Puerto Momotombo

After three days exploring Leon, I was keen to take a break from its pre-Xmas franticness and ‘escape to the country’. I walked to the main bus terminal to catch a bus out of town to the tiny pueblo of Puerto Momotombo. The map in the guidebook only had an arrow pointing to the edge with 500m next to it, but I managed to find where to catch the bus I needed without too many difficulties after asking locals.

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An extremely public altercation between a young man and his mother kept the masses amused. One of the spectators gleefully tried to fill me in what was going down but unfortunately I couldn’t understand all he was saying. I got the gist that the mama was trying to stop her chico from getting into strife and he was having none of it. You have to give it to these women – they’ll fight tooth and nail for their loved ones without heed as to who watches on. An ice chest had upturned over the road and as I helped the vendor return the packets of water to it, el Chico came tearing through the melee causing pandemonium again. Mama, of course, hot on his heels. I decided to leave them to it and crossed over to where the buses were.

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I first had to catch a bus to La Paz Centro, then jump on another bus down to Puerto Momotombo. As the bus chugged through the hilly terrain, we passed all manner of transport including trucks, horse drawn carts and tuk tuks. Eventually, we hit the dirt road into Puerto Momotombo.

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This little pueblo is situated on the edge of Lago de Managua and in the shadow of Volcan Momotombo; Nicaragua’s famous volcano which looms 1280m above the lake. Volcan Momotombo was directly responsible for completely destroying the original city of Leon in 1610 and even left a miniature of itself in the Lago as a reminder of who was boss in those parts. Now a days a sleepy little pueblo pays homage to its slumbering master and a kind of quid pro quo seems to exist.

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I wandered down to the edge of the largo where a couple of thatched roofed open aired patios were situated. I had read in the guidebook that I could get a lancha to take me out to Isla Momotombo, however, this option appeared to be off the plate. What was on offer though (upon asking) was a delicious meal of pan fried fish with a tasty salsa, plaintains and salad. Washed down with my new favourite Nicaraguan beer, Tona. All for just AUD7! A cooling breeze came off the largo, local music was playing behind me, and in front was the spectacular vista of both versions of the majestic Momotombo.

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After lunch, I decided to wander through the pueblo and see if I could find the Unesco World Heritage listed site of Leon Viejo. It turned out to be just on the edge of Puerto Momotombo and relatively easy to find. I passed an hombre on horseback guiding his small herd of cattle down the Main Street and waited for the dust to settle before continuing on.

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The site of Leon Viajo was buried for over 300 years until archaeologists from Leon’s UNAN university eventually unearthed the chapel and central plaza. Further excavations revealed more of the city though time has taken its toll and most walls are not particularly high. It’s still an interesting visit and the view from on top of the still buried city fortress is phenomenal. Unfortunately, funds are limited so further excavations are slow to take place.

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My guide, Martha, started the tour then asked how I got there. When I explained I caught the bus from Leon, she informed me that the last bus back to La Paz Centro had just left. Martha was going back via La Paz Centro after work herself so told me I could tag along and catch a tuk-tuk with her. My options seemed limited so I agreed. We did a whirlwind tour of the site, then walked back through town to catch a tuk-tuk.

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Stopping at a small tienda on the main road, Martha bought groceries whilst I sat and chatted with the owner. As always, people from this part of the world are impressed that someone from so far away has come to visit their shores and want to know what Australia is like.

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A tuk-tuk came by soon after and we hopped in. The driver stopped to pick up another two people so there were three of us squashed in the back and two in front. The tuk-tuk’s little motor worked overtime getting us up the hills, but the driver performed admirably in preventing us ending up under one of the various trucks that came roaring up behind us a little too close for comfort for even my seasoned companions.

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A detour off on a rocky dirt track brought us behind yet another small herd of cattle on the move. As the two accompanying chicos on bicycles smacked their bovine butts with a stick, we were able to pass without incident.

