Nicaragua–Volcan Masaya: Gazing into the Abyss…

DSCN2394On Sunday we took a short trip to the Masaya Volcano which is just 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) outside of Managua.  The area actually includes two volcanoes and five craters.  The Masaya Volcano is also known as Popogatepe (“mountain that burns”) in the language of the indigenous Chorotega tribe.  The Masaya Volcano, during pre-Columbian times, was sacred to the indigenous people and they believed the eruptions were signs the gods were angry.  To appease the gods, they would offer sacrifices of small children and maidens.  In the 16th century, the Spanish conquerors baptized the active volcano “La Boca del Infierno” or “The Mouth of Hell” and for good reason. Gases constantly escape from the throat of the volcano and iridescent lava can be seen in its interior.  The Spanish planted a cross on the edge of the caldera to exorcise the devil from it. It is an active volcano and it’s last eruption was in 2008. In 4550 B.C. one of the largest volcanic eruption on Earth in the last 10,000 years occurred here.  Unfortunately, looking down the throat of an active volcano is on Heide’s Bucket List. Somehow the fact that it’s not on mine is irrelevant so off we went.

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The Desolation of Smaug–A lava field at the base of the volcano

We decided to leave early (about 8:30 a.m.) as the park opens at 9:00 a.m. and we wanted to get ahead of the afternoon heat.  The heat of the day combined with the heat from the volcano itself was something we wanted to avoid.  We arrived 2 minutes before the park opened and were able to get in quickly.  The cost for Nicaraguan residents is but C$30 (about $1.07 US); for non-residents the cost is C$100 ($3.57 US)–very reasonable.  The guard at the gate wrote down our license plate number and they checked us off as we left the park later.  I’m sure they need to keep track of people inside a park where you can be cooked alive !  The road up the mountain side was quite good by Central American standards.  It was paved (kind of) most of the way and had a speed limit of 40 KMH which you could actually do.

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Cousin Judy, Heide and Me (I’m in the middle !)

As we drove up the mountain side we were directed to the Visitors Center.  A stop here is mandatory before you are permitted to enter the road up the volcano.  There is a small museum of pictures, descriptions, fauna and flora, along with the opportunity to buy things at the gift shop–perhaps the real reason for the mandatory stop.  There is a walk-through display that provides examples of animals, insects, flowers and other vegetation that lives and grows on the slopes of the volcano.  Bats live in caves that are down inside the caldera and the nightly migration from the caves is supposed to be pretty spectacular.  Also, parrots amazingly live inside the caldera and have somehow managed to adapted to the sulfur smoke gases escaping from the volcano.  They return to their roost each evening around dusk.  Unfortunately, the night-time tours have been temporarily suspended with no explanation.  We will keep checking to see if they restart them during our stay.

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Laguna de Masaya

In any case, the view from the visitors center is pretty spectacular in itself.  From the outside deck you can see Laguna de Masaya, a large volcanic lagoon.  As we drove from the Visitors Center to the top of the volcano, the panoramic views were breathtaking.  It is 635 meters (2,083 feet) above sea level.  From that height, I have no doubt we were seeing all the way to Pennsylvania!!!  But the real treat was still to behold.  As we got closer to the top of the volcano one could see the smoke and gases escaping like Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings.  I have no doubt that Sauron’s Palantir (crystal ball) was watching us the entire way and he had our approach on his big screen.

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Gazing into the Abyss…

But the best was yet to come.  There are simply not words to describe the awe inspiring view of an active volcano up close and personal.  Although we could not see the glow of the lava during the daylight hours, the sulphur gases and smoke escaping gave proof of what lies below.  In the picture to the left, I am standing at a railing on the edge of the cliff with the mouth of the volcano directly below me.  You can literally look straight down into the abyss.  In the larger realm of the universe, one comes face-to-face with how truly insignificant we are while glimpsing at our own mortality.

 

 

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Nicaragua: A visit to a volcanic lagoon–Laguna de Apoyo

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Laguna de Apoyo

Along the way to Granada, former capital of Nicaragua and old Spanish colonial city, we stopped off at a small town up on the mountain called Catarina. From the top of the mountain in Catarina you are able to look down onto a volcanic crater that last erupted some 23,000 years ago and has, in the interim, filled with water from natural springs and rain. The lagoon that it created is approximately 600 feet deep with a surface area of 2,110 hectares (5,214 acres).  It contains some of the clearest water known to exist in all of Central America. The water temperature is a balmy 80.6 to 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit year-round as there are some geothermal springs that feed the lagoon.

