CHAPTER NINE

AGUA Y FUEGO

Nicaragua

They play latin music and a few couples dance. I cannot help but notice -no one can help but notice- a charismatic lady who dances with different partners. She dances feverishly and throws sassy comments at the onlookers when the musicians take a break. Everybody laughs and I soon understand that she is quite the entertainer


I don’t recall having ever fainted. As far as I look back, I don’t know the sensation. And yet, after landing in Managua, I am experiencing something definitely similar. After a fifty-four hours of traveling that included but a few hours of sleep scattered over the Sea of China and Pacific Ocean, I am on a bus to Granada. My head keeps falling down, or rather I keep realizing it has fallen down at some point and I have been asleep for who knows how long. As I struggle to stay awake and feel my eye forcing their way shut, I manage to catch a few glimpses of this new place. The streets and cars are different, the people behave in a brand new way. We leave the city and cross through plains that wear peculiar shades of green. In this new country, on this new continent, I find that even the light is different.

I have planned a few days in Granada. The town is famous for being beautiful though very touristy. A sort of DisneyLand of colonial cities, or so I am told. Regardless, I figured I would need a few days to collect myself, and the comfort of a touristic place would help for sure. The few hundred meters between the bus stop and the hostel offer me some of the many colours of Granada. Colorful walls that I will surely have a chance to observe more closely once I am out of the blur. I quickly reach the hotel, where I spend a few strange days of messy sleep patterns and force-feeding. Slowly, the hibernation fights nausea back and after a few days, I finally recover a decent appetite. Long naps and watermelon juice, those are my experience of Nicaragua in these first few days.

When I am back on my feet, I have no more than a day left to visit Granada. My Spanish is fairly poor but I can manage an order or ask my way around. Now I set off to see what the city has to offer. There are a few sights around, and someone mentioned a walk by the lake, but what really interests me is the architecture, the atmosphere. I walk around the city and observe the countless colonial houses that wear bright colors. I encounter anything from pink houses to an emerald-green dentistry. I always like a local market, and Granada is no exception. Local markets teach you a great deal on the habits of locals, and especially on a topic we all like: food. Or shall I say, gastronomy? I walk along the market street and towards the main square where musicians have settle for the benefit of a Sunday crowd. They play latin music and a few couples dance. I cannot help but notice -no one can help but notice- a charismatic lady who dances with different partners. She dances feverishly and throws sassy comments at the onlookers when the musicians take a break. Everybody laughs and I soon understand that she is quite the entertainer. Her main act seems to be when she tells her husband to “go on, go home and I stay dancing. Go!”

I have seen only so much of Granada, and perhaps for me it will always be the city of endless sleep and alimentary struggle, but I am lucky enough for I have experienced the city even shortly. Granada seems to be the city of relaxed pace in Nicaragua. A no-stress zone where the people gather for a nice diner, to dance the night -or a casual Sunday afternoon- away. It is also a touristic spot, and I will admit that my reclaimed appetite has been treated with some of the many great bites of Granada.

Ometepe is an island on Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. As i board a small ferry boat made of wood, I can already see the shape of this land, made of two volcanos. Little did I know, the crossing to Ometepe is often quite rough. Winds rush over this part of the country, most often East to West, and that means commuting to the island is a fight against fierce bursts of wind. I take a seat on the upper deck, naive enough to have brought a plate of rice and chicken, though lucky enough to have chosen to sit up there. I befriend a young woman from the island, and as we depart she explains that on the upper deck we will only be drenched a little. Soon enough, we are forcing our way against the strong winds, the water quickly becomes rough, to say the least. Waves hit us at close intervals, shuffling the little boat around at almost horizontal angles. I cannot help but feel that perhaps the boat is little small for such waves. My new friend finds my worrying amusing and she points out that, unlike metal, a wooden boat cannot sink, shall we capsize for a reason or another. Waves hit us ever so harder, and as we are offered a free shower of Lake Nicaragua water, I ponder the weight of her argument, that we would float anyway. In my head, two words blink in neon red light more and more intensely: “BULL SHARKS!” I put pieces of my broken Spanish together in order to voice my shark argument but she does not believe there could be sharks in freshwater, and from where? The truth is, there are bull sharks in Lake Nicaragua, they make for the anxious thrills of most foreigners paying a visit to the island. Frankly, I find it surprising that she wouldn’t know.

