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Road to Colombia – The Tulcan border crossing, turning 30 in Popayán and the ancient statues of San Agustín

One last stop in Ecuador before we decided to move onto country number nine, and that stop was the much hyped market town of Otavalo. It is situated 2 hours north of Quito and is a major tourist draw, known for its colourful Saturday market. Mooching round toot markets is not really our cup o’ tea but Ollie had become obsessed with the idea of rubbing her face on Alpaca blankets since Insinliví. The offering at Saquisilí market near Latacunga (every Thursday) was poor so we had no choice; off we went…to the mother-load. A bus from Latacunga to Otavalo direct took 3.5 hours (direct buses avoiding Quito do not go from the main terminal, but from the Cita Express offices, $3.50 each) and dropped us on the outskirts of town on the Pan American highway. After a 15 minute walk into town we found our hostel (Rincón del Viajero, $25 for private room) then nipped out to grab some last minute bargains on blankets and hammocks at ‘Plaza de Ponchos’. Bargaining was easy as it wasn’t a Saturday and we were pretty much the only browsers there.

Alpaca blankets - The colours of Otavalo

Alpaca blankets – The colours of Otavalo

Saturday however, was completely different. This town erupts into a sea of colour and faces. Every street was covered in stalls selling any kind of South American treasure you could ever want, and to accompany it, hundreds of gringos willing to buy all of it. We have no photos since we heard that pickpockets operate heavily and sure enough, after being in the market for less than a minute we saw an Aussie girl who realised she had had her purse stolen. This town is all we expected it to be, so we decided to leave the next day. Not before meeting Paul and Catrin, and after some rum and cards we decided to travel into Colombia together the next day.

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

A bus from Otavalo to Tulcan took 4 bumpy hours (ask a taxi to drop you off to where they stop) after which we piled into a taxi to the border at Rumichaca who drops us at Ecuadorean immigration. A quick stamp, some dollars changed for pesos, a quick walk across a bridge and a slightly longer wait for a stamp into Colombia took 30 minutes in total. Next, we jumped into another taxi to take us to Ipiales bus terminal where we would find a bus to Popayán.

A big regret we have is not making it to see Santuario de las Lajas, just outside of Ipiales. It’s a huge gothic church on a stone bridge across a gorge in the Colombian Andes. We didn’t have the time, but if I redid it, I would have left two hours early to see it. I will just have to suffice with a picture…as will you, for now.

Santuario de las Lajas

Santuario de las Lajas

A bus from Ipiales to to Popayán is not a short affair, in fact it took 10 hours. The price of transport increased as soon as we stepped over the border. No longer a dollar an hour, this ride cost $15 each with Expreso Bolivariano, going via Pasto. On our first stop some shiny looking army men asked for my papers, and further into our ride, we were stopped for another hour by army, who again wanted papers and to poke noses in bags. Security when travelling at night on this route was a mild concern but there seems to be a big police and army presence along the way. Arriving in Popayán at around midnight we found our way to Parklife hostel where we toasted with a beer and quickly found our way to bed.

Popayán is a white washed colonial city with not much to do. Merely a stop off along the way for us, but we ended up spending four whole days. Being my 30th birthday, we tried to make the most of it, but there really wasn’t much going on. After a meal at Rapi Arepas (Arepas can be compared to El Salvadoran pupusas, but are fatter and chunkier, sometimes cut in half and stuffed with meat or cheese) where I lost a tooth, we celebrated this special occasion with some rum and drinking games in the hostel. Almost enough rum was consumed to forget about my missing tooth. Not many lucky boys get spend their 30th birthday having emergency dental work, but I just happen to be one of those lucky boys. Saying that, 45 minutes and $30 afforded me a brand new tooth. There is a lot to be said for Colombian dentistry! The next day, we tried to go for a hike to a view point, but on the way, some locals stopped their car and advised us about going in that direction as it was dangerous. That combined with the rain, we retreated to the hostel and wasted another day.

Birthday celebrations

Birthday celebrations

 

Taken by Ollie - Translating Spanish and 'mouth full of drill language' at the same time!

Taken by Ollie – Translating Spanish and ‘mouth full of drill language’ at the same time!