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Arrow Mojarra (amphilophus zaliosus)

Although it does not contain a widely diverse population of fish, the lagoon is home to some interesting species.  There are four species of mojarras, which are found nowhere else in the world but this lagoon.  One of these species is the Arrow Mojarra (amphilophus zaliosus), only first discovered in 1976. More recently, three other species of mojarra, whose scientific and common names have yet to be defined, were also found in the lagoon.  Scientists think there may still be other endemic species in the lagoon yet to be discovered.

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Young sweethearts gazing at Laguna de Apoyo and beyond

We didn’t make it to the shores of the lagoon on this trip but the view from Catarina was simply spectacular.  Not only could we see the entire lagoon from our mountain top perch but we could see all the way to Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and beyond.  With a nice breeze and shade from the trees on the hillside it’s the kind of place where you could pack a picnic lunch with a cooler of beer and simply gaze all afternoon.  It is the perfect spot for dreamers and young sweethearts to spend an idle afternoon being mesmerized by the stunning beauty of Mother Nature.  Views of the nearby Mombacho Volcano are awe-inspiring with its cloud covered top.

If you seek peace and tranquility, you will find it in abundance here.

Tomorrow we plan to visit the Masaya Volcano, an active volcano, where you can walk up to the edge of the crater and look down into the abyss.  Wish us luck…!!!

 

Nicaragua: Small, Family-Run Eateries…”Comedor”

Proprietor of Sal y Pimienta (Salt & Pepper)
Proprietor of Sal y Pimienta (Salt & Pepper)

Since we arrived in Nicaragua, we have been in search of authentic Nicaraguan cuisine.  A number of the restaurants in the area seem to attempt to produce food the tourists want but it results in bland imitations.  When I was here a little more than a year ago, I recall some very tasty food.  Looking back on my stay the last time, I tended to eat more in local restaurants and less in the chains and commercialized places.  When Heide and I first arrived on this trip, the commercialized places were SOOOO convenient but the food was totally unremarkable–downright awful in many cases.   Yesterday, that changed.  We are now focusing on local cuisine prepared by local folks.  As I posted last year, eat where the locals are lined up and you’ll find good, authentic, local fare at extremely reasonable prices.

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Sal y Pimienta

We went to a little place around the corner from where we are staying that appears to have just opened for business in the last week or so (Sal y Pimienta–Salt and Pepper). Already it has a robust breakfast and lunch “crowd” even though it only has four tables.  People lined up to order take-out.  It is a small, family run place that only serves breakfast and lunch, is immaculately clean, and looks like someone’s front porch with plastic tables. In Costa Rica a place such as this is called a “soda” but here in Nicaragua it is simply a “comedor” or dining room/restaurant.  The proprietors seemed genuinely glad to see us and the fact that they spoke no English did not deter.  Our Spanish is improving daily and we are both working hard at building vocabulary, improving syntax, and learning local idioms.  Our efforts are bearing fruit.

The food at the local comedor was among the tastiest we’ve had since arriving in Nicaragua, Heide loved it (finally) and you can’t beat the price.  Heide and I both had the same lunch of rice, Bar-B-Q pork ribs, and steamed vegetables for C$230–the equivalent of US$ 8.22 for both of our meals together including a drink!  It’s the drink that is noteworthy though. The gentleman running the place asked what I would like to drink and I said, “Coca-Cola Zero” (Diet Coke isn’t available in Nicaragua), a pretty common beverage here.  He had a somewhat panic-stricken look on his face but told me he would bring it to the table.  The next thing I knew he disappeared.  I caught a glimpse of him slipping down the side street and he returned just minutes later with a cold can of Coca-Cola Zero and a smile. He had walked down the street to another restaurant and bought one to bring back to me so I’d have what I asked for. Now THAT’s customer service.

You know the pork was delicious when I gnaw on a rib bone–I have an aversion to gnawing in general but particularly on animal bones.  If I start sniffing at the closest fire hydrant, stand back !

Managua: A Cacophony of Sound

Beagle-carCar horns are to Managua what live jazz is to New Orleans.  During our stay in New Orleans this year we enjoyed some of the finest local musical talent the world has to offer.  Live music was on practically every corner, in every bar and restaurant, and pleasantly heard at live events adding a festive air to business openings, backyard parties, and celebrations large and small.  In Managua, car horns are the music that is everywhere.  From short, high-pitched tweets from taxi drivers looking to attract your attention and business to the huge deep air horns of the fancy buses with mirror tassels hanging, the cacophony of sound is inescapable.

