San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas region, Mexico, 20-25 May 2019

Getting there:

We booked the transfer to San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico) with Smile Travel Agency – just one of the many travel agents in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala.

We departed San Marcos la Laguna on Lake Atitlan on a 6am boat to Panajachel, the largest town on Lake Atitlan. I by chance sat next to an American social worker who has resided in San Pablo la Laguna for eighteen years. Prior to moving to Guatemala she visited with a medical team commencing in 1986. She assisted with the organisation of two health clinics called Odim Guatemala. The website is I wished we had bumped into her when in San Pablo la Laguna – her knowledge of local health and education issues amongst local people was insightful. Put simply, diabetes, heart disease and cancers have all increased over the past twenty years due to changes in lifestyle – the main culprits being the introduction of Western ‘junk’ food, and the reduction in walking and physical activity with the motorised tuk-tuk. In the past people walked everywhere. Not now.

In Panajachel we met up with the minivan at 7am near the wharf.

There were some interesting sights along the way to La Mesilla, the Guatemalan border township. Briefly:

# At one stage the minivan reached an altitude of 3,000 metres – as you can imagine, the roads were windy and steep.

# A young girl sitting by the roadside tending a number of tethered sheep – I wondered if she ever went to school.

# A wood yard – granddad sitting amongst the wood, a small boy, perhaps aged five or six pushing a wheel barrow loaded with wood. Another child, a little older, staking wood.

# At 9am we stopped for a food/toilet break at a petrol station cum convenience store. We were horrified. All the food options were highly processed junk food. Visualise: hot dogs, hamburgers, and carbonated drinks – Coca-cola etc. Packets of chips and allied products. We saw an Indigenous family sitting outside with a few bottles of Sprite and Coca-Cola. And I again thought about the information I had discussed on the boat ride that morning. And the negative health consequences.

Above: inside the convenience store. Note the ‘enticing’ food options on the posters…

Above: locals eating breakfast outside the convenience store.

Le Mesilla was a wondrous hive of activity – at one stage our minivan drove down a very narrow street – wide enough for only the minivan. The street was actually wider, but stalls were set up on each side of the road in front of the shops. Everything imaginable was for sale – when you constantly see the same items over and over and over, everywhere, in different towns and villages, in different countries, one wonders, for instance, how many pairs of shoes have been produced somewhere in the world and are waiting to be sold. Sometimes I think if we stopped production the world would have a supply for years and years. And years. It’s surely Capitalism gone mad…

We removed our bags from the minivan and stacked them up outside the Guatemalan immigration office. Our passports were stamped – we exited Guatemala officially. Collect bags and change to a new minivan – we now had a Mexican minivan and driver. We had entered the Chiapas region of Mexico. A short drive took us to the Mexican Immigration offices. Then the one hour officialdom process commenced. If you enter Mexico for one week or less you don’t pay an entry fee. Anything over a week and the fee is M$558 (A$41) per person. We were surprised at how archaic the system was. First office: present passport and complete paperwork. Walk to second office – wait in line. Present paperwork and passport – all the information was entered manually. Finally, pay the fee and receive a receipt. Walk back to the first office and present receipt. Passport stamped – all official now!

We now started to notice Volkswagon Beetles – as it was a long travelling day I required something more than the scenery to maintain sensibility, so I commenced counting them. Simply because I’ve always thought they have a strong ‘cute’ factor. I will return to this subject later.

A flat tyre along the way caused a delay of half an hour – locals lay branches at intervals across a laneway to indicate to other drivers there is a reason to slow down or divert to the other lane. Just as our driver finished the wheel changing procedure, a light drizzle commenced.

Above: colourful housing on the outskirts of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

We arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas (San Cristobal) at the Plaza 31 de Marzo – central plaza – also known as the Zocalo – at 7pm, having lost an hour due to time differences. By now I had counted sixty-one Volkswagon Beetles. That’s enough counting, I said to myself. Our hostel had provided explicit communication on how to reach them – even though it was 7pm we decided to walk rather than catch a taxi – it had been a long day sitting in minivans and we needed to stretch our legs. We had been advised to walk along the famous ‘Real de Guadalupe’ – this turned out to be a very pleasant street devoted entirely to pedestrians for four or five blocks, then it became a one way street.

Above: a classic Volkswagon Beetle.

More Volkswagon Beetles! I stopped counting when I reached sixty-nine and our hostel at 7.30pm – they were surprised we were so early, saying sometimes people arrive anywhere between 10.30 and 11.30pm when travelling from Guatemala. I suppose such delays can involve many factors such as your time of departure and how busy and time consuming it is at the border. Especially as the entire system is manual…

One final word about Volkswagon Beetles: Mexico commenced manufacturing them in 1954, and Google told me the last one will be produced in 2019. I have seen many old cars in repair yards being given a complete overhaul with new paintwork etc. Apart from the Beetles, even the modern versions, there has been a high percentage of varying Volkswagon models on the road – a loyalty to Volkswagon I guess.

The hostel is located opposite the stairs leading up to the famous Guadalupe Church constructed in 1834.

There are two small mountains in San Cristobal with churches crowning their peaks, and they are almost directly opposite each other. Guadalupe Mountain with the Guadalupe Church in the east, and San Cristobal Mountain with the San Cristobal Church in the west.

Standing at the top of the stairs in front of the Guadalupe Church you have an almost direct view down the Real de Guadalupe streetscape into the city and across to the San Cristobal Church. Seventy-nine steps lead up to the Guadalupe Church – I was told there is a pilgrimage on December 12th each year to honour the Virgin of Guadalupe. Pilgrims crawl up the steps to the church. Some have been killed in the process – I cannot recall where I learned this piece of information.

Above: steps leading to the Guadalupe Church.

Above: steps leading up to the San Cristobal Churchyou can only just see the church at the very top of the steps. (On the walking tour, mentioned below, this church is marked as ‘Cerrito de San Cristobal’ on the map).

After a few days we decided San Cristobal was the nicest city we have visited in Central America. (At the belated time of writing – 12 June – this is still the case).

Why was San Cristobal so delightful?

First of all, the elevation is 1,940 to 2,200 metres making for pleasant days and cool nights. The population is 185,000 (Lonely Planet EBook 2018), so not an overwhelmingly large city. It was easy to walk everywhere; the city streets are a grid patten, and as is typical in these Central American countries, there are many one way streets. The traffic is calm and slow in the narrow cobbled streets – drivers are courteous and give way to pedestrians or even stop to wave you across the road. This is certainly a very delightful different experience to other parts of Central America. The streetscapes are colourful with houses painted in numerous differing colours, and street art is interesting. I have included some photographs of streetscapes and street art at the end of this blog. The artesian weaving and associated items are varied and beautiful. The area surrounding San Cristobal has the largest Mayan population in Mexico. Indigenous peoples from the Tzotzil and Tzeltal groups live in villages outside San Cristobal. The traditional clothing of each group differs – one group wears a heavy shaggy black woollen woven skirt. The other group a wrap around skirt. The women come to the city each day to sell items such as genuine artesian woven rugs and clothing, and other varied products including plastic jewellery.

Above: Indigenous woman in traditional clothing.

We decided to do a free walking tour of the city – we were so glad we did. These tours depart at 10am every day from the square in front of the Cathedral de San Cristobal located opposite Plaza 31 de Marzo. When we visited in May 2019 the church was undergoing repairs and not accessible. Two guides conducted the tour – a Spanish speaking local, and an English speaking Expat. The English speaking guide was a French National who had lived in Australia for a number of years, and had resided in San Cristobal for seven months. Her San Cristobal sojourn involved teaching languages and improving her Spanish. She was a wealth of really interesting local knowledge including customs, politics, history, and local eateries etc, just to mention a few topics.

Above: Detail of the ornate facade of Santo Domingo de Guzman church.

Our first stop was the above church – the baroque complex exterior with filigree stucco detail is simply beautiful. Unfortunately artisan stalls crowded the front of the church. The interior was shrouded in plastic sheeting due to the ongoing repairs, however we had glimpses of the heavily gilded pulpit.

We wandered through all the artisan stalls – I momentarily toyed with the idea of refurnishing our home with all the wonderful textiles on offer – so bright and colourful. Hardly practical to mail huge boxes of textiles to Australia…

We then wandered up a side street to the Cerrillo Church – our attention was drawn to a sign on a wall of a man urinating. We were told that the street used to stink of urine, and since the signs have been in place, the street is much improved.

Above: rather explicit street sign with a powerful message – the street no longer smells of urine.

We stood outside the Cerrillo Church and were told about Indigenous people and their use of pox – (pronounced posh). It is an alcohol distilled from corn, sugar cane and wheat, and used ceremoniously by Mayan peoples. Generally about 45% alcohol content, however it is possible to purchase pox with lower alcohol contents. Many people, I believe men more so than women, but have no proof, sip it while praying in church. Our guide said she had seen many men passed out lying on the ground in front of churches. She underscored the importance of Indigenous people using pox religiously and also the belief of its medical powers. I thought this was a step too far and perhaps an education program was required regarding the dangers of alcohol, but it becomes a complex and sensitive issue when beliefs and medical science do not correlate and traditional beliefs must be respected.

That said, one can imagine a few blokes drinking too much pox in church then wandering down the street to urinate. There is a remarkable shortage of public toilets throughout San Cristobal. Occasionally you see a shop with a sign saying ‘Se Vende Bano’ which translates roughly as ‘we sell toilets’, so obviously you can pay to use their toilet. The city council, or whoever is responsible for such public amenities should consider installing more public toilets throughout the entire city. The sign pictured above has had a positive result, but it is not a positive long term solution for residents and visitors.

Our guide told us about the city being unsafe for women. When she arrived in San Cristobal she was told if going out, never walk home alone in the dark. If going out with a group of friends, always walk together in a crowd to your destination. If catching a taxi, first take a photo of the number plate and send it to a friend before departing in said taxi. Then have the emergency number ready to press ‘send’…She went on to say that in seven months of living in the city she had never heard of a tourist being harassed or hurt. However, violence within Indigenous communities against women was frequent and challenging. She showed us her favourite mural in the city, which had a message along the lines of ‘let the only blood women shed be menstrual blood’.

Above: street mural rejecting violence against women.

Above: a detail of the above mural.

There were still more interesting destinations: a chocolate tasting – we tasted numerous flavours, some being vanilla, cinnamon, orange; I’d have to say this was the best chocolate I have tasted for a fair while. A small art gallery with a rooftop cafe open in the late afternoon – the views over the city were commanding.

Above: views over the city from the small art gallery.

