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A TRIP TO NICARAGUA

Oscar Sogandares

Part one

My prime objective wasn't simply to visit Costa Rica, as I had done many times in the past, but to go as far North as Nicaragua and get to see its "huge lake". I had originally planned to go along with a friend after Christmas 1991. But it was pretty much nearing New Year's Eve now and I thought it best to spend it with my family at home in my Chiriquí province (in Panama), instead of on the road, in the middle of no where. I called my friend in Panama City again, telling him I was to proceed by myself. He told me to call him once I got to San José, that he would fly over to join me. And to this I thought, there was only one alternative left. No sense in delaying any longer… just breakaway!

Initially I had apprehensions on the situation in Nicaragua. I thought once I'm there I should abstain from making controversial statements, since memories may still be fresh. Well, once I got to "Chepe" (San José), I signed up at the hotel, and being about 9:00 or 10:00 PM I "gravitated" towards the famous "El Boulevard", Radio Monumental and the Manolo's Café, a favorite with tourists. There I sipped my cappuccino and breathed my first air of "Chepe" in a very long time. The last time I was there was over a year ago. I had gotten there in my own car then. This time I was travelling by Tracopa bus.

While in the café sipping my cappuccino I couldn't help but notice this fellow tourist, writing on loose sheets of paper, while sipping coffee and puffing an occasional cigarette. He seemed to be writing an essay or a book. I felt curious now. Our friend was thin, sharply clipped moustache, and wore a long sleeve khaki shirt, which included a leather shoulder strap, just like Indiana Jones or some type of explorer. I finally mustered the audacity and asked him if he was writing a book. He told me he was just writing brief outlines and sketches, which who knows, could become that same book someday.

He said he came from England, where he went to school at Cambridge and was presently travelling through the Americas, and expected his following tour be through the former USSR. He also mentioned he was associated with conservationist groups throughout Europe, America and around the world and he had just arrived from Nicaragua (just what I wanted to hear). There he would go around pasting peace slogans all over the place, quite an "activist" the chap. Well anyway I thought, if my friend could safely go around the place and even pull stunts like this, then so could I. He told me all they really needed to do was to reforestate the banks of the lake to really its natural and pristine conditions. I simply had no idea how the lake looked like, is sheer majesty! I just had to see it with my own eyes. I exchanged addresses with my friend and wished him good luck in his book and future endeavors.

Part two

Next day I proceeded to Empresas Alfaro - Zona Norte bus terminal in the "Coca Cola" district. My original plan was to be there one day before (in other words - proceed today), and make my "base" of operations the town of Liberia in Guanacaste, a scant 50 miles from the border at Peñas Blancas. But due to the delays and the fact I did not have bus reservations, I was to proceed a day later. I simply reserved my tickets for the following day. So after some touring and sightseeing through San José, I retired early for the long haul was due early in the morning at 5:00 AM!

I got up early, packed and checked out of the hotel and proceeded into the cool, dark and fresh morning air of "Chepe", along the streets of San José, where I finally waved a cab, which sped me to Empresas Alfaro, Zona Norte Terminal. At the terminal it became a matter of minutes when I was seated in the bus with an old Guanacasteco next to me. He was complaining that he just recently gotten some money from his luggage ripped-off. He was saying it didn't really matter (perhaps out of pride of disdain), since he had plenty of cash at home, where he was going to, etc. I hadn't really noticed until I glanced later on the bus, since he was wearing a felt stetson style hat, that he had an earlobe slashed. Probably a "machete" fight from his youth, most common in those regions. I didn't really pay further attention. I just settled in my seat and dozed off; while the the bus continued its inexorable trek across the cool "Meseta Central", and the morning mist, through mountainous crevices, valleys and into the hot, dry, and grassy plains of La Zona Norte.

