Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

Nicaragua I: Highlands and Colonial Architecture   Leave a comment

Continuing southward through Central America, I entered a country I had high expectations for: Nicaragua.  I crossed in from Honduras and soon took a sharp left to the northern highlands, aka coffee heaven.  Day’s end saw me in Matagalpa, which looks and reads like a city in guidebook maps and descriptions, but is really just a large town.  The white-washed church in the town center is quite photogenic (image below).  The town is a busy one, being market central for an enormous swath of the country, and it has a nice mix of culture and modest tourist amenities.   But one needs to keep going north to get into the heart of the highlands.

The colonial church at Matagalpa, Nicaragua

By the way, clicking any of these images takes you to my website, where download rights or prints may be purchased.  The versions on this blog are too small for most anything, but if you are interested in any of them, and you can’t find them on my website, just contact me.  The images are copyrighted.  Thanks so much for your cooperation, and interest!

The beautiful highlands of northern Nicaragua, on the huge coffee finca of Selva Negra.

I headed to Selva Negra, an old coffee estate not too far north of Matagalpa.  The journey up there put me in mind of some of my rides in Asia – taking in the air on top of the bus instead of in the crammed interior.  Selva Negra was originally started by Germans and is still at least part owned by their descendants.  You occasionally see the (lucky) old farts walking around the place.  The countryside here reminded them of the Black Forest at home, thus the name Selva Negra.

The lake at Selva Negra, with its bordering cloud forest, greets guests on their way to an excellent cup of fresh coffee.

They have a sort of rustic resort up there on the shores of a beautiful man-made lake surrounded by cloud forest (image above).  There are rooms, cabins and a dormitory, along with a nice indoor/outdoor restaurant.  The food comes straight from the farm and is delicious.  The coffee, of course, is stellar.  There is a beautiful old stone church.  Nights are cool and days very comfortable up here.

The cloud forest blooms: Selva Negra, Nicaragua

The farm is huge and includes open ranch-type land along with acres of coffee.  There is also a school and an employee village set in idyllic surroundings.  Hiking trails take off into the beautiful cloud forest and horses are also available.  I took part in both of these activities over the three days I was there.  I stayed in one of the dorms only steps from the lake and, as I expected, had it to myself.

It was the type of climate and terrain I dream of living in, riding horses every day and eating fresh organic veggies, eggs and beef direct from the source.  One of the best parts about it was strolling down through the shady lanes leading to the employee village and goofing around with the kids making their way home from school.  What a paradise!

The streets of Leon, Nicaragua, are lined with colorful old colonial buildings.

I went on to Leon, and was yanked back to the often grim reality of traveling in the Isthmus.  The bus rides, though cheap, often have you wishing that death would come quickly.  In Leon, a proper city, there are loads of young people.  It is Nicaragua’s college town, with several universities.  The beautiful young girls walking the streets can drive a man to distraction!  Yet there are other beautiful sights as well.  The cathedrals and other Spanish colonial architecture had me slipping to my travel and street photographer persona.  Later I would visit Granada, Nica’s main town for colonial architecture (images below).  The architecture there smacks you in the face, and it’s impeccably restored.  I prefer to hunt around the narrow streets for treasures, and where it doesn’t feel so much like some sort of set that’s maintained for tourists.  In Granada, that takes getting away from the main square and its tourists; Leon is more of a working (or studying) kind of town.

The church La Recoleccion in Leon Nicaragua catches the late afternoon sun as a passerby casts his shadow on the old walls

The Munincipal Theater in Leon, Nicaragua employs very interesting colonial architecture.

The backstreets of Granada, Nicaragua.

I spent a few days on the gorgeous Lago Apoyo, which is, like most lakes in this area, a volcanic caldera now filled with clear blue water.  The lake is bordered by beautiful forest, and is near to the active volcano Masaya.  This part of the Americas is one of the most active segments of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire (a line of volcanoes and earthquake faults encircling the Pacific Ocean).  The forest comes right down to the lake, and despite there being only a dirt track accessing the shore, there are several nice places to stay.  I spent $75 for two nights with meals, which is not all that cheap for Nica.  But for a room on that beautiful lake, swimming and relaxing in hammocks?  I’ll take it.

A golden-mantled howler (Alouatta palliata palliata) inhabits the trees near Lake Nicaragua.

Tearing myself away from the perfect swimming, I hiked up through the forest and got remarkably close to a troop of howler monkeys (see image).  You hear them all the time in Central America, but rarely get close enough for a good picture.  Along with a great Swedish couple I met, I visited Volcan Masaya on a taxi tour.  This volcano breathes, and it was a powerful experience being so close to its steaming crater.  There is also a very cool cave to explore, with friendly bats!  The last image is of living Masaya, the sun setting behind it.  Next up: Omotepe, Lake Nicaragua, and the jungles of the Rio San Juan.

Masaya volcano in Nicaragua remains active and is accessible by hiking trail.

Cape Town, South Africa   9 comments

A beautiful summer evening in Cape Town, and an illuminated Table Mountain looms over the city. View from Signal Hill.

Cape Town, South Africa is one of the few cities in this world that I have always wanted to visit.  I’m not a city person, but I do like those which have a scenic location or have an energy or layered history behind them (Istanbul springs to mind).  Cape Town falls into the former category, but was still not in my plan on this first visit to Africa.  I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but after a week camping in Kruger National Park, I found a long weekend in Cape Town, staying in a nice room by the seaside, was just what I needed at that point in a long trip.

Tidepools along the shoreline near Cape Town South Africa.

