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Has This Monkey Lost His Marbles?

Final Day in Da Nang

rain 85 °F

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Da Nang as seen from Monkey Mountain, aka the Son Tra Peninsula

Due to squeezing in both My Son and Hoi An on "Scooterback" day two in Da Nang, I had an extra day of sightseeing. I'd asked around the locals I'd met and they recommended Monkey Mountain and the Marble Mountains. Both are within easy taxi distance for travelers staying in Da Nang. Since any sightseeing outside in Vietnam's summer means sweating, I asked the hotel about keeping my room until 6 pm or so. My flight for Ho Chi Minh City did not leave until 740 pm, and they said I could have it for the equivalent of $7 US. Deal done, I would have a place to shower, though as it turned out, it wouldn't be because I was hot and sticky!

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The Buddhist sanctuary atop Monkey Mountain

Monkey Mountain no longer has monkeys, I was told, but it does have a massive statue of Buddha overlooking the city from a hilltop. There are several shrines there, and it was thronged with worshippers on a Sunday morning. There is a great view looking back down at the city below. There is also a row of white statues of various divinities mounted on animals such as goats, horses, bulls -- you name it. The Son Tra peninsula, which apparently got its nickname Monkey Mountain by U.S. troops when they garrisoned it, would be a great place for a scooter ride. I was offered to drive one, but honestly, the drivers are simply too crazy here for me. I didn't want to spend my last few days in Vietnam in a hospital! It is very scenic, though, with wide curves of alternating beach and rocky shore overlooked by green hills thick with tropical vegetation.

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Gorgeous scenery and winding roads may tempt the novice scooter driver, but I resisted...!

Lunch was next and I finally got around to the trying rice noodle soup. It is a staple of Vietnam -- their hamburger, so to speak. It was very good, actually. Like all the other restaurants, they were happy to accommodate my chopstick deficiency with forks and spoons. Other diners piled in what looked like fresh mint leaves and bean sprouts, but I thought I'd leave well enough alone. No use trying to play chef and spoil the pot! The real reason I hadn't tried the rice noodle soup yet was because one "soup joint" looks just like another. No menus, little plastic stools to sit on, and run by unhappy looking ladies. Okay, maybe the last part is an exaggeration. Truly, everyone has been very happy to do their best to communicate with a traveler who essentially couldn't speak a word of Vietnamese.

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One of the caves in the Marble Mountains with Buddhist shrines visited by the locals

The Marble Mountains are along the shore in the opposite direction from Monkey Mountain. It takes about 10 minutes to get their by car (or scooter). They are called the marble mountains because that is where many of the local craftsmen quarry their stone. Although impressive to look at, "mountain" is an exaggeration. They are several hundred feet high peaks that jut up suddenly from the surrounding area. Think of them as land-based karsts -- like the island versions in Ha Long Bay. Stone steps have been carved up their steep slopes. The steps climb to various pagodas that have been built up there, along with scenic overlooks and a few caves. Inside the caves are Buddhist shrines, though one had a distinctly Cham figure carved onto a block of stone. I have asked everyone in both Taiwan and Vietnam how you tell the difference between a Buddhist and Taoist temple, and haven't gotten a satisfactory answer. Obviously, if it has a statue of a big-bellied, happy Buddha seated cross-legged, you can safely guess it is Buddhist. However, there are other divinities in the Buddhist faith and that is where the line starts to blur for me. I'm beginning to get the hang of identifying a Confucian temple, though I wouldn't bet my paycheck on the guess.

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One of the flower-shrouded pagodas atop the Marble Mountains

It was fun to climb around and enjoy the different views and check out the various shrines and pagodas. The caves were often surprising in their size and nooks and crannies that opened up into a tiny temple with statue and offerings. I heard the high pitched squeaks of bats and finally spotted a cluster of them on the ceiling of one cave. Since these mountains were where the source of the stone for many of the souvenir statues you see around, the area atop the Mountains was well-stocked in stands selling all kinds of goodies, and cold drinks for weary climbers, as well. There we're quite a few other Westerners checking out the sights, too. It is always fun to listen in on their conversations to try to identify their nationality by the sound of their language. I heard French, Italians, Brits, and Americans. I still have difficulty distinguishing local Vietnamese tourists from Chinese or Japanese ones. The Vietnamese language has a very staccato sound. It is not sing-song like some Asian ones, or melodious like Italian or French. It has a kind if "ping-bong-bing-pong" sound. I don't mean that to ridicule the language. For example, I always say German sounds like "schleeben-schlieben-schluben" ring to it. I've always wished I could pick up languages easily. I admire those who can. Until then, I guess I will have to settle with doing imitations of how they sound...!