A visit to the Zapanista shop was extremely interesting. Briefly, the Zapatistas, a previously unknown leftist guerrilla army emerged on 1st January 1994 and occupied San Cristobal and other towns in Chiapas. The date is important, as that is the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented. One of the issues with the NAFTA was that it signed over rights to Indigenous lands to corporations. Without any negotiations with Indigenous peoples. The Mexican Army overthrew the guerrillas – bombs were dropped on the city and fierce gun fighting ensued.

The Spanish local guide spoke at length about the Zapanista history, and said he was only eight years old at the time. Even speaking to us on that day, all those years later, he said this event still gave him goose-bumps.

Our last stop was a ‘Poxeria’ – a venue manufacturing pox and distilling it in various flavours and alcohol percentages. We were fortunate to have a free tasting, and the science of how one consumes 45% alcohol was explained carefully. This is what I remember, but I will not stand by my memory. It had something to do with inhaling, holding your breath, slowly consuming the alcohol making sure it touches the top of your tongue and not the sides of the tongue. This is because the taste buds on the side of the tongue detect sourer flavours; taste buds on the top of the tongue detect sweeter flavours. We all carefully followed instructions and took our first sip – just then there was an all mighty clap of thunder and the skies opened with torrential rain. We all laughed….However I wasn’t sure if that process would really ensure a safe level of consuming 45% alcohol….

Over the following few days of our stay we visited a number of interesting places worth mentioning: Na Bolom, and the Centro de Textiles de Mundo Maya (Textile Gallery). La Bolum is a museum set in the house originally owned by a Swiss anthropologist/photographer Trudi Blom (1901-1993) and her Danish archaeologist husband Frans Blom (1893-1963). Frans explored and researched Mayan sites all over the Chiapas region where San Cristobal is located.

Above: glass bottles in the entrance way to Na Bolom.

Above: Na Bolom interior courtyard.

The Centro de Textiles de Mundo Mayo, located behind the Santo Dominigo Church was exceptional, especially if you are interested in art and textiles. I wish I’d visited on our first day, as you certainly learn the difference between quality artisanal products and some of the other ‘tourist’ products offered in town. In additional to all the hanging garments in the photographs below, there were numerous slide out drawers, each containing a single garment. When the drawer was opened a light set in the ceiling turned on, and closed when the drawer was shut. A remarkable amount of thought and creativity has gone into the design of the museum.

Above: just one cabinet displaying remarkable weaving.

Above: weaving detail.

I think I’ve said enough and hope this entices you to consider visiting San Cristobal. Of course, there is so much more to do than what we had time for, including trips to archaeological sites. Here are some street scenes:

Above: doorway.

Above: mural.

Above: another mural.

Above: a young boy examining a ceramic mural at the Park de los Arcos behind the Municipal Palace on the west side of the Zocalo.

Above: water feature at the Park de los Arcos.

Above: pedestrian mall.

Our next destination is Oaxaca City in Oaxaca State.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, 13-19 May, 2019.

There are numerous travel agents in Antigua, Guatemala, offering trips to numerous places, even volcano hikes. I wanted to do this, but a six hour steep hike to see lava was unfortunately beyond my capability. John had checked out a few prices online for a transfer from Antigua to San Pablo la Laguna, on Lake Atitlan, and some prices were around US$60 per person. Perhaps that was with a chauffeur – we didn’t bother checking as we considered the price too high. We wandered past Yellow House Hostel purely by chance. They had a sign advising the price at US$10 per person in a shared minivan – we settled for that.

On Monday 13 May we departed Antigua. Our minivan headed northwest – the entire journey was approximately three and a half hours including a brief food/toilet stop. Lake Atitlan is ringed by a series of volcanoes and mountains. The minivan turned off the highway – the altitude here was approximately 2,450 metres – and commenced an extremely steep descent down into the first village. San Pablo la Laguna was the second stop at an altitude of approximately 1,500 metres. We think this road may win the contender for being one of the steepest roads we have travelled.

Above: map showing all the townships around Lake Atitlan.

Above: the San Pablo township is tucked behind the hill where you can see buildings in the foreground – our minivan drove slowly down from the top of the hills in the rear of the photo. Photo taken in San Marcos looking back to San Pablo.

We booked six nights at an Airbnb property in San Pablo la Laguna, San Pablo for short. If you choose to look at Airbnb online it is the property with a picture of the lake and volcanoes, a pink lenticularis cloud in the sky. The advertisement states: Bungalow in San Pablo, Solola; on the following page: hosted by Stuart. The minivan dropped us off in San Pablo, and Stuart had provided excellent instructions on how to find his property. We walked rather than taking a tuk-tuk…and headed along the main road leading out of town to San Marcos la Laguna. Stuart has been in the process of opening a pizza restaurant for a few years now – it is not up and running due to a number of issues – and next to his dusty pink ‘Pablo Pizza’ building is a stairway – his Airbnb property is located down these stairs and along a back alleyway, actually in the bottom of his garden.

The two storey small residence has a kitchen, dining, living space and bathroom downstairs, bedroom upstairs. Wonderful views of the lake and three volcanoes. A sitting area outside. Herb garden with thyme, basil, marjoram and others. A fresh loaf of bread baked by Stuart was on the kitchen bench, and also a packet of his own ‘San Pablo Select’ ground coffee. Stuart’s coffee is a combination of his own plants, which we could see from the bungalow, and also beans from other selected growers. We were in heaven! Real bread! And very much to our surprise, we discovered this was the best coffee we have drunk in Central America.

Above: exterior of our bungalow.

Above: view from the bedroom window: Volcano San Pedro in the middle; Volcano Atitlan to the middle left, and Volcano Toliman on the far left of the picture.

The night view of Lake Atitlan and volcanoes was especially magical. A congregation of lights in one place indicated a town across the lake, then an area of blackness, then further along another congregation of lights. We looked into a deep grey-blackness, only broken by patches of multicoloured lights – shades of pale yellow, bright white, orange…some reflecting onto the lake. On a clear night the conical volcanoes could be clearly seen.

Our intention was to visit a number of birding places we had seen on the Bird Zone Atitlan website. We only visited one site as John came down with a head cold, and thus we had a very quiet time here. Therefore I really don’t have much to report.

When we arrived, Stuart and Elaina were kind enough to take us for a brief walk around the town to show us the best shops to purchase local supplies. Stuart is an expat Brit/Canadian married to a local. San Pablo is a ‘traditional’ town – it is not Westernised at all, more on this subject follows – and we saw only one small pizza shop which Stuart pointed out to us. Every second or third building is a small shop of ‘some sort’ with offerings such as eggs, cold drinks, packets of chips and other such foodstuffs, sometimes a few other basics. Fruit and vegetables are sold, but there is a limited choice. To my utter amazement half pound rocks are used in hanging scales to weight items.

Above: if you look carefully you can see rocks in the scales.

On our introductory walk around town we stopped at a shop that sold everything. From the outside it was simply a building with a doorway; I can’t recall if it had any signage. Inside – another world. You could purchase anything from ham to nuts and bolts, embroidery threads, towels, rope, mayonnaise, ice creams etc, etc. But you need local knowledge to do so. We stopped to buy some frozen chicken at another shop – once again, without Stuart’s guided tour we would not have known this building stocked frozen chicken…

Above: I took this photo so I could remember that the frozen chicken shop was a doorway opposite.

Stuart has lived in San Pablo for over twenty years, and it was a great opportunity to ask him about some local Guatemalan issues. Forefront on our mind was the rubbish issue. I hesitated before asking, fearing I may offend, but I really wanted some explanation, if possible.

Stuart explained that in San Pablo the rubbish truck drives around and people personally take their rubbish to the truck. It is a ‘user pays’ system, costing Quetzal 1 – that is approximately A$0.20 cents. Given this charge, many people either cannot afford the service, or choose not to pay and hence there is a huge amount of rubbish discarded in the town and elsewhere. I do not know if the ‘user pays’ system applies to all of Guatemala, but now having seen the Discarded People Exhibition and read the numerous factors contributing to impoverished lives, I understand rubbish is a symptom of many issues. The Discarded People post is in the May archives.

Above: San Pablo la Laguna mural – there is hope…

The indigenous people speak Mayan, not Spanish, and the language sounds distinctively different – far more interesting guttural sounds. Stuart’s residence is most likely the only accommodation in town.

The weather was always changing. Sometimes we had misty mornings. On these mornings the volcanoes were completely obscured, as were the towns on the opposite side of the lake. Some mornings were sunny, and by the afternoon it could be raining briefly. Lightening at night. Heavy rain one night. Always changing…

We walked to San Marcos la Laguna one misty morning. (A tuk-tuk takes approximately ten minutes…) The road was very degraded with bitumen washed away in places, and numerous potholes. San Pablo la Laguna and San Marcos la Laguna are as different as chalk and cheese.

In contrast, San Marcos la Laguna could potentially be referred to as the next Ubud, Bali, or maybe it already is and has been like this for years. Clothing, rugs, jewellery, and trinkets for sale – not seen in San Pablo. Lots of hostels and hotels; vegan and vegetation restaurants; an ice cream-gelato shop – even selling vegan ice-cream; a bakery – I bought delicious sour-dough bread; a quality fruit and vegetable shop – you could buy broccoli here – I did not see that in San Pablo; a small supermarket selling alcohol and everything under the sun a Westerner could desire, including kombucha and yoghurts, soba noodles, packaged gnocchi, and various goudas and other flavoured cheeses. I bought a tin of chickpeas, amongst other items.

I mentioned Ubud as we saw notices advertising various ‘well-being’ possibilities: yoga; soul therapy; psychic healing and soul medicine; sunrise stand up paddle yoga (on Lake Atitlan); meditation retreats; silent retreats; reiki; anger management courses; massage – expensive at US$50 per hour; and courses offered by ISTA – International School of Temple Arts. ISTA offers courses around the world and I just had to take a photograph of their brochure – I was curious. Course locations include: Bryon Bay and Dysart in Australia, Goa in India, Cape Town is South Africa, Hawaii and Oracle in the USA. I have not mentioned all the locations…

Curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to know what ISTA was about, so I googled it. Oh my goodness! What a can of worms! I didn’t read the various articles and pages, except for Wikipedia – if the words cult, sexual healing, non-profit religious and educational organisation and so on make you curious, have a look…I think you may get the picture already.

We had booked six nights at San Pablo as the Bird Zone Atitlan website detailed quite a few sites to visit. We only visited the Municipal Park Tzankujil, located on the lake edge near the San Marcos boat harbour. It is dry forest habitat, and the stepped walking trail and facilities were excellent. We were thankful there were seats along the trail…we managed some nice views of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes and Blue and White Mockingbirds.

