Monthly Archives: April 2016

Coffee processing – Finca Esperanza Verde

The Finca Esperanza Verde is actually a working organic coffee farm and this time around I arrived right at the end of the flowering season.  Each of those little green nodules that are left once the flower has finished will turn into a coffee bean.

coffee processing flowers

The last time I was here, I did the coffee processing tour that they offer to their guests.   For me it was fascinating because there were so many parallels to sapphire mining (hi dad 🙂 ).  It is all gravity and water driven (machine assisted wet processing) and many of the different parts of the coffee processing equipment had direct equivalents to the sapphire mining plants my dad makes.

finca esperanza verde coffee processing

Essentially, the picked coffee is fed into a hopper which then funnels it down to a mechanical scraper that removes the pulp covering the coffee seed.   The coffee is then sorted using water – the beans that have defects float to the surface and can be sieved off.  Once the coffee has gone through several such sluices, it is placed in trays and left in the sun to dry.  It is then picked over by hand.

I continued the coffee journey at the Finca last time by doing the Nica cooking activity – roasting my own coffee and making my own tortillas.   Roasting coffee takes a lot longer than I thought!

finca esperanza verde coffee roasting

And finally – to finish the journey this visit, and although I’m not a coffee drinker at all – I decided I had to try the coffee at the farm (they have it constantly available for guests in the communal dining area – and tea as well!)  It was actually pretty good – even though I forgot to put sugar in it (I did put milk though)!  Didn’t have that really strong coffee smell and, although bitter, not too much so.   Could actually get accustomed to it I think.  But the question remains whether that tasted anything like all the other coffee you can get — they are renowned for their high quality coffee after all.

finca esperanza verde coffee

Wildlife of the Finca Esperanza Verde

One of the many fabulous things about the Finca Esperanza Verde is the opportunity to spot a wide variety of wildlife.   For example, if you want to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with hummingbirds – this is a wonderful spot!

finca esperanza verde hummingbirds

But hummingbirds (colibri) are not the only birds here – not by a long way!

finca esperanza verde birds

As I described in my last post, I fulfilled a childhood dream and saw my first 2-toed and 3-toed sloths here at the Finca.

finca esperanza verde sloths

Monos Congos (Howler Monkeys) are very common and act as a natural alarm clock most mornings.  Was lucky enough this time to see some with their babies.

finca esperanza verde howler monkeys

The Finca also has an extensive garden (flowers and vegetables) and grows a large amount of the food that guests eat.  This is the perfect spot to see a wide variety of butterflies.

finca esperanza verde butterflies

The best way to see the wildlife is to go on a hike with Omar or Umberto – they are amazing at being able to spot everything.   Or keep your own eyes open as you walk around.  You’ll see the hummingbirds at very least 😉  They are pretty hard to miss!

Finca Esperanza Verde

Last time I was in Nicaragua, I visited Matagalpa and ended up at the Finca Esperanza Verde – an ecolodge located about 45 minutes away further up in the mountains. At that time, Vivianne and Andrew had just taken over as owners and Max was a very small bundle of puppy fur. I couldn’t wait to spend a few more days there this time around.

It is really a beautiful place with spectacular views over the mountains, lovely staff and wonderful food – served communally from the patio on the front left in the image below.

Finca Esperanza Verde

There is also a communal lounge area in the Yoga Pavillion (front right in the image above) with hammocks, rocking chairs and comfy sofas.

Finca Esperanza Verde Yoga Pavilion

Or, if you want to chill out privately, the cabins are beautiful and the view from each balcony is incredible!  Those are the cabins higher up the mountain in the middle of the first image.

finca esperanza verde cabins

One of the best things to do at the Finca Esperanza Verde (apart from relaxing of course) is to do the hikes they have around the property.   Between last time and this time I’ve hiked all the trails – my favourite being the Green Trail (though it is the toughest one).   Actually, a great combo is to start with the Blue trail, then head off on the Green Trail and come back via the Yellow trail.  About 1.5-2 hours all up and you pass through a lot of different types of forest.

