Leon and Around

Trip Start Aug 23, 2006
Trip End Apr 15, 2007

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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

We left Utila on the ferry with Mike and Veronique, a Canadian couple we'd been randomly bumping into since San Pedro, looking to get to Nicaragua. We made it as far as Tegucigalpa, the gritty, noisy, traffic clogged capitol of Honduras, and lucked into staying at a hotel just two blocks from a Pizza Hut. Not normally on the prowl for western franchise restaurants, we've been making the occasional exception given the nature of Central American cuisine. In short, it's crap. I mean really, when was the last time you went out for some Honduran food? Rice, beans and chicken go only so far... Reminiscent of Mandalay in Burma with it's constant human activity, non-stop uncontrolled traffic and tasty street food, it has a certain charm and definitely was starting to grow on us, but we lacked the time and armed bodyguards necessary to really explore it.

One night in Teguc and we were headed for Nicaragua. The poorest of the Central American countries, Nicaragua's history since the Spaniards arrived goes something like this: discovered by Columbus in 1502, colonized by the Spanish shortly thereafter, followed by subjugation and annihilation of the indigenous people, followed by multiple civil wars, followed by U.S. Interventions, followed by tempestuous democracy, followed by coups, followed by dictatorship, followed by more coups, followed by more intervention, followed by more dictatorship, another civil war, Sandanistas, Contras, Iran-Contra, Ollie North, and the present day tempestuous democracy with the continuation of widespread poverty, corrupt government and general lack of progress in fixing just about any of the ills plaguing the country while corrupt politicians continue getting rich by siphoning off foreign aid and tax receipts...the usual Latin American recipe for personal success. Case in point, the previous president, Aleman, was investigated for his term as the mayor of Managua. The comptroller general, Agustin Jarquin, found he had amassed a huge personal fortune ($100 million) during that time. He announced his findings, and subsequently found himself in jail. Doing the right is particularly difficult down here. Lest you think it all bad though, Aleman was later stripped of his immunity from prosecution, tried, found guilty and sentenced to 20 years and a $17 million dollar fine. He's currently serving his sentence at his ranch, south of the capital. How this differs from retirement, I'm not quite sure.

We made our way south to the border, where we managed to avoid the departure "tax" on the Honduran side but couldn't get out of the entry "tax" charged by Nicaraguan customs. Both of these taxes are basically lining the pockets of the border officials, we're pretty sure not a penny of it goes to the gov't, thus our attempts to avoid paying, strictly on principle. Really. From the border it was another chicken bus ride to Esteli, a truck stop of a town where we signed up for a homestay on a farm in the Miraflor nature reserve and sustainable farming area.

We spent two days and nights at Finca Fuerte de Vida, a working farm with rough accommodations for guests. Frigid showers from rainwater storage tanks and outhouses are the daily norm here. Day two saw us spend about 5 hours on horseback exploring the region. It would later take about 3 days to undo the damage that 5 hours on a horse can do to you. We're just about recovered now, and it will be awhile before we're back on a horse. Mike and Vero seemed entirely unaffected by the riding. Despite this, we still like them.

The food at the finca (surprise) left a bit to be desired, but the coffee was excellent, which is actually uncommon here in prime coffee growing territory. Organically grown at the finca, and roasted by them, it was one of the best of the trip. The owner had also half tamed a local tropical bird, who would land on the table during meals to beg for food. His method was exceptionally effective, as if he wasn't with his portion, he would attack you. Actually, he would attack pretty much whenever he felt like it. We all came to love him, and instigated attacks just for kicks.

We're now winding up a couple of restful days in Leon, the main university town in the country. One of the two large Spanish colonial cities, it's what Antigua would have been if development had continued there. You can still see remnants of the colonial elements, but it's mostly just a bit rundown and covered in soot due to the constant bus traffic.

We daytripped our way by bus and pickup truck to Old Leon, which was destroyed, Pompei like, by a volcanic eruption around 1610. Unlike Pompei though, it's really not worth the trip. There's a nice view of the lake and all the surrounding volcanoes, but the ruins themselves are anything but spectacular. It was a hot and sweaty day where the only real discovery was that the residents of Puerto Momotombo, the town adjacent to the ruins, have gone above and beyond the normal level of third world depravity when it comes to the neglect of dogs. Having traveled Asia and 5 south of the border countries, we thought we had become immune to the plight of the local dogs. Today set a whole new standard though. In the midst of a farming community, with well fed pigs, cattle, horses and chickens were dogs literally on the verge of death. Emaciated beyond belief, they might as well have been invisible to the locals. Apparently if they can't eat you, sell you or trade you, they see no need to feed you. It was a really disturbing experience.

We've since left Leon, and are now in Masaya, a town know for its artisan markets. We were pretty underwhelmed and will be moving on in the morning.

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