Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nicaragua Trip - Montibelli Nature Reserve

Our daughter has always been interested in birds ~ from the time she was four and had a 'red-tailed hawk' themed birthday party.  She has spent countless hours working on her very own bird guide.  And so, one of our main destinations to Nicaragua had to be Montibelli Nature Reserve and nearby Chocoyero-El Brujo Natural Reserve.  Chocoyero has over 400 hundred Pacific green parakeets that roost in a cliff next to a waterfall.  And Montibelli is a destination for birdwatchers in its own right as well.

All in all, one of the best parts of our Nicaragua trip turned out to be our stay at Montibelli.  This 400-acre private family-owned reserve has become a model for sustainable agriculture and ecotourism. The reserve is beautiful, and even in the dry season it was green and cool. It felt like an oasis coming from Managua.

Our nice little casita and deck.  
According to their website, approximately 105 bird species have been identified at Montibelli. Several species that occur on the reserve are endangered or threatened with extinction, including six species of hummingbirds. (You can pull up species lists on their website.)

Montibelli used to be a coffee plantation, and a small part of the reserve is still in production for shade-grown coffee, but the majority of the land is being allowed to revegetate to its natural state in order to benefit neotropical migrant birds and other wildlife.  Just today I received the latest issue of Audubon Magazine, which has a feature article on Nicaragua's small coffee fincas (farms):

“A shade-coffee canopy with diverse tree species provides very high-quality habitat for many bird species, both native and migrants,” says Robert Rice, a researcher with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Coffee plantations with a diverse canopy cover of greater than 40 percent are second only to undisturbed forest in terms of bird species richness.
It is humbling to think about how important places like Montibelli are to Wyoming summer species, such as the yellow warbler.   In fact, it's an odd feeling seeing a yellow warbler in a mango tree.  At home I often see them along the river near my house, but perched in willows and cottonwood trees.  Seeing our Wyoming birds in their winter habitat, it's easy to get the connection between place.

The reserve has its own fruit and vegetable production. Pineapple, passion fruit, cactus fruit (Pitahaya), lemon, bananas, squash, and other food is grown within part of the reserve. Therefore the meals served are very fresh and the coffee was excellent, of course. For dinner one night we had delicious homemade squash soup.




There are several paths for hiking - ranging from 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours. Guides are provided by the reserve; in fact you are required to walk with one.  Without a doubt, this enhances your enjoyment of Montibelli as the guides are very knowledgeable.  If you visit Chocoyero-El Brujo Natural Reserve, which is right down the road, a guide from Montibelli will also accompany you.  Again, the guides are great and will point out things you might otherwise miss. 

Early am bird walk with our guide Alejandro, walking through plantains.
I liked everything about our stay here ~ the beautiful setting, the basic but pretty accommodations, the helpful staff, the good food, the knowledgeable guides, the efficient driver that Montibelli arranged for us, and the ease of contacting them and their help with planning our trip.  It is an easy place to take kids, especially if they are easily entertained by the great outdoors!  And most of all, even though we weren't there at the best time of year for birdwatching, it was still really good.


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 Gathering breakfast ~ mangoes.  You'd think it would be challenging to wake a 9-year old up at 5:30 am on vacation, but we could hardly sleep in with the sound of the cicadas and howler monkeys.  Plus she was very excited to go birding, just with her mommy.

 Doing homework.

Always zip your bags in the tropics.We found this little guy in my suitcase. 


Playing with an orphaned squirrel.

If traveling on your own, it seems like this would be a little hard to find unless you are familiar with the area.  See vianica.com for directions.  Also see sustainabletrip.org for more information.

Our bird list:
Tropical Kingbird
Long Tailed Manakin
Black Headed Trogon
Turquoise Browed Motmot
Blue Crowned Motmot
Orange Chinned Parakeet
Northern Oriole
Yellow Warbler
Clay Colored Robin
Pacific Parakeet
Cinnamon Hummingbird
Rufous Wren
Clay Colored Wren
Waterthrush
Barred Antshrike (way cool!)
Oropendula

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Cicadas in the morning.