I flew into Cape Town from Jo’burg, but instead of checking in right away, I steered my rental car up towards Table Mountain.  I took a nice walk near its base, starting in neighborhoods perched on the steep hillside.  I followed a path upwards to a viewpoint of the city, with the blue sparkling southern sea stretching out before me.  From here, it looked like a fairly compact, easy to navigate city, and that’s what it turned out to be.

Fog often rolls in here, and when I arrived it seemed to be doing battle with the sun.  I would enter a fog bank, the temperature would drop 20 degrees Farenheit, and I would shiver.  Then I would break out into warm sunshine.  Ultimately, as I discovered next morning when I walked out of my small hotel in the Sea Point area, the sunshine happily won the battle.  It was a gorgeous summer day, and since it was a Saturday, locals were out in force enjoying it.

I walked along the beautiful promenade that extends for a few  miles along the rocky coastline.  Runners, walkers, a few roller bladers and bicyclists were full of smiles, mirroring the bright blue water.  Small beaches dot the coast, and it is very easy to access rocky tidepools as well (image left).

After hours of wandering and exploring the coast, I took the car and headed south down the western side of the peninsula that extends south to the Cape of Good Hope.  I wanted to find a great spot to photograph the sunset, and hoped to find one of the shipwrecks that this coast is known for.  I stumbled on a very popular beach at Houte Bay, and did some serious people-watching (image below).  The locals were a mixture of white and black, and I watched carefully for any of their interactions.

Beach at Houte Bay on a busy summer Saturday. The highlands of Table Mtn Natl. Park rise in the background.

I had noticed in South Africa that the two races do not mix unless they have to.  I am sure there are those who dispute this, but I regard these folks as exceptions to the rule, this latter-day apartheid.  I am not saying you won’t find some of this at home in America.  I’m simply giving my impression of the separation that remains a barrier to this country’s truly putting its past behind it.

Aside from the people, Cape fur seals were riding the waves in their pursuit of fish, and birds swarmed above them in a frenzy.  The image below I grabbed with my 70-200 f/4, since I had neglected to bring my 400mm.  I consider myself a competent body surfer, but these seals were showing me how it’s really done.  I waded into the water, but it was a very cool sea.  In fact, the entire Cape Town area was reminding me of my home coastline in Oregon: rocky, tidepools, cold sea, the parallels were stacking up.

The entire area is a playground for those with a good job and income.  But there are also black townships (Nyanga & others) in the area where the poverty hits you in the face.  I got lost once and ended up driving through one.  I wanted to stop for pictures, but without a guide I thought better of it.  You can drive all the way down to the actual Cape, but this requires the whole day to avoid rushing.  I skipped this, but see it as a reason to go back.  By the way, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa, it is the southwestern-most.  To the east lies the southernmost tip of the continent, at Agulhas.

Cape fur seals surf the waves in pursuit of fish at Hout Bay near Cape Town, South Africa.

I stopped on the way back to Cape Town near a point of rugged coast at Camps Bay.  The view was incredible.  As my eyes wandered upward to the Twelve Apostles, peaks making up a big chunk of Table Mountain National Park, I thought of some history I had read of.  In the early days, when a trading post was being established here, lion, leopard, and other wildlife roamed the hills.  No longer; the land is relatively empty of wildlife.  The well-to-do build houses where large predators once hunted.  It is rather sad.  But the same cannot be said of the sea, which teems with fish, marine mammals, and the famous great white sharks of South Africa.  It is possible to book a scuba dive trip here where you enter a shark cage and are lowered into baited waters.  I scrambled down from the road and came upon a wreck lying just offshore.  I was able to get a decent shot looking north up the coast, the Twelve Apostles on the right (image below).

A wreck lies just offshore, near the Twelve Apostles south of Cape Town, South Africa.

Fossil mammal quarry at Langebaanweg, north of Cape Town, South Africa.

On my last day I drove north into the emptiness of the West Coast National Park.  It is easy to get out into the countryside in South Africa.  Roads are decent and if you can survive the very high average speeds that motorists travel, it won’t take much time to put many miles between you and civilization.  I stopped at a fossil quarry called Langebaanweg, which lies not far from the R27 via a signed turnoff to the right.  It only takes a couple hours to get here from Cape Town, so it is perfect for a day trip.  Long deserted beaches of the western Cape, part of the National Park, are easily accessible as well.

The fossil site, which documents the immediate predecessors of today’s African menagerie (such as giraffes with much shorter necks than today), is fascinating and not touristy at all.  There is a friendly tour of the fossil quarry, along with a small museum and restaurant, but everything is very much low-key.  With my background in geology, the staff were interested in talking with me about the fascinating connections with the related mammal fossils of Oregon’s John Day country.  This is just the sort of off-beat travel destination I love, where people are happy to get a few visitors, and who aren’t so busy processing hoards of tourists to spend time with you.  It can make the experience a much more personal one.

Cape Town is a place where I could happily live.  The environment is a clean one, with a nice balance of the city and outdoor life (like Portland, Oregon where I live).  My last night there, I drove up onto Signal Hill, where because of the gorgeous summer weather many locals were gathering as the sun went down.  We were all there to enjoy the stunning view of the city, the sea, and the illuminated face of nearby Table Mountain.

As the dusk deepened and “blue hour” approached (blue hour is that short time of deep blue skies just before total darkness, a time photographers love), I set up my tripod for a long exposure.  The top image in this post was the result.  I can feel the soft breeze when I look at this picture, and sense the southern Atlantic far below.  I was to leave South Africa for Namibia the next morning, and this time on Signal Hill, this picture, was really my way of saying: ‘Bye-bye South Africa, it’s been fun.  I’ll be back!

%d bloggers like this: