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Leon, Nicaragua

LEON, NICARAGUA 31st December 2012 N12° 26.031’ W86° 52.722’ Los Malinches campsite at Junquillal definitely rates as one of our top favourites, not least of all due to its charming and gentle owner Manuel who has owned the property on which it stands for some 30 years and went out of his way to make us feel welcome from the moment we arrived. He opened the door to his house to us, letting me sit inside in the cool and where I could get a reasonable wi-fi signal. He was always checking with us that we were happy and not in need of anything and in general gave a perfect demonstration that some younger and less experienced hospitality business operators could copy to their advantage. Thank you Manuel, we really found it hard to pack up and move on after our 5 nights at your lovely spot on the coast overlooking the Pacific. We wish you well with your plans for development of your property. We were a little unsure of where to go next out of the few places we knew about in the northern part of Costa Rica. It was either to be inland at the National Park at Rincon de la Vieja where based on some quite ancient data from other overlanders we believed we could camp, or further up the Pacific coast in the Santa Rosa National Park where we knew for sure there was a campsite. Or as a third possibility the town of Tamarindo not far up the coast from Junquillal beckoned with a multitude of hostels to choose from. We ended up staying at two out of the three – firstly at Rincon de la Vieja and later at Santa Rosa. But firstly we wanted to check out Tamarindo , just a short 30 kms or so from Junquillal. From the entries in the guide books it sounded as if it might be quite a “busy” place,and bearing in mind the time of year more than likely to be chock a block with holidaymakers, but it was worth a look. Our feelings turned out to be about right. A really nice beach with a creek bisecting the northern part but with every square metre of the landscape covered with businesses directed at the tourism market – cafes, surf shops, tour companies, quad bike rentals, hotels, hostels, souvenir shops, you name it. Not just a few of each but dozens and dozens in each category. Even with the busy times like Christmas and Easter how so many tourism related businesses manage to make a profit for the whole year is a bit of a mystery. No wonder the restaurants in many places for instance employ a “flag waver” to stand on the roadside by the restaurant doing their best to persuade passing traffic to pull in for a meal. So we saw Tamarindo, took it all in, and soon decided it wasn’t our sort of place in which to spend a night or two. So onward to the next option, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, another park with a volcano smack in the middle of it and supposedly a campsite too. So it was back to the Panamericana, or as it also known in this part of the world the Carretera Interamericana, where we wriggled through the town of Liberia looking for the minor road that would lead us to Rincon de la Vieja. In fact there are two approach roads to the park and of course we had to pick the worse one in terms of condition. The tar soon ran out and then we were on a sort of chalk surface, white in colour but quite hard packed. The surface of the road was cut down into the surrounding rock strata which looked like solidified lava and which probably was originally spewed out of the volcano some 20 kms away. We climbed steadily upwards from 250 to around 750m ASL passing very little in the shape of other traffic stopping in the welcome shade of a large tree next to the track for our routine lunch stop. Once we got going again we p************* network of horizontal pipes, some small,some gigantic which we surmised were carrying either geothermal steam or hot water being tapped from the lower slopes of the volcano. Seems that they had similar ideas to the Kenyans in Africa who have tapped into the geothermal energy sources around Lake Nakuru to provide free or cheap hot water and a means of generating electricity at low cost. Just up the worsening track which by now was seriously rough (why is it so many National Parks in so many countries have lousy approach roads?) we came to the gate of the National Park. Our 6 year old GPS data indicated that a campsite was located inside the gate on some inviting looking green grass with a scattering of trees offering some shade. As it turned out this might have once been the case but now in 2012 was no longer true. The park rangers told us they had some basic showers and loos not far away inside the entrance but if we wanted to camp we could only do so outside in the parking area (N10 46.377 W85 21.024). Problem was they locked the entrance gate at night so we would have no access to the loos etc till the morning. Too bad, so we snuckered down in the far corner of the partly grassed car park after waiting for a day visitor to retrieve his car from “our” corner. We took a while deciding which way to face the car as by then a really nasty, blustery but at times quite violent wind had made its presence known. We would be wanting to cook on our MSR stove which we place on a folding base attached the car’s rear door so keeping the wind at bay is quite important. Another and seriously irritating problem rapidly rearing its head as we parked the car was the presence of very persistent little black, flying bugs which we know can and do bite like hell. Oddly, they seemed quite capable of holding station in the attack zone inches from one’s exposed skin even though the wind was by then gusting hard enough to rock the car. For the first time on this trip I was forced to pull out of my bag the ingenious hat I had bought in Norway a couple of years back which in its zipped crown has a drop down net like a bee keepers net to ward off the bees (in this case nasty biting bugs). Initially, we managed to erect both side and rear canopies but it soon became obvious that leaving the big EazyAwn side awning up was risking severe damage