Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Granada & Masaya

Sorry, no pictures yet because this computer has no working USB port (and three non-working ones!)

Ever-popular with foreign tourists and with good reason, Granada is a city where you can take pictures of the beautiful architecture almost without effort. Casco Viejo in Panama City was being restored to its former glory when we were there, but in Granada the process has been completed.

Tourism is clearly a huge moneymaker in Granada, with backpacker hostels and tour companies all over the place, as well as many touts and independent vendors clearly targeting the tourist market. But this is not to say Granada is in any sense not "the real Nicaragua". There are bustling markets catering primarily to locals, and all over the place one sees political banners and graffiti pertaining to next year´s Presidential election.

Granada´s got a reputation as a historic center of right-wing politics (nemesis of lefty Leon) but the political signs and slogans we´ve seen have been overwhelmingly pro-Sandanista. Same in Ometepe, come to think of it; maybe the Sandanistas are just more prone to decorate walls and buildings?

We spent a day and a half exploring the city, taking pictures of its old buildings (which I hope to have on the blog soon). We saw several churches, and heard much on the history of the city, much more about William Walker than the Contras/Sandanistas. Walker was an American warlord (he´s usually called a "filibuster" or "adventurer", but "warlord" sure seems like the best term from our perspective) who tried to conquer all of Central America in the 1850s with Granada as his capital before he burned much of the city to the ground.

The next day was a day trip to Masaya. Lonely Planet describes Masaya as having a touristy handicrafts market which is a good place to shop for local handicrafts, and a local market where all the, well, locals shop. We got off the bus in the pouring rain (Tropical Storm Matthew´s advance scouts) and made for the local market, which turned out to be HUGE, partially covered, and in parts very touristy. We bought umbrellas (at which point the rain abated) and sat down for lunch at a very non-pretentious counter. I was amused that, while we both ordered pollo asado, what we got was chicken cooked in very different ways; she got warm roast chicken, while I got room temperature fried chicken, possibly from the day before.

With the rain stopped, the two of us walked across town to the touristy market. It turned out to be very touristy indeed; the only people we saw who appeared to be locals were working there, and the stalls mostly all sold the same sorts of merchandise, much of it rather generic Nicaraguan souvenirs (including tacky cups shaped like women´s breasts featuring Nicaraguan slogans, which were being sold by vendors across the market). But it wasn´t all bad, and we bought a table runner, and we relaxed for coffee and tres leches in the cafe. (The waiter initially said they didn´t have tres leches; then he reconsidered and said they did. After a wait, we received two servings of tres leches, in cheap plastic cups. We think he ran out to the neighborhood panaderia to procure them for us. They were pretty good, at any rate.)

Then we went over to check out the baby spider monkey that someone had brought to the cafe. He took quite a liking to Jenna. She wouldn´t have been able to pry him off her neck without his keepers´assistance.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Ometepe is rural. It`s rural enough that on the island`s main highway it`s common to see pigs crossing to get to their preferred foraging spots. Buses have to honk so that horses (roaming freely) will get out of their way. Traffic is regularly brought to a standstill because some cowboy is taking too long to get his herd of cattle across the road.

Ometepe is an island where cars that aren`t 4-wheel-drive will have their movement severely curtailed, and for many sorts of journey the easiest and most practical mode of travel may be on horseback.

A pole painted by the local Sandinistas, and some dogs. Political posters, murals and graffiti was everywhere we went in Nicaragua, and it was almost entirely pro-Sandinista.

Ometepe`s located on Lake Nicaragua, an inland body of water so vast that it could pass for an ocean depending on where you`re looking out from. A lake so big it`s got sharks, though not as many as there used to be.

We went for a hike halfway up Maderas, the shorter of the two volcanoes. Although not an inherently difficult path, our hike was made more tortuous by the fact that the trail was so muddy and slippery. (I`m not convinced that there are times in the wet season when the trail is not muddy and slippery.)

But we saw many beautiful insects - including several huge owl butterflies that I had little hope of taking decent pictures of - and a couple of howler monkeys. The views from Maderas´halfway point were spectacular.
The taller of the two volcanoes, Conception, from Maderas. This picture does not do justice to the view.


After our flight from Osa to San Juan - in the smallest airplane I have ever flown in - we took a bus up to Liberia. Liberia is a handsome little city in northwestern Costa Rica, an hour and a half from the Nicaraguan border. We only spent one night there on our way north, but we liked it a lot. The area around the central square reminded me of popular images of old-timey American small towns. There was even a brass band giving a free concert in the evening.

Outside of the city center, though, Liberia`s got its share of chain stores, including the first Cinnabon we`ve seen in Central America. Or outside of the United States.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Costa Rica is the most touristy country in Central America. Seeking to avoid the crowded tourist spots and the associated pickpockets and shady individuals, we made immediately for the Peninsula de Osa, sparsely populated and home to a huge variety of animal species.

We stayed at the Iguana Lodge near Puerto Jimenez, home to friendly staff and several cats and dogs.

