Monthly Archives: November 2011

Nica Dos


Scruntched into one of the old U.S. yellow school busses that ply the roads of Nicaragua, we make our way from Granada through lush green countryside and small pueblos to Rivas. A recent college grad from Minneapolis offers to share a taxi to the ferry at San Jorge. We let Ben do the negotiating and probably overpay a dollar or two, but we make it to the ferry in time.

We disembark on Election Day Eve at Moyogalpa, the island’s largest city which is about the size of La Cumbre Plaza. Honestly. The place we thought we would stay is not taking guests because… something to do with the election. We wander toward our second choice which is also staffed and also not taking guests. There’s a newish two-story building at the end of the street that is obviously not a typical residence. Xavier, like everyone here, doesn’t try to sell us on anything — at all. We’re the only guests so we have our pick of rooms and choose the large one off the private veranda on the second floor with a view of the volcano. $20.

Click on the photo of the main street at rush hour to see more from Moyogalpa.


Like Riding a Bicycle

We slathered on sunscreen and set out on mountain bikes for the tiny hamlet of San Marcos. We had walked south on a paved road in blazing heat the previous day, so a leisurely ride west on the same road, creating our own wind, seemed like an easy way to explore more of the island, get close to the active volcano and enjoy a little exercise.

We puffed a bit up the short hill from the ferry landing to the church and then cruised effortlessly for about five minutes until the pavement ended; then the road had a slight incline; then the potholes that were at first easy to negotiate turned into trenches filled with small boulders or disappeared altogether into long  stretches of deep, black sand, and we had to compete with several small herds of cattle for the less arduous path; and then just as we felt confident tearing over the rocks and dodging grazing horses, sleeping dogs and yellow caution signs, the road began a steep ascent.

Hours later, when we returned thoroughly jostled but free of road rash, Alan (with cold Diet Coke in hand) turned to me and said, “That was fun.” I agreed.


Arriba! Arriba!

The Volcan Maderas Index

Altitude in feet of the Maderas volcano

Number of your blogging buddies who thought they were
taking a morning hike on the easiest trail

Number of your blogging buddies who were
sorely (pun and very heavy emphasis intended) mistaken

Hours in the air Alan and Harriet spent flying from LAX to Nicaragua

Hours spent on Volcan Maderas trek

Degrees of average incline on the mountain

Hours climbing up wet, clay-slicked rocks and mud
before deciding to head back through the very aptly named rainforest

Number of injuries incurred

Number of people we most appreciate today:
our guide,
Alan’s trainer (Mikki) and Harriet’s coach (Tim)
the guy who maintains the stadium stairs at SB City College,
the orthopod who prescribed Napraxen

Minutes it will take to clean our shoes and
pound the mud out of our pants

Minutes it will take our clothes to dry on the line

Rank in difficulty when compared with any of our other
hikes/treks/climbs, anywhere in the world, any time, any duration, any altitude, any weather, and while in any physical condition:

(Click on the photo below to see more from our trek.)


Hotel El Encanto

Yup, just like the one on Santa Barbara. Okay, so maybe the room colors lean more toward the primaries than the subdued, but all of them come with a hammock; they are immaculate; the food is some of the best we’ve had in Nicaragua; there’s a view to the water, and depending on which way you choose to snooze in the hammock, a view of Volcan Maderas or Volcan Conception; the garden is much more spectacular than its Santa Barbarian counterpart and it’s filled with hundreds of butterflies, hummingbirds and birds. An added bonus: three very, very sweet dogs.

Carlos, the owner, like everyone with whom we’ve had any interaction, is a sweet, mellow, friendly guy. A native of El Salvador, he lived in Bellingham, Washington for seven years before coming to Nicaragua. Eventually he moved to Isla Ometepe and opened the El Encanto here in Santa Cruz three years ago.

Santa Cruz is not so much a pueblo as it is a dozen hotels, hostels and fincas (farms) spread out over a couple of miles along two unpaved roads. There are lots of horses and pigs grazing alongside –and occasionally in — the road and corn, rice and beans grow easily in the rich, black, volcanic soil. We’ll need to take a 25 minute bus ride to the nearest town with a bank so we have enough cash to pay our tab at the El Encanto and move on to our next destination. The bus ride will be easy; leaving this little gem will not.

Click on the photo above to see more photos from the El Encanto, Santa Cruz and life on Isla Ometepe.


Nica Uno

Hola muchachos. While Alan is taking command of the Spanish language, Harriet is taking command of the computer to get this blogging started.

We are safe, sound and sweaty in Granada, Nicaragua where the average daily temperature has been in the high-90s (Note to Gayle: feels like high-90s) and the humidity… well, let’s just say my hair is halfway to Costa Rica.

Granada is a small colonial town where every façade is painted a screaming bright color;  there is little traffic and few motorcycles, large trucks or belching buses around the town center; a few horse drawn carts share the narrow streets; and a very mellow vibe reigns. It looks and feels somewhat similar to Antigua, Guatemala without the glitz and gentrification. Antigua is (or was, several years ago) lovely, but here there’s a more rustic, mas authentico feel we prefer. There are little chi-chi shops and restaurants sprinkled throughout the town in anticipation of Granada becoming the next Antigua and Nicaragua becoming the next Costa Rica. We’re glad to be here now. Click on the photo at right to see more of Granada’s stunning colors.

Speaking of rustic, many of you would find our room a bit too basic for your tastes, but it’s a fairly huge step up for us with excellent indoor plumbing; an efficient, quiet ceiling fan; and a window that looks out on red tile rooftops. Except for morning church bells pealing at an ungodly (no pun intended) early hour, it is perfectly silent. With free Wi-Fi, continental breakfast including fresh pineapple and papaya, and helpful owners who speak excellent English with California accents, we’re quite pleased with our $34 room.

Click on the the rocker photo to see more shopping options for designer chairs, food and basic necessities in the market; a little Day of the Dead celebration; and y otros cosas.

Whodda Thought?

A few things that surprised us and a few that might surprise you: a) We haven’t eaten any mangoes or seen them in any of the markets; b) We saw a few coconuts in the supermarket but nowhere else. c) We’ve encountered essentially no touts or pushy vendors anywhere; d) Harriet has been up by 7:00 a.m. every morning; and, <drum roll> e) Alan doesn’t touch a Diet Coke/Pepsi until after noon and it is often his only soda of the day.

Escuela Por Gringos

Even after 30+ years, we’re excited and admittedly, a little nervous about our first day of school. We each have our own teacher, little mesa and chair, and white board. Alan’s “classroom” has a colorful poster with names and illustrations of vehicles. I don’t have any visual aids but a view of the kitchen. Our tuition includes a small lined notebook and lapicero (pen). I can’t remember the last time I used a basic blue Bic.

We take our 5-page entrance exams. Alan rips through his and proceeds to spend the rest of the week wrestling with irregular verbs, multiple tenses, grammatical subtleties and conversational skills. His teacher, Karla, compliments him on his beautiful accent and cuts him no slack when it comes to using the improper article.

I can’t spell much of anything, even in such a phonetic language, and I’ve never had any formal schooling in Spanish, but between living in Santa Barbara, designing projects with Spanish translations, having had bilingual coworkers and multiple years of beginning French, I can comprehend enough to whip through the first two pages. Numbers. Days of the week. Easy stuff. Page three: vocabulary. Still doing pretty well. My teacher, Arlen, is very impressed until she turns to page four – which I’ve left blank except for a stray word or two — and realizes I barely have the linguistic capabilities of a 3-year old… and so our lessons begin.

After recess, Karla, Arlen, Alan and I join teacher Maria Elena and her student, Jim, a stockbroker from Ojai (45 minutes from Santa Barbara) for 15 minute “grupo dynamico.” It’s a good change of pace — and who doesn’t enjoy a good game of what’s-my-line or name-that-animal? Alan and Jim kick my ass at animals but I hold my own at charades because I know “fireman” and “doctor.” Days later, we play a sort of musical chairs involving a trio of fruits. It’s less informative and doesn’t really build vocabulary or make for a challenging recipe, still, we enjoy the activity. Melons take first; mangoes get trounced; and everyone gets to stretch a bit.

