Granada, Nicaragua

The Lonely Planet states the following about Granada "The goose that laid Nicaraguan tourism’s golden egg is beguiling Granada, whose restored colonial glories render it a high point of many travelers’ time in Central America".

I thought it a pretty, but rather vacuous tourist trap. Compared to Leon, it had none of the edgy, revolutionary, arty vibe about it. Think horse-drawn carts ferrying around fat tourists, restored, gringo-owned restaurants selling $10 hamburgers to the same fat tourists, and you’ve pretty much got the idea.

The average Nicaraguan can no longer afford to even be in Granada (unless they’re sweeping the streets), let alone own property, work and support a family here as the foreign tidal wave of property & business acquisition sweeps through this once splendid city – turning it into another Antigua – beautiful, empty buildings, but no locals.

That may sound a bit harsh, and it wasn’t that I found Granada so bad, it simply felt a bit empty and characterless compared with the rest of Nicaragua.

Leon vs Granada? Leon wins hands down.

Podcast from Granada and Leon

Photos of Granada and Hostal Esfinge

Podcast: Granada & León, Nicaragua

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Join us on an audio tour of Granada, with sounds of the market, Lago de Nicaragua and a street parade and band. We round off this podcast with a bit of Nicaraguan history and some thoughts on the highlights of both Granada & Leon in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua podcast

Corn Island: Bounty island in Nicaragua

Corn Island in Nicaragua
Corn Island in Nicaragua

Thomas and I had dreamt about the white Caribbean beaches since long before we came away. We had seen heavenly pictures from little Corn Island and had been looking very much forward to spending Christmas and New Year there.

Big and Little Corn Islands are both low-key vacation spots in an isolated corner of the Caribbean. The two Islas del Maíz retain in many ways the magic associated with the Caribbean – clear turquoise water, white sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms, excellent fishing, phenomenal coral reefs to explore and an unhurried and peaceful pace.

However, getting there is NOT funny. The ferry there from Bluefields runs irregularly and we ended up having to decide between staying 4 days in Bluefields or flying to Big Corn Island (one way 85$). We chose the last option although it was not in our budget -but Bluefields is honestly not a place you want to spend 4 days (or even one).

On the way back we also flew because there was no boat right after New Year and we would have to wait one week on Big Corn.

Collective pangas between the islands (US$6, 40 minutes) leave from Big Corn at 10am and 4:30pm; if you’re staying on the far side of Little Corn, you need to take the morning boat. Boats leave Little Corn at 7am and 2pm, meeting each round of flights. The sea is very rough and you better wrap your backpack.

I really enjoyed my time on Little Corn Island – but thought it was too expensive to get there 🙂

León, Nicaragua

León is the former capital of Nicaragua, and is situated in the most volcanic region in Central America – a chain of ten volcanoes stretching all the way to the border with El Salvador.

Leon cathedral, Nicaragua

León was founded in 1524 by Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba, and was capital from the colonial period until Managua took over in 1857. Despite no longer being the administrative capital, León remains the artistic, intellectual and revolutionary capital of Nicaragua.

During the Nicaraguan revolution virtually the entire town fought against the corrupt, US-supported dictator Somoza – and the murals around town bear witness to the city’s revolutionary leanings.

León’s cathedral is the largest in Central America – and well worth a visit. There’s also a decent collection of galleries and museums, including the incredibly impressive Fundacion Ortiz containing a great selection of both European masters and Latin American art, as well as some very interesting pre-Columbian ceramics.

León captivated me. It’s hard to explain quite how, but the place felt immensely rich culturally, and the people passionate and strong.

On my second day in León I headed to the beach – about 20kms away, or an hour by bus. I had almost the entire beach to myself, but thanks to the fiery hot sand and midday sun (this place was HOT!), I hid away in a restaurant just watching the sea, before returning to town for another dinner of the traditional Gallo Pinto (rice and bean mix) for dinner.

Photos of León and the nearby beach, Las Penitas

Podcast from Granada and Leon

Map of Leon and Nicaragua

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Podcast: Story of a Guatemalan War Victim (in Spanish)

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Filipe and Rosa were wonderful hosts whilst studying in San Pedro, Guatemala. Although I wasn’t strictly doing a home-stay with them, as I ate two meals a day at their house, they soon felt like family.

