Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Nicaragua – Matagalpa, Pearl of the North

 San Pedro Cathedral 
Our time in Nicaragua is running short. We only have 5 days left to explore more of the highlands. After a brief one night stopover in Estelí, we arrived in Matagalpa. And this lovely town greeted us with plenty of liquid sunshine. Yep rainy season is definitely here; our daily activities will now be dictated by the weather.

Matagalpa is a very affluent city nested among beautiful mountain ranges. It's sometimes called the San Francisco of Nicaragua, in tribute to the ups and down of the streets over the rolling hills.
We fell in love with this town from the beginning, even livelier than Estelí, the houses and shops show that the people in Matagalpa are having a comfortable middle class life. For the first time since leaving Dalat/Vietnam we see plenty of coffee shops that cater to locals, not just tourists. We found a Nicaraguan equivalent of a Frappuccino tastes very good, better than the original actually.

What did you just say?
In a city with a higher disposable income, there is a lot of opportunity to spend money, and plenty of advertisements to attract the shoppers. The most popular way to advertise is a mobile loudspeaker. They are all over Nicaragua, but Matagalpa has by far the highest per capita ratio.
These moving loudspeakers are mounted on the back of a pickup truck and then driven up and down the streets. We've seen two distinct types of speakers. The old fashioned cone shape kind that you expect to see at a public park in a communist country – blaring propaganda slogans all day long. Accordingly these speakers sound like a tin box on steroids... awful!!!
Yes, we feel the same way
The newer speakers are the kind that you see at a rock concert – with a similar decibel level. If one passes by as you are strolling along, you might as well stop your conversation, the speakers will cancel-out your voice. Don't try yelling, it's a losing battle. They are so loud that you don't need an alarm clock in the morning; one will definitely pass by to wake you up. Should you be watching TV in the comfort of your hotel room, we suggest putting it on mute – that way you'll only have one source of noise.... Ok I admit, we are slightly exaggerating now: the TV can compete with the moving speakers when your room faces away from the street and you crank up the TV to the max.

When walking down the main street Av José Benito Escobar in Matagalpa you will often have the pleasure to hear at least 2-3 of these moving noise machines, it gets especially exciting when two of them follow each other competing on noise level. Let's just call it: Surround Sound!

Enough of noise machines, Matagalpa is the gateway to some impressive northern mountain ranges and a trading hub for the produce that is grown in the nearby valleys – particularly coffee. It's only the 5th largest city in the country but the important commercial hub after Managua. The city is also known as "Pearl of the North." We spent our time walking the streets, watching people, and sipping coffee. The rainy hours were a perfect excuse to catch up with writing Blog posts and properly arranging the hundreds of photos... boy, are we behind :-(

"You missed a spot! Make sure these
boots are clean...I have a date tonight!"
On Friday night, we went to THE place in the city where the rich and famous hang out to "see and be seen" – we didn't recognize any famous faces though. Maybe it's the place of the people that aspire to be rico y famoso.
While we had dinner, most of the other guests were focusing on a liquid diet. Don't know when we last have seen so many empty liter size (1 quart) beer bottles in a single place. "Maybe we shouldn't stay long?!" We have a healthy respect for intoxicated Latino men. Even if Matagalpa is considered to be safe, it's not a good idea to be a in a crowd of rowdy, drunken, macho men wearing Frisbee-sized metal belt buckles and cowboy boots. We're not sure if carrying a concealed weapon is an amendment right in Nicaragua like it is in the USA. Initially when we arrived in the central America, we heard the occasional BANG!, but realized that it was their love of firecrackers not bullets. Or so we think...

Mom, I want a cake too!
We also happened to be in Matagalpa on Mother's day. Both of us had a déjà vu, uneasy feeling when we heard that mothers day is coming up... did we screw up the dates? Thankfully, our anxiety only lasted for a few moments – mother's day is always celebrated on May 30 in this part of the world. This year it falls on a Monday. People told us to stock up on essential items before the weekend, as many shops would stay closed until Tuesday, however we had no problem getting what we needed, except for bread and pastries.
Dad and son dressed up as
Mariachi, singing to Mom
Especially since all the bakeries had switched over to become cake factories. We couldn't even buy something as simple as a donut or cookie. On Monday, the whole town turned into a massive cake walk. I guess people pitied us since we did carry/give/receive a cake – where are our kids? Being childless in this part of the world is even stranger to the locals than it was to the Asians. Saying that you don't want children is utterly incomprehensible here. We're getting too old now to say the simple reply, "Maybe later." We wonder if we should perhaps invent some kids to solve this problem!

Roadtrip to Jinotega
Our guide book highly recommended visiting nearby Jinotega (which is actually halfway between Matagalpa and Estelí, but the road from Matagalpa is in much better shape. This road guidebook rated as: "the most scenic route in Nicaragua." We love day trips, traveling only with a small pack, so off we go to Jinotega.
Chicken bus full of kids
The drive was indeed very scenic, though not necessarily the best one. Although we happened to take the daytrip on mother's day and were amazed by the many cake boxes in the bus and the people struggling to keep them flat on the twisting mountain road. Plus, there were flower and plant stalls set up all along the side of the road. Some people boarded with flower bundles that were the size of our big backpacks!

Spectator sport?
Or family event?
We absolutely loved Jinotega, particularly the north bus terminal and adjacent market. We felt that we traveled back in time to our first days in Guatemala when we were so fascinated by the hustle and bustle of people, combined with the colors and "flavor" of the chicken buses. (By the way, news update: we have not forgotten about the chicken bus story that we promised a long time ago. Patrick is almost finished writing it.)

The streets of Jinotega
We must have spent at least an hour taking pictures and observing the Market activities. We must have also caught some attention, as soon as Patrick was some meters away from Julane she was asked by a local to take his picture so she wouldn't forget him... Latino men are so macho. In León she was also hit on by an older man that called her Chuleta (Pork Chop) – How flattering is that! We later learned that this is a commonly used cheeky name to call a girl.
Frankly speaking: looking at the body dimensions of the women here, we kind of see the where Chuleta is coming from. Man here must like to have something to hold on to...something with a lot of meat between the bones! :D

We are glad that we took the day trip to Jinotega; just the market alone was worth the trip. The town itself is nothing special, it actual reminded us more of countryside Honduras than Nicaragua and although we didn't stay overnight we bet that it gets very quiet once the sun sets.

This is it: our 89 days in Central America have come to an end. 

Roughing it the last night:
Our shabby hotel in Managua
We spent the last night in Managua to catch an early morning flight and decided to really rough it one more time: We booked a hotel that is not mentioned in lonely planet... We really wanted to have that "hole in the wall" familiar hotel feeling one more time. Of course. we also were keeping up our newly established tradition of having a fast food chicken dinner as our last supper, this time we chose to eat in our room. Check out the pictures of our last night – but don't be shocked by the shabby hotel, we normally don't stay in places like this.

Last night in Managua:
Traditional fried chicken dinner
Last night in Managua:
I'll have a Mojito please

Central America...
It's been a great journey!

We are flying out of Managua to Lima, Peru.
This is for both of us a
new Continent,
new Country, 
new City...