Nicaragua, right on the Pacific Ring or Fire.

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Managua.

After two short flights from Manuel Antonio, one in a 12 seater Cessna, we reached Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is the largest of the Central American countries with a relatively small population.

I think they all live in Managua.

It also has two of the largest fresh water lakes in Central America, predictably named, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua.

The tropical weather had set in and it was 35°C with high humidity.

Managua is divided into two distinct districts, the old part, which is north of the small volcanic lake, Laguna de Tiscapa, and the new part which is to the south.

It’s a sprawling city and we didn’t feel like trying to navigate around it in the heat.

So we hired a driver, come guide, to show us the highlights.

Eyner showed us the best of the old and new parts.

Managua suffered a devastating earthquake in 1972 that destroyed 90% of the downtown city area and killed over 19,000 people.

One of the buildings to suffer the most damage was the Catedral de Santiago. At the time it was deemed impossible to rebuild and at present just the shell remains.

It was designed by Pablo Dambach in 1920, then built and shipped from Belgium.

There is now talk of repairing it.

The new Cathedral of the Conception, that was completed in 1993 and replaced the ruined one, is a contemporary reinforced concrete construction, that really lacks the charm of the original church.

The locals believe it looks like a crate of eggs from the outside. This is due to the multitude of domes on the roof.

On the same square as the old cathedral is the National Palace, built in 1935, it currently houses the museum and library.

Like much of Central America, Nicaragua has had its share of heroes, violence and corruption.

There is a memorial and many statues to honour Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934)

He was a hero to the Nicaraguans and branded a bandit by the US.

He was assassinated in 1934.

In 2010 he was named by the nation’s congress as a ‘national hero’

A fascinating part of the rejuvenated city is the old port area on Lake Managua. This has been turned into a restaurant and picnic area.

Unfortunately there are no water sport activities as the lake is heavily polluted.

A rather bizarre addition to the street-scape are the giant, yellow, illuminated trees. These apparently are the brainchild of Rosario Murillo, wife of the president, Daniel Ortega. Inspired by Gustav Klimt, these symbolise the Tree of Life and are all over the city.

The locals believe that the money could have been better spent.

Our final stop on our Managua city tour was the food and craft market.

As Eyner pointed out, this market is the only one that’s safe enough for tourists.

We chose to stay at the more business oriented Holiday Inn Express.

This was for a reason.

One of our credit cards had been compromised and shut down so we had a new one sent by DHL courier to Managua.

We felt a business hotel would know how to handle a delivery.

They did and the new card was waiting for us when we arrived.

Because of the layout of the city there is no real tourist oriented hub where there are hotels with restaurants near by.

As it turned out our hotel selection was a good one, as the Galerías Santo Domingo was just up the road.

This is a shopping mall with a large and varied restaurant area in an enclosed courtyard.

The Holiday Inn even provided an hourly shuttle bus to the mall.

It’s a great solution for a city with a new growth area, that doesn’t have a traditional restaurant scene.

We returned to the Galerías Santo Domingo on our second night and the place was alive. There was even a band playing in a central courtyard.

The mall still had the ubiquitous fast food court, but this restaurant area was set apart and much more up-market.

A similar idea could breathe life into Southland and Chadstone malls that are traditionally lacking style, substance and good food.

Leon.

We hired a car in Managua and drove the 80km to Leon.

It was an easy drive in a rather abused Nissan Tilda.

The roads were mainly concrete and the surrounding country was more dry scrub than tropical.

Navigating is made much easier using the off-line features in Google Maps and Triposo.

Leon is one of the former capitals of Nicaragua, the other being Granada.

There was squabbling between the the two cities until Managua became a geographic and political compromise.

Leon was also the ecclesiastical centre and there is practically a church on every corner to prove it.

It’s a colonial city, the heart of which is Parque Central. There are many grand buildings, some in need of restoration and others already being restored.

The Cathedral is one that’s under renovation so the facade was a mess of scaffolding. However the interior was still open and very impressive.

The current church was built in 1747 in an American-Baroque style. The Stations of the Cross are vast murals, considered masterpieces in Central America, painted by Antonio Sarria.

On our first full day we went for a drive, firstly to the coast near Poneloya and Las Penitas then north to Chinandega.

The day was very hazy and not great for snaps.

We did drive on part of the Volcanic Route that took us past San Jacinto, Telica, Castila, San Cristobal and Chonco Volcanoes.

Both Telica and San Cristobal are still active.

Part of the road north from Chinandega is under repair, and for very good reason. The pot holes, I did’t manage to avoid, did nothing to improve the performance of the aging Nissan.

