Nicaragua – December 2017

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Granada, Nicaragua

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Gorgeous colonial Granada; crater lakes; dusty, artisan towns; zip-lining on a volcano; one sombre funeral procession; kayaking in a gale; the dazzlingly white Cathedral of Leon; Central America’s finest modern art gallery, and, amongst other things, a distinctly bizarre and disturbing visit to the Museum of Legends and Traditions…

With hindsight we should have started our 10 day visit in Leon and then moved south to Granada because our feelings towards Leon were far more mixed. Instead, we landed in Managua (the capital of Nicaragua) and (taking the advice of every blog I had read during my pre-trip planning) we collected our rental car and headed straight to Granada. Passing through the capital city I would concur that Managua didn’t, on the surface, appear to offer much to the traveller other than a collection of identical brightly painted abstract tree sculptures adorning the endless roundabouts running through the city.

Thankfully, Granada pulls out all the stops as the country’s top visitor destination. It is the jewel in the Nicaraguan government’s crown. It was also once the jewel of Central America. The oldest Spanish colonial city in the region, it was founded in 1524 and its extraordinary wealth was built upon the exploitation of gold, silver and minerals by the Spanish.

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America but still one of the least visited despite its impressive landscape of rainforests, mountains, lakes and volcanoes. It has far more to offer than we had the time or energy for but almost daily massages at CocoBerry Spa and cocktails and mince-pies by the pool during our Christmas vacation obviously had to take precedence… it could never have been any other way 😉

Had we been motivated to move from our base in Granada we would have headed a couple of hours south to the (formerly peaceful) fishing village of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua’s top beach and surfing destination. We would have aimed for rocky Playa Maderas and staked our claim to a patch of sand in the sun amongst the trendy surfers… and then we would headed to El Gato Negro or Barrio Cafe but my painstaking research was all in vain and, well… we didn’t 😉 Neither did we make the tortuous journey via ferry to another hot-spot – Isla de Ometepe in Lago de Nicaragua – to visit the two active volcanoes (Maderas and Concepción) which make up the island. To be fair, that decision was partly based on the fact that for the entirety of our week in Granada there was a gale blowing across the massive lake on which Granada is situated. The closest we got to the lake was the waters edge at the end of Paseo de los Mangos (not a mango in sight, by the way). If I’m honest, the churning waves of brown and somewhat whiffy waters were strewn with flotsam, jetsam and plastic bottles. A herd of cows sauntered past us grazing at the side of the lake. Even they barely managed to stand upright in the wind.

The thought of getting any closer to the waters of Lago de Nicaragua (also known as Lake Cocibolca) without a bumper size pack of Kwells, a tetanus booster shot (and probably a couple of Hep A and Hep B shots for good measure) was less than attractive. Plans of kayaking in the lake around any one of the 300 or so islands of Las Isletas (formed originally from an eruption of Mombacho Volcano) – reputedly a top activity in Granada and one which had been on my list of must-do activities – was wiped clean off my proposed agenda with one sideways glance from Geoff. My plans blew away in the breeze along with (what I am sure would have been) a highly memorable stomach-churning ferry crossing from San Jorge to the volcanic island of Ometepe.

Courtesy of all the wind, however, was that the normally horrendously hot weather was actually quite lovely in Granada. I’m sure the temperature gauge would have been pushing 90F even in Granada (which boasts one of the more temperate climes of the country) but with the breeze blowing up from the lake – the streets, courtyards and cafes were mercifully delightful.

So, whilst my research regarding the best time of year to visit for cooler temperatures (December) definitely paid off, it came at a price. I think we would both agree it was worth the cost 😉

So those are the activities we didn’t get to enjoy!

We very much enjoyed, however, sauntering through the cobblestone streets and barrios of Granada exploring the vibrantly colorful, clean and pristinely maintained dwellings. We observed daily street life in the preserved colonial part of the city (which involved an unprecedented amount of street sweeping and an apparently constant effort to keep one’s colorful painted colonial adobe home in perfect neon condition).

