My arrival into Nicaragua is somewhat inauspicious. After a very early start, we arrive at La Union harbour in El Salvador just as the sun and the fishermen are rising. To cross the Gulf of Fonseca involves what looks like nothing more than a pleasure boat – I am slightly sceptical to say the least! But the captain assures me has permission from the Navy and that the crossing will be a smooth one; the water looks calm enough but I have been popping motion sickness pills like smarties just in case! That turns out to be a prudent move because the swell about halfway through the three hour crossing starts to get pretty violent and I end up curled up on a hard bench to get through the worst of it – I’m reminded of why I didn’t join the Navy! The whole escapade becomes surreal when we approach the Nicaraguan coastline and it becomes clear that there isn’t really a harbour. The captain steers the boat up onto the beach and then it’s a case of getting your feet wet and walking up the beach to the dilapidated border hut for a long wait to cross (legally now) into Nicaragua.
It’s a long, long day – the longest of my trip – driving more than halfway down the country to Granada. The countryside in Nicaragua is really different from the lush green mountains of Guatemala or the more sedate greenery of El Salavador. Here, the grass is scorched brown, stretching the horizon; it reminds me of photos of the savanna. There are bony cattle grazing – 90% of the population here are farmers after all – and horses standing in the shade of sparse trees. The long straight highways seem to stretch forever until, suddenly, volcanoes loom in the distance and the bus pulls up in picturesque Granada.
Granada is another picture-postcard colonial town, albeit the oldest surving colonial city on the continent dating back to 1524. Once again, the streets are lined with brightly coloured, low houses, punctuated by dilapidated churches. Going out to explore in the evening, the streets were eerily quiet apart from Calle La Calzada, a brightly lit pedestrianised street lined with Westernised restaurants and bars blaring pumping tunes into the warm night air.
I spent a day exploring the area around Granada, which sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, first on a boat tour of the islets that dot the lake edge in the shadow of the Mombacho volcano. The little rocky islands were formed during a massive landslide around 80,000 years ago and are now largely the property of the wealthy in Nicaragua, the site of beautiful villas with boats tied alongside. There are, of course, some islands which house the less well-off in tin shacks and bamboo huts but this is generally the preserve of the rich. Rich or poor, the islands are surrounded by thick green foliage or lotus flowers on their pads. Birds flutter overhead; herons and other waders pick their way through the flora; and a few lonely monkeys eye the banana the guide throws them with disinterest. From the quiet beauty of the lake to a much darker side of Nicaragua, the Fortess of Coyotepe. This was built as a fort to protect the town of Masaya in the late 19th century but became a by-word for the viciousness of the nationalist regime whole routinely tortured prsioners suspected of collaborating with the Sandistas in the old underground dungeons. The fortress is now abandoned with little to show its murderous history, of which I know painfully little; the revolution here happened the year I was born and, while I’ve heard some of the words and names, I really don’t understand what happened here yet.
The day continues in the town of Masaya with its handicraft market housed in an old fort in the centre of town, following a local lunch of rice and beans for less than $2. The market is empty apart from a few othe tourists browsing the bizarre range of souvenirs in the heat – you can buy everything here from mugs with breasts on them to bags emblazoned with “Nicaragua” that are imported from Guatemala. Finally, it’s over to Laguna de Apoyo – a huge lake in the crater of a now extinct volcano – to watch the last rays of sunshine disappear. Unfortunately, there’s no opportunity to go up the Mombacho volcano, which is currently going through an active phase, not erupting properly but National Geographic are in town filming the lava in the crater bubbling away.
My evening takes an unexpected turn after I lose my sense of direction when I try to find a place recommended in the guidebook and fail so try to head to the central plaza. A middle aged man overhears me asking a passing woman for directions. In broken English and Spanish too fast for me to understand, Roberto tells me he is a dentist with an Italian mother and a Nicaraguan father, with 6 brothers and sisters, at least of whom I think lives in Spain. He very sweetly walks me to the plaza but, just as we arrive, he gestures to the far corner and starts talking about paintings. Not entirely sure what he’s talking about but feeling safe, I follow him to the museum on the edge of the square where he ushers me inside – to an art exhibition! He introduces me to the artist – who thankfully speaks English – Marie Antionette (two queens talking, as she points out) is a local artist who is exhibiting a beautiful range of paintings of doors from across Nicaragua. These brightly-coloured features have caught my eye around Granana and she has done an amazing job of capturing their essence; some, especially those where she has attached real-life handles, look like they have been taken off their hinges and hung on the walls rather than painted. Roberto introduces me to a few of his friends and then shows me some of the other art in the darkened rooms. It’s all a little surreal but I leave with a huge grin on my face and a promise to visit the gallery tomorrow. Sometime I love travelling on my own – how else do you get invited to a random art exhibition in a strange city?! But very quickly, and in sharp contrast to Roberto’s simple hospitality, I am reminded of why travelling as a woman on your own can be so tiring sometimes as I am subjected to harassment and catcalling from each teenage boy I pass. It’s harmless enough but puts me on edge as I walk home. What is about some men, the world over, who think it’s okay to speak to a woman on the street like that? Surely, it’s not actually intended to be a productive chat-up line? I know women around the world are subjected to far worse but this kind of street harassment is the thin end of the wedge that leads to much more violent violations and assaults. It makes me so angry that women are still seen as public property to be leered at without concern or repercussion. I’m sure they thought it was harmless fun but it sours the end of an otherwise lovely evening in the quiet colonial town.
