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

Barack Obama owes me breakfast…from Nicaragua to Panama

OK, so the President of the United States isn’t entirely responsible for my missing breakfast, but if he hadn’t been arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, for meetings with Central American leaders I would almost certainly have been able to take advantage of the breakfast included in the price of my room…it would have looked something like this, but this is for illustrative purposes only since I didn’t actually get to eat it.

Typical Nicaraguan Breakfast

Typical Costa Rican Breakfast

After spending so much time in Nicaragua without internet access we didn’t know President Obama was visiting Costa Rica the same day we’d be arriving. This is the sort of thing that happens when you’re travelling. It could have been worse, we met someone on our bus to Panama who’d had his flight cancelled so Air Force One could land…makes missing breakfast seem small fry.

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

As it was, the entire centre of San Jose was to be placed in virtual lockdown from 6am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon. Getting to the bus station in time for the 7.30am bus to David in Panama would require leaving the hotel no later than 5.30am. Breakfast started at 6am, lockdown-time.

I didn’t really mind about the missed breakfast, but losing an extra hour of sleep following a long day of travel the previous day was pretty galling. We’d arrived in San Jose at 9pm after setting off in a boat down the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua at 9.30am. After a delay of three hours in the transport hub of San Carlos, we got another boat to the Costa Rica border at Los Chiles.

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Immigration formalities complete we had to walk 2km to the bus station in Los Chiles. Why, oh why, couldn’t the bus station be near the port? Failing that, surely some enterprising taxi driver might consider it worth his or her time to hang around the port when a boat from Nicaragua arrives? Apparently not. So in the baking sun we walked.

Dripping with sweat, we made it just in time to catch the last bus to San Jose. Its not far from anywhere to anywhere else in Costa Rica, but buses pick people up along the road and drop people off outside their front door, making Costa Rican buses one of the least efficient forms of transport on the planet. It took five and a half hours of squashed bus travel before we reached San Jose.

It wasn’t all bad. As we crawled up the zig-zag road through the mountains we witnessed a truly stunning sunset over the ocean to the west. Although this was ruined by a passenger two rows in front being violently sick over himself. Actually, it was pretty bad.

After only a few hours sleep we got cab at 5.30am to the bus station in San Jose, narrowly missing the city centre lockdown. We got our tickets and prepared to wait an hour and a half for the bus to leave. It would be a nine hour journey if everything went well at the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, and after the previous day’s travel we weren’t looking forward to another long bus journey.

Costa Rican bus

Costa Rican bus

In the end everything was fine, although the border crossing at Paso Canoas between Costa Rica and Panama was one of the most chaotic I’ve ever come across. We arrived in David, Panama in the late afternoon, tired but relieved that we’d managed to cross from Nicaragua to Costa Rica to Panama in a day and a half using only two boats, two buses and three taxis.

We’d decided we wanted to see a bit more of Panama before we headed back to Colombia and then to Bolivia via Peru, so skipped through Costa Rica as quickly as possible. Next up, Boquete, Panama…

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, where death by frog is a possibility

The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is home to large number of impressive animals – monkeys, tapirs, jaguars and panthers to mention but a few – but perhaps the most dangerous is small, damp and has a red body with blue legs. The Poison Dart Frog doesn’t look like much, most of them are little bigger than the tip of my index finger, but it is a renowned killer.

In the hands of an experienced indigenous hunter, the toxic secretions of the poison dart frog in combination with a blow dart is deadly – either for hunting game or combat between warring tribes. There are two fairly common types of poison dart frog in the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, the red and blue version and the slightly harder to find green and black-spotted version.

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is an extraordinary place. A vast and pristine tropical rainforest, it runs for over 100km along the banks of the Rio San Juan and goes a similar distance inland. The majority of the reserva is off limits to anyone who isn’t a scientific researcher, but along the fringe of the river sections of the forest have been opened to eco-tourism, so now we can all get a glimpse of the flora and fauna that inhabit the forest.

If there is a small upside to the terrible war civil war that raged in Nicaragua for a decade or more, it is that this huge tropical rainforest was cut off and left largely untouched by human development.