Concretely, there are few sharks left in Lago de Nicaragua and I am told they are mainly in the North East part of the lake. Bull sharks are one of three marine species known to survive in both salt and fresh water. They have been known to travel up major rivers, including the Mississippi and the Ganges, where they make a feast of the dead who are thrown in the river (remember Varanasi?). This species of shark has been found to reach insanely far distances into the Amazon forest, and is also suspected to have caused a series of death at the beginning of the last century when they supposedly swam upstream into New Jersey. It makes sense indeed, they are one of the three most aggressive sharks. They are known to be very territorial and are the sharks that are most likely to come in close encounters with humans. They like shallow, murky waters, and please do try to find a better description for the shores of Ometepe. I will not be taking my chances, thank you.
Stories tell of a time where the people of the island would not set a foot in the water, and let me give you a hint: they did not worry about the caiman! This being said though, it is true that the sharks have become quite rare in the lake, thanks to Ecological Disaster Policy of Nicaragua number one. In the seventies, the government allowed a Japanese company to open a factory on the Rio San Juan, which carries water from the lake, East across the jungle part of the country. It was found that the sharks reach Lago de Nicaragua through the Rio San Juan river, crossing rapids in the same way salmon is famous for. One can make a simple equation here: Japanese company plus shark fins crossing a somewhat narrow body of water…
Ecological Disaster Policy of Nicaragua number two is currently taking place, and this time it involves China. A Chinese -though Hong Kong based- company has been granted a lease to build and operate a canal across Nicaragua for a duration of fifty years, after which they can claim another fifty years in split-ownership with the country. The canal is a project that has been negotiated and dropped by the USA and the UK before. The canal would be the longest, largest, deepest in the world. It would cross through the country, by way of Lago de Nicaragua, and allow the super-tankers that are too big to cross the Panama canal to make a quick trip from an ocean to the next. Arguments have been raised about the political implications of a Chinese-operated canal in Central America, and they were rejected by the Nicaraguan government. The existence of such a big Chinese company with zero tie to the government is obviously more than questionable, and yet there are even more stressing issues. For instance, Lago de Nicaragua’s depth comes short of about two meters for the canal, and it would need to be dug in parts, at the risk of charging the water with sediment. The canal would also require the creation of a huge artificial lake on the Eastern part of the country, to serve for leveling of the water. Besides, the official route of the canal cuts through national parks and protected areas, as well as indigenous land. Speaking of indigenous, it has emerged that the government gave a green light to the company without the agreement of the indigenous populations who own said land. The project all together is significantly unpopular among the population, and the benefits for the people that the government advertise are arguable at best. Yet it seems that the project will go on, constructions are expected to start in the first half of the new year, and one can allegedly guess at a few pockets that are swelling alright.

I am sure of one thing: I should enjoy the views of the lake before it turns into a super-tanker highway. The one-hour crossing we were sold has turned into two hours by the time we reach Ometepe. I set a dizzy foot on land near Volcan Concepción. Ometepe is a eight-shaped island with two different sides. The least populated side of the island includes a few small villages along the bumpy track that surrounds Volcan Maderas. The other side is more ‘developed’, with a few small towns along the paved road that surrounds Concepción. In between is a stretch of forest and the Santo Domingo beach where most tourist hotspots happen to be. One can either hike a difficult four-hour track up the high and steep Concepción, or a difficult three-hour track up the more densely vegetated Maderas. Unfortunately, I still feel too tired from the commute to Nicaragua to undertake either, especially after reaching the guesthouse and being warned that the hikes are for somewhat experienced hikers. I am confident there is plenty to do on the island anyway.

The nice guesthouse is located in Altagracia, on the Concepción part of the island. It stands in the shade of trees that keep dropping fruits onto the roof, and the garden is populated with hammocks. On my first day of visit, I manage to grab a bus to the Ojo de Agua, or Eye of Water, which is a pool of natural water where people gather to have a swim. Not locals, though, and I soon understand why. The place has been turned into a commercial spot where you pay an entrance fee, walk by the restaurant, and come across waiters who sell drinks around a pool of natural water which is somewhat shaped with concrete. I take a seat anyway, read a little, and take a nice swim in the freshwater. I take the opportunity to observe the crowd and realize that the tourism is fairly different here. It has a strong American vibe, and as much as I cared for the famous surfing vibe of Nicaragua, I can never be ready for the loud ‘dudes’ who throw beer cans to each other over Ojo de Agua in a desperate cry for attention. Splash splash, I am out of here. Refreshed by the nice water of the ‘natural’ pool, I head back to the guesthouse and meet a few nice people I had met the night before. Notably, a lovely couple enjoying their retirement in the warm winters of Central America, an interesting man on a break from his NGO job, and a medicine student on holiday.

