Friday, 21 April 2017

Panama City to Granada, Nicaragua – Days 216 to 219

Looking into the gates of hell at Volcan Masaya, Nicaragua
I will try to be brief, ‘cause I normally write far too much and I get grief from Jackie!

On our last day in Panama City we took a Uber taxi to Casco Viejo (don’t walk there we were told, it’s surrounded by a poor area where robberies from tourists are not uncommon). Casco Viejo was the city built by the Spanish to replace Panama Viejo, the oldest Spanish city in Central America that was destroyed by Henry Morgan in 1671 (see previous blog entry). Standing on a peninsular with a rocky outcrop it was considered safe from attack from those unruly British pirates like Henry Morgan and Francis Drake!

Casco Viejo, Panama
This church was moved here from Panama Viejo after the destruction of the city
It seems to have fallen into disrepair but is currently undergoing a regeneration with many restored old buildings, but many more yet to be done. Some years ago there were plans to run a new dual carriageway road nearby which met with stiff opposition, so the solution was to build it on stilts in the shallow sea forming a giant arc round the city, which protected the old city but obscured the view somewhat out to sea. 

It somehow survived the burning and destruction of Henry Morgan, probably as it was on the edge and was taken down and moved piece by piece to the then new Casco Viejo city
Looking out to Panama City (and the road) from Casco Viejo
It’s an up and coming area with many fashionable restaurants charging fancy prices. We weren’t terribly struck by it despite the hype insisting ‘most people fall in love with it within a few minutes’. We visited the Paseo de las Bovedas, the promontory on the end with old battlements and high walls  looking out to sea (and the road) and the Panama Canal Museum situated by the main square which was quite interesting (we got 10% off by showing our entrance tickets to the Miraflores Locks a few days ago and I got a seniors discount being over 55, which was half price, so we ended up paying US$10 for us both instead of US$20, plus US$3 for the audio commentary in  English - most of the displays were in Spanish). We paid the most we have ever paid for a tiny lunch that required the supplement of a cake from the supermarket, visited a printing shop so we could print out our flight boarding passes for the following day and summoned a Uber taxi back just as the rain started.

Can't remember why this church was destroyed in Casco Viejo but there is a story that the shallow arch here was viewed by the original builders of the Panama Canal as evidence that the ground was fairly stable as it had survived so long. In 2003 however it fell down and those bits of masonry on the floor are all that's left. It was rebuilt a few years later to the same design
Finally got a photo of the spiral building in Panama
We were up early the next day, took another Uber taxi to the main airport in the east of the city, glad we were not going the other way as it was jammed with cars of people heading into the city for the days work (50% of the population, 2 million people, live in Panama City), and caught the first leg of our trip to Managua, Nicaragua on a turbo-prop plane. The booking said we had only 30 minutes at San Jose, Costa Rica airport before taking off for Managua and we assumed we would stay on the plane while some people got off, others got on and it refuelled, but no. They could check our luggage right through but we had to change planes they said. It landed, they pulled all the luggage off, we had to get off, go through security again, walk very quickly to the new boarding gate, got on a bus which took us…..back to the same plane, where they reloaded our luggage and we got back on again, this time with a different crew.

The beautiful cathedral in the centre of Granada

Managua, the capital of Nicaragua is not a very safe place we were told, so we had booked a hotel in Granada, 43km SE of the city and on the shore of the giant Lake Nicaragua, arranging with the hotel to be collected by their driver, which worked really well (they sent a photo of him for security reasons). Walked out into the massive heat and humidity and checked into our room at the hotel that only has a fan, no air conditioning. 
Noahs ark scene on the roof of the cathedral
There is no escape from the heat – even at night with the fan on full blast and lying on top of the bed with no covers it’s barely comfortable enough (having said that, we have both slept really well the last two nights). From about 11:00am until after sunset it’s unbearable unless you can get out of the sun and/or there’s a breeze blowing which at least stops you suffocating! Other than that it’s fabulous!

Met Clare and Paul, a British 40 something couple from Bristol with houses let to students in Cardiff and travelling the world, who were staying in the room next to ours. Really nice couple and ended up spending quite a bit of time with them.

Jackie walking up the stairs to the belltower in the cathedral. We paid a man sitting at the bottom 60 Cordobas to go up - he may or may not have been anything to do with the cathedral, but he was very pleasant!
The view over Central Park and the city from the belltower
Granada’s nice, very beautiful buildings but very expensive . Nicaragua is a relatively cheap country but we’re in the tourist areas so prices are jacked up considerably to the prices tourists are used to paying at home and sensibly priced restaurants have to be hunted down. The small print on menus says ‘tax not included’ which ranges from 10% to 15% with some also adding a service charge on top of all that and, despite all that we were still asked at one café for a voluntary tip on top – I don’t think so!

A view of the cathedral halfway up the belltower. It's a great building both inside and out. Built between 1905 and 1915 a plaque told us
In the belltower
Did a lot yesterday, starting with lazy breakfast with Clare and Paul, walked to a tour agent we had identified the previous day to book an evening tour of Volcan Masaya, an active volcano with bubbling lava deep down in a cavernous crater that is best viewed in the dark (obviously), more on that later. We went our separate ways after that, they to the lake, us to check out the public bus to Rivas, then San Jorge and then a boat to Isla Ometepe. After seeing the very old chicken buses, the luggage strapped to the roof and the cramped, stuffy seats inside we decided to opt for an air conditioned shuttle bus direct to San Jorge for US$15 each, rather than the approx. US$4.5 on public bus. In the end we negotiated US$12 each with one tour company, as long as we don’t tell anyone (this message will self-destruct in 5 seconds).

