A year ago today I boarded a plane in London for Madrid, and began a journey that has taken me through fourteen countries in 12 months, culminating back in Spain where I am now. Along the way I have had some amazing high points, and also without doubt some of the most challenging times of my life. The countries I have travelled through are, in this order:
12 months later I am speaking Spanish fairly well (albeit with multi-country accents & vocabulary), I’ve finally learnt some yoga, and I’m in the process of setting up an online English teaching business with an old friend here in Barcelona. You’ll be hearing more about this sooner rather than later as it should be ‘going live’ within the next couple of weeks.
Finally, I just wanted to say a big thank you to all the people I have met along the way. The trip wouldn’t have been the same without you. Special thank-yous to: All at the Cooperative School in San Pedro, Sushi, Francisco, my mother, Paul, Serena, Jameson & Laney, Pete & Heidi, Svayam, Carlos & the Reina Madre crew in Buenos Aires, Rachel, Ben & Marina, Rory/James & Marcela in Spain, and Ana-Maria.
Isla de Ometepe is definitely a good candidate for “eight wonder of the world”. It is an absolutely fantastic island and one of my favourite places in Central and South America.
Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanos rising from lake Nicaragua in the Republic of Nicaragua. Its name derives from the Nahuatl words ome (two) and tepetl (mountain), meaning two mountains: two volcanic peaks (Conception and Maderas) rise from the hazy blue expanse of Cocibolca, ‘the Sweet Sea’ and form an hourglass of beaches and jungles.
Isla de Ometepe has an area of 276 km². It is 31 km long and 5 to 10 km wide. The island has a population of 42,000, and an economy based on tourism, livestock and agriculture.
It has a hiding a wealth of archaeological treasures and a very romantic countryside. Thomas and I spent some of the most romantic time of our travels there.
San Juan del Sur is a coastal town on the Pacific Ocean, in south-west Nicaragua. The town is a popular tourist location because of its many nearby and spectacular beaches. San Juan del Sur is also popular among surfers and is a vacation spot for many Nicaraguan families and foreign tourists. It really is a good, unspoiled alternative to Costa Rica.
The population is approximately 18,500, comprised mostly of families engaged in fishing. There are plenty of Spanish schools in town making San Juan a perfect place to come and immerse yourself in the language and take home something more than a tan.
The surf is, however, not in San Juan del Sur itself "the waves are simply not big enough in town. We went to Madera beach about 10 km north of San Juan del Sur to surf. Madera beach is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful beach and when you don’t surf you can suntan and go for long walks. Amazing.
The video below gives you an idea about why Madera beach have become so popular – it simply is a stunning place!!
Isla de Ometepe and San Juan del Sur are two of the emerging tourist destinations in Nicaragua. We begin this podcast with sounds from the trip between Granada and Isla de Ometepe by boat, and finish up on the beach in San Juan del Sur via Maderas volcano & the jungle.
This podcast also contains sound clips from “Crazy Dave” himself, owner of Hideout Surf Camp on Maderas beach. If you’re looking for accommodation on Maderas beach and are thinking of staying there, we suggest you listen to this first :-).
San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s main beach resort. With a population of about 10,000, it is more reminiscent of a sea-side village than a resort. San Juan is located a few hours from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in the South West of the country about an hour or so from the Costa Rican border.
Although the main beach at San Juan del Sur is a pretty horseshoe shaped bay, flanked by tall cliffs, like all town beaches, it is not particularly clean. However, North and South of San Juan are a series of very unspoiled beaches with either very little, or no development whatsoever. These beaches can be reached only by private taxis from San Juan, or by one of the organized buses/trucks that run several times daily from the main guest houses in town (about $5 return).
The main draw to the area is undoubtedly the surfing. A steady stream of surfers arrive in San Juan with boards at the ready, hoping to catch whatever the Pacific throws at them. Generally people either stay in San Juan del Sur and make the daily beach shuttle trip, or stay at one of the ‘surf camps’ at Playa Maderas – an unspoiled beach about 10 KM north of San Juan famed for its beach break.