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Back in La Paz Centro I waited on the main road for a bus to Leon. This must have been Nicaraguan peak time as the bus was so full I could barely find somewhere to have both feet on the floor. So close to Christmas, locals were traveling to spend time with family and the bus was full of presents and packages for the festivities. As it was I had to get up close and personal with a large boxed pedestal fan with a mass of purple ribbon affixed to one corner.

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I eventually made it back to the bus terminal in Leon and found my way back to the hostel in the dark. A quick reorganise of my pack was in order before bed as I was leaving the following day.

Leon

My final day of attempting to finish the guidebook’s walking trail with no further distractions! So much for 4-6 hours… Mind you, I knew I was going to be in town for a few days so didn’t knock myself out. More old churches and I came to the National University of Nicaragua. Leon is known for being the cultural and intellectual hub of Nicaragua so the university takes pride of place in the centre of town. This is also a particularly important place in Nicaraguan historical context as it was students from here that guided the revolution. It always makes me wonder what would have happened to these leading lights who dared to take on the old guarde with their liberal views, only to be rewarded with an early death.

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Pondering and pounding the pavement is thirsty work so I decided to find one of the many student bars mentioned in the guidebook to take the edge off a particularly hot day. The bar I chose also had a makeshift cafeteria in the entrance where diners could choose their combination of local cuisine from a variety of Bain Maries. I chose to just sit on my cerveza though the food did look good.

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Suitably refreshed and ready to continue this never ending trail, I made my way past the final few places of interest and ended up at the Museo Ruben Dario. This remarkable poet is one of the most important figures in Nicaraguan history, alongside revolutionary leader, Sandino. The Nicaraguans tend to rate a decent poet and many of them have made their way into local history’s records, but none so much as el señor Dario. The Museo was set in his birthplace, which was of interest in itself as an example of a moderately wealthy Leonese casa of the late 19th century.

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I chose just to wander by myself and read the many info boards (in Spanish) rather than get a guide. El señor Dario turned out to be a shocking alcoholic and after winning the hearts of most of Latin America, came home to die at a mate’s place. His body was interred in the main cathedral and his funeral took place over the better part of a week, attended by everyone who was anyone. All this for a man of verse. Like I said, Nicaraguans do rate a decent poet.

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By this stage, I was well and truly over pounding a particularly hot Leonese pavement and decided my afternoon ambitions lay in the form of a shaded hammock back at the hostel. Three days in a hot, hectic city had taken its toll and I made plans to escape the following day to somewhere cooler and off the beaten track.

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First port of call for the day was finding someone to repair my travel sandals which had started coming adrift. I got directions to where I could find a zapateria (shoe repairer) in a local market. A seasoned senor saw my sad sandals and waved me over to where he was hammering away on a pair of boots. Whilst we were discussing what was needed and the price, el señor kept pulling out a disposable razor and absentmindedly running it over his stubble. I tried not to laugh as the whole scene seemed quite ridiculous to me. Still he did a good job hand stitching my sandals for less than AUD9.

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I continued my walking tour from the guidebook, past a couple of interesting churches, until I got to Mercado San Juan. This market place had all the hustle, bustle and skank one could hope for and drew me in for a good explore. What you couldn’t buy in a market place like this clearly didn’t exist and you should just go home! The various enthusiastic vendors would certainly subscribe to this point of view and I was jostled quite fervently to examine the goods at hand.

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Once I was finally spat out of one of the mecardo’s many entrances, I decided to just take an unsolicited wander of Leon’s streets and observe the local streetscape and activity thereon. As dusk steadily approached, vendors were closing their little shops and joining the congregating locals in plazas to enjoy the festivities of the season.

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Back at the hostel, I got chatting to a couple of my fellow dorm companions and spent the evening swapping stories and more than a few laughs over numerous cervezas at the bar.

