Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nicaragua's Colorful Natural & Human History

Hi All,
We switched gears from climbing volcanoes to exploring Nicaragua's colorful natural and human history.  On February 15 we returned to Managua and flew south to San Carlos stopping at Ometepe Island on the way.  The island is in Lake Nicaragua and was formed by two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas.  We headed directly for Concepcion as the airstrip was at the base of the volcano!

Coming in for a Landing on Ometepe Island
 
The takeoff was equally exciting.  The pilots were busy with paperwork and were heading straight for the cloud-covered Maderas Volcano.  The onboard computer shouts a warning  "Terrain, terrain, pull up, pull up!"  The pilot unfazed, pulls up just as we clear the east forested ridge.  Marc snapped a photo of the GPS screen which shows up flying over the summit of the volcano!

"Terrain, Terrain, Pull Up, Pull Up!"
 
We landed in San Carlos without further incident at the confluence of Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River.  A short boat trip into Lake Nicaragua brought us to the Solentiname Islands, our destination for the next 2 days.  Here is a map of the area showing some of the places that we would visit.

Map of Solentiname and Rio San Juan
 
The following morning we headed up the Papaturro River to Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, an UNESCO biosphere reserve and a Ramsar Wetland.  The river meanders through tropical wetlands and a rainforest full of birds, monkeys and iguanas.

American Pygmy Kingfisher

White-faced Capuchin

Green Iguana
 
Near the end of the river is the Ecological Center of Los Guatuzos.  We stopped to visit the research center and walk in the rainforest.  The birds, lizards and monkeys are more difficult to see but Marc was able to get some good shots.

Prothonotary Warbler

Basilisk Lizard

Geoffroy's Spider Monkey


We had lunch in the tiny town of Papaturro and took a walk on the restaurant owner's farm.  They are trying to become more involved with ecotourism and we were the second group of tourists to get a tour.  There was a surprising amount of birds and monkeys in the rainforest surrounding the cow pasture.

Groove-billed Anis

Geoffroy's Spider Monkey (female and baby)

It would be a good thing if the locals could preserve some of the forest on their farms and ecotourism may give them the incentive.

We headed back down the Papaturro River when our guide Lenin spotted a large Caiman basking on the shore.

Spectacled Caiman
 
The next stop was Mancarrón, the largest island in the Solentiname archipelago.  In 1966 a Nicaraguan priest, Ernesto Cardenal, arrived here and found an impoverished community.  He decided to create an artisan colony and taught the locals to paint and make cravings out of balsawood.  Cardenal collaborated closely with the Sandinistas in overthrowing dictator Anatascio Somoza Debayle.  Many members of the Solentiname community engaged in guerilla warfare against the Somoza regime.  In 1977, Somoza's National Guard raided Solentiname and burned it to the ground.  Cardenal escaped to nearby Costa Rica.  In 1979 the Sandinistas ousted Somoza and Cardenal returned to Nicaragua as Minister of Culture.  Cardenal's Artist Community exists to this day.  There is a church, library and many of the locals proudly display their art for sale.  The colorful Solentiname paintings are inspired by the islands rich wildlife and plant species.

The next morning we returned to San Carlos stopping off to visit Zapote Island and River along the way.  There were many Tiger Herons, cormorants and beautiful Roseate Spoonbills nesting on the island.

Roseate Spoonbill

Mantled Howler

After a brief stop in San Carlos, we continued down the historic San Juan River to the tiny town of El Castillo.  In 1673, the Spanish built a fort here called The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.

Fortress of the Immaculate Conception
 
It was completed in 1675 as one of the fortifications built along the San Juan River to protect the city of Granada (the first Spanish colonial city in Central America) from pirate attacks.  The city can be reached by navigating the San Juan River upstream from the Caribbean Sea into Lake Nicaragua.

In 1762 a  British expeditionary force consisting of 2000 men and more they 50 boats laid siege to the fortress which had only 100 men to defend it!  To make matters worse, the garrison commander of the fort, Lieutenant Commander Herrera, died unexpectedly just 11 days prior.  His 19 year old daughter Rafaela led the charge to defend the fort including killing the British commander and the British retreated 6 days later.  In 1780, the British successfully captured the fort under the command of 22 year-old Captain Nelson.  They occupied it for only nine months before abandoning it.