finca esperanza verde hiking trails

Love heading out with the Finca’s guides – Omar and Umberto – who are amazing in their abilities to spot different birds and animals.   With the help of Umberto, I managed to fulfill a childhood dream on my first visit by seeing my first sloth up close and personal 🙂  Actually – we found a few sloths – some of the 2-toed variety (top) and some of the 3-toed variety (bottom)!  Did you know that there are two types of sloth and what the difference is between them?

finca esperanza verde sloths

But heading out with a furry-4-legged guide is also heaps of fun.   Jack came with me on my last hike which was the combo described above.   Although he’s about 3 years old, he still behaves very much like a puppy and would run ahead, then come bounding back and look at me as if to say “what’s taking you so long?”

finca esperanza verde hiking

I was also lucky enough to coincide with another set of guests who had asked for a campfire with folk musicians as part of their package at the Finca Esperanza Verde.   This is my second concert concert by a local group this trip to Nicaragua, and it’s always a joy to hear musicians play.   Added bonus is when it is outside under the stars and the light of the full moon with the opportunity to roast marshmallows!

finca esperanza verde musicians

Highly recommend the Finca as a bit of a splurge whist travelling.  It really is an amazing place.

Typical playlist of a Nicaraguan bus driver

I mentioned in my post about surviving a chicken bus trip that Nicaraguan bus drivers have a soft spot for either latin romantica or 80’s power ballads.   To give you an indication of what I’m talking about, here’s the actual playlist for the 2 hour bus trip from Rivas to Managua (yes, I sat there noting down each song as it came on).   Enjoy!

  • “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – Bonnie Tyler
  • “Without You” – Mariah Carey
  • “Reunited” – Peaches and Herbs
  • “Making Love out of Nothing At All” – Air Supply
  • “Horse with No Name” – America
  • “Torn Between Two Lovers” – Mary MacGregor
  • “I Want to Make it with You” – Bread
  • “Never Going to Let You Go” – Sergio Mendes
  • “Woman in Love” – Barbara Streisand
  • “Mandy” – Barry Manilow
  • “Forever and Ever” – Demis Roussos
  • “Because I Love You” – Stevie B
  • “Call Me” – Blondie
  • “Heart of Glass” – Blondie
  • “Its a Heartache” – Bonnie Tyler
  • “Holding Back the Years” – Simply Red
  • “Love is in the Air” – John Paul Young
  • “Seasons in the Sun” – Terry Jacks

For those of you who are Air Supply fans, I can highly recommend coming to Nicaragua and riding the buses. You will invariably hear at least one of their songs and apparently they toured here a few months ago!  There was even a question about Air Supply in the Trivia Quiz I did in León a month or so ago!

Thank you Caite!

Just a quick post to thank Caite for being a wonderful travelling companion down the Rio San Juan!  Had an awesome time with you and wish you all the very best for the rest of your travels and beyond.

Caite

And thank you again for the crystals!   They are secreted away in my packs for safety and clarity.  I’ll let you know how I get on!

crystal

Chicken buses – 5 survival tips

Central America is well renowned for its “chicken buses”, essentially old, worn-out school buses from the US that get a second lease on life transporting the good folk of Central America and their produce (including animals, hence the name) from one place to another.   They are all dilapidated (though brightly coloured) without any creature comforts (think bathroom, air-conditioning) and cover very long routes, much to the eternal discomfort of their passengers.

chicken buses at the terminal

Chicken buses at the terminal. Thanks for the photo Pedro!

Leaving Ometepe, the chicken bus trip from Rivas to Managua is only a short one – just over two hours, but it did demonstrate many of the high points of the experience.   Here are some tips for young players:

Tip 1.  Make sure you get there early to get a seat.  Although it is illegal (in Nicaragua) to have people standing on the buses, it seems every bus company is more prepared to pay the fine than follow the rule.

chicken bus

Tip 2.  Don’t drink too much before your trip.  Although Tip 1 is important, it creates an issue as there are no bathrooms on the buses, and they don’t stop for bathroom breaks either.  If you are on a really long trip like the one I did from Managua to San Carlos it helps to dehydrate yourself a bit beforehand – 7 hours without a pee-break is a very, very long time!   It goes without saying that if you do have a bathroom opportunity mid-journey – take it!  Even though you will likely have to pay (a very small amount) to do so.  You never know when the next opportunity will arise.

