A hidden gem
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Nicaragua — When I studied Spanish in
Costa Rica in the late '90s, my host family always warned
me about crossing the border. "Stay away from there,"
they said. "You'll be assaulted, stripped of your
belongings and sent running for the airport. It's muy
peligroso (very dangerous)." Throughout my travels
in Latin America and especially back home in the United
States, people would often tell me of the dangers in
Nicaragua. It was, after all, one of the poorest countries
in the Western Hemisphere and a place wracked by natural
disasters, civil war and revolution. Anyone who remembers
the headlines of the 1980s can't help but subconsciously
associate Nicaragua with war, chaos and danger.
But adventurous travelers
are starting to discover that behind its lingering bad
rap, Nicaragua is a quiet and peaceful country struggling
to repair its image. Bullet holes and shrapnel marks
still adorn many buildings, and a few rogue land mines
still lie in the countryside, but Nicaragua's fighters
now use ballots instead of bullets. When it comes to
crime, Nicaragua is actually one of the safest countries
in Latin America.
Known as the "land of lakes and volcanoes,"
this tiny country has the potential to be one of the
hottest destinations south of the border.
The capital, Managua,
with 1.6 million residents, often has been the epicenter
of the country's ill reputation. Few cities in the world
have been so constantly battered by man and nature —
flooded by Lake Managua in 1876, leveled by an earthquake
in 1885, damaged by a military arsenal explosion in
1902, destroyed by civil war in 1912, torched by fire
in 1931, struck by a polio epidemic in 1971 and damaged
by war in the '70s and '80s. In 1972, when more than
600 city blocks were leveled by an earthquake that killed
10,000 people, few bothered to rebuild. Most of the
former city center still lies in ruins as a patchwork
of vacant lots and shantytowns.
Life in Nicaragua is often measured by disasters, but
there is a certain beauty in the country's residents
— Nicas, as they are known — a strength
to rebuild, reorganize and carry on with a smile. Nicaraguans
are tough as nails, a beautiful people who are a testament
to human resilience.
Three-fourths of the
population survives on less than $2 per day, but there's
always a subtle optimism that better days will come
manana. Nicaragua welcomed me with brazos abiertos (open
arms), and I've always found it ironic that some of
the world's poorest people are the most hospitable.
FIRE IN SWEET
When I stood on the shores of Lake Cocibolca at the
ramshackle port of San Jorge, the eerie and magical
sight of Isla de Ometepe sent shivers down my spine.
The twin peaks of the volcanic island rose from the
murky waters of the lake into a patch of clouds. Also
known as Lake Nicaragua, this mar dulce (sweet sea)
is home to the world's only freshwater sharks, sawfish
and tarpon. When the sun sets every evening, large colonies
of vampire bats take to the skies of Ometepe, and villagers
go to sleep knowing that it's only a matter of time
before the Concepcion volcano flexes its muscles.
Ometepe is a little more
than 34 miles long and 8 miles wide, but its horrendous
roads make circling the island a half-day ordeal of
bouncing, cracked axles and broken rims. When the dark
clouds above the volcanoes release their rains, it only
gets worse. The
island isn't quite ready for mainstream tourists, but
those willing to suffer the abuse of its roads will
find some of the greatest natural gems in all of Central
America — towering volcanoes, hidden caves; thick
jungles; cascading waterfalls; and a plethora of wildlife,
including sloth, capuchins, howler monkeys and more
than 80 species of birds.
Originally settled by
the Nahuatl Indians from Mexico, Ometepe — which
in Nahuatl means "land of two volcanoes" —
is awash in legends and lore. Hundreds of petroglyphs
are carved into boulders and rock faces around the island,
most of which are believed to date to A.D. 300. In the
marshy areas of Charco Verde, legend has it that an
old man (Chico Largo) offers people wealth and prosperity
in exchange for their souls, which he changes into cattle.
their souls, rule the dirt paths and roads of Ometepe,
wandering the landscape freely in search of grazing
pastures. Dogs, pigs, chickens and monkeys coexist with
Ometepe's 30,000 inhabitants, from the farthest reaches
of the island to the central streets of Moyogalpa.
