"Pura Vida" says Claudio, our nature guide in Costa Rica. "Everyone says it now - and in the evening they say Pura Cervesas! After nearly four years in Asia a trip to the other side of the world to enjoy 'Pure Life" was inviting. When cousin Christine suggested Costa Rica, and possibly Nicaragua, we jumped at the opportunity. Having only visited Latin America once we were keen to see more and many people told us that Nicaragua was a fascinating place and well worth visiting before heading to Costa Rica. We were more interested in places and nature than beaches, so Diego got working with the travel agent and put together a great trip.
The two countries are very different. Although both colonised by the Spanish, and part of the same federation up until the early 1820s, Nicaragua went through dictatorships, civil war and then a covert American war, while Costa Rica developed as a stable country over 200 years with wealth generated from coffee, bananas, other agricultural exports and more recently tourism.
Despite its greater poverty, Nicaragua retains fascinating historical cities like Leon and Grenada, full of churches, attractive, single storey streets and art. Both countries have stunning scenery, active volcanoes and fabulous wildlife. Our trip starts in a cloud forest in Northern Nicaragua, takes in the historic cities of Leon and Grenada before relaxing on the island of Ometepe for three nights. We then cross the border into Costa Rica and head for two more national parks, firstly Rincon de la Viega and then Arenal - both next to active volcanoes in the north of the country.
Central America is a patchwork of tectonic plates - Lake Nicaragua and the Rio San Juan form a plate boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and in addition a chain of volcanoes runs the length of both countries. A number of these are active including several that we stayed near to - Masaya, Concepcion, Rincon and Arenal. As a result the landscape is spectacular, albeit unstable. The rolling hills and luscious green hill sides remind us of Rwanda or Laos - we are visiting at the end of the rainy season in October. I understand that by March or April things are looking much more bare and brown. At Arenal we walk over lava fields and at Masaya we visit the Santiago crater after dark to witness the spectacular fire and smoke from its vent and the lava lake below.
In the mountains, steep patches of hillside are cultivated in 'slash and burn' fashion, again reminding us of Laos. In the south of Nicaragua and into Costa Rica the coastal plain opens up and we see large haciendas with big fields of maize, rice and beans, and many cattle herded by their gauchos on horseback. Around Esteli, in Northern Nicaragua, tobacco is grown and we visit one of may cigar factories in the town - its biggest source of employment. Costa Rica built its weath in the 19th Century on coffee and now both countries grow the bean. At Jaguar Lodge we learn about germinating, planting, tending and harvesting the crop.
The people we meet in both countries are friendly and generous. Even in the most touristy spots like some of the streets in Grenada they are not too pushy. A group of nurses and a doctor running a mobile 'drop in' medical centre at El Mirador, outside Grenada explain how they help the locals for free. In the market at Masaya they happy for us to browse. Nature guides are a great source of information about the country as well as good on tips for where to get a good meal! And this is despite the clear poverty, particularly in Nicaragua - the poorest country in the region after Haiti - and also natural disasters. We meet a group of schoolchildren on a nature tour from a fishing village in Northern Costa Rica that was half destroyed by the recent Hurricane Nate.
Crafts supplement agriculture as a source of income. Around Masaya there are many villages making attractive pottery from the volcanic clay that covers the region. A potter at his pottery school takes us through the process. A hammock maker shows cousin Christine how to tie the hammock - and untangles the mess after she has had a go! We see a lot of primitive art and sculpture - a Maleku tribesman explains to us some the symbolism of the animals depicted in tribal masks.
Tourism is big business in Costa Rica as is evident when we drive into Fortuna by Volcan Arenal. The roads are plastered in hoardings advertising hotels, adventure tours, hot springs, and restaurants. In Nicaragua it is much less developed although at Grenada's converted railway station we watch young Nicaraguans in trade school learning to work in the hospitality business - from folding sheets to mixing cocktails!
We were glad that we started our trip in Nicaragua and spent more time there. More history and less tourism made it a stunning place to spend nine days. The combination of culture and nature made for a varied tour. Hotels and lodges were largely comfortable (see the 'About' section above) and we found some good food - often washed down with local beer or Flor de Cana Nicaraguan rum! Use the tabs above to find out more about this fascinating region.