Tip 3.  Make sure you choose the correct side of the bus to sit on.  There is no air-conditioning on chicken buses and rarely any curtains, so if you are sitting on the sunny side of the bus – you are going to suffer (and probably get sunburned)!

Tip 4. Try to sit in the middle-front of the bus.  As you can probably imagine, chicken buses don’t have the greatest suspension and sitting in the back of the bus is a very bouncy affair.   The speakers for the sound-system also tend to be in the back of the bus and the driver cranks up the music so that he can hear it.  This tends to be very loud when you are sitting a metre away from the speaker, and not great when you are suffering from a dehydration headache (see Tip 2).

Tip 5.  Develop a fondness for latin romantica and 80s power ballads.  These are the tunes of choice for Nicaraguan bus drivers.  Or, I guess you could put in your own headphones…

No, catching chicken buses is not comfortable, but it is an amazing experience – every time.   They are also unbelievably cheap and they really do go everywhere.

And I just want to do a shout out to all the central american kids I’ve ever encountered on chicken buses.  You guys are unbelievably well behaved and truly amazing!    There is a lot that Australian kids could learn from the way you travel.

Hiking Volcán Maderas – Ometepe

If you do not enjoy:

  • unbelievable heat
  • stifling humidity
  • drowning in your own sweat
  • steep inclines
  • using your arms/hands as much as your legs/feet when you hike
  • getting muddy

hiking Volcán Maderas on the Island of Ometepe is not for you!

Volcán maderas ometepe

Volcán Maderas from the access road to Finca Mystica

Started out at 8am (much later than I would have wanted, but that was the schedule) with 19 year old Orbin as my guide.  We took off from Finca Mystica on the Merida access at what I thought was a fairly fast pace (I was a little worried for what this meant when we got to the steep part), and after about 20 minutes came to another example of the island’s petroglyphs.

volcan maderas petroglyphs

Very cool one I thought – in the bottom left you can see the concentric rings that seem to indicate the two volcanoes the make up the island of Ometepe, top middle (and a little hard to see in the photo I admit) is an outline of the Maderas Volcano as it appears from this spot, and just below that to the right is what we could assume might be a picture of the crater lake that you can see from the top of the Volcano.

It didn’t take too long for the path to start to incline noticeably, but the nice thing was that when it did, at least it was almost completely covered in cloud forest.  It was still incredibly hot and the sweat was pouring off, but at least the sun wasn’t beating down as well.

Maderas Volcano

Orbin and I were talking ten-to-the-dozen for the first part of the hike but when it really started to get steep, my talking noticeably dropped off…  Thankfully Orbin (who does this hike often) was of the firm belief that it wasn’t a race to the top and chattered away happily telling me about his life, his hopes and his dreams, as well as snippets about Volcán Maderas itself.  For example, how the adults fled to the upper reaches during the times of Somoza and their children used to hike the volcano twice a day to bring them food.

There were a couple of decent views on the way up, and the last 1/3 of the way to the top was really much more of a scramble than a hike.  Here’s where it started to get muddy, and the going was a lot slower as you had to spend more time looking for ways to pull yourself up over roots and boulders.  Well I did – Orbin it turned out was half mountain goat!

Volcán Maderas

One of the many, many sets of obstacles to negotiate on the hike/climb to the top of Volcán Maderas.

I actually prefer this type of hiking rather than just an uphill slog on a reasonable path – I find that the constant figuring out of how I’m going to get up to the next set of obstacles distracts me from the fact that my heart feels like it is going to leap out of my chest.  The Brewster’s Hut hike in New Zealand was very similar.

Finally, after 4 hours, we made it to the very small clearing at the top of Volcán Maderas.  To the south was the view of the crater lake (now much reduced because of the drought).  Apparently on a clear day you can the Solentiname Islands, but unfortunately there is such a lot of smoke haze around at the minute from all the fires we couldn’t see that far.

Volcán Maderas crater lake

To the left, a view across the whole island of Ometepe to Volcán Concepción – the active volcano that makes up the other half of the island (and which you can also climb).  That’s Playa Domingo in the middle on the right – one of the more popular tourist destinations on the Island.  Remember, this is an island in a lake, not the ocean.  It’s just a very, very, very big lake!