In the 1840's the California Gold Rush prompted the United States to consider building a canal through Nicaragua using the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua.  Here is an old map showing the proposed route:

1870's Map of the Nicaragua Canal
 
In fact, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a shuttle system to get gold seekers from New York to San Francisco (the trans-continental railroad had not yet been built).  From New York would-be prospectors sailed to the Caribbean, up the San Juan River and across Lake Nicaragua before being shuttled overland to the Pacific where they resumed the journey to San Francisco by ship!

Due to civil wars and the constant threat of volcanic eruptions the U.S. chose to build the canal through Panama instead.  Today the Chinese have signed an agreement with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to build an 172-mile canal through Nicaragua.  Time will tell if this $50 billion project becomes a reality.

The following day we headed down the San Juan River to the Indio Maize Biological Reserve, a 4500 square kilometer expanse of lowland rainforest.  We stopped to take a walk through the rainforest to look for birds and other critters but they were difficult to spot in the dense canopy.  Marc did his best to photograph some of the birds and monkeys we did see.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Geoffroy's Spider Monkeys
 
On February 19 we flew back to Managua and drove to the northeast, past the city of Matagalpa to Selva Negra Ecolodge and Coffee Estate.  Here is a map of Nicaragua showing the location of Selva Negra (near Maltagalpa).

Map of Nicaragua (places visited are circled in red) 
 
We came here to see the Resplendent Quetzal, deemed to be the second most beautiful bird in the world.  The Quetzals favor cloud forest, 300 acres of which are protected in the Selva Negra Nature Reserve.  Our guide told us not to get our hopes up, quetzals are very difficult to spot in the cloud forest.  During our first morning's walk, Manuel, our guide, and I spotted a large bird flying through the trees.  I was able to see where it landed and described the bird to Manuel.  He located the bird and excitedly announced it as a Quetzal!  At first he thought it was an immature male but it turned out to be a female.  Marc did his best to photograph her high up in the cloud forest canopy.

Female Resplendent Quetzal
 
She flew off and landed a short distance away where Marc was able to spot her and her mate!  I only caught a glimpse of the male as he flew off.  The next day we searched in vain for the Quetzals.  Marc got a glimpse of one flying in the trees.  However we did spot this beautiful male Collared Trogon.

Collared Trogon
 
The next stop on our tour was the Spanish colonial city of Granada which I've already mentioned.  Our hotel was right on the main plaza and we had a great view of the Cathedral of Granada from our balcony.  It was first constructed as a church in 1583.  It was completely destroyed by William Walker in 1856.  William Walker, an American filibuster, launched several unauthorized military campaigns in Latin America and actually ruled Nicaragua for a time before he was booted out.  He was finally captured and executed in Honduras.  The cathedral has since been rebuilt to its present day glory.

Cathedral of Granada  
 
On our last day in Nicaragua we visited two reserves in search of more birds.  The first was Montibelli Private Natural Reserve where we hoped to see a Painted Bunting.  The reserve protects more than 160 hectares of dry tropical forest.  We never did see a Painted Bunting but we did see a lot of other colorful birds such as this Turquoise-browed Motmot (Nicaragua's national bird) and Black-headed Trogon.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Male Black-headed Trogon
 
The final stop on our Nicaraguan tour was Chocoyero Natural Reserve.  The reserve protects 455 acres of tropical dry forest and a waterfall where hundreds of Pacific Parakeets nest in the cliff walls.  On our way to the waterfall we encountered some local ornithologists who where capturing birds in mist nets to count and band them.  They had just captured a Swainson's Thrush, a migratory bird that visits Vermont's forests in the summer to breed and a beautiful resident Long-tailed Manakin.

Long-tailed Manakin
 
Suddenly, Lenin spotted the elusive Painting Bunting!  I got a glimpse of the more drab female but Marc spotted the brilliantly colored male and was able to get a descent shot.


Male Painted Bunting
 
We arrived at the waterfall just as the Pacific Parakeets began arriving in pairs to roost for the night.

Pacific Parakeets
 
What a fitting end to our amazing 2-week visit to Nicaragua!  Thanks to our wonderful guide Lenin for showing us Nicaragua's vibrant natural history and teaching us about Nicaragua's colorful past.  We wish the people of this remarkable Central American country continued peace, health and prosperity in the future.