Do-Over Scoop:  I highly recommend a visit to Montibelli.  It is so close to Managua but it seems a world away. I would spend at least two nights and one full day on the reserve, relaxing at the cabin during the heat of the day and going on am and pm bird walks.  Be sure to spend a full afternoon or full morning at nearby El Chocoyero.  The guides at Montibelli will take you to where the parakeets are roosting or nesting. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nicaragua - Mombacho Cloud Forest

One of the best things about our Nicaragua trip is that I couldn't find a bad cup of coffee.  I'll bet even their gas stations served up a perfect cup.  On our day trip to the Mombacho Cloud Forest Reserve, we stopped at a plantation to sample coffee grown right on the slopes of the volcano.



Shade grown coffee.  We brought some home but you can also order it at:  http://www.cafelasflores.com/.  The best coffee I've had in my life thus far has been in Nicaragua.

To get to the 'top' of the volcano, from where you can start hiking in the cloud forest reserve, you park at the entrance to the reserve and hop on an army-style truck.  It's a long steep road to the top of the volcano. This cobblestone road was undergoing repairs and we kept getting off trucks, onto other trucks, even riding in the bed of someone's Toyota pick-up.  At one point we got tired of waiting for the next truck to pick us up and tried to hoof it to the top. 

Still trying to get to the top.  It was so dang hot and (did I say?) steep that just before we reached the top - a truck finally came by and we piled on.  Again, most people don't walk to the top - everything was a bit disorganized due to road construction.  In this picture are all of the people that attempted walking to the top.  When it was all said and done, only the crazy Wyoming family and a couple of Aussies were still walking when the truck picked us up. 


Near the top of the volcano and at the end of the road is the Mombacho research and visitor center. From here, you can hike one of three trails.  The longest is the Sendero la Puma and to hike this trail you need to hire a guide at the visitor center for a very nominal fee.  The Puma is about a four hour hike.   You can get lunch and snacks at the visitor center. 





Scott in the 'tunnels' on the Sendero el Crater trail. 

 
There are 100 troupes of howler monkeys on Mombacho, with a total of 1,000 individuals. We didn't see any but we could hear them, and they are very loud, like jet-airplane-type loud.
   
What can I say?  Big sisters can be helpful.

 



Scott and Laura: the ride down was nice, we even had shade.

Do-Over Scoop:
Trails:  This was a great day trip but a fun alternative would be to stay overnight in the accommodations at the visitor center - to try and see the endemic Mombacho salamander.  But we only had so much time.  The trail we hiked, Sendero el Crater, with an additional spur to the fumaroles was perfect with the kids. And there's a beautiful view overlooking Lake Nicaragua and the 365 isletas from the spur trail.  If it had been just Scott and I we would have hiked the longer Puma trail. 

Water:  We thought we had taken enough water but ran out.   You can buy water at the visitor center but it's better to take your own refillable bottles.  In general, for our Nicaragua trip we took our Nalgene bottles and treated water with a steripen when the source was questionable.  But often we drank the municipal water and it was just fine. 

Timing:  The time spent there was just about right.  We left from Montibelli Nature Reserve at 8:00 am  and arrived at the parking lot at the park entrance at 10:00 or 10:30 in order to be there in time to take the park truck(s) to the top. If coming from Montibelli, however, I would allow more time.  Our driver drove insanely fast -- so that we could catch the 10:30 ride to the top.  We got back to the park entrance where our driver was waiting for us at about 2:00.  You can combine this trip with zip lining, but with kids, I would break it into two separate days.  The zip lining is half-day outing by itself.  I couldn't find a website to directly book with them but any hotel in Granada can arrange it.

For more information and some beautiful photography of Mombacho see the following blog: http://jfrie.blogspot.com/2010/03/mombacho-volcano.html

Nicaragua - Granada

This picture says it all. I can’t tell you the contentment I felt, dining street-side with my family in Granada, a Spanish colonial city in Nicaragua. We'd been in the country three days at this point but all of a sudden, sitting there talking and laughing with my family - I thought "we DID it!"  I’d always dreamt of taking my kids to far-flung locales and here we were – eating ‘strange’ food and staying out late. And the kids were HAPPY!