And what is a trip to Latin America without a visit to the local cemetery? We were expecting a continuation of the theme of “no color is too lurid” and were surprised that white was actually the color of choice for 99% of grieving relatives. Set against a jaw-dropping background of a stunningly blue sky and the constantly cloud-shrouded Mombacho Volcano, it was one of the most beautiful cemeteries we have visited.

Similarly, no trip to Latin America would be complete without a hot and sticky visit to the local municipal market. As expected, it was a world away from the colonial grandeur of the rest of the city. Nicaragua is a country beset with a history of war, conflict and poverty. Many of the residents of Granada are very fortunate. Aware of the impact of the tourist dollar on maintaining their privileged lifestyle the locals are very friendly, cordial and often speak very good English. The poverty which is commonplace in the rest of the country, however, is never far from sight if you dig about in the back streets around the local marketplace.

Granada is a city without specific attractions save for the streets themselves, various churches, plazas, the Cathedral and the Parque Central. Carefully chosen (of course), our hotel, Plaza Colon, faced the Parque Central and from the balcony to our room we overlooked the daily activities in the park: the comings and goings of the horse drawn carriages; the food vendors; the shoe shines hard at work; the sudden deafening influx of black Nicaraguan grackle birds taking their positions of attack in the palm trees to swoop down on mosquitoes and bugs at dusk; the groups of bored teenagers arriving on their pushbikes at sunset, heads down glued to their cellphones like zombies under one of the only free wifi hotspots in the city. But best of all we could sit and rock in our wooden chairs (like the couple of geriatrics that we are) with a glass of vino or a cocktail laced with Flor de Caña (Nicaragua’s famous rum) and watch the sun setting on the Cathedral.

The downside to the lovely location, of course, is that park life starts at 5am with the street cleaners removing the debris of the day before. Every night the vendors load up their every possession… tables, chairs, sun umbrellas (absolutely everything precariously balanced in a pyramid) onto their horse drawn carts and lumber away. Every morning the horses and carts return and they set up their stalls, tables, chairs, cooking utensils and vats of food all over again. I’m glad we remembered to pack ear plugs 😉

Good though our view from the balcony was, it could not compete with the panoramic views across the city in late afternoon from the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced – in one direction out over the lake as far as Las Isletas, in another towards the cloud-covered summit of Mombacho Volcano and in another direction out over the red rooftops to the cemetery. Spectacular 365 degree views well worth the vertigo from the excruciatingly narrow winding staircase you have to climb to reach the top of the tower 🙂

Due to its burgeoning reputation as a tourist hot-spot (and when I say that it was still unusual to see another caucasian face in most parts of the city away from the main street and the hotel itself), adventurous Europeans, Americans and Nicaraguans have, in recent years, opened cafes and restaurants with beautiful breezy courtyard gardens to tempt the tourists with their high quality menus. There is no air conditioning outside of the hotels so they have to make the most of constantly whirring overhead fans and cool breezes blowing from the lake. Highlights were Israeli owned Pita Pita (so good we went 4 times), Espressionista operated by a Hungarian couple – spectacular coffee, cake, lunch and dinner (we sampled everything on offer), the Garden Cafe, Cafe de Arte (for its fresh fruit smoothies). The main street is Calle la Calzada brimming with street cafes and bars (such as Nectar and Cafe de los Suenos) but none could compete with our chosen few above.

Difficult though it was to tear ourselves away from the streets of the city, the cocktails by the pool and the rapidly depleting box of English luxury mince pies; I insisted we stick to at least part of my planned schedule. First on the list was the artisan market in Masaya – also know as Mercado Viejo – located in an open-air greystone Gothic style building. Highlights… not many… a couple of photos of some (admittedly top-quality) hammocks. Lowlights… a large quantity of souvenirs which looked less locally hand-made and more fresh off the boat from China. Perhaps I am getting too cynical in my old age. The municipal market (not another caucasian face anywhere in the vicinity) was far more interesting and, at its very least, offered up some ceramic painted pigs and roosters which are apparently produced in the outlying villages. Local opportunists also tried on three separate occasions to lift Geoff’s wallet from his trouser pocket (which is, naturally, the last place he’d put his wallet in a crowded marketplace).

Next stop was the legendary viewpoint over Laguna de Apoyo from Catarina, one of the pueblos blancos (white towns). The pueblos blancos are a string of hilltop towns each with its own specialization – bamboo products, wooden carvings, furniture, pottery, black magic, fruit sweets… you name it. Catarina is by far the prettiest and specializes in plants and flowers. Approaching it is rather surreal – row upon row of garden centre lots packed with spectacular flowers jammed in along the roadsides and in the surrounding fields. For a country blighted by poverty we had to wonder how a town in the middle of nowhere thrived selling flowers but apparently they come from far and wide to visit.

It wasn’t hard to spot, however, that, the towns were not by any stretch of the imagination white, and the view from Mirador Catarina was far from legendary due to the gathering of dark clouds and gloomy haze over the lake in the distance. Splatters of rain had us scuttling back to the car without the requisite photographic evidence of our having visited. Not good! On top of that, it was lunch time and we were beginning to get hungry.

My research had suggested little on offer for vegetarians in any of the pueblos blancos (I had already rejected various local restaurants specializing in lizard stew for obvious reasons) but for reasons unknown Geoff decided that if we drove around aimlessly in the (by now) torrential rain we might stumble across a chic cafe offering the finest vegan fare 😉 In desperation I located (via Google maps) on the cellphone what I thought was a restaurant called El Tunel (because it rang a bell from a blog I had read months before). With a mixture of hope and trepidation I pointed us off in the direction of El Tunel. The road wound upwards through the hills until we were way past civilization and (as I was starting to wish I’d packed the last 3 mince pies for just such an emergency) it petered out completely until we were on a mud track (getting muddier and stickier with every rotation of the car wheels). As we were still heading upwards to the heavens, I was beginning to have my reservations. Geoff was staring ahead through the huge raindrops praying we wouldn’t wedge ourselves in one of the massive craters in the mud so, upon reflection, I thought it better to keep quiet 😉 In any event, the blue dot on the cell phone (us) was getting closer by the minute to the red destination pointer at El Tunel, so all was not yet lost. Only one more switchback and it would be ahead of us… assuming it was open for business, of course!

Only one more second until we slid around the switchback bend and were faced with El Tunel (the tunnel)… a stone road bridge over the mud track we had just slithered down. A bridge in the mountains in absolutely the middle of nowhere. Really?!

Miles from anywhere we made a telepathically communicated decision to head back to Granada where the city was brimming with delicious eateries. We headed straight for Espressionista (already on my list but not yet tackled) and discovered the best restaurant in the city – so it wasn’t all bad 😉

With emergency food supplies in hand we returned the following day to the pueblos blancos and finally got to enjoy a far more sunny and glorious view from Catarina over Laguna de Apoyo (a circular crater lake) and Mombacho Volcano. I was planning on getting much closer to both after Christmas.

Having frittered Christmas day by the pool there was no more idling allowed. First stop for Boxing Day was zip-lining over the coffee plantain and rainforest at the base of Mombacho Volcano with Cafe Las Flores. I travelled more sedately through the air and only screamed like a baby on the final free-fall from the canopy of the trees to ground level. Geoff preferred to travel between platforms hanging upside down and only screamed like a girl when he looked down through the metal platform to the ground way below – albeit that he was strapped perfectly safely onto the platform with 4 solid cleats and was clinging (with his eyes shut) to the trunk of a tree 😉

Revived by a cappuccino from the on-site cafe I pointed us in the direction of Laguna Beach Club on Laguna de Apoyo where (for the very reasonable price of $6 per person per day) I knew we could recline by the waters of the cleanest lake in the country and perhaps enjoy a spot of kayaking on the calm blue waters.

