Monotombo, the smoking volcano, with the volcanic lake Oxolotam in the foreground. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Monotombo, The Smoking Volcano

The hills and mountains of Nicaragua are beautiful and cool. Leon, where I was staying, is a lovely place, but too hot. Even Patricio, my guide and a native year-round resident of Honduras, found Leon too warm for him. We went to the ruins of the old colonial capital of Nicaragua, Leon, but there was little to see. A very small museum of early people from the Aztec were found here and a few artifacts from the Spanish conquistadors.

The Royal Road, remains of the government house, and the flat ground under the fort had been on a small knoll. The grand city collapsed because of the revolt of the indigenous people. They endured abuse; some were handcuffed and dragged down the Royal Road to keep all the others in line. Then 21 priests who complained to the leader Cordoba about the terrible treatment were killed while sleeping in their beds. Soon after, the volcano erupted and sent the people fleeing. We walked around the old site and up on to the knoll of the old fort. There was a great view of Monotombo, the smoking volcano, and the volcanic lake Oxolotam.

Thatched huts in Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Thatched huts in Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Patricio and I stopped for lunch at a local roadside café for fritos questo, made with homemade tortillas and filled fresh chopped tomatoes, onions, and mozzarella cheese. The café had a thatched roof. Many of the homes in this area have thatched huts, where the owners can sit under the shade. Thatch is sold at places along the highway.

We drove to Masaya National Park to see the active volcano Masaya. You can smell the sulfur fumes from quite a distance and see the smoke rising for miles away. As we approached, I could hear the raging river of red hot lava before I saw it. Far below, inside the large cauldron, was the bubbling river of lava. It is amazing to see the power and force of nature at work. When the wind changed direction and the fumes blew towards us, it stung our eyes and hurts our noses—not  a safe place to stay for very long. The warmth around the vast volcano is a snake’s paradise. There are road signs that say, “Watch out for snakes.”

We were on our way to Granada, Nicaragua, when Patricio was stopped by the police, our worst fear. One police officer came to the car. Patricio had everything in order: his driver’s license, registration, ID card, travel documents, insurance card. We both had our seat belts fastened and he was going below the speed limit. The police officer got in the car to see what we were carrying—only my bag and Patricio’s duffle bag. He could find nothing wrong and Patricio was quiet, polite, and patient. I just sat and watched.

The other police officer came up to the car and told Patricio to get out of the vehicle. They walked a few yards behind the car and stood under a tree by the road. They were there a long time talking. Finally Patricio came back and got in the car and was very mad.

He said, “I hope they get diarrhea!” I tried not to laugh, as I know he had all he could do to control himself. He had had to give them money. We know why he was stopped. He had a Honduras license plate, it was a nice new van, and it had all the marks of being a tourism vehicle. That meant easy money for bad police.

Patricio, a nice man, who was usually very polite and mild mannered, was not the same for the rest of the day. He had been so meticulous about doing a good job, never passing, never speeding, and following the laws. That was why he was so mad.  It was very near Granada and the end of another day. I hoped Patricio would calm down.

That night, after settling in to my room, I met him at a café in the main plaza and we had a native dinner. Patricio had his favorite vigorom, cooked papaya leaves on the bottom then layers of chopped cabbage, tomatoes, onions, fried pork skins, yucca, and squeezed lime juice. I had fresh vegetables and a stew with chicken and rice. Thankfully, our next day was a hiking day and Patricio didn’t have to drive.

(posted November 14, 2017)

View from the bell tower of the Church of the Ascension, in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon is a beautifully restored historic town, once the capital of Nicaragua. It was so hot that I found myself persevering to stay focused on why I had come here to learn about the city. My physical and mental state reminded me of only one other place: of being at the site of ancient Troy while my guide sat, and my daughter and I stood, under a small olive tree and he told me about Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in 113 degree heat, and oh did I seem distracted!

Leon was built in 1610, after the old city was ruined by a nearby volcano. My guide Patricio and I walked the clean narrow streets, passing though a tiny new plaza honoring national poets and heroes, to the central market beautifully restored from a grand historic block of buildings. The market was well maintained, and the produce was fresh and clean.

We went to the Church of Ascension, which is still the center of daily services and activities. It is also the tallest building in the region. Patricio and I went around the block-sized grand edifice and found a side door to the basement, and there a woman was selling tickets to go to the roof of the building. We walked around the block to the opposite side of the building where a man sat by a tiny door. We gave him our tickets and he opened the door where a walled-in, narrow stone staircase went up in front of us, going three levels to the bell tower.

There we were, alone on the bell tower, and able to look out on Leon below us. An attendant soon appeared and told us the history of the Basilica. It took 113 years to complete it. In the 1700s, a French pirate burned it for the gold. The local people built 7 tunnels to connect underground to the other churches in the plaza, since there were 16 Roman Catholic churches in Leon.

View from the roof of the Church of the Ascension, in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

View from the roof of the Church of the Ascension, in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The attendant asked us if we would like to go out onto the roof, and we agreed and removed our shoes as requested. The roof was whitewashed to a pristine white. There were 36 medium-sized domes on the roof, and we had to carefully walk around them to focus on the spectacular view of Leon and 11 volcanoes in the distance. It was a beautiful clear sky and we had visibility for many miles.

