Cigar Tours in Esteli

We weren’t quite sure what we had signed up for today (most of the more exciting trips start that way) but we knew we were being picked up at 9:30. Orlando turned up right on time and although he didn’t speak any English we managed to cope throughout the day and actually ended up learning a fair bit which was great.
He took us for a drive in a huge loop around the countryside surrounding Esteli. We were so glad that we had decided to take a guide as there wasn’t a chance we would have found the spots without him. You can tell that tourism is certainly embraced here,it’s just that things aren’t overly well signposted and a lot of the paths aren’t too obvious.
Orlando took us to a couple of viewpoints and we got to gaze over some quite beautiful countryside that was more or less uninhabited. We were meant to visit El Jalacate, a place were a man had carved some amazing animals into stone but unfortunately it was shut but Orlando managed to show us some other carvings.  
The best bit of the tour though he saved for last which was the Salto Estanzuela (waterfalls). The area is going through a drought at the moment so there wasn’t a lot of water flowing but enough to create a really quite beautiful waterfall. It was yet another great viewpoint and the end to a good tour where we got to appreciate the beauty of the countryside around Esteli.
Our plan for the afternoon was to visit a cigar factory and go on a tour. We had been told where the factory was, and while they didn’t officially do tours we apparently could ask and give a tip and then get a tour. Sounded like a great idea!!
We found the place soon enough and were let straight in by the security guard. He then asked us if we wanted a guide and we said yes and he introduced us to one of the managers!! He not only spoke perfect English but had an absolute passion about cigars.
We were taken through the whole process in the factory from start to finish. He showed us where the leaves first came into the factory to how they were dried and then fermented. To where they were rolled and finished. Then to where they were packaged and made ready for delivery.
This particular factory made cigars for different companies all over the world and could make just about any specification of cigar and put it in just about any packaging.
The highlight of the tour had to be when he was explaining how the cigars were made and how the different flavours and tastes were created. The different leaves all have different flavours and it’s one group’s job to discern what flavours they have and that’s done by smoking a sample of the leaf!!
They then use a combination of the leaves to make the cigar. He demonstrated this by making a couple of cigars right there and then. We were in a room surrounded by boxes of leaves with numbers on the side and he began plucking some out and then got one of the boys to go a get a couple of bigger leaves to wrap them in.
In no time we had two perfect cigars and we got to light them right there and then!! It was noticeable the difference in tastes and once we decided which one we preferred we took one and he took the other and we continued our tour whilst smoking cigars!! 
In a Nicaraguan cigar factory, having an unofficial tour while smoking big fat cigars…classic. We were in awe of our guide and his expertise, but when we complimented him on his knowledge he brushed us away and said that he had met a Cuban who with just one puff of a cigar could say which region each leaf in the cigar came from. Fingers crossed we meet this man!!
In fact there was another group in at the same time but their tour looked a little more official and they must have wondered who on earth we were wandering around with a manager, smoking!!
It was a definite highlight and along with the “cool” factor it was interesting too. We both had a great time and bought a couple of cigars at the end (for $2) and these were the most expensive we could get!! We would have got more but he warned us that it was difficult to send them back to Australia or Europe plus we are off to Cuba soon!! T

The ladies selling their bags of fruit on the side of the road. We must have bought a hundred bags by now I reckon.


Stood out on the “feet of death” overlooking the countryside around Esteli.

The local cafe had an interesting collection behind the counter.  We are not sure but we think that’s a rocket launcher and maybe a land mine.  We are just a stones throw from the border with Honduras so anything is possible really.

Some patterns etched into the stones.


The countryside here in Nicaragua is so lush, green and beautiful.  Also seems to be very sparsely inhabited.  There are a couple of houses here but they have no electricity or running water.  They get their water from a well and we have seen huge piles of firewood for cooking (It’s so hot that it’s definitely not for heating) outside homes everywhere.

The woods were scattered with stones which had been carved into all sorts of wonderful shapes and animals.

The waterfall was truly beautiful but we needed a 360 degree shot to truly appreciate that the walls almost completely surrounded us.


A typical street in Esteli.

The boys at the cigar factory screen printing the covers for the boxes.

The tobacco leaves fermenting.  They are placed in these piles by hand, then rotated by hand.  They are tested to see if they are ready by being rolled and smoked.