San Juan del Sur is now firmly on the backpacker circuit, and with plenty of other activities available in the area – from turtle-watching trips, to horse riding, ATV driving, Spanish classes, fishing, and of course partying – it is sure to develop massively in the next ten years.
Whether you’re a beginner or more advanced surfer, because of the many varying beaches in the area, there will usually be somewhere suitable for you around San Juan. You can hire a surf board for about $10 a day, and lessons vary from between $10/hour and $30/hour depending on who you choose.
I liked San Juan so much, I went back and spent Christmas there surfing. The first time I stayed at "Crazy Dave’s" Surf Hideout on Maderas beach, but he was so obnoxiously loud he drove us away (more about that later). The second time I stayed in San Juan itself, in Hospedaje Don Wilfredo (right next to Big Wave Dave’s), which was a small, friendly, locally-owned hostel about 50 metres from the beach with private rooms for $4 & $5 a night – about half the price of a dormitory room in Casa Oro which all the younger backpackers seems to flock to like headless chickens. Must be the improved mating potential?
San Juan del Sur is probably less than half the price of Costa Rica, and you pretty much get the same in terms of surfing and lifestyle. In fact, having now also been to several Costa Rican beaches, I’d say the beaches around San Juan del Sur win hands down.
August C. Sandino (pictured below) is a legend in Nicaragua for standing up to US political and military involvement in Nicaragua, and fighting for the rights and freedom of the poor. Sandino’s guerillas – Sandinistas – fought the US-trained Guardia Nacional led by Anastasio Somoza Garcia (a nasty piece of work).
Sandino was brutally murdered by Somoza having been invited to dinner for a peace conference in February 1934. The US and CIA supported Somoza’s regime in Nicaragua, a regime that achieved very little except make the Somoza family incredibly rich and the rest of the country very poor, until, in 1979,the revolution finally succeeded when the Sandinistas marched into Managua victorious.
The rest is history, the US had a tantrum, illegally sold weapons to Iran & ploughed the proceeds into the ‘Contras’ (Somoza’s ex Guardia Nacional now in exile) resulting in the infamous Iran-Contra Affair.
You don’t have to spend long in Nicaragua to understand that Sandino’s spirit very much lives on…
[This photo was taken at the Sandino Lives exhibition in Managua, Nicaragua]
I was ‘fortunate’ enough to be trapped in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, whilst I decided what to do for Christmas. Managua is spread along the southern shore of Lago de Managua, and rose from obscurity in the mid 19th century as a ‘compromise capital’ due to the intense rivalry between Granada and León.
Since then, Managua has been far from lucky. In 1931 the colonial centre was destroyed by an earthquake, it was rebuilt, but burned down five years later. In 1972 the city was pretty much leveled by a huge earthquake, and following this, when geologists realized that the entire original centre was riddled with underground fault lines, the government decided to not rebuild and to ‘de-centralise’ the capital.
I was staying around the Tica bus station, in the Barrio Martha Quezada. This area didn’t feel entirely safe even during daylight hours, and following several warnings from the guest house manageress in Hospedaje El EnsueÃ±o along the lines of "You can go one block that way, but don’t walk more than one block that way it is very, very dangerous", I stuck close to home except for a taxi sight-seeing tour of the city by day.
So what is there to do in Managua? Not much, except marvel at its dereliction. I had no idea there were capital cities that looked and felt like this. I felt quite sad to drive around and see a city in such a state of decay, so much so that the taxi driver didn’t even know quite where to suggest going next – because there really wasn’t much to see.
The one thing worth mentioning was our trip to the top of the Loma de Tiscapa hill with great views over the Tiscapa crater lake. On the other side of the same hill Lake Managua can be seen in the background, complete with what I initially thought was a beautiful smoking volcano crater. It later turned out to be the city’s rubbish dump ‘recycling’ rubbish into the atmosphere. We also visited the Sandino Lives Exhibition on this hill – a rather minimal but nonetheless interesting tribute to Augusto C Sandino, the heroic Liberal leader who resisted the US supported tyrant Somoza.
Managua’s worth a visit but don’t go out after dark looking like a tourist.