Central America

Nicaragua.. Hey Watch Out For That Parade.. And That Pig!

Nicaragua was one of those countries I’d been dreaming of for some time. In fact, I bought the guidebook several years ago in what turned out to be a trip that never happened. The guidebook sat on my bookshelf for some time, like a big piece of pie that you knew you were going to eat… eventually.  Ok bad analogy I know because pies don’t sit on shelves for years at a time but you get the picture.

Every now and then, I’d pull the pie, excuse me, I mean guidebook off the shelf and thumb through it. As I read through it I’d imagine what it would be like to walk the streets of Managua and see the old church with the clock still stuck at the exact time of the horrible 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua and killed thousands. I’d also walk along the streets of Leon,  Granada and even visit the twin volcanic islands of Omotepe.

One of the Volcanoes of Omotepe
One of the Volcanoes of Omotepe

I read how Nicaragua was still very rural with pigs, cows, chickens and horses still roaming even the main highways. I read how baseball was more popular than soccer (futbol), one of the few happy byproducts of U.S. intervention over the years, this one from the early 20th century.

Baseball in the Cow Pasture
Baseball in the Cow Pasture

The guidebook pointed out that Nicaragua is becoming the next hotspot budget destination for travelers looking to explore Central America and as I was to finally find out, for good reason. Now in order to be a budget destination it stands that things need be cheap and in general, in Nicaragua they are.

Compared to nearby Belize, Nicaragua has just as much, if not more, natural beauty at a fraction of the price. Supposedly the people of Nicaragua are even more economically disadvantaged compared to Belize and other Latin American countries, but I have to be honest the standard of living in Nicaragua seemed better than Belize and on par with the rest of Latin America. However, please keep in mind I’m going by a grand total of 1 week in each country so I guess I’ll believe Wikipedia… for now.

A common site in Nicaragua
A common site in Nicaragua

When I finally arrived in Nicaragua it was largely as I expected… but in some ways better. We arrived, in the middle of the night, in the small tobacco town of Esteli. When I woke up the next morning to take the town in, I could already see why travelers flock to Nicaragua. It was simply lovely.

Our scheduled visit to the Rivadella & Recon Cigar tobacco shop was cool, but it was serendipitously interrupted by a stop at the Sonati Hostel. There we met Arnon Dottner, an Israeli ex-patriot and founder of Sonati. Sonati is a non-profit organization that is 100% self-sustainable and working to maintain the environment while helping Nica farmers and students.

One of the many challenges in a country like Nicaragua is convincing farmers, who may be barely scraping by, to farm in a manner that takes a more environmental, long-term focus into view. Like so many worthwhile organizations we met while on our journeys, Sonati works with farmers to show how sustainable agriculture techniques can actually increase their yield as well as their income while preserving or even improving the environment.

Sonati also works with young Nica students to teach them to appreciate & preserve the natural beauty around them. Sonati is largely sustained by its hostels (Leon and Esteli) by offering eco tours. Volunteers mostly run the hostels on a day-to-day basis, but hostel guests can also volunteer to help out in a variety of ways. Such as  at local farms, which is where we ran into the fine students & teachers from the Chessum Grammar School in the U.K.


Volunteer Crew from U.K.’s Chessum Grammar School

These young British volunteers were doing what is called a home-stay, which means actually living on a family farm in rural Nicaragua. Yes, that means using an outhouse (I’m sure many, if not all of them, for the very first time), sleeping and eating like a local farm family and helping the surrounding community by planting trees, building solar lamps for houses, painting eco-themed murals, and in general helping to beautify the area.

Volunteers Planting Trees
Volunteers Planting Trees

It wasn’t all work and no play for the cheerful bunch from Chessum. While we were there, the whole community was gathered to eat, drink, relax and catch a baseball game. And we’re not talking a last minute pick-up game of rag tag baseball. This was a semi-professional league with uniforms, umpires and equipment… the whole nine yards.

I was enraptured in one of the games and briefly forgot I was on a farm, in a remote part of rural Nicaragua, when I noticed something slippery & squishy around my feet. This was a vaguely familiar feeling (I grew up on a farm in Tennessee) of what standing in fresh cow dung felt like. Ahhh the farm life. I kind of don’t miss it.