The ladies sorting the leaves into different sizes, thickness and quality.  Again all by hand.


Our man preparing to roll the cigars.

Rolling them just on a bench in the store.  I think he might have done this before.

Sarah enjoying the cigar.  The boxes behind are all full of leaves waiting to be rolled, and that was where our guide just casually wandered around picking out different combinations for the cigars.

Smoking the cigars in the factory!  With the stacks of mold boxes behind and the lady rolling the cigars in front. 


We could have watched this lady work all day it was captivating watching her hands roll the cigars.

All the different shapes she had rolled that day.  Apparently the more shapes they can roll the more money they can get.

This machine is the “draw tester.” The cigar is placed in the end and it makes sure that the airflow is correct.  This was easily the most high tech piece of machinery in the whole factory!

All the cigars waiting to be boxed and shipped.  Each little package is a different order.


The final process of boxing up the cigars ready for shipping.

Somoto canyon

We had heard of a canyon in the north of Nicaragua that was supposed to be amazing. The canyon was only discovered (by outsiders, the locals have known about it for decades) in 2002. It was made a National Park and since then has been the main tourist attraction in the sleepy little town of Somoto. Though even now it is still not widely known about. The canyon was the main reason why we had come to Esteli as the canyon could be accessed from here. 

We were going to book through a tour company but the lovely lady at the hostel told us that if you make your own way to the canyon entrance you can pick up a local guide there cheaper and for just the two of us. So we found ourselves on the early chicken bus heading towards Somoto. It wasn’t that pleasant as it was packed to the rafters and took 2 hours as the bus was stopping every few kms.

We eventually made it and our next instructions were to catch a taxi to the entrance of the park. We were accosted by a lady who worked at the bus station trying to sell us a package. Even going so far as to call the guy and put Tim on the phone with him. We said no and got in the taxi. Little did we know that the tour operators house is 300 metres in front of the actual entrance and that is where the taxi dropped us off. We didn’t know this until we were walking back out of the canyon and passed the real entrance. Anyway we had heard of this guy and he got great reviews as his company was a community project aimed at giving the local kids something to do so it was all good.

We were introduced to our guide Alexander who was one of the local kids from Somoto. We soon had our life jackets on and were being driven to the drop off point. The cool thing about this canyon is that it is very narrow and the walls can be up to 200 metres high and as there is a river running through it you have to swim and rock climb a lot of the way.

So after a brief walk along the river, we were in the water and swimming down the canyon. We also had the opportunity to jump off a few rocks into the water which was really fun. We got up to 5 metres and that was enough for us. 

It was really very beautiful and because it was just the 3 of us we got to really experience the wildness of the place. It was awesome just floating on your back looking up at the walls of the canyon. So tranquil. We were very glad we had the life jackets as it would have been a struggle towards the end swimming so much. Time flew by and we soon found ourselves walking back toward the entrance. Definitely a highlight of Nicaragua. 

The bus back wasn’t though as it was already full when we got there and had to stand the whole way. This bus was apparently an express bus but I couldn’t quite work out the difference as we still stopped to pick everyone up. It only took an hour and a half so I suppose it was a little quicker than the morning one. But it was definitely worth it. S

Hmmm this looks a little higher than I thought!…….


But I did it! 

So did Tim. 

Dung beetles!

Very interesting rock formations. According to Tim, these were formed by rocks getting stuck in little holes and the river current flowing over them which causes them to move in the hole, slowly making the hole bigger and bigger.


Turtle rock. Well it has so now been named by us.


The canyon getting narrower.

Goodbye Leon, Chicken bus to Esteli.