to it or us so down it came again. The rear one meantime flapped and flogged like an untrimmed genoa sail on a boat in spite of its guy ropes being taught and their pegs being well buried in the ground. Whilst this was in progress the bugs waged war on us big time causing plenty of English probably not used by Her Majesty to spill from my lips! At least it was cooler up there compared than at the coast and in spite of the wind doing its best to blow us right back to the coast we slept OK. Next morning it was into the showers as soon as the Rangers opened the gates. But the bugs were still with us, the wind was still being unfriendly and the volcano itself was well hidden in cloud so we decided to beat a retreat back down the tracks towards the coast without checking out the walking trails in the park. A pity but we didn’t think it was going to be that enjoyable in the circumstances. Unlike the way up we managed to find the better of the two access roads from the Panamericana to Rincon de la Vieja for the trip back and were soon on the main road. A quick restocking and refuelling stop was needed so we drove the short distance back into Liberia, picked up some diesel which was a bit cheaper than in Costa Rica and a few items in the next door supermarket. Right across the street beckoned a Macdonalds and although we had our usual breakfast of cereal and coffee up at the windblown campsite a Macbreakfast seemed a good idea so in we were sucked. And like most big Macs around the world they had good wi-f too so took advantage of that to catch up on e-mails etc. Next stop we had decided would be a campsite in the Santa Rosa National Park back on the Pacific coast (yes, we do jump around a bit, don’t we). Our overland friends from Life Remotely had stayed there and commented on the state of the access road to the beach camp site. So what’s new? Anyway, we drive a Defender and words such as “4×4 needed” or “seriously bad track with steep slopes” etc are the next best thing to chucking down the gauntlet to a Defender driver. Sadly, we got ourselves navigationally screwed up getting to this park entrance first time around and ended up driving down a track from a gravel road hugging the coast which in turn emerged straight onto a small, rather appealing unspoilt beach . But this wasn’t the campsite inside the National Park at Playa Naranjo. So back we went to the Panamericana and retraced our steps to the park entrance proper. There we handed over a total of $23 which covered entrance fees and camping for one night. The gate staff tried to persuade us to camp at the inland site closer to the gate rather than the one at the beach citing the state of the track from the first to the second. OK, we thought, so Kobus and co from Life Remotely were right after all. What a joke that track turned out to be. In most places max. speed was walking pace or less due to the crazily broken, rock surface. This was dry season, what it would have been like with a nice layer of slippery mud on top after a good downpour is anyone’s guess. A few of the ascents and descents definitely needed 4×4 traction and our Traction Control certainly worked a bit on occasion. But the “best” bit was at the far end of this shocking 12 kms stretch of bump and grind and this was the timber bridge over the creek just before the entrance to the Playa Naranjo campsite. This involved a significant step up from the heavily eroded track surface onto the first sections of transverse timber of the bridge which even in the Defender needed all its considerable ground clearance to negotiate. But we made it OK and were somewhat taken aback once into the camp to see quite a few so called “soft roader” 4x4s parked there, all of which had also negotiated this same rubbish track successfully. But one visitor who had rented his little 4×4 Suzuki did say the running boards now looked a bit bent! The campsite (N10 46.782 W85 39.836) was to say the least basic. It had shade under the trees and it had a couple of water taps delivering non potable water. It also sported some shoddy and poorly designed long drop style composting loos which stank. Just 4 of them for a campsite with a capacity of perhaps 75 people… There were just two filthy cold water showers which I discovered were temporary homes once it was dark for an enormous toad in the one and a swarm of black bats in the other! A truly inviting place to wander in for a quick wash, especially after dark. The beach was some 200 metres away past the spot where the surfers pitched their tents (we had to stay with the car in the car park) and although an impressive 8 kms long was nothing wildly better than others we had camped on or near and usually for free. We stayed just the one night taking our chances when hopping out of the car for a leak in avoiding the many red crabs that scuttled around in the leaves all around our spot. Nothing if not eventful… Next morning we retraced our route back along that insane track (that is exactly how a local described it to us) and stopped at the entrance gate to pass on our comments there about why it seemed that zero maintenance had been devoted to improving the access road somewhat. “Lack of funds from government” was the expected response. This in a country with such a so called high standard of living and literacy rate. What happened? Once again it was westward ho (at least to start with) up the Panamericana towards the Nicaragua border. A Danish couple, Marianne and Erik in a green Mercedes Sprinter camper almost identical to the one belonging to our friends Laura and Heiri, and whom we had met at Los Malinches a few days earlier had told us of a finca (small farm) close to the border where they had stayed overnight. So we headed there and found another gem of a place. Finca Canas Castilla (N11 07.301 W85 35.645) is just that, a small farm owned by a Swiss couple and located down a quiet gravel road a few kms from the Panamericana just outside the village of Sonzapote. They started some years ago to add a few rooms and chalets to the existing farm and now have an idyllic