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My next stop: The beaches of Da Nang

I looked at my watch and it was still early. I'd done pretty much everything in Da Nang except for one last sight. Most people who know anything about Da Nang will connect it with the television show "China Beach," or if they're history buffs they'll know the U.S. Military had a rest and recreation base there. The beach was one place I hadn't hit, yet, and it was what the city was best known for -- in America, at least. I didn't really feel like swimming, but a stroll along the beach would be a nice way to wrap up my time in Central Vietnam.

Now, those who have been reading my blog faithfully might notice the lack of mention of rain. I have had very little rain on my trip, so far. Most days were bright and sunny (and hot, of course). This morning it had dawned overcast and pretty much remained that way all morning and into the afternoon. Some darker clouds floated overhead from time to time, but I'd seen no downpours. So, I felt safe leaving the poncho where it has been all trip -- in the bottom of the backpack. The beach isn't far from my hotel -- maybe a 20 minute walk. As I walked along the beach I checked out the fishermens' nets drying in their boats. I watched two men carry one out to sea about 30 yards, then one walked parallel to the shore, stretching it fully out. The two then headed shore to see what they could catch. I was curious, too, but that was when the first heavy drops began to fall. Within minutes, the sky had opened up. I walked quickly to the shelter of a palm tree, but they're really not much help blocking heavy rain.

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Ignore those thunderheads at your own risk, Forrest...!

As I sat there getting soaked, I wanted to quote Forrest Gump, "One day it started raining and didn't quit for four months!" About that time was when I realized this shower wasn't going to pass. My dilemma fully hit me, then. My shoes, camera bag, wallet -- everything -- was getting soaked. By the time I got to the hotel, I was thoroughly drenched. Thank god I had kept the room for the afternoon! Can you imagine how awful sitting in the airport and plane would have been, soaking wet? As it was, I had to repack my bag to accommodate some dripping wet items. I had seen the beach, though, along with other choice sights from Central Vietnam. It was time to head south and wrap up my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, the former "Saigon", and teeming metropolis of this country.

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:16 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beach monkey mountain vietnam china marble Comments (0)

Revisiting the Vietnam War

My first day in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon

rain 84 °F

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Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I actually slept in, today. I am not sure if that means my body is adjusting to it getting light so early, or if staying up kind of late last night after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City did it. Either way, I got a leisurely start to my sightseeing, today. That is so unlike me. Normally, I'm a crack-of-dawn, "time's a wasting" type of traveler.

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One of the meeting rooms in the luxurious palace

I started off with a walk to the nearby Reunification Palace. This former presidential mansion is a museum to the corruption and opulence of the South Vietnamese government. It has been left intact for the most part, but is clean and sparkling -- well maintained by their victorious Communist opponents. If you look at old photos or movie footage of the fall of Saigon, you ll doubtless see scenes of helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop. It certainly looked familiar on the outside. I enjoyed wandering the inside, too. The 70s details are there, from the style of furniture to the rotary phone sitting on a desktop. My favorite room was the Chamber of the Ambassadors, where newly-arriving diplomats would present their credentials to the President. The Japanese wood lacquer wall scene behind the desk was amazing. The propaganda here was more subtle than I expected, letting the lavish decorations and photographs of the rich and powerful hobnobbing with the government officials tell the tale.