We only had a morning left in Leon but had probably left the best sight until last so off we went to see the Cathedral de La Asuncion which is on the main square. It was undergoing a bit of a facelift and clean so one side was covered in scaffolding but the bits they had cleaned were a brilliant white!! The lady at Granada had told us that it was painted with egg whites but I have a feeling she meant it was painted the colour egg white. We really shouldn’t laugh at someone whose English was not their first language but we had a good chuckle no the less. 
Apparently this cathedral was meant to have been built in Lima but the plans got switched and so Leon benefitted from getting a much larger cathedral than they were meant to. It’s certainly quite a huge cathedral for the size of town and apparently the biggest in Central America. Well we paid our money and climbed to the roof which was boiling hot with the sun radiating off of the white!!
It reminded us a little of some of the Gaudi shapes and buildings. It was awesome to have the place to ourselves and while Leon isn’t exactly the most beautiful of towns it was still nice to get a good view.
Leon was certainly growning on us but we had to move on to Esteli and that meant a trip on the infamous Chicken Buses.
Now in Leon there is a market and a bus station but we found out the day before that the market seems to have spilt over into the bus station so it all seems to have become one. Vibrant to say the least. Still we feel that we are getting pretty comfortable with these crazy bus systems and were soon on the bus and even managed to pick up some lunch too!!
It’s funny what a smile and a relaxed attitude can do, because we felt we were being looked after by everyone at the bus station and all the shouting we just understood to be the way they advertise where the buses were going. It was funny to watch some others attempt to do the same as us, getting all annoyed with everyone and getting very stressed. We certainly felt like old hats.
Waiting for the bus to go was like sitting in an oven but finally with sweat pouring off of everyone we left for Esteli. The conductor was very excited that he had 8 gringos on the bus, we weren’t sure whether it was a record!!
We arrived safely at Esteli and it was a nice change in temperature but we certainly noticed that it wasn’t exactly a tourist town as we’re getting stared at quite a bit but again getting pretty used to that. In fact as soon as we say hi they tend to break into a huge smile and return the greeting!!
Our lady at the hostel couldn’t have been more helpful. She helped us sort out getting to Somoto Canyon by ourselves the next day and sorted out a taxi driver to take us on a trip around the area and suggested cigar factories and restaurants for us to visit. It really made it all a bit easy, brilliant.
We finished the day off with a walk around town. Esteli is certainly just a functional town, surrounded by farmlands and there were plenty of Nicaraguan Cowboys and farmers around town. We enjoyed our little walk and were looking forward to the next couple of days. T

One of the old churches we got to walk past every time we left the hostel.

The outside of the Cathedral de La Asuncion was surrounded by lions.

Our first glimpse out onto the roof.

All brilliant whites and wonderful shapes, it makes you wonder whether this was designed to have tourists walking around on the rooftops.


The view of Leon, not classically beautiful but enchanting nevertheless.

Leon

We didn’t really have any plans other than going to the central market and picking up some food as this market was supposed to be amazing. So after a little lie in we made our way towards the market.

Unfortunately as it was Sunday not a lot was open though we did manage to find a little stall on the outskirts of the market selling Vaho (pronounced Bao). It is a big steaming pot layered with yucca on the bottom, then whole plantains with meat, onions and peppers on top all covered in banana leaves and left to simmer for 3 hours. It really was delicious.
For the next few hours we just walked around and let Leon seep into our pores. On arrival our first impression was that Leon was not a patch on Granada. (Which the Leonians wouldn’t have liked one bit because in the 1800’s the two towns were vying for top spot and eventually descended into civil war. This culminated in the Leonians hiring American William Walker into Nicaragua and getting him and his soldiers to take Granada. Which he did but then subsequently named himself ruler of Nicaragua. He was eventually driven out but not before he torched the entire city and left a sign saying “here once was Granada”. But this is why Managua is the capital instead of either two as it was named to stop the fighting.
But slowly we have warmed to it. Much more gritty than Granada but still beautiful in its own way and tourism although here, is more an afterthought. Street food is on most corners, my favorite being mango sometimes ripe most times not, cut into strips and you add salt and chili sauce. Sounds crazy but tastes delicious. My mum and dad are going to think I am crazy when I start picking their mangoes green.
We walked out towards the bus station to see when our bus would leave tomorrow and we got a look at everyday life in Leon. The streets were lined with stalls, selling everything you would need in everyday life and the smells! Not really any of them good but in their defense it was about 32 degrees and with rubbish lining the streets and the drains not really working you can understand the underlying problem. It was a bit of an eye opener. Although we were in the poorer part of town never did we feel unsafe and we soon made it to the bus station and it was crazier than the one in Rivas. But we soon found out our bus times and off we went. 
By this time I was hot and bothered and so convinced Tim to go eat in Tip Top which is Central Americas answer to KFC, the reason being it was air conditioned! Food was pretty average but not worse than KFC.
After that we pretty much just chilled in the hammocks in the hostel. A very chilled out day, pity the weather wasn’t the same. S 

The giant Vahoe pot.

