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Exploring Nicaragua – the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

Ecotourism

Nicaragua

This blog post falls somewhere in between our Happy Travellers and our #AdventureLust posts, and provides a bit more of a personal insight into our new Unexplored Nicaragua Tour. I recently returned from two weeks exploring Nicaragua and the trip has been a revelation. The countryside was stunning and varied, the people warm and engaging and I was able to learn about the country’s history, its politics and its culture from some of the fascinating people I met along the way.  But from a personal perspective, the trip represented my first up close and personal experience of a whole different way of travelling: community-based tourism. The first half of my trip was arranged with our latest local partners, Matagalpa Tours. These guys have a great reputation for being one of the best community and nature focused tour operators in the north of the country. After landing in Managua, I headed straight to Matagalpa in the heart of the country’s coffee region, to meet up with the team and start my adventures!

My first full day started with an amazing 3 course breakfast – and my first ever taste of the Nica version of gallo pinto – a traditional mix of rice and beans that’s often eaten for both breakfast and dinner. First stop on my itinerary was the women’s weaving cooperative of El Chile. As I would come to realise, many cooperatives and community initiatives have been moulded, at least to some extent, by the history of dictatorship and revolution in Nicaragua. During parts of the Somoza dynasty rule, indigenous communities were forbidden to grow cotton. A chance visit by an Argentinian weaver working for Oxfam, and a change in policy from the new Sandinista government, lead to the reintroduction of the weaving tradition in 1984 – and it thrives to this day with new generations of local woman learning the skill. After hearing this fascinating story, and meeting some of its protagonists, next stop was the top of Cerro El Chile, just a few miles away. The hike through coffee plantations, fuelled by a typical lunch of homemade stew with rice and beans, and with a soundtrack of howling monkeys and tweeting birds, was well worth the effort as the 360 degree panoramic views from the top are truly breath taking. The photos can speak for themselves.

My accommodation for that night was at ‘Eco Albergue La Fundadora’, simple but well thought out community-run cabins. The setting is truly stunning and I couldn’t help but feel sense of freedom whilst exploring my surroundings that first evening. Gema, the main member of staff whist I was staying there, was really warm and welcoming – and also a great person to chat with to gain a better insight into community life and the story behind the eco-lodge. My 7kg baggage allowance didn’t leave me well equipped for the drop in temperatures and cooling breezes that are common in this part of the country, but there were plenty of spare blankets to ensure a good night’s sleep. The next day started with another traditional breakfast (yeap – you guessed it – rice and beans) before my guide for the day came to find me to take me on a coffee horse-riding adventure! I won’t go into details here – as I have dedicated a whole blog post to the day – but Don Agustin proved to be one of the most knowledgeable and charismatic guides I have ever had the pleasure to spend the day with – and this is saying something given that his day job is working on his small family-run coffee finca.

After another night in the community, I was picked-up for my next destination: La Garnacha ecological community. On the way we stopped off to visit a second women’s cooperative – Las Cureñas – a black ceramic workshop where a group of humble families open their houses to demonstrate the whole traditional process. La Garnacha is a community and a natural reserve – boasting amongst offer things a Swiss cheese factory, a stone craft workshop, a herd of goats and a nature tour. It is part of the Natural Reserve Tisey-Estanzuela, and members of the community administer the reserve and organise the tours themselves. Just a short drive from the community is the flamboyant but humble stone sculptor Don Alberto Gutierrez. He has spent the past 30 plus years carving his dreams and historical events in the rocks surrounding the remote finca he shares with his siblings. Don Alberto is a charismatic and fascinating host – and his sculptures are truly surprising and mesmerising. My last destination in the northern half of Nicaragua was national monument, the Somoto Canyon, located just a stone’s throw from the border with Honduras. Rising from the longest river in Central America, the “Río Coco”, the Somoto Canyon has recently become a popular destination for those wanting to admire the breath-taking scenery, cool down in the tranquil waters, or get their adrenaline flowing. I opted for all three – and ended up with a few impressive bruises on my thigh after a slightly dodgy landing from a 16-metre jump into the river. We rounded off the tour with lunch at the local community restaurant – and a beer to relax after so much excitement!

I didn’t have time to explore the Peñas Blancas cloud forest whilst in the north – but that’s something I have added to my long list of reasons to return to Nicaragua. I headed instead to Masaya, where the central park was unexpectedly home to the tallest chairs I have ever seen and some delicious ceviche. Also unexpected was a tip from a friendly local that resulted in a bike ride (me sitting on the cross bar) to watch the sun setting over Masaya Volcano – arriving just in time to admire the full array of colours. I missed the handicrafts market the town is renowned for – but needn’t have worried as the next day I visited San Juan de Oriente, one of the popular Pueblas Blancas. The tour included a visit to one of the oldest pottery schools in the village, and after learning about the process from start to finish, I was overwhelmed by the amazing choice of beautiful ceramics – and by a desire to buy half of the shop’s display! After spending way too long selecting the two items I could justify carrying in my backpack for the next week, we headed to another Pueblas Blanca, Catarina, but this time to appreciate the view of the Laguna de Apoyo – a lake that also makes a great beach / swimming destination to escape the summer heat.

The last stop of my tour was the beautiful colonial city of Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Here I enjoyed a boat tour of the Isletas, hundreds of tiny islands formed during the last eruption of Mombacho Volcano, and some impromptu bird watching on the lake. Founded in 1524, Granada is home to many colonial era buildings that have survived pirate invasions, a fire started by one of William Walker’s agents and clashes with rival city, Leon. It’s a great base to spend a few days soaking up the atmosphere and wandering the city’s colourful streets – and was also a good starting point for the next phase of my Nicaragua adventure: Ometepe Island. Here are a few last pics to sum up this amazing Land of Lakes of Volcanoes.

Check out the ‘Discover’ section of the Unexplored Nicaragua Tour for more information on this land of lakes and volcanoes – and watch this space for our forthcoming post on Don Agustin’s sustainable coffee adventure!

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