Monday, 25 February 2008

Puro puros: a Nicaraguan cigar factory


Smokin' Totum

After a night in the high hills of the Miraflor area outside Esteli, we returned by bumpy bus for a very quick shower and breakfast before heading to Esteli’s cigar factory for a tour. It was really interesting, much more interesting than I had expected and I am very pleased we went. Not least for some of the striking handrolled gifts we have acquired for friends and family. The tour was led by the very personable head of packaging and I was group translator (enjoyable).


Hand-Rolling as Art

The strongest impression I carry with me is of just how hand made these handmade cigars are. Every leaf is dealt with many times by a number of different variously skilled workers during the overall process, which takes well over a year to complete for even the most basic cigar.

The process begins with unrolling the dried up leaves, pulling out the centre stalks and flattening them out. Beautiful whole leaves of the correct kinds of colour grade are reserved aside to be used as the capas, or outside leaf cigar coverings. Some will be tinted with special colourants, but most are used in their natural state after processing.

Broken leaves are used inside the cigars. No leaves are wasted. There is a cleaning and drying rack for any that arrive with surface mould.


Maturing the Leaves

The smell of ammonia from the next stage had all the group coughing involuntarily and me wondering how long these guys live and what their lung disease rates are. Here the leaves are bundled and stacked in large ‘compost’ heaps, to mature over 6 months or so. No chemicals are used, only water, and the ammonia is released by the leaves themselves. If that doesn’t put you off smoking, I don’t know what would! The stacks are temperature monitored. 120° F is a critical point at which the stack must be rearranged in order to prevent it catching fire. Each stack is restacked many times over during the 6 months. Only men work in this job. I dread to think what it would do to a pregnant woman.

Leaf Selection

Selecting the Right Leaves

At the next stop in a further sorting and selecting room the tour rather fell apart as the entire labouring team, led by some bolder women, lost all shyness to become entranced by my hair. Much fondling and many questions later, the tour dynamic was never quite as disciplined a group as before!

Dread-ful Interest

Hair is their interest

The cigar rolling room was the most amazing and exciting part of the process

Hand-Rolled Express

Hand-Rolled Express

Long benches and tables reminiscent of a school science lab, with a big press at each side and dozens of teams of two people hand rolling and hand wrapping each cigar. The A team were definitely on the front row, and at a guess I would say the chubby guy at the far left to the front row was MR PURO! He rolled the biggest cigars with the greatest focused ease of anyone in the room. Real Grouchos... destined for Russian mafia and type A personality clubbable men, perhaps?


Mr Puro

Every rolled cigar is fitted to the appropriate sized mould and stacks of moulds are pressed for 2-5 minutes each way up before being hand wrapped in the selected casing leaf or leaves.


Finishing the Cigar

Newspaper wrapped groups of 100 cigars are labelled with the date, shape type, overall style, tobacco mix used and a code for who produced them and them taken to the drying room for at least 6 months.


The Store of Smokes

We didn’t ask about salaries for the leaf sorters, but the rollers are the crème de la crème, earning between 20 and 27 cordobas each person of a team of two per 100 rolled. The difference in payment reflects the difference in the level of skill. A team of two rolls 500 or 600 cigars per day. 100 cordobas is a little over US$5, 150 cordobas, would be about 4GBP. I am certain that MR PURO was on 27 cordobas per 100!

Every client has its own tobacco mix, and so each cigar rolled already has its destination. Beyond that there are dozens of variations according to wrapping leaf, colour, shape, size, etc.

The quality control man wears an apron and walks between the rows visiting each team and selecting a few cigars at random, pricking a hole and drawing on the unlit cigar to get a sense of the smoking quality this team is producing currently.


Those fancy cigars people buy? Each size shape and style is sold by this maker at the same price to the client. It is the client who decides the mark up and, believe me, it is hefty! Perhaps, as scientists have recently demonstrated with regards to wine, the more we pay for a luxury product the more we enjoy it. I don’t think this is a demonstration of gullibility, snobbishness or stupidity, more a demonstration of the power of directing attention. I suspect that the more attention we direct to a sensation, the more subtly we are able to appreciate it and the more there is to appreciate.



He is so focused on his work he really doesn't need the wall of diversions behind him.

Inside the compound, a team of woodworkers create many shapes, sizes and colours of cigar box for the many international clients this factory serves. Brands are added by carving, pokerwork or adhesive labels.

The women(for they are all women) who package the cigars earn differently according to their role.

