Ometepe Island

Nicaragua: A song of water and fire

Not for nothing do they call Nicaragua the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.

A chain of volcanoes runs down the Pacific side of the country, seven of which are active. Of the extinct ones, many have since filled up with water, creating beautiful crater lakes. The combined surfaces of Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua make up almost 10 percent of the country’s total area.

But in the limited time I spent in Nicaragua, this combination of opposing forces – water and fire – seemed to me to have a significance beyond accurately describing the local geological features.

It is, after all, a country with a coast on both the Atlantic and Pacific. On the Caribbean side, locals speak English creole. On the Pacific, surf bums and American retirees jostle for space around the crescent-shaped bay at San Juan del Sur. And all around them locals drop their S’s providing a marked change (and challenge) for Spanish-speaking tourists.

San Juan del Sur San Juan del Sur

It is a land rich in natural beauty but with acute human poverty. It is a country that, in 1980, won a UN award after managing  to bring its literacy rate up from just 50% to 78% in just six months. But it’s also a place where children walk to school through piles of rotting, burning, often toxic, garbage (and not just the ones who live on the four square mile rubbish dump, La Chureca).

It is a nation that in 2012 passed a law to formally criminalise violence against women and then a year later scaled it back after religious organisations and men’s groups claimed it was discriminatory towards men and was leading to family break-ups.

Meanwhile all I kept reading was how beautiful the country was, how it had all the draws of Costa Rica without the hefty price tag. Everywhere I looked it was being described effusively as an  “adventure destination” on account of the huge array of outdoor activities on offer. This breezy summary seemed somehow to jar with everything else I’d read or heard about the country. But just as it’s possible to visit a country as a tourist without ever scratching beneath the surface, so it is possible to get bogged down in the political or social ugliness of a place and fail to see its beauty.

Laguna ApoyoLaguna Apoyo

Much as I believe it is important to engage with the context in which you travel, I also think it’s important sometimes to let go and simply experience a place. Happily Nicaragua allows you to do both.

We didn’t initially plan on spending any great length of time in the country, barring a job I had set up in Managua. In the end we spent a week there. It wasn’t enough to do and see even half of what the country has to offer.

We did not, for example, make it to the beautiful colonial city of León, in the north. Nor did we hike its surrounding volcanoes, or have the chance to “snowboard” down them as many do at Cerro Negro. We didn’t get to surf at San Juan del Sur or go snorkelling off the Caribbean Corn Islands. But we did hang out in colonial Granada, rent quad bikes on Ometepe Island and stand beneath a 180 metre waterfall in the jungle. We swam in a volcanic lake, mountain biked to natural springs and even braved the toxic gases billowing out of the crater of Volcan Masaya in order to peer over the edge at the glowing orange lava.

Ojo de agua omepete Cooling off in the Ojo de Agua springs

But despite the easy comparisons, Nicaragua is not Costa Rica. And it is not even close to providing the kind of touristic infrastructure that would allow it to catch up with its wealthy neighbour.

Arriving in Managua around 8pm on a Friday we discovered that the public buses to Granada, just under an hour away, had stopped running for the night. Left with no choice, we took a taxi for $35 (£22).

Granada NicaraguaGranada

Based in Granada, I was able to get into Managua for work (the public bus costs around 25 cordobas or $1 each way but be warned, in rush hour it can take over two hours) and it allowed us to spend the weekend sightseeing. However, once again we discovered that the means of doing so were limited and the prices were significantly higher than we’d been used to.

Day trips, for example, are surprisingly costly. Having paid a mere £13 ($20) each for our entire day out in Semuc Champey, Guatemala, we were more than a little bit surprised when our combined visit to Laguna Apoyo and Volcan Masaya racked us up a bill of £40 ($60) apiece. And yes, technically you could take the public bus to the entrance but you would then be facing a bit of a trek as both the lake and the volcano are situated several miles in from the main road.

