Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS CENTRAL AMERICA — PART 36 NICARAGUA – SAN JUAN DEL SUR TO ISLA DE OMETEPE

Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s name comes from the words ‘Nicarao’, the Indian tribe who occupied the lake region and ‘agua’ which of course means agua.

In 2014 a Nicaraguan gold mine collapsed and 30 miners were trapped inside, sound familiar? It happened after heavy rain caused a landslide, the company said that the miners were advised it was unsafe. Many miners work freelance as ‘guiriseros’ going into the mines and selling any gold they find to the company. They have no rights and its a highly exploitative practice as the company then claim no responsibility for them when things like this happen. A dramatic rise in the price of gold has made this more lucrative. Eight miners never came out.

In the late 90s, Nicaragua had a female president, Violeta Chamorro and a female vice president, Julia Mena. Such a rare thing to have a female double-header but I desperately hope it is something we see more and more.

If you’ve been to any Latin America hipster bars then you will have heard of the Sandinistas. The Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the Somoza dynasty which was effectively a dictatorship despite being headed by elected President Anastasio Somoza Garcia.

The Sandinistas abused human rights, oppressed the indigenous and executed people. They also instituted literacy programmes, healthcare improvements and promoted gender equality. I wouldn’t name my bar after them any more than I would wear a Che Guevara T-shirt. Just because its considered ‘leftist’ doesn’t make it cool. Cultural symbolism and appropriation is still strong but maybe we’ll grow out of it one day.

The Sandinistas fought with the Contras, a US-backed right-wing rebel group which is where Reagan comes in. You just can’t discuss CA without mentioning him as he was obsessed with the place. He thought the revolution would spread which would threaten the US even though the Sandinistas did not define themselves as communists. There was left-wing guerrilla activity in El Salvador and Guatemala but they were not actually in power, unlike the Sandinistas. Reagan illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the Contras. Iran was under arms embargo at the time and so he was funding war on two fronts. It is known as the Iran-Contra affair but Iran is a subject for another time.

One interesting thing that came out of the Sandinista movement was the spontaneous birth of a new language. This came about as 100 deaf children were brought together in a special education centre and they created Nicaraguan sign language. Despite being taught Spanish and lip-reading with little success, they started a rudimentary sign language in the playground and it grew from there. Never doubt what a community of young people can achieve.

American mercenary William Walker ruled Nicaragua for a year in the 1800s as an act of filibustering. Filibustering in this sense meant to act without official authority essentially for personal gain. Nicaragua was a valuable trade route for the US and he got into power after a fraudulent election, he even reinstated slavery. He was usurped and later executed.

Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, it is also the biggest and least populated country. Their industry is based on coffee, bananas, sugarcane, cotton, rice, corn, tobacco, beef, pork, poultry, dairy, shrimp, lobsters, chemicals, machinery as well as precious mineral resources.

For my first stop, I was heading to the beach, I had no real plan for Nicaragua, I was pretty skint and I only had a few weeks before my flight was due to leave.

San Juan Del Sur

San Juan del Sur is a lovely, laid-back beach town surrounding a crescent beach. When my bus arrived there was a sunset over the sea, casting the fishing boats in silhouette and it was beautiful. I told the bus driver that it was beautiful but he’d seen it many times before.

I visited a hostel with a book swap and finally got rid of The Atlas Shrugged which was massively heavy, both literally and metaphorically. I swapped it for another Phillippa Gregory historical novel so I was pleased with that find. I couldn’t find the owners of the hostel so I wandered around the shore looking for somewhere to stay. Quite a lot of places were full but I found a family owned the place at the end of the beach which was alright. I also found a fish and chip shop so I ate them in bed whilst reading my novel. 

San Juan del Sur is an important region for the olive ridley sea turtle as they lay their eggs on Playa la Flor. It is also known as the Pacific ridley turtle. It favours tropical waters and can be found around Japan, Australia, South America and Western and Southern Africa. Despite their global reach, they are still in decline.