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We hired a local guide in El Castillo and early one morning set off in a motorised canoe down the Rio San Juan, spotting large numbers of river birds, and smaller numbers of turtles, green basilisks and alligators along the way. The entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is only 30 minutes away from El Castillo and almost from the moment you get off the boat you can hear Howler Monkeys high in the trees.

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Turtles, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Turtles, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Alligator, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Alligator, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

After a quick orientation session with the park guards – during which I almost walked into the web of a poisonous Golden Orb Spider – we were off down a forest trail for three hours of animal tracking and plant spotting. The interior of a tropical rain forest is a hot and silent place. Very little wind reaches the interior and there doesn’t seem to be any oxygen in there either.

Entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Golden Orb Spider, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Golden Orb Spider, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Hot, sweaty and breathless we made our way deeper into the forest spotting birds and listening to the occasional Howler Monkey making its point to its fellow monkeys. Our guide showed us medicinal plants and explained the way of life of the indigenous peoples who still inhabit the forest. At one point we chewed a small twig which instantly numbed our tongues – a natural anesthetic used by the forest tribes.

We were fortunate, not only did we find Poison Dart Frogs, we spotted Spider Monkeys with their young.

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We also had a rare but exciting sighting of a Collared Peccary. As we approached the end of our trek our guide suddenly stopped and told us to stay still and quiet. Moments later we heard something coming through the undergrowth. Suddenly three Collared Peccaries, one only a few feet away from us, emerged out of the undergrowth. They then spotted us and charged across the trail in front of and behind us and disappeared into the forest again.

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We finished the trip with a swim in a small and cold river that is a tributary of the Rio San Juan. The fact that the water is cold is important – alligators don’t like the cold so its safe to swim. At least thats what we were told. After the heat of the forest it was wonderful to cool off in the river, and as we floated there a troupe of Spider Monkeys made an appearance in the trees above us.

Swimming river, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Swimming river, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

It is a memory I’ll treasure. Swimming in a river in the middle of a tropical rain forest while Spider Monkeys ran through the trees above us…it really doesn’t get  better than that, and it was the perfect end to our stay in wonderful Nicaragua. As we motored back towards the Rio San Juan we could still hear Howler Monkeys, but we didn’t see a single one.

Sleepy El Castillo, centre of an eighteenth century global conflict

Its difficult to imagine as you stroll down the ‘main street’ of El Castillo, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century this village was at the centre of a global conflict between competing European nations that saw bloody battles between English fleets and Spanish defenders. The reason for those conflicts was a fortress built by the Spanish to prevent pirates from sailing up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to attack the fabulously wealthy city of Granada.

Granada was sacked and looted three times by pirates between 1655 and 1670, including famously by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. In response, the Spanish built a fort on a bend in the Rio San Juan between two sets of rapids that slowed ships down and allowed the fort to train its cannons on them.

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The site is spectacular. From the battlements you can see for miles down the river and over the top of the vast tropical rain forest that surrounds it. It is hard to take in what it must have been like to be a Spanish soldier posted to this remote site in the forest, surrounded by hostile indigenous tribes and subject to malaria and other tropical diseases.

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

Today it still feels remote – to reach the village involves a one and a half hour boat ride from San Carlos at the entrance to Lago Nicaragua where the river begins – but the effort to get there is well worth it. El Castillo is a sleepy place where you can relax for a few days between trips to surrounding natural wonders, including the extraordinary Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, a vast and pristine tropical rain forest.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of El Castillo was in 1762 when Rafaela Herrera, the teenage daughter of the dead fort commander, rallied the troops and defeated an English fleet headed for Granada. Although El Castillo’s true moment in the sun was during the California Gold Rush from 1848-55 when it was an important staging point for prospectors trying to reach San Francisco.

This was pre-Panama Canal and a decade before the US transcontinental railway, making it the quickest way to get from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Ironic then that the Nicaraguan government is conspiring with Chinese investors to build another transcontinental canal to rival the one in Panama. One possible route will be the Rio San Juan, something guaranteed to destroy both the natural environment of this region and the main reason for tourists to come here.