This is largely to do with demand. Statistically Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America but despite this it welcomed 1.2 million travellers in 2013, compared to almost 2 million in Guatemala and 2.4 million in Costa Rica. Consequently it cannot access the same economies of scale, i.e. no group discounts. When we booked the Apoyoa/Masaya tour we were the only two people on the list. The travel agent promised that the more people signed up, the cheaper it would be. No one else signed up.

Volcan MasayaVolcan Masaya

It isn’t just the organised trips either. Travelling between places was more difficult than we’d found elsewhere. Sometimes all this meant taking a public bus (or three) and what this lacked in convenience it made up for in cost. To get from Granada to Puerto San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, we took a bus from the main bus station behind the market on Calle Atravesada. For around 30 cordobas ($1.20/£0.80) each it took us to a junction somewhere outside Rivas. Here we were herded off and onto a second bus where we paid a further 10-15 cordobas to travel the remaining ten minutes or so to the port. We spent the entire hour-long journey standing up, wedged between a backpack and man selling bags of nuts but it cost us less than a fiver.

Chicken bus

But sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason. On Ometepe – an island made up of two volcanoes, one active, one extinct, linked together in the middle of Lake Nicaragua – we were quoted £50 ($70) for a taxi to take us just a few miles from our hostel on Playa Santa Domingo to the bottom of the San Ramon waterfall trail. Aghast, we said we’d take the bus, only to be told no local bus would be passing that morning. The only other option, we were informed, was to rent a quad bike or a motorcycle for five hours at a price of around £30 ($55) plus gas.

Quad bike OmetepeFilling up the tank, Ometepe style

We allowed our arms to be twisted, assuming we were paying the price of being a captive audience. But then we saw the roads. I’ve driven on dirt roads before but this was something else: great muddy ruts, deep puddles, huge churned-up piles of rubble such as would ruin any normal car. Suddenly that £50 taxi fare seemed completely understandable.

Quad bike Ometepe Rush hour on Ometepe

It ended up being one of the best days out we had in Central America. Sometimes when plans go awry you end up having even more fun.

Nicaragua is where I learnt to expect nothing and embrace everything. We missed a ferry because we were told three different departure times by three different sources (internet, fellow travellers, locals) and had no idea who to believe. We stood at a bus stop in the midday heat only to discover the bus we’d booked had passed through two hours prior to the time indicated on our ticket. We were refused advance tickets for a bus that was “full” but when we happened to see it passing, we were able to not only get on but bag ourselves two plum seats.

In the land of lakes and volcanoes I learnt about the terrible disadvantages faced by so many but through my work I also met and spoke to the organisations working to try to change that. I saw the terrifying results of unequal access to resources but I also heard the inspiring stories of people who have overcome the odds.

I spent a morning swimming in the cool waters of Laguna Apoyo and the afternoon braving the heat at the crater of Volcan Masaya. And that’s the impression that will stay with me.

Ometepe island

Volcan Fuego, Volcan Acatenango, Volcan Agua

Hello Guate, my old friend: How Guatemala has changed in 10 years

Returning to a country you haven’t visited for 10 years is a bit like catching up with an old schoolfriend. How will you both have changed? Will you be able to recapture the good times of old? Is it still funny to shout out euphemisms for genitalia in class while the teacher’s back is turned?

OK, perhaps not that last one. But flying in to Guatemala, where I spent five weeks in both 2003 and 2004, elicited that same sense of nostalgia tinged with cautious anticipation.

As it transpired, I needn’t have worried. Everything that makes it so easy to fall in love with Guatemala is just as it was. The people are still hospitable and humorous, the food still simple but fresh and nourishing, the towns and villages still a panoply of colour.

The soundtrack to all of this, as ever it was, is provided by the cries of street-hawkers and the roar of the country’s famous ‘chicken buses’, old US school transport converted to carry the maximum number of passengers and tricked out by drivers competing to display the maximum amount of bling.

