Monday, May 21, 2007

From Masaya to Masatepe to Granada… and back to Managua

As I stood caught between passengers in the Transporte Urbano de Collectivo de Managua, I now realize why I take the taxi every day to get from my house to school and then to work and pay the equivalent of $4 daily cab fair given the inconvenience of taking the public bus. But the public bus service between cities can be quite good… And for $1 to get to Granada, Masatepe or Masaya, you can hardly complain. So, this blog will be devoted to public transportation in Nicaragua, its many facets and the interesting and beautiful places in can bring us.

Given I’ve talked about taxies in previous blogs, I’ll start with a trip I made with a colleague of mine from work called Wendy last weekend. Wendy has lived in Managua since January 2007 and had not taken any public buses until last weekend. I was here in my second week, green as any Canadian worker in Nicaragua can be. We chanced it and made our way to the bustling Mercado Roberto Huembes to catch our “expreso” bus to Masaya. It’s a chaotic bus station but follows some general rules and guidelines. For example, if you ask directions to one of the porters, a tip, called “propina” in Spanish is required for the porter and his tag-along friend. The tip is not too onerous. 5 cordobas (about $0.33) for him and another 5 cordobas for his friend. Once you have found your bus, well, it’s not a greyhound. It’s actually your old bus you took when you were in elementary school. Seriously, it’s that bus… the same one. You see, there is a traffic of used buses that goes on between the USA and Canada and most of Central America (and I imagine the rest of Latin America as well). You still have some buses with the last owners inscriptions: “St. Patrick High School” or “St.Francis Catholic Regional Elementary School”. But some, thankfully, have been painted over in all the colours of the rainbow. Let´s call it eye candy for the masses.

Okay, back to our trip to Masaya. So, now we have taken the right bus. We are sitting in our seats. The bus slowly fills with people… and salespeople! They sell everything! The daily newspaper, chicklet gum, every pastry you can imagine, chips, coca-cola, and of course, “agua, agua, agua”. If you want anything, just sit back and let the world come by you. Buses leave on a very reliable schedule. Arrival times vary. If you have the Michael Schumacher Bus driver, expect to arrive in record time, if not with a few heart palpitations. If you are lucky enough to have Mr. I Like to See the Flowers Grow as I drive. Expect that time to double, see triple and sometimes quadruple. Most bus drivers are somewhere in between those extremes (please note that taxi drivers also follow this exact taxonomy).

Okay, so now Wendy and I are enjoying our ride to Masaya, a bustling trade and crafts center near Managua. As we make our way, the bus stops intermittingly to let in more passengers… and more… and more… until every last inch of breathable air in the bus is taking up with perspiring passengers eager to regain their natural shapes once they leave the enclave of the bus. Actually, it’s not that bad (only Transporte Urbano Collectivos are that bad). Inter-city buses are much less crowded although stepping on other people’s feet is quite a common occurrence. So, we made it safe and sound to Masaya and discovered a great crafts market that doesn’t sell trinkets but actually good quality craft stuff. And the people aren’t pushy. It’s tourist souvenir purchasing heaven. Will have to come back. Masaya other call to fame is a great big lake next to a great big volcano. Don’t expect to swim there after years of industrial waste being pumped into the water bed. It is off limits to anyone not wanting to grow a third arm.

This weekend was even more eventful in terms of public transportation. I was invited by my family… yes, I am now being introduced as the long-lost son of my new-father. So, Oscar Senior and his wife Estella invited us to their country home in Masatepe. Oscar Junior (Oscar’s son… I know, I got confused with that one too) and his girlfriend, Jody, and I took the Transporte Urbano Collectivo to Mercado Roberto Huembes to take a micro-bus (a large van that somewhat comfortably seats 15 people). Unfortunately, the line for taking the micro-bus appeared long so we took the local bus to Masatepe (see explanation of the big yellow buses above). Unfortunately for us, what should have taken 35 minutes with the micro-bus (express to Masatepe) stopped at every corner of Managua, Masaya and everything in-between before dropping us off in Masatepe 2 hours later. I did get to discover places I’ll probably never have the chance to visit again. That was nice.

Last night was spent in the very cool and beautiful green landscape of Masatepe. Unfortunately for me, the open windows let not only the nice cool breeze in but also the drunks, the dog barks and the crazy roosters that seem to not understand when day-light occurs. They like to practice their “cock-a-doodle-do" several hours before it’s necessary. After plenty of coffee this morning and a nice tour of Oscar’s plantation (which grows amongst other fruits, coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, bananas and many other fruits), we made it to the Masatepe bus station. We got there just in time to take the “local” bus to Granada. Although Granada is about 20 km from Masatepe, we took the scenic route and make it there in under an hour and a half. Once in Granada, I know understood why every foreign tourist to the country and mostly every Nica has visited this diamond in the rough. Granada is not only the oldest city in the Americas (it was founded by Christopher Columbus some 400 years ago), it is a colonial jewel with amazing architecture that has been kept up with the times and great tourist infrastructures I’ll be back!

Oscar, Jody and I lounged in some cafes, trying out the different frappacino’s before making our way to Nicaragua Lake, the largest lake in Central America and home to one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful sights, Ometepe island (two majestic volcanoes on a tiny island in the middle of the lake… read next weeks entry for full details). We negotiated a fee for a one-hour boat ride to some of the 365 islets near Managua. For your information, there is a somewhat active volcano about 10 km from Granada. It dominates the landscape. Oscar told me that these islets were created by a mega eruption. I didn’t understand. He said, well, the eruption was so powerful, it sent liquid volcanic rocks over 10 kms into the lake creating these islets. Glad I wasn’t there when that happened! However, very rich people do appreciate their small and secluded size. There are 1-2 houses on each islet and have huge, see monstrously big villas on them. This is your own island for a small price (one was for sale for US$350k… haven’t you always wanted to own your very own island? You could create your own city there and charge your own taxes?... well, not quite). So, my last segment of my bus story is my first micro-bus experience. Clean, airy and comfortable. However, micro-buses are known for one thing and one thing only in Nicaragua… Their speed! We had a young Michael Schumacher at the wheel and what took us roughly 3 and a half hours to do with the local buses took us about 30 minutes with the micro-bus. But it sure was fun! So, that ends another instalment of Serge’s Nicaraguan adventures. Join us next time for all the exciting stories from Ometepe Island.

More pictures at Serge in Masaya and Masatepe.

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