Friday, May 27, 2016

RonnieAdventure #0205 - Nicaragua - 2016

As the ship approached the crescent-shaped harbor at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, the first thing noticeable is the large Christ of the Mercy statue that overlooks the area. The statue is 24 metres tall and located on a hill that is 134 metres above sea level. This is the tallest statue in Nicaragua.

Photographer Unknown
Since the harbor was too shallow for cruise ships to enter, our ship dropped anchor about a mile from land and we were taken ashore by the ship's tenders. 

(Note Statue on Hill)

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and is often referred to as "the country of lakes and volcanoes." We had planned to take a bus trip that included a stop at one of the volcanoes; but all of the volcano tours were cancelled due to recent seismic activity in the area. We therefore settled for a half-day trip to the the picturesque town of Rivas, which is near Lake Nicaragua. 

Rivas has been continuously inhabited by indigenous tribes since about 606 A.D. and then the Spanish settled the area in 1522. Beautiful colonial architecture is still prevalent throughout the city. While in Rivas, our tour stopped at the Rivas Catholic church, which is one of the oldest buildings in Rivas.

Lake Nicaragua is 99 miles long and 45 miles wide, making it the tenth largest fresh-water lake in the world. And, it is the only fresh-water lake in the world that contains sharks.

When the Spanish first discovered the lake, because of its size, they just assumed it was part of the ocean. 

There is an archipelago in the lake that contains over 360 islands, many of which still have volcanic activity.  Our tour brochure indicated that we would be able to see the twin volcanoes of Maderas and Concepcion from the lake's shore; but it was cloudy and no volcanoes were visible. This must be typical, because our 
tour guide produced a picture of what the volcanoes look like on a clear day!

While driving along the edge of the Lake we noted a large number of wind energy facilities and our guide explained that Nicaragua receives a substantial portion of their energy needs from renewable sources.  Also located in this area is where they filmed the TV reality show Survivor in 2010, 2011, and 2014.

Our guide also explained that within the next few years Nicaragua plans to build a canal (similar to the Panama Canal) that will cross Nicaragua Lake. (Several people on the ship said that this is just a dream and will never happen, especially since the Panama Canal will open its new expanded locks in 2017.) However, it is interesting to note that during the 1849 California gold rush, some miners did sail to the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, navigate up the Rio San Juan, cross the lake, and then catch a ship in San Juan del Sur that was traveling north to the gold fields.

The highlight of the trip was a stop at the Amayo Hacienda, a family owned private estate. We were served drinks and treated to a buffet of fresh fruit while being entertained by some young people performing Nicaraguan folklore dances.

Arriving back in San Juan del Sur we still had several hours before the ship departed, so I walked around town and was surprised that the business establishments adjacent to the beach were almost all bars that opened to the water. At the end of the street, nearest the port, were a variety of tourist souvenir shops. Before going back to the ship's tender, I walked a few blocks inland just to see what the non-tourist part of San Juan del Sur looked like. In general, the city was similar to other South American cities that are built around a Catholic Church in the center of town (Parque Central San Juan del Sur).  

Friday, May 20, 2016

RonnieAdventure #0204 - Costa Rica - 2016

After docking in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, we signed up for a 10 hour bus trip that went up the Pan-American Highway to visit some of the more rural areas in the mountains. Along the way, our guide pointed out the small coffee plantations that are typically found on the sides of hills. The coffee beans are green during the growing season, but turn red before they are harvested. 

We finally arrived in the small rural village of Sarchi that is famous for the Fabrica de Carretas where they make and paint oxcarts. Painting oxcarts with intricate and vivid designs is almost a lost tradition, so the factory tries to keep the tradition alive by employing artist who paint and decorate oxcarts with traditional styles and patterns. The factory tour was interesting and it was almost like stepping back in time a hundred years. Even though they have electricity on the site, the factory is located adjacent to a stream and the workers use a waterwheel to power their cutting and shaping tools.

While we were at the factory, several artist were at work painting various wheels and carts. After the tour, we were treated to a nice buffet of fresh fruit, which really hit the spot!

On the way out of town, we drove by the Church of Sarchi and the "World's Largest Oxcart."  Unfortunately, because we were behind schedule, the bus driver announced that we did not have time to stop for pictures; so we had to do the best we could through the bus windows. (That is why I hate bus tours! There were several women on the tour that stayed in the oxcart gift shop for an extra 30 minutes while the rest of us waited for them on the bus!)

Just up the road from Sarchi is the community of Grecia and the famous "Iron Church." People often ask why the citizens of Grecia built a metal church using pre-fabricated red steel plates instead of using traditional wood or brick for building materials. Our guide explained that the first church built on the site was made of wood, but it caught fire and burned down. A second wood church was built on the site, but it also burned down. Since wood did not seem to be the ideal construction material, a third church was built on the site using brick and adobe; but it was totally destroyed by a strong earthquake. Not to give up easily, the community then hired a company in Belgium to fabricate a metal church, which is still standing today. (Unfortunately we did not have time to stop for pictures!)

Photographer Unknown
For lunch we stopped at the Valle del Sol, a private colonial estate with beautiful gardens and walkways. While I was eating lunch, a large Black Witch Moth fluttered down and landed on the tablecloth right next to my plate. 

In San Jose (Capital City) we drove past the Parish Church of Costa Rica and then we toured the National Museum. 

The museum was original built as a fortress in 1917 and occupied as a military barracks until the civil war in 1948. During the war, the building sustained substantial shelling and the tower at the corner of the building is still severely pock-marked with bullet holes. In 1950 the fortress was converted to the National Museum.

 While on this trip we had an amazing tour guide that was a walking-talking encyclopedia for facts and figures and while in the museum he gave an  excellent discussion on the early history of Costa Rica. Throughout the museum grounds is a collection of stone spheres that are thought to date back to 300-800 AD. No one really knows what the stones were used for, but the spheres are attributed to the extinct Diquis Culture and are sometimes referred to as Diquis Spheres. 

Last stop of the day was at the National Theater, which is considered to be the most beautiful building in Costa Rica.

Construction on the Theatre started in 1891, but was delayed due to construction design problems. Finally, an Italian engineer was brought in to correct the problems and he finish the building in 1897. The interior of the building contains lavish furnishings and features extensive use of gold trim. Today, the Theatre is home of the Costa Rica National Symphonic Orchestra.   

On the way back to the ship, we ran into several traffic jams, and I nervously kept checking my watch to see if we would make it on time. Fortunately, we made it back to the ship with about 30 minutes to spare before the Captain pulled up the anchor and headed out to sea!