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nicaragua's Fire Mountains

Greetings All,
Our next destination is the Central American country of Nicaragua.  We visited Nicaragua in 2010 as Earthwatch project volunteers on Masaya Volcano.  We decided to return to see more of the country.  Here is a map of Nicaragua showing the places we plan on visiting.

Map of Nicaragua (places we'll visit are circled in red)

We flew from Mexico City to Managua, Nicaragua on February 9.  Our flight was delayed by 6 hours so by the time we arrived in Managua and drove 2 hours northwest to Leon it was after dark.  The following morning we had a few hours to explore this Spanish colonial city.  Unlike Managua it was not destroyed by the 1972 earthquake and many old Spanish churches and buildings remain.  We visited the Cathedral of Leon, the largest cathedral in Central America and now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Leon Cathedral

The cathedral was built between 1747 and 1814 with a blend of architectural styles.  We climbed to the roof where the dazzling white-washed domes nearly blinded us. 

Roof of Leon Cathedral

From this vantage point we could see over Leon to a chain of volcanoes, some of which we were to climb over the next few days.

View over Leon & Maribios Volcano Range

This map shows the Maribios Volcano Chain.  Our first week in Nicaragua would be spent climbing four of these volcanoes: Telica, Cerro Negro, San Cristobal and Momotombo.

Map of Nicaragua's Volcanoes

Our guide Flávio picked us up in the early afternoon and we drove via Land Cruiser to the village of San Jacinto.  Here a number of bubbling mud pots and volcanic vents are located.


San Jacinto Volcanic Vents 

They are connected to Telica Volcano, 9 km away.  We drove to the base of the volcano on a bumpy, rutted dirt road where a short 800-foot climb took us to the low point on the rim of Telica Volcano (3481 feet).  This active volcano last erupted in 2011.  The sun was setting below the high point on the rim which we didn't climb to due to the unstable walls of the crater.

Sun Setting over Telica Volcano

We waited until after the sun set to get a glimpse of the magma in the caldera 400 feet below.

Magma in Telica's Caldera

We made our way back to our vehicle with our head lamps spotting some night creatures along the way like this scorpion and gecko.

Scorpion

Gecko

On the drive back to Leon, our vehicle headlights caught the eyeshine of a Common Opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), also called the southern or black-eared opossum.  They are different from the opposums back home which are technically Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana).

Common Opossum

The next morning we headed out to climb Cerro Negro, Central America's youngest volcano formed in April, 1850.  We were the first at the trailhead and the first to reach the summit of one of Nicaragua's most active volcanos at 2388 feet.

Cerro Negro

Most opt to run down the steep ash slopes on the south side but we chose to climb down into the crater floor to get a closer look at the vents.

Vents in Cerro Negro's Crater

Steam and gas were billowing out leaving bright yellow sulfur crystals and what looked like lichens around the vent openings.

Sulfur Crystals and Lichen

We climbed back up to the rim and went down the same route we climbed up.  Along the way we passed by large groups of young tourists carrying boards strapped to their backs.

"What on Earth are they doing?"

"What on earth are they doing?" I wondered.  It turns out they climb the volcano to ash board down the south slope!  Some didn't look too happy hauling up the heavy board and weren't convinced that they were doing a sane thing.  Some wore T-shirts stating "conquer the fear".  Flávio told us a young woman broke her back while volcano boarding when her boyfriend careened into her!  I was happy to be making my way down standing on two feet.  We drove around to the base of the volcano to watch them come down.  You actually lie on the board feet first and slide down.  The flatter you lie, the faster you go, up to 60 mph!  You have to use your feet as brakes.  The first couple of guys flew down while the others were more tenuous.

Volcano Boarding!

We drove to the Laguna El Tigre for lunch before returning to Leon.

Laguna El Tigre

Early the following morning we left to tackle San Cristobal Volcano, the highest volcano in Nicaragua and the country's second highest point at 5725 feet.  We climbed 3400 feet in 2.5 miles straight up the north face of the volcano!

Climbing San Cristobal Volcano

The view inside the active crater was spectacular.  The volcano was spewing gas and smoke and we could see the impact craters on a lower shelf from the 2014 eruption.  

View of San Cristobal's Crater


Us on the Summit of San Cristobal Volcano

On the way back down I felt like we were skiing (ok, more like snowshoeing).  Instead of snow there was volcanic scree or rubble.  The deeper the scree, the easier the descent, like skiing in deep powder.  Spots with less scree felt like skiing on ice, slippery with little control.  We had to make our way around the dead trunks of trees killed by the volcano's many eruptions.  It took us 3 and a half hours to climb the volcano but only 1 and a half hours to come down!


Descending San Cristobal Volcano

The next day we were to conquer our fourth and most challenging volcano, Momotombo.  We left Leon in the early afternoon and drove about 2 hours to the trailhead where we parked the Land Cruiser.  We were given a nylon hammock to sleep in and Flávio asked if we needed a sleeping bag.  He told us it gets quite windy and cold at camp.  "How cold?" I asked.  Flávio replied 30 to 35.  "Heck," I said "that's downright hot!" and we passed on the sleeping bags.  We didn't have room in our day packs for them anyway.  We climbed 500 feet (about 3/4 of a mile) to the first camping spot. 

Our Camp Site with Momotombo Beyond

Flávio asked if we wanted to hike another hour to a higher camp.  We opted for the lower camp since our assistant guide Christian hadn't caught up to us yet.  About 30 minutes later he came huffing and puffing into camp.  In all fairness he was carrying a lot of water which we never used.  

Flávio hung our hammocks in the trees and we climbed a low ridge to watch the sun set over Lake Managua.

Sun Setting Over Lake Managua

We ate sandwiches for dinner before turning in around 7:30.  As predicted by Flávio, the wind picked up and it was difficult getting settled into my hammock.  We had silk liners with us and a few clothes but not much else.  The wind was whipping the nylon hammock and I had to wrap myself inside like a caterpillar in a cocoon.  A couple of hours later I still lay awake.  The wind was creating a racket and I was cold.  I finally convinced myself to get up and put on all the clothes I had.  As I was crawling out, the wind caught my silk liner and blew it away!  Fortunately, it got snagged on a tree nearby.  With difficulty I put on my nylon pants, socks and a lightweight rain jacket with a hood.  I crawled back into my cocoon and tried to sleep.  Around 11:30 Marc got up and asked if I was warm.  "Warm enough", I replied.  What else could I say, I had ALL my clothes on.  Around 3AM, we couldn't take it anymore.  We weren't getting any sleep so we woke Flávio to get the keys to the Land Cruiser.  We told him we could find our way to the truck with our GPS but he insisted on coming with us.  We didn't wait and headed down with our head lamps to light the way.  We reached the Land Cruiser and climbed in the back to get a few hours of sleep.  Ahh, quiet and warm at last!

I was awakened at 6AM by voices.  "Were Flávio and Christan already up?" I wondered.  No, they were still snug in their hammocks.  A group of young people walked through our makeshift camp with a cheery "Buenos Dias!".  I groaned, got up reluctantly and climbed out of the back of the truck for a breakfast of bananas and pastry.  We left around 6:45 AM and climbed back up to our abandoned camp.  Flávio and Christan were behind us but it was easy to follow the tracks of the group ahead. Flávio caught up to us and we traversed around the slope of the volcano on a narrow path through the scree.  The wind was still whipping and was blowing rocks down on us from above which we had to dodge.

Watch Out for Rocks!

As we approached the shoulder of the volcano we caught up to the young group.  We stopped to regroup, emptying the scree out of our boots and finally putting on our gaiters.  We tied bandanas around our heads to keep the dust out of our eyes and ears.  We were hoping that the wind would abate but it only became fiercer.

Approaching the Shoulder of Momotombo Volcano

The slope got steeper but we decided to climb to a set of rocks below the summit.  The other group had not moved and we were now blazing the trail.  We took one step forward and slid or were blown two steps back!

Marc Nearing our High Point on Momotombo

We finally made it to the rocks where the summit looked tantalizingly close.  The last pitch was steep and covered in slippery scree and the wind had not let up.  A cloud of sulfur gas had built up over the crater and we were now catching whiffs of the acrid gas.  We decided to turn back instead of making the treacherous climb.  I was disappointed but sanity prevailed.  We headed down as the other group reached the rocks.  It turns out one of the guys is from Long Island was was visiting friends in Managua.  The descent proved easier than the ascent but we still had to watch out for rocks falling from the slopes above us.

Descending Momotombo Volcano

We could see Christan far below waiting for us.  He wisely decided to stay behind.  We made it back to the Land Cruiser where a big chuck of watermelon cooled us off.  We had survived Nicaragua's Fire Mountains!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc