Leon – A fight for true independence

Having scratched the surface of this country’s civil war and revolution in Ernesto’s library, I was keen to get to the most liberal city of Nicaragua, Leon, to learn more.

Since this is a university town, this place is and has always been intensely political, with its inhabitants playing a vital role in its revolution. We stumbled across a really interesting museum just off the main square which our guide-book completely omitted. A former post office, this grand, albeit decrepit building houses two rooms of memorabilia and information from the beginning of the civil war in the 30s to it most euphoric and bloody era of the 70s; which finally saw the fall of a dynasty of dictators known as the Somoza family.

The museum is run by ex soldiers who insist on providing you with a guided tour, although interesting these guys are quite hard to follow and are not really interested in answering your questions, preferring to simply bang on about the old days like most veterans do.

Since there is over 100 years worth of history to document I am going to save you all from my usual endless waffle and opt for some bullets of the highlights in chronological order. Those of you not interested skip straight to the pics of Leon which is full of political murals that help explain the history of the revolution:)

1821 – Nicaragua gains independence from Spain creating a split in two governing powers, the Liberals (Leon) and the Conservatives (Granada).
1838 – Both Britain and the U.S become interested in Nicaragua and it’s strategically important passage to build an Interoceanic canal through Central America.
1848 – British seized control of Caribbean port of San Juan del Norte renaming it Greytown whilst the U.S gold rush in California added fire to the quest for an Atlantic – Pacific passage.
1857 – Liberals disgraced after inviting William Walker into the country and became a vagabond President. (A Tennessee-born opportunist, he initially came to prominence as a newspaper editor speaking out against slavery and the interventionist policies of the U.S however after he was employed by the Liberals to taking care of their pesky rivals in Granada, he decided to make himself President, reinstating slavery confiscating huge areas of land with close ties to the U.S.
1860 – William Walker was killed and Liberals lose power for the next 36 years after losing the trust of the people.
1893-1909 – Liberal general Jose Zeleya became dictator, antagonising the U.S by seeking a canal deal with Germany and Japan, killing two U.S missionaries in the process.
1909 – U.S begin two decades of political intervention, installing presidents it favoured, ousting those it didn’t via coercive measures employed by U.S marines.
1930s – Augusto C Sandino takes lead of the Liberal rebels fighting against U.S involvement and the U.S backed dictatorship of Somoza who developed a National Guard (Guardia Nacional) trained by the U.S.
1934 – Sandino assassinated by Guardia Nacional, beginning a 42 year era known as ‘U.S surrogate regimes.’
1956 – Despite the assignation of Somoza by Libelist rebel in Leon, Lopes Perez, Somoza dynasty continues with his son resuming power.
1960s -70s – Guerilla groups inspired by the Cuban revolution and united by the opposition to the Somozas combine to create what is now known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN)
1972 – A devastating earthquake hits capital of Managua, killing over 6000, leaving 300,000 homeless. The Somoza family embezzles international relief funds, fomenting discontentment with the dictatorship across social classes, thus supporting the rise of the FSLN struggle.
1972 -79 – 7 years of guerilla warfare and 52 days of all out battle sees the fall of the Somoza dynasty and on July 17 1979 the revolution is victorious.
1980s – Trying to salvage what it could of its influence over the country, the U.S authorised $75m in aid to the Sandinista government. By late 80s, U.S becomes concerned about increasing numbers of Soviet and Cuban advisers in Nicaragua with allegations that Nicaragua were supplying arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.
1981 – Ronald Reagan comes to power and Nicaragua, like many other central American countries, gets sucked into the Cold War. Former Guardia Nacional soldiers form a military group known as the Contras were believed to have been funded by the U.S, threatening invasion of Nicaragua from Honduras. Saninista respond by building an army of 95,000 supported by Soviet and Cuban aid.
1984 – U.S covert operations revealed publicly, resulting in a judgement against the U.S by the international court of justice.
1985 – U.S puts a trade embargo on Nicaragua, persuading other countries to do the same, crippling the economy. U.S congress reject further aid to the Contras, however Regan secretly continued funding them by illegally selling weapons to Iran and diverted proceeds to the Contra. When details were leaked the infamous Iran-Contra affair blew up.
1990 – With the economy in a desperate position, the population became disillusioned with the Sandinsta revolution and opposing party (UNO) backed by the U.S came to power after the ill-fated election of 1990.
Current Political situation – after 16 years in opposition and the usual amount of corruption the FSLN (sadinista) returned to political power in 2007. With some dubious dealings with Chavez and historical enemies like the Catholic church and big business (I.e the U.S) things are still somewhat uncertain in Nicaragua with many people wondering if all the revolutionary hype has any substance at all.

