On Saturday 27th April we made our way to the Leon bus terminal. Even at 8.15am the streets around the bus terminal were an almost gridlock situation. Once at the terminal we hopped into the rear seats of a minivan – the others were already taken – and departed at 8.40am. The general rule is minivans depart once full. Our destination was Esteli. The minibus headed north-west along a highway for about an hour and a half. At the Pan-American Highway T intersection leading to either Esteli or Sebaco (onward destination was Matagalpa) we exited the minivan and stood by the roadside, thankfully in shade. This was a rather distinctive intersection as some vendors had hung numerous coloured hammocks behind deck chairs along one side of the road. We didn’t have to wait long for the bus, and we arrived in Esteli around 11.30am. It was a distance of 34 kilometres.
Above: the intersection.
We stayed at Luna International Hotel overnight with the intention of organising a homestay in the Miraflor area coordinated via Tree-Huggers. Tree-Huggers is a non-profit social enterprise benefiting locals via a number of eco-tourism programs. They have a book in English detailing the various home-stays and locations, however it was difficult to picture exactly where you would end up. Accomodation options were: residing with a family in their home, or in a bungalow. There were not many of the latter options, and there appeared to be an emphasis on helping on the farm and interacting with your allocated family. As our interest is bird-watching, we felt a homestay would perhaps be inappropriate. Our lack of fluent Spanish did not help the situation, and after discussing options with a Tree-Hugger employee at 5.30pm we decided we would reconsider their home-stays when we returned to Esteli in approximately a week. I would suggest to Tree-Huggers that photos of the various options would have been reassuring. (We later saw such a publication when at El Jaguar Reserve – it was excellent). We phoned Finca Neblina del Bosque Reserva, situated in the cloud forest area of Miraflor, and made a reservation for three days. We were told to catch the green bus at noon the following day from CONTRAN Norte bus terminal in Esteli with the destination of the front of the bus saying ‘Miraflor – Yali’. And to get off at La Rampa – a bus stop near their property, and turn left. All extremely reassuring and helpful.
Above: map of the Miraflor region. Red indicates our trip from Estelli to Finca Neblina del Bosque Reserva; blue indicates the trip from Finca Neblina del Bosque Reserva to Yali, then to San Raphael del Norte where we stayed overnight. El Jaguar Reserva is located approximately six kilometres from San Raphael del Norte.
Miraflor background: Miraflor is a protected mixed use area located in the North Central Region of Nicaragua in the north-east ‘department’ of Esteli and lies outside the city of Esteli. A small area of protected land is in the ‘department’ of Jinotega, however we did not visit this area. Miraflor was established in 1994 after farmers got together to address concerns regarding the need to protect environmental and natural resources.
Sunday 28 April: The journey to La Rampa bus stop made me think of that saying that goes something along the lines of ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ and I googled a whole lot of quotes along those lines, reflecting on the different interpretations. Excuse my indulgence. T. S. Elliot said: The journey not the arrival matters’. We arrived in Nicaragua on the 12th April 2019, and so far almost everywhere has been a vision of parched brown dry pastures and a mix of dried vegetation, interspersed with the odd leafy green tree. Except for our trip along the San Juan river from El Castillo and into the Indio Maiz jungle area… I am mindful that we have been travelling in the dry season and the rains are due to commence in May.
Sure enough, the green ‘chicken bus’ departed around 12 noon. Esteli is located at roughly 800 metres, and very quickly the bus travelled along an extremely rocky rutted road climbing ascents where it slowed to a walking pace of three to four kilometres per hour. This road was more suited to four-wheel drive vehicles, and we had read of tourists too frightened to drive this road in a non four wheel drive vehicle. The bus of course travelled the road in a sure and steady manner. We were amazed as there was a remarkable sudden change in the landscape: the landscape was green – there was green grass in the pastures! Beautiful old dry stone walls divided paddocks and fields. Cows and horses grazed on the grasses. Graceful tall trees were thickly draped with veils of grey lichens and filmy ferns waiting for the rains…branches covered with bromeliads, epiphytes, lichens and orchids. It was a breath taking contrast to all the parched areas in Nicaragua.