I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised that it wasn’t quite as heavenly as advertised. Firstly, Laguna Beach Club is a backpackers hostel (not somewhere we would typically frequent, obviously 😉 ), secondly, any thoughts of enjoying lunch there were dashed as soon as we saw the deeply fried offerings emerging from the kitchen, and thirdly we waited for quite a while whilst the only double kayak owned by the entire facility had just drifted off onto the lake around the headland. We watched it gliding about as the sun shone down glistening upon the calm waters of the lake until it returned and we leaped in with my brand new $1500 camera. We paddled out towards the centre of the lake to check out the views and suddenly found ourselves whipped up and churned about like a cork in a howling gale. Over the top of the crater, an impressive looming black cloud also came into view depositing a considerable quantity of rain in the distance. No time to lose (lest we also lose both my brand new camera and possibly our lives 😉 ) Geoff paddled like a man chased by the hounds of hell in a 3 foot swell as I clutched the camera to my bikini-clad chest protected only by Geoff’s baseball cap.

We made it back to shore with only seconds to spare, abandoned the kayak to the waves and sprinted to the main building together with a gaggle of scruffy, unwashed backpackers. We changed in a toilet (because the changing rooms were bamboo outdoor huts without roofs) and left the backpacker world firmly behind us in the rain.

Our week in Granada over, we drove north past Managua to Leon, Nicaragua’s historical university city and home to the largest cathedral in Central America. We checked into the swishest hotel in the city – El Convento. To give it its due this converted convent, a few blocks from the central park, has a surprisingly impressive art collection adorning its walls, nooks, crannies and various courtyard areas.

Leon is a city crammed with museums. It was the original capital of the country until 1857. Its streets reveal a story of revolutionary struggle – quite literally with the pock-markings of bullet holes on various buildings across the city – and pictorially with its wall art and murals telling the story of the overthrow of the US-backed Somoza dynasty dictatorship in 1979 by radical poets, writers, farmers and students.

Leon’s position as the original seat of unrest began with the assassination of President Somoza Garcia in the city in 1956 by a young poet. This culminated in the most tumultuous and violent political upheaval in the country’s history. Students from Leon and the capital, Managua, formed the FSLN (the Sandinista National Liberation Front) and ultimately Leon would become the first city liberated from the Somoza regime. Consequently, the city is dotted with museums: of the revolution; of heroes and martyrs and murals of fallen heroes and revolutionary icons.

The highlight of the city is, undoubtedly, the UNESCO protected Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary built between 1747 and 1814 facing the central park and flanked by large stone lions. It is startlingly, brilliantly, dazzlingly white. There is a small section of the external wall which is still ash blackened and caked with the grime of the passage of time. We wondered whether (a) it had been left in that condition deliberately as a historical reminder of various significant volcanic eruptions; (b) whether the authorities had simply run out of their consignment of what must have been an enormous shipment of white exterior Dulux paint; or (c) whether they simply couldn’t be bothered to finish painting it. Taking into account the general disheveled state of the city, the collapsing infrastructure of roads and pedestrian paths across the city and, perhaps more poignantly, the trash swirling in the central park at the foot of their beloved cathedral, our yanky $ is on option (c)!

I wasn’t holding up the greatest of hope but I tentatively suggested we join the backpackers, sign up with Quetzaltrekkers (a non-profit adventure company contributing to many of the charitable foundations for disadvantaged youths in the region) and surf down the side of a jet-black volcano – Cerro Negro. To be fair, Leon is the hottest city in the country and it transpired that Geoff didn’t find the suggestion of hiking up a sweltering black volcano just to surf down it on a wooden board at 37mph as tempting as I thought he might. Spoilsport 😉

Ultimately, our 36 hours in Leon was spent not wandering the streets (which frankly couldn’t hold a candle to the far lovelier streets of Granada) but engaged in various other more intellectual endeavors.

First stop, hopping across the boiling hot rooftop of the Cathedral for a view over the city and surrounding volcanoes (no shoes allowed but luckily I had duly noted some earlier advice to pack a pair of socks each – otherwise our toes would have melted to the roof within minutes).