They are slowly restoring the Cathedral and as you can see a work in progress. I am still undecided which I like better.

One of the many civil war murals scattered around the street.

Still can’t get enough of the colours.

The street view of the market stalls leading up to the bus station.

Another street view thrown in for good measure.

Another shot of the Cathedral.

Bye bye Granada, Hello Leon

So one last quick (and hot) walk around Granada this morning and then we were off. It’s going to be sad to leave here we have loved our time in Granada, and while we have crammed so much into our two days we could have kept going for a whole week at that pace and not seen everything.
The transfer to Leon was going to take us 3 hrs and we decided to splurge and take a minibus (with air conditioning) for $15. I was a bit annoyed but then as soon as we sat in the cool and didn’t have to worry about bags being stolen/pick pockets etc I settled down to a more relaxing journey.
We arrived in Leon and got dropped straight off at our hostel. The first thing we noticed about Leon was that it certainly has a bit more of an edge to it than Granada.
We set off for a walk around town and the place was strangely encapsulating if not necessarily beautiful outright. It isn’t a tourist town although there are a few around.
We waited for the sun to set and for the temp to drop and then went out to the central square where we had heard that there was to be some live music. Sure enough right in front of the Cathedral de La Asuncion there was a stage set up and groups dancing.
It was a truly fantastic way to start our Leon experience as we sat in a nearby bar and watched the dancing. It started off very traditionally but gradually the girls started wearing less and less and the dancing got a bit more modern!! A guy impersonating Michael Jackson finished off the dancing before two old crooners took the show until the end.
Dinner was a bit of street food, this time a sort of pizza. The base was stuffed with chicken and cheese and then more cheese, a tomato salsa and coleslaw on top. Good munchie food. T

Our corner store.  You aren’t actually allowed into the shop.  You have to ask for what you want through the door, luckily our Spanish is improving.

The street that our Hostel was on.


Nicaragua is definitely the home of the rocking chair.  Everyone, and I mean everyone has one.

Our first church in Leon.

A bit more of an edge to the place.

The colours of the buildings are mind blowing every time you see them.

A great way to spend Saturday night.

Floating and boating

We had another jam packed day planned today. We started off walking to the bus station and catching a local bus headed towards Managua. We were getting off just a little out of town at the turn off towards Laguna de Apoyo. Once there we were to catch a taxi to the lake. But just as we were about to get into the taxi a local bus turned in and so we jumped on that instead. We then had a joke about how blairse we have become about jumping on a bus and not being 100% certain exactly where it is going. Unfortunately for us this bus didn’t quite take us all the way to the lagoon and we had to walk the last 3 kms. 

On arrival we payed a fee to get into one of the resorts as the public spot wasn’t much chop and spent the next few hours lounging in an inner tube tire on the lake. The lake is crystal clear water that is fed by rain water and springs. The water in some places can be a little warmer than you would think, we found out from our guide yesterday it is because there is actually a dormant volcano underneath whose vents emit steam. All in all a pretty relaxing start to the day. 

We made our way back to Grenada by catching a taxi to the motor way and flagging down a bus. I ended up in the dicky seat right next to the driver with Tim squished in the isle. Luckily we only had about 12 kms to travel. 

After checking out the local market and realising it wasn’t for us. We again filled our bellies with some Vigoron from our ladies at the park and slowly made our way towards lake Nicaragua to commandeer a boat and captain to take us to the isletas. Most people get a tour through an agency but Gabby our hostel lady told us it is better to go down and get the captain yourself as you get the whole boat. This is exactly what we did and I soon found myself on the back of a push bike with the owner in front and Tim following on another bike. Bikes over here would be up there after buses as one of the main forms of transport. The locals have it down to a fine art, especially the ladies who sit side saddle in front of the driver often with a child on the front handle bars. As you can see by the photo I may have been a little to big and definitely not very elegant but we made it work even if all the locals were laughing at us. 

We tentatively asked if we could buy some beers for the trip and not only did he say it way okay but he actually went and got them for us so we soon found ourselves in a boat with just us and our teenage captain and his girlfriend who came along for the ride. The owner of the boat soon tried to get more money out of us but after some intense negotiations on Tim’s behalf we were away and boating!