The next day, we moved on with a bus from the main terminal in Popayán to San Agustín. A 4 hour bumpy and windy dirt road journey with ‘Cootranslaboyana‘ cost $12.50 each and dropped us on the outskirts of town, where a jeep transport arrived to take us the rest of the way. They put the hard sell on you from the get-go in this town, so have a plan of where to stay and an idea of what tour you want to do. As always in Colombia, bargaining will get you far. It’s a pleasant, but busy little colonial town with a huge selection of hostels to stay at, and nearly everyone on the street wants to sell you either a jeep or horse tour to see the ancient 3500 year old statues.

The road to San Agustín

The road to San Agustín

We decided on two nights at El Jardin Casa Colonial for $15 for a room, and we decided to book a tour with Humberto and Carlos who operate tours out of Hostal Diosa Lunar. Since our journey up a volcano in Uruapan on horse-back was one of the most physically traumatizing experiences of my life I was adamant that I wasn’t getting back on one of those unpredictable bastards. Combined with Paul and Catrin’s burning enthusiasm, my reluctance turned into a good bargaining technique for everyone else and as there was a good deal to be had with the promise of a comfortable saddle, I opted in.

Streets of San Agustín

Streets of San Agustín

The next day at 9am, we saddled up and trotted off into the hills to see some of the mystical carvings that are scattered around the area. The horse tour takes you to four random spots in the hills where carvings have been found and left in situ. Carlos was a great guide, showing enthusiasm for the history of the area along with offering many random tit-bits of info on the local ways of life. The place is covered in coffee plants along with a fair few marijuana and the infamous coca plants. It is legal (according to Carlos) for people to own their own marijuana and coca plants, within moderation of course, but the production of cocaine is illegal. Making tea and chewing it are fine by the army. Anyway, back to the statues…

The infamous Coca plant

The infamous Coca plant

Not much is known about them, the people who put them there or why, but as you can imagine, there are many theories about the various meanings. The statues pre-date Incas and the culture is believed to have died out before their arrival on the scene. I could go on and speak about each site individually, but if you are going, you will get a guide and if you’re not, a picture will do more justice than my words. The area is stunning though, trotting and galloping through the dirt tracks around these hills is something I’m glad I signed up for. Genuine natural beauty combined with these mystical little carvings made for a pretty special day out. Feeling rather saddle sore after 5 hours, we had a quick lunch then joined the guides again for a special tour about local crop production. The day was topped off with an attempted night out in the town (not much was going on apart from some live music in the square and an empty bar) where we sampled more of Colombia’s finest Ron Viejo de Caldas.

Feeling the need to escape the streets we headed to Finca El Maco on the outskirts of town for some green scenery and hammock time. From here, we walked to the actual Archeological Park of San Agustín where we spent a day looking at some more of the mystical carvings that are dotted around a fantastic lush green park.

 


What surprised me most about San Agustín was the fact that only the Archeological Park seems to be run by some kind of official national body, charging entrance and maintaining. The other sites are just left on peoples land under tin roofs. There is no entrance fee and no obvious government involvement. Our guide on the first day said that these belonged to the people of San Agustín and as such, they are left to look after them. What our guide also told us that he along with other locals has excavated (and raided) 1000’s of tombs in the local area, detecting them solely by poking a metal stick into the ground until he hears a ‘clink’. No one else is interested apparently, so after they find (and raid) the tombs, they simply cover them back up. The hills are full of them waiting to be found.

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Due South – 3 Days in Costa Rica with some time to reflect.

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When you are on a jungle clad volcano island in the middle of a lake so big that you feel like you are at sea (Lake Nicaragua is so big in fact that at some points you can’t see the shores of the mainland and also it has freshwater sharks!), staying at a cheap eco-lodge that has a pizza night three times a week, with a price tag of $14 a night for a private cabin, it is very hard to leave of your own accord (Smug alert).  But alas, we had a flight booked so we had decided to journey from Ometepe to Liberia, just across the border in Costa Rica in a day.

A bus to the town of Moyogalpa, 29 km away from Santa Cruz managed to take 2.15 hours, standing all of the way of course.  A creakier and rockier lancha than our journey to the island with seats raided from a chicken bus, ferried us back to the mainland in 1.5 hours, where four of us crammed into a cab to Rivas.  There we were to get our last chicken bus in Central America to the border of Peñas Blancas.  Not really feeling misty-eyed about saying goodbye to this mode of transport yet as this last bus was a killer.  The Sunday service to the border took 50 minutes and was crammed full as we squeezed in the back, but then more got on, cramming me against the reggaeton speaker, door latch and a sweaty/obese/intoxicated/bad tempered/smelly specimen who was so drunk he kept dropping his bootleg porno DVD’s on the floor.  I noticed he squirrelled them away quickly enough when he met his wife at the other end!  The border was slightly confusing, but safe and relatively hassle free, we soon found our way crossing into our 7th country.  The whole journey cost us $8.50 each in total.

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Costa Rica is unreasonably expensive.  We only had three days there in one place and felt ‘robbed’ every time we bought something.  It’s not just us comparing prices from Central America and being stingy backpackers.  The prices are almost a match for the UK’s when in the supermarket buying basic food stuffs.  It also didn’t help matters that we stayed in a hostel that was run by a psychologist who had a distinct lack of people skills and proceeded to rub me up the wrong way at every available opportunity.  This added to my general dislike for the country.  Avoid.

Liberia International Airport is a fantastically clean and shiny new place that is basically a place to ship the sunburnt Yanks back home by Delta, JetBlue, United and American Airlines.  It’s a final shake-down spot.  $29 each to leave the country is the first little slap in the face until of course you get to the other side.  Two beers cost us the best part of $20. Now these were not fine imported Belgian beer or some kind of locally produced draught ale. These were two tins of $1 local piss water poured into plastic mugs.  A bag of Doritos and a bottle of water would have set us back $19 but we couldn’t bring ourselves to spend that.  Avoid also!

How much?

How much?

But why Rich?  Why didn’t you do the San Blas island tour from Panama straight to Cartagena?  Why fly from a country you didn’t plan on going to, to another country you didn’t plan on going to?

Three reasons.  Firstly, money!  The cheapest flight from Central America to South America that we found was Liberia to Quito at around $400 each which is equal to/cheaper than some of the boats.  Secondly, I get terribly sea sick, and four days open water sailing just sounds awful.  Third reason: why not?!  Ecuador sounds awesome!

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On board the tiny plane bound for San Salvador it felt strange to be moving somewhere without someone trying to sell me mango strips, parasite medication or duct tape from the aisle.  The only thing coming from there was a free sandwich!   It did give me a chance to see six weeks of hard work on chicken buses being undone in 90 minutes as we flew along the coast back to El Salvador.  From the plane I could see the two peaks of Ometepe clearly, then following north to the rest of Nicaragua’s line of volcanoes to the Golfo de Fonseca.  Then, El Salvador’s Volcan San Miguel was clearly visible and soon, we were on the ground, eating a pupusa in the airport terminal.

If you squint, you can see the peaks of Ometepe

If you squint, you can see the peaks of Ometepe

The flight to Quito was painless and is the only flight I have been on in a long time where the majority of passengers clapped on touchdown.  Local time was around 1am when we walked through to the terminal and we were soon in a taxi bound for Quito’s Old Town, just shy of an hour away.  The Secret Garden Hostal, which is neither secret nor has a garden was our destination.  We dumped our bags then summited the 5 flights of stairs to the terrace where the effects of being 2850m high started to take their toll.  Regardless, we had made it.  Our first sight of South America was indeed an unforgettable one.  Quito’s Old Town was lit up in front of us, seeming to climb the mountains behind it.  To our left stood the Panecillo statue shrouded in the creeping fog and to the right the Basilica Cathedral stuck out in all of its gothic glory.  It is one helluva fine spot.

The view of Quito Old Town from our lodgings on the first morning.

The view of Quito Old Town from our lodgings on the first morning.

4 months down and we have crossed through 7 countries in North and Central America successfully and without incident.  That is to say, no physical incident; having three cards cloned and accounts emptied was indeed an incident, but one that was relatively painless due to the helpfulness of the UK banks.

