” ‘Let it go?’ what does this for?”

They kept throwing the phrases they’ve heard in pop music, television and the movies. Trying not to be rude but with my growling stomach and thirst for a cold beer, I had to excuse myself. I gave them all my email address and move on to explore the night streets of León.

Hanging In Leon For A Nicaraguan History Lesson!

Los Balconias Leon Nic

León has a distinctively comopolitan flair. But not as you find in more internationally famous cities such as New York, Paris, Rome or San Francisco, but rather unique amongst its Central American counterparts. Not gentrified and roaming with gringo tourists as you might find in Antigua, rather still brimming with a traditional culture yet reaching beyond with a youthful exuberance evidenced by the arts and energy throughout the small yet growing city center. And with two popular Universities, one known for arts, the other the National Law University its no wonder that León is arguably the birthplace of the Sandinista revolution and many political figures that have shaken the country since the 1950’s.

Waking up the next morning and throwing up my century old shutters and letting in a swath sunlight and hot humid air fill my room, I had no idea I’d walk through streets where local university students perhaps ignited the movement that put an end to generations of Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Strolling along the avenida toward parque central a short woman in her late 50’s carrying a small plastic shopping bag politely asked me for the time. Perhaps my trademark, I gave up wearing watches before I ever started. But I gave her my best estimate “mas o menos” and this ignited a conversation in Spanish. When I told her I hadn’t yet seen the history murals she promptly and stoutly told me that she’d show me.

Leon Cathedral

Nicaraguan history fascinates me. But through it’s tumultuous past with what could arguably called a dynasty of repressive, controlling and obviously corrupt dictatorship, it’s fact that the United States and the CIA had helping hands in creating it.

Since gaining its independence from Spain in 1821 and after the ill-fated Central America Federation, Nicaragua became an independent union in 1838. Perhaps buried in the history books, but the U.S. took an active interest in Nicaragua because it believed at the time that the Rio San Juan, a long river that runs from the Caribbean in the southernmost part of the country dumping into the largest lake in Central America, Lago de Nicaragua, could be an ideal route for transporting goods and passengers from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Thus, a partnership between an American, Cornelius Venderbilt, and the Nicaraguan government (The Accessory Transit Company) was granted exclusive rights to build a canal.

Leon View

In an age old conflict that we see in the United States and nearly everywhere in the world, conservatives and liberals in their respective stronghold Nicaraguan cities of Granada and León were at each others’ throats. Eager to topple the Granada conservatives who held the power cards in 1855, the León liberals engaged the political and promotional services of American William Walker to help it achieve its objective. In short order, Walker took Granada and in affect, gained control of the entire country. Initially, Walker put in place a puppet government which he controlled, but eventually held rigged elections and declared himself president. He then ordained English as the official language and legalized slavery.

Vanderbilt still moving forward on his canal plans, feared the megomaniacal Walker was gaining too much power and with his political clout convinced neighboring countries Walker’s actions might incite rebellions elsewhere in Central America. Eventually Walker was overthrown with the help of the Costa Rican and Guatemalan governments. Many Nicaraguan lives were lost in the conflict and as Walker retreated he burned the charming colonial city of Granada. Eventually a team of U.S. Marines and escorted Walker out of the country as the United States intervened in the conflict. Ironically, three years later Walker returned for another adventure in Central America politics. He was captured by the British handed over to Honduras who ultimately executed him.

And such is the story of Nicaragua.

For the next three decades, power in Nicaragua bounced back and forth between liberals and conservatives, but overall the years led to prosperity in Nicaragua. This was largely due to the growing desire of American’s and Europeans to drink coffee — at the time Nicaragua’s largest export. Ultimately U.S. coffee and fruit companies gained increasing presence and power in Nicaragua. But when in 1904 the United States chose Panama for the site of the Transisthmian Canal, then Nicaraguan president Jose Santos Zelaya, ironically invited Japan and Germany to construct a rival canal. Though the plans never left the drawing board, relations with the U.S. deteriorated. This prompted a civil war between Zelaya’s liberals and the U.S.-friendly conservatives. Eventually the U.S. set a precedent in the region by landing nearly 500 marines on the Caribbean coast. Zelaya resigned soon thereafter, and for the next 20 years the U.S. maintained a military presence in the country while the conservatives maintained their power. But in 1926 unrest in the country by opponents of the U.S.-backed conservatives prompted the United States to send more troops to the region.