Volcán Maderas view from top to Volcan Concepcion

Had lunch admiring the view and when we decided to head down,  I asked Orbin whether there were other tracks leading to the summit.  He said that there were 2 others and if I wanted, we could descend the Santa Cruz side and then catch a bus back to Merida.  Absolutely!

This side was equally steep and much, much muddier and again, the top 1/3 was more a climb down than a walk down.

Maderas volcano Ometepe

I ended up getting extremely muddy, Orbin only marginally so, but at least I was able to pick up my end of the chatter again now that I wasn’t sucking in such deep breaths.   We covered a lot more ground including families, relationships, importance of education and food (amongst others) – he really was a fabulous hiking companion and wise beyond his years.  Again, have I mentioned how wonderful it is to be able to speak spanish 🙂

Maderas volcano Ometepe

As we got to the lower slopes of Volcán Maderas and the number of tracks increased, we had an ongoing “tease” about whether or not we were actually lost.  He’d only descended this side of the volcano a couple of times and ended up calling one of his mates (who hikes this side more regularly) at least twice to determine exactly which of the numerous tracks we should take.   We did eventually make it to the road and celebrated with an ice cold “Fresco” (lemon soft drink) while we waited for the bus to take us back to Merida.

Bus arrived about on time (old US school bus of course) and to travel <10km it took more than 1/2 hour – the world’s slowest bus ride.   Then it was another 15 minute walk back along the road to the Finca and the end of our journey.

Really awesome day – but make no mistake – hiking Volcán Maderas is hard work!  Orbin was really fabulous and I highly recommend him as a guide (he also speaks English).

 

Time required: 7-8 hours.  We reached the summit in 4 hours, spent about 45 minutes at the top eating lunch, and took 3 hours to come down the Santa Cruz side.  About an hour extra waiting for the bus and the bus trip back to Merida.

Cost:  US$30 because I was the only person hiking.  If there are more people in your group the cost goes down enormously.

Recommended place to stay:  If you are after a peaceful and “remote” place to stay on Ometepe away from the main tourist crowds – I can highly recommend the Finca Mystica.   Their staff are amazing!  Both this volcano hike and the horseback riding I did was arranged through them and the guides were local people.   I stayed in the Communal Cob (got the whole thing to myself because I was the only guest at the time), which is very cheap.  It’s an extremely large room (not like a regular cramped dorm), and the shared bathrooms (which are just outside) were also large and very clean.  The food is also incredible (best pineapple and passionfruit smoothie I’ve had in Nicaragua) and included things like Thai soup and Indian curry – fabulous if you have been in Central America for a while and are hankering for something a bit different to beans and rice!  They also offer 2 vegetarian options each night.   Or you can walk the ~25 minutes into Merida for other food options.

Horse riding Ometepe

There’s something about horse riding that is really special.   If there is an opportunity to go horse riding I usually take it, so this morning I headed out with Ayssar (guide) and Rosita (my horse) for a few hours near San Ramón on the southern end of Ometepe.

horse riding ometepe

Specifically we went to check out some of the petroglyphs that can be found in many places around Ometepe. These are rock carvings of various designs, and although the site we visited was very small, it gave an idea of what could be found in the more than 70 other sites on the Island.   Looks like tortoises and a caiman to me!

petroglyphs ometepe

On the way back I had a special bonus – Ayssar asked if I wanted to bathe the horses.  Sure!  He removed the saddles and in we waded.  It was a relief for me to be in the water and the horses definitely enjoyed it (after all, they’d done all the work).  It was really incredible to be swimming with Rosita – something I’d never imagined doing!

swimming with horses ometepe

Time required: ~3- 3.5 hours.

Cost:  US$7/hour.

