Tag Archives: outdoors

Looking Back, Central America

While it took ten months to work my way up the massive continent of South America, three months seemed only a short time to explore the Central America sub-continent even though it’s barely larger than Colombia. But since I was in the neighbourhood…

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Panama

San Blas Islands

With no straightforward bus route from Colombia to Panama, I chose a five-day cruise through the San Blas Islands, finishing in Panama City. The San Blas Islands are a glorious chain of islands in the Caribbean Sea, but make sure you do your research as the cruises aren’t always up to standard.

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Panama City

After so long in South America Panama City feels a little like home with its massive skyscrapers, malls, cinemas and fast food chains. When travelling long-term you lose the sense of time and on arrival in Panama days before Christmas I forget that it was prime holiday season for the locals. With most of the holiday destinations booked solid and long lines to get on any buses, I decided to spend the holidays hanging around the city. While there I visited the colonial old quarter of Casco Viejo, the canal and the ruins of Panama Viejo.

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Being in Panama City feels like being in the United States. There are so many Americans and I rarely needed to use my spanish skills as most people spoke english.

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Bocas del Toro

After the holiday break I headed west to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the border of Costa Rica. In the surf/party town I took the opportunity to spend a day on a catamaran snorkelling around the reefs and another sitting in a hammock at the hostel.

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Boquete

Then taking a chicken bus, I spent three days in the cooler climes of the mountain town of Boquete. While there I climbed the tallest mountain in the country – Volcán Barú. The views were wonderful from the top, but starting the 26km hike at midnight is difficult. So to recover I spent time in some natural hot springs just outside of town.

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Costa Rica

San José

Costa Rica has a reputation for being the most expensive country in Central America. From the capital, San José, I took a tour to the top of a volcano before boating along a river to see monkeys, a sloth, caimans, crocodiles and many different types of birds. It was during this tour that Iguana was served for lunch.

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Liberia

Next I headed north to the city of Liberia from where I visited the beach town of Playa del Coco and a set of waterfalls.

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Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

My first stop in Nicaragua was the surf town of San Juan del Sur. A beautiful place to spend a couple of days with bars and beach-front restaurants aplenty. The town even has a statue of Christ atop a hill at the end of the beach.

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Isla Ometepe

No trip to Nicaragua is complete without catching the ferry across Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe Island with its pair of volcanos. Cruising around the volcanos on a scooter is a lot of fun, visiting beaches, cafés and thermal pools. Both volcanos are climbable and a group of us scaled the largest of the two.

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Granada

Next, I was on a bus to the touristic city of Granada at the northern end of the lake for some amazing food and a visit to yet another volcano, this one spewing smoke from the crater within its crater.

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León

Then a quick stop off on the city of Léon to go hurtling down the side of an active volcano on a volcano board.

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Honduras and El Salvador

With limited time, I set foot only briefly in both countries, mainly at customs on the borders. San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador seemed nice though for the thirty minutes we stopped there for lunch.

Guatemala

Antigua

Most travellers in Central America rave about Guatemala.  I arrived into Antigua to find another touristic city at the base of another volcano. Unlike other parts of Central America, Antigua has a lot of colonial architecture, although after numerous earthquakes over the centuries, many are in ruins.

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San Pedro la Laguna

I enjoyed a couple of days in San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Antitla with its thin streets, crazy Tuk Tuk drivers, great small restaurants and amazing lake views.

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Flores and Tikal

Then after a brief visit back in Antigua, I caught a bus to the north of the country to the island of Flores on Lago de Petén Itzá.

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Flores is a tourist destination and gateway to the great Maya ruins of Tikal, where I spent several hours exploring.

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Belize

Caye Caulker

Then on the one year anniversary of my time in Latin America I arrived in Belize, an english speaking country. Staying on the party island of Caye Caulker, I spent some time in the pristine waters snorkelling with Nurse sharks and Eagle Rays, some larger than I am.

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Mexico

While Mexico is actually in North America I included the southern portions as part of my Central American adventure. From Caye Caulker, I caught a ferry to Chetumal in Mexico and stopped for the night before heading on.

Palenque and Yaxchilán

After an eight-hour bus ride I arrived at the city of Palenque to continue The Maya Ruins Trail I began at Tikal. My first stop was the peaceful ruins of Yaxchilán and its connected site of Bonampak on the Guatemalan Border.

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Next it was to the Palenque ruins only twenty minutes out of the city.

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Merida and Uxmal

Four hours north in the Yucatán is Merida, a large and popular touristic city and the nearby ruins of Uxmal and one of its satellite cities, Kabah.

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Valladolid and Chichén Itzá

Then it was across to the city of Valladolid to see Mexico’s most visited archaeological site, Chichén Itzá, seen by more people every year than Peru’s Macchu Pichu.