Most travellers set up home initially in La Antigua, the country’s capital until the mammoth Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773 triggered a move to modern-day capital Guatemala City. Antigua is ‘the place to stay’ for good reason. Its cobbled streets and brightly-painted stone houses are interspersed with ruined but well-preserved churches and monasteries, frozen in time since they were laid low by successive earthquakes.

The backdrop to all of this is the eternal looming presence of Volcan Agua, watching over the city like a strict museum curator ensuring it never loses its ancient charm.

Not only is Antigua far safer and prettier than the capital, but it is almost as well connected for most travel destinations in the country.

On my last visit, I was learning Spanish at the excellent Probigua language school. Antigua boasts an abundance of escuelas where you can learn the lingo but Probigua (PROyecto BIbliotecas GUAtemala) is different. Many of these places are simply out to extract as many Quetzals (local currency) as possible from the gringos but Probigua is a non-profit organisation. Your fees are ploughed into literacy programmes and students join the school’s staff on weekend expeditions in the Probigua travelling literacy bus to deliver books and computers to schools in the region, most of which are sadly lacking in resources.

It was heartening to see the old place that taught me my rudimentary but passable Spanish, apparently thriving as the best place to learn the language in Antigua.

I was even more excited at the prospect of visiting Veronica, the lady with whom I stayed both times I was last here. I used to call her mi segunda mama (my second Mum) and we would joke long into the evening while enjoying her delicious and wholesome cooking, including her excellent guisquil (also known as chayote, a local squash-like vegetable).

Through the haze of a decade’s new memories, I managed to remember where she lived and, totally unannounced, Franki and I made our way up to her house. Cue a very happy reunion as she invited us in to see the upgrades she has made to the family home.

She has acquired five grandchildren since I last stayed with her and most of her extended family now lives in the rooms she once let out to language students like me. I remember well how she and her sons had squeezed into two small rooms to accommodate guests, in order to make enough money to improve their circumstances.

Well here were the fruits of her labours, 10 years on. She had worked hard, opened up her home to people like me, and her growing family was now reaping the benefits exactly as planned. Nothing could make me happier to see her nous and hard graft paying off. Not only that but she was kind enough to pretend that I looked very different with my nascent and still rather pitiful travellers’ beard.

So what else has changed except for Veronica’s grandkids and my ‘beard’? The active Pacaya volcano has changed a fair bit, largely because it has erupted more than once in a pretty major way (check out the video) since I first climbed it. According to our guide, the path I took in 2003 was buried by molten lava earlier this year. In geological terms, that’s a near miss.

Lago Atitlan, the idyllic lake surrounded by volcanoes, has also witnessed some developments. For starters, the lake has risen by about 10 metres in the past decade, meaning much of the dockside infrastructure is now underwater.

On the plus side, the quiet hotels at Santa Cruz de la Laguna (try the uber-tranquil Arca de Noe if you get a chance) now come with added electricity. In 2004 it was candlelight only, which led to me plummeting six feet into an open sewer (thankfully dry) and landing on my knee. I can still tell when it’s going to rain by the twinge under my patella, thanks to that little mishap.

As a coffee lover (addict?), I immediately noticed a big difference in that Guatemala’s largest export is actually available within the country these days. When I first visited, all the good stuff was exported as soon as possible, hardly any of it seeing the inside of a Guatemalan cafe or restaurant. The coffee fincas were dotted around the country but you couldn’t get a decent brew for love nor money.

Now, there are a good half-dozen venues in Antigua dedicated to the art (and it is an art) of serving up the best coffee money can buy. The friendly knowledgeable guys at family enterprise Castellcafe (San Lucas branch pictured here) do a mean espresso and are particularly fond of the Chemex method of brewing coffee. You can find the Antigua branch in the Parque Central.

Don’t expect to find a skinny cinnamon macchiato when you’re in the depths of the jungle or up in the Alta Verapaz though. After all, you wouldn’t expect to find howler monkeys or Mayan ruins in a Shoreditch pop-up coffee house. Sadly.