Recommended place to stay:  If you are after a peaceful and “remote” place to stay on Ometepe away from the main tourist crowds – I can highly recommend the Finca Mystica.   Their staff are amazing!  Both this horseback riding and the volcano hike I did was arranged through them and the guides were local people.   I stayed in the Communal Cob (got the whole thing to myself because I was the only guest at the time), which is very cheap.  It’s an extremely large room (not like a regular cramped dorm), and the shared bathrooms (which are just outside) were also large and very clean.  The food is also incredible (best pineapple and passionfruit smoothie I’ve had in Nicaragua) and included things like Thai soup and Indian curry – fabulous if you have been in Central America for a while and are hankering for something a bit different to beans and rice!  They also offer 2 vegetarian options each night.   Or you can walk the ~25 minutes into Merida for other food options.

From San Carlos to Ometepe

My last night on the Río San Juan was spent in luxury in San Carlos – I had air-conditioning!   Lapped that up for as long as I could (11:30am the next morning) and then headed out to San Carlos airport to catch my La Costeña flight to Ometepe.

The airport building was quite literally a concrete hot-box with a couple of fans that did absolutely nothing to mitigate the heat.  And the worst thing is that you have to get to the airport at least 2 hours early as La Costeña is not renowned for taking off on time … it usually takes of early!

I was first to arrive, my checked baggage was weighed and tagged as expected, and then they weighed my hand luggage.  But the twist was that they weighed the hand luggage with the person – so I had to get on the scale as well!  Obviously I haven’t put on too much weight because they didn’t say anything (and my hand luggage is heavy with camera gear, computer, etc), and sat down to wait eating the rest of the cake I’d bought at the bakery the evening before (yes, I had cake for dinner and for lunch – and it was good!)

Airport guy told me a little while later that we would be leaving an hour early and flying from San Carlos to San Juan del Norte (Greytown) first, and then onto Ometepe, rather than flying direct.   Essentially a free flight over the Indio-Maiz Reserve 🙂

La Costeña is a very small airline with a very small plane (I’m actually not sure they have more than one!)   It’s a 12-seater and hops around between Managua, San Carlos, San Juan del Norte and Ometepe – seemingly in random order.

La Costeña

I sat right up the front of the plane so I could also see out the front windscreen of the plane and have a clear view out my window.  There were no safety instructions (either written or spoken) and for the first time ever, they didn’t insist that carryon luggage needed to go under the seat in front of you.  There were seatbelts – but no instructions to put them on.  Pretty relaxed!

La Costeña cockpit

The flight was incredible!  What an unbelievable bonus!  Thank you to the one guy who needed to go to San Juan del Norte!  Took off from the dirt airstrip in San Carlos and followed the Río San Juan for the first little bit.  Very depressing to see the amount of deforestation in the area – you get a bit of a sense of it from the river, but nothing like seeing it from the air.

deforestation

After about 10 minutes, started to see more and more trees, and more and more fires as these trees too were being cleared for further farms.

deforestation

A short time later, we were over the Indio-Maíz Reserve and there was nothing but trees as far as the eye could see.  I have never seen anything like it.  Not a single man-made scar marred the sea of green, and the trees were so densely packed together that they almost looked like florets of broccoli.  And it went on, and on, and on.  I was absolutely mesmerized!  Incredible to think that this is what our planet should look like.  Beautiful!

Indio-Maíz Reserve

Indio-Maíz Reserve

Fascinating being able to see what the pilot sees coming in to land, and really amazed by the airport in San Juan del Norte!  For such a remote and small place, it had a sealed runway and a super-fancy looking terminal.  I bet it was even air-conditioned!   Not sure why San Carlos airport was so under-developed in comparison.

San Juan del Norte airstrip

Dropped our one passenger off and headed back over the Indio-Maíz Reserve – essentially re-tracing out flight path, but a little further to the north.   Really disheartening when the fires at the edge of the Reserve came back into view – how is this progress?  There were so many fires that the smoke haze sitting underneath the cloud layer was really, really thick.

Eventually reached the eastern edge of Lake Nicaragua and flew over the Solentiname Islands on the way to Ometepe.  It’s clear from any map of Nicaragua that Lake Nicaragua is huge.  But you can only really get the sense of how huge it is from the air – it really does look like an ocean.

aerial view solentiname

Approaching Ometepe, the internal instruments of the plane quite clearly showed the two volcanos and we were below the summit of both as we jumped around the sky due to the thermals.  Ometepe airstrip basically heads straight towards Volcán Concepción and is one of very few strips in the world that has a public road cutting across it.

ometepe airstrip

It was a bumpy landing but what an incredible flight!  It’s the first commercial flight I’ve ever taken where I was wishing it would last a lot longer.