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Helicopter displayed on the roof helipad where the U.S. evacuated many as Saigon fell

I returned to my hotel to arrange an afternoon tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I hadn't been 100% sure that was what I wanted to do, but the palace had whetted my appetite for Vietnam War sights. While I was at it, I booked the Mekong Delta day trip I'd been considering for tomorrow. I had time on my hands at that point, since the tour left shortly after noon. So, I decided to wander down towards the outdoor market, which is not too far from my hotel. I also had a full-blown, Vietnamese-style lunch with a God-awful number of dishes brought to my table. The pork was good, the rice and onion-tasting veggie were okay, the chicken was way too gristly, and the green, spinach-looking vegetables were not too appetizing. The soup was the worst dish -- such a change from yesterday's tasty, rice noodle soup in Da Nang. Overall, I would rate it a "bleh" on my scale. If I've said it once, I've said it many times: Anthony Bourdain I am not!

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B-52 bomb crater at the Cu Chi tunnels

It probably takes a military history buff to truly enjoy exploring the Cu Chi tunnel complex, about 70 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. This was a hotbed of the Viet Cong (communist insurgents, fight the U.S. allied South Vietnamese). Try as they might, the Americans had a tough time suppressing these guerrillas. One of the reasons for this is the elaborate tunnel complex they built to conceal and protect themselves from American attack. Our guide summed it up when he said the South Vietnamese ruled the area by day, when the fighters remained hidden underground, but the VC controlled it at night when they emerged to launch attacks against U.S. allied troops. The drive up there was long and bouncy, albeit in an air-conditioned minivan. It rained off and on most of the way up. My long spell of good weather on this trip seemed to be over. The downpour had stopped by the time we arrived, but the soaking gave the forest an authentic drippy feel, and the paths were muddy and full of puddles. It felt like a Vietnam War film as we walked into the tunnel complex.

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One of the onsite guides in period uniforms demonstrates a tunnel where soldiers may pop up, fire, then disappear back into

The Cu Chi complex tries to do a faithful mix of preserving what is still there and recreating or rebuilding accurate, tourist-friendly fighting holes, tunnels, booby traps, bunker complexes, weapons and equipment production facilities, and so on. The highlight is -- without a doubt -- an up to 100 meter long scramble through dirt and cement lined rebuilt tunnels. You are a good 20 meters or so underground. There are electric lights every 10 meters or so, but it is dark, cramped, hot, and claustrophobic. Every 20 meters, there is a ladder for you to opt out of going further. I soldiered on until the site guide (dressed in an NVA uniform) advised me that it got really narrow after that point. Had I worn jeans instead of shorts, I probably would have gotten down on my hands and knees and finished it. Instead, bent over double wasn't going to work beyond that point for this well-fed American invader. So, I "tapped out" after 60 meters. Still, I was proud I got further than anyone else on my tour! The reconstructions of various VC booby traps was probably the next most interesting part after that. I never realized there were so many varieties, all intended to wound rather than kill, because that took additional soldiers out of the fight to treat or move the wounded.

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One of the reproductions of booby traps employed by the VC guerrillas

Many of the bunker complexes had uniformed mannequins, dressed as guerrilla fighters. There were also a number of onsite guides dressed in either the trademark "black pajamas" of the rural VC insurgents, or the green uniforms of the North Vietnamese army. They were friendly and helpful to us visitors (unlike the real thing 40 or so years ago!), and willing to pose for photographs. There is even a firing range set up for those who want to pop off some rounds from the various weapons of the war, including machine guns. I deferred, as I'd fired all the American ones they had during my six year stint in the Army Reserve. I know, shocker. But I'm sure it wouldn't be as good as what I got to do while I was in the army, as any shots I'd heard while exploring the tunnel complex were single ones -- no full-auto blasts. An American tank that was taken out by a mine is also onsite, rusting away forlornly. You come upon quite a few bomb craters from B-52s -- photogenically filled with muddy water. There was even an outdoor theater viewing area for watching a 70s-era propaganda film produced by the Vietnamese government. It extolled the heroic qualities of the rural guerrillas of the Cu Chi area. When visiting places like this, I'm able to separate my political views and instead enjoy the raw details and experience of exploring a battlefield.