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

We spent a few days here absorbing river life and watching the world go by in small boats. El Castillo is another place where geography and history have conspired to keep it free of motor vehicles, so the world goes by much more quietly. The region is famous for giant river shrimp, much to our disappointment this wasn’t the season for shrimp – seriously, this is the sort of information a guidebook should give you!

The village is very welcoming and is starting to build a solid tourist infrastructure. Things will change in the next few years, but currently it feels like you have fallen off the tourist trail. People in the village genuinely want to encourage tourism, a guide we hired to take us to the forest put it very simply: before tourism many people in the village worked illegally (and cheaply) picking fruit in Costa Rica. Tourism, he implied, had restored a sense of pride in El Castillo.

Death and glory: the beautiful, brutal history of the Rio San Juan

Hands up anyone who has ever heard of the Rio San Juan? Me either, but it is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in Nicaragua and it boasts a history second to none.

Since the Aztecs first used the Rio San Juan in the 1200s to link their trade routes from east to west, the river has been a vital artery between the Pacific and the Caribbean. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was at the centre of a global battle between European nations vying for the treasures of the new world.

Throughout those centuries the river became the stuff of legend, incorporating Inca gold shipped to Spain by Conquistadors; pirates sneaking up the river to attack the fabulously wealthy Spanish colonial city of Granada; a teenage girl defending the fort at El Castillo against a flotilla of English ships; and the English navy, led by Horatio Nelson, attacking Spanish forts along the river before being driven back as his men died wholesale from malaria and dysentery.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

In the nineteenth century the river was a global super-highway shuttling prospectors to the California Gold Rush (1848-55), making shipping magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt a very wealthy man. More than 150,000 people travelled up the Rio San Juan en route to San Francisco and the river was the scene of frenzied activity. At the rapids by the village of El Castillo a railway was constructed to help transfer passengers from one boat to another.

From the earliest days of the discovery of Nicaragua in 1502, the strategic and commercial importance of a waterway linking the Pacific and the Atlantic was understood. The Rio San Juan flows out of Lago Nicaragua, which is only a short distance from the Pacific ocean and could have been linked by a canal. Towards the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries this almost became a reality but Panama got there first.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The dramas played out along this river are virtually unknown today, even though it continues to be a source of tension and occasional conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The river is entirely Nicaraguan, but just south of El Castillo it forms the border between the two countries and there is an ongoing dispute between them as to the right to use the river.

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

If there is a more historic and dramatic river in the Americas than Rio San Juan I don’t know where it is, yet the river is so much more than its history. It flows through a beautiful and timeless area of Nicaragua and links small, isolated but welcoming communities that are just now opening their doors to tourism. It is a truly wonderful region to visit.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

As you travel down the river there is a stark contrast between the Nicaraguan side and the Costa Rican side. Along the Nicaraguan side lies a vast and pristine rain forest, the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, that is home to an extraordinary catalogue of flora and fauna. The Costa Rican side is virtually deforested. In other words, a country known for its ecological policies has allowed a tropical rain forest to be destroyed. Luckily it can still be seen and visited on the Nicaraguan side.

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.

Little Corn Island, another Nicaraguan paradise in the Caribbean

After our time in Pearl Lagoon and on the Pearl Keys, its seemed unlikely that Nicaragua’s much-heralded Corn Islands would live up to their billing as some of the Caribbean’s finest islands only recently on the international travel map. We skipped the more developed Big Corn Island and headed straight to Little Corn Island, where I discovered just how wrong I was.

Little Corn Island demands superlatives. It’s beautiful, the ocean is all sparkling blues and turquoises, the seafood and rum are delicious and, perhaps best of all, there isn’t a single motor vehicle on the island. The only wheeled transport is by wheelbarrow or handcart.

The port of El Bluff en route to the Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The port of El Bluff en route to the Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island from the ocean, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island from the ocean, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Pangas on Big Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Pangas on Big Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

You can walk all around Little Corn on dirt tracks that criss-cross the forested interior en route to the ocean and not hear a sound other than birds, the wind and the waves. Its a rare experience these days to be unable to hear the ‘world’, and it creates a seductive tranquility. We stayed in a wooden cabana with refreshing sea breezes, a few steps from the warm waters of the Caribbean – from the veranda we watched sunrises to end all sunrises.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The island fun starts with the transport options to get there. You can fly directly to Big Corn Island, but we decided that taking one of the slow boats that make the five or six hour trip from Bluefields a couple of times a week would be more interesting. Once you arrive on Big Corn a panga, a small motorboat, will speed and jolt you across the 30km that separates Big Corn from Little Corn.