Cigar Packing


Those who stick the ring label around each cigar individually by hand, package each cigar in cellophane and stack them in the overall wrappings earn 2 cordobas per 25 completed cigars. Each ahs one of those roles and each gets the 2 cordobas per 25. 2 cordobas is about ten cents US or slightly over 1 penny sterling.

The women who stuff the boxes, label them and iron on the skin-tight cellophane wraps are paid a 60 cordoba day rate, US$3, 7.30 to 4.30 am, with an hour for lunch and a half hour for breakfast, food not included.

Iron Seal

Iron Seal

We questioned the use of labels declaring ‘Handmade in Honduras’. The manager shrugged: ‘The client sends the packaging they want used and we use it.’!

It was a great morning. If you get the chance, go some day.

Esteli : first impressions

LOVE IT!!!! I feel very good about this place. The climate, for a start, is lovely... all warm during the day, with glorious clear blue sky and then warm enough for a summer dress yet cool enough not to be bitten by bitey things in the night.

The local connections. Esteli is twinned with Sheffield. Freedom Road in Walkley is twinned with Cale Libertad in the Monte Sinai barrio of Esteli, a social housing project. The two streets and a third Freedom Road in Australia celebrate their connection with simultaneous street parties at least once a year and have swapped letters, recipes and family news by Internet. Last year, I saw a fabulous concert in Walkley’s community centre by a well established Nicaraguan musician and his English wife, a classically trained musician who has been living in a small agricultural community just outside Esteli for the last 5 years and whose life is now here, and entirely different from what she might have projected 7 years ago!

The setting. Esteli is up from the b*stard hot dry low plain leading in form Leon. The journey up in the bus was great. The bus was full of young UNAN students who board weekly in Leon and then have to face hot crowded 3, 4, 5, 6 hour commutes home at weekends to Esteli and the communities surrounding it. I sat next to a trainee medic, from an extended family of medics. Like UK medical students, she said that she doesn’t have much time to go out partying during the week.

So, Esteli lies up from the B*stard hot plain and in the foothills of the Selva Negra, Black Forest, mountains, apparently named by German settlers for the similarity to their own Black Forest back home. The town slopes off to each side, so peripheral streets give views out to the relatively green hills and farmlands and forest reserves beyond town.

Our accommodation and a great ‘coincidence’. We dropped in first to a Peace Corps stronghold (the town has a long political history of NGO and Internacionalista involvement from the War). Bill went off exploring other hostals and came back suggeting one run by an English woman. An unusual choice for us, as we tend to favour locally owned places. Hot, tired, grubby we walked in and dumped our bags. My attention was vaguely taken with a young woman on the sofa.

Sure enough. It was Hannah, the musician from Limon/Walkley concert. It was a beautiful coincidence, the more so, since she was simply visiting the hostal to see a friend, and because I had lost her email address, from our conversation in Walkley. She now has a young child, Roxanna.

Hostal and cafe Luz are the initiative of Janey, who came to Nicaragua’s Miraflor reserve as a volunteer, loved it and has come back to stay. She also is now raising her child here. Profits from the businesses go into local grassroots projects, and Janey hasa great sense of what interested travellers will want to know about Esteli town and the local surrounds. She is well networked into an ecotourism, homestay project set in the Miraflor reserve and enthusiastic to share information with visitors to help them access exactly what they are interested in, rather than leaving people simply taking a standard package.

I am hoping to milk a cow.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Tortugas and Las Peñitas

20th - 22nd February.

Las Penitas

The waves roll in from the wide, blue Pacific, tumbling over into surging lines of foaming water before crashing into the dark yellow beach. The noise makes conversation impossible below a shout when walking at the edge of the surf. Welcome to Las Penitas, a small beach destination only a 45 minute bus ride south of Leon.

Turtle Crash

Here, the Pacific takes prisoners if you are not careful when entering the ocean. The undertow tugs at your legs, the occasional wave threatens to bowl you over. This is not a gentle swimming beach like those we have seen in the Caribbean. This sea is a monster who will gobble you up and, if your family is lucky, spit out your remains somewhere along the shore. It is a sea to treat with respect and caution – and is a whole load of fun to play in; leaping over the smaller waves, diving under the big crashers. Timing is of the essence to avoid being slammed into the hard sand and shingle. It gets the adrenalin coursing and every so often encourages a return to the beach to regather your wits.

Where is the Sea?

