Fields of sugar cane and a backdrop of volcanoes make a spectacular landscape as we drive south. After negotiating pretty heavy traffic in Managua we head for Masaya to look around the market. The stalls in the large covered market are full of stuff - cigars, rum, paintings, wooden bowls and hammocks. People are friendly with no hassling. We are looking for the local ceramics - bowls and vases painted and glazed in natural colours and etches with geometric designs or with birds, animals and flowers. The quality varies but we find attractive bowls and a vase to buy.
Grenada is a cleaner, better painted version of Leon with more tourists too. Traditionally Leon was the liberal centre of the country while Grenada was more conservative, and much richer. With a waterfront on Lake Nicaragua, accessible to the Caribbean via the Rio San Juan, it was also more vulnerable to pirates. Sacked three times by pirates between 1665 and 1685, and then again by William Walker, the mercenary American who tried to set up a Central American federation in the mid 18thC, most of the buildings we visit had been rebuilt several times.
Patio del Malinche is a charming hotel near the centre. With two courtyards (see below) and rooms on two levels it is friendly and comfortable. Restaurants are also pretty good if you avoid the very touristy joints in Calle Calzada.
We brave the rain for a boat trip around Las Isletas - small volcanic rocks and islands off the Granada waterfront. Some islands have smart houses owned by rum and coffee barons or foreigners. A few have local residents with more run down houses. We hear how rich Nicaraguans bought islands from locals for relatively small amounts when ownership became possible. Wildlife is still visible through the rain: three types of monkey (white faced capuchin, spider and howler), a pelican and hundreds of egrets and herons.
In Grenada we climb to the top of La Merced for great views from the bell tower. From here you can see the many large courtyards of grand houses off the Calle Real with the lake in the distance behind the Basilica. Returning to ground level we walk along the Calle Real looking into the shops. At the main square we stop for coffee at a convenient cafe (Las Flores) where a chatty pottery seller shows us more very pretty vases which we buy. Rows of carts are drawn up alongside the square outside. From here we head out of town to the pottery school in San Juan de Oriente and then a disappointing lunch in a restaurant with fine views over Laguna Apoyo, Volcan Montacho, and Grenada and Lake Nicaragua in the distance.
The previous night we were put off our trip to Volcan Masaya by bad weather but today we are successful. Bayado gets us there 20 mins before opening at 5:30 and already there is a queue of cars and minibuses. The queue is much longer by the time the gates open and we drive up, via another road block to a viewpoint above the Sandiego crater. A low wall separates visitors from this active volcano which last erupted in 2001. The pit glows spectacularly in the dark belching clouds of sulphurous gas.
The Chorotega people made sacrifices of children and young women here to pacify Popogatepe - the "mountain that burns".
San Jorge is about 1h20m from Granada. We wait at the very smart ferry terminal with palm trees, brick huts and hawkers trying to sell us sunglasses. The boat takes an hour to reach Ometepe - gringos on the top and locals inside on the comfy seats. At Moyagalpa there is a scrum as foot passengers, cars and trucks all try to get off at the same time. Moyagalpa is not an inspiring place, full of rundown hostels but we are soon on a good brick road skirting the south of the island through fields of maize and cane, little villages, views of Concepcion with its head in the clouds and horses everywhere. We reach the hotel in about 35 mins - a few cabins and a restaurant in a very pretty garden - full of birds and butterfies - and steps down to a little beach.
Next day we plan to hike to a waterfall on the side of Maderas, the smaler volcano across the isthmus. The hotel tell us that you can drive the first 2km up the hill but our van is not up to it so we walk. The route starts through orchards with a steeper and narrower track after 2km, clambering around boulders and through streams to the top. The next day I explore the Penas Incultas trail - a nicely made path through a forest. Birds are hard to spot but the vegetation is luscious and toads and lizards sit on the path.
Next a trip to the Charco Verde butterfly farm. This is very well done and we are treated to clear views of Concepcion (above). Many different butterflies in the gardens and caged enclosure - including the gorgeous Blue Morpho which is very hard to photograph. After this a dip in the volcanic swimming pool, Ojo de Agua. This is a long tank with water flowing through. Very refreshing after the hot butterfly cage. Lunch at Paradise Hotel in a lovely restaurant overlooking the lake finishes our morning.
The highlight of our visit to Ometepe is a kayak trip through the wetlands by the isthmus. We opt to take a motorboat to the edge of the wetlands as it is a long paddle from the centre. This also gives some great views of the islands as well as villagers washing and fishing. Our guide, Alan, then pushes into the channel through water weed and floating lettuce. A long row of egrets line the side of the channel. We see at least four types of heron, a big orange striped iguana up a tree, nesting birds, cormorants, jacanas, gallinules and kingfishers. As we exit the wetlands the sun is setting making beautiful views through the reeds and across the water. Tomorrow we set off across the border into Costa Rica.