Above: dry stone walls. John took this photo from the bus.
At the La Rampa bus stop we turned left and dragged our wheelie backpacks up the hill for approximately half a kilometre – we had to stop on a few occasions for a breather as it was sunny and hot. Upon arrival at Finca Neblina del Bosque Reserva (FNBR) we were greeted by Isabel, the owner, and shown to our bamboo lined bungalow and then had lunch. Just for the record, Finca Neblina del Bosque Reserve (FNBR) translates to Estate of Fog and Forest Reserve. And fog is a keyword here….
Above: early morning misty view from our balcony. Note the shower in the foreground on the left hand side.
Above: the same view taken in the afternoon.
All the buildings are highly original and a little quirky. Our slightly rustic bamboo cabin had a balcony – it was delightful to sit here and look down over the garden and into the paddocks and tall vegetation on the opposite hill. It had a toilet and handbasin, however the the semi-circular shower was outside. The walls are made of rock set in concrete with glass bottles inserted at regular intervals. Hot water courtesy of solar.
Above: our bamboo cabin.
Other unique buildings were made of concrete with embedded bottles of different colours and sizes – all a bit of a Gaudi influence. And all designed by Isabel. Mosaics featured in numerous places in buildings and the garden. The garden consisted of numerous plants including azaleas, hydrangeas, bougainvilleas, daisies, roses, and Chinese Hats, just to name a few. Hummingbirds, Banded-backed Wrens, and various tanagers were constant visitors to the garden, and even an Altimera Oriel. Beautiful lizards were seen basking in the rockeries.
Above: another lizard.
Above: ‘Chinese Hats’ in Isabel’s garden.
Isabel, originally from Germany, bought three hectares (approximately seven and a half acres) of land in 2006. The land is divided into three areas: the gardens, restaurant and accomodation; a field with banana trees, and an unused field – sometimes rented to local farmers to graze animals. She now manages a thriving business, albeit the international tourist business has been a little quiet since the April 2018 demonstrations. However, weekends are extremely busy with many local people and day trippers enjoying a meal, a drink, and the cooler climate. And the free wifi – we were amazed to learn her internet bill is US$125 per month. Just one of the costs of the business…
At the time of our visit Isabel’s parents Ilona and Michael were staying for a couple of months. They have been visiting regularly for over ten years. They generously shared their local knowledge which increased our understanding and appreciation of local conditions.
Weather. During our four day stay we woke to thick fog every morning and heard Howler Monkeys around 5am – FNBR is set upon a hill, and the early morning winds caused the fog and mist to blow up over the hill – it looked like steam coming out of a kettle. Early morning temperatures were as low as 18 degrees Celsius. The thick doonas were a bonus. However the fog and mists disappeared generally by around eight or nine each morning, and clear sunny days made for enjoyable bird watching strolls. Potato and coffee growing are the main activities here, and plenty of intact habitat remains around farms.
Since visiting the Museum of Myths and Legends in Leon, I have been curious as to whether these myths play a strong role in the lives of Nicaraguan people. Therefore, it was a wonderful opportunity to ask Isabel and Ilona about their experiences with local village people and staff. Isabel maintained most of the myths I read about, and posted about in my Leon blog, are not strictly believed. However some locals still believe in witches and warlocks, but I do not know what influence such people hold. Isabel said the strongest belief was that a baby should always have its face covered until the age of three months approximately. This means that no one should look at the child – especially men who may be ‘hot and bothered’ after working in the fields as the baby may become unsettled, ill, or cry a lot. Sounds to me as though mothers are just trying to maintain a calm quiet atmosphere for their child…Since then I have been keeping a careful lookout for mothers carrying very young babies, and yes, their heads are always covered.