The isletas were formed when volcano Mombacho exploded and around 350 tiny islands were formed. These were owned by the local indigenous people but unlike the Kuna in Panama these guys sold out and a lot of the islands have been purchased by rich Nicaraguans and Americans and massive houses have been built. 

On one of the islands an ex pat introduced Howler and Capuchin monkeys. They have been fed by the boat operators to the point where they will occasionally jump from the trees onto the boat to get the avocados or fruit the captains have. Well there were about 3 boats full of people and our boat with just us so we got the monkeys as they apparently avoid the full boats. It was awesome. These guys were no where near as tame as the ones in San Blas but they still let us touch them and get really close. It was very cool just to see them move around the boat. They enjoyed it so much that they didn’t want to get back on the island and our captain had to splash them with water to get them to climb back onto the trees.

Our next island stop was one where an old Spanish outpost had been built which had views back to Granada. After getting some photos we walked back down to the boat only to discover that our boat had left but he did leave his girlfriend guarding our bag and she told us he would be back in 10 minutes. We didn’t mind at all as we sat on the pier watching the sun set and a man in a little canoe throwing his cast net.

Old mate came back but with another group who wanted to see the sunset so we all piled back in the boat and watched it set while on the trip back. There was a little bar just where we got off so we decided to go in and have a beer. Very much a locals spot we got a few stares but nothing we were not used to. 

It quickly got dark and we were told by our hostel not to walk around this area at night but to get a taxi. So after paying we asked the barman to call a taxi for us but he promptly told us that he couldn’t and not many came this way. Well we had no other choice but to start walking home. The strip is full of bars and clubs but at this hour it is pretty quiet and dark. We soon found a security guard and asked him to call a taxi but he said again that you can’t call but we could flag one down when one passed. So we promptly sat beside him to wait. 10 mins later one went passed and we were safely out of there and back into old town. Probably nothing would have happened but it is sometimes better to be safe than sorry. 

We soon found ourselves sitting back and enjoying some very cheap mojitos along the pedestrian street watching the world go by. S

Thought I would get a bit of exercise in. 

The resort.

So tranquil.

Just lounging around.

View from the resort.

Some of the not so nice colonial buildings, but for us almost as beautiful.

The craziness leading to the central market. The old blue and white building housed the market.

Pots anyone?

Rice and beans and corn sold by the bag full. 

We decided against eating in this market. Not quite up to even my adjusted South and Central American level of hygiene. But still an awesome experience to take a walk through.

Who knew there was so many different types of white rice.

The pedestrianised street that came alive at night.

We honestly could have taken thousands of photos in this city. Literally picture perfect.

Another old church. Very cool as there is maybe only two or three in the city not restored.

Like I said, not very elegant but it got the job done.

The pier.


One of the islands.

Getting ready to climb aboard!

Just chillin.

As you can see in the background, everyone wanted to be on our boat!

Shot of the day. Even though they were so close they move so much and make it so hard to get a good shot. Awesome work Tim.

Obligatory us shot.

The man in a canoe with a cast net.

Sunset over Granada.

 

A storm brewing on the horizon.

