5am, 20th April: The mist hung low over the San Juan River at Boca de Sabalos – beautifully quiet.
Above: misty morning on the San Juan River.
We took the 7.30am boat from Boca de Sabalos to San Carlos. Once again, when on board we had to complete a form with our name, age, passport number, current location, and destination. Upon arrival at San Carlos at 9.15am immigration staff searched everyone’s bags – I thought the searches were pretty brief to be honest. Nothing like Australian customs if they really want to check you out. We were amazed to see a minivan with a load of Western tourists in the wharf carpark – in our time at El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos we had seen three to four Westerners.
Above: map detailing our trip from Boce de Sabalos to Juigalpa in red; Juigalpa to Granada in blue.
There is currently a definite lack of tourism in Nicaragua. Toby Stirling Hill wrote an interesting article in The Guardian on 16 April 2019: ‘Nicaragua: one year after protests erupt, Ortega clings to power’. He discusses the background to the current political crisis. Put simply, Ortega commenced slashing social security payments and in April 2018 there was a nationwide civil uprising demanding his resignation. With the army neutral, Ortega turned to the police to control the demonstrators, but also recruited paramilitary forces. These were the men in black we saw in San Carlos. Between 325-535 people have been killed, many more still remain in jail. Over 80,000 are now refugees in other countries, as we saw in Costa Rica. When in San Jose, Costa Rica, we were disturbed to see many people sleeping on the streets – perhaps many are Nicaraguan refugees. Medical staff have left the country, and media has been repressed.
The San Carlos bus station is located almost next to the wharf, so we strolled over there. Rather quiet – indeed, nowhere near the chaos and activity when we arrived on 12th April. Our destination was Juigalpa – we considered the boat trip plus an eight hour bus trip in one day to reach Granada out of the question. Therefore Juigalpa was a half way choice with a bus journey of four hours.
We were glad to have boarded the bus at the bus terminal – such tactics pretty well assure you of a seat. While we waited for the bus to depart, numerous vendors came on board with items for sale: underwear; a Claro representative selling recharges – Claro is a leading phone company here; cakes; biscuits; cold bottled drinks; electrical items such as battery packs to recharge your phone – I always wonder about these – who would buy one when they have not been pre-charged and ready to use? The most interesting was the ‘snake oil’ salesman selling pills and potential cures for everything under the sun – even with our limited Spanish we could pick out certain words….and besides, he was showing all his magic bottles.
Pretty much after the bus departed all new passengers had to stand in the aisle. It simply amazed me that men, young and old, did not stand for a woman carrying a small infant. I felt like screaming. This was not the case when travelling in Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, women, with, for example, three kids under the age of ten would stand. Their kids standing as well, holding onto arm rests or the backs of seats where possible. Bus decorum is vastly different in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, the bus slowly comes to a halt, people then stand up and exit the stationary bus carefully. New passengers alight. In Nicaragua, the bus will slow down to a very slow rolling speed, or stop. People jump off at either speed. New passengers generally alight when a bus is stationary, however I have seen people hop on a moving bus.
Above: typical crowded scene on a bus – people standing in the aisle.
About an hour into the trip a couple of women came on board – one carrying a small green plastic bucket with a lid, the other a cardboard box tied up with string. A young man was cuddling a very young puppy. We were sitting in about the middle of the bus, and when the woman carrying the green plastic bucket got close to me she removed the lid to reveal a baby Red-lored Parrot. I signalled for her to put the bucket on my lap – she did so willingly. The box was handed to John – it contained another parrot along with four extremely young hatchlings. The trip to Juigalpa was approximately 140 kilometres and John counted six police roadblocks. Whenever the bus stopped near a police checkpoint the box was covered with a jacket, and the lid was put back on the green plastic bucket. We wondered if they were carrying out some illegal activity – pretty ironical if it was. Two birdwatchers looking after contraband birds on a bus trip…destined possibly for a life in cages. Who knows….I had noticed another family with a young bird travelling in a cut down plastic two litre drink bottle. They got onto the bus at the same time – perhaps it was just a breeder in a certain location and people had bought birds, rather than birds taken from the wild. I certainly hope it was the former. After about two hours I considered the poor things could possibly appreciate a drink. I took the lid off my drinking bottle, carefully filled the lid, and gave both birds a good drink. Together they consumed about a third of a 375ml water bottle.
Above: young Red-lored Parrot.
Above: John’s package.
The bus drove through what one would consider extremely marginal farming land. For those of you familiar with the western areas of Victoria where scoria dominate the earth, this was ten times worse. It became apparent that the only cooking medium was wood. We saw extremely humble homes – some constructions were of sheet iron only.
We arrived in Juigalpa at 2pm – it was stinking hot so we walked to the first hotel we could find – Hotel Masagua – and booked in. (Guru Maps are a great resource). A$29 with air conditioning and an ensuite bathroom – nothing flash, but totally adequate for an overnighter.
The next day, 20 April, our destination was Granada. To reach Granada we caught a ‘chicken’ bus to Manuaga (capital of Nicaragua) at 6.30am in Juigalpa. The bus arrived at a Manuaga bus terminal on one side of town at 9.30am and we caught a taxi to the other side of town for the Granada leg. At 10am, when the minibus was full, this is how it works in Nicaragua, the minibus departed and we arrived in Granada at the Central Park at 11.15am.
