Here’s a little travelogue from a recent and all too brief exploration of Nicaragua’s Cosiguina Peninsula that I was fortunate to be able to make back in February of this year. This far northwestern part of the country has always drawn my geographical attention and curiosity, including the Gulf of Fonseca and its islands, estuaries and coastline. At first glance it seems that this natural inlet and shelter from the powerful currents and waves of the immense Pacific Ocean is the perfect site where a large harbor-city should’ve developed; perhaps another Havana, Tampa, or Cartagena. But coastal geography alone isn’t always the determining factor. Historically I guess no great city was founded along the central Pacific coastline of Central America simply because there wasn’t enough money involved, the economic benefits weren’t there. Practically from the outset of La Conquista, most galleons sailing the Pacific-Atlantic trade routes were already using established ports of call, mainly Panama City and Colon in the steamy south, and Acapulco and Vera Cruz on either side of the Aztecan heartland to the north. The big events of that early first-contact era and later centuries, as well as recent periods, including the Sandinista Revolution and Contra War of the 1980’s, mostly bypassed this area; much as West Virginia in the USA or Salta in Argentina were just too far off the beaten track. Hence today you won’t find any time-share condos, “Sandals” resorts, wealthy gated subdivisions, beachfront hotels, cruise ships anchored a few hundred yards offshore, nor have the sunny, early morning calm be disrupted by the sound of speedboats and other recreational boaters. This is Nica-land preserved in splendid, rural isolation… at least for now. Gracias a Dios.Three countries in one image. Wild stretch of Nicaragua’s Pacific coastline known as “Los Farrallones”, looking north towards the Gulf of Fonseca. The mountains in middle background are in EL Salvador, the lone volcano slightly to the right is in Honduras. It was somewhere along the top of these cliffs that my guide, Tio Ines, spotted a lone mountain lion on the prowl (zoom in for photoshop cat I added to give you an idea of what he saw). Aerial overview of Cosiguina Peninsula and the Gulf of Fonseca
Despite the long history of cutting down forest for agriculture, lumber, and fuel, enormous trees are still to be found along roadsides, in villages and in haciendas as shown here. In the background is the dirt road to Potosi.
Outstanding young man, and a responsible and safe driver, Carlos Jose Berrios from Chinandega, poses with his trusted Suzuki. If you value punctuality and honesty, and dont mind riding on the back of a motorcycle (its the only way to travel, especially under a blazing sun!), then Carlos is the man to call. He’s on Facebook, or just ask for him at the front desk of Hotel Los Balcones, a very pleasant, clean and comfortable business-oriented hotel in downtown.
Patio area inside Hotel Los Balcones with spiral stairs leading to the rooftop,a fine place to smoke a cigar at sunset (sorry, no pics from the roof, I was too lazy to go back to my room to fetch my camera). Front desk staff is well-trained, professional and attentive to their guests. Special mention for Ruth Benavides, she put me in touch with Carlos, helped me out with my travel plans, and was a delight to speak with. Like so many places I’ve visited in Nicaragua, its humbling to get such courteous and special treatment at such a modest price.
Old rancho near El Congo owned by a wealthy local family generally not liked by many locals for their oligarchical history of paying their workers diddlysquat while enjoying a gilded lifestyle to this day. I didn’t get their side of the story but that’s the word on the street. In Nicaragua the history of land barons and their greed is all too familiar wherever you go.
Nicaragua is also cowboy country. Burned up grazing pastures and dry creek bed near Mechapa. Hopefully I can return during the rainy season (May-November) to see this area in all its green splendor for the first time. Locals say November-December is the best time to visit, everything is lush by then as the rains cease and clear skies return. “How green was my Valley that day, too, green and bright in the sun”. Ah yes, as long as Chaac is merciful. But when he’s angry and the skies darken, be wary. In October 2014 Chinandega suffered terribly in some of the worst flooding of the past 100 years.
In the pale afternoon the clouds go by
Aimlessly roving in the quiet sky.