Without a doubt, Antigua’s nightlife is also livelier than it once was. There are fewer tourists now than in 2004, by some estimates about half as many. But there are more bars than before and they are no longer dominated by tourists.

Whether it’s due to the emergence and growth of the middle class in Guatemala I couldn’t say, but there seemed to be more Chapins (Guatemalans) raving the night away and more places for them to do it.

Coming back to the scene of so many great memories, I was always going to notice what was different about the place. But while much has changed since I was here, there is plenty that hasn’t. For all of its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Guatemala still struggles with chronic malnutrition and violence.

Anyway, more on that in the next blog about Guatemala, plus plenty more to come on what to do and see in this stunning country.

San Francisco cable car

My San Francisco love story

It took me less than four hours to fall in love with San Francisco.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: four hours isn’t love; it’s barely even a fling. But trust me, I have found The One. When you know, you know. You know?

First things first: the houses. From the grand Victorian architecture complete with gothic lines and details, to the bright colours and often elaborate means of access, these are truly my dream houses.

San Francisco Victorian houses

San Francisco Victorian houses

Parapets! Pediments! Turrets! Frankly, who wouldn’t want to live in one of these? And that’s before I even get to the steps! You see, ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted a house with steps up to the door. Call me whimsical but there’s something about the notion of climbing up to your front door that I find romantic, even a little bit magical (I also wanted bunk beds – maybe I just have a thing about steps?) But in SF they take it to the next level [literally]. You can stand on the pavement and look up at a front door some six feet above your head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAwesome.

But I know, I know. This isn’t love, it’s lust. And I can’t deny that San Francisco is a good-looking city. With the Bay on one side, Pacific on the other, mountains to both the north and south and in between the rolling hills of the city itself, it’s certainly a stunning location. But clean cut has never really been my thing. I like things a bit scruffier, a bit dirtier, a bit edgier. Luckily SF does that very well too.

It’s not a big city but each area manages to convey its own distinct style. There’s the Mission for hispanic architecture, fantastic food and also for any time you want to don your skinny jeans and drink craft ale while playing hangman on the blackboard walls (yup, we did this). There’s Haight-Ashbury for vintage shopping, stocking up on incense sticks or just whenever you need a hit of psychedelia (metaphorically, of course…), Russian Hill for when you want to ride a cable car up a really steep hill (which obviously locals don’t do but still, it’s there if you want it). There’s Castro for partying with your LGBTQ buddies… or eating really good cake (there are loads of bakeries), Fillmore/Alamo Square for when you just need to look at some really awesome houses (see above)… and of course the parks, the marina, the beach, the bridge. Ok, I’m going into raptures. I’m sorry, I’ll rein it in. Here are a few pictures while I collect myself:

Cliff House San Francisco

Haight Ashbury San Francisco

Cathedral San Francisco

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco

For me I think it was the cocktails with brunch at Nopa on Saturday morning, the fantastic shops on Haight Street (special mentions to Fluevog, Shoe Biz, and Piper’s Shoe Parlour), the oysters on the Embarcadero, the coffee (so much coffee), the bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, the rainbow streets in Castro, and the mosaic steps over in the Sunset district.

It really is a diverse and exciting place and because it’s small, it’s really easy to get around all these difference areas. The public transport is excellent. Buses run everywhere and yes, you really can hang off the side of a cable car if you want to (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it because it is SO touristy but we did do this. In our defence we’d just had two very strong Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Cafe and there were no seats available so it seemed like a hilariously good idea.).

However, my favourite mode(s) of transport were the vintage streetcars that run up and down Market and round the Embarcadero. The trolleys and trams come from all over the world including Japan, Switzerland, and Italy. There’s even one from Blackpool apparently although I didn’t spot it.

San Francisco tram

NB This is not my photo. I didn’t take any photos of the trams myself because I’m an idiot but here’s one of Rob hanging off a cable car like a boss:

San Francisco cable car

And here’s me being a bit more sedate on the bus:

San Francisco bus(I’m not sure why I felt I had to provide evidence that we took public transport but there it is nonetheless.)

