Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS CENTRAL AMERICA — PART 37 NICARAGUA AND COSTA RICA – GRANADA TO SAN JOSE

Granada

Granada is a very colourful town and sometimes referred to as the ‘city of doors’ because of the lovely rows of houses that line the streets. Granada is the oldest city on continental Latin America, the founder was Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524 and the currency is named after him also.

I read an article about a couple from Tennessee who retired here as they were in their early 60s and their Medicare health insurance didn’t kick in until they were 65. They had everything they wanted – all utilities, medical bills, rent, food and car costs for $1,800 a month which is around £1,300. They rated it even higher than the couple of years they spent in Costa Rica as they thought the healthcare was better and loved Granada and its location. Will more and more US pensioners retire to Central America for a better life? Will they price out the natives or is this a valuable addition to the economy?

I was pretty skint at this point of the trip and I was flying from the US so I needed to keep money back for that. This meant was limited on how many trips I could take but I opted to go to Mombacho for the day as I love volcanoes and they are not readily available in Europe.

When I got the travel agency office my Latin American Spanish accent was so strong at this point that the guide actually asked if I spoke English when we got on the bus. I said I am English and we laughed. I bloody loved it but once we got into a further conversation it was obvious that even though my accent was good, my grammar was still rubbish.

The last recorded activity in Mombacho was in 1570 and they do not know when it erupted before that. It is not classed as extinct and it has four blackened craters yet it covered in green from the fertile soil. We went on one of the trails and it was in no way a difficult hike. The most difficult trail is ‘El puma camino’ but I didn’t hold my breath for seeing these elusive creatures. The puma is also known as a cougar or mountain lion. This cat has such a large range across the Americas that there are 80 different names for it from so many languages and dialects. Their favourite prey is deer and large mammals of that elk.

They cache the animals and snack on them which means they have to hunt one every 10-14 days. Incredibly a biologist has discovered that Patagonian cougars kill 50% more than those that live in North America. The science behind this is that they are forced to abandon kills by the presence of Andean condors, therefore, they need to hunt more guanaco (mammal similar in size to a deer and readily available in grasslands). This data was recorded by Mark Elbroch who followed them around on horseback in the pampas for hours on end – hats off to him.

In terms of endemic species, there is a Mombacho salamander which is a hardcore beastie that chooses to live at the top of the volcano. Conservationists are worried about its future as they have seen various species such as the scarlet macaw and the spider monkey vacate the area as climate change galvanises its grip on our highest points.

Mountainous creatures can only move up higher in order to live at the temperature to which they are biologically accustomed before they run out of space. The urraca (a type of magpie resembling a blue jay) has moved up a massive 300 metres. There are only 800 metres before it reaches the volcano peak.

The more pressing situation for humans is that the cloud forest provides water for the residents and the drier it is the less water is available to them. It isn’t all bad news as charitable funding and ecotourism mean that an NGO now runs the joint. They employ 40 people to implement measures to curb environmental ills such as deforestation, pesticide pollution and poaching. Hopefully, this model will reap rewards and if it does it can inform other environmental practice in a country with such wonderful biodiversity.

Leon

Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua after the capital Managua. I avoided Managua as I hadn’t heard anything good about it. I saw a blog written about Leon by two travellers whose nutshell summary was ‘Leon’s no gem but that’s why I liked it’. It’s a fair summary as it does have a certain crumbly elegance but at the same time it is rough around the edges.

I understand where people are coming from when they say that this is how they would like Managua to feel. There are some great buildings and tumbledown streets which cry out for pretentious black and white photography. It was founded by Spaniard Santiago de los Caballeros de León but it was founded close to an old town also called Leon which has been excavated.

Leon is important to Nica in a myriad of ways as it is the political epicentre and home to three of their poets, namely Alfonso Cortés (1893–1969), Azarias H Pallais (1884–1954) and Salomon de la Selva (1893–1959). A veritable Dead Poets Society. An English teacher said ‘everyone is either a poet or crazy.’ Other areas of Nicaragua refer to Leon residents as ‘poet’ and during dark times they say ‘the verses aren’t coming’. There is even a park, Parque Ruben Dario, dedicated to poets and their verses.