Leon

I awoke to birds trilling and a gentle wafting breeze. Neither of which was conducive to getting me out of bed, but I dug deep determined to get on with the day. Fresh fruit and great coffee was a big help. I asked at reception if I could stay another two nights and after checking my name was immediately given the OK. I wonder if they only initially let you stay one night so if you turn out to be of less desirable character they can move you on. If that was the case, just as well I had a quiet night!

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I decided to do the walking tour in the guidebook and headed off to the Parque Central. Here was what was missing in Managua; a large grimy cathedral overlooking a leafy plaza bustling with vendors of all kinds, hombres reclining lazily on park benches, and more pigeons than you can shake a baguette at. Oh…..and the local Blood Bank set up in the rotunda taking blood donations. The signage said it was completely safe and sterile but I wonder with the amount of dust, debris and droppings in the vicinity.
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I got myself a traditional Leon raspado (basically shaved ice with raspberry sauce and condensed milk on top) and bunkered down to enjoy this recommended confection. All of a sudden there was an ear piecing siren of air raid capacity. I looked around at the locals who seemed quite non-plussed so assumed there was nothing to be overly concerned about. After the wailing died down to more audible levels, I asked the hombre on the bench next to me what it was. He explained it was announcing the midday. A quick glance at my watch confirmed this. If this how they communicate time, I would hate to see how they would deal with any sort of disaster warning! It wasn’t as if the cathedral’s bells were defunct. One could hear the last of the tolling when the ruckus died down.
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Next port of call was the Museo de Revolution. Every major Central American city worth its sal has one of these grimy, poignant homages to the passionate soldiers (of both gender) who fought with the unbridled passion of youth for perceived justice and freedom. In reality, the end result is usually unthinkable carnage (on both sides) and very little to show for in terms of real gains. An affable hombre by the name of Benito was to be my guide and once attuned to his thick Nicaraguan accent, I found I was able to generally follow what he was saying. The guides at the museum came equipped with a short length of polypipe which they used to enthusiastically tap on images of El Senor Sandista, the nation’s revolutionary hero. This was rendering the good senor’s image to a succession of white blobs after successive tappings had penetrated the surfaces of the photos. Sheets of thick plastic had been used to clad the worst of these to prevent further damage.
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After being lead from one captioned black and white cardboard photo display to another, Benito eventually took me on to the roof of the building the Museo was displayed in for some spectacular views of the city and beyond. As I gingerly trod on the reinforced sections of the rusty iron cladding, Benito assured me it was completely safe and to prove the point, starting jumping up and down on a particularly dodgy looking bit. It was worth the angst though, as one could see Nicaragua’s famous Volcano Momotombo puffing away in the distance beyond the streetscape.
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I asked Benito if he fought in the revolution and he grimly nodded. He was 20 years of age at the time and many of the murdered revolutionaries he had shown me photos of had been his friends. I was a young teenager when the revolution took place and vaguely recall hearing about it from the sanctuary of my home town. How very different our lives have been. Fate is a curious dice. Benito believes Nicaragua was far better off before the revolution compared to now. An interesting confession from a card-carrying FSLM member. I didn’t press the point but wondered whether he regretted the whole episode considering the cost.
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I continued on my stroll past various buildings of historic interest (including a church that had been almost completely obliterated during the Revolution and was still awaiting restoration) until I got to a particularly strange little museum. Part depiction of some of the human rights abuses locals suffered by the National Guard, part life-size paper mache figures portraying local myths and legends. The whole effect was quite creepy and I felt if I had been brought up on this ghoulish diet, I think I would have been condemned to a lifetime of eternal nightmares!
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At dusk the Parque Central was ramping up in activity. Street food vendors were doing a brisk trade as locals gathered to take in the festivities. Aside from the usual Nicaraguan Santa and children’s activities, there were many of the local La Gigantona troops making their rounds throughout the city. A giant paper mâché woman, fancily dressed and with long hair and wide blank eyes, is brought to life by a young boy hidden under her voluminous skirt. When the chico’s merry band of drummers up the beat, La Gigantona is made to dance in a weird arm flailing manner. It’s quite mesmerising and just a bit disturbing to watch.
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I got myself a feed of street food and watched the merriment from the steps of the cathedral. A lovely end to my first day in beautiful Leon.