Only time will tell how this story will play out and whether the amount of bloodshed was all worth while…provided U.S foreign policy and internal corruption doesn’t play a hand this country may finally do right by its people and sustain a diversified economy where all Nicaraguans can live in prosperity and safety.

Leon is surrounded by several volcanos which provided a beautiful back drop for this city which as you can see below has some beautiful old buildings.

I leave this country an Leon with fond memories and a true respect for the local man on the street who has fought so hard for things we simply take for granted.

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Isla de Ometepe

After spending some of the most chilled out days on the Islas Solentiname, the day had finally come to continue on with our travels across the lake to our next stop, Isla de Ometepe.

It was an early 6am departure back to San Carlos to catch the afternoon ferry which would take us over 9 hours to cross the width of the lake. Thankfully we had enough time to stuff our faces on not just one breakfast but two, at our favourite food joint before boarding.

We had expected that the slow-moving ferry wasn’t going to be one of the most comfortable experiences, but to our surprise, it was to be one of the highlights of our stay in Nicaragua. Having scored some comfy deck chairs we spent the day tanning on the top deck enjoying a good read.

Given the number of beautiful sunsets we have seen, I hadn’t expected to be impressed by one ever again. Yet again this ‘transit day’ was full of surprises, with a perfect uninterrupted sphere being swallowed by the sea against the backdrop of a fiery mist.

After falling asleep under the stars and a moon that was equally as stunning as the sun set, we were woken to the smashing of the waves against the boat as we approached the Isla de Ometepe at about midnight.

Arriving by moonlight just made this place even more magical. The port was a hive of activity with locals loading thousands of bananas, no doubt to be sold at the ferries next stop, Granada.

With only a handful of fellow gringos on board this felt like a truly authentic experience, made even more special by the ride we managed to score to the capital of the Isla, Altagracia; an open top jeep with only standing spaces to make way for the crates of cheese imported from the mainland.

Speeding through the thick jungle of endless banana plantations, with wind through my now quite feminine hair, and the most perfectly formed moonlit outline of an imposing volcano ahead, I could see why the Aztecs called this place the Promised Land.

You can’t help but marvel in the sight of this place; twin volcanic peaks seem to just rise out of the lake, creating the most fertile volcanic soil with rich black beaches.

Days were spent roaming around the island on bikes along the one road that circles the perimeter of the larger of the two volcanos, Conception, which is still active.

Given that the waters are not the best for swimming in thanks to the threat of the famous Bull sharks in these waters, we took refuge in a natural pool called La Presa Ojo de Agua.

I can’t begin to explain how amazing it was to swim in this crystal clear, natural water with jungle all around. As well as sharing this place with all the nature we also stumbled across Father Christmas! Obviously taking some time out from Lap land in this tropical paradise.

There isn’t a whole lot to do of an evening, irrespective of what part of the island you stay in. We spent most evenings wandering around grabbing a bite to eat, trying to avoid the local transvestite who for some apparent reason took a liking to me…with my hair as it is right now the worrying thing is that might have thought I was one of them!

The town of Moyogalpa on the eastern side is home to a fairly large contingent of retired alcoholic expats counting down their last days here, no doubt keeping the trannies busy! This part if town really did feel more like Thailand than Nicaragua.

Cock fighting is also popular here, adding to the felling that you are in Thailand. We unfortunately saw a training game whilst taking a stroll on the beach…not really my cup of tea to be honest!

Islas Solentiname

This archipelago in the southern part of Largo de Nicaragua is most definitely ‘off the beaten track’, with thousands of backpackers simply sailing right past it on their way to Granada or Ometepe. It’s not surprising that these islands aren’t really on many people’s radar, since they were quite literally forgotten about for over 500 years; only appearing on maps since the 60’s and nearly destroyed in a single day during a revolution that saw the third community being burnt to the ground, forcing them to leave only to return in the 60s.

The lake in which these islands sit in is a wonder in itself; the largest fresh water lake in Central America at over 3000 sq miles it is the 9th largest in the Americas, feeling more like an ocean than a lake.

The lake drains into the Caribbean via the Rio San Juan and has had an interesting history with pirates using it as a connection to Granada, which in those times was growing wealthier by the year. It was also a route that the Aztec traders had been using since the 13th century, so it should come as no surprise to hear that it also became strategically important to the U.S around the turn of the last century for the very same reasons.

Before construction of the Panama Canal, plans were made to take advantage of an already existing route connecting the Caribbean to the Pacific (across the lake) and build an inter-oceanic canal; the Nicaragua Canal, but the Panama Canal was built instead.

In order to quell competition with the Panama Canal, the U.S. secured all rights to a canal along this route in the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916. Being so connected with the U.S (as are both Panama and Costa Rica) I was surprised with how different Nicaragua has felt, mainly because of the complete lack of American influence and the strong national identity its people have.

Arriving at the Islas Solentiname, I soon realised that there was a huge gaping hole in my knowledge regarding Nicaragua’s modern history; namely its revolution against the U.S backed dictatorship of the Somoza family in the 70’s which due to its success led to the termination of this treaty and so the overbearing influence the U.S can have.

This particular period in this country’s history has captivated me, so much so that I intend on doing an entirely separate post on it. What I will mention now however, is that a key figure in this revolution was a former priest called Ernesto Cardenal.

Born in Granada, Ernesto was a keen poet, sculptor and theologian that turned from being a Trappist monk committed to non violence, to a fully fledge supporter of the revolution led by a group known as the Sandinista who appointed him as the countries minister of culture following their rise to power. Unsurprisingly he was chastised, publicly, by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

Ernesto is somewhat of a legend in these parts, since he really founded the all but forgotten community here on the islands. He came to Solentiname in the late 60s to find an impoverished and poorly educated community, helping to erect their first simple adobe church where he gave mass. Throughout his life, Ernesto published countless poems and books in addition to an entire Gospel, known as the Gospel of Solentiname which was made up of interpretations of the Bible by the local community through their own eyes and lives; having allowed them to take centre stage during mass. In addition to educating the community he helped to launch Nicaragua’s art movement after receiving an elaborately decorated shell from a grateful islander and seeing the potential of the people.

Soon, entire families worked together as a community painting and sculpting, producing some fine works of art that really do capture this tropical paradise. These days their works are internationally recognised. We were fortunate enough to see hundreds of paintings whilst on the island, with local women painting on their front porches.

We spent the first couple of days on the smaller, less inhabited Isla San Fernando, that has only a handful of families living on it. The only places to eat where either in the only restaurant on the island or a local woman’s house which turned into a shop come dinner.

With supplies relatively scarce, you had to order your food way in advance; to allow for the local people to cater for you. Given that we arrived in the late afternoon unaware of this situation, as well as the fact that most of the women on the island were in San Carlos shopping for weekly supplies, we were left hungry our first night, having to make do with crackers and tin tuna for dinner.

Thankfully the next day everybody on the island knew that the only two grinos there would need to eat!

We stayed in a very basic but but wonderful shack right on the lake.

Given that there is nothing to do apart from visiting a small museum and art gallery (which can be done in an hour) I used the time to revive my A Level in Design & Technology and begin drawing up some designs for our renovation project in Berlin.

I only really left the desk to go to the toilet and grab some food, although I would be lying if I said that this was only because I was too engrossed in my work. Whilst a beautiful place, it was overrun with wildlife. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t bother me since most of the time the dangerous creepy crawlies tend to stay away from well trodden paths. Given the lack if human activity on this islands for hundreds of years, you quite literally come into contact with snakes, scorpions, tarantula, and huge iguanas!

…and that’s not to mention the thousands of toads that engulf the only path at night! You may be laughing at what a pussy I may sound like at the moment, but trust me if you were walking in the pitch back with only a torch as a light, with the images of the above encounters engrained in your mind, you too would have screamed like a girl when feeling something move over your foot!

On the flip side we did see some beautiful creatures that made being on edge most of the time worthwhile.

Our final couple of days were spent on the larger island, Mancarron. Although not as wild as San Fernando it is equally as pretty with more refined housing.

We got to see the new church that was built by the community in the 70s as well as Ernesto’s house on the top of the hill.

Unfortunately he was not there since he spends most of his time in the capital these days. We did however spend pretty much two days in the local library which was full of the most interesting books, including an entire collection by the man himself.

Given he was a Marxist and revolutionary, you can imagine the type of books on offer here. With this library as the community’s only source of literature and learning, the people here have a slightly different outlook on life that I find hard to explain in words.

The time spent here has most certainly had a profound effect on me, making me even more excited about my impending visit to Cuba.

Costa Rica En route to Nicaragua

Since we’ve already had enough exposure to surfer dudes and dudettes to last a life time, we decided to give Costa Rica a complete miss given that the majority of this sub-culture tend to head along the coast from Bocas via Costa Rica to ultimately get to Cancun.

We literally drove straight through the country in a day, only really touching its lands for the border crossings. We have done some mammoth bus journeys, covering vast distances in South America and thought that this relatively short distance would be done in no time.

The one thing we didn’t quite count on was the antiquated system used at the border crossings! We crossed the border at a small town in the middle of the jungle which required us to leave the bus to stand in line with what seemed to be just about every other gringo in the country.

If the mid-day heat wasn’t enough to kill me, listening to the amount of shit being discussed both in front and behind by exactly the surfer types I had been attempting to avoid, nearly sent me over the edge. After 2 hours in the second of three separate queues, we had made it to the front of a kiosk type window with one official actually ‘working’ and everyone else chatting. Taking nearly 15 minutes to type in a few letters in his computer, the long-awaited stamp was in and we were free to walk across the border, over a bridge that has seen better days.