Leon is also a centre for industry, agriculture and finance and exports produce such as sugar cane, peanuts and cattle. Interestingly the liberal governments prefer Leon as the capital city and the conservatives made Granada the capital. Managua is the capital for reasons of compromise and centrality between the two.

When I got here from Granada I stayed at the Bigfoot hostel. Its a relaxed place with a bar, a nice loungey courtyard with hammocks, two pet turtles that roam and most importantly volcano boarding!

This was my last stop official stop in Central America before returning to San Jose for my flight to San Fran. I don’t know of any other countries that offer volcano boarding so I was well game. I did, however, get the time wrong as I conversed with them in Spanish and they had to drag me out of bed in the morning. Climbing up a volcano in my dehydrated and sleepy state in the burning sun was slightly painful but looking into the smouldering crater made it all worthwhile. We all wore attractive orange jumpsuits to protect our clothes.

It was the imaginatively named Cerro Negro that we descended. It is the youngest volcano in CA having only been born in 1850 but it is the most active. I volunteered to be the first girl to go down after the boys, I think that the reason for the gender split was because they were timing us. The guide said to tap your legs to the side to control your speed, I did that and lost all momentum and toppled off.

When I was halfway down the mound I struggling to regain any sort of velocity so I came off a few more times. It was very poor and the guide pissed himself – it would have been better to have kept both feet on the board and to have whizzed down super fast. As a result, I didn’t get any kind of rush from my attempt. When we returned to the hostel we got a free mojito and the guide pissed himself at me all over again. 

San Jose again and the Honduran military coup

The next morning it was time to return to San Jose and leave Latin America for good. Nothing happened to improve my opinion of San Jose in that time. Although I loved Latin America it felt like the right time to leave.

There was another good reason for ending my travel through Central America at this point and that was the Constitutional Crisis in Honduras. On the 28th June 2009 the Honduran army were ordered by the Supreme Court to get rid of President Manuel Zelaya. The reason they wanted to send him into exile was that he had plans for constitutional change hence the crisis, one of the biggest in Central America’s recent history. I remember seeing that buildings were being set on fire in the capital of Tegucigalpa.

It is very difficult to find much information online about the crisis, even now. Most articles focus on Hillary Clinton’s role in the coup and the angle they take it a critique of her judgement and handling of Central American affairs. Whilst I understand the importance of US politics and how this affects the world, particularly the myriad of ways it has affected Latin America, I see nothing that focuses on the Honduran people. But again, this is another massive issue with the Western-influenced news cycle and the lack of foreign bureaux around the world.

The reason for the troops forcibly removing Zelaya was they believed his planned public consultation to change the constitution was for him to make a rule to enable him to serve more than one term. He denied this as his motivation but the Supreme Court deemed his planned consultation illegal. He was also moving to the left which upset certain factions within the country and he was supported by Hugo Chavez, a dubious role model for a country leader.

The military had previously had a key role in Honduran politics but they’d moved away from this in the past 25 years. Zelaya had sacked the head of the armed forces which is one of the reasons the military turned against him.

Sadly, Honduras had been politically stable since 1980 which meant that this was a blow to a country already struggling with poverty and gang violence. At least one person died in the resulting clashes after he was forced to leave the country to be exiled to Brazil and later the Dominican Republic.

All heads turned to the US, as the biggest trading partner to Honduras their reaction was key. Obama wanted it to be resolved peacefully and was rightly tentative as so many US interventions in Central America have gone badly. We’re looking at you Reagan. The US then withdrew all aid that was not for humanitarian purposes. Unsurprisingly, it was the Costa Rican President Arias who led the negotiations as a leader of a country heavily invested in peace.

President Lobo was elected in the November elections in 2009 but questions remained unanswered around the coup. Today’s President Hernandez has to address the problems of drug violence and poverty in one of Central America’s worse off countries. I hope that he can and that the world will invest in the peaceful future of Honduras.

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