The following day, NGO guy has left the island but the rest of the crew and I decide to pay a visit to the Ceibo museum. The private museum has a great collection of indigenous objects, and we learn a great deal on the different influences of Northern and Southern cultures. Notably, archeologues have recovered gold from tribes emigrated from Colombia, as well as jade from Guatemala. Ometepe is also known for two other things: Petroglifos and pottery objects. Petroglifos are mystic stone carvings that are supposedly not for the human eye, and hence are found hidden amongst the dense vegetation of the Madera volcano. Concepción, on the other hand, is active. Green is found at its foot only. On this side of the island, mudslides expose burial object, and notably pottery, fairly often. The museum is small but well organized and documented. After a quick lunch, the medicine student and I walk a fair bit, to Charco Verde. The park offers a nice walk through the typical vegetation of the island, all the way to a nice beach where monkeys play in trees that have roots in the volcanic sand of Ometepe. We arrive in Charco Verde, and before venturing onto the track, we pay a quick visit to the butterfly sanctuary where we learn about the four species of the island.

On my last day, and despite the scarce options for transportation, I decide to venture on the Maderas side of the island. I take a bus to Santa Cruz, the little town at the entrance point of the Maderas side. From there, I walk a little and manage to catch a ride from a couple who has driven from Managua with a pickup car full of fruits and vegetables. On the roof, a speak announces the arrival of the merchants on a loop, and we stop at a few houses. When the pair decides to stop for lunch, I finish on foot and quickly reach Mérida. I walk around the village from a while, and reach the beach, from where I observe locals who wash clothes in the lake. Concepción is in the background. For a while, I wonder if, like me, they might be shark conscious. After a while, I decide to retreat for I am not sure to catch a ride for the long way back. Indeed, cars seldom travel the bumpy track on this side of the island, and I find myself walking more than I had anticipated. I walk for a good while, and take the opportunity I have to observe the nature of the island. Nicaragua has already struck me as one of the richest country I have gone to, when it comes to animals. I pass domesticated horses and bulls, while recalling the butterflies and monkeys I have seen at Charco Verde. I walk and walk and encounter countless types of birds, notably the very striking emblem of the island: a bird wearing light blue feathers, as well as a crown.

Finally, I manage to catch a ride at the back of a pickup truck, and soon enough I reach the guesthouse. Time to pack, and off I will be tomorrow. After such a long walk though, I decide to treat myself to a beer, and I sit at the table where a conversation has been struck. Two young women have come to the island for the “Agua y Fuego” competition. They explain how a group of sports enthusiasts have come to the island for a few days and will try to climb up and down the two volcanoes in less than thirty-six hours. Agua y Fuego indeed: Maderas would be water for the lake that is found at its top, active Concepción would be fire!

Soon enough, we are forcing our way against the strong winds, the water quickly becomes rough, to say the least. Waves hit us at close intervals, shuffling the little boat around at almost horizontal angles. I cannot help but feel that perhaps the boat is little small for such waves

Dodging the hottest hours of the day, we make short trips to the local market or the Cathedral. From the roof of the Cathedral, we catch a glimpse at the surrounding chain of Volcanos, and as we explore the street of this colonial town, I assess how it compares to Granada


I am lucky enough to have a friend who has planned to join me for the rest of my time in Nicaragua. I leave Ometepe to collect her in Managua, and from there we will be heading to León. The ferry escorts me out of Lago de Nicaragua more smoothly than it had taken me to the island, and soon enough we reach the shore. I catch one of the American school bus heading to the capital. Between the island ride to the ferry, and the road to Managua, I am spending a good three hours standing on the aisles of buses. ‘Overcrowded’ would be an understatement when it comes to these buses, referred to as "chicken buses". I have had a chance to discuss the name with a local, who considers it originated from American tourists making an offensive reference to the locals overcrowding the bus. I argued that, perhaps, they might have been referring to their own experience on the bus. Also, some think the name refers to the chickens that locals often transport into boxes on those buses. In any case, the name has stuck around.

