It happened again. Leaving Nicaragua, I didn’t want to go, but this time I wasn’t alone.
Once more, this tiny triangle in the middle of the world managed to pierce my ever thicker hide, leaving me enamoured with this parcel of land and the folk that call it home.
Over the years the struggles of the Nicaraguan people, played out on a world stage but realised within their own lives, have taught me much about the human condition but it is the beauty of the place and its peoples that enchant.
The guns have gone but the daily struggles and the beauty remains.
Although based in León, we travelled out of the city as often as we could. Occasionally, we got a lift but mostly we trundled about the country using the ex-school buses from the USA that form the backbone of the publicly-available transport system.
Frequent trips to the beaches of nearby Poneloya and Las Peñitas, and travels farther afield; to natural reserves in the north, the Isla de Omotepe, and a volcanic crater lake; each showing another aspect of this essentially rural country.
In Poneloya, squadrons of pelicans would greet the morning light, expertly flying in formation over the waves while the children swam and I watched the fisher folk land their catch.
Travelling to the north of Nicaragua brought back memories of times past. At Reserva Miraflores, we stayed with a family, headed by Nelson and Lorena. Nelson and his family are part of the landscape; on the way from the bus stop to his house, he would point out each hill, path, and house relating it to the terrors that took place before and during the revolution. The land bore witness to their struggles.
The children were apprehensive when asked if they would like to milk a cow, approaching the beast with caution, but showed no such reticence (which would have been understandable) when asked if they would like to explore the countryside from horseback. Four hours of delight for them, Neamh needing little encouragement from Nelson to whoop, waving her hat in the air, laughing raucously, as the horses cantered across rough ground. Four hours of unbridled terror for me, trying to remain parental while busy worrying about how we’ll cope if (inevitably in my mind) a neck gets broken.
Retracing ours steps to Estelí, we boarded a bus to Matagalpa, a hill town surrounded by coffee country. From there we shook our way north on the road to El Cua. I knew the road of old but personal memories of a previous horror in the war abated as our destination loomed larger: Peñas Blancas, a limestone massif, bearded with green. In the evening, as the light faded, the white base colour of the enormous cliff faces turned rose before the dark finally descended.
An area resplendent with rich eco-systems of rain and cloud forests, Peñas Blancas is inhabited mostly by small-scale farmers, living in small settlements. We stayed with a community that had developed a sideline catering to slightly more adventurous tourists. Our simple cabins provided shelter if not a lot of warmth, but were located perfectly to watch the enormous cliff faces turn to rose before the pitch of night finally descended, leaving a reassuring whisper of trees at night, their chattering continuing until drowned-out by birdsong as morning approached.
It was here that we met Don Chico, a sprightly 70 year old who acted as our guide on a hike to a waterfall. As we climbed through primary forest, a thought would occur to him and he’d stop in his tracks and relate the use (medicinal or otherwise) of the plants he could see. His glee was infectious as he bounced on a branch of a tree that he had known since he was 5 years old. Surrounded by a large extended family, this was a man who seemed content. As he got his accordion out one night after dinner, his offspring gave a universal signal, rolling their eyes as they smiled, showing humour (and given the sound) tolerance of their old man who was teaching himself how to play.
Around León we visited El Viejo, a small town that has had friendship links with Norwich since the days of the contra-war. Parched fields flanked the roads. It was the dry season but something seemed wrong. Environmental protestors point to more and more tree clearances and large-scale cultivation of cash crops of sugar cane and peanuts.
What results is reminiscent of the mid-west dust bowls of the USA, described so vividly by Steinbeck: the land’s fertility robbed by repeated planting of cotton. Eventually, all that was left was dust, misery and massive human displacement. I recall old slogans that the revolution was also for the trees, the birds, animals, rivers and lakes. At the time, some thought this sentimental nonsense but the last few months in Latin America have convinced me that violent conflict over water is not far away.
Ironic, in some ways – Nicaragua has the largest freshwater lake in Central America, Lago Nicaragua. Rising from it is the beautiful Isla de Ometepe. Formed by two volcanos, Concepción and Maderas, this is land teeming with life. In three days, exploring waterfall trails by foot and the lake by kayak, we added new flora and fauna to our list of sightings: a large constrictor snake lazed on the path up to San Ramón waterfall; caiman lying low in the water as we kayaked up a river. Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh finding life is sweet as they plucked rooster ‘Gallito’ flowers from trees to suck out nectar that had pooled in the blooms.
Our farewell to this country of volcanos, mountains, lakes and rivers also involved water, with a few days at the spectacular Laguna de Apoya. This pristine volcanic crater-lake in the south-west boasts the cleanest water in Central America.
Howler monkeys calling us to rise early in the morning were no irritant; you didn’t really want to miss a bit of the day and the opportunity to play in the lake, or sit spotting yet another unidentified (by us) bird. This is where we saw the elusive Capuchin Monkey and, finally, the beautiful Guardabarranco, Nicaragua’s national bird. But, most of the time was spent playing with three happy children who never tired from jumping off a floating platform into deep water, the expected taste of salt never materialising.
On the last evening a gentle breeze kissed the shoreline. In turn we spoke of our time in Nicaragua, conjuring bittersweet emotions of gratitude; for all the people we had met and places seen; but also the dull ache of parting.
19 April 2017
- Main image: Miraflores