Sandino Vive Leon

One of the opponents, Augusto César Sandino, a socialist waged his own independent guerilla activity using a personal army of peasants and laborers. He eventually joined the liberals fight against the conservatives and their U.S. allies. The United States in response to Sandino’s activities took over Nicaragua’s military and formed the Nicaraguan National Guard. The National Guard became such a significant force over the next few years. Surely enough, and as in many U.S.-backed efforts the result of its action was 40 years of dictatorship, undedr the U.S-educated and U.S.-marine confidant Somoza.

Samoza was a power hungry nut. And the long era, known as Somocismo, began in 1934 when as General of the National Guard he ordered the assination of Sandino who had by then become the liberal candidate or the upcoming presidential election. With Sandino six feel under rigged elections were held and Somoza was sworn in as president in 1937.

For nearly 20 years Somoza remained in power through rigged election and constitutional manipulating, during which the National Guard became like his personal army giving it power beyond the military sphere enabling it to take control of the post office, radio stations, newspapers, medical institutions and more. What a mess!

Dead Student Mural Leon

But in this wonderful town of León in 1956 a 27 year old artist and poet, Rigoberto López Pérez, took the situation into his own hands and as music played on the streets he fired a bullet into Somoza ending his life. The National Guard eventually repayed the favor by cerrating his body with 50 shots. Dead. But not much changed in Nicaragua as Somoza’s son, Luis Somoza Debayle, also U.S.-educated, took the position of intermim U.S.-president. His younger brother, Anasatasio “Tachiot” Somoza Debayle assumed command of the National Guard. And like father, like son, the Somozas stayed in power through manipulating the constitution and election process. As the years went on the dictatorship grew more severe as dissidents were regulary tortured, imprisoned and killed.

I had a chance to view two of the many sites where oppresives were impisoned and tortured. People where hung by their legs from trees and dunked into tubs of water. Many drowned. Fingernails were ripped from the feeble hands of starved prisoners and teeth extracted through tortuous means. As my guide wandered me throug the little visited “Fortina” just a few clicks north of the city of León, I was sick as I wandered this prison built in the mid-1930’s imagining the National Guard’s treatment of citizens looking for a better life for themselves and their families only to be sent to prison to be tortuned and killed.

Torture Museum LeonHey. This sounds a bit like Saddam Hussein. Damn. And didn’t the United States fund his war against Iran? And what happend? We had to eventually take him out.

But opposition to Luis Somoza grew stronger and in 1967 the conservatives and Christian Social Party banded together to ceate the National Opposition Union (UNO). But voter harrassment and rigged election ensured yet another Somoza victory. Shortly after Luiz Somoza died and power was left to his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza, who now was both president and the head of the National Guard. In 1972 just a few minutes after midnight on December 23rd an earthquake rocked Managua. By the time the earth stopped moving 10,000 people were dead and 50,000 left homeless. It was this earthquake the opened the eyes of most Nicaraguans, including those supporting Somoza, to the self-interested and corrupt Somaza government.

Why? Simply because most of the emergency supplies and aid sent from abroad were intercepted by the National Guard who on Somoza’s orders were sold to victims on the streets of Managua. What’s more, business and homeowners were unable to claim compensation for damaged property because the Somaza-owned insurance companies denied their claims. All classes of Nicaraguans were stunned and appalled by Somoza’s greed and cynicism — by 1974 his personal wealth was estimated at $400 million — while the rest of the country was living below the poverty line and trying to recover from its recent natural disaster.