More gentle, much more gentle, is the mouth of the river with is sheltered behind a long sand island where turtles come to lay their eggs. The river is not sluggish, and just lying in the shallow warm waters you are gently turned and pushed towards the sea. The broad expanse of fresh water is home to numerous birds, waders, gulls and vultures, who line the banks and sand bars or stalk fish in the shallows. Further upstream the river slowly narrows to a mangrove-flanked wilderness that is a joy to explore by kayak, the silence only broken by the quiet directions of our guide Miguel pointing out a well-hidden camouflaged bird, the splash of an oar or fish, the call of birds or the rustle of something moving in the undergrowth. The occasional small log boat, ironically piled high with fresh-cut logs, chunters by or the larger, and more polluting, local fishing boat taking tourists on a noisy and dirty tour.

Arms tired from the unaccustomed effort of paddling, legs from being kept straight out in front and spirits drop until Miguel turns us around and we row with the current. We are tiring now and the mangrove does not appear to be moving past any quicker than when we went upstream but in less than 45 minutes we are back near the start of our journey, which had taken 2 hours upstream. Here we see the highlight, today’s freshly-hatched Atlantic Green Turtle babies desperate to find the sea. Except, they are penned in so that they can be released when it is dark and less of their predators are around. This is a hatchery where turtles break out of their eggs in a grid numbered from A-Z and 1-10. The eggs are laid along the beach at night by turtles returning to their own birth place and gathered up to be kept under the protection of guards. Our little 40 or so newly-borns come from V3. The urge to get to the sea is unabated for hours as the baby turtles continually cross and recross their pen searching for the water. It supposedly makes these tiny little things stronger and better equipped to make their dash through the pounding surf. They must be tossed and rolled like on a giant rollercoaster gone mad given the impact those waves have on us. Maybe two to five in a 1,000 will survive to return one day and give birth themselves on their beach. But will they find V3 if they do?

Turtle Pile Up

Friday, 22 February 2008


13th – 19th February

Lion of Leon
Lion of Leon

Leon – gently-fading, paint-peeling, left-leaning, Sandinista-supporting, heat-sweltering, Colonial-Spanish, ex-capital of Nicaragua.

Door Man
Door Man

Door to Somewhere
Door to Somewhere...once

We have had a very enjoyable few days here. In many ways it is just an ordinary small city with little major ‘pull’ to attract tourists. It is not a Granada or Antigua. And that is what is good about it. This means that people who live here either ignore you or treat you like anyone else without trying to sell you anything. Quite a few people randomly come up asking for a dollar and sometimes people stare for the novelty of seeing a gringo in town.

There are few major sites.

Viewing the Cathedral
Viewing the Cathedral

The most obvious is the splendidly blocky cathedral is the largest in Central America and squats there like a manga sumo wrestler. It is tough and uncompromising, not graceful.

Nuns Gather
Nuns Gather at Night

What it is notable for are massive paintings of the Stations of the Cross inside, and four Atlas-like sculptures high up on the front supporting cross walls.

Atlas in Leon
Bloody Heavy these Colonial Cathedrals

There are a few other interesting colonial churches, the yellow La Recollocion being the most architecturally beguiling and the 19th Century El Calvario being simply awful; a demented cross between Trumpton and Legoland. A small adobe church in the suburb of Sutiava is an interesting indigenous church.

Attendance at La Recollocion

The streets are almost invariably lined with colonial period single-storey buildings. All equivalent to those in Antigua yet peeling paint is testimony to the lack of funds for restoration and give a greater appeal for lived-in character. The theatre is a boldly coloured delight.

Leon Theatre
Leon Theatre

Drama Queen of Leon
Drama Queen of Leon

Like many Central American colonial towns there is plenty of street life, from fruit and hot dog vendors to the tinkling bell alert of a hand-pushed ice cream cart or the Sunday special toy cars for children. The central park, outside the cathedral, is one of the best used we have seen so far. The market is enjoyable and a great place to buy your fruit, vegetables, tamales, tortillas and cheese. In Sutiava, the Casa de Queso is recommended for cheese-lovers.

Street Food
Street Food

Bottle Shop
Bottle Shop in the Park

Our highlights, for very different reasons, are:

The Ortiz Art Foundation. A private family’s amazing collection of Latin American art, mostly Central American, from the 15th century to contemporary housed in two large, beautiful courtyard colonial houses. The collection is a major one by any means and holds one intriguing contemporary art piece after another that largely have clever techniques and sense of humour in common. Worth more than one visit.

The Sandinista tour and Sandinista memorials. You can read more of these below.

Lazybones Hostel. Perhaps the best accommodation we have yet stayed in on this trip. Two courtyards form the focal points for a relaxed and well-kept hostel that gets the right balance between easy-goingness, services and tranquillity. With a pool, free internet and WiFi, free tea and coffee (a blessing after the tea desert that is El Salvador) and a pleasant courtyard of rocking chairs below a grand mural aswell as the right attitude from the owners creating a peaceful, respectful clientele it is a lovely home-from-home. A double costs C$325 at the time of writing. Highly recommended!

The Cocinita Vegetarian Restaurant. Set in another lovely colonial building, the food is great. The only thing we had a problem with was what to do with the first large choice of meals for the first time. We’re used to having the ‘one’ thing on the menu we can eat! It took us a while to choose, overcome as we were with curry, tofu, falafels, gratin, pasta, gazpacho, etc, etc, etc… Everything we had was delicious. If you head towards it – don’t give up. It really is there despite the lack of life in the vicinity or obvious sign. Look for the large table in the entrance with the chess pieces – the table has two large chess boards built-in to it.

Three Bells for San Francisco

Doors and More

Sunday, 17 February 2008

With the Sandinistas in Leon

Saturday 16th February

Check out photos from the tour on flickr here

We decided to take the Sandinista Tour of Revolutionary Leon this afternoon with a veteran combatant of the FSLN. We eventually parted after four hours walking around the war-torn monuments and places, the museums and memorials to thousands of brave individuals who had the commitment and passion to stand up against the military of a vicious dictatorship. Our guide was Dionisio, a quiet spoken man of humility yet conviction. In many ways there was a massive gulf between us. Here was a man who every night risked his life to man watch-towers, follow coded instructions and make bombs in the violent struggle against death camps, tanks and indiscriminate bombing. He could have been killed by the National Guard, Contras, or one of his own home-made bombs – as his younger brother was. While we have led very protected, privileged lives and are able to visit the country to find out something about the Sandinistas beyond The Clash album and the news of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Leon was the capital of the long-running revolution against dictatorship in Nicaragua. This left-leaning and poor university town has long been a centre for liberal thought and art. Opposition here was some of the strongest and involved a cadre of a few hundred armed combatants fighting an underground guerrilla war whilst supported by thousands of the population. Here fighting was sometimes street-by-street. Actions could be an assassination attack on a house of National Guard one night, the defence of a church against tanks the next. The FSLN – or Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – was formed in 1961 to lead the fight against the dictatorship of the Somoza political dynasty. They took their name from the anti-Imperialist struggle of Augusto César Sandino during the 1930s.

Dionisio fought in the streets of Leon during the 1970s and is still an active member of the party, now in power again at last following the 2006 elections. He took us to the political prison, known as Prison 21 after the year it was built, where prisoners held 100 to a small room were regularly tortured with beatings, teeth filings, electric shocks and suspense upside down in water. It was all the more poignant when he only told of his two tortured stays in the political prison, but only after Georgia asked him. We saw two churches shelled by the military in the 1970s because the Sandinistas used the bell towers as watch towers. There is the street where four students were gunned down during a demonstration in 1959, the places they fell marked by four crosses painted on the road below a memorial. The courtyard building, then a social club, where the first of the three Somoza dictators was assassinated in 1956 by poet Rigoberto López Pérez disguised as a waiter. Near sunset we went to the Museum of Heroes and Martyrs which houses the photographs and some personal effects of people killed in the struggle. We ended at a the third mural on the tour which was painted in the 1990s to depict the history of Nicaragua from indigenous roots, via Conquistadors and the struggle to end with two children running hand-in-hand to a future Nicaragua of open land, lakes and mountains.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the tour was to spend time with someone who risked his life to fight fascism and could tell us his personal recollections of fearing the National Guard taking him during the day because of scratches on his arms and legs caused by crawling defensively on the ground and of fighting them at night at locations communicated by secret signs.

I recommend booking this tour which is easy. Go to the FLSN headquarters on the central park, opposite the cathedral and ask for Dionisio. The tour is $10 per person.

Revolutionary Léon with Dionysius

What a day! It started with Lovely Léon, a glowing sunrise, relatively lazy start and then a trip to the university pool for some lane swimming around the edges of a few young kids having their swimming lessons – just like Sheffield university pool on a Saturday morning. Taking a taxi to UCC costs 12C, an hour’s swimming (and no one will chuck you out) is 20C, or for people with a longer stay $20 pcm unlimited access. And walking back to the mercado central only takes about 10 to 20 minutes, enjoyable if it is not too hot.

This afternoon we spent with Dionysius, ex combatante and still a committed member of the FSLN and a great tutor into the big picture and local intricacies of la lucha (the struggle) in Léon. I have read a bit about the battles and remember the coverage and feeling an interest in the sandanistas and internacionalistas, the red and black flags, the sense of international grassroots commitment supporting this cause that I didn’t quite know what it was all about. If I am honest, I didn’t even know who was meant to be the goodie and who the baddie among the famous names [Somoza baddie dictator, Sandino goodie 1920s to 1930s, Sandanista goodie 1970s, depending on your point of view OF COURSE!]

Léon boasts the site of death of Somoza, killed at the party to celebrate his re-election by Roberto Lopez. Lopez was killed on the spot with at least 50 bullets. His body was taken away and never seen again. Many believe it was minced in a meat mincer and fed to the inmates of the notorious Carcel 21. The 21 prison, named for the year in which it was inaugurated and ‘home’ to thousands of political prisoners between then and its closure in 1979.

I had not realised that the years of struggle went on for so long. From the early US intervention in the 1920s and 30s, supporting the dictatorship and then the years upon years of tyranny, until the revolution came to a head after many insurgencies in the 1970s. It was followed by the Contra War, Reagan’s crowning glory in which the US government sold drugs to US children and weapons to Iran to raise the untraceable money to fund their counter-revolutionary actions in Nicaragua and rebuild the rightwing dictatorship. That came to an end as recently as 1988. [remember Ollie North?]

Dionysius showed us various sites and museums of the city. His commentary began from a book of faded copies of old photos, comparing how it looked in 1978-9 (the time of the 9 months non stop battle climax in Léon) and rather a generalist approach. It seems to me that gradually he realised we were really very interested and slowly more began to emerge. We had spent a fair amount of time in 21 Prison, with its folkloric mosaics and puppets, and the monochrome wall paintings of the various tortures affected there, before he responded to my question ‘were there prisoners who got out alive and are still alive?’: ‘Oh yes. I was in here twice. Once for 2 days, once for 7. They did ... to me.’ Fill the ... gaps with the following: hung me upside down from that mango tree with my head in the well.

5 of his family died in the struggles. If I had lived in Northern Ireland during the same period I would have more direct experience to relate to the struggle here. As it is, our lives have been so secure and comfortable that it is hard to imagine the courage and push that it takes to fight for so many years against a cruel government. In Léon perhaps it was helped by what Dionysius portrays as a kind of all in it together sense of the whole town being united against the guardia nacional, the national guard. I guess there must be an energy that comes from that sense of togetherness.

I asked if he had family and if so, did he talk about those times with his family, and also whether there were people these days who didn’t want to remember and wanted to look away from it all. He told me his children and all his family are very closely involved in politics still, so it part of their everyday conversation. But yes there are people who prefer not to remember. He said only 2 of the 9 top commandants from the 1970s are still involved in the FSLN, Ortega (current just recently elected president) and..???

He said that the sandanistas were not the only ones fighting Somoza and gave a pretty unreconstructed Marxist analysis of the layers of people opposed to Somoza, the rich, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. ‘The FSLN, the proletariat, we were the ones fighting and being wounded on the streets, many others got themselves rich after the victory, many of the bourgeoisie ‘fought’ from abroad, and just came over later to take a seat.’

We were interested in the nature of the actions and how they were organised and communicated, and in what daily life was like for people during the years of the struggle. Dionysius said that for much of the struggles the streets were normal between 6 am and 6 pm. People went to the market, went to work, etc. At 6pm the curfew began...and the guerrilla and guardia actions. ‘I was a different person, a different person. Yes I went out about my business in the day. I could pass people in the streets. At night I put on my mask. A different person.’
Each combatante had an organisation contact person. There was a secret code and tightly organised secret signals. They involved chalked signs on doors and lampposts, the classic dropped handkerchief, even, a system of communicating where to be and when, and where NOT to be if an action had to be called off. And the guardia... did they initiate actions too? ‘Oh sure. They would go to houses and get everyone out, kill people too.’

How many people were involved? About 300 combatantes and about 700 guardia. ‘But it was all of us, the whole town united together. We were 300 combatantes, but all the people supported us. There were thousands of weapons stashes, in among people’s homes.’

We saw churches razed by aerial rockets and tanks, another bell tower riddled with bullet holes: AHA, OF COURSE! The towers made excellent lookout spots for the FSLN.

We took in murals, the museum of the martyrs and heroes, a collection of c 300 photographs of the dead from Léon, from the 1950s to 1980s, mainly 1978-9. Dionysius pointed out his younger brother and his cousin.