FNBR is located in the rural La Cebolla region. The nearest village, La Sandino, is an approximate thirty minute walk. There is no doctor in the village – basic medical services are ten kilometres away – accessed by horse, bus or motorcycle. The regional hospital is in Esteli. MSF (Doctors without Borders) attend twice a year and stay at FNBR. A dentist visits the community once a year.
We walked to the village one day, and it is disappointing to report there is a direct correlation between the amount of rubbish on the roadside and increased habitation and proximity to villages. We have noticed this everywhere we have travelled in Nicaragua, and I have commented about it in other blogs. Perhaps as a comfortable well off Westerner I should not be so critical of a country without as many services as we take for granted in Australia. That said, there is definitely a different attitude to cleanliness in front of one’s own home – always scrupulously clean, and rubbish discarded elsewhere. The local school is there, and children attend until grade six. (This is standard in Nicaragua). There are not many employment opportunities – from the age of twelve onwards boys are sent to work in the local farms tending to potatoes, onions, cabbages or bananas. Girls fulfil ‘traditional’ home keeping duties. If children want to further their education they can attend classes on Saturdays. There is special bus transport to enable these opportunities. Some adults choose to attend as well.
Isabel employees six people from the local area. Considering the location is really quite isolated, we were amazed to see a chicken bus stop at 7am in front of FNBR each morning and two staff members alighted. These chicken buses travel extraordinary backroads and are the life blood of so many rural communities. I can assure you this is well off the well trodden tourist path and we have now been on quite a few back road chicken buses witnessing the major role transport plays. These buses are local knowledge…not mentioned in The Lonely Planet etc. Horses are also widely used….. and you see them ‘parked in rural areas and in city streets as well. Thinking about transport, on our journey back into Esteli on 7 May we passed a house where in the front yard there was a car, a motorbike and a ‘parked’ horse.
I mentioned earlier that every day we wandered around the area bird watching. A visit to Finca Fuente de Vicla Miraflor was rewarding – this property participates in the Tree-hugger’s eco-tourism program. Established gardens attracted the usual bird suspects – hummingbirds and allies – and a well established walking track around the border of the property led us through some intact forest, as well as looking into neighbouring forest. We heard a bird calling, so I responded copying its two tone call. Eventually, and to our surprise, a Collared Trogon was only a few metres away.
Above: Collared Trogon.
A local residing close to FNBR owns a large short haired brown and white speckled friendly dog. This friendly dog was a frequent visitor at FNBR, and he chose to accompany us each morning when we set off for a walk. Or adopt us for a while…On our last morning walk, we had wandered a fair way along a road and suddenly a local wearing a backpack and carrying a machete appeared on the road behind us. I must say here that generally speaking all rural local men carry a machete when they are working in the fields, so nothing unusual.’Our’ dog suddenly started growling and his hackles were raised. Being a fairly small community, I thought the dog would have recognised the man, and vice versa. ‘Our’ dog started to walk towards the man, and he raised the machete in a menacing way. I grabbed the dog by the scruff of his neck and kept him close to me. The local walked past, and John apologised in Spanish saying he was not our dog. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had visions of ‘our’ dog not ending up quite so well if the man had taken offensive action.
Above: John with ‘our’ dog, called ‘Doggie’. (Name added to the blog 12 May 2019)
One of the important pieces of bird watching information I have not discussed yet was the sighting of the Three Wattled Bellbird. This bird is notoriously difficult to see – it sits at the very top of the canopy well hidden. We tried to see it when in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica. Along the roads around FNBR we heard it calling frequently, especially along the road leading past Finca Lindos Ojas. It has a distinctive bell like call, and we spent hours and hours of what I would describe as ‘break neck bird watching’ attempting to get a glimpse. On our final morning walk, once again we heard it calling, very near to the FNBR premises, but in the far distance. We raced across Isabel’s lower field and stared into the very tall trees in the far distance – we could hear them calling back and forth. And we saw two birds, sitting ever so high at the top of tree branches without much vegetation. We were elated. I have a grainy photo not worth posting here, but if you are interested you can google it. Apologies for not posting a picture from the internet – I am unsure about legal liability and do not have time to read through all the literature regarding creative commons etc.