Back in León, the Frente Sandinisists de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) named after Sandino, became a rallying force in the country. Founded in the late 1950’s by law students at the National University here as a Marxists-Lenninst response to the dictorship, the FSLN gained the support of students and workers and farmers from the countryside. In 1974 FSLN guerillas raided the home of a government official and held relatives of Somoza for ransom eventually earning U.S. $1 million. The guerillas fled and though the opposition gained ground, Somoza responded with further repression, surveillance, torture and murder of suspected dissidents.

And on the street I walked on today, Maria told me of a peaceful student protest held in 1978 that ended in the injury and bloody death of four students as the National Guard fired on the protest marching down this street of León. Today four crooses mark the spot where the bodies fell on that fateful day and yet another mural depicts the faces of the four students who died for freedom from the Samozan dictatorship. Eventually the “good” prevailed and on July 19, 1979 the revolution was offically won by the Sandinsitas,

Fortina Leon Nicaragua

The Sadinistas were a mixed bag, though. Despite their questionable politics, you’ve got to hand it to them for toppling Samoza’s dictatorship and for their efforts in bolstering the economy and literacy rate from the drowning depths of despair to hope. At the time they took over the Samozan dictatorship approximately 60 percent of the population was illiterate. Literacy workers dispatched to every corner and armed with only a chalkboard and a gaslamp had reduced this figure to thirteen percent. Women’s roles and rights were also affected postively because at the time nearly 20 percent of the Sandinista army were women.

But the Ronald Reagan era in the United States eventually spelt doom for the Sandinistas. Reagan was convinced that Nicaraguan’s leftist policies and its ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union meant the potential spread of communism daringly close to the U.S. border. The Reagan administration suspended all aid to Nicaragua in 1981 and subsequently waged a an open campaign against the Sandinistas. With $20 million of U.S. assistance the U.S. prompted the Contra War. Troops in training camps based in Honduras were made up of primarily ex-Somoza National Guard forces who fled the country on Somoza’s departure. And while many sectors of the Nicaraguan population had issues with the Sandinistas, there was distrust of the Contras because of the presence of ex-National Guard in the Contra forces.

With its neighbors, the U.S. and a heavily funded and armed Contra force, the Sandinistas were isolated. Soon their actions were ironically similar to the Somozas which they originally stood against. That is they revoked their promise for an open political system, banned opposition in the media and prohibited rival political parties. While the Iran-gate scandal in the United States put a crimp on support for the Contra forces, the Nicaraguan economy was ultimately strangled by a five-year U.S. trade embargo. By 1988 the FSLN and the Contras signed a ceasefire agreement.

In 1990 the Sandinistas, consider a shoe-in winner for the 1990 elections, but with 55 percent of the vote the publisher of a leading opposition newspaper, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, became the next Nicaraguan president ending nearly 10 years of Sandinista rule. With her win the U.S. lifted its embargo and cut off supplies to the Contras.

For six years Chomorro worked to rebuild Nicaragua. She negotiated with the World Bank and International Monetary fund to relieve Nicaragua’s debt burden. But inflation was sky high and two labor strikes crippled the country further forcing Chomorro to resolve the crisis by working with the Sandinistas during the strikes. This short affair with the Sandinistas angered and alientated the hard core right wing conservatives who ultimately got behind former Managuan mayor Arnoldo Alemán. Ironically, his party (PLC) was a splinter group of Anastasio Somoza’s political vehicle(PLN) and closely aligned with the Catholic Church. And in the 1996 elections Aleman defeated the Sandinistas and Chomorros UNO party. Aleman’s openly committed to the destruction of the Sandinistas.

In 2002, Aleman’s former vice president, now president of Nicarauga led the charge to strip Aleman of immunity and charged him with defrauding the government of $100 million. The soap opera got funnier when the next year Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega announced he was forming a pact with Aleman — the man who just 5 years earlier was out to eliminate the Sandinistas for good. Their goal? To united against U.S. intervention.

Today more than 60 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line with 30 percent of these in extreme poverty. Yet despite its tumultuous political past, poor economy, escalating corruption and unemployment, the Nicaraguan people I found were happy, smiling and eager to share their country with me. And the more I stay in Nicaragua, the more I want to stay longer.

