Sunday, December 21, 2014

Laguna de Apoyo & Granada

December 15th, 2014

In the hostel at Leon I met a fellow Canadian, Steph from Ottawa who is a river guide and since she’d already been to Granada before, I tagged along with her to catch a couple of chicken buses to get there.  The first one took us to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua and the second one to Granada although I got off the bus before it reached the city as I decided to stay at Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful lake nearby.

The chicken bus from Leon:

And it was a true chicken bus, in that guy's lap is a chicken!

I started to walk towards the lake but after asking a local who told me that it was another 6-7 kilometres I flagged down a cab.  After some haggling I was on my way and I’m glad I got the taxi as it was a long uphill climb followed by a steep descent down to the water.

My first choice of accommodation, Paradiso, looked fabulous but was unfortunately full so I backtracked 300 meters to Laguna Hotel and it was a decent place but wasn’t as happening as Paradiso.  In the morning I took a kayak out for a 45 minute paddle on the massive round lake followed by a cheeky morning beer floating in an inner tube.

The Laguna Hotel:

The lovely lake:

I shared a cab to Granada with two Americans who I originally thought were a couple but it turns out it was a guy of 20 years old and his 28 year old stepmom!  Granada is a colonial town founded by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524 and he named it after the Granada in Spain.  We wandered around for almost an hour, me with the goal of finding an ATM, and we did admire some fancy churches, a nice square and colourful buildings but I was ready to move on and was happy that I had heeded Steph’s advice of spending the previous night at Laguna de Apoyo.

The Merced church, we wanted to go up the tower to get a nice view but it wasn't open until 3...

A strange Jesus carving:

Another church:

A big Nicaraguan flag just off of the main square:

We hopped on a chicken bus and who would happen to be there but Steph.  Funny yet great how you often run into other backpackers on the Gringo Trail…off to the Island of Ometepe.

Back on the chicken bus to La Rivas, en route to Ometepe

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lava at Telica Volcano

December 14th, 2014

Being on a tight time schedule to get to Costa Rica to meet my family for Christmas, I decided to kill two bucket list items in one day and I signed up with Marjorie for an afternoon/evening hike up Telica volcano, supposedly the only one in Nicaragua where you can see lava in action.

After volcano boarding I had a few hours to wander around Leon and have some lunch.  I found the prettier side of town including the Leon Cathedral which happens to be on the 100 Córdoba bill (worth about $4).  Which, on a side note, I found it interesting that the Nicaraguan currency is named after Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba, the founder of Nicaragua, however there is not a single picture of him on the latest set of bills that were released in 2009.  There’s no portrait of anyone on any bill…which is actually rather refreshing.

The Via Via restaurant/bar where I was staying in Leon:

The streets of Leon:

Knuffle found some new friends:

The Leon Cathedral:

A "Victoria Frost" beer, and what a treat having a frosted glass!

Okay, back to volcano action, which seems to be the theme in Nicaragua.  I hopped back in the truck at 3pm and was joined by an American from the DC area, Michael, and his Indian girlfriend Roshne sat in the cab.  We stopped at a gas station on our way out of town which is where our dinner for the tour was purchased by the driver Jorge…oh, we’re classing it up tonight!

It was a long and bumpy ride out to the volcano and it soon became apparent that it would be after sunset before we would begin our hike.  In the dying light we marched 45 minutes up to the lip of the crater, arriving by flashlight.  Peering down into the cone we could see glimpses of red lava when the smoke cleared a bit but it was so far away that they appeared as mere dots, almost like red stars.  The lava was probably 800-1000 meters down.  I chucked a few rocks over the edge and it was a good 3-4 seconds before I would hear them hit the wall.  We would get the odd sulphur smell from the fumes but what I found strange was the sound, it was almost like rushing water, like a mad river, which was caused by the escaping gas.  We were treated to an amazing sky too thanks to the lack of light pollution and no moon.

That's where we're can just make out the smoke at the top:

On the way up:

Finally we have arrived...ready to hike:

Can you see the lava?  Spectacular isn't it?!?

Okay, it wasn’t quite the view of lava I had hoped for but I’m guessing you need to be a volcanologist to get up close and that’s not happening anytime too soon.  So I’ll take what I can get.

Seeing lava…check.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Volcano Boarding

December 14th, 2014

While researching about travel in Nicaragua I stumbled across a few blogs that mentioned an insane sounding activity…volcano boarding!  It’s just like tobogganing back in Canada but substitute the snow for volcanic rock.  Sounds like a good idea doesn’t it?  Although that does mean that any kind of wipeout is seriously going to hurt as volcanic rock isn’t known for being smooth and forgiving.

Cerro Negro, a relatively young volcano (born in 1850 and it has erupted 23 times since with the last one in 1999) outside the city of Leon in north Nicaragua is the only place currently on the Earth where this slightly crazy sport occurs.  I specifically went to Leon from Guatemala just for this experience.  It was a long shuttle ride from Antigua, leaving at 2am and not arriving until 7:30pm since we had to pass through El Salvador and Honduras so there were many border stops, plus just generally slow roads but I hoped the travel would be worth it.