"Barriga llena, corazon contenta (belly full, happy heart)"
It suprised me how much the kids took foriegn travel in stride.  But maybe, after all these years, we've toughened them up.  Take Laura, who at age 8, led a pack string (of exactly one horse) out of the Wind River Mountains on our backcountry trip.  And Ben ''climbed" his first mountain at age 4 in southern Colorado, with some help, of course. Both kids have engaged in any number of outdoor challenges on weekends and vacations:  nordic skiing, night time nordic skiing under the full moon in the middle of winter, snowshoeing, rock climbing, biathlon, horseback riding, tent camping in the cold/wind/snow/rain, and miles and miles of hiking in our beloved Wyoming mountains.


So I think maybe, just possibly, this was the easiest vacation they've ever had, although we didn't always have hot water, or any running water for that matter! 


View from our hotel, Hotel Terrasol in Granada.  I liked this hotel - it was more of a hostel in that the rooms are small and basic.  Ours had one teeny window and Laura stuck the camera out of it for this shot.  The owners are super nice and helpful.

Looking toward Mombacho Volcano from the balcony at Hotel Terrasol.







Being the Brownings, we had to check out the now-defunct train station in Granada.  I would skip this and go to the market or lakeshore instead.

I was glad to see someone giving their horse a bath. It kind of reminded me of people in the US washing their cars on Sunday.  Laura not so big on the smell of burning trash, something you can't really get away from in Central America.  And we were there during the dry season when fields are being burned too.
Hotel Dario - a fancy hotel that we did not stay at, right on Parque Colon.  But the good thing about Hotel Terrasol, is that is only a little ways from town center but nice and quiet.


One of the reasons I travel:  street vendor food.  This is vigaron ~ boiled/mashed yucca, fried pig skin, and salad served over a bannana leaf.  Certainly, I thought, I would have this all to myself. But no, it turns out that Laura loves yucca.  So I drank some of her Fanta as revenge for stealing my vigaron.


You'll see alot of pictures taken by Granada tourists from the bell tower at Iglesia La Merced. We made a small donation to the church to climb to the top.


Climbing down from the bell tower.  (Please do not ring the bell.....)

Most places that we stayed included breakfast. And our room at Terrasol was only $40 (we upgraded from $36 to have air conditioning!). Their breakfast was yummy - fresh baked bread, fresh squeezed juice, homemade jam, fresh fruit, and DELICIOUS coffee, of course. And we didn't have to crawl out of a cold tent and fire up the cookstove to make this appear.

Funeral 'urns' at a private (but free) museum in Granada.  I would have been nice to not have kids while trying to interpret the exhibits ~ it was an excellent museum by any standards.  It is not on the Granada map but it's on Calle Atravesada, near the corner of Calle El Arsenal, just north of the cinema.  When it's hot outside, it's a nice cool stop in a beautifully restored colonial mansion.

Do-over Scoop:
We spent one evening and one morning in Granada, which was plenty.  Out of 2 1/2 weeks in Nicaragua, this is probably the only thing I would really change.  In short, I would have only spent the evening in Granada, say from 3 or 4 in the afternoon onward and then leave in the morning.  We're not big city folk, or city folk, for that matter. Still, I felt that we should see the oldest city in the Americas.  And it was fun to just wander around, until the small people got hot and whiny.  Granada is easy for walking, and even at night you are safe if you stay within a certain radius of the city's center.


Granada was founded in 1524 at the edge of Lake Cocibolca (or Lake Nicaragua).  The Spanish colonial architecture was pretty and the town impressive with Mombacho Volcano looming in the distance.  Great for photography.


So, instead of spending a morning walking around Granada  (because we thought the kids needed 'down time'), I would instead kayak in Lake Nicaragua (there are freshwater sharks) or go back to Mombacho Volcano for ziplining.  Both doable with kids our age.  Hotel Terrasol can arrange either one for you and will try to get you the best deal.  You can be picked up for either right at the hotel, and Hotel Terrasol will store your luggage while you are out and about, if you are checking out to travel elsewhere.  We went from Granada to Laguna de Apoyo........





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Ben pulled me by the hand into this church to watch the procession.  Certainly this had something to do with events leading up to Holy Week.  Ben is fascinated by religion.


Photo by Ben.


Final note:
I'm going to come clean right now and say that on our very last night in Nicaragua (day 16 or something!), we got to our hotel so late that I [gasp!] ordered room service, which didn't cost more except for tip.