Maria Leon Nicaragua

Toward the end of my few hour tour with Maria she started working me with her pitch. Disclosing her swollen and somewhat deformed forearm and wrist, she complained about the pain she was in. Just a few weeks back she tripped on a sidewalk and the fall caused her arm to break. The surgery would cost $150, but she can’t afford it. She then pulled a notebook out of her plastic bag. I flipped through the pages that discussed a hospital and school for deaf children and its need for donors for hearing aids: $250 each. And finally I read through a series of pages on tours of Leon and surrounding with suggested prices — including many of the sites she accompanied me. The first hour walking tour was free. She told me that I should go with my heart and anything I could provide on any of these fronts would be acceptable.

As I reached for a handful of Cordobas she pulled a watch out of her plastic bag, wound it and placed it on her wrist. I see. She really didn’t need to know the time after all. I explained to her firmly that the money I gave her was a down-payment for her operation and she should put the nearly $20 aside for this purpose.

I left her at the corner near the first history mural. She introduced her two daughters and grand children. They were sitting on the park trying to sell small handicrafts. Yes, life is hard, yet simple for most Nicaraguan’s. But one thing seems sure, everyone is happy. For the future must look brighter than the past.

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Photos: (1) Doc sitting outside Las Balconies, where I stayed in León; (2) they are petitioning UNESCO to make the old Cathedral in the historic colonial center of Leon a World Heritage Site; (3) a birds eye view of León with it’s volcanic landscape; (4) a Sandinista mural; on the left is Somazo killing Sandino – on the right is the Sandinistas squashing uncle same with a saying long live Sandino; (5) a street mural of four students who were shot in cold blood during a peaceful protest in 1978; (6) artist depictiions of the torturing and killing performed by the originally US-set up Nicaraguan National Guard; (7) view of the old fort built by Somoza on a hilltop overlooking León where prisoners were locked up, starved and tortured.; (8) Maria my ad hoc tour guide of Leon!

NOTE: clicking images makes them larger. check out the Sandino mural, it’s fascinating!

Old Leon Nicaragua.

I find the road leaving Selva Negra to Matagalpa and then onto Managua much different in sunlight than my previous experience in rain. It’s easier to avoid the potholes and I’m quickly buzzing through Managua making my way to Leon – one of the oldest cities in all of Central America. Along the way I find the oddest collection of goods for sale in hobbled together shacks, roadside stands or simply standing outposts. A series of 3 or 4 young boys jut sticks out into my lane. On each stick are 3 or 4 colorful birds clinging for their life. I regret not stopping and questioning these kids, but I’m eager to make it to León and León Viejo before dusk. Other sellers stack mattresses, bed frames textiles and a mishmash of functional goods. No sign of traditional or indigenous handicrafts here. Though the occasional stand of colorful fruit and vegetables breaks the otherwise drab roadsides as I approach the outskirts of Managua.

The motorcycle is running great and a recently changed packing scheme seems better to me — or maybe because it’s just new and I’m ready for a change. It’s now been more than two weeks since I had a riding partner, though I’ve been in touch with Jeremiah and Sacha. Seems the Costa Rica roads riddled with potholes have taken its toll on both of their machines. Jeremiah is in Southern Costa Rica with two bent rims on his 2005 Dakar. He’s scrambling to get them replaced or repaired, apparently one is extremely bad. And in Northern Costa Rica Sacha hit a pothole that blew at his rear shock and possibly broke his swing arm. He’s looking to get to the BMW dealer in San Jose to take inventory. I hope they are successful and continue their own journeys soon.

Leon Viejo Road Cattle

As for me, I don’t look forward to those messy roads in Costa Rica which I remember from my trip their earlier this year. But for now, fingers crossed and a good running bike I’m eager to learn more about Nicaragua, its people, history and culture. The city of Leon sits North of Managua and is less than 15 miles from the Pacific coast (good surfing) in northern Nicaragua. While it has always been close to water, it didn’t originate in its current location. Founded by Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba in 1524 who founded the city of Granada at the Northern end of Lago de Nicaragua. Leon Viejo sits precariously at the foot of Volcán Momotombo, one of 15 active volcanoes in Nicaragua and its steepest. Both Leon and Granada are perhaps the sites of the first Spanish settlements in Central America.