Traveling to the base
of Concepcion by horseback, I encountered massive herds
of steers being chased down narrow, steep paths by Nicaraguan
cowboys. Lonely boys picked mangos from trees, large
lizards rustled through the shrubs, and monkeys rioted
every time I approached them. Concepcion
has one of the most perfectly shaped cones in Central
America and a height of 5,282 feet. The quintessential
volcano rises from the brush and exposes its rocky and
jagged surface, scarred from thousands of years of lava
flows and tremors. Although it last erupted in 1957,
the mountain towers over the island as a constant reminder
of nature's fury, belching molten lava and sulfuric
gases. As with many active volcanoes, the mixing of
hot and cold air creates an almost-permanent cloud at
the peak. Those with the strength and stamina can make
the two-day journey to the volcano's peak and stare
straight down into the belly of the beast.
On the other side of
Ometepe, the now-dormant and less intimidating Volcan
Maderas is encased in coffee plantations and thick forest.
I climbed partially up the slopes of the 4,573-foot
Maderas to find a 200-foot cascading waterfall that
rolled down the slopes through banana plantations and
onward to the sweet sea below.
At the top of Maderas,
deep in its rocky, mist-shrouded crater is a small lake
of frigid turquoise water. It offers intrepid travelers
one of the world's most unusual swimming experiences,
in a lake in the crater of a volcano on an island in
the middle of a lake in the middle of Central America.
When traveling through this land of lakes and volcanoes,
it's impossible to escape its history of war, piracy
and foreign occupation. Bullet holes adorn colonial
buildings, murals honor men with AK-47s, and the spirit
of popular revolution still lingers in the air.
Most Nicas are more than
willing to share their experiences with visitors, as
just about everyone over 30 has recollections of the
Sandinista revolution, the following contra war and
a catalog of natural disasters. The United States has
a dubious and suspicious legacy in Nicaragua, but Americans
are welcome. Gringo culture is as popular as ever and,
unlike in the rest of Central America, baseball is the
national sport (a product of years of occupation by
U.S. Marines). More than a million Nicaraguans live
in the United States, and it seems that just about everyone
in Managua knows someone living in Florida, Texas or
California. "People still resent some of the things
los Estados Unidos has done in the past. But no one
holds that against the American people," one of
my taxi drivers in Managua said. "I think Nicaragua
is ready to put many of these things in the past."
Founded in 1524 by Hernandez de Cordoba, Granada —
also known as La Gran Sultana (the Grand Sultan) —
is the one of oldest cities in Central America. As a
port town and a symbol of Spanish wealth, Granada was
eyed by various powers and pirates. In 1855, the notorious
gringo William Walker stormed into the town with his
mercenaries and declared himself president of Nicaragua.
Bent on taking over a Latin American territory and institutionalizing
slavery, he kept returning to Central America until
he was executed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860.
Granada has a turbulent
past, but many believe it has the potential to become
Nicaragua's crown jewel of tourism. It is the country's
third-largest city, but it retains a colonial atmosphere
with a tranquil historical center that takes travelers
back in time. Fresco vendors roll carts down cobblestone
streets, families drag rocking chairs out to watch the
sunset, and young boys shine shoes and knock mangos
out of the trees in the central plaza. In the early
mornings, old men whisk rickety horse carriages down
dusty paths and wade-fish using nothing more than a
hook with a line tied around their wrist.
The narrow cobblestone
streets weave through a patchwork of red tile roofs
that contrast sharply with the pearl-blue sky. All of
Granada rolls downhill to the shores of Lake Cocibolca,
just beneath the shadow of the cloud-covered Volcan
Mombacho. The few gringos who wander down to this Nicaraguan
jewel will find it to be worlds away from the chaos
Leon, just 11/2 hours
west of Managua, was founded by Cordoba the same year
as Granada. The original Leon was deserted when Mombotombo
erupted in 1610, and the rebuilt city was the Nicaraguan
capital a few times before 1852. While Granada was historically
a conservative town, rival Leon has always been a breeding
ground for leftist ideologies. Leon
escaped some of the piracy that Granada withstood during
the 1800s, but it saw heavy fighting during the Somoza
dynasty. Along with neighboring Chinandega, it was bombed
heavily in 1978 by followers of Anastasio Somoza Debayle
when the Sandinistas captured the town. Leon remains
a Sandinista stronghold, as is evident in its political
murals, voting record and occasional protests. Wandering
the outskirts of the central park, I noticed leftist
murals depicting the history of Nicaragua along with
sarcastic portrayals of the CIA and shrines to Latin
American revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Augusto
Sandino. What was once Latin America's hotbed of revolution
is now a tranquil university town of quiet, shaded parks
and colonial churches.