They are threatened by pollution, fishing and by boat collisions as well as hunting. Their meat is not considered a delicacy but it is used for leather, fertiliser, bait, and oil. The eggs are also harvested illegally except during the first 36 hours of laying when they can be harvested due to the risk of being crushed by other turtles. It is classed as a vulnerable species. In India, they collected 10,000 eggs and released over 8000 of the hatchlings into the wild. Go Chennai.

In 1992 San Juan del Sur was one of the places hit by a tsunami that hit the Pacific coast of Central America after an underwater earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. The waves came inland to five metres in SJDS and up to ten metres elsewhere. In total, the disaster killed 116 people, with 63 missing, and another 489 injured. It caused $25 million worth of damage and the poorest were the most badly affected when their houses and fishing boats were damaged. But you heard about it on the news right?

Isla de Ometepe

It was time to visit Nicaragua’s famous island. Whilst I was waiting for the boat, I sat in a cafe that was next to the lake. It should have been a perfect place but there was a spider monkey chained to a tree. I just chain-smoked and tried to pretend it wasn’t there. The waiter told me I smoked too much, which was great as I love it when men that I don’t know comment on my life choices.

They played a bizarre and violent dubbed Jackie Chan movie on the boat to Ometepe. I got off at Moyogalpa and not having much of a clue where to go I stayed there for a night as a base to see the island. There are nice walks that you can go on from the island’s capital and I was in a pretty relaxed mood with it being at the end of the trip.

Ometepe is actually not the only island in Lake Nicaragua and its name comes from the Nahuatl language, ome which means two and tepetl which means mountain. Concepcion is the North volcano and Maderas is the South. Concepcion is active and caused an earthquake of 6.2 in 2005 and there was an eruption in 2010. In contrast, Maderas is dormant and has a crater lake. The volcanos have two separate magma channels so it is technically possible that both of these flows could release at the same time.

A survey found 73 petroglyph sites on the island and the Ometepe Petroglyph Project is a volunteer field survey of the archaeology of the island. Thanks to the hard work of these volunteers they now have 1600 panels and 1400 boulders in their research bank.

These petroglyphs fall into the categories of abstract and representational. The abstract patterns are made up of various spiral-like and curved patterns. The zoomorphic and anthropomorphic representations are various creatures like monkeys and expressive human faces. Some of these meanings can only be guessed at this present time but I’m sure that we will learn more about them as research continues.

In terms of wildlife, the white-faced capuchin monkey and mantled howler monkey live here. When the mantled howler monkey reaches sexual maturity his scrotum turns white. Their diet is mainly made up of leaves which is how they survive on the islands.

On some of the smaller Ometepe islands, people have introduced spider monkeys which would explain why I saw one chained up. Fisherman feed them as they would not survive if left to their own devices with so little natural food available. Hopefully one day they’ll be moved back to the jungle, or at least somewhere where they won’t be completely miserable.

An important development in Nicaragua is the Grand Canal project, the idea being that it would be a canal through the country just like the one through Panama. But why would we need another Panama Canal that is so close when the one that we have is so technologically advanced, recently widened and was easier to build through a thinner country? China is why. It’s costing them $50 billion and it means they can avoid the influence America has on the Panamanian waterways.

The International Federation for Human Rights said that up to 120,000 Nicaraguan people had no way of relocating and were not compensated sufficiently. Endemic lake species will also be put at risk as their environment will be changed in a way they were not evolved to handle. The lake is the largest freshwater reserve in Central America and the canal will salinate it when it is connected to the sea.

The man in charge of this abomination of a project is Hong Kong’s Wang Jing, billionaire CEO of Beijing Xinwei, a Chinese telecoms company as well as Chairman of the HKND Group which is a private infrastructure project. He also lost 85% of his fortune on the Chinese stock market crisis which led him to be named the world’s worst-performing billionaire in 2015 by Bloomberg. 

Interestingly, he denies involvement from the Chinese communist party yet he has no real experience of engineering such a project. Hmmmm. The project is expected to be completed in 2020.

The canal will be much wider than its Panamanian sibling due to the need to get huge Chinese naval ships through. There will only be one bridge across this canal so it will divide the country in two. Nicaragua is obviously in need of investment but it is unknown how profitable it will be and how much the country will actually see the profits.

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