Nicaragua 2013 Informe

Notes on Chris’ and Eric’s Visit to Southeastern Nicaragua in May of 2013

As I usually like to do after visiting someplace interesting, I’d like to share some of what I learned on this visit to Nicaragua. Short, only a week, but full of new sights and conversations; of course, we like to dig a little deeply into the life of a place and not just lie prostrate on some beach, and this trip was no exception.

We began (after a pause in Miami: nostalgic for me, even from the view of the airport windows, staffed as it is with mainly Cubanos and with the opportunity to eat some comida Cubana escorted to a booth with a “?por aqui, mi amor?” and quaff as many cafe cubanos as possible) by landing in Managua just before sunset, and hiring a taxi to take us about an hour away to the colonial city of Granada. We’d reserved a room at the Hotel Casa Barcelona on the truly Nicaraguan (i.e. people’s) side of town, away from the touristic center. Very nice, laid-back, little cabin-like rooms situated around a long, very lush tropical garden peppered with banana trees, among others. The proprietress unlocked a gate and ushered us in with a smile, very Latin-American styled “gentileza”. But this is not a hotel review. Mainly my point is the more “real” feel of this side of town, the far side of the dusty, noisy, hectic street-market zone. With the lackluster response to inquiry, one might get the impression that everyone is sour and closed in some characteristic Central-American way, but no, it was just the heat and humidity. We also arrived without having changed many dollars into Cordobas, and less than good idea what the going rate was. (Nobody likes an ignoramus). Soon enough, we were firmly “on vacation”, once we gathered our bearings and hit our first touristy site: the Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534.

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Of course, the church was sacked and burnt and rebuilt about 125 years after that, as most old churches seem to suffer.  The interior was a relief from the heat, but not overly rich in detail as other baroque churches we’ve visited.  Nonetheless, some interesting details, some of which were undergoing restoration…

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We also did the obligatory ascent to the top of the bell tower, taking a spiral staircase until we saw the following views:

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In a nearby part of town, next to a park built around the remains of ancient, indigenous walls, we visited La Iglesia Xalteya:

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We followed our curiosity to a point on the map that turned out to be the ruins of an old hospital (19th C.), and had a long chat with the security guard posted to keep people away from possible falling walls:

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Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

We encountered a range of political perspectives while in the country, but there were some interesting points common to most.  In Granada, a security guard installed in the portal of the ancient ruins of a hospital said the following: That most of the Nicaraguan people (including him, of course) had opposed the Sandinistas by the end of the war with the Contras (speaking of the free elections agreed to by Daniel Ortega, the military leader of the Sandinistas).  (Later, at the end of our journey, we gained a bit more perspective by spending time with the noted activist, Father Joe Mulligan, an ex-patriot from Chicago who had gained his “notoriety” by being one of a small group who broke into a draft office during the Vietnam War and stole/burned the records of eligible draftees; young men of age could thus not be tracked down and drafted by the U.S. government for an entire year!  I wonder with admiration how many lives were saved, on both sides, by this act; Father Joe also broke into at least one nuclear facility in subsequent years, with another small group, to protest the manufacture of nuclear weapons.  But back to Nicaragua: according to the Padre, who has lived in Managua for something like 20+ years, the Contras stuck around the country even after the cessation of fighting/treaty, and therefore many supporters of the FSLN {the party of the Sandinistas} felt justifiably intimidated by their presence, fearing reprisals should they vote for Ortega; this was one reason that they voted against him, and helped put-in Violeta Chamorro.  The other reason was the influence, of course, of the U.S./CIA, which had conducted a campaign of low-intensity warfare, black propaganda, economic pressures, etc. against the FSLN.  It was a policy of “wearing down the people” that at least temporarily worked for the imperialists, in place of any further military possibility).

Thus began the guard’s position, very critical of the Sandinistas, but it soon turned into a certain form of grudging admiration towards the current-day policies of Ortega.  Efforts such as co-ventures of infrastructure improvements with international entities, governmental and otherwise (Italy, Spain, etc.), to improve highways, roads, etc., and to provide training and support to the national police force to fight both common crime and narcotrafficking. He also spoke of the lowering of the poverty rate, and good pay and benefits for the police (so that they would be less likely to succumb to the temptation of corruption).  These positive comments pleased us at that moment, but we should have taken it as a bad sign, coming from someone with such a conservative perspective, and would have, had we had more information.

