Juigalpa and the museum of the bizarre

We awoke late in Juigalpa and started the day slowly, still exhausted from a long day of travel. After a breakfast of beans and rice with salty cheese, eggs and picante sauce (the same breakfast we’d had every day in Nicaragua), we decided to venture out into the city and see if it was more inviting than the previous evening. We needed to arrange our onward travel to San Carlos, gateway to the magical Rio San Juan, but first a walk around town.

Juigalpa is a prosperous agricultural centre, famous in Nicaragua for cattle ranching and cowboys. While you still see people wearing stetsons, the horse seems to be giving way to large 4×4 Toyotas – in fact I saw more cars in Juigalpa than anywhere else in Nicaragua. The central plaza was abuzz with activity – street stalls selling clothes, shoes and food, school children by the dozen and people passing the time-of-day.

Main Plaza, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Main Plaza, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Juigalpa lays claim to an odd looking cathedral, which feels like it is part barn and part 1970s architectural experiment, and to a locally famous statue of a shoe shine boy in homage to all those who do physical labour.

Shoe shine statue, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Shoe shine statue, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

One thing is certain, Juigalpa doesn’t see many gringoes. Our guidebook claimed this makes it ‘authentic’, whatever that means; in reality this translates as people staring at you as you walk down the street as if you had two heads. Not that people are unfriendly, just that you feel like you might be part of a freak show without knowing it.

Talking of two heads and freak shows, the one thing to do in Juigalpa is visit the museum. Our guidebook stated that it had an important collection of pre-Columbian petroglyphs and stelae. It has a great collection of pre-Columbian petroglyphs and stelae but, unbelievably, what the guidebook failed to mention was that it also contains some of the most bizarre genetic specimens I have ever seen – and I’ve been to Gunter Von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition.

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

There are two headed cows, cows with six legs, a cow with one eye in the centre of its head (this is cattle country) and a mutated human fetus. Nestling amongst all this weirdness is the rest of the collection, which includes rusting typewriters, clocks, cash registers, paintings of the locally famous and a wide selection of pre-Hispanic stone tools.

Look away now if you are squeamish…

Two-headed cow, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Two-headed cow, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Six-legged cow, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Six-legged cow, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Two-headed cow, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Two-headed cow, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Typewriters, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Typewriters, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Cash register and clock, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Cash register and clock, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

It is the strangest museum I’ve ever visited, and possibly the strangest museum on planet earth. That said, it really does have an excellent selection of pre-Columbian petroglyphs and stelae, although whether that makes Juigalpa worth a special visit is debatable.

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Pre-Hispanic sculpture, Juigalpa Museum, Nicaragua

Two boats, a plane, a stopping bus and a share taxi…from the coast to cowboy country

Reluctantly leaving the delights of Little Corn Island behind, we dragged ourselves out of bed to watch one more Caribbean sunrise, packed our bags and headed to the dock to catch the 6.30am panga to Big Corn Island.

Sunrise on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Sunrise on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

In a land where travel information is unreliable, we’d heard there was a ferry leaving Big Corn that evening for El Rama, a small river port 50km inland at the end of the Rio Escondido. There we’d be able to connect with a bus for our ultimate destination, Juigalpa – home of the Nicaraguan cowboy. El Rama wasn’t a place we wanted to spend more time than necessary, but a necessary destination for the rest of our travels.

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

The port area of Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

The port area of Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

There wasn’t a ferry, but a cargo boat was leaving Big Corn for the mainland. It was scheduled to set sail at 9pm (read anytime between 9pm and 3am) and would take twelve hours to reach El Rama. Unfortunately, we were reliably informed, it didn’t have any cabins. It did have some plastic chairs on deck, but the prospect of twelve hours riding Caribbean waves while trying to sleep on a plastic chair was too much to contemplate.

We jumped in a cab taking two other tourists to the airport to see if it was possible to fly to Bluefields, and get an onward panga to El Rama from there. We were lucky. The morning flight to Managua was stopping in Bluefields to pick up more people and there were empty seats on the Big Corn to Bluefields leg. We checked our bags and with minutes to spare headed to the departure gate.

The airport at Bluefields, Nicaragua

The airport at Bluefields, Nicaragua

So far so lucky. We arrived for the fourth time at Bluefields dock and found the panga service to El Rama at the end of a dirty passageway between people’s houses, a butchers shop and an open sewer. We’d just missed the boat by a few minutes – well it was still in the dock, but it already had twenty people in it. No room for a couple of gringos with luggage, we’d have to wait until there were enough people to fill another boat.

Two and a half hours later we were eighteen people and our boat was ready to depart, although not before the Nicaraguan army had body searched all the passengers and a sniffer dog had given our belongings the once-over. We got into the crowded boat and, thanks to being unceremoniously barged to the back of the queue, had to sit with our backs to the direction we were travelling.

The dock at Bluefields, Nicaragua

The dock at Bluefields, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

It was a fabulous two hour trip up the Rio Escondido. This is a poor region, many people live little more than a subsistence existence. As you motor up the river, heavy vegetation occasionally gives way to reveal simple wooden shacks without electricity or running water, miles from any services. Wooden canoes are a major form of transport. Closer to El Rama there were vast areas of forest cleared for the cultivation of cows, and some fairly large houses on these fincas.

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragu

El Rama wasn’t much to look at, just a few dirty streets leading from the port to the market area from where the buses to Juigalpa departed. Luckily, we’d arrived just in time to catch the ‘local service’ which would speed us along the 180km to Juigalpa. Four hours later we were still crawling towards Juigalpa, stopping so regularly to either pick up or drop off people that I began to wonder if we’d ever get there.

The sun set and, finally, fourteen hours after leaving Little Corn Island the bus dropped us and our baggage at an intersection on the main road.

Disoriented, hot and tired, we flagged down a share taxi and headed up a steep hill to Juigalpa’s main plaza. We arrived in a seriously subdued town. We’d forgotten that it was Sunday, pretty much everything in Juigalpa was closed and the streets deserted. No one seemed particularly keen to see us, even the receptionist at the hotel where we were the only guests. The only open restaurant in town greeted us with suppressed hostility.

Mural in Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Mural in Juigalpa, Nicaragua

We paid over-the-odds for ordinary food and terrible service. Figuring we’d probably seen all there was to see that evening and, deciding the town might feel a bit more inviting in the morning, went back to our unwelcoming hotel and got an early night…bringing to an end a very long day of travel, Nicaraguan style.