Having survived the boat trip to Ometepe Island, Ian woke the next day feeling not well at all. We had to move on to Granada, but decided to take a taxi: fortunately it was not far, and taxis are relatively cheap in Nicaragua.
In and around Granada
We arrived early at our hotel, but luckily they had a room ready, so we were able to check in straightaway, and Ian could lie down. He took it easy for the rest of the day, but Sandie went out exploring the city. It has become a real tourist magnet, but there is a marked difference between the centre (brightly painted houses, lots of restaurants, bars and tour operators) and adjacent streets, where there is a distinct ‘third world’ feel (some well-kept buildings, some very run down, a mix reminiscent of Ghana).
Fortunately Ian was feeling much better the next day, so we were able to do a tour to Mombacho Volcano. We enjoyed this, although it was not quite what we expected. We were driven almost to the top, and then did a guided walk through the forest. There were a couple of good viewpoints, but what we saw was mainly trees – it was not really obvious that we were walking on a volcano. We did not see much wildlife, but we did see our first sloth – up in a tree, where it looked just like a fur hat, or a wig.
That evening we had dinner in a smart hotel with a beautiful courtyard. We’d chosen it because they had folk dancing there on Friday nights. Having seen folk dancing in many different countries, we were keen to see what Nicaraguan folk dancing was like! Ten students from the local high school danced in pairs at different points around the courtyard – and there was always one couple just in front of our table. The costumes were beautiful and the dancing was good. There were hints of flamenco, although it was interesting to observe that only the men clicked their heels.
It was a most enjoyable evening – but afterwards it was Sandie’s turn to feel unwell, and during the night she was sick. She felt bad next morning, but we’d booked a trip to Las Isletas – the small islands (reportedly 365) in Lake Managua, not far from Granada. It seemed a shame to miss, and Sandie reasoned that it should not require much energy! (In any case, we had to check out of our hotel.) We sailed among several of the islands in a small motorboat, stopping at one where there was a small fort, at a second while our guide fed monkeys, and a third for a drink.
In the afternoon, we moved on to Masaya – not far at all from Granada, so we were able to make life easy by taking a taxi.
In and around Masaya
Granada is really touristy; Masaya is just the opposite. We saw few if any foreign tourists while we were there. Some might say it is therefore more authentic, but few tourists means few tourist facilities, such as restaurants, hotels and tour operators. We went there because our guidebook said that it is a nice place to stay; with hindsight, that was probably a mistake.
Our accommodation turned out to be a room in a private house – we had to walk through the living room to go in and out. It was situated right on the Parque Central, which was ideal except for the excessive noise at night. Arriving on a Saturday, we were deafened by a combination of the church clock (which did not simply chime the hours), constant firecrackers and loud music from a ‘tourist train’. Sunday was fortunately a bit quieter, but on Monday – when there was no party outside – there was a noisy prayer meeting downstairs, followed by a group of young people playing guitars and singing until quite late.
The worst problem was the water supply! During our first day it was just a trickle, and at night there was no water at all – so no flushing toilet. The next day it was apparently fixed; the water flowed and we were able to have a shower, but at night it was completely dry again. Next day we were back to a trickle, and so it went on.
Our intention was to do a hike in the Masaya Volcano National Park, preferably one of the night hikes which are highly recommended. To our disappointment, the park was closed, due to recent volcanic activity. Because of this, and the problems described above, we considered moving on earlier than planned. But we had already paid for three nights, and it would have meant changing other arrangements, so in the end we decided to stay.
On our first full day in Masaya, we went by local bus to nearby Catarina. The journey itself was an experience. The bus station was so like exactly those in Accra that we felt we were back in Ghana: a chaotic mix of buses, cars, street vendors and market stalls – not to mention piles of rubbish. To say the bus was crowded would be an understatement: the aisle was so crammed that anyone needing to get by (passengers getting on and off, vendors, the conductor) had a real struggle.
Catarina is one of the so-called ‘white towns’, known for their whitewashed houses and artistic traditions. We saw no white houses, and the artwork for sale in many shops was (in our opinion) hideous. However, Catarina is also known for ‘El Mirador’, the viewpoint at the top of the hill. As well as yet more souvenir shops, there are benches arranged so you can enjoy the spectacular view of Laguna de Apoyo, the crater lake below, which is overlooked by the Masaya Volcano. There are also horse rides, and families enjoying picnics – we guess that it is where many local people go for their Sunday outing. We took a stroll from the viewpoint, and discovered a nature trail, opened only three months ago, which gives even better views of the lake and volcano.
We got more views of the volcano from Masaya itself, but they were not as spectacular as from Caterina. We also visited the Coyotepe Fort, just out of town, which involved a steep uphill climb in the midday heat.
In the town there are several churches – generally attractive outside, less so inside. The part of town we liked best was the Central Park, where there were always lots of people and things going on. It was rather quirky, and certainly colourful. The benches, the bandstand and even the lampposts were painted in a variety of bright colours. There were fake birds of different kinds, and fake swans on the little pond. A man had a string of kiddy cars attached to his bicycle, and took up to six children at a time for a ride around the park.
On Sunday evening we saw a procession which passed by the park. Yong people from the local high school were honouring Dom Bosco, the founder of their school system. There was a band, a couple of floats, and a strongly Catholic ethos. What amused us was that, as the parade turned the corner, the tourist train – flashing lights and loud music – came along the crossing road and effectively joined the procession. We had not realised until then that the ‘engine’ of the train was in fact a named replica of Thomas the Tank Engine – somewhat incongruous in this context!