spot to unwind and spend a few days by the river at the bottom of their garden. Not a river to jump into for a quick swim by the way as like some other rivers in Costa Rica it is home to a few crocs! Agi welcomed us when we arrived and was quite unflustered by us not having made a reservation, and showed us to a little bedroom with a bathroom shared by two others. We were soon established and after exploring the farm itself were ready for Agi’s dinner offered to all of her guests. They didn’t have a communal kitchen and although we could have camped in the car on the finca for just $5 pppn (and cooked for ourselves) the temptation of someone else serving up dinner and clearing it up afterwards was just too much. So we joined several others, many from Germany, some from the States and Canada, and were spoilt with an excellent dinner. Many of those staying there were booked in for the whole of Christmas week; had we not needed to push on a bit to the north we could well have done the same. It was the sort of place where one immediately feels both at home and part of the furniture and where it is hard to imagine moving out again. But after breakfast the next morning – another nice surprise – we had to do just that. Agi’s parting words were “when you come to the first of the long line of trucks getting near the border just keep going and go to the front of the queue”. We had seen this situation earlier on the Panamericana at several police checkpoints in Costa Rica with perhaps 75 trucks or more, nose to tail, stopped with engines off, their drivers in many cases propped against one of their 18 wheels under the trailer patiently waiting for some movement in their long queue. We did the same in these situations – just pass the lot and go to the head of the queue, the drivers of the trucks quite unconcerned. What all this horrendous hanging around presumably for the police or whoever to do their checking must cost the end user of the commodities the trucks carry is beyond imagination. But that’s the way it’s done here…. With Agi’s words in the back of our minds we sailed past the first of the border queue of trucks but a quick look at the GPS confirmed we were still four kilometres from the actual border. Now bear in mind this was two days before Christmas Day, and having been told that many Nicaraguans work in Costa Rica and were more than likely going to be heading home to spend time with their families we should have been ready for the sight that met us as we rounded the last corner and arrived at the Costa Rican side of the border at Penas Blanca. There were perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 people laden down with bags, boxes, backpacks – anything they could carry, lug or drag through the border posts – standing patiently in an enormous queue that went twice around the sizeable compound in which the Immigration offices were housed. It was only around 9am yet busses were arriving in droves from Costa Rica unloading 40 or 50 more every few minutes, all rushing to get off the bus and take their place in the queue. We were ushered into a car park nearby already awash with cars, pickups, taxis, busses and big trucks. A quick conflab with an official confirmed our worst fears; we would be lucky to get to the immigration office in less than five hours! And that was just Costa Rican Immigration. We also had to clear customs before what would probably be another monster queue to do the same on the Nicaraguan side. We just said no, this is insane, let’s head back to Finca Cana Castilla just down the road, wait there awhile and come back later. We drove about 5 kms back down the road, past all the waiting trucks and then common sense prevailed over impatience; the busses were still bringing Costa Ricans in droves so the queue at Immigration wasn’t going to get any shorter, if at all for some time. But at some point the convoys of busses might just start to dwindle a bit and the queues might, just might also get a mite shorter reducing the waiting time to do all the paperwork. The big question was when would a change become apparent and when should we start to take our places in the queue. So back we went and to the amusement of the cops, the parking attendants and others in their cars in the car park we once again took up station there positioning Jambo so that we could keep an eye on movement in the queue, watching someone in an easily identifiable hat or T shirt and timing them as they shuffled forward around the compound fence. Out came our books, our drinks and later our lunch until around 1.30pm we could see the queue actually getting a mite shorter at which point we initially took in turns to man our spot in the queue. The temptation to quietly muscle in, perhaps next to some other gringos was indeed great, but it obviously was definitely not acceptable so far as the locals were concerned. Anyway the police were much in evidence around the lines of people to keep order so we behaved and were patient. At least on that side of the border, because when we were finally through Immigration and Customs and headed to the Nicaraguan side sure enough, there were the same monster queues waiting to get into the Immigration office. We parked the car not far away but then realised we had less than 2 hours before darkness and we still had to find a place to sleep that night. At that point our ethics and scruples quietly crept away to somewhere where such things go, and with papers in hand we surreptiously wheedled our way into the queue about halfway between the front and back. Initially, although nothing was said by those around us, we could detect a small helping of “these b——– gringos think they can do what they want, don’t they” but that was it, we stuck to our guns and things remained amicable. It still took us another hour and bit to finish all the formalities which also included (although in a classic case of us not understanding what we were paying for at the time) mandatory 3rd Party insurance as our international policy from Holland didn’t provide this. So as we finally headed out of