Not knowing what to expect, we were astounded: beautiful grand pastel coloured buildings and a church surrounded the park. It reminded us of other grand South American cities such as Buenos Aires in Argentina or Santiago in Chile. Granada is a stunningly beautiful city. High painted walls, wrought iron security doors in front of beautiful wooden doors. When these doors are open they often reveal lush courtyards and interiors. I felt like Alice in Wonderland looking in briefly at these foreign vistas.
We had made contact with a hostel catering for the ‘maturer backpacker crowd’ that promised a quiet environment. They had closed not long after the April 2018 demonstrations when tourism plummeted. The owner now resides in Costa Rica, and he very kindly offered us his home, with swimming pool, for US$25 per night. The home was wonderful. Many of his employees had left the country as well. However, one remained, and he was our ‘liaison’ person. I will refer to him as Tom.
Above: the pool.
Tom told us he had been pulled over by the police one night last year when going to the supermarket. Displaying a Nicaraguan flag used to be a sign of pride, and Tom always had a flag on his motorbike handles. But since the demonstrations that commenced in April 2018, a flag is seen as a sign of rebellion. On that night, Tom had a flag on his motorbike. Police standard tactics are to check a person’s mobile phone for social media posts – any mention of anti Ortega content, demonstrations etc, and you are taken immediately to jail. Tom was imprisoned for three days and tortured during that time. We did not discuss the torture at length, but he indicated they smashed rifle butts on his fingers and some form of torture on his back. He was glad to be released after thee days but has no idea why they let him go. He has been traumatised by what he saw other prisoners experiencing, and so many still remain there to this day. He longs for a ‘normal life’ and a job. But doubts this will happen soon. He said if we were robbed – highly highly unlikely – we feel very safe here – and attempted to report this to police they would not bother to investigate. However, should we report we saw a person bearing a flag they would immediately jump into action. We asked Tom about health care. He said you can be seen by a doctor, but there is little or no medicine available.
I cannot speak on behalf of those affected by this political oppression. Tom’s story left me feeling teary, overwhelmed and depressed. My feelings are hollow and superfluous when compared to the ongoing daily trauma, frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety he, and others may feel. His employer, now in Costa Rica, (as I mentioned) implored me to communicate the current political conditions as he believes not enough people are aware of the current situation. The national paper, La Prensa, dedicated to the ‘service of truth and justice’ (issue 22 April 2029) had a headline on the front page titled ‘Political Repression over the Easter Week’. It reported further arrests and persecution of eighty people during Easter 2019. I have been checking The Guardian almost daily, but there are no reports of these events.
Above: La Prensa front page 22 April 2019.
Thinking about the current political events in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka led us to investigate the travel warnings by the governments of America and Australia. This is what they say, as at 25 April:
Nicaragua: reconsider travel
Sri Lanka: high degree of caution
Nicaragua: high degree of caution
Sri Lanka: reconsider your need to travel
As Westerners, we feel we are safer in Nicaragua than potentially in Sri Lanka. When travelling, there are always risks: potential pick pockets, minor crimes and theft. But Westerners in Nicaragua have never been targeted politically.
On that depressing note, it was extremely hot in Granada. We played ‘tourist’ in the mornings and retreated to the sanctuary of the pool and ceiling fans in living areas in the afternoons. We found the Granada streets to be almost deserted, except for the thriving ‘market street’. Numerous hostels and hotels were closed due to low tourist numbers. John aptly commented that Granada is like a museum. One morning when sitting at our favoured cafe having a fresh watermelon juice with a dash of orange juice – delicious – we were approached by a man selling beautiful hand made pottery. We figured he had probably not made many sales for a long time, so I am now the proud owner of two bowls that I will attempt to carry safely for the next two months.
We visited the Cultural Museum at the San Francisco Convent. A large interesting collection of Primitivist art, historical wicker rocking chairs, old wooden doors, a huge scale model of the city, numerous statues of Christ in various positions – always with blood, and a fantastic court yard.
Above: an example of Primitivist art.
Above: courtyard at the Cultural Museum at the San Francisco Convent.
Here are some photos taken around Granada:
Above: the famous Granada Cathedral that features in tourist advertising. Lake Nicaragua is in the background.
Above: street view of Granada Cathedral.
Above: buildings next to the city square.
Above: a ‘chicken bus’ in the busy market street.
Above: local housing. Note that the footpath has been swept, and in is the process of being washed.
There is a terrible mismatch regarding cleanliness, rubbish and the environment. Locals frequently sweep the path clean in front of their houses – see photo below – and rubbish is placed in plastic bags and left for the rubbish collection truck. I dare to say we saw rubbish trucks each morning. However, any stream bed or river is a filthy polluted mess of rubbish bags, plastic bottles and everything imaginable. I don’t understand how the streets can be so clean and the streams and rivers so polluted. It is though the collected rubbish is being poured into the streams, but I am sure that is not the case.
Above: more churches in the distance.
Above: another church.
Above: horses and carts are widely used.
Our next destination is Leon, known to be Nicaragua’s hottest city – temperature wise, that is.