A slightly weird call on the way is Ruben Dario’s house. It looks lovely. But we were already knackered... it is an intense tour and for us ran to nearly 4 hours rather than the projected 2, and that is with at least 2 places to go back to tomorrow! The Dario is a little relief after the prison, and good to read the international acclamations of this great poet, essayist, journalist, political ambassador and reformer of the Hispanic poetic tradition, and to see his clear neat attractive cursive handwriting. But we didn’t do it justice.

We ended the tour with the mural to the 4 students killed by the national guard in 1959 at a demonstration against a local massacre, and then a 3-wall mural showing the land since the conquest, the two US sponsored interventions, the revolution and a brighter future, and then sat below the memorial to the 9 senior commandants and talked about what has happened since the end of the Contra war. 16 years of elections and the Sandanistas only just recently elected for the first time. Dionysius’s take on it is that the country has been robbed of natural and financial resources, the infrastructure lamentably ignored and run down, the rich have ruled on behalf of the rich, education, health, agriculture, all have been privatised and that if the sandanistas are not able to win a second term shortly, then one further rightwing government should permanently secure Nicaragua’s plac e as one of the poorest countries in Central America and the whole world. He prefaced this with ‘Of course I have hope. The personal hope never fails. However, realistically, ...’ and then a detailed look at the last 16 years of government and social politics.

It was a privilege to spend the time with him and learn from him.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Ruta De Las Flores

9th – 11th February

El Salvador Bus

El Salvador

Banana Pinny
Pinnies are El Salvador

After Santa Ana we wanted to get into more country than city and so headed into one of El Salvador’s two main tourist routes. These recent creations aim to encourage Salvadoreans more than foreigners to go out and spend some tourist dollar. In the west, and near to Santa Ana, was the Ruta De Las Flores which we went on. The other is in the east and is the more serious and disturbing Ruta De La Paz which gives visitors the opportunity to see communities emptied by army massacres and talk to individuals who fought on either side or lost their families during the Civil War of the 1980s. We are interested in discovering something about this but the Ruta De La Paz is well off our route through El Salvador and we will be in places to learn about Nicaragua’s Civil War.


Apaneca Door

The Ruta De Las Flores is four mountain towns connected by a flush of winter flowers and brightly painted electricity poles sporting flowery scenes. The bus ride from the nearest town, Achuapan, climbs through scenic wooded valleys. We made straight for the village of Apaneca, or Up Ya Knickers as we so maturely called it, because one guide book describes it as the most delightful of the towns. Seeing the others later, we’re very happy with our choice.

Cathedral Grill

They don’t get many foreign visitors round these parts we thought after a thousand stares and shouted English words from passing youths – Hello, Goodbye, Good Afternoon to you all too!

Basketball Shadow

The climate is fantastic, the people incredibly friendly, the pinnies as frilly as they can be. There are plenty of flowers too, as well as a pleasant lake in an old volcanic crater which made for a good Sunday walk along Elvis Presley Boulevard (don’t turn right onto Las Vegas Boulevard).

Elvis Blvd

We made a day trip to Juayua, famed for its Black Christ statue in the church, and Nahuizalco, known for its handicrafts. Each was significantly larger and grimier than the last – great to visit but Apaneca is the most tranquil to stay in. The throbbing market in Nahuizalco was bedecked with all colours of frilly pinnies and some stall holders even let me photograph them. The frilly pinny is the national women’s dress of El Salvador. Any woman who cooks or sells something appears to wear one with a sassy swagger but rarely with any attempt to match colours with blouses or skirts beneath.

El Pinny

Jesus Pupusas

The market comedors and Jesus Loves You pupuseria are great places for well-made good-value food where you can people watch. At the latter you also get a Charismatic Christian pop band and lots of clapping thrown in for free because it is right outside one of the many non-conformist churches.


Getting There
It is easy to get a chicken bus from Ahuachapan, on the international and Tica bus routes, to Apaneca or Juayua – destination Sonsonate. The current fare is about $0.50.

We stayed in the Hostal Rural De Orquideas which has four en-suite rooms with hot showers along one side of a lovely grassy courtyard, with rocking chairs and hammocks on the verandah. There is also an odd assortment of ‘antiques’ from iron flat irons to reel-to-reel tape players and 1970s phones.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Santa Ana, El Salvador

Santa Ana Theatre from Alcalde
Santa Ana Theatre from Alcalde

After leaving Atitlan on Friday, a boat, three chicken buses and a ‘first class’ bus later we were in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second city. The border crossing was easy and aided by a 20 minute wait giving us the opportunity to get drinks or pupusas. For Georgia and me it also meant we could ask the migracion control for an entry stamp. They aren’t given between Central American countries who have an immigration agreement between them – but we both wanted some evidence in our passport for visiting a new country we have not been to before. It’s only fair.

