In the city of León a mural on the fire station wall catches my eye. The figure of a peasant farmer, brightly painted with symbols of the Revolution, trods on the head of Uncle Sam. Vive Sandinista!
This image of Nicaragua persists around the world, even though the Contra War ended over a decade ago and it is now one of the safest countries in Latin America. What most people dont know is that Nicaragua is a land of spectacular beauty. Unspoiled by mass tourism, its an Eden for the adventure traveller, where you can hike to the top of smouldering volcanoes, swim in warm crater lakes, and canoe deep into the heart of virgin rainforest along a river that is for now pristine. With the largest area of uncut rainforest north of the Amazon Basin, Nicaragua is the lungs of Central America. About 17 percent of the country is protected in wildlife reserves.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, and the most exciting area is the Pacific Lowlands, stretching between Lake Nicaragua and the western coast. Here a string of 21 volcanoes, 5 of them still active, rises dramatically from the sea-level plains. To the south, along the San Juan river, are some of the finest rainforest reserves. The San Juan hugs the border with Costa Rica, whose eco-tourism development is one of the regions great success stories. Nicaragua has the same environment, the same wildlife, but is practically untouched.
The Rio San Juan
There is only one sensible way to reach the Rio San Juan, which flows out of the southeast tip of Lake Nicaragua. At Managuas airport, we weigh in for the flight. In order to get the 15-seater plane off the ground, the heavier passengers must sit at the front. Even without our daypacks and cameras, our hearty European stock ensures our party of six a birds-eye view. Soon we are soaring over the sparkling waves of the lake, unable to see where the horizon ends and the sky begins, disappearing into the haze overhead. This is no puddle-jump. Lake Nicaragua is the second-biggest lake in Latin America, only a few kilometres short of Lake Titicaca in the Andes, home to 400 islands and the worlds only lake shark.
Forty-five minutes later we are bumping along a grass landing strip outside the port town of San Carlos. We hire two taxis ancient Russian jeeps left over from the Revolution and bounce through the muddy, ramshackle town to the waterfront. Ricardo, our boatman, is waiting beside his blue-and-red panga, a long, low motorised boat topped with a canopy, the only means of transport in this remote region.
The Rio San Juan flows 190 kilometres on its journey to the Caribbean. It is the longest navigable river in Central America. We are headed about halfway down, to the Refugio Bartola, a nature reserve brimming with wildlife. Its a miracle the river has remained in its natural state. In the 1850s a steamship line ferried passengers up the river, across the lake, and on to the California gold fields. Only the fear of earthquakes kept the Panama Canal from being built here instead. But now, a proposal to build the EcoCanal (the eco stands for economic) which would carry barge traffic threatens to destroy the ecology of the river.
Like an African safari, a rainforest trip is a matter of luck. Ours starts running out as soon as we leave the dock. The sky ahead is ominously dark. Cormorants loom in the tree branches like gothic sentries, and tall white egrets stand still as statues in the thick reeds along the banks. Within a mile, Ricardo pulls out large, thick, black plastic sheets and, sitting three abreast on the hard wooden seats, we shield ourselves in the sudden splatter of rain. He guns the motor into high gear and the prow juts into the air, water splaying from the sides like angels wings. We are off down the Rio San Juan, though this is not how Id expected to see it, huddled beneath a bin liner.
The river stretches up to 150 metres across in places. Through rain-splattered glasses I study the thick jungle along the shore and the watery inlets that beckon deeper into this mysterious world. The occasional clearing reveals a cow, or farm, or the Nicaraguan flag that marks the border. A handful of wooden houses with corrugated tin roofs stand on stilts near the shore. We pass few people a fisherman with his young son and dog, a couple in a tiny rowboat sheltering under an umbrella. A larger panga glides by, its passengers swaying lazily in hammocks hung from the canopy.
After two hours, when it seems our bums can bear no more, we have a moment of light relief as the boat ploughs through a flock of cormorants floating in our path and they scatter into the air, flapping and squawking in Hitchcockian splendour. By now, Im chilled from the steady wind and rain and am glad for a stop at El Castillo. The fort here, built in 1675 to protect the Spanish cities from pirates, stands on a hill overlooking a bend in the river. From its ramparts there is a fine view over the little town, its red roofs peeking out among the palms and banana trees. We buy jugs of drinking water and yellow plastic bags to keep our gear dry. Then, skirting the rapids which turn the river the colour of a chocolate milkshake, we head on.
The Refugio Bartola sits at the confluence of the San Juan and its tributary, the Rio Bartola. It is a private reserve, where Sandra and Daniel Querol have set up an eco-lodge and biological research station. On the opposite bank is the entrance to the enormous Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, harbouring some 1,200 species of mammals, birds and reptiles.
We float down the narrow Rio Bartola into thick rainforest, the lush banks dripping with tropical flowers, clouds of humid steam rising above the treetops. But as the rain intensifies, we return to the Refugio. Here we learn that a hurricane has struck Venezuela and is raging in the Caribbean, causing this deluge.