Once we were back in Leon we had our first encounter with the law.

Leon is full of one way streets, that aren’t always marked as such.

I stupidly followed one of the tricycle taxis (Tuc-Tuc) and found myself going against the traffic.

Obviously it was ok for him but not for me.

I turned around and went back, only to be confronted by a sour faced traffic policeman.

I acted dumb, not hard to do, and tried to explain that there were no signs.

He wanted to see my license, so I gave him my International one, even though it was out of date. I figured that if he wanted to use it as leverage, I still had my Victorian one.

Once he realised we were Australian he loosened up, gave me back my license and we were sent on our way, with instructions on how to find our hotel.

Our last day in Leon was a Sunday and coincidently Mother’s Day in Australia.

We had a leisurely lunch near Parque Central and then wandered around the city centre.

The days are getting hotter and more humid – the rains are on the way.

The eruption of the nearby Telica Volcano was a reminder that this whole area is sitting on what’s called the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Granada.

Driving from Leon to the outskirts of Granada was a breeze, then we encountered the one way streets again.

At many intersections there are no signs indicating that the street ahead is one way. I again found myself going the wrong way.

We eventually found the Hotel Dario and the bell boy jumped in the car and showed us how to get to the car park. This turned out to be just a street behind the hotel.

The Hotel Dario is a charming colonial building, right in the centre of the walking street and surrounded by bars and restaurants. It has an open court yard and wide breezy verandas.

Opposite the hotel was O’Shea’s Irish Pub. I am not usually one to visit Irish pubs, except in Ireland.

This was different – they served craft beer on tap.

I had a couple of glasses of Moropotente’s, 19 Días and it was very good.

I returned the next night to make sure that the 19 Días wasn’t an aberration, and ran into the owner, Tom O’Shea.

I questioned him about the brewer and the brew.

Tom had no idea. “It just comes in in big silver cylinders”

The luck of the Irish.

Granada is very different to the far lest developed and more modest Leon.

To start with it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More of the buildings had been renovated and there was a greater tourist infrastructure in place.

This also means that everything is more expensive.

It was late in the day when we checked into the hotel and the afternoon thunderstorms were threatening. We walked around the city centre and then down to the edge of Lake Nicaragua. This is more an inland sea than a lake. In the haze the other side was barely visible.

Leon might have had a lot of churches but Granada wasn’t far behind. They were larger and in various states of repair.

After a morning of sites we headed into the mountains to La Catarina, a small tourist village that has a wonderful lookout over Laguna de Apoyo.

This is a volcanic crater lake with Granada just visible behind.

It was cooler and less humid with lots of locals also looking to escape the heat of Granada.

The next morning we took a tour of the isletas or islands near the coast of Lake Nicaragua. There are reportedly 365 tropical islands dotted around the lake, edge.

We stopped to visit Castillo San Pablo, a fort built by the Spanish in 1784 to protect Granada from pirate raids.

With 68% of Nicaraguans on the poverty line, life on the waterways is about survival. Fishing isn’t restricted so the locals fish to sell and feed their families.

They live side by side with the rich Nicaraguans and foreigners who build luxury housing on their own private islands.

The family who own Ron Flor du Caña, one of the worlds best rums, owns an island on the lake.

The Mombacho Volcano is a constant backdrop over Lake Nicaragua. In fact wherever you look there are the telltale silhouettes of volcanic peaks.

Spider Monkeys were introduced as a tourist attraction to one of the small islands. Aptly named Isla de los Monos or Monkey Island.

On the drive back from Granada to Managua we stopped off at the Masaya Volcano National Park.

As we pulled into the car park we were greeted by the smell of sulphur, as it wafted out of the Santiago Crater.

This is the most active volcano in Latin America and there are evacuation signs as we entered the park. I was particularly intrigued by the photo of a late model car with a rather large volcanic bolder imbedded in the bonnet.

I wasn’t particularly fond of the Nissan but I couldn’t see it subjected to that grizzly fate.

There’s even a warning to spend no more than five minutes at the crater’s edge, in case you are overcome by the fumes.

However there are flocks of parakeets that nest inside the crater and manage to survive.

We chose to do the rim walk around the extinct San Fernando Crater trail. This was a four kilometer, rocky, narrow and slippery track. Most of it running around the crater rim.

The highlight, apart from the views was discovering a flock of resting vultures.

These are truly ugly birds.

Then in total contrast we came across a white frangipani in bloom.

There were blossoming trees covering the crater floor.

Nature’s full of contrasts.

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