Cacao Tour – Boca de Sábalos

Stayed at the Hotel Sábalos for 2 nights on my way back up the river to San Carlos.  I highly recommend it if you are going to stay at Boca de Sábalos – Maricela is wonderful and friendly, first warm shower I’ve had in 2 weeks, the fried fish and the pancakes are amazing and its actually relatively cheap!

hotel Sábalos

View from the verandah outside my room at the Hotel Sábalos

One of the things the Río San Juan has become famous for over the last little while is the production of cacao – the raw ingredient that forms the basis of chocolate (ok, not white chocolate, but other forms of chocolate).   There are several cacao tours you can do from Sábalos or El Castillo, but travelling solo they are quite expensive.   However, on my second night at the hotel I overheard a newly arrived group arranging a cacao tour for the next morning and I asked if I could tag along.

Headed slowly up the Río Sábalos at 8am with Julio as our guide passing a massive barge with two huge tanks to transport palm oil, another product of these parts.  It really stood out as by far the biggest boat I’d seen on the river.

palm oil barge boca de Sábalos

The cacao finca we were visiting was “La Salvadora”, an organic finca that supplies cacao for export to Ritter Sport in Germany.   Julio led us through the finca explaining the key elements of cacao production.

Cacao boca de Sábalos

  • The cacao tree lasts for about 45 years
  • It takes 3 years before it gives its first fruit
  • The best harvests are in its first 10 years.  After that the tree starts to produce less fruit
  • Cacao grows all year round, and at this finca they tend to do a wander through the trees every 15 days to pick the ripe fruit
  • Cacao is a shade crop and therefore requires other trees to also be planted to provide that shade.  At this farm they plant very quick growing banana trees with the new cacao trees to give some instant shade, but also have mango trees, guava trees (but not the fruit we are used to), and another fruit that belongs to the custard apple family, amongst others.  These have the added bonus of distracting birds and other animals (including humans) from eating the cacao (they prefer the sweeter fruit).
  • There are 3 types of cacao, two of which were grown here.  The green cacao (forestero) turns yellow when ripe, the reddish-brown cacao (criollo) turns orange when ripe.

Cacao boca de Sábalos

Inside the cacao fruit the seeds are covered in a slightly sweet pulp which tastes absolutely nothing like chocolate at this stage.   Yes, you can eat it 🙂

cacao

From there it was back up the river to the cacao processing facility.  To produce high quality chocolate, the cacao first has to be fermented – for ~4 days the pulp-covered seeds are stacked in trays covered in plastic to start the process.  They are then uncovered (at this stage they are still very sticky with the vestiges of the pulp) and start to dry out under shade for another few days (left) before being moved to further drying sheds where they complete the drying process (right).  Unfermented cacao seeds are really quite bitter, whereas the dried, fermented seeds start to taste like high percentage dark chocolate.

Cacao processing boca de Sábalos

From there they are tested for quality – 50 beans are selected and put into a special slicing tray.

Cacao boca de Sábalos

Once they’ve been sliced, they are inspected to check what percentage haven’t completed the fermentation process enough to be Grade 1 quality and whether they have any fungus (a problem during the rainy season which manifests as white in the centre of the seed).  If more than 5% are not fermented enough (left bean isn’t fermented properly, right bean is) or there is any fungus, the quality of the batch is not good enough to be exported to Ritter Sport, and instead is made into chocolate here in Nicaragua and sold locally.

Cacao boca de Sábalos

The last part of the tour was to roast the fermented beans and grind them to form up chocolate or make chocolate powder.  What would you use to do this?  A sandwich maker of course!

https://www.barry-callebaut.com/chocophilia/theobroma-cacao-food-gods

The final toasted bean (middle) tastes very close to very dark chocolate (right, locally made) and is a long way from the initial seed we started off with (left).

Cacao boca de Sábalos

If you are interested in seeing the process of chocolate making from beginning to end, a cacao tour is definitely worthwhile if you are in the area.