The panga we took normally holds twenty six; our panga was crammed to sinking-point with forty one passengers, nine of whom were standing. Regardless, our boat went at top speed across the water, crashing into fairly sizeable waves. While I was concentrating on trying to keep my spine intact, I didn’t notice the back half of the boat getting soaking wet. When we finally reached Little Corn a dozen people looked half drowned.

Welcome to the Caribbean…luckily, we arrived on Little Corn just in time to watch the sun set over the Caribbean.

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

70km from the mainland, the Corn Islands’ history reflects the history of this whole coast. The population are predominately English-Creole speakers of Afro-Caribbean descent, originally brought as slaves to grow corn (in Spanish the islands are called the Islas del Maiz). Despite early Spanish interest (Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1502), British pirates frequented these waters and made the islands their base. They became a British protectorate until 1894.

The culture of the islands reflects this history but, thanks to the current boom in tourism, this unique culture has changed in recent years with an influx of Spanish speakers from the mainland.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island is a small piece of paradise. Fresh seafood abounds, coconuts and pineapples grow and there is a natural aquifer providing fresh water – something seafarers from 1502 onwards appreciated. Tourism is putting pressure on fresh water resources, and Little Corn’s future may depend upon the island’s population being able to balance the needs of the environment against the need to develop the economy.

Many of the inhabitants of Little Corn are poor and live in small wooden houses or tin shacks. Take a walk in the right direction, away from the beaches and restaurants, and you can see the challenges facing many people and how tourism could easily become a divisive business if people don’t see any benefit from the predicable flood of tourists to the island in the next few years.

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

For the time being though, and hopefully for a long time to come, Little Corn Island is a wonderful place to spend a few days living out the Caribbean fantasy.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Paradise found (again), Nicaragua’s spectacular Pearl Keys

The Pearl Keys are sublime, like being in a dream: perfect crescents of white sand, backed by swaying palms and coconut trees, hammocks slung between them; warm turquoise waters to snorkel and swim in while your boat driver cooks up the traditional seafood stew of Rondon on the beach for lunch. Thankfully, this is no dream this is the perfect Pearl Keys, an hour by boat from Pearl Lagoon off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

As we motored through the calm waters of Pearl Lagoon towards the open waters of the Caribbean the weather looked like it might spoil our Caribbean fantasy. Large rain clouds gathered in the distance and at one point we got soaking wet as we passed through a torrential downpour in the middle of the ocean. Thankfully, on the other side the sun was shining bright and clear and we spotted the Pearl Keys dotted in the ocean.

We were lucky enough to see turtles swimming past our boat as we made our way east. This area is critically important as both a nesting site for several types of turtle, including a couple of highly endangered species, and as a prime feeding ground for them as well.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Passing a couple of the larger Keys we were headed to Crawl Key, so absolutely perfect with its crescent beach and turquoise waters that it beggars belief. So few tourists make it to this part of Nicaragua that we had Crawl Key to ourselves – just us and our boat’s captain, a lobster fisherman during the season and a tour guide in the off season. Called Dane, he was also an excellent cook and knew everything there was to know about the Pearl Keys and this region.

There’s a reef off one end of Crawl Key, which has been badly damaged by rising sea levels and increased destruction from stormy weather. It still retains patches of living coral and its possible to snorkel out and spot quite a lot of fish, anemones and starfish, but it does leave you wondering what the reef might have looked like before the destruction.

Palm tree shadow, Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Palm tree shadow, Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Other than snorkelling and swimming, Crawl Key offers little but swinging in the hammock while waiting for the Rondon to be cooked. Part stew, part soup, Rondon, or Rundown as it is sometimes known, is a speciality of the region. Slow cooked fish, prawns, crab and (in season) lobster, mixed with vegetables and steamed with coconut milk. Its absolutely delicious, especially eaten overlooking the magical turquoise waters of the Pearl Keys.

