Sunday, August 19, 2007

Nicaragua – El Corazón de Centroamerica

Nicaragua is salt, sweat and ocean. It’s lush green fields, bananas, palms and active volcanoes. It’s butterflies and pelicans surfing the waves. It stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific with the largest land mass of any Central American country, and yet it is the least populated and one of the poorest.
Buena(s) (Días)
The travel guides say that Nicas are very friendly people, and that was certainly my experience. I was longing to improve my Spanish and I got lots of opportunities to practise. The waiters chatted when they weren’t busy, and the hotel staff told me about their families.

Mey Ling was my Spanish instructor in Laguna de Apoyo. She is 23 years old and a firm believer in women’s rights. She believes that husbands and wives should share decision making about the number of children they will have based on available income. She refuses to accept the double standard whereby Nica men have affairs while Nica women are expected to stay home, dress modestly and accept their husbands’ behaviour unquestioningly.
Mey Ling is completing her grade 12 on Saturdays while working during the week. It’s not easy. There are 70 students in her classes so they only hand in group assignments. She wants to learn to speak English and use the computer but doesn’t have the time or money to study both at once. But she is determined to go to university and study tourism.
One of the cleaning staff at Hotel Los Arcos in Estelí has three children and worries about their future. She has to budget carefully so that she can afford first communion and birthday parties. Her husband is currently unemployed.
Juan is a successful entrepreneur. After years of living in Managua, he has moved back to a rural area and has a house and farm beside his parents’. He has steady employment as a driver for a small beach resort and has bought cars for all five of his brothers to operate as taxis. He is deeply concerned about Daniel Ortega being back in power and believes that tourism is Nicaragua’s best hope for creating employment.
One of the young waiters at my hotel in León says he used to live in Ottawa. Then he holds out his hands, as if he can still see the handcuffs, and explains that he was deported.
Another waiter explains that there is very limited work in León. Three industries employ the majority of the population: a brewery, a Pepsi Cola plant and a plant manufacturing motor vehicles parts. Free trade zones have been created around many of the larger cities, but the wages and working conditions are poor.
The Twenty-First Century?
Is this really the 21st century? I feel like I have stepped back in time. There are ox carts and dugout canoes loaded with firewood, and a horse cart in Granada carries cement to a building site. Very, very few people have cars, and the roads are very poor. Local and inter-city transport is primarily by old, yellow school buses (a second lease on life after they are taken off the roads in North America?). A woman pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with fruit through downtown Granada, calling out in a singsong voice to list the produce she has for sale.
Mey Ling’s parents have a small farm on the outskirts of Masaya. Her father grows vegetables, avocadoes and bananas that her mother sells at the market in Granada. They also purchase fruit in the Masaya market and sell it at a marked-up price in Granada. She carries the produce back and forth by bus.
The stores in Masaya and Estelí are from another age. There are fabric stores with rolls of fabric lining the walls and counters displaying boxes and boxes full of buttons in a wide variety of colours and patterns. It’s much more fun than buying a shrink-wrapped package of matching, colour-coded buttons in Canada. The hardware stores are a jungle of rope, giant metal casseroles and matching ladles, plastic garbage cans and an assortment of other unidentifiable objects. Objects hang from the walls and ceiling with no apparent rhyme or reason. I look upwards in the Masaya hardware store and see a man hanging in mid-air repairing a fluorescent light fixture.
There is a modern side to Nicaragua as well, but the gap between rich and poor is blatant. Managua has large, modern shopping centres and gated communities, but they are in stark contrast to the people living at the dump and the armed guards at banks and grocery stores.
Daily power cuts were a regular occurrence when I was in Nicaragua. Hotels, restaurants and internet cafes were forced to run generators if they wanted to operate a modern business with light and cold drinks and computers. But the markets and pulperías were left in darkness.
I play it very, very safe for my first few trips inside Nicaragua, but local transportation turns out to be very easy to use. As I walk towards the bus lot (no building, just a parking lot) in Granada, one of the drivers comes out, asks if I’m going to Managua, takes my luggage and throws it on the bus. In Managua, they drive me to the spot in the lot where there are vans heading to León. Again, they throw my luggage on board, and I’m ready to go. No need to worry about timetables on the busy routes – they just leave when the bus or minivan is full. In León, vendors walked up and down the aisle of the waiting bus with bags of water, sticky buns, and nuts. Food vendors even ride part of the way to Estelí with us.
Paxeos ( is a very convenient shuttle service between Granada and San Juan del Sur (also the airport)
The Land and the Cities
Pacific Coast – Los Cardones Ecolodge (
I’m met at the airport and driven straight to Los Cardones. It is somewhat disconcerting to arrive in total darkness, the only sound the rustle of large land crabs with fluorescent orange or purple claws scuttling off to hide in the bushes. One of the guards, still carrying his rifle, hands me a plate of food and points out the central composting toilet, and then I’m on my own.
Los Cardones is only 65 km from Managua, but it is completely isolated. There are 6 individual huts with their own patios, hammocks and resident lizards. There is no electricity, but the buildings are clean and the food is good and plentiful as they cater primarily to active surfers. I have the beach to myself when I go to play in the powerful surf. The loudest sound is the surf crashing on the beach at high tide. I spend hours sitting on the main deck, under the thatched roof, drinking a Victoria beer and watching the brown pelicans surf the waves. One of the waitresses takes me for a walk to look for “los caímanes”. The caimans are obviously sleeping, but I enjoy the ponds and streams set among volcanic lava flow. This is a wonderful place to relax, and the managers set high standards using local workers, local produce and sponsoring art classes in a neighbouring village.
Don’t miss out on dessert – tropical fruit tarts using a traditional French recipe
Donate art supplies – there are 70-80 children meeting once a week for art classes and it’s the highlight of their week.
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is the most popular tourist spot in Nicaragua attracting surfers and North Americans who want to buy vacation/retirement property. The town is set on a bay with a crescent beach stretching to the horizon and surrounded by green, lumpy hills. It’s a typical beach resort with touristy stores, surfboard repair shops and a line of restaurants facing the bay. The rate of development is frightening. There are new resorts and condominiums stretching for miles out of town, and I wonder if this small community can withstand the rapid change. There is an amazing assortment of mongrel dogs – my favourite seemed to be a combination of spaniel and dachshund.
I recommend heading out of town to one of the neighbouring beaches which are beautiful and almost deserted. If you don’t mind roughing it, there are camping/backpacker hotels at Playas Madera and Matilda. I arranged a very bumpy taxi ride and spent a delightful morning poking around in the tide pools and playing in the surf.
El Gato Negro is an ex-pat coffeeshop and bookstore. They serve great sandwiches and drinks and have a large collection of books.
El Colibri has wonderful food in a romantic setting. You eat on an outdoor deck with bats swooping around the tree, and the house is full of mosaic mirrors and interesting artwork. There’s a very upscale menu with lots of interesting options (even for vegetarians), and the house white wine is excellent.
Granada is everything I imagined a Spanish colonial city could be. The large mustard-yellow cathedral is immaculately outlined in white and fronts onto a wide-open square and park which are the centre of urban life – food vendors, school girls playing hopscotch, crowds of people watching a soccer game. The streets are narrow, and the sidewalks are an obstacle course of dog shit and holes, but the houses are brightly-coloured stucco with elaborate wooden doors or iron window grilles. There are red-tiled roofs, and the larger houses are arranged around a central courtyard with flowers and trees and fountains. Street signs display their message visually – an Eiffel tower and two cobs of corn for a chichería, a set of false teeth for a dental clinic. On clear days, Volcán Mombacho looms over the city, an ever-present reminder that this land was created and is still being sculpted by volcanoes.
Hotel Patio del Malinche ( is a small, family-run hotel set around two inner courtyards, the second one with a pool, a banana tree and hummingbirds in the garden. The breakfast is great (nine different kinds of tropical fruit), and the owners are very helpful. Rooms are attractive, clean and quiet.
Hotel La Gran Francía ( – Be sure to have a drink on the second-floor balcony overlooking the main square. I highly recommend Cuban rum mojitos (lime, mint and Flor de Caña).
Volcán Masaya
Central America was formed by volcanoes, and many of the ones in Nicaragua are still active. The early Indigenous people worshipped the power of the volcanoes. Spanish Catholic priests put a cross on top of Volcán Masaya to protect themselves from the devil – but then decided there might be gold in the volcano and overcame their fear of the devil in order to lower themselves down in search of gold.
You drive up to the volcano through fields of volcanic rubble and scrubby vegetation. I signed up for two tours – one through the dry tropical forest to see open vents in the earth with steam pouring forth. The guide explained that the volcano created acid rain and the plants, animals and insects were forced to adapt in order to survive.
It started to pour with rain as I set out to hike to the bat cave. The paths became streams, and I could barely see as we descended some rough stone stairs to the cave. The cave was formed by lava flow, and you can see where it dripped from the ceiling or where gas bubbles created smooth, round domes. We stood in the darkness and listened to the bats and looked at some hanging from the ceiling sleeping – such sweet little faces and big ears. The tunnel opens out into a large room where people worshipped many centuries ago and, much more recently, hid from the Sandinistas.
Laguna de Apoyo
One of my goals in going to Nicaragua was to improve my very rudimentary Spanish, and I chose the Proyecto Ecológico Spanish School at Laguna de Apoyo. Unfortunately, the school facilities are very poor. The bedrooms lacked privacy and were extremely primitive; the cave-like shower didn’t drain; the garden smelt of peccaries (wild pigs in a pen); and there was never enough food. The young men and women who taught the Spanish classes were charming but only a few of them had good language teaching skills.
On the positive side, the laguna itself is a beautiful spot with a large, clear lake cupped in a bowl of lush green hills. There were howler monkeys nearby and lots of birds. The malinche blossoms were a vibrant mix of scarlet and yellow. I learned a great deal about Nicaraguan culture by talking to my teacher, Mey Ling, and I enjoyed the interesting mix of people staying at the Proyecto – social activists, well-travelled people from a variety of backgrounds.
Masaya is best known for its craft market, one of the few places in Nicaragua where you have a wide assortment of craft shops catering to tourists. The building is interesting as it looks like a crenellated fortress from the time of King Arthur. I found the atmosphere overly touristy, but I did enjoy the music and dancing at the Thursday night verbena and particularly enjoyed an old man who moved from table to table doing tricks with a top.
Far more interesting than the craft market was the town of Masaya. I roamed the streets, buying buttons in one store, munching on cake in another, and getting change for a 500 cordoba note in a bicycle repair store.
Pastelería Norma
has a wide selection of cakes and jelly rolls as well as sandwiches and drinks. The best bakery I saw in Nicaragua and well worth visiting.
León was a disappointment. It was not a pretty, inviting city like Granada nor was it a busy, working city like Masaya or Estelí. The numerous (over 20) large churches were somewhat pretentious, although I admired the practising Christians who could worship in a church with the three larger-than-life-sized crosses set up at the entrance – this is no comfortable pew. My hotel was out of town, which was nice but somewhat inconvenient – and it probably stopped me from getting to know the town better.
The Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián is reputed to be the best art gallery in Central America. It fills two buildings with an emphasis on modern paintings and sculpture by Central American artists and is well worth visiting.
Isla Juan Venado
The beach communities of Poneloya and Las Penitas are just 20 km from León. I went out for the day but another time I would go and stay for a few nights as they are delightful small communities that have not yet been overtaken by tourists. There are a few small hotels and restaurants, but it is primarily a fishing community with lots of second homes for León’s residents.
Barca de Oro is a small resort at the far end of Las Penitas overlooking Isla Juan Venado (a nature reserve) and an estuary full of fishing boats. The hotel look casual, comfortable and friendly with lots of outdoor seating and a restaurant and craft store. They immediately arranged a personal boat trip for me through Isla Juan Venado. It was fairly expensive but turned out to be worth it as I spent three hours slowly cruising through the mangrove channels. The young man steering the boat stopped frequently so that I could chew on a salty mangrove leaf or look at a large spider with spindly legs. He pointed out crocodiles – just their eyes like bubbles on the surface of the water. We spotted a porcupine and a green iguana as well as numerous kinds of birds. One group of trees provided a heron nursery. Locals were using nets to fish in the channels and were gathering fallen wood for firewood in primitive dugout canoes. We got out of the boat to look at the beach facing the Pacific where the sea turtles will soon be coming ashore to lay their eggs.
Afterwards I had a peaceful lunch at Barca de Oro with a banana split for dessert. I enjoyed watching a group of 5 pigs – one large black one and 4 smaller pink ones rummaging for food. At one point, they were knee deep in water eating fish. They ventured out to a sand bar but were chased away by the stray dogs who made it clear that that was their territory.
Estelí is in the hills to the northeast of the Pacific coastal plain. This is the land of cowboys and cigars. Don’t be surprised to see a man on a horse riding through downtown or a truckload of leather saddles. Cuban émigrés discovered that this was good land for growing tobacco and brought their skills to making cigars in Nicaragua. The town is small and busy with an ugly modern cathedral and a multitude of secondhand clothing stores.
A country road, just past the new hospital, leads uphill to the Estanzuela waterfall. The rolling hills and lush green fields remind me of England. After the hike, I went to La Casita which is on the edge of town. This is a restaurant garden started by a Scottish ex-pat. There are paths wandering through the gardens with tropical plants and cacti and swings for children and adults. At shady wooden tables and benches you can enjoy simple, healthy food – whole wheat buns with local goat cheese and hummus, lassi, fruit juice and yogurt.
Leche Agría (avenida 1 SO, south of the central park) is small and dark with an unfamiliar menu. But it’s very popular at breakfast time with yogurt and tortillas, fruit salad and a variety of egg dishes. I wished I’d found it sooner.
Mocha Nana Café (2-3 blocks east of the Casa de Cultura) just opened five weeks ago. The young couple running it are British and Nicaraguan. They serve wholesome vegetarian foods and wonderful cakes (the best of British baking). They also have a collection of secondhand books in English.
Pinareno Restaurant (immediately south of the park and cathedral) is a Cuban restaurant with a second-storey balcony with a good view of the surrounding hills and street traffic. They make excellent (strong!) Cuban mojitos, have a really good grilled cheese and vegetable sandwich and tasty desserts.