Above: walking trail at Municipal Park Tzankujil.

Above: misty morning view of Lake Atitlan.

So, we had an extremely quiet time in San Pablo. Lots of home cooked meals – a pleasant change from dining out…San Pablo was a great place to stay for a quiet time. The only bothersome noise was the dogs sometimes barking at night – the same can be found anywhere in rural Guatemala.

From Guatemala our next destination was Mexico. That was going to be a big travelling day, commencing with a 6am boat from San Marcos to Panajachel on the other side of Lake Atitlan, then a minivan all the way to San Cristóbal in Mexico. We decided getting a tuk-tuk at 5.30am or so from San Pablo was probably going to make for an even ridiculously longer day, so we stayed overnight in San Marcos before our ‘big day’.

Here are some photos taken in San Pablo and San Marcos:

Above: wood delivery version one.

Above: wood delivery version two.

Above: making gravel the old fashioned way.

Above: building site in San Pablo – I think we counted twenty-four men working here. The concrete mixed by hand on the road, and shovelled into buckets and passed up to the roof. I passed this site the following day and there was no sign that the concrete had been mixed on the road – everything cleaned up.

Above: a farmer watering his onion crop on Lake Atitlan shore. He was also growing corn – you can see the plants behind and to the right hand side of the onions. The corn plants were over two metres. Something got lost in the translation and I ended up telling him it was very pretty, when I meant impressive, or words to that effect. He was delighted…

Above: Reptile on concrete post

Above: early morning at San Marcos – yoga session completed.

Above: the walkway from the harbour in San Marcos. The ‘tourist area’ is located between Lake Atitlan shore and the main road; most enterprises are located on this walkway or close by along some narrow paths.

Above: detail of ‘bottle wall’ seen in above walkway.

Above: another detail of the bottle wall.

As mentioned previously, our next destination is Mexico.

‘Discarded People’ exhibition, Antigua, May 2019.

We saw the exhibition ‘Discarded People’ in Antigua, Guatemala, on 9th May. Purely by chance…I have not stopped thinking about it since.

It is a photojournalistic exhibition by Marc Espin.

Those words – discarded people – those words simply do not belong together.

Discarded is a term we use for objects we no longer have a use for.

But to use the word discarded in relation to people?

Well, that really was an affront to my senses.

We read the first sign explaining the background to the exhibition.

Then we turned the corner and walked into the room devoted to the photographs.

I was…aghast. I looked at the first image and read the text.

I was moved, disturbed, and humbled by the images.

To say I found the exhibition troubling was an understatement.

Two days later the images were still forefront in my mind. I decided to contact Marc Espin and ask his permission to use his photos and text in a blog devoted purely to his exhibition and work. Marc responded quickly.

Marc also said: ‘We need to spread out the intolerable reality of elderly in El Salvador and the whole Central America.’ He suggested I share the exhibition on social media using the hashtag #DescartadosElSalvador – I do not use Twitter, Instagram etc and feel confident he would be happy for anyone to share the exhibition using this hashtag

What follows are his photographs and text. For clarity, Marc’s text is in italics.

I leave you to ponder these remarkable images.

The reality of people’s lived experiences.

And the political background behind these conditions.

Discarded People documents the abandonment of the elderly in rural areas of El Salvador. The photographic exhibition is based on the book of the same name written by the journalist Marc Espin, born in Barcelona. It is composed of fifteen intimate portraits and brief life stories organised in five dimensions that express the main causes of deprivation of Salvadorans over 60: income, health, habitat, education and gender.

To carry out this research, in 2016 and 2017 the author visited more than fifty homes in 15 rural communities of the municipality of Tecoluca (San Vicente), in the Salvadoran region of the Lower Lempa River. After dozens of interviews and thousands of photographs, he collected in this work the most representative stories of poverty and social exclusion suffered by hundreds of thousands of people in Central America.

As part of an international non-profit international cooperation project, the work seeks to make visible the needs of older adults and motivate actions that contribute to improving their lives. In accordance with this goal, the author himself has promoted a pilot project of sponsorship that already provides income to nine elderly people living in extreme poverty.

Marc Espin (1979) is a journalist and professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics and International Affairs. Among his main concerns are inequality and Central America, a region in which he has lived for nearly a decade. Discarded People is his first professional photojournalistic work.

Background information:


There are three sources of income for elderly in rural areas of El Salvador: family, work, and pensions. Families assume, usually with serious economic difficulties, most of the living expenses. The work in the field is scarce, informal, unstable, and poorly paid, and there is no age limit for retirement. The pension system covers one out of every four people over 60.


Most Salvadorians who are over 60 years old die from cardiovascular diseases, pneumonia, kidney failure and diabetes. Life expectancy is 72.75 years – 77.44 for women and 68.3 for men. Advanced age is the leading cause of disability and it is a stage in which the quality of life reduces drastically. The poorest older people often do not receive diagnosis or medical treatments. Access to health services is conditioned by the long distances to health centres, staff shortages, excessive waiting lists, poor and non specialised care, lack of medicines and difficulties in obtaining time off work to see the doctor.


Half of Salvadorian families do not own the space they inhabit and about 150,000 are permitted to stay in properties free of charge but without any guarantee of permanence. More than 400,000 of the country’s housing properties lack essential living conditions and 67% of these houses are located in rural areas, often remote and inaccessible. One in three rural households is crowded. In a hostile environment, poor elderly people are especially vulnerable.


One in three people over 60 are illiterate. The 10.14% illiteracy rate in the country is doubled in rural areas, and government efforts to reduce it among older populations have not been effective. This is due to, at least, four reasons: underinvestment, lack of qualified literacy teachers, discontinuous programs and absence of a teaching strategy that takes into consideration the learning difficulties of the eldest.


Women suffer the problems of the elderly more severely; the number of women receiving the pension is lower; their pensions and wages are also lower; they face more obstacles in accessing health services; they have unequal rights in property in comparison compared to men; their rate of illiteracy is higher. In addition, elder women suffer gender discrimination in even more ways: marital abandonment, abandonment from sons and daughters, physical and psychological violence or lack of support in responsibilities relating to home care and family.


Above: Isabel Santiago Sanchez (84, Puerto Nuevo) photograph 2466.

For years he made a good living repairing boats like the one on his porch but, due to his age, he is rarely hired nowadays. He lives alone and receives no pension. His neighbour is actually one of his grandsons and he helps him with the food. His children also bring him rice, beans and vegetables whenever they visit him. That’s how he manages.

Above: Lina Mercedes Espinoza (79, Rancho Grande) photograph 3295

Abandoned by her husband, she earned money by washing clothes and cleaning houses in order to support her children. They occupied for years a shack built with galvanised sheets. After hurricane Mitch (1998) hit the area, they got a concrete blockhouse thanks to an international cooperation project. Nowadays, she lives with her only remaining son, a 65 year old collier. He does not get a job and she has no strength to look for one. Without income, they just eat what a niece brings them.

Above: Maria Luz Gonzalez (63, El Porvenir) photograph 6335

She is illiterate. Her mother withdrew her from school because her classmates used to beat her, so her mom said: ”we will teach you how to work with the machete.” She worked, learnt, started a relationship and had nine children. Now she lives alone in a shack made of galvanised sheets. She still works in the field, but she hasn’t got much strength left. Sometimes she does not have a single cent to buy bread or even a bag of milk and her children do not help her. ”When there is food I eat, but if there’s not, I simply don’t ” she states.

Above: Maria Isabel Guardado (83, San Bartolo) photograph 5805

She lived alone until she broke her leg in a fall. Then, her eldest daughter decided to take her to her house to look after her. The pain is severe, but now there is no money for painkillers, so she has to endure it. Maria Isabel also suffers from kidney failure, and often feels dizzy. She is hard of hearing and blind in one eye.

Above: Luciano Huezo (85) and Margarita Martinez (76) (San Bartolo) photograph 6075

Luciano suffers from kidney failure and needs a pacemaker, but the waiting lists in the public system are endless and the cheapest operation costs US$1,500, more than what the couple earns in a year. Diseases already killed five of the seven children they had, three of them under ten.

Above: Gregoria Rivas (78) and Jose Roberto Mejia (60) (Santa Marta) photograph 3948

They got married last year after a seven year relationship. When Gregoria registered her house in her only living son’s name, he pushed her to move out with her husband. That is how they ended up living in this 6 m2 shack with plastic walls and a tin roof that was borrowed from an acquaintance. It is as hot as a sauna inside. Since they don’t have running water, they resort to using their neighbours’.

Above: Pilar Mendez (61, Rancho Grande) photograph 3624

She lives, with her daughter and six grandchildren, in this shack made of planks and rusted sheets which is in danger of collapsing. She need medical care, medicines, and income…but if she could choose, her priority would be to have a property to live decently with her family. The borrowed house in which they reside is crumbling. Even if it does not fall apart before, they will need to give it back in a year and find another place to stay.

Above: Concepcion Palacios (68, Las Areneras) photograph 5075

She never went to school. Now that she’s older, a granddaughter teaches her to read and write when she gets back from high school. After three weeks of taking classes, Concepcion only learnt to write her name. She blames herself for ”not being smart enough.” She has worked as a house cleaner her entire life, but she has had an ulcer on her leg that has prevented her from working in the last years, so she dedicates her time to look after her grandniece.

Above: Carlos Zavala (86, Nueva Concepcion) photograph 2282

He started work at the age of six, when his father died, so he had no childhood: neither games or school, just work. He broke his leg over a decade ago but it didn’t heal properly . Despite the limp, he continued to work the cornfields for a while, but he now has serious difficulties walking. Carlos comforts himself with his belief that ”life is not given, but borrowed;” therefore, sooner than later, when he returns it, he will stop suffering.

Above: Lucila Mendoza (75, Rancho Grande) photograph 3343

Her granddaughter, Jaquelin Marielos (17 years old) was a child when her mother emigrated to the United States after being abandoned by the father. From then on, they both depend on the mother’s remittance, which is barely enough for them to eat. A recent eye surgery and the scarce resources she has make it even more difficult for her to look after her teen granddaughter, who is disabled. However, she accepts the situation as a dead-end street; if her daughter decided to return and take care of them, ”how would we eat?’,” she wonders.

Above: Elena Marta Orellana (73, Primero de Mayo) photograph 4752

She takes care of her son, who has a mental disability. Another son lives next door with his family. He helps her as much as possible, but his job as a farmer only provides him with the essentials to live.