Well, we had really enjoyed FNBR – we booked for three nights and stayed four nights. It was time to move on. On Thursday 2 May we walked down to the Rampa bus stop and waited in the fog for the 7.45am bus – we saw numerous Northern Emerald Toucanets hopping around in the trees. Our destination was Yali – once again, one of these back road buses that provides an essential service to the community.
Above: Ilona and John on the morning of our departure – yet again, another misty morning.
Above: the ‘chicken bus’ to Yali.
Along the way the bus forded a river. I recalled discussing the rainy season with Isabel and Ilona – the buses always seem to travel these back roads no matter how difficult the conditions, but apparently there is a lot of mud to be seen. And experienced – gumboots are an essential fashion item. Ilona said she was in the bus one year when it forded this swollen river and the water level reached up to the bonnet, but not over it. My guess is the bonnets of these chicken buses must be almost two metres from the ground – I can assure you none of them have fancy snorkels and such equipment as four-wheel-drives in Australia.
The slow journey to Yali along winding roads took approximately an hour – it is really not that far, but these back road chicken buses make numerous stops as passengers load and unload supplies etc. There is always a ‘jockey’ assisting on the bus, sometimes two jockeys. One jockey is always responsible for fares – it remarkable how they are able to remember who has paid and who has not paid. Sometimes the second jockey is solely responsible for assisting passengers with luggage, putting it in the rear of the bus, or on the roof. To see these young men scaling the metal ladders on the side of the bus up to the roof, often while the bus is moving, is quite frightening, given we are from Australia which has strict occupational health and safety laws.
Yali is a small rural town bustling with activity around the bus terminal. Shoe shiners were busy cleaning shoes, shops around the terminal, a square, sold all sorts of things from food to equipment and clothes. We sat and waited, and sure enough about fifteen minutes later a bus pulled in with the sign we were looking for – San Raphael del Norte. I mentioned previously that horses are a widely used transport option, but I have only seen men riding them. Suddenly when in Yali I began to pay more attention as this was the first time I noticed men riding horses but there was no bridle with a bit – the mouth piece. Instead, a single piece of rope was tried around the horse’s muzzle, and this acted as a single rein. I was quite taken aback to contemplate such horse riding skills.
The road from Yali to San Raphael del Norte, only sixteen kilometres, traversed some incredibly steep inclines as we passed the Yali Volcano.
Above: ‘parked horse’ in San Rafael del Norte.
We walked from the bus terminal to Hotel Casita San Payo, the hotel recommended by Georges from El Jaguar Reserve – our next destination – and settled into our room. The following day around 9am we were picked up by an El Jaguar staff member and driven to the reserve.
We experienced four wonderful days at El Jaguar Reserve (EJR), and Moises, our bird guide, was extremely knowledgeable with regard to birds, the environment and the reserve. El Jaguar covers 240 acres and the altitude varies between 1280-1360 metres. The reserve is owned by Lili and Georges Duriax-Chavarria. Their mission statement states:
To protect the biodiversity of 240 acres of cloud forest and to produce high quality environmentally friendly coffee in harmony with nature and with the community.
Everywhere we walked at El Jaguar Reserve we saw areas planted out with coffee trees surrounded by intact vegetation. We walked along a number of tracks through the intact jungle – it was difficult to see birds in the dense vegetation.
Above: jungle track – note the numerous trailing aerial roots – they looked like wires.
This property is a wonderful example of how commercial crops can coexist with the environment. If only other farmers around the world could follow in Georges footsteps…just imagine the benefits for our planet.
Our spacious bungalow had views to the opposite jungle covered hill, and directly in front of the bungalow were coffee plants.
Above: bungalow interior.
