Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
Trip End Nov 19, 2007

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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Monday, July 9, 2007

Our time in Nicaragua on the way down was short (July 9-13) and not entirely sweet. Almost as soon as we crossed the border we could feel that Nicaragua is a country that is extremely down on its luck, even in comparison to Guatemala and Honduras. This is borne out by the following stats (from the CIA-World Factbook): (1) almost half of its 5.67 million population live below the poverty line; (2) it has the 3rd lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere; (3) the distribution of income is one of the most unequal on the globe and (4) the life expectancy rate is only 70 years old.

After finally making our way through the choke-hold of semis at the chaotic Pan-American border crossing between Honduras and Nicaragua, we headed to Matagalpa, a city of about 100,000 in the north. The road up was the worst paved (I use that word loosely) road we have seen yet, looking and feeling as if it had been put through a meat grinder, and it took us an hour and half to travel 30 kms. Matagalpa itself had a certain attraction until the power in the entire city went out in the early evening and didnīt come back on until close to midnight. Other than headlights of the passing cars, the city was pitch black. (There were rolling blackouts each day we were in Nicaragua, shutting the power down for 6 to 10 hours; Nicaragua is apparently experiencing an energy deficit from its own sources of between 20-30% of demand, and is having trouble purchasing it from neighbouring countries.)

The next day was a rain day - our first full day of rain on the trip - that kept us close to our hotel room, and it wasnīt until the following day that we headed the 10 kms or so further up the road to the Selva Negra hotel and coffee farm, which was the main reason we had wanted to go to the Matagalpa area in the first place.

Although we were first a little underwhelmed, Selva Negra proved to be worth the wait once the owner, Eddy Kuhl, took us on a tour of the property. Eddyīs relatives, from Germany, acquired the 1200 acre property in the late 1800s and today it is a model of sustainability and community building. In short, they do everything right, including using shade-grown coffee methods (which, among other things, means that the rain-forest is not clear-cut in order to grow the coffee plants), using the methane gas created by human waste for energy, composting extensively and using the "juices" as a natural insecticide, employing up to 600 local people in high season and offering free or subsidized housing, schooling and meals for their employees and their families. Their latest project is the installation of an on-site $150,000 hydroelectric power facility, which will allow the farm to get off the national grid and to be essentially self-sufficient. In down-and-out Nicaragua, it seems to be a real success story including from a business perspective (they sell their coffee beans to Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca, among others). The hotel also serves up a tasty German-style egg breakfast.

From Matagalpa we headed south to Granada, one of Nicaraguaīs celebrated colonial cities. We didn't feel like celebrating, though, when on the way into the city we were pulled over by the cops twice, within half a kilometre of each other, for allegedly not using our indicator. Nobody uses their indicator in Central America, including the cars in front of us which didnīt get pulled over. The first time, we protested vigorously, threw around, in broken Spanish, terms like "government of Canada" and "we are going to phone our embassy" (like we have a cell phone) and after 15 minutes or so, they got tired of us and let us go.

The second time was trickier as the officer got angry at us for only giving him a photocopy of my license, not the real thing. (We had been warned beforehand that Nicaraguan traffic police are notoriously corrupt, target tourists - to a person, every single tourist we have spoken to, or know of, who has driven in Nicaraguan has been pulled over for phantom offences - and that giving up your license to the cops is the kiss of death: if you donīt manage to pay off the cops at the scene, they confiscate your license until you make your way to a bank, pay the fine, and then return to the police station with your receipt. Often the bank and the police station are not in the same town, or arenīt open at convenient hours, or the officer has forgotten to turn in your license, and it can turn into a 2 day ordeal). We finally capitulated with the license when he made gestures indicating he was going to handcuff me, but we somehow had worn out this guy too and he also let us off with only a warning. Including Cancun, our record is now 3 for us, 0 for the boys in blue!

Granada itself was fine but didnīt wow us like the colonial cities in Mexico, and we were also disappointed with the craft markets that we had heard so much about from other travelers. Basically, if you werenīt in the market for a hammock, there wasnīt much of interest to buy.

We spent the first night in a Granada in a hotel with neither lights nor a fan to keep us cool (because of the blackouts) so on the second night we opted to save a buck and boon-dock in front of a ritzy hotel near the central plaza. Not wanting to draw undue attention to ourselves, however, we didnīt pop the top but instead wedged ourselves into the 3 square feet of bedroom space we have on our "main floor". After a restless night, we got up early (before the cops) and headed the 2 hours or so south to the Costa Rican border, not too upset to put Nicaragua in our rear view mirror.
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