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Tulum

Then it was back to the Caribbean Coastline to the town of Tulum and the Maya fortress of the same name.

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Cancún and Playa del Carmen

The final distinction in my thirteen month trip through Latin America, Cancún, where I did little more than prepare for my exit from Latin America, but managed a quick visit to the beaches at Playa del Carmen.

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Next, is a well deserved rest from travelling for six months to save and plan a year through Asia.

Adios America Latina,

The World Wanderer.

Valladolid & Chichén Itzá, Mexico – Impressions

A short two hours by bus from Merida on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is the city of Valladolid. Named after the then capital of Spain, Valladolid was built atop the Maya town of Zaci, using the stones from the dismantled Maya buildings. This caused the Maya in the area to revolt but the uprising was put down by spanish soldiers arriving from Merida.

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Valladolid has a small town feel even though it’s population is more than 45 thousand. The central park is a hive of activity and similar to Merida it’s a free wifi zone. The city is otherwise fairly plain, with only a handful of touristy restaurants and hostels. The main plaza, however, does have a beautiful fountain at its heart…

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There is one attraction in the city, the Cenote Zaci. A cenote is a sink hole that has filled with water and is commonly found in this region of Mexico with a reported two thousand of them. Many of the cenotes are deep wide tunnels filled from rainwater or underground rivers, but can also be where an underground river flows out onto a beach. They were used by the Maya as a water source although the sacred one at the Chichén Itzá ruins was used for sacrifices. Cenote Zaci is a half cavern filled with water and said to be 100 metres deep. It’s used as a swimming pool by locals and tourists.

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But it’s the nearby ruins of Chichén Itzá that brings most travellers and tourists to the town, although few actually stay in Valladolid. Tour buses leave from either Cancun or Merida regularly, dropping tourists directly at the ruins. Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico visited by 1.2 million people a year, which is more people per day on average than Macchu Pichu in Peru. I was prepared for this and had called the site ‘Mexico’s Disneyland’ before arriving. To make things more interesting it poured with rain soon after my arrival at the site. Thankfully they sold rain ponchos at the gate and the rain made my day cooler and more enjoyable.

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Chichén Itzá is one of the larger sites, similar in size to Uxmal, Palenque and Tikal, with much of it still covered in jungle. While the constant stream of tourists was annoying, the sheer number of locals selling trinkets seemed to out number the tourists. The entire site is surrounded by trinket stalls with many scattered throughout as well. I did see several of the stall owners carving their own products, so at least some the items are not mass-produced.

The main temple…

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Chichén Itzá houses the largest ball court of all the ruins I’ve been to. I even found a second court, but that one was smaller and in worse condition than the larger one.

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There is a great deal of wall carvings at the site, many surviving the ravages of time. Such as this king…

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And this eagle…

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There is a large section of the ruins where long lines of columns stand. The one thousand columns are in three sections each with a different style. One section once held the roof of the warrior’s quarters.

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At the end of a long path with trinket stalls on either side is the sacred Cenote…

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The highpoint of the ruins was the observatory, the only round building I’ve seen at any of the ruins.

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Next, I head to the Caribbean Coast to the town of Tulum and another set of ruins, this one on the beach.

The World Wanderer

Merida & Uxmal, Mexico – Impressions

Capital city of the Yucatán peninsula region and with one million people, Merida is the 12th largest city in Mexico. Merida was built by the spanish conquistadors in 1542 and named after a city in mother Spain. It was built on top of a Maya city and some consider it to be the oldest continually lived in city in the Americas.

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Merida also has the esteemed privilege of once having the most millionaires in the world living there and the architecture in the city shows both this and its colonial decent.

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The centre of the city was alive with people during my visit, with the main plaza seemingly full at all hours of the day and night. This was primarily due to the city celebrating Carnival, plus, like many other plazas in Latina America, the main plaza is a free internet hotspot. A quick walk around the historical centre and I found many hotels, restaurants, horse-drawn imperial wagons and smaller plazas, all well maintained and functional. My favourite restaurant even has a wall commemorating the day of the dead…

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Beyond the city, the Yucatán Peninsula was the main region of the Maya civilisation with the majority of ancient cities scattered around the countryside. Studies have estimated the number of Maya cities at nearly 5000 and this includes one of the most important cities, Uxmal – pronounced ‘ooshmaal’.

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Uxmal was thought to have been built around 200BC and was abandoned before the arrival of the spanish 1700 years later. The city is said to span 35 square kilometres, with more than 95% still covered in jungle.

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The derived meaning of the name Uxmal is ‘three times’, because the city was said to have been rebuilt three times by different kings through ages. The intricacies of the carvings on the buildings also surpass any of the other ruins I’ve seen to date.

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Uxmal has a large section set aside for nuns, who were bred for ritual sacrifice. This large plaza and its associated buildings are among the original buildings in the city.

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There is also a very well-defined ‘court’ for their ball games, which was a similar sport played in most other Mayan cities. Teams could only use the grassy area in the centre and using only their hips – and sometimes paddles – to get a ball made from rubber through a goal. A goal is the just visible protruding ring on the right, the one on the left is no longer there. Because of the growth of rubber trees here, rubber balls were invented in this part of the world 3,500 years ago.

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After a two hour tour around the ruins in the heat, we were taken 16km south to Kabah, a smaller city that was invaded and integrated into the city-state of Uxmal, one of several in the region.

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Kabah’s temples are being restored and will eventually hold the original 260 masks on its walls, representing the 260 days as defined in the Maya ritual calendar.

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Next I head to the town of Valladolid to visit another Maya site, the city of Chichén Itzá.

The World Wanderer

Caye Caulker, Belize – Impressions

Belize is a small country on the edge of the Yucatan peninsula. Unlike the countries that surround it, where they speak spanish, Belize’s primary language is english. After a year in spanish speaking countries where I couldn’t fully understand the everyday conversations around me, on arriving in an english speaking country it was a little overwhelming. It was like suddenly being able to read the thoughts of everyone around you.

As I’m nearing the end of my Latin American journey, I’ve chosen to spend only three days in Belize and all of that time on the island of Caye Caulker. Thirty kilometres from Belize City by water taxi, Caye Caulker was made popular by hippies travelling through the area in the 1970s. Since then the tourism industry along the coast has blossomed.

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On first impressions, arriving in Caye Caulker feels like arriving in Jamaica. There’s a strong reggae groove, plenty of locals with dreadlocks wearing rastafarian style clothing and that familiar accent: ‘yeh mon,’ and ‘want some gunga mon.’

One end of the eight kilometre long island is criss-crossed with white sand roads while the other is still claimed by mangroves. There is an estimated 40 hotels, hostels and boarding houses on the island, with fresh fish on the menu of the many waterfront restaurants.

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One of the more popular activities in the region is diving with divers hoping to swim in the infamous Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole 300 metres across and 124 metres deep.

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But as I don’t dive, I chose to snorkel along the Great Barrier Reef and in Shark Alley. So, booking a tour, I set out with a group of fellow snorkelers for a day in the sun on a boat. And what a day it was… We began in Hol Chan marine reserve where the fish knew our arrival meant feeding time. Schools of large fish swum around the boat as our guide took us on a swim around the reef, spying a lone barracuda, sea turtles and even managing to lure a Moray Eel out from its hole in the rocks.

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Along shark alley the Nurse sharks came looking for food. There were probably a dozen of them, some more than three metres long. We were able to ‘pet’ one of them although their scales felt hard to the touch. Then came the Eagle Rays, allowing us to write our names upon their back.

A german girl in a bikini, I mean, a friendly three metre Nurse shark swimming past.

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Back on the island, there are several ways to get around. Most people hire cycles and ride around the unsealed, potholed sandy roads but I chose to hire a golf cart, the only powered land vehicle on the island.

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With my ‘wheels’, I toured the quieter end of the island where there were only a few secluded homes and hotels among the plentiful mangroves.

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Overall, Caye Caulker is a great place to spend a few days if you like water activities, seafood, partying or just hanging around with well-tanned beach clad people.

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Next I head into Mexico, my final Latin American country as I follow the trail of the Mayan Ruins.

The World Wanderer

Flores, El Petén, Guatemala – Impressions

Why the northern province of Guatemala between Mexico and Belize looks like Bart Simpson’s head is anyone’s guess…

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But about where Bart’s eye would be is a lake called Lago de Petén Itzá. And on that lake is the island of Flores.

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Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Flores is a popular tourist destination with plentiful hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars. The island isn’t that large and is easily walked around in about ten minutes, but unfortunately before my arrival substantial rains had caused the lake’s level to rise, flooding the road that runs around the island in several places.

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But flooded or not, water taxis transport locals and tourists alike from the island to many locations including the small colourful settlements around the edges of the lake…

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You can also visit the small island of Santa Barbara which holds the local museum, which was unfortunately also flooded when I arrived.

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On one side of the lake is a lookout, which after a stiff climb provides impressive views of both the island of Flores and other portions of the lake.

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A short Tuk Tuk ride from Flores is Las Cuevas Actun Kan, a natural system of caves being set up as a tourist attraction. When I visited the complex, which stretch through many caverns both large and small, I was the only one there. The silence underground and the sometimes misleading signs had me walking in circles, which I’m sure would be nerve-wracking for some, but something I thoroughly enjoyed as I eventually navigated my way out.

