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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

El grande visa run - or the time when we jumped the country before we were chucked out

NICARAGUA | Saturday, 20 September 2008 | Views [1501]

Rooftop view of the Cathedral

Rooftop view of the Cathedral

So, Rachel and I had been in Costa Rica for coming up three months, the limit of our tourist visa, whilst we still had three weeks of our internship to complete. However, the visa has a clause whereby if you jump the country for three days, you can come back and get a new one. Therefore we followed in the footsteps of many a Costa Rican visitor and took the well trod path of El Grande Visa run!

There are basically two options – go north to Nicaragua, or south to Panama. We plumped for north. After a few days in San Jose, where we met Rita, an old friend from the RSPB who is now living and working in Panama (she was on a business trip), we booked tickets on a Tica bus (one of the main inter-city bus companies in Central America), destination Granada. Granada is one of the original Spanish colonial towns in CA, on the coast of the huge Lake Nicaragua, which takes up a good third of the country, and along with its long-time rival, Leon in northern Nicaragua, is one of the major cities in Nicaragua. It has a colourful history (it was burnt down by William Walker in the mid nineteenth century - an American adventurer who tried to conquer CA, not once, but twice – he burnt the city down the first time he failed. Luckily, on the second attempt he ended up at the wrong end of a firing squad in Honduras).

The Tica bus is no chicken bus, but an air conditioned coach with movies, so Rachel and I settled down for the eight hour journey. The route takes you down from the central plateau in Costa Rica and through the Guanacaste region – where the scenery changes from the steep volcanic hills to lowland pasture, with tree-line fields. If it wasn´t for the heat and the African-style cattle it could be Europe.

The border was fun. This involved getting out of the coach and standing in a queue for an hour to get your passport stamped by a Costa Rican border guard (which took all of 20 seconds – what gives?????), then getting on the bus again to travel 50 metres to the Nicaraguan border post, where we paid an entry fee, filled out a customs form, and queued for another hour to get to a little man with a table and a red and green traffic light. Once at the table, the little man indicated to hit the button of destiny. If you got a green light, everything was ok, and you could get back on the bus. I´m not sure what happens if you get a red light. I think its probably bad.... (ok, you probably just get your bags searched, but its more adventurous to think otherwise).

After a ten hour journey (note Costa Rica time in evidence) we eventually reached Granada and got a taxi to our hostel, a very nice converted town house with an enclosed garden courtyard and swimming pool. Unfortunately we had to spend the first night in with the teenage hoi-polloi in a dormitory, as there weren´t any double rooms left (yes, I know i´m a snobbish old git, but i´m too old for dorms and shouty people rolling in at 2 am), but we managed to get a nice room for subsequent nights.

The town reminded us a lot of Trinidad in Cuba – another old Spanish colony, unsurprisingly. The town is on a grid, with mainly single story town houses right up to the road, with big ornately carved wooden doors and metal grills over window spaces. The roofs overhang with carved beams supporting them. Inside they generally have large, lofty rooms with an inner courtyard. Toward the centre of town there are two story mansions, along with the ubiquitous monasteries and churches. The main difference between the two towns is commerce and money – Granada has a thriving market, many good restaurants and I get the impression that in recent years a lot of money has come in to the town as Gringos and wealthy Nicaraguans have bought dilapidated properties and restored them. It was really pleasing to see the good job that most owners had done, returning run-down and derelict properties back to their former glory – with my planning hat on, i´m not sure whether its the city council that keeps a tight hold on restoration work, or whether its just that the usual ´rip it out and put crap in its place´ mentality hasn´t happened. Knowing human nature, and how the mind of your average developer works, it would be a miracle if its the latter.

The town is becoming more gentrified, and a little touristy, so its also good that (at the moment at least) there is not an obvious distinction between richer and poorer neighbourhoods in the centre, except for maybe on the streets coming off the main square. Rachel and I spent a good few days wondering the streets, exploring the maze-like market, where you can buy most things for peanuts (including an amazing amount of ripped-off goods - of questionable quality... Rachel must tell you about womens´ underwear in CA sometime), checking out some interesting pre-columbian museums and enjoying some nice food.....which didn´t include any beans, or rice.

One of the highlights of our stay was a day at the nearby Laguna Apoya. This is an ancient crater lake of a long-dormant volcano, now at near sea level (I get the impression the volcano must have blown itself away), surrounded by forested slopes and (as yet), relatively free of development. It´s the largest crater lake in CA, has beautiful blood-warm, clean water and four species of endemic fish. Oh, and its also bottomless (ok, its about 200 ft deep). We spent a fantastic day swimming in the waters, paddling about in kayaks and watching the rain roll down the surrounding hills and across the glass-still waters. Check out the photos. I fear it won´t remain the same for long, as although its a protected area, I don´t think the local government probably has the means (or will) to stop rubbish foreign-funded developments by the lakeside. Also, the previously stable water level has been dropping in recent years, threatening the endemic ecology. No one seems to be sure of the reason for this – whether its local farmers/local developments extracting water, or whether one of the recent earthquakes ruptured the underlying rock seams. The feeling of something being here now, but not for long is one I think i´ll be repeating as we progress through our trip.

Our return trip was much the same as the one there – except this time it was mothers day in Costa Rica, a national holiday – so the border area was even more busy than last time and we had to queue for three hours to get our passports stamped by the TWO (yes, you heard right) border guards. Ei yai yai!

Tags: border crossing, building conservation, crater lakes, ecology, granada


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