We left the basilica and walked across the central plaza to a shell of a large granite building, surely grand at one time, but now in disrepair. There were no signs for public entry but Patricio, my faithful guide across Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, said we could go inside. It was the Museum of The Revolution. This turned out to be quite an experience! A few men were sitting on a bench placed on the bare ground of what would have been beautiful inner gardens. As we walked up the wide interior granite steps, a man sat at a small table facing us. Patricio asked if we could look around.

The man had no tickets and no change, but he still charged us a fee. We stood by the desk and in a few minutes, a man took us to a large empty room with 10 – 12 framed newspaper photos, which were not matted or labeled, but just leaning against the walls of the room. The man began by pointing out one newspaper photo from the 1920s of Augusto Sandino, a great hero of the people of Central America. He had worked for the United Fruit Company and traveled to several countries including Mexico. There he met the revolutionaries, Chi Guevara, and the Castro brothers from Cuba. Sandino was in power 20 years and assassinated by General Somoza (supported by the US) later killed by Ernesto Lopez. General Somoza’s son became President and fighting continued until 1979—the last revolution. The US was involved in this revolution, with William Samson being the US and Marines’ involvement.

Learning about the Revolution in Nicaragua from a former guerrilla fighter. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Our man took us to another room with very high ceilings—at one time this was a grand place, but not even wallpaper or paint or a stick of furniture remains. Again, leaning against the walls were a few framed newspaper photos. As the man was talking about one of the photos, the man from the rickety table came in and told the man he had spent enough time with us—now it was time to go. The man ignored him and continued to tell Patricio and me about the revolutionary history of Nicaragua. The last photo he showed us was of him and four other men, including Daniel Ortega.

They were the Sandinista guerrilla fighters of the revolution, and I was now talking with one of them. The photo was from the 1970s, when they were all young men; he was 19. Now he is in his 50’s and Ortega is President of Nicaragua. Leon was the first place to start the revolution, and it is still a place where liberals and poets gather today. The former Sandinista guerrilla fighter shook my hand, and Patricio took a photo of us together. It was a different museum experience—one that I will remember.

In the plaza, I passed a large bell that is rung only on Independence Day in September of each year. It was mid-day and over 100 degrees. I stopped at El Cabararo, then San Francisco Church (the oldest church in Leon), and then back to the former nunnery, to my air-conditioned room for a short reprieve before exploring further. Early mornings and evenings are best for outside adventures in this heat!

(posted October 31, 2017)

School children in Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Honduras to Nicaragua

My guide Patricio and I drove out of Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, going southbound to Nicaragua. What I remember most about this day were the long, continuous highway construction delays in Honduras. During the day, especially on our long drive and during the highway delays, Patricio would help me practice my Spanish, and talk about his country: political, geography, history, and economy. The scenery was changing from the tropical mountains of coffee and cocoa trees to the valleys of fields of cantaloupes and many types of vegetables. Corn is used as a natural pesticide bordering the large fields of crops. Groves of orange and fruit trees are everywhere, and oranges are harvested year round, whereas cantaloupes are produced from March to July. There were signs with the word TUMULO and Patricio would slow down—BUMP in English.

We stopped for lunch at Chesters, a national fast food franchise that came to exist as competition when KFC from the US came to Honduras. The people have widely supported the business and claim better food. We drove south to the Fonseca Gulf on the Pacific Ocean which is shared by El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It is semi arid, a great area for growing crops and much hotter on the Pacific Coast at sea level.

Illegal iguanas for sale in Honduras.

Illegal iguanas for sale in Honduras.

Before we crossed the border, a group of five men ran out of the woods to stop our car. They rushed towards us as we slowed down. I kept my window up and my door locked.  They were selling their prized possessions. Each man was carrying two live iguanas, their legs and tail were tied and their mouth bound. They were selling them two for $10.00. I asked Patricio to take a picture. This made them mad and they shouted dirty remarks at us. I am sure they knew they were doing something unlawful.

We reached the Honduras-Nicaragua border and things went okay, but it was a slow process, with many unorganized steps. We cashed in our lempiras currency from Honduras.

In Nicaragua, US currency is accepted everywhere. President Daniel Ortega, a dictator, keeps order here. It is safer here, and the roads are better; progress is slowly improving, as there have been many rebellions in the past–as recent as the 1970s, when the US sent troops to Honduras and Russia and Cuba sided with Nicaragua. There is a mix of old and new technology, manual labor, and new machinery. Help has come from Denmark and the Netherlands with wind turbines, and a great influence from China and the US is seen everywhere.

We reached Leon before dark. This beautifully restored Spanish colonial city dates from the 1500s, with narrow cobblestone streets, and it is a clean, safe, and welcome place for tourists. Patricio dropped me off at the wrong place. While he was trying to find a place to park, I met a gentleman who was from Chicago. Patricio soon returned and we found my place, a former convent built in the 1500s, a very historic placed filled with antiques along the walls and covered walkways in the interior garden. It is next to San Francisco Church in the center of the old town, in a restful setting, and near places to see and dine.

We walked around the old narrow streets with the restored buildings, old cathedral, and churches, and we saw a very long, narrow, one-story seminary and the central plaza. Leon was the hottest place I have yet encountered in Central America. It was beyond hot to me and I needed to retreat to cool inside sanctuaries every so often throughout each day.

(posted October 17, 2017)