I was also jolted back to reality when a screaming foul ball came within inches of taking out our most expensive camera, which was perched like a target on a tripod directly behind home plate. Probably not so smart of us as the shoot was almost over before it got started! But on the flip side we captured some great footage.

Leon is full of Lion Statues
Leon is full of Lion Statues

As much as I liked Esteli, it simply can’t compare to the travel darlings of Leon and Granada. While they both rely heavily on tourism, these two cities are very different. While both have loads of history including historic buildings, churches, etc. throughout, Leon is as liberal as Granada is conservative. Leon (Lion in Spanish) is named after the ubiquitous lion statues and monuments all around. What came first the name or the statues, I’m not sure… but it is largely a college town and as such attracts a young, partying adventure/tourist crowd who are there to do things like hike, bike, volcano surf, and canoe.

Arnon from Sonati hooked us up on a volcano hiking and surfing tour that I will probably remember the rest of my life. The hike to the top of Cerro Negro Volcano takes a good 30-45 minutes and at the top the wind is so intense, it makes it hard to do much of anything but hunker down and hang on. The view is incredible from that height and my only regret was that we had all this expensive camera gear to deal with, and I was so concerned about it and the safety of the crew I didn’t really get to enjoy the view as much as I would have liked to. I was genuinely worried about crew getting hurt and the cameras being blown off the side of the volcano.

Maybe I should have been worried about the fact that we were climbing and surfing down a very active volcano (last major eruption just in 1999).

Exhibit A - Any idiot can volcano board on their butt.
Exhibit A – Any idiot can volcano board on their butt.

But the trip down is what is so amazing. Volcano boarding while sitting on your butt is pretty easy, and doesn’t require a ton of skill. Just some bravery. Some chose to try it standing up, which I didn’t even consider given the steepness of the terrain. Regardless of your technique it’s not a clean ride. You’re going to get lava rock in every crease and crevice imaginable and I definitely recommend wearing the protective “prison” jumpsuit. Some poor souls were there with nothing but shorts… ouch!

To dial down the adrenaline we headed to nearby Granada, which is a bit more laid back and romantic. We took a horse and carriage tour through the colonial downtown in order to get a typical tourists’ point of view. Salvador, our local driver & guide, reminded me that when another Tennessean came through Granada, he was executed. He was speaking of William Walker ,who briefly took control of the Presidency of Nicaragua in an attempt to unite Central America and make it a part of the Confederate States during the Civil War. That was a while back but just in any case, I kept my Tennessee origins under wraps for the rest of the trip.

Granada from above
Granada from above

Near Granada is the small town of Masaya, known for its craft market. In fact, most, if not all of the country’s crafts originate from Masaya. The craft market is pretty easy to spot because it’s housed in an early 19th century castle. You can also, usually, take in some excellent Nicaraguan folkloric dancing on weekend nights as we did with the lovely dancers from “Rostros de mi Pueblo” and “Son Latinos”.

Granada from Horse & Buggy
Granada by Horse & Buggy

But I think the real beauty of Nicaragua lies in its small, rural towns and villages. We were headed to the small town of Rivas when we happened upon a tiny village that was having a very big Celebration of Santa Ana. Colorfully costumed and masked participants paraded with an image of the Virgin of Santa Ana throughout the one street of the town. With dancing and music the entire way, it was kind of like a mini version of Mardi Gras or Carnival.

Small Santa Ana Celebrant
Small Santa Ana Celebrant

These types of celebrations go on at various times of the year and have been going on for generations. The only part that proved problematic was that the parade progressed at a glacial pace down the only road in town. It was about 2 miles from the main highway, and we were stuck behind it with no way around and another scheduled shoot to attend (and no minutes on our cell phone to give anyone a heads up as to our tardiness).

Santa Ana Parade

I gently, but rather impatiently guided our stick shift rental car behind the parade, careful not to nudge grandma, the old guy on crutches or the kids who kept insisting to ride on our bumper. I was cursing myself for simply not thinking ahead and parking the car near the main highway in order to walk into town to get the 15 minutes of footage we needed. But alas this is what happens when you get caught up in the serendipitous opportunities that arise when travel and a shooting schedule collide.

My crew and I sighed. It’s a story we know oh too well… half a day spent to get maybe 30 or 45 seconds of footage that will make the final cut.