In that afternoon so sunny and brutal, the man also spoke of a very low incidence of violence on the national level, due to the strong posture of the police against delinquency and any attempt by the narcos of neighboring countries to establish themselves in Nicaragua.  He cited a case that occurred in the city of Leon recently: how the police had come down hard on a small group of Costa Ricans trying to gain a foothold there.  Moreover, he denied that there was much drug trafficking of any significance along the Atlantic/Miskito coast.  Father Joe had another opinion: that there was plenty of trafficking, especially on the Atlantic coast.  Also that the government of Daniel runs everything as if the country were one big business, like a corporation.  There actually is a foreign consortium, ALBANISA, that has invested quite a bit in many areas and through which Ortega’s administration has greatly profited.  One thing that the Father and the security guard agreed upon was that the motive force behind this way of doing things is Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murrio, a woman of great stature in her own right, noted in earlier years as a distinguished poet.  “A very strong woman”.  Father Joe also feels that Murrio is being groomed for the presidency, since Daniel can’t run for another term under the Constitution.  The security guard seemed very humble by the end of our talk, seated there amongst the crumbling, sun-drenched ruins.  Its true: according to Father Joe, police only receive about $250 U.S. a month.

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DSC02508 Reggeaton music was pouring out of here.

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The old train station

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Parque Central and Iglesia Catedral

The next day, we moved on to the island of Ometepe, where Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas tower over Lake Cocibolca:

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“Ometepe” comes  from the Nahuatl language: “Ome” = Two, “Tepe” = Peaks.  Nahuatl people settled the island more than 2,000 years ago, then repelled the Spanish conquistadores on their first attempt to take over the island.  The second or third time around, the Spanish hired some mercenaries composed of already conquered indigenous folks of other tribes to join them; the Nahuatls were forced to flee and abandon the island.  The native peoples of Nicaragua were, in general, not totally decimated as they were in places like Costa Rica, and there is therefore a much larger representation of pre-Hispanic heritage here surviving the Conquest.  However, this also means that a dynamic of oppression has also been inherited whereas a small, elite class continues to enjoy a power relationship over the majority of the dark-skinned poor, unlike Costa Rica where so-called representative democracy has developed much further.

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Anyway, I’ve been wanting to go to Ometepe ever since Chris stayed there for a few days about three years ago and loved it.  Last year, when we visited the country, we stayed in the highlands of the north, close to the border with Honduras.  The “biosphere” there was completely different: a cloud forest in the midst of an area that had seen a lot of fighting during the revolution and Contra war.  Ometepe, on the other hand, is much hotter and was a much more peaceful place during the conflicts, a sanctuary for Sandinistas recovering from trauma, really…

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One takes either a boat or a ferry from the port town of San Jose over to Moyogalpa on the slopes of the volvano, Concepcion.  Of the two volcanos of Ometepe, this one is still active, spewing gases.  Its been at least eight years since it has actually erupted, and back then, it just broke a few windows.  But you never know with these things.  Once there, you take either a bus packed with people or a taxi to the other side of the island, the city of Altagracia, which takes less than an hour.  On the way, you pass several small, sleepy towns, scrubby fields, farms, and a landing strip for small airplanes.  What a view there.  The road actually crosses the runway, and is closed whenever a plane is landing or taking off.

The road begins to skirt the northern coast, and the beaches and properties there are beautiful.  Foreigners are buying-up real estate on the island, particularly beach-front lots.  A “manzana” (an acre?) used to cost less than $1,000.  Now, with all the gentrification, a manzana by the lake costs at least $40,000!  As a consequence, native islanders cannot afford to buy lake-front land.  The foreigners (U.S., Canadian, etc.) oftentimes bulldoze massive, ancient trees on their acquired properties, then build relatively large mansions or hotels there.  They don’t live in-harmony with the island’s nature.  There is real friction between the natives and the newcomers.  And now, the Nicaraguan newspapers are reporting that a transoceanic canal similar to the Panama canal will be dug and go right through Lake Cocibolca, within sight of Ometepe.  Environmentalists are predicting dire effects on the fragile ecosystem.  It would be like running an 8-lane superhighway through all the Hawaiian islands.