I had just woke up when my fellow traveler (the old Guanacasteco), had told me that we were at Cañas (I remembered vaguely having told him I was going to one of these towns in the North, without specifying). I was half-awake, half-asleep, when I got up out of my seat, assuming this was my stop, but too late! A bunch of people had already gotten on the bus and I had already lost my seat. That little old timer had played one on me. But it didn't really matter now, since we were rapidly approaching my destination. Plus it gave me a chance to truly appreciate the passing scenery. A pitch blue sky with occasional white, fleecy, puffy clouds. Perfect volcanic cones in the horizon, an old lady hanging her clothes into this hot, rapid-dry air; her multi-colored bed sheets flapping wildly on the clothesline, like banners in the wind! A bridge and a rocky gorge, a cool crystal clear stream below - like an oasis in this hot, dry savanna-land!

I could finally see the Hotel Espüelas (or Spurs) resort rapidly appearing in the distance, from my last trip many years ago (very popular with tourists). I definitely knew now we were nearing the intersection at Liberia, where the highway crosses the road coming in from the Nicoya peninsula, into the town of Liberia. I got off into this hot, dry, desolate, almost desertic grassland, which somehow reminded me of Arizona! I just got off at a gas station, where I could see tall trailer rigs lifting huge whirlwinds of dust - on route to Central America. I checked several hotels, including one with a swimming pool (Hotel Boyeros - for next time), very good for 3000 colones or $23.00, pretty good deal. But since I knew I wasn't staying for long at Liberia, I really only needed a place to store my excess luggage. I opted for a more economical one - Hotel Oriental for 1000 colones or just about $7.00.

I proceeded back to the intersection next to the gas station where I had previously gotten off. There I flagged a TICA-BUS which was driven by "El Macho" (simply meaning light complexion in "tico" jargon). A friend of mine I had known years ago in Panama, and who immediately recognized me. I got on the bus without hesitation. Further ahead a "Guardia Rural" whom I had just seen walking along the roadside in Liberia, also got on. I recall him since he was wearing authentic US Army camouflage fatigues with nametag and all. Anyway he looked pretty much "fatigued" after walking in this hot, dry, baking sun.

Next to me was another rancher, this time en-route to Honduras. Well anyway we were finally approaching Peñas Blancas, where I noticed the terrain gradually change from dry grasslands to cool, moist, forested hills, where the giant watershed of Lake Nicaragua actually begins. It was noontime at the border.

Part three

I recalled this very same border from the time I had come here 10 years ago, in the company of a friend on a trailer rig, to view the damage Somoza's artillery, mortar rounds and even "Air Force" had done to the Customs Buildings, structure and highways. As a reprisal at Costa Rica (under Rodrigo Carazo), for having been backing the Sandinistas. That was 1980, this was 1992. Times have changed, although the place hasn't really changed too much since then or even at all if I could say.

I checked through customs and proceeded to the other side, through an archway composed of red leafy acacias - the ones with the white milky sap - a truly beautiful and unique sight. Along the shaded path, I noticed a plaque inscribed with those who had lost their lives at this very same border. I crossed the "chains" (border), which they would tow up and down - typical Central America and I was finally in Nicaragua.

There I saw a young "compa" (sandinista) guard, who checked all the passports. What struck me, was the original Customs Building was no longer standing. In its place a heap of rubble, probably destroyed by the contras. We boarded a microbus, where everyone was "micro-packed". It seems space is a precious commodity here. We crossed a "military zone" about 2kms. until we got to Sapoas. Which is no more than a tiny farming village and where the new Customs Building is located. From this point behind the fence I could catch my first glimpse of the LAKE.

The banks of the lake from here seemed marshland. I noticed an abundance of white herons or "garzas" and other waterfowl. Truly an impressive sight! The wind was blowing constantly from the East with gusts from 15 to 25 mph. The Lake was rippled with constant moving waves and water as far as the eyes could see, which blended perfectly into the blue horizon. This didn't seem like a lake at all, but an ocean. From the horizon appeared hazy blue islands named Solentiname. Could it be "so lengthy name"? Beyond these would be the San Juan River.

Closer to us was Omotepe Island, composed of two blue volcanic peaks. The one to the right, a lower more irregularly formed volcanic mountain called the Madera, and to the left, a precious, more elongated, sleek, symmetric, near perfect volcanic cone called Concepcion. I could understand now why John Lloyd Stephens - "The Maya Explorer" back in the 1830's fell in love with the place. This was truly like Eden.

From the Customs, I beheld the scenery behind a cyclone fence beside the parking lot. From there I proceeded to the Customs Bldg. Where I had to pay $25.00 (visa) to get in. Next I exchanged 5 cordobas to the dollar, and I was in business. I went past Customs, where I just missed a traveler with a bunch of ditty bags and knapsacks on an open Jeep with California License Plates, taking off probably towards Managua and beyond. So I crossed over, where all the busses and taxis were parked.

As I walked past the parking lot I saw a gracious young lady with black long hair, whom I had previously seen at Customs get into a Taxi, more like the red Toyota 4WD's so common in Costa Rica. So I stopped where I also noticed an elder man whom I thought was the father, or related to her, of which he was neither. But as we spoke I asked him about the prices. He told me the busses were the most economical mode of transportation. We patiently waited for one (our young lady had already parted in the Taxi), until we saw the people climbing on the roof. So we decided to take another Taxi instead. We talked to several drivers until we settled for this fellow with an old Datsun 120Y which he "hot wired" and proceeded further ahead.

My primary goal was to see and appreciate the thin isthmus of Rivas. Which is just a thin sliver of land separating the Lake and the Pacific Ocean, which is at most 7 miles wide. Take a swim at the beach then proceed to the lake, which is exactly what my host would do occasionally. In fact it is said that last century this place was crisscrossed with stage coaches, which sped people back and forth from the ferry service across the Lake and the San Juan River onto the Pacific and beyond to the West Coast of California during the gold rush.

A fragment of history, the struggle between Cornelius Vanderbilt owner of the ferry stage coach and steamship concerns and the self proclaimed "Emperor" of Nicaragua Tennessee born William Walker (who had also allied himself with the "liberal" presidents of Central America - politics makes curious bedfellows). Who had sunk one of Vanderbilt's ferries in the 1850's and of course challenged his interests, then it was Vanderbilt's request for help from then president of Costa Rica José Rafael Mora. Which after the struggle Nicaragua as a token of gratitude ceded its territory of Guanacaste to Costa Rica. A good place to go if you wish to know more about this episode in history is the Juan Santamaria & William Walker Museum in Alajuela, Costa Rica. There you will see most artifacts used in this war. Actually there is so much more to Central America's history than meets the eye.

Perhaps it may have been all this history I've read about the place, that I had to go and see for myself. My main goal was to view the Ocean, then the lake, but I was short of time. Therefore I settled for the Lake. We decided to head to Rivas, then detour to the Lake, about 2 kms. away to the ferry port of San Jorge. Along the way we glimpsed at a commemorative semi-arch along the road, which indicated the exact spot where Indian Chief "Cacique Nicarao" Gil Conzalez the Spanish Conquistador whom had arrived by this very same route (from Costa Rica). According to my host he left them puzzled, bewildered and amazed by his uncanny knowledge and great mastery of subjects. He had greeted them cordially and halted the war-like Chorotega Indians from the North who had come to challenge the newcomers.

Part four

As far as we were concerned, we continued further East, until we arrived at the little town of San Jorge. Its pastel stucco houses shining lazily in the afternoon sun. It was a Sunday. This time the Lake was in full view and magnificence. The blue volcanic isle I had seen in the distance was now so near and breathtaking. You could literally touch it with your hands. Originally I had thought of borrowing or buying a camera for some snapshots. But then I had thought of just buying some post cards, but had not been able, maybe because of the shortness of the tour to find any. That taught me, never leave the house without a camera. But regardless, this was an unforgettable sight. My friends had gone to a little "fondita" - right on the sands of the lake, to have some beers and appreciate the sight. It was about 3 o' clock in the afternoon. And a fresh, cool, constant, moist breeze was blowing from the lake. I just had to check the water. So I changed over to my bathing trunks - and went for the splash!

I was definitely in for a surprise. I thought for a moment, the water was going to be salty, since I was so much used to going to the beach. But to my surprise, this was cool, fresh, crystal-clear, pure potable water, just like a river. Truly incredible! As far as the scientists say this used to be a giant gulf. Which became isolated as the giant landmass of Central America rose through the last 2-3 million years and eventually becoming the lake, its coasts and beaches giving, as a result of eons of pounding a sand of the finest quality. I also heard of stories about the fresh-water sharks and proceeded with caution. But there were only swarms - that is only swarms of people, and my host told me not to worry that sharks were never in these shallow waters. So I took their word and had a good time. Waves after waves were buffeting me in rapid succession and of course I noticed the total absence of tides. So nothing to worry about!

When I thought I had enough, I went back to the shack, where I found my two friends deeply involved in a beer and "bocas" (BBQ treat) session, just like in Chepe. But only here I noticed the bocas were much bigger. These were real bocas, the real thing. Excellent, fantastic, "pura vida"! We talked about everything, History, Nature, and of course, you've said it - Politics! They even asked me about Mayín Correa the mayoress and politics in Panama. These guys were totally VIOLETA (for President Violeta de Chamorro) - Una Sola Vía - UNO!

We talked about the grand tourist and natural attraction the Lake was; and lets suppose, they mentioned that if the Lake were ever in "Chepelandia" (Costa Rica), those "Ticos" would make this lake the greatest natural wonder, which has ever occurred, in this Natural World. I could see now from my table, the huge and perfect volcanic cone, and the wind playing tricks with clouds perched over its crater in the crystal clear, fiery, orange sunset sky. At times there was this BALL, then a few seconds later a huge flat FLYING SAUCER hat would envelope the summit. A truly science fiction sight. It's sheer majesty, just for tourists to come and see. In the past I had been told even by "ticos" that Costa Rica was pretty, but Nicaragua was beautiful; and at precious moments like this, I could truly see why!

My host was still hungry so he requested the best plate in the house. So after more "boquitas" and "Victoria" beer - it finally came! A huge mammoth dish - with spicey, barbecued meat. Along with onions, peppers, chili's and the like (including a local "bolita" variety)! This absolutely was the culmination of all bocas. This was the "ultimate" boca that did away with all the bocas. A true feast!

It soon became night in this Shangri-La setting and now we could see the moon shining over the lake. My host and myself requested the bill, which was about 210 cordobas oro. The new currency instituted by VIOLETA and which converted into US$ dollars came out to $42.00 bucks, not bad after such a feast. My host el "ingeniero agrónomo" invited us to his house in Rivas, for a next round, but this time with whiskey and dinner with homemade tortillas. His house was just half a block away from the local police HQ. Which he explained was actually the same site as Walker's last stand in Rivas, before he was finally captured and turned over to an American Naval Attaché, who curiously happened to be in the area.

Well anyhow after we've downed a few rounds of whiskey on the rocks and thick, fat tortillas with guacamole. I congratulated his wife telling her these were "real" tortillas - and boy did she feel complimented. And of course her husband the engineer said these were the real thing. Not like the thin slices of tortillas in Chepe. We talked about everything and of course his wife and daughter were looking at the TV with the ever-present "novelas venezolanas". But his daughter gave us an inquisitive glance or two, and an occasional smile.

But the evening progressed and my chauffeur and myself thought it wise to say farewell for the night and proceeded to the nearest hotel lodging. I had run out of cordobas and only had US$ dollars. Therefore we checked several gas stations, until we came across this "coyote" (moneychanger) in this billiard. He told us to come inside the billiards to check the bill. But since I was more comfortable in our car, I waved him outside instead where we completed our transaction. We proceeded to my lodging at this hostel. The night was breezy and tranquil, and with this "slight" hangover. I put on my Walkman radio on this Nicaraguan AM station and after a few minutes I was sound asleep.