Momotombo Doc Nic

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, Leon Viejo is located about 15 miles off the main Managua-Leon road. The new road leading toward the ruins is typical of many in Central America where pavement or asphalt are non existent. Made of thousands of interlocking brick-like blocks. I follow the road and the fairly good signs until my bike is sitting in mud at the north end of Lake Managua. The turn I missed wasn’t marked because kids apparently obliterated the sign. The woman in the small store mumbled somethings at me and walked away when I asked where to turn. My guide later told me that the people in the villages surrounding the volcano and the ruins are not ready and unaware of how tourism may help their feeble economy. Later I discover that I’m the only visitor to Leon Viejo today. And yesterday they saw one visitor as well — another gentlemen from North America.

Leon Viejo was eventually abandoned and move to its present site where until 1857 it served as the capital of Nicaragua. And according to my guide city leaders gradually moved the city on its own volition and not because of a volcanic eruption or earthquake. And over the years the bricks and stones from León Viejo were progressively moved my other settlers and people in local village for building materials. Today, not much of León Viejo remains.

Leon Viejo Church

Compared to ruins I’ve seen elsewhere on this trip to take in León Viejo takes a bit of imagination. My english speaking guide fills in the blanks as we walk through the sites of the homes, businesses and La Merced church where just recently archaeologists uncovered the headless body of Nicaraguan’s founder Fransisco Fermandez de Cordoba who was buried next to his archenemy who had him executed, Pedrarias Davila. My guide tells me the people buried Davila next to Fernandez so that he might have a chance at revenge in the afterlife.

Interestingly, not much is known about pre-colonial Nicaragua. There are no large scale ruins of pre-historic cities as are found in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Though there is evidence of indigenous peoples and cultures, particularly along the Pacific coast and in the mountains toward Matagalpa. But no cities or temples have been found anywhere.

Momotombo View

Wit the sun setting I venture off and ride into the new old city of León. The town is aggressively working on repaving the streets so with dirt and dust dancing in the beam of my headlight it takes 3 tries to find a hotel. The lovely lady at reception of Los Balcones is sympathetic to my travelers budget and meets my price too low to print here. But a word on the property: fantastic. It’s a completely restored colonial hotel that still retains original wood plant floors and shutters. Surrounding a lovely courtyard once inside and off the dusty street I feel as if I’m in the late 1800’s Central America. Tastefully decorated with period pieces replicas, only the hot water, television and air-conditioning give clue to the current era. If you get to León, do yourself a favor and take in the atmosphere and spend a night here.

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Photos: (1) Road to León Viejo (old León) always cattle, many little villages and note the road composition; (2) Doc sitting proudly at the foot of Vulcan Momotombo and Lago de Managua; (3) The remains of old La Merced Church in León Viejo; (4) View from hilltop overlooking León Viejo, the lake and great volcano. It looks almost fake, doesn’t it? And apparently it changes colors much like a chameleon.. Today it’s brick red and green. But I swear it looks like a painting.

Shade Grown Coffee In The Black Forest?

By the time I avoided my 900th pothole and was in the city limits of Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s 4th largest city a worn hand-painted sign welcoming me simply and scribbly stated that the national government was responsible for the condition of the road. Up till then the Nicaraguan roads had been perhaps the best I’d encountered in Central America. Nestled in the mountainous and forested northeastern highlands, Matagalpa may claim nearly a quarter-million residents, but riding through chasing down an ATM machine I found it to have an incredible small town feeel. Cobblestone streets, a colonial central square and overall clean and friendly.

When the scruffy faced man liften his ratty t-shirt to pull the handgun out of his pants and handed it to the armed guard, both men simply acted as this was as normal as pulling an ATM card from a wallet. But as these eyes quickly scanned the streets, I wondered how many others were concealing handguns in their pantalones.