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But Flores isn’t the primary reason most people come to this part of Guatemala. Barely an hour by bus north of Flores in the depths of the jungle is Tikal, a set of Mayan temples and ruins dating back before the birth of Christ.

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I chose to take a tour beginning at lunchtime and ending well after dark, walking for several kilometres to various structures in the spread out complex that once housed around ninety thousand people.
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The tour also included encounters with spider monkeys and this cute little guy, a tarantula…

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Then as it began to grow dark we climbed one of the pyramids to watch the sun set across the jungle and the monumental temples rising from the trees.

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The many temples are a wonder to behold and add to the rich history of Latin America in a similar way as the ruins of Macchu Pichu in Peru, Incapirca in Ecuador and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia.

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My visit to Tikal is the first in a series of Mayan ruins I plan to visit in my last weeks in Latin America.

Next, I travel to the island of Caye Caulker in Belize.

The World Wanderer.

Antigua, Guatemala – Impressions

Nestled under Volcán de Agua in the Guatemalan highlands is the colonial city of Antigua. The city was once capital of Guatemala but has had a rocky history, literally. In 1717 an earthquake destroyed 3000 buildings, then in 1783 another earthquake decimated more of the city, causing those in power to move the capital to the safer Guatemala City.

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Because of its location Antigua is a hub to explore Guatemala, with Guatemala City only 45km to the east, the port of San Jose on the Pacific coast an hour south and Lago Atitlan to the west. For those keen enough, a long shuttle ride to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal far to the north of the country can be organised.

Volcán de Agua…

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The streets themselves are cobbled. But not the perfect jigsaw of cobbles seen in some modern streets, instead a crazy mash of rounded stones that make driving on them in Tuk Tuks a bumpy experience. The city is flat, however, so unless you’re carrying a lot of baggage or just lazy, walking is the best way to get around.

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Beyond climbing the volcano it’s the scattered colonial buildings and churches that draw the most interest in the city. While some of the old churches survived the earthquakes…

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… some were not so lucky although still usable.

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Those that didn’t fare so well have been cordoned off and for good reason.

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The city does have a touristy feel about to it and because of this it’s more expensive than other places in Guatemala. Around the central park there are many fine restaurants and bars. And for the first time in Central America, a working fountain!

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Next I head west to San Pedro la Laguna on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

The World Wanderer

Granada, Nicaragua – Impressions

Situated at the northern end of Lake Nicaragua, the city of Granada claims to be the first city in mainland America settled by Europeans. And while it’s inland and close to the Pacific Ocean it’s still considered a Caribbean port city. This is due to Lake Nicaragua being accessible from the Caribbean Sea by the San Juan river, which runs along the Costa Rican. Indeed, this was the path taken by Caribbean pirates on three separate occasions to attack the city.

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Like many Latin American cities, Granada has dual natures. There is the classic touristy area which sees influxes of people from the US during the northern winter months. Then only a couple of blocks from the tourist centre is the poor market quarter with ramshackle stalls lining the streets.

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The tourist area begins in the city’s central square which is a well maintained plaza area two blocks long, with cafe’s at each corner.

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Across from the square is the cathedral.

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Alongside the cathedral there is a long tourist road, with six blocks of bars and restaurants in hope of catching the tourist dollar.

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Because of the road’s length, it’s not uncommon to see a horse-drawn carriage laden with tourists traversing it…

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…past a not so well maintained church…

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…to Córdoba Plaza celebrating the city’s founder…

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…to end at the Lake Nicaragua where ferries leave for Isla de Ometepe twice a week.

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A visit to Granada wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Nicaragua’s most active volcano, Volcán Masaya. While it’s fairly short for a volcano at 600m above sea level, it’s one of 19 volcanoes that make up Nicaragua’s volcano alley. Volcán Masaya weeps acrid smoke constantly from its crater.

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The land around the volcano shows plentiful signs of the devastation it has caused over the years. Around the main crater there are four other craters that were once active, but have since closed over.

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Often a trip to the crater at night gives the sight of glowing lava in the crater, but with the lack of wind at sundown, the fumes made it too dangerous to get close enough. Nearby there is, however, a large lava tunnel over 200 metres long which is now inhabited by several varieties of bats.

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With about twenty of us walking into the caves the bats get stirred and you can see them flying about and whipping past your ears. It’s exhilarating for those of us who love bats, but terrifying for those that who don’t.

This is but a small section of things that can be done in and about Granada.

Next I’m off to the city of Léon in northern Nicaragua to slide down the black sands of a volcano on a snowboard…

The World Wanderer