Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nicaragua's Colorful Natural & Human History

Hi All,
We switched gears from climbing volcanoes to exploring Nicaragua's colorful natural and human history.  On February 15 we returned to Managua and flew south to San Carlos stopping at Ometepe Island on the way.  The island is in Lake Nicaragua and was formed by two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas.  We headed directly for Concepcion as the airstrip was at the base of the volcano!

Coming in for a Landing on Ometepe Island
 
The takeoff was equally exciting.  The pilots were busy with paperwork and were heading straight for the cloud-covered Maderas Volcano.  The onboard computer shouts a warning  "Terrain, terrain, pull up, pull up!"  The pilot unfazed, pulls up just as we clear the east forested ridge.  Marc snapped a photo of the GPS screen which shows up flying over the summit of the volcano!

"Terrain, Terrain, Pull Up, Pull Up!"
 
We landed in San Carlos without further incident at the confluence of Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River.  A short boat trip into Lake Nicaragua brought us to the Solentiname Islands, our destination for the next 2 days.  Here is a map of the area showing some of the places that we would visit.

Map of Solentiname and Rio San Juan
 
The following morning we headed up the Papaturro River to Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, an UNESCO biosphere reserve and a Ramsar Wetland.  The river meanders through tropical wetlands and a rainforest full of birds, monkeys and iguanas.

American Pygmy Kingfisher

White-faced Capuchin

Green Iguana
 
Near the end of the river is the Ecological Center of Los Guatuzos.  We stopped to visit the research center and walk in the rainforest.  The birds, lizards and monkeys are more difficult to see but Marc was able to get some good shots.

Prothonotary Warbler

Basilisk Lizard

Geoffroy's Spider Monkey


We had lunch in the tiny town of Papaturro and took a walk on the restaurant owner's farm.  They are trying to become more involved with ecotourism and we were the second group of tourists to get a tour.  There was a surprising amount of birds and monkeys in the rainforest surrounding the cow pasture.

Groove-billed Anis

Geoffroy's Spider Monkey (female and baby)

It would be a good thing if the locals could preserve some of the forest on their farms and ecotourism may give them the incentive.

We headed back down the Papaturro River when our guide Lenin spotted a large Caiman basking on the shore.

Spectacled Caiman
 
The next stop was Mancarrón, the largest island in the Solentiname archipelago.  In 1966 a Nicaraguan priest, Ernesto Cardenal, arrived here and found an impoverished community.  He decided to create an artisan colony and taught the locals to paint and make cravings out of balsawood.  Cardenal collaborated closely with the Sandinistas in overthrowing dictator Anatascio Somoza Debayle.  Many members of the Solentiname community engaged in guerilla warfare against the Somoza regime.  In 1977, Somoza's National Guard raided Solentiname and burned it to the ground.  Cardenal escaped to nearby Costa Rica.  In 1979 the Sandinistas ousted Somoza and Cardenal returned to Nicaragua as Minister of Culture.  Cardenal's Artist Community exists to this day.  There is a church, library and many of the locals proudly display their art for sale.  The colorful Solentiname paintings are inspired by the islands rich wildlife and plant species.

The next morning we returned to San Carlos stopping off to visit Zapote Island and River along the way.  There were many Tiger Herons, cormorants and beautiful Roseate Spoonbills nesting on the island.

Roseate Spoonbill

Mantled Howler

After a brief stop in San Carlos, we continued down the historic San Juan River to the tiny town of El Castillo.  In 1673, the Spanish built a fort here called The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.

Fortress of the Immaculate Conception
 
It was completed in 1675 as one of the fortifications built along the San Juan River to protect the city of Granada (the first Spanish colonial city in Central America) from pirate attacks.  The city can be reached by navigating the San Juan River upstream from the Caribbean Sea into Lake Nicaragua.

In 1762 a  British expeditionary force consisting of 2000 men and more they 50 boats laid siege to the fortress which had only 100 men to defend it!  To make matters worse, the garrison commander of the fort, Lieutenant Commander Herrera, died unexpectedly just 11 days prior.  His 19 year old daughter Rafaela led the charge to defend the fort including killing the British commander and the British retreated 6 days later.  In 1780, the British successfully captured the fort under the command of 22 year-old Captain Nelson.  They occupied it for only nine months before abandoning it.

In the 1840's the California Gold Rush prompted the United States to consider building a canal through Nicaragua using the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua.  Here is an old map showing the proposed route:

1870's Map of the Nicaragua Canal
 
In fact, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a shuttle system to get gold seekers from New York to San Francisco (the trans-continental railroad had not yet been built).  From New York would-be prospectors sailed to the Caribbean, up the San Juan River and across Lake Nicaragua before being shuttled overland to the Pacific where they resumed the journey to San Francisco by ship!

Due to civil wars and the constant threat of volcanic eruptions the U.S. chose to build the canal through Panama instead.  Today the Chinese have signed an agreement with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to build an 172-mile canal through Nicaragua.  Time will tell if this $50 billion project becomes a reality.

The following day we headed down the San Juan River to the Indio Maize Biological Reserve, a 4500 square kilometer expanse of lowland rainforest.  We stopped to take a walk through the rainforest to look for birds and other critters but they were difficult to spot in the dense canopy.  Marc did his best to photograph some of the birds and monkeys we did see.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Geoffroy's Spider Monkeys
 
On February 19 we flew back to Managua and drove to the northeast, past the city of Matagalpa to Selva Negra Ecolodge and Coffee Estate.  Here is a map of Nicaragua showing the location of Selva Negra (near Maltagalpa).

Map of Nicaragua (places visited are circled in red) 
 
We came here to see the Resplendent Quetzal, deemed to be the second most beautiful bird in the world.  The Quetzals favor cloud forest, 300 acres of which are protected in the Selva Negra Nature Reserve.  Our guide told us not to get our hopes up, quetzals are very difficult to spot in the cloud forest.  During our first morning's walk, Manuel, our guide, and I spotted a large bird flying through the trees.  I was able to see where it landed and described the bird to Manuel.  He located the bird and excitedly announced it as a Quetzal!  At first he thought it was an immature male but it turned out to be a female.  Marc did his best to photograph her high up in the cloud forest canopy.

Female Resplendent Quetzal
 
She flew off and landed a short distance away where Marc was able to spot her and her mate!  I only caught a glimpse of the male as he flew off.  The next day we searched in vain for the Quetzals.  Marc got a glimpse of one flying in the trees.  However we did spot this beautiful male Collared Trogon.

Collared Trogon
 
The next stop on our tour was the Spanish colonial city of Granada which I've already mentioned.  Our hotel was right on the main plaza and we had a great view of the Cathedral of Granada from our balcony.  It was first constructed as a church in 1583.  It was completely destroyed by William Walker in 1856.  William Walker, an American filibuster, launched several unauthorized military campaigns in Latin America and actually ruled Nicaragua for a time before he was booted out.  He was finally captured and executed in Honduras.  The cathedral has since been rebuilt to its present day glory.

Cathedral of Granada  
 
On our last day in Nicaragua we visited two reserves in search of more birds.  The first was Montibelli Private Natural Reserve where we hoped to see a Painted Bunting.  The reserve protects more than 160 hectares of dry tropical forest.  We never did see a Painted Bunting but we did see a lot of other colorful birds such as this Turquoise-browed Motmot (Nicaragua's national bird) and Black-headed Trogon.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Male Black-headed Trogon
 
The final stop on our Nicaraguan tour was Chocoyero Natural Reserve.  The reserve protects 455 acres of tropical dry forest and a waterfall where hundreds of Pacific Parakeets nest in the cliff walls.  On our way to the waterfall we encountered some local ornithologists who where capturing birds in mist nets to count and band them.  They had just captured a Swainson's Thrush, a migratory bird that visits Vermont's forests in the summer to breed and a beautiful resident Long-tailed Manakin.

Long-tailed Manakin
 
Suddenly, Lenin spotted the elusive Painting Bunting!  I got a glimpse of the more drab female but Marc spotted the brilliantly colored male and was able to get a descent shot.


Male Painted Bunting
 
We arrived at the waterfall just as the Pacific Parakeets began arriving in pairs to roost for the night.

Pacific Parakeets
 
What a fitting end to our amazing 2-week visit to Nicaragua!  Thanks to our wonderful guide Lenin for showing us Nicaragua's vibrant natural history and teaching us about Nicaragua's colorful past.  We wish the people of this remarkable Central American country continued peace, health and prosperity in the future.

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

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