In the area of Pennsylvania we lived in, car horns are like nuclear weapons…everyone has one but no one ever uses them.  Not the case in Nicaragua.  The ubiquitous car horn is used constantly.  It seem to convey messages in secret code like, “Hey, how are you?”  “Nice wheels.”  “I’m coming through whether I fit or not.”  “Get the @#$!@ out of my way.”   “You @$$hole!”  and variations thereof.  You simply hear them all the time.  When you look at the perp, it’s hard to tell what he’s blowing his horn at.  Perhaps the horns are in Spanish…

 

Nicaragua:  Housing..The Final Frontier

No-Hotel

When we travel we do not typically stay in hotels.  Over the years of my professional life I have stayed in some of the finest hotels in the world and I enjoyed those excursions immensely.  Everything I needed to conduct my business was at hand usually right within the hotel (i.e., wireless Internet, business center with Internet access, copying, printing, messenger service, overnight mailing, etc.).  Room service was a real plus as I would sometimes work extensively in the room.  Having meals of my choice brought to me at the time of my choosing helped me work more efficiently and be more productive.  But for personal travel, the typical big hotels are expensive at worst and impersonal at best.  The furniture is uncomfortable.  

When Heide and I decided to become vagabonds, the world of travel housing took on a whole new light.  We didn’t want the isolation of a sterile hotel room.  Our purpose in travel is “…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [one] has gone before.”  More or less.  As noted in a previous post, we planned on “living” where we went, not just “vacationing.”  Consequently, we needed more amenities than a hotel could provide for day-to-day life.  We also want friends and family to come visit us and enjoy some time together exploring so we typically look for two-bedroom/two bath accommodations.

I suspect you are saying to yourself, “I could never afford that.”  You would be surprised, however, at how very affordable such housing is particularly when you are staying for a month or more.  Most hosts (aka Landlords) are quite willing to negotiate their daily price for a long-term rental –sometimes by as much as half–rather than having the hassle of a constant parade of various guests at various times and, perhaps, not being fully booked.  We have negotiated at each property we’ve rented to date and I think our offers were affordable for us and fair to the host.  As an aside, we have yet to have any host refuse to negotiate a month or more deal and we’ve quickly come to terms that stay within our housing budget.  Each of the long-term rental deals we have done so far have cost less than what we budget–sometimes substantially less.  That savings is invested directly into having an even better time !

What To Look For…

We scan the website AirBnB throughout the year to get a sense of housing prices in many of the locations we’ve talked about.  Some of it is simply daydreaming, but I also consider it background research as it gives us a much better sense of prices.  We don’t skimp on quality.  The places we’ve rented have been attractively decorated, clean, well furnished, and in nice neighborhoods–none of which was by accident.  

By the time we zero in on a property as a candidate for rental, we have examined every single review written by previous guests (look for at least 15-20 reviews or more, all with glowing reports), looked carefully at the host’s pictures of the rooms on the website (e.g., I want to SEE the air conditioners and ceiling fans, the layout of the kitchen, the laundry facilities, etc.),  We locate the property on Google Maps and use Google Earth to actually “see” it if possible.  We check the elevation of the terrain around the property and its proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, shops, etc. as we like to walk a lot.  We search for news articles about crime in the neighborhood.  We check into the cost of a car rental or the availability of public transportation.  In short, housing, food (groceries and restaurants), transportation (public or rental) are necessities.  We envision the comfort, peace, and tranquility we might experience there and only move forward when we are convinced we will find it there.

Specific Amenities

The first scan of a listing is looking for the “must have” amenities.  The following list quickly eliminates properties from consideration as the selection is usually quite varied but we do not compromise on this list.  Must haves…

  • Two Bedrooms/Two Baths (for guests)
  • Air conditioning
  • Wireless Internet
  • Laundry Facilities or Service (preferably service)
  • Cleaning/maid service
  • Secure Parking
  • Pool
  • Full Kitchen (Stove w/oven and all cookware, dishes, etc.)
  • Refrigerator
  • Microwave
  • Coffee Maker
  • Electric Included

Currently, we are staying in a small boutique hotel in Managua.  Although it is a hotel with typical hotel rooms, it also has two apartments that are fully furnished with two bedrooms, two baths, and all of the amenities listed above.  We’ve rented one of the apartments for our four-month stay in Nicaragua with breakfast included each day.

The days are slow and easy.  Peace and tranquility abound.  