As I continued to climb into the mountains it started raining. First softly. Then it poured. Young children holding shovels stood next to piles of dirt and rocks. Some of the potholes had been filled in. With heavy concentration avoiding the holes and nervously watching the muticolored streams of diesel oil mixed with rain run down the steep incline I barely noticed the boys stick their hands out. Looking for tips for doing their best to make the road better, most cards would slow to a crawl to get around the craters in the road. With the rain pelting harder on my faceshield and with a steady speed I was out of reach.

The road continued to wind and climb for several miles, Water filled the now infamous potholes. Some I couldn’t avoid. Bam. Ouch.

Selva Negra Tank Selvanegra Entrance Chapel Selvanegra

The turn off for Selva Negra is marked by a beat up old tank — a remnant left after Nicaraguan civil war and now a reminder and icon of hope for Nicaragua’s future. Dense, thick and dark forests make this area strikingly similar to the Black Forest in Germany so the German immigrants who settled her in the 1800’s named it Selva Negra. A referral from friends who’d traveled here earlier to attend a wedding of one of the owners’ daughters guided me up this mountain retreat set in a tropical cloud forest. I take the turn and wind down and up through tropical forest and coffee plants till I come to the guarded entrance.

Coffee Beans SelvaSelva Negra is a sustainable and organic coffee plantation and mountain resort where one can experience the old growth forest on foot through hiking trails, horseback or take a tour of Selva Negra’s coffee farm by one of its passionate owners Mausi or Eddy Kohl, descendants of Germans who originally settled in the area around Matagalpa in 1891. How did German’s come to settle in a remote part of Nicaragua at the turn of the century? Well, in the late 1800’s the Nicaraguan government of Nicaragua offered plots of land, coffee plants, and financial incentives to Europeans who settle in the country to farm coffee. The idea was this would stimulate the economy while injecting the intellectual capital and physical labor needed to maintain it. Today, the Matagalpa region is home to more than four generations of Germans, however over the years the German population has dwindled for several reasons, First, during World War II Nicaragua declared war on Germany and confiscated many farms while the Germans fled back to Germany or elsewhere. Though many returned to Nicaragua in the late 1940s and early 1950s, another exodus of Germans was stimulated by the Contra-Sandinista war of the 1980s when more farms were claimed or destroyed by the Sandinistas “land redistribution efforts”. In fact, for ten years during the 80’s Selva Negra’s owners’ lived in the United States, returning in 1991 to rebuilt their farm.

Today Selva Negra is an amazing testament to organic and sustainable farming where 100% shade grown coffee produced here is perhaps the finest in Nicaragua. It’s likely you won’t find Nicaraguan coffee on the shelves of your local Starbucks or Peets because Nicaragua produces a minute amount of coffee in scope of the world markets.

How do they do it? First, nearly everything served in the resorts lakeside restaurant is grown or produced on the farm. The chickens and eggs, the beef and pork and even the organically grown Manchego and Gouda cheese. The furniture in the restaurant, guest rooms and cabañas are all made in the on-sight wood and metal shops. To run a farm requires manpower. Most of the farms nearly 200 full-time workers live in housing built by the Kohl’s on the farm. There is a school for the children and medical clinic with full-time nurse. Selva Negra will support and pay for those children who want to attend university.

Selvanegra Shadegrown Selva Negra Cabin

But it’s Selva Negra’s farming methods that intrigued me most. For example, coffee beans harvested must be extracted from its shells and then further cleaned to remove a layer of gelatin like material around the bean. In most coffee plantations, this extraction processes damages the environment because contaminated water is drained to nearby rivers or streams. But at Selva Negra the contaminated water is piped to tanks of volcanic rocks where bacteria feeds off the contaminants. The resulting methane gas produced by this process is piped to the farm’s kitchens to be used for cooking and to run the farm’s coffee roaster. What’s more, manure from the farm’s livestock is liquefied, extracting gases also for cooking and roast and also provides thousands of liquid fertilizer for the farm.

