Teenager Anya Braimer Jones heads to El Salvador and Nicaragua with her mum Caroline for some high-octane adventure
There’s a lot in Central America that’s cool for teens to do. What are my top pickings? Would I choose the time I went snorkelling and coming up for air I came face to face with a dolphin? Or perhaps surfing on sky-high waves? Or paddle boarding? Maybe going on a night safari on foot and by torchlight and discovering sleepy sloths and wakeful tarantulas? And what about the chocolate- making workshop my mum and I attended where we took roasted cacao beans, blended them and then made our own choccies? That deserves a mention, especially after we rolled them in chilli!
I liked walking over coffee beans (to till them) too – yes, beans destined for your Starbucks Frappuccino – in a place like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with ‘swimming pools’ full of beans. Worthy of a mention also is the terrace of the restaurant in Ometepe, Nicaragua where a (wild) boa constrictor has a habit of twisting himself around the timber of the ceiling. I can’t miss out the biggest and best steak I’ve ever had (in Leon, Nicaragua). Also I loved travelling standing up in the back of a pick-up truck– just the once!
Plus I adored lolling in hammocks whilst drinking fresh pineapple and coconut juice, munching on plantain crisps all the while gazing at (yet another) puffing volcano.
What of a top ten? Well, let’s start with El Salvador. Toluca Beach, La Libertad, to be precise. We went to see a turtle incubation hatchery, one of 15 that receive eggs from 44 beaches. This to stop poachers stealing the eggs and selling them on the black market for food. We washed our hands before touching the turtles as human scent on their bodies can attract predators – then let loose two eight-hour-old, palm-sized turtles and watched them scuttling down the sand, mine going faster than my mother’s…..until a breaking wave tipped mine over. The hatcheries have released more than three million sea turtle hatchlings. And my turtle may grow to 55cm and live to perhaps 100 years…if he’s not eaten.
Another place. A favourite one was Juayua – on the Ruta de las Flores, ‘the flowers trail’ – 1,040 m above sea level and with a volcano behind it. On the way there, we passed coffee plantations and lagoons.
The town was founded in 1577 with a plaza, cathedral with a black Christ statue and all that Important Stuff. But I liked its weekend foodie festival. Its market with hawkers selling pistachios, cashews and baskets of candy – which they carry on their heads. And curious street food.
You see those creatures standing up like handsome men,’ said our guide pointing to the lunch on display by the barbecue, ‘they’re frogs.’ They also serve everything from rabbit to iguana. Sometimes we saw women at the roadside holding iguanas by their tails, for illegal sale. I ate tortilla with rice, beans and prawns – who are you calling a coward?
Then there was hiking in El Imposible national park.
It’s impossible not to give that a mention.
At the beginning of the 20th century, coffee producers transported their product through this area by mule. There was a steep ravine and two mountains over which they built bridges that sometimes collapsed taking the men and beasts to sudden death. After the government constructed a bridge it became ‘not impossible’ (according to the plaque they left) to cross – hence its name.
El Imposible is one of the most threatened eco systems in the world, last refuge of many animals and plants in danger of extinction.
There are 1,000 species of plant, 500 kinds of butterflies, 282 of birds, 103 mammals and 53 species of amphibian and reptile – and I’ll swear we didn’t see them all. But even though it’s almost impossible in the day, we saw an armadillo there – even though we were there in daylight and they’re nocturnal creatures.
This brings me onto food again. Pupusas to be exact. Pupusas are traditional corn flour or rice ‘pancakes’ stuffed with red beans, chicharron (ground pork) and local cheese (queso).
At Casa de la Abuela in Suchitoto (a Colonial town) we had a lesson in making these corn sandwiches/pizzas/pancakes. (1lb corn four to ½ litre hot water, since you ask.) As you have probably guessed, this recipe draws on the culinary traditions of the Mayan! Having put our filling in the mixture, we cooked them quickly on a skillet – then ate them. Call me Nigella, if you wish. Incidentally, the papusas are always served with a side of cabbage marinated in vinegar, onion and spicy tomato sauce which will make you wish you were on a juice diet.
Next stop Nicaragua. Landing in Nicaragua at Potosí was beyond cool. We did it like pirates, crashing over the waves, arriving on a deserted black volcanic beach, wading through the water with our treasure (suitcases) carried by porters on their heads, and then going up to a little hut that is the immigration office. This is what tourists do if they don’t drive or fly into Nicaragua. And this goes down in history as the best arrival in a country. Ever.
Now to an adrenalin- pumping activity. Yes, it was time for zip lining on Mombacho Volcano.
My heart was beating in my mouth, ears and nose. This is the time you put on a harness, offer your mother your Swatch in your last will and testament, and jump in order to swing over trees and speed past flying birds. So the instructor put a harness through my legs and clipped me to the zip wire, ready to meet certain death. Joking aside, professional instructors (hunks) assisted on appropriate use of equipment and provided safety guidelines and how to pass unhurt from one platform to the other. We did seven platforms.
There’s an optional game called Boomerang (don’t ask), a Tarzan swing and a vertical Rappel descent. Reader, I did it. I zip lined across the treetops, speeding over the coffee plantation and forest at the speed of light, and past parakeets, toucans, tanagers and hawks. I did a Tarzan swing and a vertical descent of 1000 ft. (at least that’s what it felt like). It was brilliant.
There are four more activities that made it into my top ten. After all that heart-thumping stuff, we’d best visit Morgan’s Rock Hacienda in San Juan del Sur now. It’s a peaceful eco lodge and hacienda and all their activities get the thumbs up. A particular favourite was a visit to their farm. They’re very into sustainability and eco everything.
You get up very early, almost in the middle of the night (7am) to go to choose your eggs from under the butts of chickens, to help milk the cows (to prove the white stuff doesn’t come from cartons), then help the farmer’s wife make tortilla over a wood-fired stove in a traditional farm kitchen – before eating it all on a thick, rustic pottery plate, washed down with a cup of the estate’s coffee.
Morgan’s Rock was my all-out fave place (although their Wi-Fi code is ‘disconnectandenjoy’). Not likely. So I’m going to mention the riding there too.
It was there that I went riding without a hat, wearing Converse shoes, on a gaucho saddle. The ponies were fantastic – from Arab/Andalucian stock – not your average, boring riding school creatures. We galloped along the beach, and cantered through the waves alongside which pelicans dived into the water, fishing. When we were in the tropical forest, we saw heron, howler monkeys, and something that sounds like a Cappuccino monkey – though it’s not.
Beat that if you can.
Another activity we did in Nicaragua was kayaking in the estuaries off Lake Nicaragua. Kayaks are to boats what ants are to elephants – the size zero equivalent of a boat. We had a choice of a single or double kayak. I chose a single.
Once we set off, the wind seemed determined to break me – I found myself pushing into a headwind and straining with each stroke. Water way to travel!
I looked in front and my fiftysomething mother was still battling the elements – and winning. So don’t tell her that I got the guide to pull my kayak, seasoned salty sea dog that I am. Once I didn’t have to deal with a paddle, it was pure Swallows and Amazons watching cormorants and a white heron with yellow bill moving slowly to get its lake- to- plate dinner. Yes, more wretched birds. But the kayaking was super fun.
Now guess what? I’ve saved the best for last. At Cerro Negro Volcano, we went ash boarding – which is like snow boarding down a volcano but on ash instead of snow. It is a jet-black 2395 ft. volcano and there was an ox cart traffic jam on the dusty road on the way to it.
Once there, we climbed the volcano – 728 m huff, puff…Of course my mother gave her board to the guide to carry.
Meanwhile yours truly (the old salty seadog) had to carry her own banging against her legs on the ascent in the very windy wind. Once at the top, we put on a protective boiler suit (not something you’d wear on a first date, or indeed any date), goggles and gloves. And then sniffing in the stupendous view of 15 volcanoes and the Pacific in the distance, I careered to the bottom, ash flying everywhere. As I said, there’s a lot in Central America that’s cool for teens (and mums) to do.
How to book: Journey Latin America specialises in tailor-made travel and small group tours to all of Latin America, including Nicaragua and El Salvador. An 15-night itinerary visiting La Libertad beach, Ataco, Suchitoto, El Imposible National Park in Salvador and Granada, Leon, Ometepe island, San Juan del Sur and Mombacho, Cerro Negro and Masaya volcanoes cost from £4,584 per person including B&B accommodation, some meals, excursions, transfers and flights from London.
How to get there: From London Heathrow, United Airlines offers three daily nonstop services to its hub at Houston/George Bush Intercontinental Airport, with onward connections to San Salvador, El Salvador and Managua, Nicaragua and over 300 other destinations across the Americas. Return fares in economy from Heathrow to San Salvador and back from Managua via Houston start from £622 pp including taxes.
Total travelling time: 15 hours approx, waiting in Houston included. The only way to do this combination is via the US; no flights via Europe.