WINNIE-the-Pooh pops up in the most surprising places. I’d just arrived in San Carlos, a ramshackle port on the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua and from T-shirts to tea towels, I could see his smiling face everywhere as I browsed the colourful market stalls.
Even a bookshop had appropriated his name, but perhaps fearing copyright infringement, had subtly changed it to Willie the Pooh.
I was shattered. A four-hour drive from the capital Managua had turned into a dodgem car ride. Nicaragua has some of the best highways in Central America, but try telling that to the cows, horses, goats and dogs who amble onto the Tarmac and stand in the middle of the road as massive American lorries hurtle by. Just after we’d run over an unfortunate stray dog, my informative young guide Jose Angel cheerfully explained that had it been a goat we could pay the owner and take it home for dinner – apparently a common occurrence on these routes.
My nerves soothed by the comforting face of the honey-loving bear from home, we jumped into a motorised launch for the hour-long crossing to the Solentiname Islands, one of several volcanic archipelagos that pepper the surface of Lake Nicaragua. My visit coincided with the great spring bird migrations from South to North America and as we sped out onto the lake, we ran into flocks of resting geese and ducks bobbing up and down on the waves. Alarmed at our approach, they frantically began flapping and treading water as they tried to take flight. Very soon their speed matched our own and the sight of them just metres from the boat kicking up sprays of water as they strained to take off was truly exhilarating.
The thickly forested Solentiname Islands are a haven for birdlife and the colourful toucans and parrots are inspiration to communities of balsa wood artists whose brightly painted carvings can be found in markets throughout Nicaragua. Such is their fame, the islands have been declared a cultural national monument and the villagers have used low-interest government loans to build a handful of simple eco lodges where guests can enjoy swimming, fishing and wildlife watching, with all profits going back into the local community. For the children, it’s the life of Riley. In the late afternoon I took a stroll along the waterfront village next to my lodge. Some girls had taken rocking chairs to the lake’s edge and were diligently doing their English homework in the mellow sunshine. More predictably, the boys were either splashing around in the lake or excitedly dangling fishing lines from wooden jetties.
At dusk, the islands take on an almost primeval quality. The hiss of cicadas reaches deafening proportions while oropendolas, beautiful cousins of the blackbird with long golden tails, erupt into demonic caterwauls which echo over the lake. As I sat on my veranda watching dozens of bats emerge from the eaves of the lodge my guide suggested we go and search for miniature caimans along the shore. I immediately regretted it when he explained that they are the crocodilian equivalent of pit bulls and once they get their teeth into you, they never let go. Fortunately, none was around. We did, however, spot an exquisitely patterned poison dart frog hopping in the undergrowth just inches from our feet and I vowed next time not to go out on nocturnal wildlife forays wearing only flip flops.
The following day we sailed down the languid Rio San Juan to El Castillo, a sleepy town of rickety wooden houses built on stilts overhanging the lapping river. Here I came face to face with the seamier side of British history. The Rio San Juan was the Renaissance equivalent of the Panama Canal and was used by Spanish Conquistadors to transport Inca gold from the Pacific to the Caribbean, thus enabling their galleons to avoid the dangerous Cape Horn route back to Europe. Unfortunately they hadn’t bargained on English avarice. From Francis Drake to Horatio Nelson, a roll call of naval heroes cut their teeth on plundering Spanish ships on the Rio San Juan. In 1675, the exasperated Spanish built a fortress at El Castillo which has recently been lovingly restored by the Spanish government. Gazing out from the battlements over manicured gardens of hibiscus and bougainvillea, it was hard to imagine El Castillo’s violent past, but the excellent bilingual information panels pull no punches about perfidious Albion. Drake and Nelson might be national heroes in Britain but for the Spanish, they’ll always be pirates.
The ultimate goal for Drake was to capture the wealthy lakeside city of Granada to give as a present to Elizabeth I. To this day Granada remains one of Latin America’s most beautifully preserved colonial cities and makes an ideal base from which to explore the volcanoes and islands along Lake Nicaragua’s western shores. Volcano trekking in the tropics can be tough, but there’s none easier than Mombacho, a few kilometres south of Granada, where a snaking road whisks you straight up to the summit. Jumping into the back of a Toyota 4x4 I was glad to escape the stultifying heat and enjoy the cool mountain breezes as we sped up the slopes at a terrifying angle. Halfway up we took a coffee break at the Las Flores coffee plantation, home to one of Nicaragua’s most popular organic brands. The estate dates back to 1926 and in the cool colonial-style salon I finally got to try out one of Nicaragua’s famous rocking chairs. With tilting backs and big wheels supporting the rockers you’ll see these charming rustic chairs on verandas the length and breadth of Nicaragua. Incredibly comfortable, I almost forgot to notice how excellent the vanilla-scented coffee was.
Nicaragua has 17 volcanoes, the most spectacular of which is Concepcion, which rises in a near perfect cone from the middle of the lake. Together with its sister volcano, Maderas, they form Ometepe island, one of Nicaragua’s most scenic holiday spots. Lake Nicaragua is notoriously choppy and the ferry crossing is often a thrilling experience. At the dusty lakeside village of Moyagalpa, I jumped on to the Karen Maria, a creaking 60-year-old wooden ferry straight out of a Tintin adventure. In the middle of the lake the wind suddenly picked up and as I stood on the bridge, great fountains of spray shot up, tossing the Karen Maria back and forth as she slowly ploughed towards the spectacular twin volcanoes. On shore the atmosphere was far more tranquil. Fields of plantains were shimmering in the breeze, while dreadlocked backpackers were snoozing in hammocks on the beach. At Santo Domingo we stopped at a lakeside restaurant and ordered a delicious lunch of grilled mojarra, a fearsome-looking fish, which a sapphire-blue crested magpie eyed hungrily from the nearby trees. The view was stunning; a dazzling white tropical beach flanked by the sweeping forested slopes of Mount Maderas. When Spanish explorers first set eyes on Lake Nicaragua they named it Mar Dulce, the Sweet Sea. Five-hundred years later this fascinating volcanic lake still captivates visitors with its majestic beauty.
The Facts Iberia (www.iberia.com) flies daily to Nicaragua from London with connections to Nicaragua offered by TACA (www.taca.com). Return flights from £827. Entre Islas organises customised tours of Lake Nicaragua with bilingual guides. For details and quotes visit www.entreislassa.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; for more see www.visit-nicaragua.com or www.visitcentroamerica.com
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east