For being one of my only two days of sightseeing in the Ho Chi Minh area, it was relatively light on sights. I'd seen a lot in my more than two weeks in Asia, so far. Maybe I was slowing down, or maybe I wanted to focus on a few places rather than cramming in as many as possible. Tomorrow's day trip to the Mekong Delta will squeeze in quite a bit. So, I guess if I started the day sleeping in, there is nothing wrong with taking it easy for one day in old Saigon.

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels palace city vietnam saigon cu chi ho minh reunification Comments (0)

A Trip to the Rice Bowl for one Final Serving of Vietnam

Mekong Delta day trip

sunny 85 °F

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A day trip to the mighty Mekong River was my final sightseeing in Vietnam

For my final day of sightseeing in Vietnam, I decided to book a popular day trip out of Ho Chi Minh City, south to the Mekong Delta. This rural area of farming and fishing villages is the country's breadbasket -- or should I say rice bowl? The Mekong supplies the rest of the country with the majority of its food. In fact, Vietnam is now one of the world's biggest exporters of rice -- nearly half of its crop is sent abroad. Life is more traditional, here, our guide Hung explained. People wake up with the sun, work long hot days, and then go to sleep when it is dark.

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The Mekong River Delta produces most of the country's rice and other agricultural products

Another interesting fact is this is where the bulk of Vietnam's population growth is happening. The country has swelled to be the 13th largest population in the world, Hung said. The government has an interesting way of trying to keep the population down, though. If you are a government employee -- military, teacher, civil service, etc. -- you are permitted only two children. If you have a third or more, you will not be eligible for a promotion or raise, and may even lose your job! If you're in the private sector, though, you can have as many babies as you like. Vietnam's industries and agriculture were "de-Communistized" (my word) in 1986. Formerly, the government owned all the land and production facilities. It was given back to the people, in a sense, a couple decades ago to fuel economic growth, which it has. The country is still Communist politically, though. There is only one party and no official opposition. Economically, though, it is essentially Capitalist.

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After a 2 hour minibus ride, we transferred to a single deck cruise boat to cross the Mekong River

Our minibus load of day trippers include three other Americans, four Scots, a handful of Vietnamese, Italians, Danes and a sprinkling of other nationalities. I had a great time chatting with many of them -- particularly the Scots -- during the tour, and on the ride back. It took about two hours to drive to the river port where we would embark on a single-deck cruise boat. I was struck immediately by the muddy brown color of the Mekong. The long, winding river passes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos before reaching Vietnam and emptying its accumulated silt into the sea. Our boat ferried us across the river to one of the larger islands in the river. There they had a few cheesy, Touristy activities lined up for us. These included a bee farm and coconut candy production facility. They were only mildly interesting, being the usual blatant attempts to sell products to a captive audience. Reading beforehand about them had almost made me reconsider taking the tour.

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Cruising the Mekong River

The next part was why I persevered, though. We boarded tiny boats paddled by two villagers each and holding just four of us passengers. We went up one of the narrow waterways of the delta for about 20 minutes. We were right down on the muddy brown water. Every shift you made with your body weight literally rocked the boat. On either side of us, coconut trees and other dense vegetation sprouted up, taller than man height. We spotted dragon fruit, jackfruit, and other products harvested by the villagers. The banks of the river glistened with wet brown mud, which they pack hard there to build up a barrier to control the Mekong's flood. A Vietnamese-American high school graduate was on our boat and she talked to our husband and wife team of paddlers. Apparently, doing this for the tourist trade is an important supplement to their income. They had been waiting two hours for their turn to take us on our 20-minute ride, for which they would earn 12,000 Vietnamese Dong. It was sobering to think that an amount slightly more than 50 cents could be such an important revenue source. That also explained why we'd seen so many young men eagerly paddling back to our starting point, so they could have a chance at another boatload.