Above: Pastoria Arias (77, Santa Marta)

She is single and has no income. Pastoria lives in a house of 20 m2 only accompanied by a portrait of her husband, who died in the war.

Above: Jose Isabel Vasques ( 82, Ranchero Grande)

The field was my school.

Above: Felix Yanes (77, San Carlos)

Three years ago he had to stop working the cornfields because he had no strength. With a pension of only US$50 per month, which never arrives on time, he and his blind wife must rely on their children and grandchildren to get by.

Above: Faustina Bernabe ( 78, San Carlos)

Four rapes gave her four children she feels very proud of. She says she has made many mistakes in her life. One of them is not having told her children the truth.

Please feel free to share this public blog with friends and colleagues. It can be found at: in the May archives.

Antigua, Guatemala, 9-12 May 2019.

Getting there: I would like to share the story about our journey from Esteli in Nicaragua to Antigua, Guatemala. We travelled through four countries: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and into Guatemala.

Above: the red line indicates our journey on 8 May travelling from Esteli, Nicaragua, to San Salvador in El Salvador. The blue line indicates our journey the following day to Guatemala City, then Antigua in Guatemala. The thin black lines on the map represent borders.

We were at El Jaguar Reserve in the Miraflor region (Nicaragua) and tried to book our Tica bus fares online a few days before we needed to travel, but as we took too long to complete the online form it timed out on us. We were than asked if we wanted to proceed, so we said yes. The website then advised my credit card had an incorrect expiry date and we could not complete the booking. We had definitely entered the correct expiry date, so I became rather upset about potential fraudulent sites etc etc. Within a few hours I received an email from the credit card company advising they had detected fraudulent activity regarding the Tica bus purchase. And they had blocked my card! I responded immediately telling them what had occurred, and requested they unblock my card. This they did – thank heavens! I also told them I would purchase the tickets in person in a few days time…When in Estelí overnight before we travelled to the Miraflor area we had checked out the Tica bus office close to the city square – it was closed on a Sunday, but we felt reassured it was there.

We arrived back in Esteli late morning Tuesday 7 May, dropped our bags at our hostel, and immediately walked to the Tica bus office. Bingo! We were able to purchase fares for the next day, (A$190) for two of us) and in doing so managed to use nearly all of our excess cash.

Wednesday 8 May: we departed our hostel at 6.20am, and caught a taxi to the StarMart/Uno petrol station on the main road towards the far end of town. (Opposite direction to the CONTRAN bus terminal for anyone reading this and contemplating a similar journey). Less than a ten minute drive. Already the roads were extremely busy with a huge variety of transport visible – open back Utes – people standing or sitting in them, trucks, tractors towing trailers, and buses for example. We were really surprised to see maybe eighty to ninety people standing or sitting near a large circular planter in front of the petrol station. We wondered why so many people were there… Well, turns out this was a meeting point for workers to be transported out to the agricultural areas in Miraflor. Large trucks, similar to trucks used to transport cattle, pulled into the service station, and people climbed up into the tray. Within fifteen minutes all the people were gone…

Above: mass transport for workers. The man in blue on the right hand side of the photo fills cars etc with fuel – all stations have such workers. Generally one worker per bowser.

We had been told to be at the Star Mart/Uno petrol station by 6.45am. The bus arrived at 8.10am…by this time we were becoming a little worried, and also hungry as there had been no time for breakfast.

It was a long day. Close to the Nicaraguan border I saw two billboards with a politician and his wife ‘waving goodbye ‘ – I am pretty positive it was Ortega and his wife. We departed Nicaragua – exited the bus and went through immigration. Bags searched. Exit fees paid. Even the bus went through a huge scanning machine…

10.15am approximately: Enter Honduras – exited the bus and went through immigration. Finger printed – even though we were travelling through the country and continuing into El Salvador… Pay entry fees…fortunately our bus assistant managed all the finances and looked after the passports. Surprised to see an extremely large solar farm, the largest I have seen, outside a town called Pavana. Departed Honduras at 1.15pm approximately.

1.30pm approximately: Enter El Salvador. We stayed on the bus while an immigration official ticked us off on his paperwork. A sniffer dog was brought into the bus. Three quarters of an hour later the immigration staff had completed their checks, including the baggage below, and we departed. A welcome food stop between 2.30-2.45pm – we were pretty hungry by then. Oreo biscuits had sustained us during the morning.

Finally arrived in San Salvador at 6.35pm, the capital of El Salvador. It was dark. We had not booked any accommodation, but as there were so few tourists in Nicaragua due to the 2018 demonstrations and the ongoing difficult political climate, the bus was only a third full and we knew there would be no trouble obtaining a room. Besides, John had checked online, and Tica bus has two terminals in San Salvador – we did not know exactly where our journey would end. Anyway, Tica bus detailed hotels on their website right next to both terminals, so no need to worry. We walked into the hotel above the Tica bus office and obtained a room. Basic, but sufficient. The hotel had a restaurant – impossible to eat there. The loud music was far too loud – we could not hear ourselves think; the lighting was extremely dim, and thus we were unable to read the black menu…What to do? We walked down the street towards a Wendy’s and a Pizza Hut, both next to each other. Neither were very appealing, but we settled on the Pizza Hut.

We were amazed. Both car parks were full of shiny new looking cars – no spare parking spaces. I’d guess the Pizza Hut was about two-thirds full – a high proportion of families with children. We ordered two small pizzas and two orange juices – the bill came to US$18 (A$26). We honestly wondered what was going on in El Salvador given the very high poverty rate. Only a small proportion of Salvadorians would be able to afford meals at Pizza Hut and allied food outlets. Having made that statement, I commenced googling poverty statistics in Central America and became lost in a maze of resources; one could devote a lifetime to such research, and many do, thankfully.

Many of you reading this blog will be aware of political and social conditions in Central America. Deciding I wanted more precise information about the countries we visited and travelled through (except Costa Rica), I chose Oxfam as a reliable source of information. I quote (in italics) brief statements from the Oxfam website (16 May, 2019) intending to provide some minimal background to those of you who are interested. You may well wonder why I am bothering with all this; I hope it becomes clearer later on in the blog.


‘The social-political revolution that took place in Nicaragua during the 1980’s was an inspiration for change throughout the world. Nicaragua was on the verge of delivering a fairer political system thanks to the social movers of the times. Now many decades after the revolution however, ravaged by war and disaster, the country is saddled with debt and is the second poorest in America. (Oxfam’s emphasis)…40% of the population of Nicaragua lives on less than US$2.00 per day. Extreme poverty is concentrated in the rural areas where it is principally manifested as food security’.


‘With a population of over 8.5 million, Honduras is one of the richest and more diverse countries in Central America. Despite having a high productive potential, 74% of the population lives below the poverty line’.

El Salvador:

‘El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America with an area of 21,000 km2 and a population of 5.7 million. It’s amongst the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with the highest levels of inequality’.


Over half the population of indigenous girls and boys suffer from chronic undernourishment. This situation is made worse by the recurring impact of disasters and droughts on the most vulnerable communities’.

The following morning, Thursday 9 May, we were up at 4.45am and in the bus reception at 5am, as requested. The bus departed San Salvador at 6am – once again, no time for breakfast – we made a coffee in our hotel room. El Salvador has the highest number of fast food outlets we have seen in Central America: McDonalds, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Mister Donut, Chinawok, Panda Express – just some names I jotted down as we drove past. Added to that are a high proportion of take away chicken franchises with local branding. Mind boggling given the structural inequality…

A constant annoying issue for us during the trip was the ridiculous amounts of plastic rubbish strewn along the highways, and on the outskirts of villages. But I will return to this topic later.

The bus drove into Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala. We found the metropolis with its flyovers, highways, high rises, and intense ‘business’ quite overwhelming. The bus ended up at the Tica bus terminal, which is a gated, secure building large enough to park two buses at any one time. The gates were closed as soon as the bus parked in the terminal. John and I were extremely ‘bus lagged’ by this time; lack of food and general travel weariness had taken its toll. We wanted to immediately travel that afternoon to Antigua. We intended to take a local bus to Antigua on the next leg of the journey. A fellow traveller told us the general bus terminal – meaning local ‘chicken’ bus terminal – was on the opposite side of the city – there was no way we could imagine trying to organise that…I asked our Tica bus assistant if we could travel to Antigua that afternoon by bus. He confirmed that was possible, and told me to pay at the counter inside the terminal. As there was another bus inside the terminal, and lots of people in the waiting room, I was relieved to be able to pay for bus tickets. Turns out somehow there was a miscommunication – my conversation was done via Google translate – and we paid A$60 to be chauffeur driven to Antigua. Well, we were delighted. We settled back into the comfortable seats, enjoyed the view, and felt relieved we did not have to negotiate local transport when feeling so exhausted and vulnerable.

It was a one hour drive to Antigua, and at one stage we travelled down an exceptionally steep incline – I counted three emergency ramps with thick layers of gravel to slow down run away vehicles.

We drove into Antigua. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The first noticeable differences are the high solid walls surrounding properties, private houses and businesses alike, and the cobbled streets – all traffic is forced to slow down to deal with the uneven surfaces. I imagine it would be a brave, or silly woman, who would attempt to negotiate these streets in stilettos or platform shoes.

Above: typical street scene. Note the barred windows…

Our driver delivered us to the front door of our hostel – Posada Juma Ocag, directly opposite the market. A comfortable small hostel with a kitchen and small garden in a courtyard. We were delighted.

Above: entrance to Posada Juma Ocag – entrances can hide the true interior.

Above: view of our room at Posada Juma Ocagthat’s it at the end of the balcony.

That same afternoon, we wandered around the back streets of Antigua into what we guess may have been one of the ‘not so well off’ suburbs. John had used the google map to view vegetation cover, and we were trying to access some good habitat for bird watching. All we could find was habitat behind high paling fences. The amount of rubbish thrown over the fences was remarkable. Once again, we were dismayed.

Above: rubbish thrown over fences.

Above: this is how the majority of vegetables are sold in the main supermarket in Antigua.

Given how tired we were from the one and a half days of travel, we were now feeling really frustrated about the constant issue of rubbish and pollution. We wandered back towards our hostel, and along the way came to a striking looking building housing a library. It was the ‘Training Centre Cooperation Spanish in the Old Guatemala’ – direct translation as per Google translate.

Above: interior of the training center, only one block from the Central Plaza.

We wandered in…and purely by chance came across a remarkable exhibition: ‘Discarded People’ – a photojournalist exhibition by Marc Espin. I viewed the first image, and immediately considered my grumblings and frustrations about rubbish and pollution were only a very small part of the complexities of lived life in Central America. I felt chastened.