Approaching Omotepe by Ferry
Approaching Omotepe by Ferry

2 hours later when we finally reached the main road. It was off to Rivas where we’d eventually catch a 45-minute or so ferry to the islands of Omotepevia Lake Nicaragua. Omotepe is an indigenous word that roughly translated means “two volcanoes”. I wonder what the word is for “active” as these are also two very active volcanoes (the last activity was a fairly recent 1999).

Omotepe is lovely but isolated and bigger than it looks on a map. You can’t just walk or bike everywhere. We had heard that public transportation was spotty and rough so we took the rental car over with us on the ferry, which was relatively cheap. We were able to drive across most of the two islands and get a real sense of the lifestyles on each unique island.


Managua is usually the first stop for tourists when visiting Nicaragua, but since we bussed in from Honduras (and it was raining the first time we passed through) it turned out to be our last stop before catching a bus onward south to Costa Rica. Other than the old city, which had been leveled by the 1972 earthquake, the guidebook was pretty sparse (and dated) with information on Managua.

Luckily, I have a good Nica-American buddy in Los Angeles with relatives living in Managua. My buddy Francisco hooked me up with his brother Hader who gave us an insider’s tour. You don’t need a guide to see the incredible amount of construction going on (some say the Sandinista government currently in power can’t afford it and will regret it in a few years when the financing comes due, but for now it’s exciting to see it take shape).

Hanging With Hadar in Managua
Hanging With Hader in Managua

It seems an ambitious attempt to completely renovate Managua’s infrastructure (or perhaps to spend tax money as quickly as possible), but Hader provided us with some of the unknown history of the old downtown. Most of it now functions as the government center.

I stood in awe, finally taking in the famous clock in the abandoned buildings from that fateful Christmas Eve in 1972. The devastating earthquake hurt more than buildings. It would displace tens of thousands and claim the lives of thousands of Nicas, including baseball star and humanitarian, Roberto Clemente who had rushed to deliver supplies. Clemente felt moved to do something because so much international aid was not getting through to the people who needed it most: most say it was due to a corrupt Nicaraguan government at the time. Sound familiar… Haiti anyone?

Managua gets short shrift in most guidebooks, but it shouldn’t. The city is undergoing a renovation that will, if seen through, potentially make it one of the more modern Central American capital cities. The lakefront area near Ciudad Viejo (Old City) with restaurants and bars looks like it would be a blast on a weekend night.

Friendly Locals of Nicaragua
Friendly Nicaraguan Locals

Nicaragua… rural landscapes, colonial buildings, city sophistication, baseball… friendly folks and farms with pigs, horses, ducks… plus, of course lots and lots of cow dung… I felt right at home!


Gringo Blood… Ummm Good! Beautiful, Bloodsucking Baños!

In Baños we stayed at the eco-friendly hostel, La Casa Verde (The Green House) owned by a lovely Australian/New Zealand couple Doug & Rebecca ho live there along with their adorable 4 year old son Jonathon. It’s hard to say enough about La Casa Verde and the good work they are doing. A few years ago I might have ignorantly referred to Doug and Rebecca as tree huggers or hippies, but now, the more enlightened version of myself is thankful for what they are doing.

At a time when being “green” is more marketing term than an actual way of conducting business, La Casa Verde more than lives up to its name. Despite the higher cost, La Casa Verde was constructed with wood from a nearby tree forest (trees that are planted and harvested in controlled conditions and grow very quickly) as well as recycled materials. They grow and maintain their own organic and sustainable garden which provides much of the food for guests. By foregoing pesticides they happily allocate 10% or so for the birds and insects (call it nature’s tax) and share their bounty with their Ecuadorian neighbors.

Only reusable containers for La Casa Verde's kitchen

When they do find it necessary to purchase food in town, they insist on bringing their own reusable containers (no paper or plastic thank you) and buy in bulk. So that guests don’t have to buy plastic bottles (which are not recycled in Baños  ) of water, they provide free purified water in the kitchen. They built their own septic tank (very unusual in Latin America) and separate the black (sewage) from the grey water (shower, sink) which is reused in the organic garden. Not to mention the shower water is hot, the breakfast delicious and healthy and Rebecca makes some incredible, all natural brownies and granola bars that still has my taste buds going through withdrawals.