Like several of the Pearl Keys, Crawl Key has been bought under circumstances locals claim as suspicious by a wealthy American, who has started construction of a monstrously ugly house overlooking a beach that was an important Hawksbill Turtle nesting site. Community pressure seems to have ended the construction and the house is slowly decaying hidden from sight by the towering palm trees.

At least the owner allows people to spend time on the island, two others owned by British people are completely out-of-bounds.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

The indigenous Miskitos communities of this region are trying to wrest control of the Pearl Keys back for use by the community, but it may be some time before they are successful. Until then some of the most spectacular islands in the Caribbean will be off limits to both them and any travellers who make it this far.

Sunset returning from the Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Sunset returning from the Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

The seductive charms of Pearl Lagoon

Pearl Lagoon, or Languna de Perlas in Spanish, is just about as authentic, non-touristy and undeveloped Caribbean as it is possible to get without dropping off the map altogether. Time seems to slow to a standstill, the delicious seafood is cheap and plentiful and the rum flows freely. Within a matter of hours we’d fallen under its spell and instead of the two days we’d planned for, finally dragged ourselves away six days later and only then reluctantly.

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Fishing with a hand net, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Fishing with a hand net, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

A small, traditional Creole and Miskito fishing community on the edge of a large and tranquil lagoon on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, Pearl Lagoon is just waking up to the possibility of tourism. While the spectacular Pearl Keys are reasonably well known (although difficult and expensive to get to), community tourism to Miskito and Garifuna villages around the lagoon is definitely about to make its mark. Visit now, because things will have changed in a few years.

This part of Nicaragua is chronically underdeveloped. There is little infrastructure – regular water shortages and power cuts, no paved roads – but its friendly, easy-going people and its beauty have a seductive charm that captured our hearts. Plus, no roads means you get to spend a lot of time in boats zipping from one place to another.

Reggae music is the norm here, and you can almost forget that you’re technically in a Spanish-speaking country – Creole and English predominate.

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

This region was controlled for decades by an alliance of the British Government and the indigenous Miskito people, who were the regional superpower before Europeans arrived. This alliance effectively kept the Spanish out of the whole region, which, with the importation of Afro-Caribbean slaves and Jamaican migrants, developed an entirely different Creole-Miskito culture to ‘Spanish’ Nicaragua.

The area is also home to a sizeable Garifuna community. The Garifuna can be found all along the Caribbean coast, from Belize to Costa Rica, and were either escaped slaves who rebelled, freed themselves and established free communities on the coast; or, as some anthropologists believe, made their way independently from Africa two centuries before the slavers.

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Moravian Church, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Moravian Church, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The British ceded the region to Nicaragua when it gained independence from Spain in 1821, but Nicaraguan control was non-existent until they took it by military force in 1894. The region overwhelming opposed the Sandinistas, and with US support launched an armed uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Which explains the government’s lack of investment in the region.

The lack of government interest in the ‘English’ part of Nicaragua has, in part, been filled by Colombian drug runners. Once-upon-a-time it was rum runners, times change but things stay the same. Drug boats bound for the United States frequently take refuge in the islands off the coast in bad weather or when being chased by law enforcement. To maintain local support they have invested more money in the region’s infrastructure than the government.

This includes a ‘donation’ of the region’s only high-speed internet cafe on Pearl Lagoon’s main street. Sadly, you still need electricity to have the internet and when we were there the electricity barely functioned. Still, you’re unlikely to win a ‘war on drugs’ when the drug runners are more philanthropic than the government.

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Let me just say it once more, “We loved Pearl Lagoon.” If you go there, try to stay in one of the stilted cabanas at the Queen Lobster restaurant. Owned by a young local woman and her Spanish husband, this is one of the friendliest and most pleasant places to stay imaginable. Plus, the restaurant serves some of the best seafood in town – although for the very best food try Warner’s Place a block or so behind the Moravian Church. Delicious.

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The owners of the Queen Lobster will also arrange trips to other parts of the area, including to the fabulous Pearl Keys. We went only for a day trip, but wished we’d spent the extra cash to stay overnight on one of the keys. Next time.

In the meantime, if you go to Pearl Lagoon for no other reason, go for the sunsets…

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua