Tourist First

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. Scroll down and hit "older posts" to find postings about about Iran, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa, Peru, Panama, France, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Canada, Turkey, Nicaragua, Britain and more. You can also use the search function, above left, to look for a particular destination. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When a Travel Agent Is Better Than the Internet

Seth Kugel, the New York Times' Frugal Traveler columnist and blogger, has made a startling discovery. Sometimes, travel agencies can get you a fare lower than anything you can find online.
Keep this tip in mind for your next trip abroad, especially if you're going someplace far away that's not served by loads of international carriers. If you're going to Croatia, for example, a Croatian travel agency in New York is probably a good bet. Agents who are from your destination country and specialize in travel to that country, are likely to know about airlines and strategies that Kayak and Expedia don't. That said, it helps to be in a big city like New York that has a lot of travel agents who primarily serve immigrant populations. You can, however, contact such agencies by phone or email.
Click HERE for Seth's report.

Nicaragua: Selva Negra Offers a Coffee Plantation Experience (and More)






AT LEFT, a mural at Selva Negra depicts the coffee harvest.

During our three weeks in Nicaragua in January, Jane and I tried to see as much of the country as we could. One place we're particularly happy to have visited is Selva Negra, a coffee plantation a two-hour drive northeast of Managua. It's in a cloud forest in the mountains above Matagalpa, itself a pretty neat destination with a large cathedral, decent shopping and good restaurants and coffee bars.

AT LEFT, a path leads to one of the guest cabins.

Selva Negra (CLICK HERE) is a largely self-contained plantation, producing its own foods, housing its own workers and showcasing an amazing natural environment. Its coffee beans (most of its production is purchased by Whole Foods for sale in the U.S.) grow on bushes spread out as understory plants in the cloud forest.

AT LEFT, a variety of flowering plants occupy the top of the double roof on our one-bedroom cabin.

Selva Negra was founded more than a century ago by German immigrants and is today owned and operated by two of their descendants, Eddy Kuhl and his wife, Mausi Hayn.

AT LEFT, Mausi Hayn explains to us how coffee beans are processed at Selva Negra.

Lodging options range from beds in shared rooms in a hostel to multi-bedroom private chalets. Meals are served in a big dining room overlooking an artificial pond. Selva Negra makes its own cheeses and the large but inexpensive cheese plate may be the best food value in Nicaragua. Most of the food on the fairly extensive menu comes from Selva Negra's farming operations.

AT LEFT, a wild orchid blooms at Selva Negra.

Guests are offered a range of activities: tours of the coffee operation (the coffee estate is often referred to by its original name, La Hammonia), horseback riding, birding walks, hikes and more. We were fortunate in having Mausi Hayn show us around the property herself. There are tree-hung swings scattered around the property, which is a popular weekend getaway for people from Managua and elsewhere in Nicaragua.

AT LEFT, an open-air stone chapel that the Kuhls built in 2000 for the marriage of one of their daughters. Selva Negra now offers it to guests for their weddings.

Selva Negra is a model of environmental sensitivity. It uses human and animal waste to create methane gas, which it uses. Taking advantage of its rainy location high in mountains, it has created its own hydroelectric system to capture the energy of water that flows from the plantation to the valley below. Even paper waste there is recycled -- magazine pages and other pieces of paper are folded into impossibly tight strips that are woven to form purses, tote bags and other products. Plastic water bottles are used as insect traps among the coffee plants.






Sunday, February 19, 2012

Nicaragua: Volcano Vacation


Atop Masaya Volcano, northwest of Granada and southeast of Managua, Nicaragua, the visitor is rewarded by the smell of sulfur. This active volcano, which we visited at sunset with Tierra Tour out of Granada (CLICK HERE), has a huge crater, shown in the top two photos here, that emits noxious gases. Sometimes after sunset red molten lava is said to be visible at the bottom, but it wasn't on the night we were there.
The third photo is from the top of another volcano, Mombacho, which is also an easy half-day visit out of Granada.
Masaya's rocky top and deep crater make it seem bigger than it is. Masaya is a mere 2,083 feet high.
From Mombacho, one can see the city of Granada and a chain of tiny islands in Lake Nicaragua. Mombacho, at 4,409 feet, is visible from the streets of Granada.
Fortunately for the old and the lame, there are roads right up to the tops of these two volcanos. Once you're there, though, there are quite challenging trails that take you to a peak above the Masaya crater and actually into the jungle-filled Mombacho crater.
The bottom photo is of Concepcion, an active volcano on Ometepe Island. Concepcion is 5,282 feet high. The photo is taken from the bar at Totoco Eco-Lodge, which is on the slopes of 4,573-foot (and dormant) Maderas Volcano.
There are no roads to the tops of Ometepe's two volcanos, although there are trails. The trail to the top of Maderas passes through a plantation that grows coffee in the shade of the jungle, and the coffee workers' paths intersect with the path to the top, making it easy to lose one's way. The close-up photo of a howler monkey in an earlier posting was taken on this trail.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nicaragua: Monkey Business

Like lots of other tropical countries, Nicaragua has jungles and monkeys. Three kinds of monkeys, to be exact: white-faced capuchin, Central American spider monkey, and the manteled howler monkey. Unless you spend all your time in the cities, you're likely to encounter monkeys.
We saw spider monkeys only at the park office at the Indio-Maiz Biosphere Reserve where a mother and an infant lived more or less as pets. The only capuchin we saw was on a leash on someone's front porch in the village of Balgue on Isla Ometepe.

Howler monkeys, however, were wild, free and everywhere. We saw them at Sabalos Lodge (bottom photo) on the Rio San Juan. We saw them on the slopes of Volcano Maderas on Ometepe (middle two photos). And we saw them at Morgan's Rock (top photo), a Pacific Coast resort north of San Juan del Sur.

You may not always see howler monkeys, but it's hard not to hear them. They're loud, one of the loudest animals on earth, with an unearthly howl that can be heard for over a mile. On our first night at Sabalos Lodge, in an open-air treehouse cabin, we felt like we were surrounded by creatures from Jurassic Park. They howl but they don't otherwise bother people. They stay high in trees, jumping from one treetop to another often with a baby clinging to an adult's back.

Often all that's visible are dark silhouettes high in the trees, but sometimes they're close enough that you can see the brown fur on their backs.

At Sabalos one afternoon, we were in our cabin when we realized that the monkeys we had seen in a riverfront tree close to the front of our cabin were moving away from the river.

"Ping, thud, plop," we heard as the monkeys passed over our metal roof. Then there was a less than pleasant barnyard odor.

We think we got dumped on by family of monkeys.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nicaragua: Toilet Training

At Totoco Eco-Lodge on Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua, the toilets come with instructions:


--Please only urinate into the front separator (smaller hole).

--Toilet paper can be put down the larger hole.

--If used, please always throw 3 scoops of sawdust down the larger hole.

--Please avoid any sawdust getting into the front urine separator.













Top photo: view of the toilet in our cabin at Totoco.

Middle photo: it's not sawdust but coconut fibers that we were tossing into the "large hole."

Bottom photo: I'm sure you wondered what a urine separator looks like. Here it is.





















Composting toilets have been around for a while -- you'll find them in rural areas of Europe and North America where there's no sewer service and where for one reason or another a septic system can't be installed. But Totoco's toilets are not composting toilets in the usual sense; the composting is done elsewhere. The solid waste and sawdust go into a big bucket that twice a day is emptied into a compost area somewhere out of sight of guests. It wasn't apparent what happened to the urine that is so carefully kept separate.



There was no odor -- either in our own bathroom or in the toilets shared by the dining room and the hostel. Totoco -- there's a link in Ometepe item below -- has a handful of cabins like ours and eight or so hostel beds in a large room beside the dining room. If you're going to stay at a hostel, it's hard to imagine one with better views, nicer common areas (there's a pool) or more interesting toilets.

Nicaragua: Isla Ometepe

Isla Ometepe is a large island in Lake Nicaragua, one of the world's largest freshwater lakes. It is shaped like the numeral "8," with a volcano in the middle of each half and a swampy area along the Rio Istian in the middle.
At left are two of the many howler monkeys we saw on Volcano Maderas, the smaller of the two volcanoes. We stayed at Totoco Eco-Lodge (CLICK HERE), which is on the slopes of Maderas.





This shot of Maderas was taken while kayaking on the Rio Istian. (You may have noticed that I'm not bothering with accent marks on these Spanish names. You're right. I'm not.)












This is a tiger heron that was wading along the Rio Istian.

















And this is Volcano Concepcion, the other volcano, which is a mile high and very active, as seen from Totoco Eco-Lodge.











Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nicaragua: A Not-So-Nice Capital City


Managua, Nicaragua's capital city, is a dirty and unpleasant place.
It has more or less recovered from the 1972 earthquake that killed 10,000 people and destroyed 50,000 homes.

Eternally vulnerable to another quake (there had also been a major quake in 1931), it's largely a city of one-story buildings, open street drains that the unwary can fall into, horse-drawn carts and
.

overcrowded buses that were probably school buses in the U.S. decades ago.


Knowing all this, we planned to stay in Managua only our first night in Nicaragua, waiting for a flight the next day to San Carlos, and our last night in Nicaragua, since we had an 8 a.m. flight back home.
We did find nice restaurants in the area where we stayed both nights, the Los Robles district, which has a number of hotels, including a multistory Hilton. We stayed first at Los Robles (CLICK HERE) which was in the process of putting in a very nice looking pool area and patio.
Our last night in Nicaragua was at the nearby Casa Naranja (CLICK HERE). Of the two hotels, I would have to recommend Los Robles over Naranja, though both are nice. The common courtyards and pool area at Los Robles are much nicer than those at Naranja, and the rooms are bigger and brighter. But both are well-located, have helpful, English-speaking staff and can help arrange airport transfers.

I didn't carry my camera around in Managua (it's a city with few Kodak moments), but here are two shots from the highest point in the city, the Parque Historica.

At the top is a fellow zip- lining above the Laguna de Tiscapa, the water-filled crater of an extinct volcano. The other is a giant silhouette of Sandino, the ruthless freedom-fighter whose name was appropriated by the Sandinista guerillas.

Not shown but nearby is a monument to the people killed in the 1970s uprising against the Somoza dictatorship. It bears a poem called "Epitaph for Adolph Baez Bone" by Ernesto Cardenal. Here's an English translation by Andrew McKenna:

They killed you and / didn't tell us where / they buried your body.
But ever since that day / the whole country/ has been your grave.
or rather / in every part of the / country that
does not hold your body / you have risen again.
They thought they had / killed you with their order / of fire!
They thought they / were burying you
And what they were doing / was planting a seed.


Nicaragua: Rain Forests to Cloud Forests

Nicaragua is a startlingly diverse country -- tropical rain forests, soaring volcanoes, mountainous cloud forests, big cities and tiny isolated communities. Jane and I got a taste of all these during our January 2012 visit.
I'll be writing more later about each place we visited: Managua, the Rio San Juan, the Solentiname Archipelago, the Selva Negra coffee plantation, the colonial city of Granada, Ometepe Island, and San Juan del Sur.
In the meantime, here are some photos. From the top:
-- Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe Island (seen from the air on a fight over Lake Nicaragua).
-- The small La Costena airplane that took us from Managua over Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos, where Lake Nicaragua drains into the Rio San Juan.
-- The balcony of our treehouse cabin at Sabalos Lodge on the Rio San Juan, a neat eco-lodge with a focus on helping the local community, which is very poor.
-- The Rio San Juan as seen from El Castillo, an old Spanish fort built above rapids on the Rio San Juan. It was meant to help protect Spanish shipments of gold from Granada to the Caribbean, where the treasure was transferred to larger ships to be sent to Spain.