Indeed there is something about Baños that brings out the inner hippie in everyone. I suddenly wanted to go for a bike ride (something I probably haven’t done in over 10 years). We took the 28 KM (17 miles) or so tour of the lovely Rio Verde (Green River) via the Ruta Cascada (Cascade Route), an amazing bike route where you can view incredible waterfall after incredible waterfall throughout an ideal scenic landscape of green mountains and deep valleys.

Now we were assured (accurately as it turned out) that most of the bike route was downhill. This was important because we were each carrying some type of expensive and not so easy to balance camera equipment on our backs. You can imagine how surprised we were when we were struggling almost right off the bat to get up a never ending, ridiculously steep hill. Turns out this was no little hill but the local (and very active) Tungurahua Volcano, which is just a mere 16,000 feet in height!


We had misread the map and taken a very wrong turn. Finally after about 20 minutes of breathlessly walking our bikes uphill on the side of the road and erroneously thinking the plateau must be near, a kind soul in a pickup truck took pity and told us our mistake. We were able to correct course and the rest of the bike trip seemed like a breeze afterwards.

Once back on course, the bike ride was absolutely amazing, incredible or whatever cliched adjective you care to insert. But dare I say (can’t believe I’m saying this) that for me it was the highlight of the entire trip. We stopped along the way to take a basket ride over an incredible (that word again!) ravine to view one of the (I won’t say incredible) waterfalls up close and personal. The baskets are like uncovered cable cars and are more than a simple tourist draw. They are a very practical means of transport for people who live across a steep valley or on top of a mountainous terrain.

In the basket over an "incredible" ravine & waterfall

To further prove that Baños does something strange to you, I stopped to bungee jump off a bridge, something I’ve never attempted or cared to attempt before. Do you even attempt bungee jumping? You either succeed or fail right? I meant there are not many “do overs” in this “sport”.  This hit home when the guy started outfitting me with gear.

I realized no releases were being signed, no legal disclaimers were being spouted and how unofficial everything was looking and I started to get really nervous. Who is this guy and how do I know this isn’t his first day on the job? Will it be hard to get my corpse back to the U.S.? Do I want to be buried in New York, Tennessee or California? Maybe in Ecuador? Or at sea? or just throw me in the volcano? Did I remember to donate my organs? Will Social Distortion play at my funeral?

By the time I was standing on the side of the bridge ready to dive headfirst into the rocky terrain below I was in full panic mode. But I felt it impossible to back out because a small crowd had gathered to watch the scared Gringo; no doubt baited by the TV cameras recording my first ever jump (failed jumps are great for ratings I hear).

I vowed not to make a sound but am afraid I ended up screaming, if not quite like a little girl, like a scared man who was about to lose his life in a very stupid way. It was instinctual, primitive and over in a split second. And when it was over, I was swinging to and fro, slowly being lowered to the ground below and it was really no big deal. I’d easily do it again, but I might check the credentials of the personnel first.

After successfully defying death, swinging from the bridge

The bike tour was capped off by a stop at the Pailon del Diablo falls, the most miraculous and powerful falls I’ve ever seen so close up. We all got a little wet from the powerful spray and we were exhausted at this point so we bussed it back (hey, don’t judge! most people do) to La Casa Verde.

The Powerful Pailon del Diablo Falls


TV producers hate getting wet

Later that night we tried our luck at spotting the Tungurahua Volcano’s lava flow. We hired a taxi who took us to the top of the mountain (the very same one we had ignorantly attempted to climb on our bikes earlier in the day) to one of the volcano observations stations high, high up.

It was dark and cold and it felt eerie being this close to an active volcano that could blow at any moment. But alas it was too cloudy for observation. We gave up after about 20 minutes and went home. If we’d have hung in there all night we would have probably eventually seen something like the photo below.

The very active Volcano Tungurahua at night

The next day our outdoor adventure continued.  My producer talked me into trying a thing called Canyoning, which is really rappelling down a slick water fall. It was pretty cool. I’m not sure my instructor was old enough to drive, much less guide a clumsy beginner in a dangerous sport, but I’m alive so he guess he did ok.

To be honest the scariest part of canyoning seemed to be climbing to the top where one wrong move and your could fall on a pile of rocks and the flimsy little helmet would probably be of no use.