HANG THE HAMMOCK
Volcanoes are an inescapable part of Nicaragua's geography
and have had a major impact on its human history. There
are 40 — six of them active — and it seems
that the towering cones dot the horizon just about everywhere
in Nicaragua. Volcanoes bring fertile lands and thermal
power, but it all comes at a cost. Along with catastrophic
eruptions come mudslides and avalanches that have destroyed
villages and caused entire cities to relocate. Along
with its wars and turmoil, Nicaragua's volcanoes have
made international headlines. In January 1835, Volcan
Cosiguina blew its top and threw ash as far as Mexico
Even extinct volcanoes
can be deadly. When Hurricane Mitch rampaged through
the country in 1998, torrential rains filled the crater
of the Casita volcano, causing the crater lip to collapse.
An avalanche of mud, water and rock roared down to the
communities below and killed thousands. Volcanoes entrance
and mystify even those who have lived beside them for
years. It is rumored that a dictator had dissidents
thrown into Volcan Masaya.
With all this geothermal activity, the landscape of
Nicaragua is always changing. More than 20,000 years
ago, Mombacho's violent eruption threw the top half
of the volcano into Lake Cocibolca. The rocks and boulders
eventually developed into 365 tiny islands off the coast
of Granada. Las Isletas now support growing communities
of impoverished fishermen who live alongside tiny islands
owned by Latin American elites.
SAN JUAN DEL
I went down to the Pacific coast on a rickety bus jam-packed
with people, livestock and produce. San Juan del Sur
is Nicaragua's premier beach town but is worlds away
from being a tourist beach resort. In the town, pigs
still root around in the park, chickens peck around
the chaotic market, men ride horses along the beach,
and locals wade into the surf to fish for their next
meal. All-inclusive resorts, fancy tour buses and poolside
bars don't exist here, and you'll never hear Jimmy Buffett
playing in the background.
Those looking for baby-blue
water and crystal-clear sand should stay in Margaritaville;
the beach, like many others in Central America, is an
untrampled place of dark brown sand with submerged logs
and jagged rocks. But San Juan del Sur never was meant
to be a place to kick back with a margarita in hand.
It is a place to travel back to a simpler time, soak
up the Latin rhythms and hang with the locals.
I spent my time on the
coast simply wandering around — biking down the
jagged coast to small villages, hiking the dusty unknown
paths that lead somewhere in the jungle, and riding
in the beds of pickup trucks with bananas and livestock.
Eventually, I hacked my way through the jungle to find
my own perfect beach, where there was nothing but me
and the monkeys. After being entranced by San Juan del
Sur's famous sunsets, I would crash in a hammock, sweat,
drink beer, swat mosquitoes and listen to the sounds
of the Central American coast. Without the rumbling
of air conditioners, the zooming of passing cars or
laughing of throngs of tourists, I could hear the insects
play their symphony throughout the night, with occasional
interruptions by a pack of howler monkeys.
Under the cover of darkness,
sea turtles fought the waves to shore to seek out nesting
grounds. Some of the most memorable nights of my life
weren't spent in resorts — they were spent in
hammocks in the coastal villages of Central America.
It's in a place such as this that the true Nicaragua
reveals itself. Past the stereotypes and behind the
headlines, this quiet country is destined to become
the next hot spot in Latin America. It's an undiscovered,
untrampled land of lakes and volcanoes, and those of
us who seek authentic experiences will have the place
all to ourselves for quite a while.
Every night in Nicaragua,
I went to sleep with a smile, thankful that I didn't
take anyone's advice to stay away.