Mexico and Central America has been an incredible journey for the both of us.  We have travelled from the border of Tijuana all the way to Costa Rica by bus and boat.  Total time spent travelling of 213.5 hours.  That’s just a few hours short of 9 days.  I could reel off more facts and figures, but you get the gist and I don’t want to reveal just how truly geeky I have been about recording stuff just yet.  A long bloody time basically.  However, my point is, is that all modes of transport have been public (with the exception of Guatemala where we used the tourist shuttles, it would have been silly not too due to price and convenience) and they have all been safe.  Pretty stressful and hot at times, but still safe!  No issues to report, with the exception of course of one stolen baseball cap in Mexico, which I am still not over.

^^Our journey so far through North and Central America^^

There is much fear mongering by the US which rolls over the pond to the UK, warning us not to visit these places.  I know that when you log onto some world news site, you are bound to see a news story about some kind of Mexican cartel war, or possibly a kind of political protest at a Guatemalan border, or maybe the BBC deciding what the most dangerous place outside of a war zone today.  Is it Honduras or El Salvador now?   It could even be some kind of natural disaster like the common deadly hurricanes that relentlessly battered Mexico’s west coast last year or even Volcan San Miguel in El Salvador blowing its unpredictable top.  These things are all true.  But…see above.  No problems.  The closest I have come to confrontation with anyone was a local ‘borracho’ in El Salvador who took a fancy to my Zippo lighter.  Apart from that, the majority of encounters with locals have been pleasant ones.  Always keen to help, and in the more rural parts of the less travelled areas we ventured in, mainly curious.  The only area that we faced anything other than friendly (but still, no worse that uninterested really) was Honduras, but they’ve got bigger problems to worry about than the gringo backpacker tourist trade.

Yes there ARE drug cartels in Mexico, but you would have to be extremely unlucky or a drug dealer to ever meet any of them and then have them want to kill you.  There are protests every week somewhere in Central America, but it’s got nothing to do with us and they are doing it for a good reason, mostly.  San Pedro Sula in Honduras is an extremely dangerous place as are the eastern barrios of San Salvador in El Salvador.  But you wouldn’t go walking through the middle of high rise housing estate in Hackney or a housing project in Baltimore in the middle of the night using your new iPad as a camera, so why do it here? (If you did of course, you deserve everything you get) The natural disasters…yeah, I’ve got no argument with that one.  If it happens while you’re there, you’re in trouble.  Same goes for wildlife.  Lots of nasty stuff over there.

My point is, if it happens, it happens. If you’re thinking about going to any of the places we have visited and are worried about the US state department/FCO’s warnings, then take my advice instead. Wing it!  That’s what we did and we had an amazing four months and came through it in one piece with incredible memories.  Something just as bad can happen to you at home, so you might as well be in the sun when it does right?

Anyway, roll on Ecuador and the rest of South America.

Thanks for reading!

Any questions about anywhere we have been, please feel free to email us.


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Crossing through the Golfo de Fonseca to Nicaragua, the gritty beauty of Leon and the tiresome gringo streets of Granada.

Be safe - Buckle up - A sticker on the front, probably from the days before it trundled along the coast of El Salvador

Be safe – Buckle up – A sticker on the front, probably from the days before it trundled along the coast of El Salvador

It’s time to leave the beach.  Not because we want to you understand, but because all good things must come to an end.  Also we have a boat booked to cross the Golfo de Fonseca into Nicaragua the next day with Ruta del Golfo (but it is cheaper to do it through Tortuga Verde in El Cuco if you get there, and probably a much better experience before!).  After some hard farewells, we take a bus back to La Libertad, then back into San Salvador where then get a #304 all the way to La Union.  The Journey takes 7 hours, not tough by any means, but it is sad to see the rest of El Salvador zip past us; through the sun kissed fields of the east along the Pan-American Highway.  Views at all times framed with fierce looking volcanoes, including the recently erupted and still smoking San Miguel.

Laters El Salvador!

“Business or pleasure sir?”  I am asked this by an undercover store detective (not very undercover with gun and radio) whilst I browse the selection of sun screen at a supermarket in the port town of La Union.  An ominous tone accompanies the irrelevant question asked by this plastic official whose sole purpose was, I assume, to try and intimidate me for no good reason.  He then follows us from a distance and inserts himself into a conversation Ollie and I are having about cheese and ham, whilst his uniformed collegue (also with gun) looms further up the aisle, partially hidden by a stack of Doritos.  Sums up the feeling of suspicion we encountered in this shady/sketchy port town.  We retreat to our ‘hotel’ (that we assume is usually charged by the hour, complete with wipe clean faux-leather mattress and foul smelling bathroom) where we drink our beers and eat cream cheese sandwiches in the driveway, whilst wishing the night away.  La Union does not have the charm of the rest of El Salvador, but we were determined not to let that be our last memory of this enchanting little country.