Life is good on the lam…

 

Nicaragua: Planning and Ultra-Light Packing

Rocket Planning

We spend considerable time planning. As Admiral Painter (aka Fred Thompson) told Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October in his slow Tennessee drawl, “The average Russkie doesn’t take a dump, son, without a plan.”  I believe the “plan” is what makes for a smooth trip. Spontaneity is clutch and fuels the adventure factor, but the base plan needs to be in place upon arrival so the essentials of life are already taken care when you disembark at the airport (think bottom two layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy–see below).  If the ancient philosophy of stoicism is the pursuit of tranquility, good planning is the road to get there.

Planning

We’ve carefully developed pre-trip and packing checklists (links provided below) that have become instrumental in making our trips easier to plan, to travel, and far more care-free once we get there.  As a result, we can confidently be ready in a day to leave for months at a time on a moment’s notice and not worry about forgetting a thing.

Maslow's HierarchyTops on the list is the “where,” of course, but we talk about next year all year long and agree on the destination long before we start the planning. This year, because of my two-week scouting mission in December 2014 to Managua, Nicaragua, the “where” was easy to answer. During my previous visit here I stayed at a small boutique hotel that is centrally located in the city of Managua. The hotel has but 20 rooms plus two apartments. We rented one of the apartments for four months with a second bedroom and bath for guests. It’s in a convenient location in the city and the hotel staff are some of the nicest people we’ve met in all our travels anywhere.  The pool is right outside the apartment door! Grocery store, pharmacy, mall, lots of restaurants, are all within walking distance.  Good planning.  Peace and tranquility upon arrival.

Ultralight, Hassle-Free Packing

We travel light purposefully.  By not checking bags, we are able to be more nimbly around the airport and there’s zero chance of the airline losing our bags.  With a GORUCK GR-2 backpack and a McCoolker Multifunction Messenger Bag (it’s NOT a man-purse, dammit) along with a Maxpedition attachable shoulder pad, I can pack everything I need for a trip of indeterminate duration and not have to check any bags.  As it turns out, much to many travelers surprise, they have laundry services around the world so packing 30 outfits for the month becomes somewhat crazy.  And, what you might need more of can be purchased wherever you go.  Obviously, hair products are not high on my list.

I’ve become a true believer in the Tim Ferris (author of the 4-Hour Work Week) “buy it there” concept (B.I.T.).  Basically, the BIT idea is to pack lean and light and purchase what you need when you arrive at your destination rather than lugging stuff.  For example, we buy the sample sizes of toothpaste, deodorant, etc. at the grocery store for our backpacks.  When we arrive at our destination we are good for about 4-5 days, perhaps more, until we do the Arrival Grocery List run to stock up.  We then purchase the local full-sized version of our supplies for use during our stay–NOTE: Brand names in foreign countries differ so you really have to read labels to find equivalent products.  As soon as we do so, we restock the sample-sized versions in our backpacks, if necessary, and we’re ready for the next journey.  Doing so let’s us pack only what is essential without the excess weight of larger supplies.  By the way, this works whether you are staying for 4 months or a shorter vacation (1-2 weeks).  Why carry what isn’t necessary?

We pack enough clothing for about a week and then rely on local services to “refresh” our clothes.  I’ve done a lot of reading about the concept of ultralight backpacking–ultra referring to super light weight.  Consider that when carrying all your belongings for the trip with you on your back, a few extra ounces here and there end up turning into excess pounds and I’ve become very conscious of what things weigh (no, NOT obsessive compulsive).  My goal is for my backpack to weigh in under 20 pounds, the lighter the better.  For example, I usually pack six shirts (two collared polo shirts; five t-shirts–remember I’m also wearing one of these on the flight).  A typical Russell Athletic cotton T-shirt weighs about 10.7 ounces; the Under Armour Tech-T Shirts are 6.4 ounces each–a difference that may seem inconsequential.  But, you would end up carrying 3.4 extra ounces times 6 shirts = 20.4 ounces extra by packing cotton.  That’s ~1.4 POUNDS of extra weight with no significant benefit.  The Tech-Ts are a lightweight, quick drying, breathable fabric that is wonderful in hot weather.  They are 100% polyester, which I normally avoid like the plaque, but the weave of the fabric is somehow different and breathable.  I love them.  They also fold compactly.  Granted the Tech-Ts are more expensive than cotton but I don’t have to lug the extra weight.  And that 1.4 pound savings is just the shirts.  Shaving ounces across shorts, underwear, supplies, etc. adds up to real pounds.

Similarly, I buy lightweight, breathable, quick drying travel pants that have zip-off legs and usually only take one “pair of legs” along.  Since our travels are usually someplace warm, the occasions where I need long pants are few and far between.  I also buy ExOfficio Underwear which are similarly lightweight, breathable, and quick drying…you’ve got to love their advertising slogan:  17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear. (Ok, maybe two.)  Keep the secret but I pack more than two.

