Friday, May 31, 2013

Nicaragua: Granada

I'd heard from various people that Bearded Monkey hostel in Granada was pretty good. I got there at about 6 in the evening and dumped my bags. There were quite a few travelers sitting and chatting I joined up with them and we headed out for some dinner at a restaurant.

Restaurants in Nicaragua are about three times more expensive than street food, but that still makes them pretty cheap! After dinner we popped into a club for 'ladies night', which really has nothing to do with ladies and there are no specials. However, there was good music and we had fun dancing. I could still remember my run in with rum in Leon so I stuck to coke.

The next day we set out for a kayak tour of Lake Nicaragua. The lake has hundreds of small islands scattered about and Mombacho Volcano looks over everything.

Our vessels:
 Ashley, the photojournalist who knows how to pose much better than I do! Mombacho volcano is in the background.
 Alex, who was struggled with the concept of steering and, about to crash into someone, had some crazy eyes going.
 Our guide - Alex translated!

 This lady was washing clothes and gave me a great smile for the camera!

 He told us about a flower that only flowers at dawn and at certain times of the year. Then he showed us the trick of getting it out so you could smell it - of course he claimed it came out because he was magic!
 We visited the battlements.
 This cannon is actually functional if you load it up.

 Mombacho Volcano which overlooks the lake.
 We headed to the park to grab some lunch and I saw this line up of carriages. I wanted to channel Jane Austen and put on a voluminous dress and ride around. Unfortunately that's not super practical in nearly 40 degree heat so I gave it a miss. This time.
 We grabbed some vigoron which is a Nicaraguan dish. It's yucca, pork of some kind (rind for us) and coleslaw-y stuff on top. I'm not at all a fan of pork, especially the rind but I though I'd give it a go. The coleslaw and yucca were delicious, the rind was edible but I gave most away. Nicaragua is not known for it's food and a lot of it is fried, so this was a nice break.
After a short rest it was time for... The Chocolate Museum!!

 This is Ismael , who was our guide. Alex and I had signed up for a class that teaches you about the origins of chocolate and how to make your own (you may have a clue to our motivation...)
 My stunning outfit!

 We started with the cacao tree. The yellow fruit are the ones that are ready, you can check by seeing if they sound hollow. To get them off you twist - they grow so close to the trunk that if you cut them no more will grow there and eventually the tree will be barren.
 Once you've got the seeds out and they've been fermented and dried (he gave us tips on this but I'm not sharing all the good chocolate secrets!) you roast them. Preferably in a ceramic dish like below but a wok over a low heat works as well. When you hear popping and smell chocolaty goodness they're done.

 We all had a go stirring and he taught us a song that he assured us was essential to the roasting process, and had to be sung whilst dancing around the pot.
 Then it was on to shelling (while they're still hot - ouch!)

...and grinding the beans.
 You should have a thick, shiny paste by the end.
 After that, add hot water, honey, cinnamon and, weirdly, black pepper and you have Mayan hot chocolate! The Aztecs served the same drink but with chili and the Europeans substituted milk for hot water, sugar for honey and completely removed black pepper and chili.

 Of course there was a requisite song for the mixing of the hot chocolate. From what I remember the beginning goes "Bati, Bati, Chocolaty" and then slightly longer Spanish words that it is beyond my ability to remember!


 Finally it was on to the main event: actual chocolate. He showed us how they combine it with sugar for 15hours until it's smooth then unleashed us to make our own.
The naked palette.

 I went with almonds,
 and coconut.

 The finished product!
 It is possible that not all of it made it to the fridge to set...
 But I wasn't the only one who was tempted!

 The next morning we got up early to head to Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua. We stayed for two nights (which I'll tell you about in my next, and last, Nicaragua blog) before I headed back to Granada to spend the night before returning to Costa Rica. On my last night in Granada I wandered out to grab some supper and saw this beacon of light through the trees.

 It turned out to be a cute, if quite touristy, restaurant in the middle of the park. So I sat myself down and had a relaxed meal accompanied by some Dickens to while my night away.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nicaragua: León

Welcome to the city of crazies and poets! Or at least that's my best translation for 'el ciudad de locos y poetas' which is the phrase that accompanies León. This was my first stop in Nicaragua after finishing up in Costa Rica.

After an 11 hour bus ride from San Jose during which my appalling Spanish made the border crossing somewhat more complicated than necessary, I finally arrived at about 3pm. I wandered around, largely just making random turns until I found a hostel called El Albergue.

I chatted to some of the guys and we headed out to grab dinner from one of the street carts. This was delicious and the whole meal cost me about $1.20! Nicaragua is a lot cheaper than Costa Rica. On the way home I bumped into a trio of Australians I'd first met in La Fortuna. They invited me in for a Nica Libre (a new take on the Cuba Libre which is apparently 80% rum). I may have had a couple and woke up the next day feeling less than peachy. This meant I wasn't quite up for exploring the city but a trip to the beach sounded right up my alley.

Three of us hitched a ride on the back of a truck which was incredibly fun and the wind made the heat a little more bearable, which helped my hangover.

The beach was idyllic and I had a well deserved break in a hammock with some fruit salad. I took occasional dips in the ocean and generally lazed about until we decided to get some food. We found a place just down the road which had a dirt floor and a parrot guarding the door but it looked like it had tasty food. I ordered some fish which came whole - not a style I have eaten before!

We hitched a ride back and I had a gentle night. The next day I explored the city a little. I'd been planning to go up an active volcano and see the lava but there weren't enough people going. I also had the opportunity to go volcano boarding but had heard varied opinions on it and decided just to head straight to Granada.

These horse-and-carts were incredibly common! Not just as a tourist trap.

Random Street

And I saw this shop! Had to be included!