Mompós, Colombia

Mompós was founded by the Spanish in 1537 on the banks of the Rio Magdalena, and quickly became an important port through which goods passed from Cartagena to the interior of the Colombian colony. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mompós is a charming town and well worth a visit despite the hassle getting there & away.

Mompos, Colombia

When the Spanish diverted their trade route to the other branch of the Rio Magdalena at the end of the 19th century, Mompós declined in importance and what you find today is a town where time seems to have stood still.

Mompós lies 230km southeast of Cartagena, and the journey there involved a series of boats, buses & taxis taking most of the day.

Famous for its locally made rocking chairs (in evidence all around town from about 5 pm when the locals emerge to sit out on their porches), Mompós has developed its own unique form of architecture.

The town has a beautifully laid-back riverside atmosphere (as the Lonely Planet describes it: "It may feel more like Mississippi"), making Mompós one of those places ideal for ambling around not doing very much at all. Which is how I spent my time.

Getting away from Mompós was troublesome to say the least. I ended up in the back of a pick-up sucking in dust for 4 hours, on unsealed roads. It broke down twice, and one night bus and 36 hours later, I arrived in Merida, Venezuela.

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More photos of MompÏŒs, Colombia

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

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.

Links

Photos of San Juan del Sur & Maderas beach.

Our podcast from San Juan del Sur

Managua, the derelict capital of 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.

Managua, Capital of Nicaragua

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 Ensueño 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.

View photos of Managua, Nicaragua

Video: Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Happy New Year! It’s been a few weeks since I managed to get to a reliable enough internet connection to update our blog, but fear not, I’m now back in civilization and catching up!

Isla de Ometepe is Nicaragua’s fantasy island, formed by twin volcanoes rising out of Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua). Lago de Nicaragua is a HUGE lake – 177km long by 58km wide – and looking out across it is more reminiscent of gazing out to sea than an inland lake.

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

I made my way here on an extremely rough four hour boat trip from Granada, during which time I miraculously managed to avoid chucking my guts up. For anyone else trying to get to Isla de Ometepe, I’d definitely recommend the easy route via San Jorge.

Having braved the extremely broken-up roads around the island, I ended up with a cheap $5 room at Santa Cruz, just past Playa Santa Domingo and at the foot of the Maderas volcano. I soon realized that on Isla de Ometepe I was in a wonderfully unspoiled & friendly place – perfect for walking, relaxation and simply contemplating. Some of the activities possible here include hiking the volcanoes, horse-riding & swimming. We ended up doing very little here except for wandering around the island, and climbing half way up Volcan Maderas – one of the most memorable walks I have done in a long time. During a five hour walk I met one farmer, some monkeys and no tourists.

It was hard to drag myself away from Isla de Ometepe, but the nearby beaches & surf of San Juan del Sur beckoned.


Our podcast from Isla de Ometepe and San Juan del Sur

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

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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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