By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
NICARAGUA – “…so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose”, is how Mark Twain described Isla de Ometepe in 1866, an island formed by two volcanoes in the center of Central America’s largest lake, Lago de Nicaragua.
Slumbering in hammocks was what we intended at Hacienda Merida, originally a coffee farm belonging to the Somoza Family, who controlled Nicaragua with tyrannical dictatorships over four decades.
It was at the end of a rocky road under Maderas, the thankfully inactive of the two volcanoes. It had been a frenetic ten days through Central America. We enjoyed 4-wheel driving through Panama’s jungle near the Darian Gap. The para-military infested isthmus between two continents led us to the rickety, Miami-like, Panama City. There, we watched oil tankers shunting through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, before heading northwards to Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
A whirlwind tour of Costa Rica left one lasting impression. This proudly socialist and army-free country in Central America is famous for being an expensive playground for Americans. It was also exceptionally litter-free, with an established eco-tourism industry that puts most of Latin America to shame.
In Monteverde, the world’s best place to experience cloud forest, even Vivi, normally an overly-cautious Carioca was cavalier and didn’t question canopying. We got strapped into an abseiling harness and sped down high tension steel ‘zip-lines’, at times 170 meters above the forest floor. Literally passing through clouds for up to one kilometer at a time, it was an giddying mix of adrenaline and tranquility.
Venturing next to Volcan Arenal, we were guided through a jungle hike, spotting toucans and even a small boa constrictor that sent Vivi shrieking to the back of the group, “Yes, thank you, I can see it from here just fine.”
At sunset we gazed at the volcano as it spewed molten lava down its slopes before a buffet dinner and soak in one of the area’s many Vegas style hot-springs, complete with wet bars and water slides.
In Nicaragua, circumventing Lago de Nicaragua to Granada was a different world, a crumbing colonial town of subdued grandeur. The place was all but burnt to the ground in 1856 by the deluded and defeated American wannabe warlord, William Walker.
We sat in the plaza and dined on the local dish of Vigoron, crunchy pork-rind atop a spicy coleslaw and mashed manioc, washed down with fresh cacao frappe. For the uninitiated, manioc root is where tapioca comes from. While we tucked in, the locals dragged wicker-chairs outside and wiled away the dusk hours in the street’s cool breeze.
Later, we peered into the gates of hell, as perceived by the 16th century Spanish priests sent to baptize the nearby and ever-angry Mombache Volcano. The 4000 tons a day of sulfur gas bellowing into the sky and the bronze plaque under the guard rail at the crater’s edge warning of unexpected molten rock showers drove home the gravity of nature’s power.
Swinging in a hammock on a jungle coated, twin-volcanic island, at the edge of an alligator and shark infested lake, set against a blood-red sunset, in a land of revolutions, volcanoes and forests the habitat the clouds, we felt like we were living in a chapter of Gulliver’s Travels.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) martial bliss at the end of the road.