His head between his hands, the dreamer weaves
His dream of clouds and Autumn-colored leaves.
Ah, his intimate sorrow, his long sighs,
And the glad radiance that has dimmed his eyes!
My tireless and earth-wise guide, Tio Ines, President of Trigolfo Cosiguina Tours, who escorted me to the summit of Cosiguina Volcano. His strength and stamina are amazing, my legs are still trembling from our hike but he takes travelers to the summit 3 or 4 times a week, sometimes making the arduous 8 mile hike twice in the same day. To contact him just get to the small village of Potosi and ask for him. If he’s not available, fear not, all of the guides under his leadership are well-trained, honest, and the best companions any stranger to the peninsula can possibly have. If you insist on reaching them ahead of time you can try emailing Martin Vallecillos, firstname.lastname@example.org, he’s one of the younger guides, very knowledgeable and bi-lingual(he studied in the U.S.).
Alli’ esta’ Martin! I found this youtube clip of Martin and Tio Ines after I got back home, great to see old companeros again. I actually met Martin first, he gave me a ride as I was waiting for the afternoon bus to Potosi at the highway entrance to Reserva Hato Nuevo. Yea I know, shouldn’t take rides from strangers,but I did so because Martin was so professional in introducing himself and kindly offering me a ride. Still not recommending my decision to everyone but if the reader ever travels down there you’ll quickly find that there is an atmosphere in Nicaragua unlike any other country in Central America. It’s generally pretty safe, especially in rural areas. Yes there is crime but traveling back roads in Nicaragua reminds me in a way of what life used to be like in rural America, or even in Mexico in the seventies when I safely hitchhiked from Tijuana to Guatemala and was treated courteously wherever I went. I never let my guard down on this trip but no question the warmth and hospitality I experienced gave me some flashbacks to a simpler time that no longer exists.
I was drinking an ice cold Coke at a roadside hut when the owner and I starting discussing agriculture and he told me about a guy down the road who always grows the biggest papayas, “…un metro de largo!”(“one meter long!”) he said. I told him I had to see it for myself. Carlos and I rode up to this small private home tucked in a grove of trees, then we walked down a narrow dirt lane into the farmyard and introduced ourselves to the husband and wife and politely asked if we could go into their papaya grove to see the fruit for ourselves. They were very gracious and let us into their property and told us to just follow the trail back thru the woods,””you’ll find them!”, he said. He was proud as he could be. I told him I had to take a picture otherwise my family will call me a liar. We shared a laugh and I thanked him as we left. He stopped his chores for a moment, wiped his brow, and calmly remarked, “Come back anytime Senor, anytime.”
My open air room in Hato Nuevo, a former family ranch now turned into a protected nature reserve and lodge. Run by Don Mariano, who is also a painter(you can see his favorite subject matter above!) runs this establishment with easy grace and warm hospitality. Its a sort of Nicarguan “Ponderosa” atop a high plateau overlooking the surrounding lowlands. On Saturday night as I sat on the deck gazing at the Milky Way, Don Mariano put on some Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (turned up the volume full blast I might add, get down!) and invited me to a cold daiquiri-which I never drink- but did this time with pleasure.
On the plataeu above the ranch house, Reserva Hato Nuevo. Fifty years ago most of this area was open pasture and heavily over-grazed but since then, thru wise management and planning, the forest has been allowed to return.
Tio Ines, “Uncle Ines”, poses in front of ancient ceiba tree, well over a century old. I call him “tio” because thats what a Chilean geo-thermal engineer nicknamed him. Nicaragua has made great strides in the areas of alternative energy development. A Chilean consortium has studied and plotted out several high potential geo-thermal wells on the eastern slopes of Conseguina Volcano. “Tio Ines” provided valuable assistance with leading the teams thru thick jungle and rough terrain, a landscape he knows intimately. The plan is to develop these wells over the next few years, they should generate enough electricity to handle the needs of all the residents of the peninsula and supplement the grid serving the nearby city of Chinandega as well.