That`s Spike on the left. The day after we arrived Spike decided we were his humans, and for the rest of our time there he followed us around, even napping in our room and sitting by our feet as we ate. When any of the much larger dogs at Iguana Lodge tried to nose in on our affection, he would get angry and drive them off. The exception was the cat, whom Spike was clearly wary of.

Sometimes a group of squirrel monkeys passes through the lodge, fascinating to watch and maddenly difficult to photograph. I suspect a similar gang of macaques or baboons or other Old World monkeys passing through would make the humans lock their doors for fear that the monkeys would leave a trail of stolen food and modest destruction in their wake. But squirrel monkeys are tiny and harmless - their name is apt, as they look like squirrels with monkey forepaws and heads. They aren't the least bit intimidating.

Our first morning we went kayaking, which Jenna hadn´t done in years and I had never done before. Sharing a two-person kayak, our guide Adriana took us up a river through a mangrove swamp. We saw baby crocodiles and capuchin monkeys, and got a physical upper-body workout of the sort I don´t often receive.

On our second morning, we went on a hike, accompanied by an excellent naturalist guide, Sidnar. With his help we spotted all 4 species of monkey native to Osa: the small squirrel and capuchin monkeys, and the large spider and howler monkeys, the latter of which (as their name implies) are more commonly heard than seen. We also saw some beautiful macaws and parrots with Sidnar´s help. Sidnar has an excellent eye for these things. He saw a distant lump on a tree, one that Jenna and I would just walk past without really looking, and he set up his telescope and invited us to look through it. And it turned out the lump was a sloth, sleeping with his limbs wrapped around the treetrunk.

I didn`t take many pictures in Osa, but Jenna`s got some great wildlife pictures here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Boquete is a small town in the western Panamanian highlands, an hour´s drive north of David. It´s a relatively wealthy town due to the coffee plantations and the large number of rich retirees setting up estates. There are many long- and short-term foreign residents. Habla Ya! is a well-known Spanish language school in town and on our second day Jenna and I took a 2-hour refresher course to improve our basic linguistic ability.

Local coffee producer Cafe Ruiz let us start off our day with a coffee tasting, in which we were encouraged to pay attention to the tastes and smells of their coffee. (I had a cold so I´m not sure how many fine distinctions I was able to make.) Then we went on a tour of the plantation itself.

Young Geisha coffee plants. They are going to be mighty expensive one day.

Coffee beans. When they turn red they´re ripe for picking.

What you get when you break open a a ripe berry.

Bean washing and drying facility at the plantation.

The interior of the roasting plant back in Boquete.

They´re proud of their coffee at Cafe Ruiz. Panama is the only Central American country where coffee is grown by totally independent growers, as opposed to places where growers are forced to belong to and sell through a cooperative.

On our second day we went on a zipline tour. (All of these outdoor activities are scheduled for the morning. That´s because you can usually count on it raining in the afternoon.) It looked intimidating enough at first, as our guides talked us through the safety protocols, to be followed exactly lest disaster ensue! But one of the guides had his six-year-old son accompanying us so we figured it couldn´t be that bad. It was much more fun and less intimidating once we were actually doing it.

I had one bad habit I had to overcome. I consistently broke too soon, forcing me to haul myself the final short distance to the platform with my hands. Subconsciously I figured, better brake too soon than too late. My subconscious didn´t care about the automatic brake and safety precautions that would have kept me from slamming into the tree at full speed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Panama City

We began the Panama portion of our trip with 2 full days in Panama City, based in the neighborhood of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is the old city -- but not the very old city, which was sacked and burned by pirates in 1671. Afterwards the city leaders decided to rebuild in a more easily defendable spot, so they picked this peninsula which juts into Panama Bay.

When Panama became independent, Panama City was still limited to the Casco Viejo area. As the city grew, Casco Viejo went into decline, becoming a neglected slum. Recently the government began a concerted effort to improve the neighborhood.

Now, as you walk around the neighborhood, there are decaying buildings everywhere, and streets and sidewalks that are full of holes. But there is reconstruction work going on too. Several old buildings were in the process of being repaired when we were there, and much of Casco Viejo is beautiful now.

Plaza de la Independencia in Casco Viejo. Top picture is of the National Cathedral. The third picture is looking towards the glitzy new section of Panama, one of whose towers is visible.

That´s the President´s house in Casco Viejo on the left. This is as close as we could get.

Looking towards glitzy modern Panama City.

Our second day we went to the Canal. The Panama Canal´s visior´s center at Miraflores is very touristy, so of course we went there. What other obvious place is there to pick up a Panama Canal shot glass? We then checked out the museum on the history, ecology and workings of the Canal. It´s a very well-done, modern exhibit, with everything bilingual in English and Spanish.

Then we went up to the observation deck where, with the hot sun beating down on us, we watched as a huge container ship passed through the locks on its way to the Pacific.

The ship enters the locks.

The water level has been made equal.

And the ship goes on through.