I have been reflecting on all of the complex issues Central America faces for days now, and really have no answers as obviously I am not an expert. I acknowledge the complex political landscapes and failure of those in so many ways to support people to live quality lives with health, education and medical services, housing, and more…I realise the rubbish issue is but a symptom of some of these failures. Our changing capitalist world is a contributing factor – as an expat said to us recently, twenty-five years ago when he first moved to Guatemala all food items were wrapped in banana leaves….Hence my inclusion above from Oxfam providing some small insights.

Above: an image from the ‘Discarded People’ exhibition.

I have devoted a seperate blog post to this exhibition.

We wandered in and around the city for a number of days visiting landmark churches and other buildings.

Above: La Merced Church exterior.

Above: door and white plaster filigree.

Above: and interior.

Above: the convent next door.

Above: archway inside the convent.

Above: a striking image of Christ.

Antigua experiences earthquakes and tremors – a sign in the La Merced church gives us an idea regarding some history. Construction of the Merced Church commenced in 1548, and many improvements were carried out until 1717. In 1717 an earthquake ruined the church. By 1767 the reconstruction was complete. In 1773 the church was again destroyed by an earthquake. Between 1850-1855 repairs were carried out.

A sign inside the convent advised: ‘most buildings in Antigua are not very tall in order to preserve them from the continuing danger of earthquakes and tremors’. There was also a drawing comparing traditional Baroque columns and those in Antigua – the latter are about a third of the height of Baroque columns.

Every street has a familiar ‘sameness’ – thick high walls, barred windows, admittedly often with beautiful wrought iron, huge solid wooden doors. There is not a piece of rubbish to be seen within the original city. The indigenous women wear traditional outfits consisting of brightly coloured striped skirts held in place with a wide belt, and a colourful short sleeved blouse. Generally a floral pattern, often with sequins.

There was an exhibition in and around the Central Plaza. Nearly every county had painted a two metre high bear. Australia’s contribution was by Ken Done…I wondered how and why he was chosen when we have so many wonderful indigenous artists. A missed opportunity in my opinion.

Above: Australia’s contribution.

Above: me in front of the artworks and crowd.

One morning we walked up to Cerro de la Cruz – a lookout with wonderful views of the city and volcano in the background. Young people were picking up rubbish along the footpaths to the top. It was a long walk up numerous steps, but we were rewarded with the view, and a new bird sighting: Grey-silky Flycatcher.

Above: view of Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz.

Finca El Pilar is a private reserve on the outskirts of Antigua. We caught a tuk-tuk there (Quetzals 30/A$6 approx) and arrived shortly after the gates opened at 8am. The reserve ranges in altitude from 1600-2400 metres and accordingly has different vegetation types: dry forest in the lower section, and pine/oak forests and cloud forests in the higher altitudes.

We were surprised to see three swimming pools near the entrance gates – the water looked inviting and I wished I’d come prepared for a swim.

Above: one of the swimming poolsthe pool in the foreground is the shallow pool for children.

A little further along feeders were present for hummingbirds we saw numerous species , including some ‘lifers’ for our lists. Unfortunately no decent photos…There was a sheltered sitting area and toilets close by – the facilities throughout the reserve are excellent. The walking trail initially commenced past the hummingbird feeders, and wound its way through a narrow gorge – along the way we saw some magnificent old banyan trees. Then we were confronted with the first set of stairs, then another set, then another…

Above: stairs along the walking trail.

We walked to the lookout and sat down at the table and chairs and ate our packed brunch – nice views to Antigua in the distance, plus the benefit of looking down into the canopy. This certainly aids birdwatching – no need to look up constantly…

Above: these trees are native to higher altitudesapologies, I do not know the name of the species.

We then continued along the trail, which was cut into the side of a hill. More and more sets of stairs were forever in front of us…

Above: Just when you need it, a bench to sit on! We decided not to walk any further…

We retraced our steps enjoying the view into the canopy as we descended all the stairs – my legs were feeling a little bit trembly by the time we reached the flat walking trail. We saw six new bird species, and if we had been able to stay longer in Antigua, I would definitely have chosen to visit a second time.

Above: cacti species with fruit.

Our next destination is San Pablo la Laguna on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Miraflor area, Nicaragua, 28 April-6 May 2019.

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: lizard.

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 rootsthey 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 calla 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.

Leon, Nicaragua, 23-26 April 2019

Leon: we were told Leon is the hottest town in Nicaragua and we arrived during the hottest week. Apparently the wet season rains generally commence in the first week of May.

Travelling to Leon from Granada was relatively simple. In Granada, which is my most favourite Nicaraguan city so far because it is so beautiful, we walked to a street next to the city square where buses and minivans departed to various locations. We immediately hopped into a minivan at 7.50am heading to Managua – Nicaragua’s capital city. We arrived in Managua at one of the bus terminals at 9am and within minutes were on board another minivan. A couple of hours later we arrived at the Leon bus terminal – all madness and chaos with gridlocked buses, taxis, minivans and bicycle rickshaws in the street(s) attempting to enter the terminal. This was the first time during our entire time in Central America that we saw a man handing out leaflets advertising a hostel.

Above: map of Nicaragua detailing Granada, Managua and Leon.

So many people attempting to gain our attention! John was retrieving the bags from the rear of the minivan, and we both had men attempting to negotiate a ride into town with each of us. People report on TripAdviser and other sites that you are ‘swamped’ at the bus terminal – that is the case, but I need to comment that hassling here in Central America is a rare occurrence. And being overcharged is also not a common problem, even with the serious down turn in tourist numbers in Nicaragua. One young man stayed very close to me, and I yelled to John that I had not agreed to anything. We asked the price into town. He responded with US$2 per person – we thought that may have been a little expensive not knowing the true value of fares, and he immediately agreed to US$1 per person. Little did we realise he had a bicycle rickshaw, also known in other parts of the world as as bike taxis, pedicabs, cyclos, tricycle taxis, and trishaws, just to mention a few names. It was hot. We felt guilty sitting in his rickshaw, feeling like privileged white English out of the times of the Raj in India. That said, these rickshaws are a very common form of transport, and we accepted he would have appreciated the income. The journey was longer than we expected, so we of course paid him US$4.

Our accommodation in Leon was Via Via Hostel. We were truly amazed when we arrived – the front of the building is a traditional Nicaraguan pub. It was only 11.30am and the front bar had a groovy vibe with music playing – not too loud – a busy pool table and lots of locals drinking beer. We were greeted by the Flemish owner Leven who bought the business approximately a year ago. The wide walled old building has very high ceilings and a courtyard. Behind the front bar and courtyard are rooms and dorms well away from all the noise. (Thank heavens!) We immediately commenced talking politics with Leven – he was happy to discuss any subject with us, but said politics and religion were subjects he would not discuss with local patrons. He said many regular patrons were Sandinistas – Ortega supporters. We also noticed a strong cohort of young backpackers – in fact, the most we have seen anywhere in Nicaragua. They were all part of the ‘volcano boarding’ crowd. A video was on constant rotation showing the delights of volcano boarding. You climb to the top of the volcano with your surf board wearing a yellow suit for safety purposes, and slide all the way down. I have no idea how long this adventure takes, but we, being the greeny-sucks we are, thought this was almost sacrilegious. Leven said when he bought the business it was after the April 2018 demonstrations that led to the huge downturn in tourist numbers. At that time the volcano boarding business was located down the street, and the operator could no longer afford the shop rental. Leven offered him a ‘space’ in the pub where he could operate his business – he said it was the best business decision he ever made. Young backpackers visit the pub to organise a tour, buy drinks and food, and even stay in the hostel – a win-win for both of them. Another interesting issue mentioned by Leven: electricity prices are more expensive in Nicaragua than Belgium.

Above: front bar of Via Via Hostel. This photo was taken at a not so busy time.

Above: verandah in the accommodation section at the rear of Via Via Hostel.

It was stinking hot – even by local standards. To escape the heat we decided a visit to the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian (art gallery) would be good – we imagined wonderful air conditioning to preserve the artworks. Not the case – no air conditioning. The artworks were housed in two seperate buildings located across the street from each other. The Lonely Planet states it is ‘the finest museum of contemporary art in all of Central America’. Unfortunately no photos were allowed. There was a temporary Frida Kahlo exhibition – we were excited about that. Numerous works by prominent Central American artists and American artists dating from the seventies and beyond – Warhol, Hockney, and many artists of that era. Chagal, Miro, Picasso…and many earlier artists including Rubens and other such masters. We were the only visitors at the time – what a treat – although we noted two other couples had visited that day. A gallery all to yourself. The security guards walked ahead of us turning on the lights. The art works were located in what once were rooms with an internal courtyard. Interesting layers of metal beams overlaying each other were the roof to the courtyard. It would have been extremely interesting to see these structures when it was raining, with any moisture falling directly onto the courtyard ground. Some courtyards had water features and interesting pebble arrangements.

There are over sixteen churches to visit in Leon, and accordingly there was a push by the Leon tourist board to have Leon officially declared ‘The City of Churches’ reports the Lonely Planet Ebook ‘Central America on a Shoestring’ (9th Edition, September 2016). I’m not sure if that has been achieved. In order to beat the heat, we set off early one morning to do a ‘church crawl’. Just around the corner from our hostel was a medical clinic. Twenty people were lined up waiting for the clinic to open at 7.30am. Further along the same street I counted thirty people in a queue with children – all waiting for the childrens’ medical clinic to open. Probably the most impressive church was the Leon Cathedral, also known as Basilica de la Asuncion. It is the largest church in Central America, dating back to 1610 with a number of reincarnations along the way. We did the rooftop tour – an absolute ‘must’ if you visit Leon. Standing on one section of the roof with 180 degree views we counted six other churches.

Above: Leon Cathedral stairwell.

Above: Leon Cathedral.

Above: Leon Cathedral rooftop.

Above: another rooftop photo.

Here are a few photos of some other impressive churches:

Above: the red and muted yellows of Inglesia El Calvario.

Above: the yellow ochre exterior of Inglesia La Recoleccion.

One of the more unusual and quirky museums we have visited anywhere was the Museum of Myths and Traditions. Originally built in 1921 as a jail for common prisoners, during the last year of President Somoza’s rule in 1956, the jail was used to torture political prisoners. It was simply known for a long time as Jail 21. On 23 July 1959 there was a student massacre and some students were imprisoned there. The war in Nicaragua commenced in 1978. The National Guard was strengthened and Leon was bombed. Many prisoners were tortured in Jail 21 during this war. The city was liberated on June 20th 1979. There are a few simple line drawings depicting different torture methods on the exterior of the building.