the gate to get onto the road into Nicaraguan territory we suddenly thought we hadn’t fixed 3rd Part cover. So to much consternation from the cops on the gate we headed back into the compound to find an office that would sell us a policy. In spite of waving bits of paper around in Spanish that described what we needed no one could understand what we were on about. In desperation, it now being almost dark, I said oh stuff it, let’s take it carefully up the road and get it tomorrow. Just as well we didn’t collect anyone on the road from there to San Juan del Sur…. As it turned out, after we had found a bank in San Juan del Sur next day and paid our $12 for a month’s cover we discovered we HAD paid for and obtained exactly the same bit of paper at the border the previous evening……Twits. We had heard about Casa de Olas Hostel (N11 16.066 W85 51.243) on the edge of San Juan del Sur from several sources. What we didn’t know as we headed for the town after turning off the Panamericana in pitch darkness was whether Casa de Olas would have a bed for us that night. We DID know from their website that they were offering a Christmas “all in special” for the five nights from 24th December, but would they have any space left? The thought of spending another lonely Christmas on our own in some grubby hotel with little or no Christmas festivities as we had done in Syria 2 years ago was just too miserable a prospect. So with a huge thanks to Fred and Carla who own Casa de Olas and their kind receptionist Field they managed to slot us in, just, with a bed in a private room for our first night and then bunks in a dorm for the next couple of nights. By the time we got there well after dark we would have found it very hard to keep going, looking for a bed had they been full. In fact, we first tried the adjacent Naked Tiger hostel at the top of the hill overlooking the town and the coast and were told that all they had was a single bunk in a dorm. It was they who suggested we try next door at Casa de Olas but not before we had a long overdue and much needed bite to eat there. One inmate at the Naked Tiger had got his Christmas lunch well planned in advance – he had bought a live pig in the local market for some $140 which he had named after himself, Joshua. This he had tethered to a post outside the bar and planned to slaughter without any experience in the fine art of culling or cooking bovines! We were also to enjoy Casa de Olas’s breakfasts, but most of all the full spread Christmas lunch at 3pm laid on on Christmas Day by Fred, Carla and their staff. Thanks guys. You made it a special day for all of us. Every evening we were treated to grand sunsets far away beyond the end of the hostel’s long infinity pool although the constant wind did its best to tone down the peaceful setting. Another fact of staying at Casa del Olas was Buzz, their tame spider monkey who ran up and down a tether line under the eaves showing off her amazing acrobatic abilities and sucking up to the male guests. For reasons unknown we were told that Buzz was not keen on females of the human species…. The other human guests at the hostel (and all of them were younger than us) were in some cases seemingly hell bent on drinking Fred’s bar dry. They didn’t succeed – Aussies are made of sterner stuff than that – but they sure looked somewhat sad every morning after! We walked some of the nearby beaches which were pleasant and good exercise for us and also explored the town of San Juan del Sur on foot, a town we think destined for much (we hope sympathetic) tourism development. After saying goodbye to Fred (sorry we missed you Carla) we headed back to the Panamericana and turned left for the old town of Granada. Here we were to spend several nights at the Hostel Hamacas (N11 55.801 W85 57.432). It was cheap enough at $25 a night for our room but that was the sole bonus. The room’s aircon had obviously given up the ghost some time back as it and its neighbours had signs painted on the wall by the door announcing “A/C not working”! Being an inside room with just one small window it was hot in there all the time even with a large fan roaring away all day and night. Then there was the bathroom next door which looked very out of sorts. The hand basin was supported on a long piece of wood jammed into the floor and one morning a cockroach decided to commit suicide in the basin. Yuck! As one of the Irish lads also staying there said on hearing this “Now what exactly killed that cockroach!” But the worst aspect of the place was the so called communal kitchen. Only half of it was accessible the other half being blocked off by a large sheet of plywood (looking behind revealed a fridge in an advanced stage of corrosive melt down). The kitchen was filthy and grossly inadequately equipped. We tended not to go near it plain and simple. The hostel was listed on Hostel World’s website as having parking which to us at last is an important facet. By parking one assumes it means off street parking of some sort. But no, when we got there the staff were not prepared to allow us to pull Jambo into the perfectly adequate and gated parking space at their entrance. They told us to park outside in the street which for some of the time was watched over by a guard. Luckily, Granada seems to be relatively crime free so we had no problems with the car being broken into. But Hostel World should remove “Parking” from this hostel’s list of facilities. As for the kitchen….. Granada itself is a hugely atmospheric city in some ways like its famous sister city in Spain with gorgeous old pre-colonial buildings lining its grid of narrow streets. Founded in 1524 it was considered to be the first European style city to be established in central America. Its links to Spain in that era are strong and easy to see although the Moorish architecture found in its Spanish sister city is not seen here to any extent. Sadly, many of its old buildings and its streets and other infrastructure fell into serious disrepair during the time of the Sandinista troubles in the 70s and 80s. Thankfully, that is n