Want the pictures without the waffle? Click here

La Union Migration

Bright and early we find the migration office at the port attached to the police station (the local ‘bobby’ we asked didn’t know it existed by the way) where we met our man Mario, who got us stamped out of El Salvador and then led us to the ‘waters-edge’.  There was no water…the tide was out, but as we pondered the fate of our footwear, a huge man showed up pulling a cart and instructed us all to climb aboard so he could pull us through the sludge-filled water towards our boat.  My aversion to being carted around like a prince was put to one side as I realised that this was how this guy makes his living, so we obliged…weird!

Being carted to the lancha through the shallows - Odd

Being carted to the lancha through the shallows – Odd

The Golfo de Fonseca is a body of water that is partially claimed by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which has been responsible for many disagreements between these friendly neighbours in the past.  The gulf is dotted with a variety of volcanic islands, some larger than others, but all captivatingly beautiful.  One of the islands is rumoured to be where Sir Frances Drake buried some gold and another (I am told) has locals with blonde hair and blue eyes who are descendants of pirates who used to sail these waters. We zip through these waters for 2 hours and before we know it, we are wading through the shallows onto Nicaraguan soil.

First view of the Gulf de Fronseca

One of the Islands of the Gulf

It wasn't as calm as this the whole way

We get stamped into the country in a small dirty building just up from the shore and then we pile into the back of a Jeep bound for León along with  passengers from another boat who came via Tortuga Verde.  I mention this place again, in the hope that it comes up in a google search about Ruta del Golfo.  We paid $100 each for the same service that cost a total of $55 for other passengers who were offered our same transport ride at a cut down price.  We also didn’t get our stop on an island as we paid for!  Pissed off, does not begin to describe it!

The bumpy road takes us back into civilization and into León in around 2.5 hours where we find lodgings at the tranquil Colibri Hostal.   To our surprise we find Will, Sarah and Holly from the beach staying there as well, so we head out with some others to some live salsa and several mojitos in at the Via Via which is filled with locals and backpackers alike.

Leon es Culture

Another country, another colonial city.  León is a fully functioning colonial city; much Like Santa Ana in El Salvador, except this has a larger expat community and more appealing vibe in general.  A history of rebellion runs through Nicaragua so we dive straight into the city to see what we can learn about the Sandinista (FSLN) movement at the Heroes and Martyrs gallery.  A small room, partially used as a diabetes clinic, houses boards filled with pictures of rebels who lost their lives for León during the fighting, many of which have the stories of how they gave their lives.

Mural for the 4 students who lost their lives in 1959

Mural for the 4 students who lost their lives in 1959

Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs

Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs

We then move onto the Parque Central and the UNESCO site of ‘Real e Insigne Basilica’ Cathedral which is the largest in Central America.  Its enormous dirty white façade casts a shadow in which locals sit and chat next to a memorial for the heroes and martyrs.  After this we decided we needed more culture so headed to Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián.  The cool air con and peaceful setting was just a cheeky bonus and sweet relief from the oppressive heat of the city streets.  The collection ranged from modern installations, religious portraits, a couple of Picasso sketches and a huge collection of modern Latin American paintings.  A belly full of culture was all we had digested so we sought out a French bakery for some sustenance.

Whaaa

Real e Insigne Basilica Cathedral

Real e Insigne Basilica Cathedral

Locals seeking shade

Locals seeking shade

Something unusual on a lot of corners in Leon

Titled 'The Burden' - 10 points to anyone who can tell us who the two jokers are.  We all know whos getting a piggy back - Found in a little lace called 'casa de culture'

Titled ‘The Burden’ – 10 points to anyone who can tell us who the two jokers are. We all know whos getting a piggy back – Found in a little lace called ‘casa de culture’

]

Cheeky snap of some abstract art from Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Cheeky snap of some abstract art from Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Around the Catedral

Some people don’t get on with this city, but I, someone who dislikes cities in general, found it homely.  I enjoy the juxtaposition of modern day life working around crumbling old churches that peek out above the cobbled red-roofed colouful buildings.  The local ways of life do not seem to have altered too much too accommodate tourism.  It’s a bit grubby, a bit hectic, but it feels safe.  I like it there!