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My favorite part of the tour was being paddled through a narrow channel in tiny boats by locals

Lunch was next, which meant a preset menu of rice, beef, and vegetables. We'd also had a nice snack of fruit at one of the earlier activities, so it was actually enough to fill most of us up. They gave you the opportunity to order (and pay for) other, more bizarre foods. These included "Elephant-eared fish" (looked like a blowfish), cobra, crocodile, and a particularly nasty looking river lobster. Thankfully, everyone at my table declined on the Man vs. Food opportunity. After lunch, we were given about a half hour of free time. Most of the group hopped on the ragtag bicycles the villagers had available to explore the island. I decided to wander around on foot to take some pictures. I was glad I did because it allowed me to see the delta area from a new angle. Much to my surprise, some of the homes were very modern -- sporting satellite dishes and colorful materials imported from the mainland. I asked Hung about it on the ride back. He said some of the villagers, such as those running the restaurant, had become comparatively wealthy from the tourist trade. Others have family members working abroad who sent back money to build or improve their family homes. And still others, may be government employees, who are well paid in Vietnam. I took a wrong turn going back and was the last from the group to arrive back at the restaurant. We boarded a diesel-engined boat and chugged noisily back through a bit wider of a channel to our cruise boat. From there, we recrossed the Mekong River, and piled back into the minibus.

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We also got a chance to wander around one of the islands in the river delta

I had enjoyed seeing a different side of Vietnam, away from its crowded streets, honking, and ever-present motorbikes. Getting down on the river, inches away from its chocolate milk colored surface, was quite the experience. Trading stories with the Scots and other travelers on my last sightseeing day was a nice way to decompress from my immersion into Vietnamese culture. It allowed me to step back and consider my nearly three weeks in Vietnam and Taiwan. I'd enjoyed the history and scenic beauty of both. The chance to walk the streets alongside them, and feel the fast-paced rhythm and energy of their daily life, was something photographs really can't capture. It is these memories I take with me on my way home to America.

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam mekong delta Comments (0)

Getting ready for Nicaragua

My last Central American country!

all seasons in one day 48 °F

I leave Saturday to visit my last Central American country: Nicaragua. Spring break starts Friday once school let's out, and once again, I'm heading overseas. I plan on seeing volcanoes, zip lining through jungle canopies, checking out mountain lakes, pre-Columbian history, and more! The weather is supposed to be in the 90s all week, so this should be the perfect antidote to a long, cold winter.

As usual, I encourage you to follow my travels and pass along my blog to others who might be interested...thanks!

-- worldwidemike

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Posted by world_wide_mike 20:57 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged america nicaragua spring central break Comments (1)

Granada's Sights -- Catch Them Before it's too late!

Churches, Pre-Columban History, and Las Isletas

sunny 95 °F

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Granada's cathedral with Volcan Mombacho in the background

We were arriving late into Managua, Nicaragua - our plane was due to land just after midnight. Delays in our connecting city meant we actually showed up about an hour later than that. Thankfully, our hotel driver was still there waiting. We were staying in the nearby city of Granada, about 50 minutes away. Managua simply didn't seem interesting enough, while there were tons of things to do near Granada. It was after 2 am when we went to bed, but surprisingly, we were both ready to get moving shortly after 8 am.

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Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua

The hotel breakfast was great with lots if fresh, tropical fruit. We talked to the owner and he had lots of suggestions for how to start off our day. They were also willing to set up excursions to the places we wanted to visit during our stay. We began by walking 5 blocks to the Antiguo Convento San Francisco. First built in 1529, then destroyed by English pirate Henry Morgan 150 years later (can you say, "Aaaar!"), the building serves as both a church and a museum. And since today was Palm Sunday, there was a service going on in the church with lots if singing. It provided an atmospheric backdrop as we checked out the museum and the former convent grounds. My favorite part was the pre-Columban statues lined up on two sides of one open air room. Most were from the 1300-1500s. You could see the Mayan and Aztec influence in what was depicted, what the statues were carved wearing, and so on. Most statues were of gods or goddesses from the rich Central American mythology. You saw manlike beings carved with crocodile, jaguar, and eagle features. There was also nice displays of early Nicaraguan pottery. Once again, you saw the obvious Mexican influence.