Managua – Leon

A lazy morning working out where to go to next decided me upon the bustling colonial town of Leon, which I could use as a base for a few days while exploring other nearby places. I bid adios to Michele who was heading south to Granada and sought directions to the local bus terminal. As usual, I had to convince the good folk at the hostel that I did not wish to take the tourist shuttle, but preferred to travel via local transport. That being firmly established, I was bustled into a crusty old collectivo of sorts and zoomed off to the local bus terminal.

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Here was the pulsing heart of Central America I had been missing to date; a ragtag fleet of antiquated old US school buses gaudily painted up with messages of eternal salvation from the Good Lord amidst manky markets and the frenetic shouts of bus touts. Catching a bus here is by no means a leisurely affair. The collectivo driver heads straight into the teeming mass shouting out my desired destination. A bus tout shouts back and my pack and I are bundled without further ado into the closest bus’s brazen belly. Just to make sure you are quicker than a brown fox, the bus driver stop starts to give you the not so subtle hint that you really need to hurry up or your pack is heading to Leon without you.

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My first foray into the Nicaraguan countryside was far from disappointing. As the bus traveled along volcanic valley floors, crops of maize and sugar were interspersed with cattle grazing on lush pastures, and volcanoes rising hazily in the distance from every angle. The vista, the breeze coming from the open bus window and the local Nicaraguan soundtrack blaring through the bus speakers distracted me to the extent that I missed getting off at the siding from where I needed to catch another bus off the main road and into Leon itself. One of the bus conductors casually sat on the seat next to me and checked where I was heading. Leon. But, we’ve passed it and are now heading to the next city, Chinandega. Oh, bugger! Not to worry, the bus staff eventually managed to hail down a bus heading to Leon from the other direction and bustled me onto it.

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I got chatting to the lady next to me and realised what the problem was. I had been on a Managua – Chinandega express (a very liberal use of the word…) which did not go into the Leon bus terminal. Mariel was heading into Leon herself so I got off at the right spot this time and caught the next bus with her into the city. I showed Mariel where I needed to go in the guidebook and she walked me to my hostel which was lovely of her. As we passed centuries old churches along bustling paved roads, I was glad I had made the decision to come here and looked forward to exploring this vibrant and interesting city.

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Via Via was a lovely hostel close to the Plaza Central and fronted by a lively bar/restaurant. High ceiling rooms were arranged around a pretty patio complete with hammocks for whiling away a lazy day. I paid for one night but was told I would need to check in the morning if there was a dorm bed free beyond that. I struck up conversation with some other travelers and had a fairly quiet evening in my new digs.

Managua

After a slow start, I headed off with my new Scottish friend to seek out the sights of downtown Managua. First stop on the agenda was the highly commended Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa with its spectacular vistas of Lago de Nicaragua and beyond. Passing the Monumento Roosevelt, Michele and I immediately started climbing the steps to its summit before we were stopped by an armed soldier over the road. Despite no signage, we were firmly informed that we were not permitted to scale the stairs and hence had to come back down. I have a personal theory that if a man with a gun tells you to do something, it is usually best to do as he says. No problem, we’ll just continue on to the lookout at the lip of the volcano which is where the better views were anyway. No such luck, another armed soldier advised that the parque was closed. Bugger.

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Undeterred we struck the first two ‘places of interest’ off the list and continued to ‘spot no. 3’ on the list, the National Assembly Pedestrian Walk. We got a block before we were informed by yet another armed soldier that we were not allowed to go any further. There are not a lot of places of interest in Managua and we were rapidly being denied access to what little there was. Back down the ‘Avenue of Christ’s Arrival’, we encountered a particularly lacklustre parque consisting primarily of concrete and the occasional bit of vegetation. Managua was not doing its best to recommend itself to either of us by this stage and we decided to hotfoot it to the nearest bar for a refreshing ale.

