Nicaragua – “Contra” to Expectations

“I love my country, but I love Nicaragua more.” This phrase was frequently heard whilst travelling throughout Central America.

Prior to setting off, our knowledge of Nicaragua was pretty limited: we’d read travel guides but relied on a travel agent to ensure our itinerary included the most interesting destinations. More knowledgeable friends worried about our safety bearing in mind the country’s recent turbulent past in terms of political unrest and civil war.

Expectations were mixed as we crossed the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border at Penas Blancas/Sapoá, particularly as Eduardo, our Costa Rican guide, pre-warned a chaotic experience was in store. Having dragged our bags across the rickety, disused railway bridge, Guillermo (call me William) provided a warm welcome. He eased us surprisingly quickly through the crowds and formalities. On asking how he’d managed this he replied “I told the border guard he looked a little hot, and suggested he buy a cool soda with the money I handed over”.

Nicaragua has much to offer and we found it one of the most diverse countries in Central America. Granada and Leon, both previously the country’s capital and with a history of bloody rivalry, are now colonial havens but with different characteristics.

Granada, our favourite, not only had a traditionally Spanish style central plaza and catedral, but beautiful cobbled streets teeming with life. And unlike many Southern and Central American cities, it was safe to walk around even at night. A horse- drawn carriage took us around the many churches, including Convento y Museo San Francisco, the oldest in Central America, with its plethora of wide-ranging artefacts. We also tried our hand at rolling cigars at Donna Elba and had an excellent one-hour massage at Seeing Hands, a charity training blind masseurs, for a bargain $15.

Leon was literally one of the hottest locations in the country and a more political, feisty place with lots of attitude. An elderly ex-revolutionary with no English took us painstakingly around the hundreds of photographs of fallen heroes in Galeria de Héroes y Mártires. He coaxed us onto the rusting, corrugated roof for stunning views of the plaza and catedral. Unfortunately when I was on the catedral roof later, I stepped backwards into thin air and, like a cartoon character hung motionless, until falling flat on my back. This resulted in a badly grazed shin and bruised dignity.

We took the choppy, 60 minute crossing from San Jorge to Isla Ometepe. The ferry, brought over from Holland, wasn’t built for tropical climes as it had heating rather than air conditioning. As the windows were sealed we were advised to sit on the open top deck. Two volcanoes dominate the figure of eight shaped island: Concepción is active and the tallest at 1,610m, whilst Maderas is smaller. We escaped the heat in Museo el Ciebo to view petroglyphs, coins and Pre-Colombian pottery. We swam in Ojo de Agua: two huge open-air pools, surrounded by big old trees, which were filled with a constant stream of thermal spring water from an underground well.

Nicaragua’s 50+ volcanoes dominate its landscape and influence everyday life. Mombacho, in the cloud forest, was grey, cool and misty but on the way down we enjoyed a tour of Café les Flores coffee plantation. At Masaya, one of the most active, there were stunning views and strong, sulphurous smells from the smoking crater and signs advising “park facing the exit” in case urgent evacuation was required. We also encountered many road-side signs with a running person and the words ‘ruta de evacuacion’.

Another boat trip, up the Rio San Juan, took us to the impressive El Castillo, where in 1780 a young Horatio Nelson took the fortress only to find that the Spanish had actually left it to him to share with the mosquitoes. Most of his command perished. Later on an evening caiman spotting trip, our intrepid boat guide donned a cap with lamp, jumped from the canoe into the river and after some frantic thrashing in the water, emerged with a three-foot mini-crocodile for us to stroke and photograph. It was gently returned unharmed to the river.

There are over 83 protected areas covering 20% of the country and we were lucky to experience so much of the wildlife, birds and flora. During a hike around Indio-Maize forest reserve our guide impressed us with her howler monkey impersonations, which led to the monkeys literally pelting us with almonds in an attempt to shut her up. On Isla Juan Venando we saw crocodiles, crabs and other crustaceans. Whilst we missed the Olive Ridley Turtles laying eggs on the beach, we saw captured wild iguanas being released into a pen to protect them until they laid their eggs. In contrast iguanas were being sold illegally on the road sides: they’re meant to be a delicacy and aphrodisiac.

A trip on Lago Nicaragua, took us around its 365 Islets, many of them privately owned with luxury homes. One in particular was home to three friendly monkeys, Pancho, Lucy and Junior. When Pancho had been swinging from tree to tree in an attempt to impress Lucy, he’d hit an overhead power line and fried his tail. This did not stop him from jumping into passing boats for photographs and treats.

Everyone we encountered was friendly and genuinely keen for visitors to enjoy their country. We arrived on my partner’s birthday and on the way to our hotel William asked casually if we liked beer. On arrival at San Juan del Sur, he pulled up outside a beachfront restaurant and treated us to celebration beers. I was not forgotten: having visited Granada’s ChocoMuseo I told William ”women would rather have chocolates than flowers on Valentines Day”. When Valentine’s Day arrived three days later, he presented me with a box of local truffles: something my partner failed to do.

We also found a self depreciating sense of humour when describing their cuisine: “you can have rice and beans, beans and rice, or mixed beans and rice, three times a day”. To be fair, it was more varied, but only just! We fared better with drinks. El macuá, a blend of light rum, guava and lemon juices with sugar was an excellent pre-dinner cocktail, whilst the award-winning Flor de Caña rum was the perfect night cap. Toña and La Victoria beers were pale and refreshing in the heat of the day.

Our accommodation was varied: Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge, described by Lonely Planet as “the very best hotel in Nicaragua”; Hotel Victoria with small, simple wood panelled bedrooms had exemplary service; Villa Paraiso remembered for winds, midges and breakfast magpies; and El Convento, a former convent, with lush gardens and antiques everywhere.

The New York Times recently published “The 46 places to go in 2013”, with Nicaragua featured at number 3. We’d certainly agree that after “fighting its image as a land of guerrilla warfare and covert arms deals”, “Nicaragua’s moment, might finally have arrived”. Try it and you might find yourself saying “We love England, but we love Nicaragua more”.