Mural on bb court

The next day, we head for the irritable little Volcano of Cerro Negro with the intention of chucking ourselves down it on speed on a piece of wood.  The volcano is the youngest in Central America, very active and is way overdue an eruption.    The sport of Volcano Boarding was invented by an Australian who tried to snowboard down it, but ended up melting his board. It is a dark, hot and steamy bastard.  A slow hike to the top took an hour when carrying large wooden boards and jumpsuits, but was relatively easy.  Going down takes about 45 seconds.  The record being 92kph, Ollie trounced us by getting 62 kph, with me falling behind at 53kph and Will with a gentleman’s 23kph.  I did fall off mine at the end and manage to fill my eyes with grit and smash my camera.  It hurt.  But only for a short while.  There were a few backpackers walking around town with very visible injuries that I assume are from activities on volcanoes.  An interesting day, topped off with our introduction to American Football and us losing $5 on the Superbowl.  Damn Seahawks!

Ollie sporting the latest in Volcano boarding gear

Ollie sporting the latest in Volcano boarding gear

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In case of eruption...erm, this way!

In case of eruption…erm, this way!

Some of the nearby volcanoes that line through the country visible from the top

Some of the nearby volcanoes that line through the country visible from the top

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For some perspective as to how steep that is, the little orange dot at the bottom is the truck

For some perspective as to how steep that is, the little orange dot at the bottom is the truck

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Will ready!

Will ready!

No pictures of our own as i smashed my camera.  This one if from the bigfoot guide.  Borrowed from the FB page.  Nice shot though!

No pictures of our own as I smashed my camera. This one if from the bigfoot guide from that day. Borrowed from the FB page. Nice shot though!

It was time to make a move to Granada and see what all the fuss was about!  We were aware that it is the main tourism hub for Nicaragua, and being the oldest colonial city in the Americas dating back to 1524, would offer much in the way of architecture.   Two buses, changing at Managua, took us into the market area around the main Parque Central on a blazing hot afternoon.

Horse drawn carts of Granada

Horse drawn carts of Granada

My personal opinion on Granada is that I don’t like it.  I just don’t, sorry.  It is indeed one of the more picturesque colonial cities.  Its buildings are magnificently restored around the Parque Central, leading to Calle la Calzada (gringo street), with its endless supply of expensive (for gypsies like us) restaurants leading past the TWO Irish bars down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  Milling around are hundreds of tourists, all snapping away at the fronts of the handsomely restored expensive restaurants and privately owned holiday homes.  It is just not my thing.  It’s pretty yes, but it’s too busy and too plastic.  Take it for what it is and you will enjoy it.  Come expecting a snap of rustic colonial charm, you won’t find much.  The local market two blocks from the square was a swift remedy for the hordes of tourists swarming through the main square.  But, like I have said, it was pretty, so here are some pretty pictures of it.

Beutifully restored colonial stuff everywhere

Beutifully restored colonial stuff everywhere

A goat, a bike, and a Canadian

A goat, a bike, and a Canadian

Further down Gringo street

Rubén Darío - And some other moody peops

Rubén Darío – And some other moody peops

Cordoba - The citys founder and the currencys namesake

Cordoba – The citys founder and the currencys namesake

Granada street

Granada street

Ok, it is actually quite nice

Ok, it is actually quite nice

Ron delivery

Ron delivery

For all its faults, we met some great people there and had a couple of nice meals (yes we went to the Irish bars, you can’t really avoid it, but I did have fish and chips!).   One of the days we spent at Lake Apoyo which is a pretty crater lake near to the city, but again, this is set up for tourism where we found ourselves shuttled to a lake side hostel, and then shuttled back.  Pretty scenery, but not much wiggle room to explore in the time given.

Lake Apoyo- Sorry about the nipple shot

Lake Apoyo- Sorry about the nipple shot

Feeling the need to escape, we decided to head over Lake Nicaragua to the shores of Isla de Ometepe in search of a quiet spot.

Thanks for reading if you have managed to wade through it!  If you ant the full photo gallery, click here