By 2020, Nicaragua expects to produce 90% of its energy from clean, safe sources. Nicaragua is what many experts call a paradise of renewable energies: extensive geothermic resources – resulting from its large volcanic chain and seismic activity–, with excellent exposure to the wind and sun and a variety of water sources. -World Bank report
“Si Se Puede!”, “Yes you can!”, Tio Ines’ favorite line that he repeated several times with gusto to encourage me not to quit. Glad he persisted, my rubbery legs were ready to turn back. The hike is promoted as fairly easy, just have to be in good physical condition they say. Really? Guess I’m washed up then because I almost died up there. There’s an easier way to the summit via the western side of the volcano, but of course I decided instead to take the 4-hour (one-way) grueling hike that begins in the village of Potosi on the lower, eastern side. Its “only” 2 hours on the return trip but don’t kid yourself, going down can be more stressful on the legs than going up, as Don Mariano’s sister pointed out to me a day earlier. “Ojo! La bajada puede ser mas dificil!”, she warned me. Her words rang in my ears as I descended from the summit, especially during the last mile or so as I trudged thru soft sand and loose gravel (the “road”)and across sun-baked fields on the edge of the village of Potosi.
I should confess that on the way down I passed a odd but fascinating elderly German man who was on his way up the volcano (shamed me!). I recognized him right away, to my surprise I had seen him a couple of days earlier back at Hato Nuevo. I’d overheard him turn down an offer from Don Mariano for a soft drink, “Coca-cola? Eeze poison! I vill just hav vater, eeze better for you.” I also heard Don Mariano politely ask him what music he’d like to hear and I heard him, with a thick German accent in English, reply, “Classic rock is what I like best, Mamas and the Papas, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones…” It was a bit odd to be in this hot and tropical latitude so far from the U.S. of A., only to hear someone mentioning these music icons of the 60’s. Meanwhile back on Cosiguina, I nodded hello and tried to hike past him quickly but to no avail, with a professor’s gaze he peered right at us and immediately engaged us in conversation. I made the mistake of answering his question about where I’m from, “Virginia, USA“, I said. “Ahh, Virginia, what are the main agricultural products in Virginia, isn’t it cotton and tobacco?“, he asked. “Well uh yes, historically, but today its more diversified” I replied. He then began to explain how environmentally destructive modern cotton farming operations are. To drive home his point he described whats happened in Russia around the Sea of Aral and about the folly of the Soviet Union’s “Five Year Plans”, and, not done yet! How the lake has practically dried up, fishing boats are marooned on dry land miles from the water’s edge….all true and particularly relevant for this area of Nicaragua where cotton is grown on a commercial scale. I’m sure all of us would’ve been interested to hear more on this subject, maybe back in town under a shade tree but not all the way the hell up here! His guide, Martin (who I mentioned earlier), understood it all and impatiently looked at Tio Ines and me, and we ALL understood that this is not exactly the time and place to discuss chemical agriculture, environmental havoc in central Asia, or failed Stalinistic policies. We listened as long as we could, which wasn’t long, only about five minutes. However it seemed an eternity when you’re exposed to the sun on a narrow, dusty hiking trail high up on the side of a sun-scorched volcano. We finally cut him off, cordially but firmly, and bade each other farewell. We shared a laugh and a courteous wave as we went our separate ways. Have to admit, he was a friendly, very intelligent, and worldly character. I couldn’t have agreed with him more but if I run into him again,and something tells me I might, I just hope its anywhere but up there!
My own personal “environmental” note; definitely should’ve carried more water and started an hour earlier, pre-dawn as Tio Ines had urged me to do, otherwise you pay for it midday as I did.
A few years ago Tio Ines accompanied some American vulcanologists down to the crater lake in the background and camped out with them as they made several scuba-diving explorations, the first time the lake has ever been systemically studied and mapped. Temperature changes in the lake are very interesting, he said, within a few hundred feet either on the surface or as far down as you’re able to go, say, 15-30 feet, you can swim thru varying pockets of very cold water or suddenly feel like you’re in a warm bathtub.