Of course once on the other side there was yet another queue to go through Costa Rican immigration. It was the first time I had been thankful that the Americans have left such a stamp on a country, since this was an organised and efficient immigration office with people actually working. The only problem was them being too good at their job and giving us trouble since we had no documents showing our flight out of the country. After explaining that we didn’t even want to stay in their expensive, KFC ridden country, but simply wanted to drive through, we were allowed in with a mere 3 day visa.

With a number of other minor set backs, we arrived in Los Chiles (the next border crossing) at 10pm, forcing us to spend the night in a sleazy cheap hostel that in addition to being a one hour motel, had a drainage pipe running past the window that my bed just happened to be beneath. The next morning we had to wait until 1pm for our “colectivo” boat which would to take us across the border through dense jungle along the Rio San Juan to our first stop in Nicaragua, San Carlos.

Having dealt with all the shit of yesterday’s border crossing, this whole experience couldn’t have been more pleasant. For starters, we managed to score free WIFI in a cafe for the morning which allowed for some long overdue admin; resulting in the confirmation that we would be able to start our renovation project in Berlin a lot sooner than expected; although this was good news, it does mean that we would now only have about a week in London to catch up with friends before heading out to Berlin 😦

Once on board the local collective boat, we knew we had made the right choice to wait around, since we were the only gringos on the thing; always a sign that you have managed to do as the locals do, which is very often the cheapest option. The boat ride lasted a good 2 hours, passing through some dense jungle on either side of the river, providing some great wildlife watching (monkeys, kingfishers, cormorants, eagles as well as a whole bunch of other birds I wouldn’t possibly be able to name). We too were subjects, since many of the locals seemed to stare at us in amazement, particularly two girls that clearly took a liking to us…if only they knew!

We arrived just as our connecting ferry (one of only two that leave every week) to the Archipelago de Solentiname was leaving! Given our refusal to take tourist specific transport, we were quite literally stranded in San Carlos for 3 nights.

The Lonely Planet describes San Carlos “as less of a tourist destination and more a place to wait for your ship to come in.” Whilst you couldn’t disagree with the comment given that there is pretty much nothing to do here, we actually had a really enjoyable stay.

San Carlos is an archetypal port town, with hard drinking sailors, commercial fishers and herds of people in transit. Since most gringos are only there for a couple of hours, they very rarely leave the lakefront. Given that we were there for a considerable amount of time (by usual standards) we obviously walked around the entire town (multiple times) and began integrating into the community a lot more than usual. Our integration really had a lot to do with the amount of food we consumed over the three days! Andres particular love affair with the local desayuno, which is their typical breakfast, earned him a small following since he seemed to eat it three times a day!

Whilst we didn’t make any life long friends, we did become very fond of the owners of the three establishments we spent most of our time in; the Internet cafe, the restaurant, run by father and son duo ( Carlos Senior and Carlos junior) as well as the mother and daughter duo who ran a nightly Fritanga, which is basically a make shift BBQ on the street just outside their house. These two were a hilarious team that reminded me of the ‘Two Fat ladies’, Nicaraguan style.

Nicaragua is dirt cheap; we have been living very comfortably for less than £30 a day for the both of us, eating three substantial meals a day, accommodation with cable TV and hours upon hours of Internet time. Ironically, although our hostel had cable TV and free WIFI, we were forced to learn how to live with only bucket showers…trust me after a while this just became too much to handle…you never quite feel clean.

Although cheap by Western standards, the majority of people here are very poor, with entire families often living in self-made wooden shacks with little more than a room, bed and multiple rocking chairs where people tend to just sit all day long. There is however, a strong sense of community here with church playing an important role in society. What I did find quite strange was the number of different types of churches around, there is everything from Christian to Evangelical as well as a strong Jehovah community which to my mind is more of a cult than a religion.

After watching the town go by for hours at a time, it finally dawned on me that all the old Americans I had seen walking around in groups of three, dressed in chinos and shirts were not tourists but missionaries; helping to explain all the churches.

Whilst I am sure that they do some good in such poor countries, I can’t help but think there is somewhat of a sinister hidden agenda. Particularly when you come across one of the locals, who at first simply appears to be interested in speaking with a foreigner; one would think to open ones mind to what lies outside their borders. Only to realise that they are not in the slightest bit interested in what the world has to offer but instead are only concerned with how they can convert you to their ignorant and narrow-minded beliefs.

The one good thing I can say about these missionaries is that they have clearly donated a lot of clothing over the years. Luckily for us it is then sold on in second-hand stores that can rival the best vintage shops found in London – for a fraction of the price! If our backpacks weren’t already massively overweight they most definitely are now.