The town almost has a split personality. In the evening, the streets are largely empty, bar for the main tourist street and a few couple sitting in the dark central plaza. But the morning is a whole other story. The park bustles with tourists, tour guides and hawkers selling their wares. It’s particularly lovely in the early morning before the sun gets too hot, although walking around is still a rather sticky affair.
I’m really sad to be leaving Granada. I love the small-town vibe and the multi-coloured streets; the bustling local market street, just a block away from the quaint tourist areas, feels like another world but adds some much needed realism to the otherwise slightly ‘Disneyfied’ atmosphere. I love the old colonial buildings with their fading facades, the churches that are beautifully get painted on the front but having greying walls around the sides, and the chipped tiles on the pavements. I love wandering the streets and discovering little cafes and shops. My favourite find is a little cafe call Cafe de las Sonrisas (Smiles Coffee, in English), another shaded courtyard that feels so peaceful and cool away from the busy streets. It’s even more peaceful because not a word is spoken here; the cafe is run by a group of deaf mutes. Antion, the owner, moved here from Spain to open a restaurant but was struck by how these disabled kids were just ignored by society so established the cafe and workshop to give them opportunities to support themselves. The walls and menu are covered with pictures teaching sign language so you can communicate with the staff who beam when I try it out! The cafe also has a small hammock-making workshop where they weave brightly-coloured fabrics into gorgeous hammocks that have me longing for a bigger garden and better weather back home! They are also weaving a ‘never-ending’ hammock from old plastic bags as part of a small stand against the use of plastic bags which litter the roadsides. There’s a group of school children being shown around while I’m there (a little less peaceful!) and it’s fascinating watching them trying to weave alongside the professionals!
But it’s onto Ometeppe Island, by all accounts a real highlight of Nicaragua. The crossing on the ferry is hot but relatively simple; the impressive twin volcanoes creep painstakingly closer. It turns out to be another very relaxing couple of days on the Island in a quiet little ‘ranch’. It’s too hot to do much meaningful – Nicuaragua is experiencing a prolonged drought, evidenced by the low level of the lake itself and a dried out lagoon near by – so it’s another day of reading, although I do venture to a nearby nature reserve for a gentle walk in the shade of the tress, glimpsing monkeys in the canopy above.
And that’s it – another whirlwind visit through a remarkable country. Granada has to be one of the highlights of the trip and I would love to come back to Nicaragua and explore more. I have a little under a week over my trip left and it’s onto Costa Rica for zip lines, canopy walks, coffee plantations, volcanoes and a couple of days at a yoga eco-lodge.
Stayed: Hotel Kekoldi (the best hotel for the trip so far, in an old colonial house, with only fifteen or so rooms all leading off the various leafy courtyards, including one with a small pool and secluded seating area. Friendly staff who all speak excellent English)
Ate: Ano Neuvo (a somewhat rando but authentic Chinese restaurant run by a couple from Beijing. Huge portions – the chow mien was delicious – and good value). Nectar (a bar-cum-restaurant on the main strip serving great smoothies, sandwiches and Mexican food. Good veggie options. Reasonably priced considering the location. Brownie points for the cheekiest wifi password: “tipyourserver”!). The Garden Cafe (a gorgeous little cafe with a garden in the courtyard, which makes for a lovely escape from the heat. Great healthy and not so healthy breakfast options, delicious juices and smoothies. One of my favourite places)
Drank: Cafe de las Somrisas (as above, one block from La Merced church on Calle Real Xalteva. Cheap drinks, although the iced tea iced tea is teeth-rottingly sweet!)
Stayed: Finca Valencia (a disappointing one, to be honest. It’s remote so there’s little choice but to eat here with a small menu that doesn’t cater well for vegetarians. The cabins looks beautiful but turn into ovens during the day and have paltry showers – I literally have to press my body against the wall in an attempt to get wet))