Scenes around the city
The Guadalupe church in Granada
Spoke to some agents about a boat ride round Las Isletas, a group of about 300 small islands in Lago Nicaragua formed when Volcan Mombacho, overlooking the city, blew its top in the distant past and spewed rock into the lake to form them.  The standard price seemed to be US$25 each, but we walked the 1.2km to the lake shore to be approached by one local who owned several boats and offered us a private 1 hour guided tour for US$25 for both of us, that we negotiated down to US$20. He put us in a taxi to the boat dock, introduced us to our Spanish speaking guide, who was very good and off we went. Many of the islands are now privately owned, some have restaurants on them but many are still wild with lots of fauna (mainly birds) and flora. 

At the dock getting ready to head off on our private boat trip
Monkey island has 5 monkeys on it who come down to passing boats to be fed, one climbed aboard for rice and beans, others had kingfishers, pelicans, cormorants, herons and many more. It was hard to remember that this was a lake and not the sea it was so big, but the water lilies did keep reminding us. The islands are all quite close together so it’s not quite as private as the islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama, but it made a very pleasant trip. Gave our guide a 100 Cordoba tip got off the boat, the cafes didn’t seem to be serving food and there were no taxis around. 4.5km to our hotel, hot sun in the sky, oh well, let’s start walking! A taxi did come by quite soon which cost us 80 Cordoba (about £2), a bit more than 20 Cordobas the guy who sold us the trip told us it would cost, but it was still all worth it and a lot less than the US$50 we were being quoted in town for the two of us.

Heading through Las Isletas
Not a Kingfisher, but something like it
Afternoon was spent taking a cold shower and sitting close to the fan and then met up with Clare and Paul at 4:00pm to walk to the pick up point for our Volcan Masaya evening trip. In any other country you would not be allowed anywhere near an active volcano belching lava and toxic fumes, but here they have built a roadway right up to the crater at 1750m and a viewing platform where you can lean over and look directly down into the gates of hell taking deep breaths of noxious air. They do limit people to 15 minutes at the crater, mainly from a health and safety point of view but also so they can get more people up there. It’s a 3 hour trip with plenty of hanging around waiting for our turn, but it is very well organised and we had Clare and Paul to chat to, so the time flew by. 

This is a Kingfisher, slightly hidden
It was dark by the time we got there and there was plenty of room at the viewing platform to get a great view down the massive hole in the middle. Smoke constantly drifted upwards lit pale orange in the night sky, the high walls of the crater shades of orange from deep orange at the crater rim where we were, progressively getting brighter and, deep down (if you leaned over far enough, which everyone did) a big swirling pool of white hot lava bubbling away, sometime sending up blobs of molten lava (but nowhere near as high as us). It was eerie, truly like looking into the gates of hell and really quite easy to fall in if you leant over too far or stood on top of the wall as some did (including me at one point). It was quite windy so difficult to hear anything, but at one point it did drop and the sound was like listening to water simmering on a hot plate. 15 minutes was enough, by that time I could feel the fumes in my lungs and my chest tightening a little, so I was glad to hear the whistle to summon us back to the busses. Jackie of course was fine (she’s an alien!).

Volcan Mombacho, still semi active, overlooking Granada
There are just so many privately owned islands like this one
Got back to Granada just before 8:00pm and headed off into town with Clare and Paul for a meal at an outdoor street café in the bustling central area. Lovely evening, good beer, good food, good company, such a joy to meet like-minded people of our sort of age (well, Jackie’s age anyway), they are back in the UK in early June, not long after we get back, so we hope to catch up with them during the summer.

Monkey Island
Today, after saying goodbye to them we headed back into town to tick off a couple of sights we hadn’t yet seen and got back for a relaxing half a day to catch up with housekeeping stuff, like writing this blog. Have I gone on too much? I hope not but maybe Jackie will edit bits out when she reads it.

Have a look at this Youtube video of a monkey visiting our boat for lunch: 

Just a slight downer on our stay at La Siesta, which otherwise has been a pleasant hostal: we leave our room key at reception when we go out and the outer door is locked so no-one can get in without ringing a bell. 
Little tiny sleeping bats
On returning yesterday both Jackie and I noticed that the combination locks on our luggage were in different settings from how we left them. Nothing was taken (that we know of), but someone had attempted to open our bags. Jackie mentioned it to Clare and Paul who thought (although they are not certain) that about 1000 Cordobas (about £25) of their money was missing. We don’t like to accuse them here, but there is no doubt our locks had been tampered with, I always set my combination to an alternative setting so I know for sure if it’s been moved. I’m just glad we always lock things, but it leaves a nasty feeling that someone has had a go at things. It’s a shame because it’s really quite nice here and the staff are quite friendly.

He picked some lillies for Jackie
Anyway, tomorrow we are off for a 5 night stay on two volcanic islands in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. No air-con again, let’s hope there’s a breeze!

Have a look at this Youtube video of a flower presented to Jackie by our guide:

This is the other way to see Las Isletas, guided kayak trip. Might be a bit hot for that!
A fisherman casts his net

This is the national flower of Nicaragua, the Sacuanjoche
Dinner with Clare and Paul

Have a look at this Youtube video looking down into the gates of hell in Volcan Masaya:

Another photo of Vulcan Masaya

Now I don't know about you, but according to Lonely Planet this church, the Convento de San Fransisco is supposed to be the most beautiful church in Granada and is the No.1 sight. They also state its the oldest in Central America, originally built in 1585. My vote definitely goes to the cathedral pictured above, which isn't even mentioned in Lonely Planet

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