I signed up for the boarding tour through the hostel I was staying at, Via Via.  It was a small group, just me and two young German women with our local guide Marjorie and a driver Jorge.  Marjorie’s English was quite good as she is just finishing up a four year university degree in English.  She turned out to be quite knowledgeable about the local history, flora and fauna too.  We hopped in the back of the pickup in Leon and drove about 45 minutes out to the volcano.

That's her in the background:

The park entrance building:

Where they breed some iguanas:

Ready to go:

The hike up the 700+ meter high volcano was surprisingly easy, even having to carry up our wooden sleds and a small backpack with our protective gear.  The view from the top was super and there was definitely some thermal activity on the mountain as you could kick back some gravel and feel the heat in the rocks.  Marjorie mentioned that she had once cooked as egg by burying it in some tinfoil, nice trick.

Starting the hike up:

A short break:

Starting to get steep:

Up the backside:

Looking towards Telica volcano which is spewing smoke:

On the spine up:


After a few pics Marjorie gave us a briefing on the fine art of volcano boarding, the do’s and do not’s.  We donned our lovely thick clothed overalls, gloves and lab style goggles and were set to go.  There were two tracks to choose from but Marjorie recommended the left one.  She then walked half way down the hill with our cameras and waved her hat when it was safe for each of us to go.  The German ladies headed off first and they both had a difficult time to get moving at the start but eventually they began down the steep 41 degree slope.

Marjorie's demo:

Ready to go!

Others suiting up:

We're going down there?!?

So off I went, leaning back as much as I could and keeping my feet off the ground.  I slowly gathered some speed as I passed Marjorie but at no point did I feel I was out of control although near the bottom of the hill I did need to use my hands to keep my direction straight and I did think I was going to bite it at one point…but in the end I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed with my lack of velocity.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a wicked experience and probably I just needed to do a few more runs to fine tune my technique.  I only saw two guys out of about 20 people who really got some speed, and both of them went down the right side track, perhaps that was also a factor.  I should just be happy I didn’t have a wipe out!

My run:

I had heard that the record was 91km/hr and wasn’t planning to attempt to break that but I was hoping to go fast enough for a good adrenaline buzz.  It seemed the key to speed was to lean back and keep your weight on the back of the board.  You could put your feet down to slow down or use your hands to counter steer if you found yourself veering one way or the other.

Okay, I was at least faster than this woman:

Now this guy was cookin'

Kickin' up some dust:

Ready to head back:

Volcano boarding…check!

Semuc Champey

December 10th-12th, 2014

Almost every traveller that I met recommended that I visit Semuc Champey (I had a tough time saying the name nevermind remembering it!).  Even though it would require almost an entire days’ travel to get there and another to get back and I would only have time for one full day there, I decided to do it.

The mid-sized bus that picked me up had massive windows which made it feel like we were cruising around in a giant fishbowl but it did allow for some great sightseeing of the luscious Guatemalan countryside, once we got past the outskirts of Guatemalan City.  There were a couple of familiar faces from yesterday’s Pacaya trip, Chris from the US and Kaitlyn from England.  The bus stopped at one more hostel after mine and that it was packed full.  It wasn’t as crazy a group as my last shuttle but some nice people on it nonetheless.  Beside me was Chelsea from Phoenix who, with Steve from her church group had just come from a weekend in San Salvador where they set up a computer network for an orphanage or something of similar.  Behind me was Kaitlyn and we chatted quite a bit.  At lunch I met a lovely Guatemalan couple who were silently sitting beside Chelsea and they were newlyweds, Mario and Lise.

The aquarium:

The luscious Guatemalan countryside:

Eleven kilometres before the small town of Lanquin the paved road turn into a bumpy gravel one and that last leg took over half an hour but the scenery descending down into the valley was captivating.  As the bus pulled into Lanquin there were half a dozen young guys holding signs for various hotels and hostels yelling out their names and looking for people with reservations or potential new customers.  I found my guy as I had made a reservation at Greengo’s Hostel (I love a good pun) and there was a young Israeli couple heading there too.  I loved their names.  They are Jewish names that I have heard before, but not for two people who are together.  He was Guy, and she was Gal!

It was after dark when we arrived and I have to admit I wasn’t overly pleased with my choice of accommodations at first.  My dorm was musty and hot with nine beds lining the walls at different heights.  One double bed had a couple lying in it, another guy was on a top bunk and a Swedish guy sitting on a bottom one.  Outside was an old leather couch with a group of 10 or so young Israelis talking loudly as they smoked their cigarettes and a few guys played guitar.  A few liquor bottles were beside the sofa and I figured I might be in for a late, noisy evening.  I got to know my dorm mates and four of them were from Quebec including the couple that were in bed.  They all turned out to be very nice and helpful in exchanging travel information as was the Swede.  They recounted how the previous night the Israelis and partied hard until 7am…oh dear.  Thankfully that didn’t prove to be the case and it was relatively quiet by midnight.