Podcast story of a Guatemalan war victim

After a few weeks I asked Filipe if he would be happy to tell me his story. In 1981 during the Guatemalan civil war he was abducted and shot twice by the army. He was only 17 years old. Some of the other hostages that were taken from San Pedro the same night as Filipe were murdered by the army in front of him. To this day, he still doesn’t know why the army abducted him, nor how he managed to survive his ordeal.

Listen to Filipe’s story (in Spanish) by clicking on the play button at the top.

Copa¡n Ruinas (The Copan Ruins), Honduras

Following Tikal, I took a long 8 hour bus from Santa Elena (near Flores) to Chiquimula on the Guatemalan side of the Guatemala/Honduras border. Arriving in Chiquimula reminded me of Mae Sot in Thailand where I used to live – it had that edgy, anything-can-happen vibe that border towns seem prone to.

Copan ruins, Honduras

After a night barricaded in a room in one of the worst hotels I have ever stayed in – like an inner city tower bloke complete with Guatemalan gang members, I caught a bus 1.5 hours to the border and walked into Honduras .

Arriving in Copa¡n was a pleasant surprise. It’s a very peaceful town centred on a plaza and food market, with cobbled streets and surrounded by lush, green countryside. The perfect town for doing very little, except perhaps wandering the streets absorbing the friendly atmosphere.

About 1km outside the ‘new’ Copa¡n are the ruins – another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Copán was initially settled around 159AD, and in its heyday (5th to 9th century AD), Copa¡n was home to a population of 20,000 – 30,000 inhabitants. Although not the size of Tikal or El Mirador, Copa¡n probably has the finest surviving examples of portrait stelae and sculptured building decorations out of all the Mayan sites in Central America. There’s even a huge hieroglyphic staircase on the side of one of the temples.

A few years ago the local river changed course and eroded a section of one of the temples, revealing further structures beneath the visible outer layer. This led to a series of organized excavations using tunnels beneath one of the main temples, which in turn revealed a whole set of structures built on top of each other. The most famous ‘internal’ temple at Copa¡n was named Rosalina, and inside they found tombs of the first king of Copa¡n along with various offerings to the gods. It is possible to enter some of the excavation tunnels at Copa¡n but they charge a prohibitive $12-15 extra for the privilege on top of the entrance price.

I’d recommend getting a guide if you decide to visit Copa¡n temples as on the surface they are less dramatic than some of the other Mayan temples, but the experience is brought to life with the guide’s vivid descriptions of Mayan life, and explanations of some of the hieroglyphics & carvings. It must be noted thought that following a really interesting tour, our guide later cornered us individually in town, and tried to rip us off by claiming that a $20 note with which one of our group had paid for the tour was dodgy. It had definitely been changed.

Photos of Copan and Copan ruins

The Mayan temples of Tikal in Guatemala

I last visited Tikal 15 years ago, in 1993, and had a rather magical experience here. At that time, we climbed the highest temple, temple IV, in the middle of the night and witnessed the jungle spectacularly bursting into life at dawn. The sounds of the roaring howler monkeys have stayed with me ever since.

Tikal in Guatemala

Unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to enter the park before 6am, so we left El Remate at 5.30am arriving shortly after 6.

Tikal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is the largest of the Mayan ruins, and is located in the hot and steamy El Petén region of North East Guatemela. Tikal’s prosperity peaked during the Classic Period, around 200 – 900 AD, during which time the site dominated the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily. It was at this time that the wonderfully named King Moon Double Comb (Aka. Lord Chocolate) ruled over Tikal.

There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal (some higher than 60 metres), and only a fraction have been excavated, still allowing visitors a bit of an Indiana Jones experience, although word has it that the ruins at El Mirador now surpass the splendor of Tikal.

Tikal was mysteriously abandoned around the 10th century, and popular theories now cite drought as one of the likeliest causes of its sudden demise.

In the last 15 years there have been inevitable changes at Tikal. Apart from the opening time, now there are wooden steps leading up all the temples, and the main pathways and temples are more manicured than before. My biggest disappointment with this visit was due to the presence of a generator near the park entrance which can be heard throughout the park. The generator obviously frightens a lot of the wildlife away (including the previously ubiquitous howler monkeys) and partially destroys the illusion of untouched jungle which I remember previously.

Onwards to the Copán Ruinas in Honduras….