We arrived, finally, at the Finca Magdalena.  A “finca” is basically a farm; in this case, one of the oldest on Ometepe, and collectively run by about 18 families that have been here since the wars.  For years, the cooperative owed a lot of money to the banks for their land; due to external pressures on the Nicaraguan government, true land reform never really happened.  Economic austerity measures put a lot of people in perpetual debt, and many lost their lands when forced to borrow funds on highly unfavorable terms just to operate, funds they found impossible to pay back.  Many families left Finca Magdalena and dissolved away or formed their own collectives.  The collective of the remaining 18 almost collapsed; luckily, at the last minute, they were able to make a very profitable business relationship with a group in Seattle that bought most of their coffee crop once they were certified organic.  Now a Canadian company buys much of their coffee.  The cooperative was able to completely pay off the balance of their loan and “said goodbye” to the bank, forever.  Although life is hard on the finca, life is good there.  The people plant and raise corn, cacao, coffee, beans, yucca, etc.  Much of it is for their own consumption.  They also earn money from renting rooms to foreign visitors like us, giving them tours of the finca and the petroglyphs in the forest, and selling them meals.

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The fabulous (and noisy) URACA bird.  Note the head plumage.

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Under the almond trees

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To sleep under a mosquito net

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A late afternoon walk through the finca.

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The view from the veranda.

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The coffee mill. The machines are all quite old, but work well.

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The petroglyph guide.

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The swirl where the “Yellow Brick Road” begins. Paths go all directions: to the Petroglyphs; to the Cascade; to the Coffee Plantation; to the Volcano.

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Where the coffee beans are sun-dried.

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The petroglyph tour is very relaxed, and so natural in feel that to come upon the carvings of ancient peoples “in-situ” there on the forest floor is not all that spectacular, as wonderful as they are, unless you are one of those few people who marvel at the slightest thing.  They are significant, but subtle. 

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This might be a child, or possible the “duende”, a mischievious forest spirit that supposedly lures people to their death with temptations and charms.

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I believe that this is the Cenicero tree, which is very fine and rare, and has black wood inside.

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Mario.

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A cacique (tribal leader).

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Anthropologists think that this may be a type of calendar.

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The spiral was a very important symbol for the ancient Nahuatl people. It signified immortality: life beginning at the center of the spiral and continuing outward after death, to reemerge elsewhere. The figure on the top right represents “eternity”, whereas one remains alive by procreating; the different squiggles represent offshoots, or multiple families, living in community. The figure at the lower right is unknown, but it is theorized to be a representation of the island of Ometepe itself. I came up with the idea that the lines around the border of the “lake” are rivers. Mario liked that.

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After seeing the petroglyphs, we met a young man in the little village of Balgue with whom we bargained.  An interesting fellow covered with tattoos and rings, skinny and with a hip-hop swagger.  I made my way past a loose pig and tore my pants on the barbed-wire fence leading to a soccer field where the guy hung-out talking to some friends.  Didn’t catch his name, but he spoke good English that he says he learned here in school.  Actually, his skills came from helping his uncle run a guest house just down the road, “Asi Es Mi Tierra”.  The uncle, Marcos, was a very sweet, easy-going man who did a little bit of everything, including playing baseball with a local team.  He drove us to the natural springs of Ojo de Agua and gave us the low-down of life on the island as we went.  On the way, we passed a few lots with parts of wind turbines lying in them, about to be assembled.  There are already a great many such turbines installed on the far shores of the lake.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of them.  Ojo del Agua was very nice, since everyone who’d been there earlier in the hot part of the day had left (mostly tourists).  We had the place to ourselves.  Well, we shared it with some Congo monkeys hanging in the trees above.  The water was pleasant, but not nearly as cold as Floridian springs, as is preferable to me…