But you don’t have to bother with any of these if you don’t want because contrary to all my expectations, San Francisco is a bike city.

“But the hills?!?” you cry. “How do they do it?”

Honest answer? I don’t know. I do not know. I mean, I cycle in London which is not a flat city and where we live, just north of Camden, is at the foot of the highest hill in the city. It’s not steep but it’s pretty much uphill all the way home from town and the last five minutes gets me every time. But this all becomes meaningless nonsense in the face of SF. We hired bikes and although our route was largely flat I feel like I worked harder in one day than I would in an entire weekend of London cycling.

But now for the surprising part: I actually see this is yet another factor in SF’s favour. I love cycling and I already miss my bike. Yes, it would be hard to get used to but no one ever said relationships were easy now, did they?

Cycling Sasn Francisco The course of true love never did run smooth… much like the city’s cycle lanes.

But of course it’s not all pootling about in quirky shops and knocking back “drip coffee” in white-tile-and-sanded-wood coffee shops (although the latter are a BIG deal – so much so that I’m composing a whole separate blog on the subject). No lover is without their faults and to build a relationship is to understand and accept these faults, and even – where necessary – commit to helping find a way to work through them.

In the case of San Francisco I am referring, of course, to the huge homelessness issue. The traditional glib approximation is that these are people who blew their minds on acid back in the Summer of Love and never left. And while it’s certainly true that a lot of the problems stem from drugs (whether the long-term effects or the short-term dependence), it seemed clear to me that mental illness, learning disabilities and straight up poverty were playing as much of a role in keeping people disenfranchised as anything they might have inflicted upon themselves.

Successive mayors have promised to tackle it, some $1.5billion has been poured into projects designed to get people off the streets, but in 2013 there were still 6,436 homeless people in San Francisco (down from 8,640 in 2002 but up from 6,245 in 2005). This is about the same as the figure for London but bear in mind that London covers an area of around 600 square miles and has a population of some seven million while SF is about 230 square miles and is home to just under a million people.

It’s very difficult to write anything original or insightful on a subject which has, after all, been covered hundreds of times but I don’t feel I can ignore it either. It’s certainly something we were aware of before visiting the city and yet it still came as a shock to see that in a city as wealthy, as innovative, and as progressive as San Francisco, so many people appear to be slipping through the net. Still, if there’s one thing the city is not doing – and which many others around the world do on a regular basis – it’s turning a blind eye to their problems. And that gives me hope.

Painted Ladies San Francisco

Rob talked about feeling inspired by LA’s can-do vibe but San Francisco was where I really felt like anything (uphill cycling notwithstanding) was possible. I’m still reasonably sure if I sat in one of the city’s excellent coffee shops for long enough, I too would come up with a brilliant app or social networking idea. Surrounded by so much inspiration and innovation, I couldn’t fail to, could I?

Whether it’s to do with having Silicon Valley down the road, a long history of firsts for liberal politics, not least where gay and lesbian rights and representatives are concerned, a colourful legacy of arts, music, and creativity more generally, or being the cornerstone of the free love movement, you really do feel like you could do anything or be anyone here. And not in the grubby, covert way that London (the voyeuristic minx) lets you be anything or do anyone, but in an open, breezy, composed kind of way.

Yes, composed. It might be buzzing but there’s something very calm about the SF vibe. It’s a city that knows who it is and is comfortable in its own skin. And I almost feel… I almost feel if I lived here I too could be calm.

And when the initial heady excitement wears off, that, my friends, is the stuff that true love is built on.

Mosaic steps San Francisco No, seriously. This is what I look like when I’m deliriously happy.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

California beaming: How one day in sunny Los Angeles drove away the London blues

As a natural born cynic, I sometimes struggle to see the sunnier side of life. My former boss at the Daily Mail once claimed I have ‘the darkest moods of anyone I’ve ever known in journalism’. This is a man who has worked for more than a decade with famously combustible Fleet Street legend Paul Dacre, the inventor of the rhetorical tactic known as ‘double-c*nting’.

