Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Granada: Living Large

I got settled into my Airbnb here in Granada yesterday. What a great place!

I have a whole small house to myself, complete with a lush private garden with swimming pool.  The house has a nice large sitting area and kitchen open to the outdoors through large window openings.  The bedroom is big and air conditioned. The whole place is nicely furnished and decorated. And to top off all this luxury, the place comes complete with two three-legged rescue dogs who are very friendly and nice, plus a garage for my rental car.  "My" house is located just off the Parque Central, just a few minutes walk from a dozen really good restaurants.  All this for $50/night! Amazing.  I am living large.

Last night it rained really, really hard. The first real rain I've seen since Mazatlan, before Christmas.  The rain was torrential at times, deafening as it hit the metal roof of the house. There was tremendous thunder and lightning, too,  taste of what rainy season is like here. I got up when the rain was falling really hard as I was interested in how the open air living area was faring. The important stuff, like the furniture and kitchen, was dry, but one corner of the living area had a good 1/2 inch of water or more on the floor. I thought might be a good idea to close the large rollup shades to try and stop some of the rain from coming in. It was dark, I couldn't see to well and the rigging to lower the shades was new to me, so it took a while. As I was getting things figured out, I realized that I must have been quite a sight for the neighbors during the flashes of lightning. A naked, myopic gringo clambering around on a window sill, wrestling with the lines of a flapping rolling shade. It would have looked a lot better on a boat, with the addition of big waves, spume and spray and a sail in place of the shade.

Today the city looked nice and washed, so I embarked upon a self-guided historic walking tour. I had to do it in two halves. First because I forgot my wallet, which eliminated the ability to buy the beer I needed to refresh and renew myself after walking for over an hour in the 90+ degree very heavy, humid heat. Second, because I drenched my shirt in my own sweat and was no longer presentable.  The walk gave a good sense of the city and I enjoyed myself, a bit more on the second half of the hike, after I had rinsed off, changed my shirt, drank about a gallon of water and had a nice cold locally brewed draft beer.

Many of the buildings in Granada have Moorish architecture elements, just like the buildings in its namesake city in Spain, home to the magnificent Sultan of Granada's Alhambra palace and fortress.  The Granada here was founded in 1524 and was constructed by the Spaniards as a showcase city in the New World. The city was a rich trade center, which made it a target for pirates who ransacked the city three times. Grenada fought a civil war with León in the 1850's. León hired a megalomanic American mercenary, William Walker, who burned Granada to the ground leaving a placard, "Here was Granada" just before he declared himself President of Nicaragua. So, the city was rebuilt four times to become what it is today, Nicaragua's most popular tourist town and gringo retirement destination, which has been driving up property and land values rapidly over the past few years.

My nice digs in Granada will be a perfect place to chill while I'm waiting for Hannah to arrive on Monday. I went grocery shopping, so I can have some healthy, home cooked food. I have a couple of good day trips planned to get me out of the city and into some cooler territory. Now I just need to make a few friends to hang out with, the sort that don't stiff me for their bar tab.

I spoke to Dorian, the harbormaster back at Marina Puesta del Sol this morning. Intermezzo is resting comfortably and Dorian has been dutifully flushing the watermaker every five days for me. He's a very nice, capable guy. The marina is a definite option as a place to leave Intermezzo for the summer. I could well be backtracking up here from Costa Rica at the end of the month.

Renee's mom is making good progress, but still has a ways to go. Renee has been dedicating herself to helping her mom recover and her efforts have made a really big difference. Her mom will still need her help, so Renee isn't going to make it back here to sail with Hannah and I to Costa Rica. That's a bummer, but the silver lining is having some rare one-on-one time with my daughter.  Hopefully Renee will be able to arrange things so that she can come down to Costa Rica later to help prepare Intermezzo for summer layup and we can celebrate the end of this sailing season together.

Open air sitting area of my luxury Airbnb digs


My private garden and swimming pool

One of my three-legged companions
...and the other one

Plaza de la Independencia

Portal to the Casa de Los Tres Mundos, the only part of the original structure that survived William Walker's retreat.

Granada street

Hotel Dario courtyard

Calle la Calzada, Granada's main pedestrian restaurant and bar thoroughfare

Iglesia de Guadalupe

Bust of Nicaragua's famous poet Rueben Dario

Granada's malecon on the shore of Lago Nicaragua

Iglesia Merced

Typical Nicaraguan horse and carriage used everywhere to haul just about anything

Granada houses

Volcán Mombacho, puffing in the distance. Tomorrow's hiking destination.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Matagalpa: Hiking the Highlands, Part 2

(For Part 1 of this post, click here)

Today I hiked trails in Selva Negra, a sustainable coffee estate and eco-lodge with a nature preserve. It is an amazing place, a fine example of how preserving a forest creates value for a private enterprise.