Listening to Mausi Kohl while riding through the 1,500 acre farm is to feel the passion she and her husband have for innovation and trying new things. “We’ll try something and give it two years. If it’s not producing the results we like in two years, we move on.” And you can see projects in process throughout the farm. A non-denominational chapel sitting under tropical foliage was on the plans for years but its recent completion was stimulated by their daughter’s wedding. There’s a decent sized meeting/banquet room and the grounds are meticulous landscaped with ponds, gazebos, an orchid garden and more.

Staying here may be expensive for Nicaraguan standards, but for visitors it’s a bargain. Rooms start at $30 and several large cabins intended for families or large groups are available. A project underway will provide hostel-style dorm rooms for $10.

Nicaragua. Beyond The Border.

Donkey Boy Nicaragua

The Honduran/Nicaraguan border at Los Manos was the busiest and most frenetic I’d encountered. Before I could pull my GPS off my trusty Touratech mount I was surrounded by young boys. One wants to watch my bike, the others are shoving immigration forms into my hand. I do the best I can to explain that I too have two yes and two hands and have much experience crossing Latin American borders. Known as tramitadores (helpers) these boys earn their living by walking documents through the immigration and customs offices at the border and obtaining the obligatory copies of passports, titles, registration and drivers’ licenses. They are looking for tips and in some cases hope to catch a foreigner who’ll pay them their quoted price and in the end an inflated fee gets split between customs or immigration official and the tramitadore.

I quickly learn I’ve got to change money because the Nicaraguan immigration office won’t accept Honduran Limpira. The boys tell me it’s going to cost the equivalent of $24 and I’ll need this in Nicaraguan Cordobas. Unfortunately, I’ve managed my Limpira ration quite nicely and don’t have enough to get me through. One of the money changers who wander and follow border crossers through the maze of paperwork agrees to change my lone bill of Costa Rican Colones, Soon I’ve got enough to get me through the border — per the tramitadore’s cost estimate.

But I handle the document processing on my own. One of the boys hangs in the balance and another constantly points his piece sign oriented fingers to his eyes indicating he’s watch my bike. I mimic the sign right back to him. “I’m watching you boy. And my bike.” It’s a little game. There’s no agreement and I tell them stories of other border crossings.

I pay my $2 fee to exit Honduras. I pay another $7 for a Nicaraguan tourist Visa, and another $3 is paid for something I still don’t understand. By the time I get to customs I’m ready to pony the $10 (plus or minus) for a tempoary vehicle import permit. While most of the truckers and other drivers stood at the window while Mr. Customs Agent completed the necessary documents, he asked me into his office and sat me down next to him and his typewriter. As he banged out my vehicle form in triplicate using traditional carbon paper he asked me the usual questions. In fifteen minutes I had my own copy complete with rubber stamped indicias and his very fancy signature and I was on my way. No cost. For my helpers I tossed 100 cordobas their way, without a full understanding of hte exchange rate. The other boys who’d been hanging around surrounded me. All of them looking for some sort of tip. One boy about 9 years old held his dusty hand out. His dark blue sNic Horse Boyshirt splattered with mud and the soles of his shoes were sown on with feeble twine. His younger companion held out his right foot for me to see. His ankle was swollen and the mud was caked around his dark eyes. My heart sank. I asked what’s wrong. His friend did the talking. “He has no shoes.” He spoke in Spanish, of course. What could I do. I wish I had a shoe store in my panniers and I could set him up. But no. And there were no shoe vendors in sight. I flipped my remaining loose change their way and moved on.

The road leaving the border and into the fertile valley east of Esteli Nicaragua was ideal: banked, curvy and smooth. Boys on horseback, men riding donkey carts and women carrying pcaks of sticks on their backs painted a primitive and rural scene welcome to these eyes. For the first time since entering Latin America I noticed buss stops that actually had paved pull offs and sheltered structures with benches. The memories of my mind drifting while whipping down roads of Mexico or Guatemala only to wake up to a bus stopped in the middle of the “highway”. In Nicaragua, this wasn’t going to happen. As I moved from rolling hills to the valley I notice rice fields and hundreds of workers laying out to dry the daily harvest. I passed through small villages and took a turn toward Matagalpa, eager to climb into the hills to the grand coffee plantation of Northern Nicaragua: Selva Negra.