We marveled at the extremely impressive collection of modern art at the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián. Probably the finest modern art gallery in Central America, there are some stunning Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan paintings alongside a surprising and varied collection of pieces from artists such as Picasso, Albers, Hirst, Botero, Rembrandt, Miro, Chagall, Rauschenberg, Rubens, Johns, Mondrian, and the highlight for me – 10 Warhol lithographs of Marilyn Monroe. All this in a couple of refurbished Spanish Colonial buildings, with breezy central courtyards but no air conditioning, in a city with an average daily temperature of 95F. Theoretically, you aren’t allowed to take photos of the art in the gallery… so I took some long distance photos when no-one was looking 🙂

And finally, we couldn’t resist the city’s most unusual museum – the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones (Museum of Legends and Traditions). Housed in La XXI (the 21st Garrison), the museum is an unsettling combination of the bizarre and the tragic. La XXI was a notorious prison where revolutionaries were held, tortured and frequently executed by the National Guard. When we arrived there was a volunteer guide washing clothes at an outdoor sink. She wanted to practice her English and explained that the sink she was using is where the prisoners were decapitated, their heads then lined up in rows along the low walls surrounding the sink. Difficult to imagine the horrors which were perpetrated within the confines of the building prior to 1979, after which freedom from such oppressions prevailed. We didn’t sign up for the full gory tour – we didn’t really have to as the walls are covered in pictorial images which were quite enough to set the scene. On the flip side of all of the misery, there is an equally eery but somewhat more amusing collection of life-sized papier-mâché figures depicting weird and wonderful characters from local history and legend – all handmade by founder Señora Toruña (who is also represented in all of her papier-mâché glory in a glass case at the entrance).

Luckily there were English translation sheets accompanying the characters otherwise we would have been completely baffled. There are characters protecting the flora and fauna of the hills; La Gigantona – ridiculing female Spanish colonists who were (obviously) taller and held more elevated social positions and her sidekick El Enano Cabezon (Short Big Head) who was a lower class local, more intelligent but enamored of Spanish women; The Flying Women who “deal with Satan” and can turn into a barn owl or black butterfly bringing dark omens to one’s door; the nocturnal Nahua Oxcart (the oxcart having been introduced to the Nicaraguan Indians by the Spanish) – if you hear or see it between 12am and 1 am then you’re in deep trouble 😉 ; there is a Headless Priest; a Golden Crab – if you can catch it untold Indian riches will be yours!; the Bride of Tola; Sanchez – the suicidal Woman in High Heels who wanders the streets cackling and clicking her heels looking for wife beaters, “lulls them with her perfume”, drags them to a public place and undresses them as a means of public humiliation; and my personal favorite The Ceguas – witches who prey on womanizers and drunks at night pretending to be irresistibly gorgeous until they are up close when it becomes clear that not only do they “have horrible make-up” but also and I quote “they smell terrible”… pretty scary stuff 😉 …then they turn your brain to mush etc. etc. by stunning their victims for the rest of their lives… amongst other things…

Fascinating!

Time to head back to the capital for our flight. The car had to be returned to Avis – which meant trying to find our way back, not to the airport, but to a tent in the car park of Pharoah’s Casino. En route we came up against a traffic jam on the main road into Managua which we sat in for 10 minutes or so before we started to get restless. There was a dirt track off the main road which could have gone just about anywhere but Google maps vaguely suggested we might make it back to the main road if we were brave enough to risk it. As soon as we turned off we discovered another side of the country, a world away from the relative riches of the two cities we had visited. Geoff negotiated divots in the dirt track deeper than the crater lakes of southern Nicaragua, many dwellings were made of corrugated iron and cardboard, kids were playing in drain run-offs and the only other “traffic” we had to squeeze past on the narrow dirt road was an ox-drawn cart.

There are many nuances and sides to Nicaragua – this was most definitely “the other side”.

Loved Granada… Leon had some interesting diversions – all in all a great short trip to escape the traditional Christmas festivities!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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