|Onwards and northwards to a town called Esteli, where we arranged to visit the Reserva Natural de Miraflor. Until recently this area was really only known to the lucky people who live there in small, very rural, farming communities. However, some families have formed a small co-operative organisation whereby visitors can stay with a family and take local guides to explore the area. There are three climate areas in the region, the lowest and driest, the intermediate, and the high, rainiest, cloudforest area. We stayed in the intermediate region with Don Juan de Dios and his wife Doña Dora, and their family Deira, Estephanie, Alan and Hendrie. There are two more sons living away from home. Their way of life is very simple. They have six hectares, on which they grow coffee and a little maize and beans, they have four cows, and a few chickens. So mostly they eat rice, maize,cheese and beans, occasionally with a small piece of chicken. Oh, and tortillas with every meal. By the second morning, under Doña Dora's expert eye, I was making the tortillas for breakfast! Their daughter Deira was processing the coffee beans picked a few days earlier so we were able to “help” with each stage. When picked the beans are inside a soft red pod. They are left outside in the sun to dry for few days, then pounded in a large pestle and mortar to loosen the husks of the pod. Then they are winnowed. literally lifted high in the air and dropped so that the lighter husks fly away from the heavier beans which drop back into the bowl. When all of the husks have gone the beans look like coffee beans, only white, so next they are roasted. This is done in a large metal bowl over an open fire, stirring regularly for about half an hour until they are black. Once they have cooled off a little they are ground in a metal grinder. much like a counter-top meat mincer. Ten minutes later, we were drinking the fruits of our labour! Some of the product is sold locally via an intermediary, and some kept for family use or trading for other produce.
The house was also fairly simple – dirt floor, metal roof, outside loo (long drop) and outside shower. The family were very hospitable but we were a bit limited by the extent of my Spanish, which is fine for hotels, buses, shopping and basic conversation but isn't good enough yet for long conversations.
Luis, one of the local guides, took us hiking in the area, which is beautiful. The intermediate area is not unlike some parts of England, although the trees are all draped with Old Man's Beard which creates an altogether different feeling. Higher up we were in cloud forest, where Luis showed us an ancient matapalo tree you can stand inside, and a stunning waterfall.
We were quite sad to leave Don Juan and his family, but had to move on, this time to Somoto where there is an amazing canyon. The Rio Coco has created a massive gorge, and we found a lovely place to camp right beside the river. A local lad took us up stream in his boat as far as a waterfall, which was far enough to give us a really good impression of the canyon, which is truly stunning. hard to capture on camera. We had a lovely quiet evening with a camp fire and the stars, and the following morning had an early swim back up the river. The water was cool and very very clear, so refreshing! And not a soul about.
Now we have to leave Nicaragua. We have enjoyed virtually all aspects of this country. It is stunning and its people are polite, happy to help and pleased to see visitors, but not in a greedy way. They seem genuinely pleased that people want to visit and many people proudly quoted us that Nicaragua received over a million tourists last year. This is a good thing as the country needs tourist money to recover from the long years of civil war. It is the poorest country we have visited so far, with the least developed infrastructure.
Yet the people seem extremely content. Like all countries we have visited so far, the highest priority by far is family. Babies are raised by everyone in the house, everyone taking turns to play, change and babysit. Babies go everywhere with their mothers, you frequently see them being breast fed on buses, in parks, at the market. Families often run a small shop from their front room, so spend most of the day together. During the early evening the whole family will be sitting in the front room, the door open onto the pavement, happy to chat with whoever passes by. The exception might be the young teenage couples – courting starts quite early, couples seem to be paired off by mid teens, and married by late teens. Even after marriage they may stay living in one or other family home, the first baby comes along and so the cycle begins again. It has been quite an eye opener to see how closely knit the family unit is, and how far we have moved away from it in our society.