With my very young "Canyoning" instructor

Finally we took a break from all this adrenaline and took advantage of what Baños is so aptly named for; it’s naturally occurring, volcano heated thermal spring pools. There are dozens all over Baños but I soaked in the one right smack in the middle of town, the popular Banos de la Virgen. I wasn’t alone. It was a weekend and the place was packed with Ecuadorian families enjoying the cheap entertainment of the pools.

With my pale, decidedly un-suntanned body I stood out in the brown crowd as the only Gringo in the pools. Where were all the Gringo tourist I had seen in town the night before? Probably out biking, bungee jumping, rafting or cascading.

Baños is a town I thoroughly enjoyed. It was economical (taxi rides from our hotel to the center of town, $1.50 U.S.) , full of great outdoor activities and had a little nightlife as well. It was cultural with the indigenous residents mixing in with the tourist quiet naturally. There are vegetarian restaurants and spa and massage services for those who prefer a more laid back experience.

But if you go, remember to wear your mosquito repellent. I had been lulled into a false sense of “we don’t need no stinking repellent” in Quito and as a result got eaten alive for the two days I was in Baños . You could almost hear the little critters singing over and over “Gringo Blood… ummmmmm.. delicioso” as they went to town on my arms, legs and neck.

Local Banos Resident

Despite the incredible natural beauty of Baños and really all of Ecuador, it ain’t easy being green there just yet. Thanks to the efforts of many eco-conscious travelers, transplants like Doug and Rebecca at La Casa Verde and the numerous locals who obviously care about the future of Ecuador, hopefully this will begin to change over the next decade before it’s too late.

Baños, you get a big, if a bit mosquito ravaged, two thumbs up from me! Keep keeping it fun and please for God’s sake, keep it green.


San Vicente Thermals

We woke up early (are you sensing a theme here?) to head to the San Vicente Termales (Thermals), a beautiful, eco-touristic retreat about 1 and ½ hours outside of Pereira.  We were met by Laura (our film student assistant) and Alexa, our bi-lingual guide that had been recommended to us and we had met the night before.

The terrain of the winding road was really rough from the rains with the small rental car bottoming out numerous times, but the scenery was incredible.

River that flows through San Vicente Termales

We arrived in a dreamland of exotic foliage, waterfalls and ponds (thermals) with steam wafting from them.

The first thing we did was to take a hike and after Renzo fell and barely escaped pitching into the rolling rapids (along with the camera) we realized tennis shoes were NOT the right footwear for trekking in these parts, so if you go, wear boots!

Alexa and I then did a canopy, the 2nd canopy ride in my life (all in the past week) across an incredible landscape of greenery and trees whizzing by and below.  I did mine superman style which is laying belly towards the ground and going face first. Very cool!

Alexa taking a canopy ride

We then hit the thermals and it was like a really, really warm bath outside in the mountain air surrounded by trees, flowers and the sound of nature. It was incredible and naturally heated from the nearby and (I hope!) inactive volcano.

We broke for a delicious lunch and the owner, who is a well known expert on the healing power of thermals and somewhat of a celebrity in these parts, pulled out a crystal to read all of our energy. All but one of us had negative energy, so one by one he fixed us up.

After lunch it began to rain but thankfully that passed and we were able to continue shooting my favorite part, which is getting buried up to our faces in hot volcanic sand, followed by a Turkish bath, an  invigorating but painfully cold water rinse from a natural spring and then we hit the thermal spas again.

This combination supposedly opens your pores and allows the natural minerals to get inside, healing you from the stress of life from the inside out.  I don’t know about all that but I will tell you I felt like I could sleep for a week afterwards.

But wait, there was more. Then we were given mud baths from the natural algae pools. The greenish mud didn’t smell great but it was warm and gooey and afterwards my skin has never felt so soft, like a baby’s behind!

One of the many naturally warmed pools of San Vicente (75-80 degrees)

The drive back was exquisite with the sun setting over coffee country. A magical day thanks to the hospitality of the people from the San Vicente Termales.  If you’re ever in coffee country you really should check them out and their overnight accommodations are both charming and reasonably priced. You can find out more about them at their website HERE.

Some of the beautiful flora of San Vicente

Renzo and I grab a late dinner and discuss our progress and give feedback to each other.  So far so good and how could I complain after a whole day of pampering?

I think I’m beginning to dig this job!

Check out more beautiful photos from San Vicente Termales HERE