Selva Negra is located about 20 miles north of  and a few thousand feet above Matagalpa. It costs $4 to enter or, if you want to eat at the restaurant, pay $8 and the entry fee goes towards paying for your meal. I chose the latter and had a nice buffet lunch at the eco-lodge, followed by a piece of cake (from the great bakery I visited in Jinotega) and small pot of fantastic coffee.  The lodge is located on a small lake and the restaurant and grounds were pretty crowded with local, more affluent families.

After lunch, I took off to explore the network of trails in the nature preserve, picking a route that would take me up to the top of a ridge and through virgin cloud forest. I was amazed to find not a single person on any of the trails; I had the entire preserve to myself! More affluent Nicaraguans seem to prefer lounging around in civilized surroundings rather than getting all sweaty climbing up trails in the woods.

The forest was fantastic. Finally, the dense, lush, green tropical forest that I was looking for, complete with moist, musty air. There was a coolness to the air, but I worked up quite a sweat climbing the 3,000 feet or so to the top of the ridge.

I marveled at all there was to see along the trail. Vines wrapping around trunks and becoming integral with huge trees. Brightly colored flowers and orchids. Ferns, small and large. Aerial plants growing in the trees. Blue, yellow, brown, butterflies. Birds, a few that I saw, many which I only heard. A peccary-like animal rooting around in undergrowth. Views of the surrounding mountains through the trees. It was an amazing hike.

It was getting close to 5 o'clock as I descended from the ridge and, let me tell you, it gets dark in a tropical forest very quickly. Now I understand why the sign at the trailhead recommended carrying a flashlight. I got back to the lodge without having to use the one I had in my pack, but a half hour later and I would have needed it.

I used the remaining daylight to do a quick tour of the sustainable organic farm below the lodge. It is nicely and thoughtfully laid out, complete with a small village for the permanent farmworkers where a game of sandlot baseball was finishing up.

I drove back to Matagalpa feeling happy, well-exercised and very sweaty. What a great day.

I didn't stop at a bar for beer when I got back.

A truly living, green roof on the chapel at the Selva Negra eco-lodge 
The trail leading to virgin forest on the ridge

Vines become one with tree

Upper canopy of the forest

A great way to reuse old tires, as steps on a trail

Director, cameraman and model for cloud forest shoot

These iridescent blue berries caught my attention. I must be part bird. 

View of the ridge and forest from the lake at the lodge

Geese and goslings. One got pissed at me and chased me, hissing, around the parking area. I barely escaped.

The farm worker village 

In the US with all current transgender restroom controversy this would be a problem. The sign "Ambos Sexos" means both sexes. Too limiting.  Just replace it with "Todos Sexos", all sexes. All inclusive, controversy averted. 

Matagalpa: Hiking the Highlands, Part 1

I enjoyed two great hikes yesterday and today. I finally found the greenery I was looking for and the weather has been great, just a bit cooler than a summer day back home.

Yesterday I followed one of the hiking guides I picked up at Centro Girasol for the Ruta de la Guerra 1978, "the road the guerrilleros used to escape the ruthless attacks from the National Guard". The guide is basically a narrative describing the route with a very rough sketch depicting it relative to major landmarks.

The hike started at the plaza Parque Dario in and then up a very steep road leading out of town. On my way I was greeted in English by a guy working on a house remodel. We chatted for a bit and he asked me if I was going up the mountain. I said yes and he asked, "By yourself?", to which I answered affirmatively. "Aren't you afraid?", he asked with an incredulous look, as if I were going on a day hike through the ISIS caliphate in Syria. That got me a bit worried, but I responded, "Why would I be? The people are nice here. And I'm don't have very much on me to lose." He smiled, but still with a sort of questioning look. Not exactly comforting, but onward I proceeded.

The road out of town became unpaved and I soon reached a guarded gate with a sign Ruta de la Cruz. This was not mentioned in the guide. I showed the guard my map and he told me I was going the right way. Ruta de la Cruz leads up to a huge cross and statue of Jesus at the top of a peak called Cerro Apante.  I needed to go around this peak, not up to it, I figured I would be able to divert at some point. The wide, unpaved road is closed to traffic and has big, rather elegant, monuments showing Jesus carrying his cross spaced about every 300 yards. I figure that this route is used for religious processions most or all of which I imagine involve the participants hauling crosses uphill.

I soon came to the diversion I was looking for, a crossroad described in the guide at La Providencia, a hacienda. However, I was a bit puzzled by the signage at the gate in front of me. One sign says, "No entry, only authorized persons permitted." Another says, "No charge for entry...don't give money to anyone who asks for it". The guide says, "At the entrance of La Providencia, go straight through the gate...if you can!"

So, now after being passively warned of the dangers of hiking alone, I am confronted with the possibility of trespassing onto private land, no doubt patrolled by armed guerrilleros who are still mad at the Yanquis and their starving, rabid guard dogs. I was feeling a bit paranoid, but mustered up the courage to push through a small opening next to the gate and then walk, very, very quietly past the farm buildings so as not to wake the guerrilleros and their hounds.

My paranoia diminished as the scenery along the trail transitioned to beautiful flowering coffee bushes and banana plants all under the partial shade of tall trees with lush mountains in the background. Beautiful. The air was really fragrant, too. It must have been from the coffee blooms.

I found the turnoff to ascend Cerro Buena Vista, one of the tallest peaks in the area and started a steep uphill climb through dense forest on a narrow trail. The trail led to a large grassy clearing and then up a final climb to a tall radio antenna. When I reached the antenna, a diesel generator was running, tended to by a young guy who was washing his clothes when I arrived. I said hello and he came over to greet me. My original plan was to stop for lunch at this peak. The drone of the diesel put me off a bit, but I didn't want to appear unfriendly. So I decided to share my modest lunch with Simonte, which he seemed to really appreciate and enjoy. He showed me around the antenna, which relays radio communications. Not much to see, but Simonte had a lot to say about the whole installation, the surrounding area, different trails one can take, etc. I don't think he gets a lot of visitors.

I hiked back down the peak and rejoined the Ruta de la Guerra loop that would lead me back to town.  As I passed by other side of La Providencia and neared its exit, my uneasiness about trespassing had just about left me. It returned quickly and intensely as a security guard wearing a crisp blue Providencia uniform and carrying a sawed-off pump action shotgun approached me coming from the opposite direction on the trail. I smiled, said hello and figured I would speak French if he stopped me for questioning. But he just uttered a barely audible "hola" in return and paid no attention to me at all. As I exited through a gate similar to the one I had entered with the same signage, I concluded that the "no entry" restriction applied only to the improved hacienda property, not the surrounding land which is designated as a nature preserve on maps.

I walked the last few miles back into town along a gravel road. It was hot and I was out of water and thirsty. The thought of a cold Victoria Classica quickened my steps.  When I got back to the plaza, I found a bar crowded with townsmen sharing big bottles of cold beer at their tables. I found a seat for myself at a bar along a front window and ordered my own big Victoria. I had just started drinking it when a young guy told me in Spanish that he liked my hat. He wore a baseball cap sideways, a thick metal chain around his neck, an athletic shirt and loose, long red shorts. To me, it looked like gang member or wannabe garb. I thanked him and he repeated his compliments in English and invited me to join him and his friend at their table. His friend was more conservatively dressed and had a pleasant face but looked like he had been drinking for a while. After being by myself for several days, I welcomed the chance to socialize. Walter introduced himself and his friend, Josue and the three of us set to talking and enjoying our beer.

I have long suffered from the common weakness of becoming fast friends with strangers when I'm drinking and having a good time. Even though Walter was loud and bombastic, I was enjoying myself and Josue was quiet and very pleasant, though I think a bit embarrassed by Walter.  I bought a couple more big bottles of beer. I think Walter ordered one for a friend at another table. After about an hour, Josue left to catch a bus back to where he attended university. Walter and I continued to talk. I bought another bottle of beer. Then Walter said he had to go, to catch the last bus back to where he lived. I knew I was being stuck with paying for all the beers we drank, but was okay with that. Until I asked for the bill. Crap, Walter and Josue must have been drinking steadily for at least a couple of hours before I arrived. Being in Nicaragua where beer is pretty cheap, it wasn't a huge amount of money, but it made me feel pretty stupid and taken advantage of. I walked back to my hotel feeling pretty low, but then shook myself out of it by considering the expense as "tuition".

It isn't the first time I have invested in my education in this manner. Many years ago, Carol, my ex-, used to shudder at the thought of leaving me on my own when we were traveling, as my trusting, friendly nature often resulted in unplanned depletion of our joint travel funds. She will no doubt get a nostalgic kick out of this story when she reads this. Clearly I am still at some risk in some situations in the absence of adult supervision.

This all comes on right on the heels of my Mom sending me an email in which she expresses concern about the frequency in which beer is mentioned in my blog posts. Now this story...Don't worry Mom, I'm way too narcissistic about my figure to drink too much beer. A bottle, maybe two a day.  Unless I'm feeling lonely and someone compliments me on my hat...

The day's hike and sharing my lunch with Simonte up on the peak were great. Drinking with Walter...not so much. I'll work on feeling grateful for the former and learning a lesson from the latter.

The road to the cross atop Cerro Apante 
Wood is continuously harvested for cooking fuel in Nicaragua. You see people carrying big branches along the roads all the time. 
Coffee bushes

Coffee blooms

A nice section of trail through the coffee and banana plantings

The trail narrows as it enters the forest and ascends to Cerro Buena Vista

The view from the antenna site near Cerro Buena Vista, where I shared my lunch with Simonte

The coffee bean soaking and drying area of Hacienda La Providencia 
To the left, the driveway to Hacienda La Providencia- no entry. To the right, the road leading to the trail to Cerro Buena Vista in the background- okay to travel. 
View of Matagalpa

Spanish Moss-like fern growing on trees 
Blooming yucca

The signs that confused me at first but, with hindsight, figured out later
Matagalpa street on the way back into town