January in Canada always feels to me like a very long Monday morning. After the fun and freedom of the Christmas holidays you have to get up early and go back to school or work. It’s cold outside, and dark, and there is always pressure to make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, floss regularly and stop making fun of my mother-in-law, the old trout.
January is a really good reason to stay in bed, like the bears do. January is also a highly compelling argument for taking a break from the usual at home, in favour of the unusual somewhere warm and sunny and free from the concerns of real life, especially the imaginary ones.
Real life happens wherever you are, of course, but why not drink some beer and get a tan while it does?
With this happy thought in mind, I book another cycling tour and make travel arrangements in the direction of Central America. And soon, here we are, blinking rapidly in the bright sunshine on the tarmac of Augusto C. Sandino International
Airport in Managua, sweating heavily and no longer thinking about the very long Monday morning that is January in Canada.
We will begin our two-week cycle adventure in Central America’s oldest city, Granada, Nicaragua, and — if all goes well — will finish in Central America’s wealthiest, most flashy city, Panama City, Panama. Our plan is to cycle roughly 600 kilometres of back-country roads and tracks, avoiding the Pan-American highway and other routes unfriendly to middle-aged cyclists.
A tale of two cities
Our first task is to get out of Managua, as directly and rapidly as possible. Don’t feel bad — this is everybody’s first task in Managua.
Managua is Nicaragua’s largest city, with a little over a million people living in mostly one-storey buildings of dubious construction, without much infrastructure, tourist-friendly amenities or … well, anything much at all.
The 1972 earthquake that killed 11,000 people and displaced 300,000 more, plus the years of violent civil war in the 1980s, have left Managua in rough shape.
The city doesn’t have a lot to offer visitors apart from sweltering heat and a surprising amount of garbage in the streets and vacant lots.
It is the kind of casual rubbish often found in poor countries whose people have more pressing concerns — such as feeding their large families — than urban hygiene.
Fifty kilometres away, the city of Granada is a horse of a different colour. For one thing, it has many friendly horses to show you around the place. For another, its buildings are painted in pretty colours. I really like Granada.
It’s a safe, pleasant, Spanish Colonial town on the shores of the giant freshwater Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), sandwiched between two active volcanoes: Volcán Mombacho and Volcán Masaya.
Nicknamed “the Great Sultan” in honour of its namesake in Moorish Andalucía, Spain, Granada is one of the oldest cities in Central America — founded in 1524 by the Spanish explorer and slave trader Francisco Fernández de Córdoba. Fun fact: the Nicaraguan currency is named after Córdoba, even though after founding Granada, he tried to seize the entire isthmus for himself, but was surprised by his military commander and put to death.
Granada is a living library of this kind of fun fact, by which I mean colourful history involving gold fever, old-fashioned imperialism and blood-soaked conquest. Everywhere you look there is a fascinating story begging to be told. One example is the lovely Cathedral de Granada in the middle of the central plaza, a relatively new place of worship, having been burned down many times since its original construction in 1583.
Or the ancient Iglesia la Merced, the oldest and most beautiful church in Granada, built in 1534, but razed by Henry Morgan (an evil Captain Jack Sparrow figure, now a spiced-rum mascot) and his pirates in 1655, and then again by the American mercenary and megalomaniacal wackadoodle William Walker in 1854. Granada is where Walker and his filibusterers attempted to take control of all of Central America, eventually setting the city ablaze and leaving the cruel epithet Aquí fue Granada ( “Here was Granada”) as they made their escape.
The surplus of fun facts is mostly due to geography. Granada’s location on the fastest (pre-Panama Canal) route from the Pacific to the Caribbean is the reason for both its success and its failure. Gold from what would one day become California in the north, and from Peru and other countries in the south, was brought up the San Juan River to Granada, shipped across Lake Nicaragua, then carried overland to the Caribbean before heading off to the Spanish court. Not surprisingly, the city at the centre of the mineral and cultural rape of the Americas quickly became rich.
As is the way of things, wealth draws the attention of certain, shall we say, entrepreneurs who are not at all averse to hard work, so long as it is somebody else doing it. What I mean is, every few years, pirates and other mercenary forces paid a visit to Granada, stealing everything and then burning the place to ashes.
Before climbing on the bikes, we spend several days in Granada, learning more of its history, finding cool places to eat, and enjoying every minute of the tropical sun and heat, and the friendly people bent on overcoming the years of war and tectonic catastrophe.