My friend and I reach León the next day, and we settle at a cozy hostel. The hotel has a small pool, which comes in handy in the hottest place of Nicaragua. We have agreed that our visit be relax-paced, the heat leaves us no choice anyway. Dodging the hottest hours of the day, we make short trips to the local market or the Cathedral. From the roof of the Cathedral, we catch a glimpse at the surrounding chain of Volcanos, and as we explore the street of this colonial town, I assess how it compares to Granada. León is hotter, messier, rawer, but in a way that makes it more beautiful, and definitely more real. The heat keeps striking ever more heavily, and so we decide to take refuge at the Fundación Ortíz museum. The museum is in a beautiful colonial one storey building and we walk around the many rooms, as well as the lovely inner courts, to admire contemporary paintings. The museum has a temporary exhibit of Goya paintings and how Dalí has reinterpreted them.

On our last -and second- day, we have arranged a visit to the Telica volcano, near the city. The volcano is active and has been on a gas-release phase ever since the nineties. We get on board a jeep that takes us out of the city and onto bumpy dirt roads. The roads get bumpier and steeper as we begin ascending the volcano, until we reach the end of the track. From there, we have to continue on foot, for a good forty minutes of hiking. We progress from grass to volcanic rocks that were flown to the slopes of the volcano during the last explosion. At last, we reach the smoking crater and take a seat on scattered rocks in order to watch the sunset. Facing the Northern part of the Cordillera Los Maribios, and its imposing San Cristóbal volcano, we patiently wait for the sun to retreat. The sun disappears at last and we decide to look into the crater, in hope of seeing lava. Unfortunately, the smoke is too thick on that day and we see nothing but white. However, one of our fellow travelers tells us about the Masaya volcano, located between Managua and Granada. The volcano is one of seven in the world where lava can be observed at all times, and we decide that it must be well worth a night visit, upon our return to Managua, on our very last day.
Later, we would arrange a visit to this impressive crater. The lava would shine a reddish glow in the night, and on the horizon we would observe the lights of cities that seem dangerously close, though they are surely at a safe enough distance. In the crater of the Masaya volcano, the lava would stir into waves and we would hear sounds that resemble those of the ocean crashing against rocky cliffs. We would spend a while looking into the volcano, awestruck, and would return to Managua for our last night. And in our luck, we would have long conversations with the driver, who would teach us much about the history of Nicaragua, its civil war, its politics, and -an all too common thing in Latin America- the more-than-questionable influence of the USA in the country.

We have an escape before the end of our trip, though. And what an excursion! We leave León after a short two-and-a-half days of visits and relaxation. We are heading back to Managua and will take a morning plane to the Corn Islands. It is with a certain impatience that we go to bed, already daydreaming of this Caribbean paradise, and in the morning we head to the airport. Sure enough, the plane is a tiny bird that promise a shaky ride to this opposite side of the country. We take off and cross most of the land with little complication, until we reach the sea and things start to get serious. The plane moves up and down, side to side, and it feels like the winds are strong hands shaking us with little mercy. I am not a confident flyer in such small planes and so I will admit that it is likely worse in my own perception than it is in reality. In any case, a certain weight lifts off my shoulders when we touch ground on Big Corn island. Only, another challenge awaits us I am sure: the boat trip from Big Corn to Little Corn. The winds we have experienced in the air surely make for a wavy sea, and we head to the dock with a certain anguish. Sure enough, we soon find ourselves shooting through the Caribbean sea -they use fast boats alright- among huge waves that throw us up and down like the roller coasters of a middle-sized fair. In the midst of this bumpy ride, I find myself wondering if I perhaps I have reached a point where I have had enough of shaky flights and bumpy boat rides. I can recall a harmless but frightful boat crash in Mumbai; the pilot of a Kuala Lumpur-Ho Chi Minh flight rich in turbulences shout “Crew be seated! Crew be seated!” through the speakers of the plane; a somewhat shaky flight to Phu Quoc island; the rough speed ferry ride back from Koh Rong Samloem; and a somewhat agitated (and long) journey from Myanmar to Nicaragua; not to mention the crossing to Ometepe again. In this case though, need I mention what worries me most? The water of the Caribbean is rich in sharks, and as much as they stay clear of the lagunas, they are known to populate the deep waters in between these two islands. If we capsize, I don’t need to come across one, only knowing there might be a shark will be the end of me. Oh well, I suppose it’s an adventure.