We check into a basic but comfortable wooden block of rooms with showers and toilets and gather under the rancho, a large circular patio with thatched roof and open sides. Within 3 kilometres of the Refugio, every mammal known in Central America was found in a one-month period, including monkeys, three-toed sloths, river otters, mot mots and other exotic birds. But with weather like this, there is not so much as a tree frog in sight. Sandra warns that the forest will be dark as night, and we abandon our planned hike, consoled by beer and home-cooked food. We lounge in hammocks strung around the rafters and watch the river rise. Even Daniella, the pet spider monkey, stays curled up in the Y of a tree. Upon hearing that she bites women but cuddles the men, no one ventures too close.
Next morning, determined not to be rained out of the rainforest, we cram our feet into ill-fitting wellies and head off with Mercedes Diaz, a local naturalist. As we slip and slide along a trail of ankle-deep red mud, tripping over the massive roots of towering almond and mahogany trees, he wields his machete to cut walking sticks to help us keep our balance. Mercedes knows the secrets of the forest. He chops open the stalk of a plant that contains drinking water. He shows us a tree with underbark that you can put in your shoes to prevent foot fungus on long-distance jungle treks. He can even make a plant brew that cures all types of snakebite. But he cant coax the wildlife out of their hidden shelters, and Daniella remains the only animal we see.
Despite the freak weather, I am enthralled with the Rio San Juan and the Refugio. Its the luck of the draw. A week later, a friend makes the same trip and spends a day canoeing up the Rio Bartola in blissful sunshine.
From a plane you have the best view of Nicaraguas volcanoes in all their glory. The twin giants of Ometepe island thrust out of the lake. Singular volcanoes pop up amidst the green and gold fields, their dormant craters open to the sky like gawping baby birds waiting to be fed. The smallest ones are the oldest, eroded by ancient eruptions. You can pick out the black trails of centuries-old lava flows running far across the plains. Volcan Masaya is the most majestic, its gaseous mouth blowing two puffy smoke rings out towards the Pacific.
Although it is called the Maribios Range, each of the 21 volcanoes in this 60-kilometer stretch stands alone, unconnected to any mountainscape. Geologically, the region is as potentially volatile as its political past. Fears of millennium doom arose when three quiet volcanoes started rumbling in December 1999. But all is quiet on the sunny day we set out for Volcan Masaya National Park.
At the top of the road is a charred landscape of stark, black rocks. I peer into the smoking maw of Santiago, Masayas active crater, which emits 300-400 tons of sulphur per day. Amazingly, a colony of orange parakeets nests inside this toxic crater. If the smoke clears, you can see the fire burning below. The Spaniards called it the Mouth of Hell, and tried to exorcise the Devil by planting a huge cross here in 1529. A replica still stands atop 184 steps.
Nearby is Laguna de Apoyo, the largest of Nicaraguas 12 crater lakes. The water is salty, clear and 27 degrees C perfect for a swim.
Many Nicaraguans live in the shadow of volcanoes, no more so than at San Jacinto, a poor, rural settlement north of León. Here fumaroles pools of boiling magma that have broken through cracks in the earths surface bubble behind the village. New cauldrons open up every week, and 13-year-old Beatrice, trailed by a gang of younger children, leads me through this smoking, hissing inferno. On her head is a bowl, filled with little figures she fashions out of the soft clay and sells for $2 a small price to pay for safe passage.
Richard, our guide from Tours Nicaragua, loves the volcanoes. He leads volcano treks of varying difficulty, ranging from a one-day ascent to the smoking summit of Telica, behind San Jacinto, to the 12-day Volcanic Obsession trek, which takes in eight volcanoes. The most dramatic are on the island of Ometepe.
Island of Peace
Despite the fierce wind and burning sun, I choose the open top deck on the ferry crossing to Ometepe, on Lake Nicaragua. Up here the view of Concepción, the larger of the two volcanoes that form the island, is magnificent as it rises out of the lake. Ometepe is called the Oasis of Peace because its remoteness kept both the Spanish conquistadors and the conflicts of the Revolution from reaching its shores. As a result, more of the indigenous culture remains intact.
I feel a relaxed sense of well-being here. Lush fields of platanos, a banana-like fruit, line the road. Osprey soar overhead. Pre-Columbian statues guard the churchyard in Altagracia. People wave from the roadside. Although I am bouncing around in the back of a pick-up trying to steady my camera, the ideal way to see Ometepe is on horseback or by bike, both of which are possible. Along the land bridge that connects Concepción with Maderas is a great little hideaway hotel, Villa Paraiso, the best base for climbing these volcanoes. It sits beside the unspoiled tropical beach of Santo Domingo, which gets my vote as the place to spend this sunny day.
Along with great adventures, Nicaragua has no shortage of places to rest up in between. In a León café I drink pitaya, a purple cactus juice, before meandering through its cavernous cathedral. In Granada, the colourful streets can barely lure me away from the rocking chairs outside the Alhambra Hotel, where I could sit for hours with a bottle of Flor de Caña, the national rum. People are friendly, sweet and quick to smile. Here, if you want to take someones photograph, they dont ask for a dollar - they say thank you. In the land of the volcanoes, I couldnt be more at peace.