Part Five

I was awakened at about 5:30 AM the next morning by the cab driver again, in order to get back early to customs before the long lines started. I was ready in about 20 minutes. We took off for a last cruise of Rivas in this early morning air (Nicaragua was actually on their so-called Daylight Savings Time, which made it one hour - ahead of Costa Rica and equivalent to EST). But of course this was the middle of Central America and people were sound asleep. No one even showed signs of waking up. We cruised by in the early morning mist and we could see the old Spanish churches, the people who were just getting up, the street side restaurants like "kiosks" just starting up their firewood stoves and the smell of freshly burned embers started to linger in the air. I saw the highway indicator sign and I noticed that from here we were only 110 kms. from Managua. We took the opposite direction.

As we progressed along the road we saw a few horse-drawn "carretas" and one unique oxcart drawn by two oxen. We also got to see the same bus we had seen the day before at Sapoas (I would say it was actually a converted truck). It was as usual overflowing with people. Its chassis barely scraping the road as it toiled ahead. We saw a brick factory. Somehow clay bricks here weren't very expensive and most houses here, even the humblest were built with bricks. This time the Lake was on my left and all along the way my view was focuses on my right side of the road, to the low lying hills which marked the lowest point of the Continental Divide in America.

We finally reached the village of Sapoas-La Virgen, where we cancelled our part of transportation bill, which converted to $US dollars amounted to just $27.00 - the entire tour, a real bargain! Actually our host "el ingeniero" had covered the other half. I treated my chauffeur and myself to a typical and tasty Nicaraguan-style breakfast with "gallo pinto" (re-fried rice and black beans), "quesadilla" (fried white cheese), black coffee and the rest, excellent, just great!

We crossed the checkpoint towards the customs building, where I could see the cows rummaging at the grass on the facility grounds. A cheap, ingenious and efficient way of keeping the lawn trim. I went through customs where I exchanged my cordobas-oro back into $US dollars. Except for one exceptional 20 cordoba bill, which bears a bright red Sandino effigy on the cover, which I keep to this day (I later found a 10 cordoba bill in my swimming trouser pocket). I bid my friend farewell, took a last look at the Lake and boarded the already familiar microbus toward the border at Peñas Blancas. Like if all good things must come to an end.

I was already in Costa Rica (along the archway), when I had to form a line for sanitary inspection and control. We were dealt with quinine tablets - for malaria - just in case and pinched by these "bloody tico vampires"! Well anyway we finally got to the "Tico" Customs at Peñas Blancas, where we had to form a huge long line, after a huge long line. Until finally at about 10:30 AM TICO time (we had lost one hour when we crossed over), we were ready and waiting for - any transportation to take us back to La Cruz and Liberia, Guanacaste.

I didn't even go through any luggage inspection. I just hopped on this bus and pretty soon we were on the way back to La Cruz, where we swapped busses, and finally on towards Liberia. Most of the delay was right there at the Tico border and customs. They really know how to take their time there! I got off the bus, having missed the one departing toward Chepe at 12:30 AM, since I originally had in mind hitting "el Ojo de Agua" (which I missed entirely on this trip - for next time). But no sweat, in itself I consider this was a fantastic trip!

I finally made use of my hotel lodging for the first time in Liberia, by having a nice cool bath and was off to the lunch diner. There I met these three German girls on tour in Guanacaste, looking for a Rent-a-Car place and some beach to go to - "the three musketeers" for you. But I had plans of my own. I was again at the much familiar intersection at Liberia and before I knew it, I was on a bus heading back for Chepe! I put on my walk-man headset and pretty soon I was hearing Radio Puntarenas on the air and I definitely knew we were nearing our destination. I glanced out the window at a bright red, vivid Costa Rican sunset.

After a few stops along the way, we finally climbed the last ridge and we were soon into the cool Meseta Central again. Past Palmares, San Ramon, we were swiftly gliding through the streets of Alajuela, past the Juan Santamaría Airport, and I definitely knew we were finally in Chepe! Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. And the first thing in the morning I was back on the road again on a TRACOPA bus, past Cartago, through the long and winding turns of "el Cerro de la Muerte" (highest point of the Pan-American highway at 11,300 ft asl), on the way back home.

Anillo Centroamericano / Central American Ring

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