As long as it feels to us, the boat ride is not more than thirty minutes, and we finally reach Little Corn. The island is a car-free haven of nature and we must walk a half hour through the forest in order to reach the Northern tip of the island. There, we spend a snail-paced five days in paradise. The beach offers the shade of coconut trees, delicious cocktails are to be had, and the temperature is simply perfect. The first half of our stay involves swimming in dreamlike water, and even snorkeling around a beautiful reef. And when the weather takes a turn for the worse, we are still able to enjoy walks along the beach and meet local producers of home-made natural soap. As much as we struggle with the Creole accent of locals, we can observe the way of life of the islanders, though most of the people working in tourism are from Bluefields, on the coast of the mainland. The paradise landscape, the relaxed pace of life, the sounds and sometimes absence of sounds, it all makes for a tempting escape from the life we know.

Some of the fellow travelers we met have given us account of snorkeling tours where they came across nurse sharks, impressive rays, lobsters, and many more, but unfortunately we have made the wrong decision to put it off. The weather in the second half of the stay is mainly grey and somewhat rainy, which is limitedly inspiring for a trip to the outer reef. Our visit to the Caribbean will have to be about relaxation, food, a few nice drinks, and one breathtaking snorkeling session around the inner reef.

Sure enough, we soon find ourselves shooting through the Caribbean sea -they use fast boats alright- among huge waves that throw us up and down like the roller coasters of a middle-sized fair. In the midst of this bumpy ride, I find myself wondering if I perhaps I have reached a point where I have had enough of shaky flights and bumpy boat rides


This small country in the middle of Central America has been my gateway to Latin America, and it has shown me a brand new set of colours. I have explored this different place of the world, where the air is dryer and the sun shines a different light. From pre-hispanic artefacts of lost Indigenous tribes, to colonial towns, or the Creole culture of the East, Nicaragua at the end, it has proudly worn a clear slogan: “Agua y Fuego!” The water of ocean, sea and lakes; the fire of many volcanoes


We have returned to Managua somewhat smoothly, and now the time has come to part ways. It has been good to be with a friend again, ever so shortly, and I am happy with my visit to Nicaragua. It was a small time, but isn’t Nicaragua a small country as well?

This small country in the middle of Central America has been my gateway to Latin America, and it has shown me a brand new set of colours. I have explored this different place of the world, where the air is dryer and the sun shines a different light. From pre-hispanic artefacts of lost Indigenous tribes, to colonial towns, or the Creole culture of the East, Nicaragua at the end, it has proudly worn a clear slogan: “Agua y Fuego!” The water of ocean, sea and lakes; the fire of many volcanoes.

Nicaragua is a country of great nature and outdoors adventure. You might struggle with a certain lack of culinary diversity in the mainland, and frown at yet another plate of gallo pinto and platanos, the same you had for breakfast and lunch. At times, you will find the culture of the country fairly scarce, think that you could have done with one more museum. And yet, the next day you might visit one of the most impressive volcanoes on this side of the world, and you will surely be amazed at the display of nature you are shown.

Nicaragua is the land of three people: the Hispanic, the Creole and the Indigenous. Three people that make one in facing issues of canals and wearing the scars of a recent civil war with striking discreteness. I have found a certain distance in Nicaragua, and I suppose it is only fair. Tourism is clearly booming, and in some places the incoming dollars are inflating prices beyond reason, but ask a Nicaraguense and they will tell you one thing: that they are not impressed. Nicaragua does not need words, it has been in the middle of unfair politics in the region and knows better than to rely on anyone beyond brothers and sisters. You are more than welcome, and please have a good time. Feel free to steal a glimpse at the local way of life, but there’s a secret recipe to happiness Nicaragua will not let you in on. Maybe it is simply hard to grasp, what works for the people here, and maybe you leave with the feeling there’s something left to be said. At the end though, whatever it is you cannot put your finger on, it belongs to them doesn’t it?

PREVIOUS CHAPTER
NEXT CHAPTER

SHARE