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Down at the Malecon we found the cheesiest of tourist centres, consisting of several large restaurants resplendent with Mexican Mariachi bands for your not-so-authentic Nicaraguan experience. Michele and I chose one overlooking Lago de Nicaragua and ordered our ceverzas. It was lovely sitting there in the wafting breeze, gazing at the polluted lake and our spirits were soon restored. Michele decided to head back to the hostel whereas I wanted to explore a little further as I was determined to find something that would yet recommend Managua.

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A somewhat nicer parque led to Managua’s old cathedral which was severely damaged in a 1972 earthquake and to date has not been restored. It is off limits to visitors which suited me just fine. One look at the wonky towers was enough to make me happy to just view it from a safe distance. Still, it was impressive and I enjoyed strolling around its perimeter.

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At last I had found what used to be the ‘heart’ of Managua before the earthquake crushed the life out of it. On its southern edge lay the beautifully ornate Palacio de la Cultura and to the north was another historic building now used as a government office. Opposite the cathedral was the tomb of revolutionary figure and founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Carlos Fonseca. A pretty parque lay beyond complete with rotunda, statues to national icons and paved paths winding through lovely gardens.

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By this stage it had started to drizzle, bringing welcome relief from a muggy Managua Monday. Back at the hostel, I caught back up with Michele and sampled some of the local rum we bought dirt cheap from the local supermarket. Despite a day of ups and downs, it was interesting and at least we got to see some of Managua before moving further afield.

Mexico City – Managua

When I worked out that the best transit point for this trip was Mexico City, I was so excited. Melodious organ grinders would be serenading me as I strolled paved paths under the shadow of glorious old buildings in the fading light of day. Nah! Flight from Sydney was delayed so was bumped onto a later flight down to Mexico City. Barely had time for a quick feed and local beer before needing to crash for an early morning flight to Managua. Room I was given was next to the ‘nightclub’ which had sprung up at the hostel since I was there last and pounded earthquake level vibrations throughout the building. Hence, little sleep was achieved and it was a bleary-eyed senora that emerged to the waiting taxi the next morning.

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The three hour flight to Managua flew over spectacular countryside and provided vistas of more than one active volcano. Going through customs at Managua, I remembered I needed to have US10 for entry. They wouldn’t accept the Mexican pesos I had and I was forced to exchange them for half the going rate and for US20 in total as they didn’t have anything smaller. Not a great start, but I found my pack and cashed up on local Cordoba at an ATM before catching a taxi to a hostel I had picked out of the guidebook.

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It appears that Nicaragua operates on a duel currency system – US Dollars and Nicaraguan Cordoba. I got directions to an ATM to get out US Dollars and then decided to wander downtown to the malecon at the edge of Lago de Nicaragua. The entire main street was lined on both sides with nativity scene displays sponsored by Nicaraguan companies, organisations and government departments. The glitz and glamour of the displays vied for bystander attention; each trying to out do each other in terms of design, dios and decibels in the form of gigantic speakers blaring out festive tunes.

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The malecon was buzzing with families out for a Sunday afternoon and enjoying the festive displays. I had a very average local meal from a street vendor nearby, then wandered back to the hostel via the ‘Avenue of Christ’s Arrival’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many baby Jesuses in one place. Ever. Some were quite noteworthy though; there was baby Jesus in the shadow of active volcanoes (some may say not so historically correct…), baby Jesus in the equivalent of a Vegas style Nicaraguan Casino (there was just too much glitz for it to be anything else!), and my personal favourite – baby Jesus being slowly lowered into his cradle from above heralded by bone-crushingly loud trumpeting angels whilst Ma and Pa looked on adoringly. Ave Maria!

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All that religious fervour took its toll and I was greatly in want of a refreshing ale back at the hostel. I met up with a Scottish girl and spent the evening in congenial conversation and icing up my buggered knees which were getting their own back at me for making them spend so long cramped up in a steel budgie.