The young driver from Lanquin to Semuc Champey played some "interesting" Guatemalan music on the way...I joked with Guy that it sounded like Super Mario music...
The peace was to be shattered at 6am though with a loud argument in Hebrew brewing outside (how often do you get to put “Hebrew brewing” together!).  Once that subsided the sound of suitcases rolling across the wooden deck and the odd holler back and forth continued for another hour before the group of 20+ finally left.  I have some really amazing Israeli friends and I know that this kind of conduct by their fellow compatriots really pisses them off as it really doesn’t promote a good view of Israelis in the world.  It’s just hard to comprehend how selfish and inconsiderate this guys could be.  This behaviour often happens with Israelis who are in their early to mid-20s, they have completed their army service, worked a bit to save some money and then set off to travel.  They typically go to the same location as many other Israelis and party their brains out, primarily with smoking hash or marijuana.  They seem to feel like the world is theirs or that it owes them.  But perhaps almost all 20-25 year olds think similarly.

The cabanas at Greengo's:

My dorm:

The bar:

So the hostel really emptied out and I ended up being the only one going on the Kamba caves and Semuc Champey tour so I was getting the VIP treatment.  My guide Santos was from the hostel and at 10am we began to walk from the resort about a kilometre to a bridge that crossed the river and along the other side to the entrance to the caves.  I had been instructed not to wear my flip flops but my shoes.  I wasn’t too happy with this as I only have my day hikers and flips flops and I was sure it’d take a few days for the runners to dry but in the end I was glad I heeded the advice.  A group of about 15 of us with 2 guides climbed some stairs beside a waterfall to the entrance of the cave.  We were each given a long white candles and we lit them as we entered the three foot deep water emanating from the cave.  We spent the next hour and a half inside the cave.  At various points we were required to swim, wade, climb ladders and even go up a rope while getting pelted by a waterfall.  The last one was a bit harder for a few of us with contact lenses as we had to ascend with our eyes shut.  At the end point before we turned back to come out there was an optional four meter jump into a pool of water.  The guides were great, funny and enthusiastic.  Our group was mostly women in their 20s but there was one couple from Squamish with a 10 year old girl (who loved it) and an older Israeli woman who struggled at times but hats off to her for doing it.  I met a US couple from yesterday’s bus ride, Kyla and Chris who have been living in Guatemala for the past two years and on our way back out both Chris and I were shivering from the cold but it was definitely worth it.

Walking up to the cave:

What am I in for?  The black smears were a rite of passage by the guides to's just soot from a candle on the cave ceiling.  Some of the women got great moustaches or goatees:

With the newlywed couple:

The waterfalls in the cave:

Once out of the cave the guides took us a hundred meters up the riverside to a massive swing and most of us took our turns to jump into the river, even though the overcast sky had not really warmed us up yet.  I ended up getting some great height off of the swing but did a slight side belly flop and was feeling bruised across my chest, one arm and leg for days and days.  After that it was time to tube down a short section of the river, only about a five minute little trip.  Next in the rapid sequence of activities was a 7-8 meter jump off of the bridge, back into the cold water.  At this point it was time for lunch and I was pleased to don some dry clothes but unfortunately I would have to continue to wear the wet shoes and socks.

The rope swing:


Jumping from the bridge:

After lunch Santos took me into the Semuc Champey Park where we hiked up a myriad of stairs and steep trails to a lovely viewpoint with the pools of the Semuc below.  It’s an interesting geological formation happening here.  The silt laden river water ducks into a tunnel passes under a 300 meter limestone bridge atop of which are these pools of clear water which comes from springs in the forest.  The minerals in the pools create the gorgeous turquoise water.  So from the high vantage point you see this rushing darkish green opaque water turn into about 400 hundred meters of clear turquoise relatively still water in theses stepping pools only to switch back into the raging muddy business from upstream.  Pretty cool.

Stairs on the hike up:

Semuc Champey from above:

Of course Knuffle was there:

As was I:

We hiked down and I surprised myself by actually switching into my wet trunks and having a short swim.  When In Rome as I keep saying.

At the pools:

My guide shot a little early on this one...missed my jump:

Some of the waterfalls:

The waterfalls at the end of the pools.  The river is coming out from a tunnel on the right:

A nearby home to Greengo's, people here are pretty poor:

Just some cute kids hanging out by Greengo's:

That evening was super quiet at the hotel and I had my dorm to myself which was great as I needed to leave at 7 am for a shuttle back to Antigua, followed by another one at 2am the following night to head through El Salvador and Honduras to Leon in Nicaragua.  The next big adventure…volcano boarding!