Volcanoes in Granada

Today was going to be pretty action packed and we were very excited about exploring Granada as the town had looked so fun and vibrant when we had arrived on the bus and walked through.
Our excellent hosts had given us some great advice as to what to do over the next couple of days and so we started with a local breakfast at our local restaurant. Eggs, tomatoes and rice and beans. We must be getting used to the filling breakfasts here as we both found it delicious, especially when it’s washed down with a melon juice. Way too hot here for a coffee, we noticed that even the locals are sticking to colder drinks.
Filled and ready for the day we set off for a stroll around town. Having been to a few colonial towns so far I have to say that Granada has been the most authentic for me and certainly the most impressive in a natural way. While there is a touristic influence, the town still seems to function as a working town and most of the buildings seem to be original.
I reckon we could have walked around for days admiring all the different coloured buildings and the old churches but the heat was pretty oppressive and we found ourselves hugging the shady sides of the streets and taking refuge in the old churches.
I can’t get over how wonderful the town is we both very much fell in love.
We had been told to try “vigaron” for lunch which was a local specialty. The dish originated with two old ladies selling the dish outside the local baseball ground and one of them decided to get an edge by calling the dish “vigor on” as in get your vigor on. The name has stuck and the dish is made of mashed yucca, pork rind and spicy coleslaw all wrapped in a banana leaf. Our new favourite.
The afternoon plan consisted of going on a tour to the top of a nearby volcano called Mombacho. We had to book a tour apparently but were not really sure what to expect. It turns out that there are some definite benefits to travelling during the quiet time as it was just the two of us on the tour so off we set with our private guide and our driver!!
Mombacho is just outside of Granada and is a dormant volcano made up of four main vents. The top of all four vents blew off a few hundred years ago so it doesn’t look like a volcano in the classic sense and it’s absolutely covered in cloud forest. The drive up was done in a four wheel drive truck which managed to get us up one of the steepest inclined roads I have ever seen. We climbed 1000 metres so were glad we didn’t have to walk it!
Once at the top our guide, Alberto, gave us a good education about volcanos and a history of Nicaragua thrown in too. It was all very interesting and the walk was great too as the temperature had dropped about ten degrees. It wasn’t a strenuous walk at all and we just circumnavigated one of the vents.
The first highlight was a viewpoint where we got a great view of Granada, Laguna de Apoyo and Les Isletas sitting on Lake Nicaragua. The area is absolutely stunning and made Granada look so amazingly small. We were lucky to be there on such a clear day and Alberto pointed out a few more of the volcanoes including the very active volcano Masaya, lake Managua, the city of Managua and the ranges beyond that. We were very lucky with conditions and very lucky to have our private guide.
On the stroll back two main things happened. Firstly we came across a Sloth with a baby. It was during the heat of the day so there was absolutely zero movement and in fact due to the fact that a path had been worn on the way to and from where the sloth was I don’t think it had moved for quite a while. Still it was great to see such a unique and brilliantly weird animal.
The second thing that happened was that we started finding out more information about the Volcano Masaya which had apparently been closed up until four months ago but was now open to the public once again. He claimed that we would be able to see lava and Sarah’s eyes practically popped out of our head and we decided to go on a night tour to see it.
So it was quickly back to town and we had just enough time to throw some vigaron down our necks before we had to be back on the next tour. Once again it was just us with our private guide.
Access to the volcano was limited to just 15 mins per car and everyone was let in and out in groups. The queue to get in stretched for ages right outside the park. I have a feeling that in most other countries the volcano would have been closed to the public but we had to take a chance to see something so different.
So after about two hours it was finally our turn and we started on the last five minute drive up to the top and could already see the red glow coming out of the top of the volcano.
When we got there we rushed to the edge and peered over the edge down into the depths of the volcano. What an amazing sight we saw. You could actually the see the lava way down below churning and boiling away. It was truly amazing. Just like we had seen before on TV or in the movies but obviously far more impressive to see in real life.
The sounds were great too. It sounded like waves pounding against a cliff face and the whole thing was incredibly mesmeric. Made all the better as we were only held back by a thigh high wall so there was nothing to block your view (some might say nothing to prevent you from falling in too!).
A truly unforgettable experience and we were so excited we couldn’t sleep when we got back so we went out for a $1 Mojito in the pedestrianised centre of Granada. A great place to watch the world go by and a great way to finish such a wonderful day. T

The main square in Granada and then some shots of the churches all within a stones throw of the Central Park.

Such different colours and designs for all the churches.


Some shots of the streets in Granada.  Just such a wonderful place to walk around. The colours of the buildings are unbelievable.


A view from the bell tower of one of the churches.  The tiled roofs are wonderful, but it’s also clear to see the courtyards in all the buildings.  These keep the place cool and some of the peeks we have had through windows show some to be beautiful gardens.


Vigaron.

The crater at Volcano Mombacho.  Completely covered by cloud forest now.

Our path through the cloud forest.

They look like wild flowers but they are actually orchids. 

Over our left shoulders is Granada and over our right are Les Isletas. They are both sitting on Lake Nicaragua.


Our third Sloth.

Back to the local for more Vigaron.

That’s the view into volcano Masaya.


The Lava was so mesmerising.


We got to get pretty close.