Central American Odyssey
The Central American Odyssey has lived up to all expectations. We have so far been treated to the very best Nicaragua and El Salvador have to offer.
Granada is a wonderful colonial town founded by the Spanish in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. Setting out from the hotel, the Patio de Malinche, with our guide Oscar, our city tour took in the Parque Central, the bar-lined Calle La Libertad and the Cathedral with its bell tower that had expansive views of the city.
Down on street level, we travelled to the old railway station (Nicaragua’s last trains ran in 2012) and to the cemetery with many memorials to young Sandinistas from the ’70s and ’80s.
For many, the highlight of our two nights in the country’s ninth most populous city was our boat tour to the 365 Isletas in Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. We pulled up alongside an abundance of birds; herons, egrets and vultures. Spider monkeys came down the trees to get a better look at us, while howler monkeys roared from the top branches.
We were back on Lake Cocibolca, (its native name) the next day, taking a ferry to the larger Island of Ometepe but not before we had stopped at a cooperative for a workshop on our way to the port. A downpour greeted us (many locals saying the first rain they had known in February for very many years) as we trudged up the muddy lane to the farm.
We arrived at Nicaragua Libre within an hour and we had a steaming hot cup of chocolate that I have to say was amongst the best I have ever tasted.
The boat ride to Ometepe, with its two volcanoes, was a fairly smooth crossing and from our lakeside hotel, we set out for hikes in the forest beside us. We took a trip to nearby Finca Magdalena to see the 1700-year-old petroglyphs and a visit to Charco Verde for an exquisite lunch overlooking the lake and another ‘sendero’ around the Chico Largo Lagoon. Here we saw local fisherman hauling their catch ashore.
Back on the mainland, our route to Leon took in the Masaya volcano complex with its gaping caldera. It is an active crater with sulphur dioxide slowly rising from the depths and there were still signs of the tightrope attachments that were set up for Nik Wallenda when he walked across it in 2020. Apparently, although he was all set to attempt it free of a safety line, he was convinced to use one, as the gases emitted could have caused him to pass out en route!
Probably more than half the group plumped for Leon as their favourite city in Nicaragua. Certainly, the Hotel El Convento was a wonderful base with a beautiful central garden and lovely rooms. The city tour once again took us around an abundance of churches including the impressive cathedral, home to the final resting place of Ruben Dario, a poet journalist and diplomat considered the father of the modernism literary movement of the late 19th-early 20th century.
The Centre of Art Ortiz-Gurdian was the highlight, however, with prints by Picasso, Hirst, Matisse and Miró amongst artwork by the very best Central American artists including Diego Rivera.
The following day we took to the water again to cross the border into El Salvador. The customs process on the Nicaraguan side at the small fishing village of Pitosi was never going to be the quickest affair and I would imagine a wait of an hour and 40 minutes until we clambered into Mario’s launch was pretty much par for the course.
And the local gods were smiling on us as the Gulf of Fonseca was almost dead calm as we made our way to the El Salvador customs on the island of Meanguera, the first Salvadoran territory discovered by the Spaniards in 1522. Fortunately, it was a far quicker ‘tramite’ and it wasn’t long until we were sitting down to our first lunch in the country on the nearby island of Zacatillo.
Our local guide, Cony, met us as we came ashore near La Union and we were soon transported to El Cuco, a small seaside village. While its array of bars and restaurants may not have been the most alluring, to run down its wide 5km long beach the next morning was a perfect start to the day.
We took in the market of San Miguel, the country's third-largest city on our way to Suchitoto. And being the only tourists in sight, and probably the city, the locals were quick to take full advantage. One of our clients very kindly offered to buy some mangoes for breakfast the following morning, but the lady in the queue beside us could only shake her head in disbelief as the stallholder quoted us probably twice Waitrose prices. Likewise, the hammocks in another section of the market were colourful, long and seriously overpriced. We found a couple of days later that similar could be bought at about a third of the cost!
And so it was on to Suchitoto, the original site of the capital founded in 1528. In the local Nahuatl language, the name means ‘place of birds and flowers’ and with its cobbled streets and colonial casas, it is a gorgeous town. Sadly, arriving late Sunday afternoon, the art gallery was closed (as it was the next day) and we had also missed the theatre performance. But the packed plaza in front of the cathedral was still full of artisanal stalls raising money for local good causes.
Everyone had a smile on their face and if I was only allowed one place to revisit from this Central American adventure, Suchitoto would be it. Hopefully one day taking in the most widely attended of the three fiestas they hold every year, the International Movie Festival.
We still have the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala to visit in the coming days: it’s hard to imagine that this tour could get even better…