So it is with huge surprise that I found LA slapping me about the face with a dose of pure optimism. It came as a shock. I thought the only way to derive happiness from this famously poseur-laden city would be reliving moments from Grand Theft Auto V. “Oh look, that’s where I parachuted out of a helicopter before opening fire on innocent pedestrians with a minigun. Happy days.”

Instead I find myself filled with an unfamiliar feeling of goodwill to all humankind. Perhaps it’s the sunshine, the plethora of independent bars and shops, or simply the sense of freedom afforded by going freelance after eight years behind a desk. Whatever the cause, within hours of being here, I find my natural scepticism eroding bit by bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I know LA has its dark side. This is after all the city of Raymond Chandler’s seedy villains and the broken dreams of aging waiters still clinging on to the faint hope that their screenplay will be picked up by one of the studios. It has been the unfortunate scene of more than its share of brutal gang violence, as well as the 1992 riots triggered by the brutal beating of Rodney King. And one can’t help but notice that in the glitzy bars and restaurants, it is the Caucasian staff who work front of house, while the economically disadvantaged Latinos toil away in the kitchen.

And yet, on a morning walk from Venice down to the beach, I saw the best side of this fabled town. It started with Abbot Kinney, dubbed ‘coolest block in America’ by GQ. Sprinkled with independent shops and cafes, this strip has the quirky idiosyncracy of London’s Shoreditch but takes itself much less seriously. Each building has an individual architectural style, yet somehow this kaleidoscopic mish-mash of colours and shapes assembles itself into a coherent stylistic genre.

Just a few streets away is Venice, where wealthy Californians enjoy the good life in stunning homes bordering a network of canals. Sure, Shakespeare never wrote a play about this place, it has never had a doge as far as i know and I doubt the baccala mantecato is anything to write home about.

What it does have is this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

And this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

Debating how the average home here would cost (prices start at a couple of million bucks we were later told), Franki and I wandered towards the beach. Rounding a corner, a cyclist nearly ran us down. In London, both parties would have mumbled ‘Sorry’ while mentally cursing each other in the harshest possible terms. When I apologised for no real reason, California bike guy just grinned and said: ‘Hey no problem buddy, that’s why I got brakes!’

Down at Venice Beach, the sense of easy-going optimism is no different, the locals taking their behavioural cue from the Pacific Ocean.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

A dude whizzes by on a skateboard, carrying a surfboard under his arm. Later, seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we pop into the Venice Ale House and happen upon a range of craft beers that would take you ten pubs to collect in London.

Even the mad tramps have a superior patter here. ‘Jesus and Gandhi were the same guy,’ one tells me. ‘Moses too.’

Something about all of this puts a smile on my face. People in Los Angeles act as if they’re in a film shot entirely for your benefit. They bristle with infinite possibility and it is incredibly contagious.

I can’t escape the premonition that we’ll be robbed and beaten up now that I’ve written this – after all, my inner cynic can’t stay suppressed for long. Still, i bet the inevitable mugging will be conducted with bohemian nonchalance. We’ll probably become friends with our assailant on Facebook – maybe even launch a Neighbourhood Watch smartphone app together. That’s just LA, man.

Update – I think Franki and I just had the most LA experience possible. We were driven to Hollywood by a Scientologist Uber cabbie who used to be in films, including Rat Race starring Rowan Atkinson. He fell on hard times and had to sell his house ‘to buy holistic herbs’ when his wife became ill. Despite facing economic ruin due to her poor health, he doesn’t believe in socialised healthcare. ‘In this world, there are makers and takers.’

Update 2 – After years of searching, I even found a Panama hat to fit my outsize noggin. Thanks Hollywood Hatters!

Panama hat