When you go to Granada — and you should do this soon, before more tourists discover the place — you’ll do the usual touristy things within a half-hour ride from the city centre, which at a minimum means:
• boat tripping around Las Isletas, an archipelago of 365 small tropical islands
• zip-lining above the canopy on the slopes of Mombacho Volcano
• shopping at the Masaya handicraft market
• peering into what the Spaniards called the Gates of Hell: the lava-spewing crater of Masaya Volcano
Don’t be put off because these are the touristy things to do. For the most part the tourists here are adventurers, keen on experiencing authentic Nicaraguan life, and content with nature in all its sometimes-dangerous glory. There is no Disneyland fakery here, no Las Vegas neon and noise, just wonderful, terrible, fascinating history and dramatic, volcanic scenery.
Isla de Ometepe
Rising out of Lake Nicaragua, some 17 kilometres from the southwestern shore, is verdant Ometepe Island. Twin volcanos — the highly active Volcán Concepción (1,610 metres) and the smaller, quieter Volcán Maderas (1,394 metres) — created the island, which looks like a dumbbell from the air, but from our vantage point on the small ferry boat looks entirely different.
From lake level it looks more, um … buxom. The island’s two massive tracts of land look a great deal like a pair of impressive — fantastic, really — er … OK: Isla de Ometepe looks like gigantic breasts, and it’s not just me who thinks so.
The precolonial Aztecs who settled Ometepe believed they had found the promised land — which not only grew everything they stuck into its rich volcanic soil, but even symbolically looked the part of abundant fertility. Before the Spaniards showed up, the Aztecs prospered on the island, as attested to by more than 1,700 petroglyphs and archeological sites.
The hour-long boat ride from San Jorge on the mainland to Moyogalpa on the island turns me into a true B.C. Ferries enthusiast, and I promise to never again complain about the cost of a return car trip to Tsawwassen. By comparison, B.C. Ferries is efficient, clean, professional and — I can’t stress this enough — actually docks at its docks, rather than sort of ramming the shore.
On Ometepe Island, ramming the shore only happens after a wee crewman jumps out of the boat — I swear I’m not making this up — and swims a thick line over to a submerged anchor near the shore, allowing for a kind of manual swivel manoeuvre to “dock” the boat by swinging it at the shore. I’m sure there’s a nautical term for this sort of thing, but our group settles on variations of “Holy crap!” This is followed by cheering on the part of the 50 or so passengers, who once more didn’t die on the windy crossing to Ometepe. I imagine the wee crewman is also happy, because once more he was not eaten by the caimans and bull sharks known to hunt in the lake.
From Moyogalpa, we ride the 78 kilometres of occasionally paved road that rings the island, passing banana plantations and small cattle ranches and loose collections of children who shyly smile and try out their very best English on us: “Hello! Goodbye! Beyoncé!” On the eastern, windy side of the island, another kind of primate calls out to us in a throaty howl. High in the trees is a troop of howler monkeys, sunning their leaf- and flower-filled bellies to aid in digesting lunch. The dominant male roars a challenge to our passing, while the juveniles seem content to just pee at us. I swear I’m not making this up, either.
By the end of the long day’s ride, we have circled 270 degrees of the island. The sun is setting over the western rim of the lake as we arrive at the hotel, badly in need of a warm shower to wash off the sweat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, road dust and juvenile howler monkey pee. Alas, our hotel falls a little short in this department. A small trickle of cold water from a tap near the bathroom ceiling is all that our room can manage.
On the other hand, the room provides generous helpings of cane toads (one the size of a loaf a bread sits in the doorway, blocking our entry) and geckos (several scurry on the wall above my bed, chirping) and mosquitoes and other biting insects. Really, the room has everything except for the promised fan and/or air conditioning.
I take this up with the management, a larger-than-usual Nicaraguan man who listens to my Spanish in stone-faced silence as I explain that we are from Canada, a cold country, and need a fan so as not to die from the heat and biting insects.
He switches to Slavic-accented English and tells me that he spent six years in Moscow and knows all about the cold. Then he makes arrangements with his staff to find us a fan and dismisses me with a hand wave.
Later, when the hotel room’s light mysteriously fades out, I lie in the darkness, swatting bugs and listening to the chirps of the geckos. I think about howler monkeys and in-the-way cane toads and a Soviet-trained former Sandinista officer now running a crummy hotel on Isla Ometepe.
I smile. This is certainly not the usual. Life doesn’t feel like a long Monday morning any more.
Next week: Sovka eats prehistoric fish in a wildlife refuge.
• Central America includes seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, with a total population of 42 million
• We cycled 600 kilometres of back roads over two weeks with Intrepid.com
• Nicaragua is the poorest Central American country — 75 per cent of the people live on less than $2 per day
• Tourism is huge and growing by at least 10 per cent annually over the last decade
• 88 constellations are visible in Earth’s night sky — 86 of them can be seen clearly in Nicaragua
• There are more than 400 volcanoes found in Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest lake