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After Ojo del Agua, we felt a little adventurous and sought-out where to buy the famous banana-leaf-wrapped “Naca-tamal”, the Nicaraguan version of tamales.  Word-of-mouth brought us to a family cooking them in a huge olla on an open fire in a little pit in the back yard of their house; a huge cloud of steam roiled out when the lid was lifted, and my only regret is not buying more…

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Our last day at the Finca Magdalena, we decided to hire a guide to go up to the top of Volcan Maderas.  You have to go with a guide, ever since 3 years ago an experienced climber went up by himself and got lost.  He ended up falling into a narrow ravine and being eaten by ants and buzzards.  It took the villagers 3 weeks to find his remains; a massive search was mounted.  Men had to rappel down to retrieve the poor soul.  The family had to pay about $3,000 to compensate them for their expenses.  Anyway, it is dangerous in various ways.  Getting lost can mean succumbing to dehydration, exposure, etc.  There are also a lot of ways to fall and get hurt, as the path upwards is narrow, steep, and full of angular rocks covered with wet clay.  The paths branch off to who knows where.  There are three levels of forest to get through: the lower, dry forest (very hot), the intermediate level wet forest, and the upper cloud forest.  The wet forest is especially beautiful, very lush.  There is a wonderful grove of cacao trees there, sometimes with monkeys in them.  We saw both the Congos (Howlers) and the White Faced; the Congos are more common, but don’t like humans.  They howl at you and break and throw sticks in your general direction.  Supposedly, they throw feces, too.  Passing them again on the way back down, they chose to remain silent until we were gone.  The White Faced monkeys are shy and harder to see, but we were lucky.

Anyway, our guide Elmer walked up the mountain like it was nothing.  Chris and I huffed and puffed and did our best to keep up with him.  It was a brutal, unrelenting pace; we barely stopped for breaks the whole 4 hours it took to get to the top.  I was getting dizzy with exhaustion, heat, humidity, altitude, etc., and started to wobble.

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A parasitic tree that wraps itself around another tree and sucks out its nutrients until the host tree is dead.

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At the lower levels, there are actual stair steps to help you. Even with those, it is challenging.

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Getting into the clouds.

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This muddy sluice is our trail. It is far steeper than it looks.

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In the intermediate cloud forest, there is a rare resident that few people ever see, but once again, we were lucky to have Elmer as our guide.  He managed to notice “un Cangrejo del Camino” at our feet, under the foliage.  “Crab of the Road”, a high-altitude crab that actually lives in the little pools there.  It isn’t good for eating, Elmer said; the meat isn’t suitable.

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Another curiosity is the “Labios de Mujer” flower.  It does look like a woman’s lips.  “Besala”, Elmer said.

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Labios de Mujer

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La mujer.

I’d say that the intermediate wet forest is probably most people’s favorite:

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As you get into the upper, Cloud forest, the level of your exhaustion is astounding.  By then, we’d gone through a 2nd and 3rd wind.  Actually, I was feeling pretty good, although it was a strange sensation to be hot and sweaty at the same time as damp and chilled by the precipitation of the clouds swirling over us.  It was a mysterious and magical place, for sure…

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This tree puts out tendril trunks to both stabilize it in the sometimes very high winds at this altitude and to store water in those trunks during drier times.

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We finally made it to the rim of the volcano, although it was hard to see anything due to the thick clouds that we were in.  From there, it was a short decent down into the crater, made possible by a few ropes and stanchions placed for our benefit.  The crater itself was a most mysterious place, very quiet, lush with vegetation, and filled with water at its center.  This lake is usually swimmable, but the level was too low at this time.  There is thick, clay mud at the bottom which can trap you as you sink into it.  Besides, the crater was filled with howling cloud, very cool and damp.  I felt like I was in an Andrei Tarkovsky film…

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As we climbed back up to the rim, we met a group of young women who were volunteers for some NGO in Managua.  They were crazed with exhaustion, and didn’t even want to descend into the crater after having come so far (the village that they started their climb from was further from the top than ours).  We tried to talk them into it, but I don’t think they went for it.