Above: art work on the walls of Jail 21.

The individual cells were dedicated to life size paper mache figures depicting various Nicaraguan folk myths. Many of these myths were associated with women who had been mistreated or abused and then took revenge upon men. Four examples are: The Woman in High Heels; The Bride of Tola; The Flying Woman; and Grab your Tit. I will not discuss all the myths, but have chosen to detail the initially the latter myth, using the exact words in the signage:

A woman was raped and lost her baby; she went mad because she could not find her son. She produce (sic) a lot of milk and her breasts got bigger giving her lots of pain and that’s why every child she can find will tell them ‘Grab your Tit, Grab your Tit.

I think the sign should have read Grab my Tit…

Above: paper mache figure Grab your Tit.

The Flying Woman:

The myth of the Flying Woman was born for many people believing that evil spirits or women who deal with Satan can transform into barn owls or black and brown butterflies. Some people guarantee they are the messages of witches. This is believed in many places in Nicaragua and that’s why if a black or brown butterfly gets into your house people take it away fearing that something bad occurs in the house. When barn owls sing, many people curse it for being (a) Jinx.

Above: the Flying Woman.

Above: the Nahua Oxcart is associated with the mistreatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish. The cart is heard only at night, and supposedly announces death.

On our last morning we visited the botanical gardens situated approximately five kilometres out of town – to go birdwatching. The bird watching was slow going….We caught a taxi to arrive at 8am when the gates opened. The gardens were a loose structure with a few plantings, a vegetable garden, a butterfly garden and a children’s playground, but most of these gardens were seriously overgrown with weeds. A large section of the garden was untouched forest. Two different rivers boarded the botanical gardens – one unpolluted, the other a mass of plastic rubbish. We saw some extremely large odd shaped seed pods called ‘elephant ears’.

Above: elephant ear seed pods from the Tradescantia zebrina Heynh. ex Bosse tree.

Above: a Rufous-naped Wren in the Leon botanical gardens. These wrens have similar calls and behaviours to Australian babblers.

Our next destination is the Miraflor protected area north-east of Leon.

Granada, Nicaragua, 20-22 April 2019

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.

El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, 14-19 April 2019

At San Carlos we walked to the wharf – 7.30am and the wharf waiting room was already full with people. A young boy was shining shoes – I was a little taken aback – we had not seen any children working like this in the far richer Costa Rica.

Above: young boy shining shoes.

We paid our fares and completed the form detailing our name, age, passport number, current location and destination. The ticket seller indicated to us to walk over to the boat departure area – we wondered why all the people in the seating area remained seated. We stopped at the armed guard and advised our destination – he indicated to us to proceed. Sometimes, when travelling, we feel as though everyone else knows what is going on except us. The last thing we want to do is to appear like privileged Westerners taking advantage and priority. We walked towards more armed guards figuring this is where the boats may depart. A boat docked and armed guards were checking bags. Yes….this was the departure area as well. Once again, our passports were required and more forms were completed. Ah! Maybe this is why the ticket seller indicated for us to proceed – more paperwork for Westerners. People commenced lining up behind us, and two empty boats pulled into the wharf. We boarded, and off we went at 8am. A clipboard was handed around on the boat – once again, we, and everyone on the boat, completed the form with all the details mentioned above. I can only guess every official destination requires a form for the army-immigration office.

Above: map detailing our trip from San Carlos to El Castillo (in red) along the San Juan River. The green line details our camping trip with Juan Ardilla.

The San Juan River is approximately 200 kilometres long commencing in San Carlos at Lake Nicaragua and travels east, ending at Greytown on the Caribbean coast. We had expected thick jungle all the way. Wrong. Large areas along the banks are devoted to farming and individual homes as well as villages. The boat trip was just over two hours dropping off and picking up people along the way. Sometimes people disembarked and there were no villages or houses to be seen. At some small villages women were washing clothes in the river, children were swimming. One little boy had home-made ‘floaties’ constructed with plastic Coca-cola bottles, the identifiable logo still visible.

We arrived in El Castillo and immigration once again recorded our details. El Castillo is a very small town with no cars or motor bikes. The main street is a stone’s throw from the waterfront with shops, homes and the odd hostel or hotel scattered amongst them. Smaller streets lead up the hill and into the ‘suburbs’ of El Castillo. Having not booked any accommodation we walked to one end of the town and commenced making inquiries. (We had of course looked online and had a list of preferred options). We commenced with Hotel Lara’s Planet. An unkempt pathway led to the reception area. We were greeted by a rather eccentric woman speaking English with a strong American accent. We asked if she had any rooms available.

She said ‘Well, how much do you want to pay? People tell me my rooms are very expensive’.

Us: ‘How much are your rooms?’

Her: ‘US$65 per night’.

Us: ‘Yes, that is above our budget…’ She did not offer to negotiate.

We walked the length of town rejecting rooms that were too small and pokey with no air flow or fan. And just when I was becoming too hot and frustrated and about to give up we came to Hotel Victoria. Huge attractive rooms, many with air conditioning. When they asked for US$60 and we hesitated and the price immediately dropped to US$50 – we were very pleased.

We settled in, and then visited Juan Ardilla to organise our camping trip to Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz. (For convenience, I will now refer to this reserve simply as Indio Maiz). Wikipedia states Indio Maiz is a protected area covering approximately 4,500 square kilometres in Nicaragua. It was established in the 1990’s. We had walked past Juan’s home when looking for accomodation and spoken briefly with him about the trip – he advised he required notice of approximately a day or so to organise permits and provisions etc.

Later that afternoon we relaxed on the wide deck at Hotel Victoria. The constant breeze was delightful. Below us two cows and a bull were tethered under trees by the water. Men were standing around. To our amazement, two men in a canoe motored across from the other side of the river. The men handed the long rope attached to one of the cows to the men in the canoe. They fired up the motor, and lead the cow into the river. It initially walked willingly into the water, but then of course the water became much deeper. Suddenly a dog appeared from nowhere and raced into the water to hassle the cow. The men pushed the dog away from the cow, and held the cow closely beside the boat so it’s head was supported out of the water as they motored across the river. A bit like a life saver….The dog tried to swim back to shore, but the swirling water of the rapids was making the task impossible. We watched in horror thinking the dog would drown. No one on our side of the shore was paying any attention to the dog. They were focused on the huge bull who was causing a little bit of trouble – he obviously did not like being tethered near the river. I was becoming increasingly agitated. Just when I was about to race downstairs and ask the hotel staff to intervene the boat journeyed back to collect another cow. People highlighted the struggling dog to them, and they motored out and fished the dog out of the water. A huge sigh of relief…

Above: the wonderful wide deck at Hotel Victoria. Afternoon breezes were always guaranteed.

The Spanish built an impressive fort above the town in the 1500s and for years the rapids kept other invaders, including the British, at bay. The following morning we decided to visit the fort early hoping for some good morning light for photos of the fort and town, however it is only open between 8am to 4pm.

Above: the fort. It has an on-site museum.

Above: looking down onto El Castillo township and the San Juan River from the fort.

As it was about 6.30am we continued on and wandered through the town – locals were already up and about. The housing is generally wooden and humble. We kept walking out of town and passed through agricultural areas – some farms had signs of sponsorship from European countries. The road ended at a dairy farm and a couple of men were letting their cows out of the holding pens. To our surprise, the younger man, at a guess in his forties, spoke a spattering of English. With our spattering of Spanish we had an enjoyable exchange. We told him we were looking at birds, communicated our nationality, and he told us his father was 62 years old. We told them how old we were, and admired his cows – all very lighthearted, but friendly and enjoyable. I have a small stuffed kangaroo attached to my handbag, and one also attached to my backpack. Well worth the A$2 I paid for each of them. People assume we are either American, German or Canadian – at least now I can show them the kangaroo – it has caused some outrageous laughter on a few occasions. ‘Ah! Cangaru!’

Horses and donkeys are the mode of transport here. Old traditions combine with new – a young man on horseback rode past us – headphones connected to his phone. Rubbish collection is courtesy of horse and cart.

Above: rubbish collection

Above: El Castillo housing.

Above: another local home.

I mentioned above we had visited Juan to organise the camping trip to Indio Maiz. We warmed to him immediately as he took the time to explain various options – we found him to be honest and trustworthy. He was very thorough in discussing options for an overnight trip. One option was to camp by the river and sleep in hammocks or on a mattress on the river bank – he recommending we did not take that option as we would not get any sleep in the hammocks (as we were not experienced with hammocks). We agreed…The second option was to stay overnight at the base camp where there was a tent in a bungalow – well, that’s what we understood. All meals would be provided etc etc. We settled on the second option.

On the morning of our 6am departure the wonderful Hotel Victoria staff cooked breakfast for us around 5.30am. We had packed our backpacks with a few essentials for the trip, and gave them our luggage to store until we returned. Juan turned up right on 6am with the canoe, just as he had said when we made all the arrangements.

Above: early morning with Juan on the San Juan River.

Juan paddled us downriver along one side of the wide San Juan River for three hours to Indio Maiz headquarters. We saw various kingfishers and herons, jacanas, Howler monkeys, a turtle, Green Basilisk lizards, other ‘Jesus Christ’ lizards – thus called as they can run across water. At one stage Juan paddled us along a small tributary for approximately fifteen minutes – Juan said in the wet season he could paddle along that tributary for an hour. Such was the difference in water levels between wet and dry seasons.

We reached the Indio Maiz headquarters and paperwork was exchanged. Four or five military police were standing around on the wharf. (Guru maps indicates a military police headquarters at this junction). Juan then paddled the canoe along the smaller Bartola River – it was a sublime tranquil experience. The only sounds were Juan’s paddle dipping in and out of the water, the breeze overhead, the call of birds. I delighted in the ever changing reflections in the water. Combinations of browns, deep deep greens, bright limes, and blue from the sky.

At 9.30 we clambered out of the canoe to commence a walk in Indio Maiz. I commented to Juan that he must be tired – he had been paddling us since 6am. He replied in the negative, saying all locals use boats or canoes and it is just part of life in this region. He went on to explain how he knew this region so well. ‘Like the back of my hand’ were his actual words. He was born in El Castillo and at the age of thirteen he commenced working on boats that travelled the entire length of San Juan River. By the age of eighteen he was a captain. And knew every tributary of the river.

Above: our tour guide Juan Ardilla. Contact him via FaceBook: Juan Alberto Aruilar Gomez. He does not have a web page.

We walked for three hours along a heavily vegetated jungle circular trail – all of a sudden, some bats flew out from under a large leaf. The bats actually cut a line across a large palm leaf to create an angular shelter. Juan picked some leaves from a plant and suggested we chew the stem – our lips went mildly numb. Indigenous people would boil these leaves and stems to make an anaesthetic liquid for women to consume during child birth. Poisonous Dart Frogs were abundant. Two species: the beautiful green and black species, and the ‘Blue Jeans’ species. The latter also known as ‘Strawberry’ poisonous dart frog. Juan explained he could touch anything in the jungle, but not poisonous dart frogs. Once, a frog jumped onto him. Some poison transferred onto Juan’s skin, and he instantly felt giddy and a little nauseous. If the poison enters your body, via a cut for instance, you are likely to die.

Above: ‘Blue Jeans’ poisonous dart frog, also known as ‘Strawberry’ dart frog.

Above: green and black Poisonous Dart Frog.

It was remarkably quiet bird wise. However, we did see some Great Green Macaws. The bird highlight was a male and female Spotted Antbird – too difficult to photograph in the thick undergrowth. Further along we were delighted to see a Nunbird.

Above: male Spotted Antbird – courtesy of Merlin App.

We returned to the canoe and Juan paddled us upstream stopping at a small sandy bend in the river. This entire section of the Bartola River was a ‘kingfisher highway’. We constantly saw Kingfishers land near us or ahead of us – flashes of bright turquoise contrasting against the greens and browns of the river and vegetation. It was time for lunch, so Juan lit a fire and cooked us fish wrapped in foil. Cold coconuts from the esky were a delightful drink. At 2pm a couple of young men appeared from somewhere upstream. We were a little surprised when Juan indicated for us to hop into their canoe and head upstream with them. We had assumed Juan would be with us for the entire journey – obviously something had been lost in the translation. We were heading to base camp.

These two young men used poles to steer the canoe through at times extremely low water levels – the water so low the canoe’s hull would scrap against the rocks. It was extremely hard going for them when we had to traverse rapids. At one stage we hopped out and walked a larger section of rapids. The canoe was extremely old and leaked constantly – I acted as chief baler for the entire one and a half hour journey. It was a constant job to remove water. John thought the canoe could have been repaired with lots and lots of silicon. I thought it should have been decommissioned.

Above: river scene on the way to ‘base camp’.

We had reached the base camp – the ‘Sol y Luna’ (Sun and Moon) cooperative community. We walked up a very steep hill. Imagine our surprise – a tent set up on a wooden platform with a a thatched roof. Our bed was made up with sheets and pillows, and two white towels were on display. Two showers, two pit toilets, and a small kitchen with an attached dining area. We were not expecting this….Catalino came and introduced himself to us – our English speaking guide during our stay. He advised 23 families lived spread out over the land, with a total of 170 people. We would have liked to learn more about the community, but the opportunity unfortunately did not arise.

Above: our tent at ‘Sol y Luna’ cooperative.

A river night tour after dinner – fireflies, bats, and numerous frogs were seen. The canoe was extremely shallow – we were actually really tense as both of us felt we could topple out very quickly. Nothing adverse happened of course, as these experienced people spend their lives in and out of canoes and have such an incredibly toned sense of balance. We were asleep by 8pm – exhausted after an extremely exciting day.

We slept in until 5.05am – breakfast was ready at 5.30am. Pancakes, fruit and freshly brewed coffee. A bird watching walk with Catalino, and a chocolate making demonstration – the cocoa beans were cooked over an open fire, the skins removed, then the beans put through a grinder. The ground beans were then cooked to a thick paste with fresh unpasteurised milk and a small amount of sugar. Very rich….Catalino advised the cows were used to make milk, cream and cheese for the community. They grew rice , corn and other vegetables. Chickens provided meat and eggs. Fish from the river. There were only a few pigs as they tended to cause too much damage in the cropping areas. The only strictly rationed items were the cocoa beans.

Above: roasting the cocoa beans prior to grinding.

Above: grinding the cocoa beans

After a bit of confusion regarding arrangements we stayed for lunch. We sat under a shelter and bird watched in comfort. At least six Great Green Macaws flew past, and we saw quite a few Scarlet Macaws as well. We heard them frequently. We were then ‘poled’ down the river, this time in a non-leaky canoe to meet Juan. By the time we returned to El Castillo, right on 4pm, just as Juan had initially discussed, we had seen all the kingfisher species in Nicaragua on that trip: Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher.

The thoughtful staff at Hotel Victoria had put our bags in our room. Everything ‘El Castillo’ had been a wonderful experience.

On Easter Thursday morning (18 April) we took the boat to Boca de Sabalos – about half the way towards San Carlos. We always knew we would need to ‘hunker down’ somewhere during the Easter period, so this was a solution for a couple of nights. Besides, I liked the look of a hotel jutting out over the river on poles. When boats travel past the hotel, waves wash under the poles of the hotel – it is like living on a wharf….Easter has been busy here with lots of loud music (!) from a residence on the other side of the river opposite the hotel. Thankfully they turn it down around 8pm (!) Boca de Sabalos is a small town in transition – we have seen a water skier, and can imagine in a few years it may be altered terribly with jet skies etc. There was no evidence of such behaviour at El Castillo.

Above: John in the dining area at Hotel Sabalos.

Our next destination is Granada.

San Carlos, Nicaragua, 12-13 April 2019.

We waved goodbye to Renato and Orejas – his delightful dog, and caught the 6am bus from Cano Negro to Los Chiles. The air was heavy with moisture.

Above: morning landscape leaving Cano Negro.

Then a taxi to the border town Las Tablillas, a distance of six kilometres, arriving around 7.30am.

Note to anyone who plans to do this crossing:

The Lonely Planet guide (Costa Rica 13th edition October 2018) states:

1. immigration is open 8-4pm.

2. you can only pay by credit card.

The above information is incorrect.

Immigration is open at 7am and we saw no evidence of credit card machines – however they may have been out of sight. We paid C5,000 per person to exit Costa Rica.

All quite straight forward really, when you know what is going on.

We walked over to the Nicaraguan immigration and paid US$12 per person to enter the country. Already we witnessed a lack of infrastructure in Nicaragua compared to Costa Rica – the two immigration officials shared one carbon copy receipt book!

Once clear, there was a short walk to a waiting mini van. It departed for San Carlos when the van was full – US$5 for two people.

Above: red line indicates our journey from Cano Negro, Costa Rica, to San Carlos, Nicaragua. Yellow line is the border.

For what ever reason, I always seem to become a little ‘unsettled’ when moving to a new destination. Once there and settled in, I am fine. However we had spoken with other travellers about Nicaragua, and in particular an expat (ex-Zimbabwe and the UK) now residing in Costa Rica. He told us he hated Nicaragua – far too dangerous and starving animals everywhere. Of course, this was his experience going back five or six years ago. Add that to the general warnings in the Lonely Planet…and the social unrest in 2018. Sometimes I can make a few shadows seem larger than life.

Our mini van arrived at the San Carlos bus terminal – a dusty square surrounded by shops. It was hot….’Chicken buses’, vans, and people were everywhere. Being located right next to the market, and about 9.30am, it was extremely busy. I had glimpsed open air butcher shops with meat hanging on hooks – a world away from Costa Rica. A bit of a shock…I immediately drew parallels with India: the chaos, but without the overlays of caste, the smell of sewerage, the beggars, and religious people. Street hawkers draped numerous belts over their shoulders and wore other articles for sale around their waists. Other vendors carried boards of sun glasses for sale. My emotions were on ‘high alert’ as The Lonely Planet warns you to be extra vigilant around bus stations. No hassles…

Above: butcher shop.

Above: street hawkers.

We walked to our hotel – Hotel Grand Lago – I had make a booking through one of those online booking agencies. However, there was not much choice…When we arrived I managed to say in my best Spanish that we had a booking – she seemed a little surprised and I noted no computer at the front entrance cum reception – just a desk with a few books etc. We were shown a very nice room and I was a little surprised that the price was half that quoted by the online agency. I was pleased though – US$40 for the first night, and US$35 for the second night as no breakfast would be supplied on the Sunday – fine by us. The air conditioning was an absolute delight. (I later discovered I had booked a Hotel Grand Lago somewhere else in Nicaragua – thank heavens there was no upfront credit card payment!) As it turns out, when I paid the owner he charged us even less – US$35 and US$30….

There were two pressing issues. First, and very importantly, we needed some local currency – cordobas. Second, we required a sim card. Using Guru maps we located an ATM in front of a bank a couple of streets away from our hotel. It did not accept Mastercard. The security guard scanned everyone entering the bank. There were three tellers – one assisted people perhaps conducting ‘small’ transactions. The other two tellers were assisting people requiring ‘larger’ amounts of cash. It was like in the movies – people were putting blocks of notes into brown paper bags or their backpacks. I was astounded. What is going on in this country? Finally, my turn. No, they had no provision for Mastercard withdrawals and we were told to go to a Banpro ATM. Found the ATM – not working and had a canoe stored inside it! We were feeling rather despondent. We were rescued by a delightful young man speaking English who worked in a hostel opposite the closed ATM – his young sister had seen we were ‘stressed’ and told him to help us. How wonderful! He gave us directions to the Banpro bank and ATM, (5a Avenida Este, past the dock and market) and we withdrew as much cash as possible. (The following morning there was no cash in the ATM).

The Claro sim card process was much easier, albeit it took a fair while as we had to wait three quarters of an hour for the cashier to arrive. Together, the young sales assistant, and John and myself used a combination of limited English, limited Spanish and good old Google translate to achieve and activate the purchase.

From the balcony outside our upstairs room at Hotel Grand Lago we looked onto tall trees and the marshy shore fringing Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca or Lake Granada. Small boats were moored in front of the hotel. Numerous bird species frequented the close by tall trees and swampy shore. It is a freshwater lake covering 8,264 square kilometres, and is the largest in Central America. It is the 19th largest in the world. With the high humidity the aluminium coloured skies often merged with the lake horizon; afternoon vistas were beautiful.

Above: early morning aluminium sky and horizon.

Above: Hotel Grand Lago foreshore – late afternoon sky.

Above: Purple Gallinule near Hotel Grand Lago.

We quickly discovered that the chaos only existed near the bus terminal and market – streets were mostly almost deserted. This was a very pleasant difference to the often constant traffic and noisy motor bikes in Costa Rica. Humble houses are built slap bang next to one another – their doors and windows facing directly onto the footpath, if the footpath exists at all. Wrought iron security grills are obvious, but we noted no razor wire – the latter frequently seen in Costa Rica. As you walk past you look directly into their interiors – rocking chairs are popular here. The sense of privacy is very different compared to our 2.4 brick wall built by our neighbours in Northcote.

Above: busy street

Above: another busy street.

Above: hand cart.

We dined at Restaurant Kaoma a few times – an open upstairs restaurant catching the breeze and good views of the lake. Great food. Undoubtedly the most expensive restaurant in town, but we wanted a break from ‘soda’ type eateries. On the Saturday evening we ate ‘late’, departing around 7.30 – late for us. The plaza in front of the restaurant was in full swing with music and people and children line dancing. As we exited the restaurant a ute drove past with at least six men in the open back section. It pulled up abruptly ahead of us. The men jumped out quickly – they were wearing black uniforms and balaclavas, and carrying automatic rifles. Possibly ‘political police’? They seemed to be on a mission and quickly walked to the edge of the lake. I felt a cold shudder go through my body. We have been told to leave the country quickly should an unrest break out.

There has been political unrest recently in Nicaragua. Wikipedia states:

The 2018–2019 Nicaraguan protests began on 18 April 2018 when demonstrators in several cities of Nicaragua began protests against the social security reforms decreed by President Daniel Ortega that increased taxes and decreased benefits. The total number of deaths are 309.

Above: lake foreshore near plaza and Restaurant Kaoma.

Our next destination is El Castillo.

Caño Negro, Costa Rica, 9-11 April 2019

Getting there:

We understood the transport booked by our hostel would collect us at 8am, so we were sitting in front of Pension Santa Elena well before 8am.

At 8.30am the young man on reception asked us where we were going – he had not worked on reception during our stay, so was unfamiliar with our plans. We told him La Fortuna. Did we have a booked ticket from reception? No….however I said we had inquired with reception staff on three occasions if our transfer was booked. We were always reassured everything was under control. He said ‘I will fix it’. And commenced making some phone calls.

8.35am: a taxi arrived, courtesy of Pension Santa Elena and we drove along winding, potholed dusty roads to the jeep transfer station.

9.10am: we departed in a jeep immediately. Of course, we were incredibly worried that we were holding up the boat and inconveniencing other tourists.

9.45am: arrived at Laguna de Arenal. To our surprise, tourists were standing by the waters edge waiting for the boat.

10.15am: our boat departed for the La Fortuna side of Laguna de Arenal. We had impressive views of the Arenal Volcano looming in the distance.

Above: crossing Lake Arenal.

Above: Arenal Volcano in the distance.

During this leg of the trip the captain told me about the 1968 eruption. Prior to the eruption the lake did not exist – a river ran through the valley. On the morning of the eruption people in the town of Arenal thought they heard helicopters overhead, and remained in their homes – it was the sound of Volcano Arenal erupting. Forty-two people in the Arenal township were killed. After the eruption, the river was dammed and a lake created. The Arenal township lies at the bottom of the lake where we boarded the boat.

The following information is from

At roughly 7:30 a.m. on Monday July 29, 1968 – after having lain relatively dormant for over 400 years – Arenal Volcano erupted with violence and fury. Extreme eruptions and volcanic activity continued for several days, killing some 87 people and burying over 15 square kilometers in rock, lava and ash. The eruptions affected a total of over 232 square kilometers in the surrounding area to varying degrees, with damage to crops, property, livestock and forests.

At the height of its activity this La Fortuna volcano was spewing out massive amounts of lava and ash and tossing giant rocks for distances of up to a mile at speeds of some 600 meters per second.

The explosions formed three new active craters.

Since that time, Arenal Volcano has maintained nearly constant activity ranging from soundless explosions with large mushroom-shaped clouds of ash overhead to booming explosions sending hot rocks nearly a kilometer into the air to pyroclastic explosions highlighted by rushing gases and flowing lava pouring down the side of the volcano. For visitors to Costa Rica, volcano viewing is the most promising at Arenal – no other volcano has been this consistently active.

Arenal Volcano rises to approximately 1633 meters at its summit, although the exact summit height changes frequently due to the volcanic activity.

11am: the boat landed on the La Fortuna side of the lake – tourist vans were waiting to transport everyone to their hostels etc. Extremely efficient, as we have discovered in Costa Rica – our mishap mentioned above has been the only non-efficient experience.

11.30am: arrived at the La Fortuna bus station

12.15pm: bus departed for Cuidad Quesada

1.45pm: arrived Cuidad Quesada bus station

Five minutes later a bus bearing the sign Los Chiles pulled into the bus station

2.00pm: departed Cuidad Quesada for Los Chiles

It was hot, no air conditioning, but at least the windows opened so we had a good breeze when the bus was moving. Unfortunately we sat on the sunny side, so there was little respite from the heat, except for the breeze.

4.30pm: arrived Los Chiles.

A five minute walk took us to Hotel Carolina – I was delighted with the air conditioning in our room. Some days bus connections work just brilliantly!

Above: map detailing our journey. Red indicates the journey from Santa Elena to Los Chiles on 8 April; blue indicates our trip from Los Chiles to Caño Negro on 9 April. The faint grey line above Los Chiles is the Nicaraguan border. (Quesada on the map is actually Cuidad Quesada).

On 9 April we caught the bus from the Los Chiles bus station to Caño Negro, a distance of 26 kilometres. We understood the bus departed at 12 noon, however for some reason it departed at 12.30pm. The bus headed south along the highway towards Cuidad Quesada, then turned onto a rough gravel road. Approximately one hour later we were we in Caño Negro.

We booked an Airb&b residence called ‘Caño Negro Experience’ and had a delightful three nights staying with Renato – Tatiana (his partner) was working elsewhere at the time. We find it a little nerve wracking to book a room in someone’s house – Renato, having an extremely friendly relaxed disposition made us feel immediately at home. I fell in love with Orejas, their dog. Orejas means ears in Spanish, and Orejas had long beagle like ears and an outward friendly disposition. Not a mean streak to be seen. We heard Howler Monkeys every morning around 5am.

Above: Howler Monkey.

Above: Caño Negro experience.

Renato, with a background in ecotourism, was working as a park ranger in Caño Negro. Along came Tatiana, originally from Bolivia, to develop her Master’s thesis in biology. They fell in love, and in love with everything Cano Negro. Their relationship has resulted in buying a house in Caño Negro, renovating it, and creating a business called ‘Caño Negro Experience’ offering a variety of tours. Their home is a typical ‘Tico’ home with iron roofing material nailed to the roofing beams – this creates an exceptionally hot environment at certain times of the day. (Thank heavens for the fan!) Renato said he would like to line the roof eventually – makes great sense. But it is certainly very typical of houses we have seen in Costa Rica. The front of the home has a lovely sitting area enclosed by cyclone wire with passion fruit vines winding their tendrils through the wire. Hummingbirds would flit in through the wire holes and sit on the tendrils. A large shuttered window opened so one could sit on stools and look into the garden – great birdwatching. Some windows had simple wooden shutters, and would remain open during the day – on the odd occasion birds would simply fly through the house! Simply delightful.

Above: Birdwatching from the front of the home.

As relative newcomers to a small village with many established traditions and ways of life, it is always going to be a challenge to show locals the benefits of ecotourism and protection of the wonderful environment they reside in. Renato’s love of this region and everything special that goes with it sees him working in an exceptionally outgoing friendly manner with locals, greeting those he knows, and those he does not know. The word traditions reminds me to mention that men often rode their horses through town – clip clop, clip clop, clip clop.

Above: horse and rider.

We opted to do a walking bird watching tour with Renato on two mornings rather than a boat tour. (Unfortunately I was not well on the second morning, nothing serious, and remained at home with Orejas). 120 bird species were seen over the two days. Some highlights included: Jabiru; Roseate Spoonbill; Yellow-throated Euphonia; Northern-crested Caracara; Nicaraguan Grackle; Northern Jacanas – we have never seen this many Jacanas in one area; and a Slaty-tailed Trogon – sitting on electricity cables in front of the house. Honestly, there are too many species to list here!

Above: Roseate Spoonbill.

Above: Caimen.

Renato knows this region like the back of his hand and on the first day took us to see some lagoons and forest areas. Why is this region so special? Well, it was RAMSAR listed in 1991 and covers 6,506 hectares with wetlands, forests and grasslands. Caño Negro is a ‘protected area’ that allows for a mixed use policy – this means farmers can graze their cows and horses on the large flood plains that have become grasslands in the dry season. The wet season commences sometime in May, and lasts roughly until December. Renato said when the rains commence you see daily changes in the landscape, and it is magical. The rain mostly occurs late afternoon and overnight, and tourists visit all throughout the year. Renato is able to access private properties not inundated with water during the wet season. 315 bird species, 160 mammal species, 49 fish species, and 310 plant species have been recorded.

Above: dry season: boat in the foreground – note the wooden jetty behind the boat.

On the first morning walk there was a heart warming incident along the way. The Frio River still had plenty of water, however the lagoons had varying water levels. Lagoon edges were very boggy. We can across a cow that had become bogged in the mud. A couple of farmers had tied a rope around its neck and were trying to drag the poor cow out of the mud. (A side story here is a number of years ago I became bogged in mud at Broome Bird Observatory, Western Australia, while collecting mud samples, so I could understand the cow’s stress and exhaustion). The rope around the neck did not work, so they tied the cow’s back legs together, then all of them pulled on both ropes. It worked! A girl came running with a large  bucket, they filled it with water and allowed the cow to drink. They collected more water and washed all the mud off the cow’s hide. A group of other cowes came over to inspect the action. All of a sudden the cow stood up, walked a few paces, albeit with a slight limp, and began to eat some grass. What a relief for all involved. I hope the limp was temporary. And such a wonderful communal effort to rescue the cow. I have inserted below some photos taken while the cow was being rescued.

Above: cow resting while rescuers provided drinking water.

Above: cow eating grass with curious fellow cows looking on.

We also saw three tourist boats in the river – a man was attempting to lasso a caiman using a rope – certainly not a practice that should be accepted. Renato indicated to the man to put the rope away, and this he did.

I have been forgetting to mention that the Clay-colured Thrush is Costa Rica’s national bird. A few days after we arrived I heard a kitten mewing – I went searching, but no kitten. It just so happens the Clay-coloured Thrush sounds very much like a kitten crying for its mother.

On Friday 12 April we bid Renato and Orejas farewell and caught the 6am bus to Los Chiles, then a taxi to the Costa Rica-Nicaraguan border.