Dirt road near El Rosario, looking south towards Cosiguina in the distance. Unlike so many other volcanoes in the world that have the immediately-recognizable cone shape, Cosiguina simply looks like a pretty good-size mountain, only when you reach the summit can you see it for what it is.
Reminder of the cataclysm of 1835 when Cosiguina exploded in a volcanic eruption, photo above is from the Farallones shoreline and reveals one of thousands of trees knocked down from the blast and then buried in the pyroclastic flows which reached the ocean and the gulf. The eruption was one of the largest ever recorded in Central American history. Sobering to note that the estimated pre-eruption height of Cosiguina was @6,000 feet, elevation today is @2800 feet at the highest point on the eastern rim. Ash fall was recorded as far east as the island of Jamaica and as far north as Mexico City, the blast was heard in Panama City and some parts of northern Columbia. A powerful mega-level blast as these facts attest, and yet there was very little loss of life. The Cosiguina Peninsula then as now, remains very lightly populated, still rural and wild.
Hostal Brisas del Golfo. I can highly recommend their clean and modest accommodations in the heart of the village of Potosi, and friendly courtesy that they extend to all guests, even the two French girls who were a bit rude and did not say very much as the owner served them dinner and drinks (I watched it all from my table in the corner). Oh well, there’s always a few. Maybe they were just tired from traveling, or ill. But I’m being too generous. You have to wonder sometimes why someone would travel so far from home, to a foreign country half way around the globe only to be so ill-mannered, especially in such a quiet, timeless village like Potosi.
Or unbeknownst to others sometimes the traveler is simply going thru some changes in life. As was the case with an American guy who was visibly intoxicated, and this during the middle of the day. When he went up to the “caja”, the counter, to pay his bill the owner asked me to help translate. We got the bill squared away easy enough, but apparently he was traveling on to El Salvador and was going to take the boat trip from Potosi across the Gulf of Fonseca to the port of La Union. The owner was trying to help the guy out by offering to change his cordobas with them, rather than at the Potosi customs office where the government exchange rate is (always) much lower. Got that sorted out, and then as fate would have it we both had a few minutes to kill as we waited for our respective rides, I was waiting for a southbound bus, and he was waiting for a northbound boat. I had seen him staggering around the night before and again today so I was on guard but as we sat and talked he turned out to be a hellavu nice guy, he just had a bit of a fatalistic streak as he boldly told me he was “drinking and drugging” his way across Central America and taking each day as it came. He had quit his job at Microsoft in Seattle and just gone thru his second divorce. He seemed to be doing ok financially, like all tourists (otherwise they wouldn’t be tourists) but you didn’t have to be Dr. Phil to see he was emotionally a bit weary. The conversation got a bit personal but he wasn’t on a pity trip. Well first things first, noticing the large wad of dollars he had pulled out earlier, and his stoned and drunk state of mind, I urged him to reconsider and not enter El Salvador, period. Not even sober should you go there, I told him, indeed under his current condition such a trip was madness. He planned to continue on from there to Honduras, which illicited my strongest disapproval, not that he gave a damn what I thought but at least I tried. As my bus pulled up across the road we shook hands and shared a latino “abrazo” and wished each other a safe journey.
Dining area, Brisas del GolfoTio Ines leads the way to a cave at the base of the cliffs in the Farallones, only have a few hours to explore, by late morning the tide will come in and the beach will be underwater.
“Then the tide rushes in, and washes my castles away” -Moody Blues
Early morning at the mouth of a narrow ravine in the Farallones.
Poets! Towers of God
Made to resist the fury of the storms
Like cliffs beside the ocean
Or clouded, savage peaks!
Masters of lightning!
Breakwaters of eternity!
Hope, magic-voiced, foretells the day
When on the rock of harmony
The Siren traitorous shall die and pass away,
And there shall only be
The full, frank-billowed music of the sea.