Saturday, May 22, 2010

Masaya and Granada

April 17th to 21st

20 kilometres outside Managua, the town of Masaya is the centre of the Nicaraguan arts and crafts trade. The old market is home to thousands of artists famous for a quality hammocks, geometrically decorated gourds and pottery plus a wealth of leatherwork and basketry.

But thats not why we're going there.

Like the face of a pimply teenager, Nicaragua is dotted with an impressive 21 volcanoes. The statistic is all the more impressive considering the country is about the size of New York State.They stretch in a south easterly line from the Honduran border, across to Costa Rica and the volcano here at Masaya is the most active of them all. Just outside the town we pass the giant crater lake created in a huge explosion around 6000 years ago. Drinks are outrageously overpriced at a beautiful restaurant overlook, but the view is well worth the money....

We plan to head to Masaya town, drop off our bags in a hotel and ride back to climb the volcano but just as we arrive, we bump into another laden touring bike and stop for a chat. Sean and Ingrid, a British couple are travelling south from Alaska, nothing that unusual so far, but they are doing it on a tandem so they can bring their eight year old daughter Kate along with them. Sean does the steering while Kate does the pedaling from the back of the tandem. In order to carry all their gear including books for Kate's schooling, both the tandem and Ingrid's bike tow trailers making them about the longest bicycling convoy I have ever seen....

They were just heading out of Masaya after debating whether to visit the volcano or not but change their plans when we say we are going. So we return to the hotel they checked out of just 20 minutes earlier, dump our gear and head back to the 'Parque Nacional Vulcan Masaya'. Like them we had debated about visiting after a less than inspiring write up in guide books, but our arrival reveals an absolute gem of a visitors centre. One of the guides explains the area's geology over a 3D map showing the complex of craters and mini lakes and there are other models and exhibits on all things volcanic. It's probably one of the best educational centres I have been to anywhere in the world. It's also a safe haven to kill an hour or two when the clouds burst in an unexpected deluge that changes the placid skies to a rampant waterfall.

When the air becomes dry and see-through once again, we venture out and ride a steep track up to the volcano's rim. The air is thick with throat stinging sulphurous gases and guides have supplies of gas masks they can dole out should the volcano belch back into life or the wind change direction. Looking at the scene it's no wonder Spanish priests used to believe this was The Gate to Hell itself and they would come here in the 16th to prevent Satan from escaping. One priest allegedly mistook the glowing lava for molten gold and set off to collect some. Maybe God does indeed protect the weak and foolish as he apparently survived this misguided attempt at riches.

It's hard to judge scale, but this is a whopper....

This whole area used to be one gargantuan volcano which covered several square miles, the cone soaring nearly 3 miles (14500 feet) in height. Then, 6000 years ago there was a massive explosion which blew the mountain away and flattening the entire area. Now there are several smaller craters where the land still boils and erupts and also the huge Lake Masaya sitting within the rim of the original volcano. Ingrid, Sean Sue and Kate set against one of the newer (much smaller) crater rims...

After a night in Masaya, we set out as a convoy to cover the 10 miles or so to Granada. Normally we get enough attention riding just as a couple - riding with guys on a tandem hauling trailers, especially with the diminutive figure of Kate on the back.... well that just floors people.

Founded in 1524, Granada rapidly prospered as a rich trade centre due to it's location on Lake Nicaragua. Whilst seemingly land locked, this enormous lake has an outflow to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan river allowing huge cargoes to be transported by ship. It's rivalry with Leon erupted into full blown civil war in the 1850's whereupon Leon enlisted an American adventurer, William Walker to help out against Granada. He duly took the city, betrayed Leon and then set himself up as president of the entire country. After reintroducing slavery, changing the official language to English, mortgaging half the country for his own personal gain he then set about invading Costa Rica. At that point people got tetchy and kicked him out, but not before he managed to burn the city to the ground.

Today Granada is a striking collection of restored colonial buildings and more modern copies like the central cathedral....

As Nicaragua's premier tourist town, the main streets are pedestrianised which is unusual in Central America - doesn't stop people of bikes though....

The touristic centre is colourful, the lively plaza hosting a band whilst locals and travelers alike watch and dance. Bars and restaurants compete along traffic free streets, outdoor tables and chairs a haven for diners and people watchers. It's lively and colourful...

Old doorways, modern business....

Strolls through back streets take you past old churches and single story adobe houses, the mountains and cathedral dome an ever present backdrop....

During the heat of the day, Kate catches up on her school work and Sue just cannot help the maths teacher in her coming out to torture the poor girl. She inflicts a couple of hours of fractions and decimal sums on her before we head out for a Chinese in the cheaper streets away from the tourist trap.

Sean, Ingrid and Kate bid us farewell and head off the next day, but we stay to explore a bit more. Nice meeting you guys and hope we can catch up somewhere south of here...

Walking out of town, the mile or so to the lake reveals a rougher edge behind the freshly painted facade. Open sewers cause the nose to crinkle and instead of high price bars; beggars and rubbish now compete to line the streets. The malecon or walkway along the lake shore could be amazing, but the park and restaurants are showing signs of neglect and a lack of maintenance as they slowly slip into disrepair.

Back in town there is a real mix of the old and the new and some of the back streets are just beautiful.

It really is a mix though. Nicaragua after all the troubles of recent times has over 50% unemployment. There is state provided education, but it can be sketchy in places and poorer families often send their children out to beg to provide money where parents cannot find work. Granada with it's fat wallet carrying gringos acts like a magnet and having a white face paints you with a target.

We are really torn. Hearing their stories is heart rending. Some are genuinely sad cases, others are patently just fronts to garner easy money from rich westerners. By comparison, we are massively wealthy and it is easy to appease your conscience and just give to them all. But underneath that there is always the nagging doubt that by giving, you just encourage parents to keep children out of school and to squander their one chance to a better life. It is a tough question, particularly in a country where an education doesn't easily lead to a job in a place where half the people cannot find work.

In the last couple of years the EU and the US has withheld over $200 million in aid due to irregularities at the last election. Even Oxfam has pulled out of Nicaragua because corruption meant that aid was not getting through to the people that needed it. The current president Daniel Ortega was supposed to be the saviour of the people - a new dawn, but one man we speak to talks of more revolution if he were re-elected after changing the constitution to allow him to run again.

You just can't help feeling this is a country just struggling back from the brink after the last few decades, but whether it follows countries like Costa Rica to a better future is still open to debate...

The sun sets over this beautiful old historic city and tomorrow we leave it behind and head down the lake shore. We've a ferry to catch to the Volcanic island of Ometepe....


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