Going back down was quite treacherous.  Not for Elmer, who had nice boots and tons of experience; but for us city-slickers with the flat-bottomed shoes, it was a friggin’ miracle that we made it down without falling more times than we did.  Chris fell at least twice (minor); I fell once on my butt, once off to the side into the brush, and once face-forward onto a boulder.  It got to the point where I would start to laugh uncontrollably, since I was so out-of-control.  Also had to be careful what branches to grab to help the descent, since some had razor-sharp barbs on them.  There were more wonders to see on the way down…

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The Horned Spider. Not very poisonous or aggressive.

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A protruding pod of cacao.

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Leaf-cutter ants heading into their burrow with their materials. They cut pieces of flowers or leaves and take them back to chew; the bi-product of the leaves feeds a certain fungus in the burrow that the ants actually feed off of.

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An ant-hill created in the time it took us to go up and come back down again.

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Looking pretty serious. (Things weren’t that bad; I was actually having a great time).

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A petroglyph on the side of the path. Found it in the dry forest; looks like an anthill.

Back at the Finca, it took half an hour for me to clean the mud off of my shoes.  Things were tranquil there, and we felt a great sense of accomplishment conducive to relaxing the rest of the day.  We packed our things and ordered a large dinner, bracing ourselves for the return to the outside world the next morning…

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The view from our room…

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View from the observation platform of the Finca.

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Getting ready to leave. Great sadness.

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Inside the Finca’s guest house. It used to be owned by Anastasio Somoza, the dictator.

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I kept snapping photos even as we left the Maderas side of Ometepe in Marcos’ truck…

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At last, we were boarding the ferry, the Che Guevara back to the mainland, the town of San Jorge, then on to Rivas and Managua on a “chicken bus”.  (Amazing how the bus was literally on the pier where the ferry docked, and we were immediately off).

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It was a rough, loud, hot ride into Managua, with people cramming on and off, and hawkers of snacks filling the air with their patter.  I did the best I could to distract myself with the view…

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Once in Managua, we were hustled onto a taxi and heading towards the hotel that we more or less randomly selected in the midst of a city we knew nothing about.  The driver half-convinced us to try a hotel closer to the airport, but we contacted Father Joe and tried another option that didn’t involve helping the driver get his commission from whomever owned the place he was trying to take us to.  Eventually, we settled into the Hotel Estrella and met with Father Joe (Mulligan), who picked us up and gave us a little tour of historic old Managua.  We saw the old presidential palace that the Sandinistas had stormed and taken over back in the ’70’s, that now has a bus parked in front that was important in the literacy campaign.  Had a distant glance at the old cathedral that had been damaged by a major earthquake in the ’70s, closed ever since.  Father Joe took us to the port of Salvadore Allende, named after the overthrown Socialist president of Chile.  It was very nicely done, a place for the people to relax on the weekend, enjoy music, fresh breezes from Lake Managua, darles un paseo on the Malecon, eat in open-air restaurants, etc.

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Father Joe Mulligan, originally from Detroit/Chicago.

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A neon artwork of Augusto Sandino, the father of the Nicaraguan revolution. It is mounted on a tall bank building.

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Next morning, on the way to the airport, I took these “from the taxi” pictures. 

I call them “Impressions of Managua”.

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Thanks for reading!

Eric.

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3 comments

  1. Rafael C. Torres · · Reply

    That was an excellent reportage illustrated with enough photos to “get the picture” of what you and Christine saw and experienced in Nicaragua.
    Well paced and with enough details to help the imagination of the reader.
    Good luck with future blogs!

  2. Elena Torres · · Reply

    A very interesting, detailed report of your trip to Nicaragua with so many beautiful pictures. Good job Eric. It makes me want to go there.

  3. Linda Wing · · Reply

    Very comprehensive blend of reporting and insights. I love how you touched on not just sites, but also people, nature, politics, news, history and so much more – it really brot everything to life. I was a little worried about the length, but your images and text flowed beautifully – so much so, that I was sad to leave at the journey’s end. Thank you so much for sharing and bringing Nicaragua back to those of us who have yet to make the trip! Looking forward to your next exploration – Great job, Eric!

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