Our first impressions of El Salvador were of another country of mostly friendly people. Buses were as crowded, brightly painted and driven to death as in Guate. People do look different, possibly looks or fashion. There’s a more Latin Caribbean look as made famous by Cuba and more personal energy. Also, frilly pinnies for anyone cooking or selling street food are big fashion items and highlight the sassiness that defines El Salvadorean women.

Santa Ana Cathedral
Santa Ana Cathedral

Santa Ana itself is a big, everyday city built around a central park bustling with street food vendors and fringed with historic buildings. We passed two mariachi bands tuning up on our walk to the central park from our hotel, Tazumal, outside of which were a cluster of prostitutes and adult-only bars. Historic in Santa Ana is not the 16th century colonial architecture of Antigua but late 19th/early 20th century Neo-Gothic and Neo-Renaissance. Three sides of the park are formed by he cahtedral, the theatre and the alcalde (Municipality).

Santa Ana Alcalde
Down the Alcalde

The Theatre is a restored gem of Edwardian Central Americana that still has boxes with padded wooden chairs that come straight out of a Western. If only there had been a play or concert on the weekend we were in Santa Ana we would have stayed to attend the elegant theatre in style. Instead, we had to be content with a look around and a visit to a good photography exhibition in the lobby.

Santa Ana Theatre Crest
Theatre crest with the Volcano known as the `Light of the Pacific`

Getting There
International buses between Guatemala City and San Salvador stop in Santa Ana on an anonymous street corner. It’s a long walk into the more central part of the city with hotels and definitely worth taking a taxi after dark.

The Hotel Tazumal is a very decent budget hotel. Clean, secure, with large en-suite rooms around a green courtyard. Rooms towards the back are quieter. The staff are very friendly and helpful. Cold water only showers but free coffee and biscuits in the morning.

Santa Ana Foodstalls

Goodbye San Marcos

After nearly two weeks we realised it was time to move on. We left Atitlan on Friday, passing through the amazing Friday market on Solola, a small town above the lake that is home to perhaps the most ornate embroidered traditional Mayan clothes, both for men and women, in the immediate area. I wish I had known about the week before to go for a day`s photography!

We also left our great hostel mates – Marieanne, Paul and Tracey. Marieanne and Paul are two Canadians, she an English language lecturer, he an investment advisor, travelling around Central America after looking after students on an exchange in Nicaragua. We had lots of good conversations about novels and films, as well as sharing pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and firing up the hostel’s sauna. Tracey is an American singer-songwriter. We heard her new songs, nearly one every day, come through the walls, catching segments of lyrics such as ‘…clean sheets and fancy underwear on…’ She stormed Blind Lemon’s open mic with songs about men. The open mic is something of a San Marcos Friday night institution and about as rocking as it gets. Some people stay until after 11pm! The entertainment was mixed but mostly of a high standard, from the Mitchellesque poignancy of Rose, the gutsy and thrusty country-blues of Tracey to the comical, hunching, shirt tails-flapping Rob with his cigar box mandolin and Poncho-wearing, Catweasle-bearded Yassi bravely covering Mano Chou’s King of the Bongos.

Overall, San Marcos is a place to relax, to experiment with a course in mediation or holistic therapy, to read a book sipping a coffee, to meet other travellers or to eat a taco in the village street. We’d certainly go back again.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Three Men and Their Hats

No Evil
Originally uploaded by Bill Bevan
Three Maya men from Santiago watch the world go by on market day.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Lago de Atitlan

Monday 5th February.

Volcanoes over Atitlan
View from the beach

We have now been at Lake Atitlan for over a week. This is a high altitude lake in the mountains of Southern Guatemala. Mountains, including three extinct(?) volcanoes ring the huge lake. Dotted around its shores are numerous villages and towns occupied by Mayans. Three different tribes live around the lake, including the K'ichee' who had lived at Utatlan when the Spanish arrived in the region. The lakeside locations and mountain backdrops gives the impression of each village being an island as most transport is by lake lanchas. There is a lakeside road around three sides but boating it is more fun.

Fishing on Atitlan
Fishing the Lake

We have been partly relaxing on the beach and partly working on UK contracts while here. We have chosen San Marcos to stay because it is one of the smallest and quietest of the villages. Apart from the main road and a few side streets, most of the tourist accommodations are in a wooded area only accessible by footpaths which gives a nicer, slower pace to life. The village mostly attracts tourists to yoga, meditation courses, holistic therapies and generally chill-out. We have not been to any courses or classes yet, and may not, despite there being a tempting all-day course on impriving your eyesight enough to get rid of glasses. John Hegley would be enraged. Instead we visited one of the larger towns that day - Santiago. There was a very large and purple market in the town. People in each village who where traditional Mayan clothes tend to have their own colours and designs. Santiago women where purples huipeles (blouses) so most people and a lot of clothes stalls were purple.

Santiago Purple
Purple People

Our main interest for visiting Santiago was to go to the shrine of Saint Maximon. He's a strange one. Sort of a patron saint of sinners and groups marginilised in society. He's popular with prostitutes and gays along with lots of other people hoping he can help them. His effigy is hosted by a different family each year and pilgrims give offerings of alcohol and tobacco. Now, there's more to this than simply the giving of vices, I think, because in much traditional Mayan ceremonies tobacco and alcohol are used to invoke and communicate with spirits.

We were led to the shrine by one of the many young boys who guide you for a couple of quetzals. The shrine is currently a dark, somewhat shabby, room with coloured streamers and plastic aubergines hanging from the ceiling. Christ lying prone in a funeral cask lines one wall. The room is lit by candles and a dim fluorescent light. Inside waits Maximon, a wooden carved head bedecked with two fedoras, numerous ties, a jacket and traditional Santiago three-quarter length trousers. His two attendants, a man and a woman site beside him.

We were fortunate to witness a woman coming to have her knees healed. She was asked by the woman to sit in front of Maximon, give a monetary offering, wear one of his hats and a jacket. The female attendant started preying in Spanish to Christ then changed to Mayan while the man alternately placed cigarettes and alcohol in the saint's open mouth. The woman guide or shaman chewed up a cigar, mixed it with saliva in a cup then filled her mouth with the mixture which she spat and rubbed on the pilgrim's knees and shoulders. She then returned to Spanish to prey to Christ and the pilgrim left. We hope her knees get better.

Siesta in Santiago
Siesta Time

San Juan
View over San Juan

We have also gone on a couple of lakeside walks. On one I walked the three hour hike from San Pedro to San Marcos via San Juan and San Puablo. From San Juan it was right on the lake beach until the posh foreigners houses near San Marcos where I cut through a coffee finca. Most of the shore above the beach is filled with small vegetable gardens growing onions (San Puablo’s speciality), carrots, salads, cabbages and herbs. Little gardens are terraced into the gentle slope looking a lot like British allotments but with more sun. The fine sandy soil and easily pumped lake water are perfect for onions and carrots. I talked to lots of gardeners along the route who were all interested to know where I was from. Not many people walk the route following guide book warnings of armed robberies on the quiet roads. I think the danger along the lakeside is minimal and it seems a shame few people get the opportunity to talk to these friendly and welcoming people.

Atitlan Vista
Path to Jaibalito

Our other walk was from San Marco to Jaibalito, in the opposite direction to San Pedro. After the initial section along a quiet road, the rest mostly followed along a mountain path through woods with great views over the lake. The temperature, vegetation, smells and views were very reminiscent of the Aegean! Saw an interesting collapsing building on the way which suggests someone with problems with builders! Jaibalito is another beautiful, quiet little village where we discovered a fantastic European-owned restaurant and hostel called Posada Jaibalto in time for lunch. Not only where the prices incredibly cheap, but the food was delicious and the salads were fresh-picked from the garden.

Building Issues

Getting There
It is easy to get to Lake Atitlan from nearby towns such as Antigua and Chichicastenango by ordinary 'chicken' bus. From either direction change at Los Encuentros for the bus to Solola which stops at the central park. The bus to Pana leaves from the park, on a Pana sign-posted road diagonally opposite the Los Encuentros drop-off. From Pana you can get lanchas to all the other lakeside villages.

Accommodation in San Marcos
We started off at the budget Unicornia hostel which has good, basic cabanas around a yard and garden, a shared kitchen, clean toilets and a hot shower. The kitchen can get crowded at times and the hostel is very popular so often fully occupied. It is a fantastic place to meet people but can feel a little crowded at times. It is run by a great Guatemalan guy called Chus though he is planning to sell in the next year or so.

After a few nights we moved to Giardino, simply because it had flat space for yoga along, was quieter and set in nicer wooded gardens, had a larger room and, with only four rooms and a large kitchen, it meant making meals was much easier. The cleaning isn't to the same standard as Unicornio and it has taken a lot of requests to get them to do something about a blocked toilet and kitchen sink. The impression is of a place where the owner isn't really investing in maintenance and the hostel is starting to look run-down.