With underwear, t-shirts, shorts, a pair of Teva sandals, and a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator Hiking Shoes, I’m all set.  I pack the sandals because they can lie flatter and I wear the hiking shoes on the flight.  Upon arrival, I switch to the sandals for everyday wear–have rarely worn socks since I retired !!!  The hiking shoes I use only if we are going on nature hikes in the wilds of wherever we are or in, heaven forbid, cold weather.  The Teva sandals are quite comfortable for all the walking we do.

For your reading pleasure here are links to our Pre-Trip Planning Checklist and the Travel Packing Checklist.  Put your seat in the upright position, stow your tray tables, and fasten your seat belts.

We’re off.  Godspeed.

Nicaragua: Living There…or Vacationing?

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Cathedral de Santiago, Managua

There’s something about long-term travel that’s relaxing and addictive.  Travel soothes the soul and nourishes the mind.  Once hooked, it’s tough to not crave more.  When we are traveling, I am more relaxed and feel more stress-free than I have since I was a child.  Perhaps it’s because of our pre-trip extensive planning where no detail is overlooked and, upon arrival, everything is already on autopilot.  We use detailed checklists based on experience for planning and packing to ensure nothing is forgotten.  No stress, no fuss, no muss.

Prior to the trip, we pre-book the housing, the rental car (when and if needed), look at options for public transportation, locate nearby grocery stores and restaurants using Google Maps, and get a sense of what activities there are to do there.  But not rigidly so–the key to a relaxing trip is flexibility and not packing every day with Clark Griswold-type intensity (…from the movie Vacation).  We really don’t need to see the biggest ball of string in Nicaragua.  I only firm up the essentials.  After all, much of the fun of the trip is spontaneous game-day decisions and maintaining a slow, carefree attitude.  On the financial side, everything is setup to be automatic each month–I need only monitor from afar.  I could get hit by a bus today, have a one-way ticket punched to the Great Beyond (or Below as the case may be), and it would be months before Netflix realized I hadn’t watched a movie in a long time!

Each year, Heide and I start talking about next year’s trip(s) while we are wintering in warmer climates.  If you’re an ongoing reader of my blog, you know that the longer winter trip we make must be somewhere warm (e.g., Costa Rica, Nicaragua…).  Warm weather is our primary criterion from after Christmas until it’s time to put the boat back in the water in the spring.  Having lived almost all of my life in northeastern and central Pennsylvania, I’ve seen enough snow to last me the rest of my life (sorry, Ken Blankenhorn !!!).  However, there are places in the world, other than Central America, we want to see (e.g., Greece, Italy, perhaps a return to Germany and Turkey, Prague, Budapest, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, the Far East, etc.), just not in the winter.  We have a full docket.

At times, I’ve struggled with how to succinctly explain, to folks who ask, what we are doing on the long trips.  We really aren’t playing tourist and hitting all of the tourist excursions and ripoffs the typical Gringo would do here or out partying every night (little, but not that much).  We enjoy the simple life of spending time together, reading, exploring, and relaxing.  An interesting distinction we’ve made about our travels is the difference between vacation and living there.

One day this past summer while chatting about our plans for Nicaragua I said to Heide, “What are we going to do there for four months?”  So far, four months is our longest stint in anyone place.  Heide responded, “We’re going to live there.”  Her use of the word “live” echoed in my head.  It was a Eureka moment.  Living somewhere and immersing oneself in the environment is very different from vacationing.  Our primary intent is to spend the winter away from cold weather, learn the language of our host country, get to know the culture and customs different from our own (both historical and present day), and perhaps most importantly, get to know the people and their stories.  Vacationing, however, is more about seeing and experiencing things in the short-term and can be done year-round.  We still want to experience the language, culture and people while vacationing to be sure, but equally important are experiencing, for example, the view from the Acropolis in Greece, “hearing” the roar of the crowd in the Coliseum in Rome, or tapping your own Guinness at the brewery in Ireland all within a shorter time frame (perhaps 1-2 weeks each instead of 4 months).   For example, four months in Nicaragua is living there.  We are scheduled to take an 8-day cruise at the end of September to Canada and New England with some dear friends.  That’s a vacation, although, since I’m retired, I’m not sure from what it’s a vacation!!!

In my next post, I will provide more detailed descriptions of our planning, the type of housing, transportation we use and finally, a little something about how we arrange taking care of the financial side of life while away.  Stay tuned.