There was a Montezuma Oropendola ‘highway’ in front of our bungalow as they flew back and forth, back and forth – the fast visions of brown and yellow quite wondrous. It was breeding season, and the birds had a colony of nests near the kitchen-dining area. All was quiet at the nests until an adult bird flew in with food and the squawking commenced.
Above: Montezuma Oropendola nests.
Above: Montezuma Oropendola.
Above: Montezuma Oropendolas throw themselves forward when they call – a blurry photo, but you can see what I mean.
On our first morning walk with Moises we walked down to the staff kitchen-dining area. Moises’s mother La La is the chief cook for the thirty employees, and everyday makes three tortillas per worker, along with cooking beans and rice. That is ninety tortillas per day, and over 32,000 per year. During the three month harvest season there are approximately 120 employees – Moises said another two cooks are required for this period.
Above: La La cooking tortillas.
All the cooking is done over an open fire. Coffee trees have a life of six years, then they are pulled out and replaced. If a younger tree is diseased it will be cut off close to the ground and left to regenerate. It just so happens that the wood used for cooking is the harvested coffee trees. We saw piles of neatly stacked tree trunks all over the property.
Above: a worker adding more cut trees to the coffee tree wood pile.
Above: the coffee nursery.
Above: view of the plantation – note the natural vegetation surrounding the plantation in the background.
Our second day at EJR happened to be the Global Big Day – the 4th of May. This is a global event where birdwatchers record species they see during the day. We had never participated in such an event, and basically tagged along with Moises for parts of the day. Moises recorded eighty-eight species – this is a wonderful contribution as Nicaragua recorded 270 species for the day. I last checked the eBird site on May 10th and these are just some of the statistics for the day: 6,837 species recorded globally; and 33,182 people participated in the event. The world leader was Colombia with 1591 species – Australia recorded 478 species. John kept a list of birds seen over the four days – ninety-seven. We would never have seen that many species by ourselves – all credit to Moises. One of the special birds was the Highland Guan – a real skulker. Obviously no photos were taken as they disappear extremely quickly and quietly. Here are some photos of other birds we saw:
Above: Northern Emerald Toucanet in nest.
Above: Grey-collared Becard.
Above: Crimson-collared Tanager at the bird feeder near the dining room.
Above: not a bird! Squirrels frequented the banana bird feeder.
It is rare these days to be able to escape ‘light pollution’. At El Jaguar you can do just that – in fact, make sure you a have a torch as at night there are no lights to guide you back to your bungalow from the dining area.The blackness is a remarkable experience for city dwellers – so dark you cannot see your hand when held out from your body. One night I stood outside our bungalow on the road overlooking the coffee plantation. I waited for my eyes to acclimatise to the darkness. It was a clear night, twinkling stars in the distance. And in the near and far distance, the twinkling flashing of fire flies. Some twinkling like a bright bursting white light, twinkling in the distance somewhat duller, but still visible. The only sounds: the wind, cicadas, and the odd night bird. Absolutely delightful.
Moises drew our attention to a Three-toed Sloth near the coffee nursery one morning. The sloth was located in the middle of a tree, on an outer branch. This was our closest encounter with a sloth as it was not high up in a tree, as we had experienced on other occasions. It moved ever so slowly towards the middle of the tree – definitely a vision of slow motion. I asked Moises if he had any idea of the number of sloths that lived on the reserve. He said no, but said he had seen six sloths in one week, and given they move about so slowly, this was a fair indication there was probably quite a high sloth population.
Above: Three-toed Sloth.
On Tuesday morning 7 May we were driven to San Raphael del Norte and dropped off at the bus stop. We caught a bus to Estelli. There was an incredibly steep descent soon after we left San Raphael del Norte. When at the bottom of the incline, the bus stopped, the jockey jumped down from the roof with an extremely large bucket – perhaps able to hold fifty litres or so – ran down to the creek, and filled the bucket with water. This was then poured into the radiator, and we continued to San Rafael del Norte without any problems. Once there, we purchased our Tica Bus tickets to Guatemala for the following day.