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Two rows of almost 1,000 year old statues show major influence on Nicaragua's indigenous inhabitants by the Maya and Aztec

From there, we took our hotel owner's suggestion and checked out the private, "Mi Museo," which was the collection of an obviously very wealthy and very enthusiastic aficionado of early historic relics of Nicaragua. Most of it was pottery, each piece labelled in both English and Spanish. My favorites were the pots shaped like animals with faces, feet, and richly painted. I glimpsed the back, storage rooms where 4-5 times what is on display sits categorized inside plastic tubs, each labelled appropriately. What's more, the museum is free and tipping is expressly NOT allowed. Sadly, the Danish gentleman who put the collection together died in 2012. His gift lingers on, though.

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Examples of of the early Nicaraguan pottery at Mi Museo, a free and interesting museum in Granada

From there, we decided to check out a couple more of Granada's churches. Unfortunately, we were hitting them near the noon closing time. So, we were unable to climb the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534 and considered the country's most beautiful church. So, instead of taking in a panorama of the city, we walked around the locked exterior and took photos of its baroque decoration. It is a beautiful church, even though the electrical wires running along the street made photographing it difficult!

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Dome and statue that are part of Iglesia La Merced, said to be Nicaragua's most beautiful church

Lightning struck a second time as Xalteva Church was also closed. Along with La Merced, it is a favorite of the wealthier descendants of the Spanish conquistadors and colonists. Its bright yellow exterior and soaring towers made it a pretty sight -- especially from the tiny park across the street.

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Xalteva Church, seen from the tiny park across the street in Granada, Naicaragua

We continued along the road hoping that Forteleza La Polvora would be open. It also boasted views of Granada from its towers. Sadly, it also was closed. I vaguely considered doing an Indiana Jones to get inside if I found a way through or over its walls. But there was a policeman on duty at the gate who (I believe) said it was closed for remodeling. Frustrating. It was after noon and I could tell the temperature was well into the 90s, with a bright sun blistering down on us. It was definitely time to head back to the hotel to rest and recover. Besides, we wanted to arrange our afternoon excursion with the desk before it got too late.

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The closed towers of Fortaleza La Polvora

We ended up picking a boat ride to the Las Isletas, a cluster of more than 300 islands that are remnants of the eruption of Volcan Mombacho, which looms over Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The islands are little patches of jungle in the calm, vegetation-choked water. Egrets, cormorants, ibis,and even eagles prowl its waters. They are nearly outnumbered, though, by the boats chugging through the channels between the islands. The Las Isletas day trip is a popular day trip for visitors and locals alike. A big part if the tour is pointing out which wealthy Nicaraguan family owns which upscale weekend home you could glimpse through the trees. For Sale signs advertised others available to be snapped up by the elite and turned into a place to entertain friends or get away for it all. One of my favorite parts was the anti-pirate fortification on San Pablo island. The tiny, two story brick and stone structure still sported a couple relic cannons and overlooked the route pirates would need to take to attack Granada.

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The tiny fort on San Pablo island in Las Isletas -- a cluster of 354 islands in Lake Nicaragua

An interesting aspect of the raids English pirates would make on Grenada is that they had to sail for many miles up the River San Juan River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, to reach their target. Coincidentally, a new attack on Nicaragua is planned by a foreign "partner" using the same Río San Juan. A Chinese company has essentially bribed the Nicaraguan government into letting them dig a canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The first part will dredge the Río San Juan and destroy the habitat and two national forests to reach Lake Nicaragua. The passage of ocean going container ships will likely do zilch to help the ordinary people of Nicaragua. Only the government and elite will have a chance to snatch a piece of this destructive fortune cookie. All the animals, fish, and subsistence fishermen will have their lifestyles destroyed so that more inferior quality, "Made in China" merchandise can more quickly insinuate itself across the world. Yay! So, I guess I'm glad I am getting a chance to see Nicaragua's natural wonders before they are destroyed by the impersonal and ever-grasping hands of progress.

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Tiny fishing vessels and scenes of aquatic beauty may go away and be replaced by ocean-going container ships, if a Chinese scheme to build a canal in Nicaragua happens

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Spider monkeys like this one stand to lose their habitat if "progress" -- Chinese-style -- has its way...

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:54 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged church san francisco granada las la nicaragua iglesia merced convento xalteva isletas Comments (0)

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