I do my homework every night, uh, sometimes in the morning at breakfast. (Some things never change.) Alan spends a lot of time thinking about conjugating irregular verbs in future popular and present progressive. When class ends at noon, our heads are ready to explode and we walk quietly to lunch.

By the end of the week, Alan is having conversations with his teacher about travel, violence against women, and Karla’s innate fear of clowns. My teacher and I have less serious talks: why she hates to cook; that her casa looks like it was hit by a hurricane because she has a 12-year old son; and how to make mashed potatoes. She is particularly interested in the mashed potatoes.

My vocabulary has increased ten-fold and I can conjugate the beejeezus out of any regular verb as long as it’s in the present. I was calling myself a Nica-Lingua-Buddhist until old buddy Scott H. suggested Buddhanista. (Gracias amigo) My final exam proves I can now go cabeza a cabeza with any first quarter junior high remedial Spanish student. I am thrilled. Alan is ready to sign up for another course just to have the opportunity to practice conversational Spanish.

More Schooling: Chocolate Class

Jonathan (dad was British, hence the name) is enthusiastic, very bright and full of energy… or caffeine, no doubt. He takes us through the history of chocolate – Mayans, Aztecas, the Brits, blah, blah , know it, heard it – and then we get into the manual labor. We start by roasting a couple pounds of fermented cacao beans over fiery coals until the smell of chocolate begins to waft. Then we spend another half hour husking the shells and skins from the shiny, hot beans. Jonathan is fast and pumps out big, naked treasures. Alan and I seem to end up with more nibs. Burning fingers aside, we enjoy the process and gabbing about Nica politics and the upcoming election.

We are given stone mortars and pestles and watch Jonathan demonstrate how to grind a cupful of beans. We talk more about politics, his family, where to get a great meal in town, and, of course, ­­chocolate, while we grind away. Within about 20 minutes, Jonathan’s beans are reduced to a coarse pulp and the natural oils begin to appear. Alan’s mortar is overflowing with a grainy mass and he looks like he has been making mud pies. Mine is better contained but still fairly chunky (not unlike I’ll be upon return), and I’ve ground not only beans but a killer blister on my right palm. We talk and work some more.

Another 20 minute grind by (pun intended). Jonathan has a mortar of smooth, shimmering, almost pourable chocolate. Alan has a shiny paste. I have the more obviously handmade, less refined batch we’ll used first for the Mayan drinks. We use Alan’s for the Aztec round. Finally, we savor Jonathan’s chocolate made with hot milk, vanilla, honey and cinnamon that we’ve mixed together with a special tool. Exquisite.

Then we spot what every Mayan and Azteca woman really wanted for Christmas. F**K this mortar and pestle routine. Jonathan dumps the remaining husked cacao beans into a good old Champion juicer. He and I take a couple turns pushing the plunger and in a matter of less than a minute, we have two bowls of liquid love. He adds it to a pot of chocolate that’s already tempering and then Alan and I scoop enough from that to make our own bars. Jonathan encourages us to add a little something. His first suggestion is peanuts but we think they displace too much chocolate. I settle on cacao nibs. Alan goes for the rum. We agree we must find cacao beans in the market tomorrow.

Click on the above photo to see more from our second favorite school in Granada.

Artist & Pot

San Juan Oriente is a dinky little village full of potters. Every other doorway leads to a small shop and/or pottery “studio.” We soon learn to distinguish the nice production pieces and colorful schlock from the fine art. When we meet Leandro — a young man who is a third generation potter and gifted artist – and tell him we think his work is the best we’ve seen anywhere in town (it’s true), he can’t stop beaming. He immediately gives us a discount; he is truly an artist; we can’t bring ourselves to bargain.

Click on the photo of Leandro to see more of the arts and artists of San Juan Oriente.

Next up: Ometepe


NOTE: We haven’t had Wi-Fi in our rooms and Alan’s computer has been on the fritz which makes writing muy dificile, and email, blog posting and other internet activities somewhat limiting. Sorry fans.