2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Glorious, Gorgeous Granada…Nicaragua

The Spanish must have either been homesick or utterly lacking in imagination when they started naming towns in their newly conquered territories in the Americas. As someone who has spent a bit of time in Spain there have been a number of familiar names on our trip through Latin America. Perhaps it was just the colonising mindset, after all there is a Manchester, Vermont and a Birmingham, Alabama.

Sorry about that Alabama.

Granada is one of the most cultured and beautiful cities in Spain, home to the world-renowned Alhambra. Its history stretches back to the eighth century BC and it was a centre of Islamic learning and grandeur under its Moorish rulers, before becoming a major prize of the Reconquista as the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand III and Isabel I overthrew centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsular. Its architecture and legacy are world famous.

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Nicaragua

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Lago Nicaragua in the background, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Granada has a lot to live up to. Founded in 1524, it may not be world-renowned and it may only offer a fraction of the architecture, but, perched on the edge of Lago Nicaragua and with a wealth of colonial buildings, shady people-friendly plazas and a couple of beautiful churches, it is a fabulously relaxed town to spend time wandering the streets and stepping into some of its excellent restaurants and bars.

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua, grew rich on trade that went via Lago Nicaragua, down the Rio San Juan and out to the North Atlantic via the Caribbean Sea. The route from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Rio San Juan once made Nicaragua rich, and was proposed as an earlier alternative to the Panama Canal. Even today it is still talked of as a possibility, however unlikely that seems.

So rich did this trade make Granada that, even though it was a long way from the Caribbean coast, it attracted the attentions of pirates. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary attacks came 1665 when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan navigated the Rio San Juan with canoes and paddled across Lago Nicaragua to sack the city. A hugely dangerous and technically difficult feat that made Morgan famous.

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

The one thing the two cities of Granada share it is that they drip with a sultry, energy-sapping heat. My advice is, get out early, swing in a hammock through the heat of the day (or pay for air conditioning) and hit the streets late afternoon as the sun starts to sink over the horizon and partake of some of Nicaragua’s best people watching while walking the city streets.

There are two Granadas in more than one way. While the colonial centre of this city is as pleasant a place to spend a few days strolling as any I’ve been to in the Americas; the other Granada of tin-roofed shacks and grinding poverty is only a few blocks away. You frequently see carts with skinny horses pulling people and goods around the city. It is a real contrast to the wealth of the colonial centre and especially to the countries to the south of Nicaragua.

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

We stayed in a hotel (Hotel Casa Barcelona) outside of the centre a few blocks from the mercardo municipal. Its a lovely hotel that is set up to help single mothers – of which there are plenty in Nicaragua – and is located in a much more typical barrio. There might not be any lovely colonial architecture here, and people may be poor, but it is a friendly neighbourhood that allows you to get a glimpse of how the vast majority of Nicaraguans live.

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

As with much of Central America, Granada has attracted a large number of Europeans and North Americans to either retire or start businesses. A complaint we heard a number of times was that gringos were buying up all the best properties and Nicaraguans were being priced out of the city centre, which was starting to lose its traditions and spirit.

While true, many gringo owned businesses have a social mission as well, which is just as well since there is a huge need for investment in basic health, education and social services which the government is struggling to provide. Still, it is good to try to spread the dollars around so that some make their way directly to Nicaraguan businesses.

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada