My Love Affair with Nicaragua Part 1
The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. A country filled with beauty and wonder. For now, one of Central America’s best-kept secrets.
Nicaragua is one of the rare countries, a bastion in the Americas yet to be marred by mass tourism – over the 20th century the country has gone through brutal civil wars and devastating earthquakes, which have dwindled down its population and kept tourists at bay. Regardless of its rough past, the country’s landscape embodies the essence of Nature’s majestic beauty – a land is covered in lush emerald-green rainforests, traversed by dramatic volcanic ranges, and embellished with glistening lakes – and its people are nothing less than warm and welcoming.
I am somewhat of an intrepid traveller, so in October last year as I was craving a little bit of an adventure I decided to go somewhere a little off-the-beaten track on my own. Visiting Nicaragua has been at the back of my mind for at least a couple of years – ever since I read an article in some big-name magazine, which pointed out Nicaragua as Latin America’s most exciting emerging destination, having recently overcome its reputation having been stained by rough history over the course of the twentieth century.
Since Nicaragua is particularly well-known for its sublime landscapes (there are over 50 volcanoes, 7 of them active, as well as numerous lakes), great biodiversity and cultural wealth – this country is home to two of the oldest Spanish colonial cities in the western hemisphere – it seemed irresistible.
As soon as I land in Managua International Airport in the late evening, I am whisked away through the pitch black of the night to Granada, continental Latin America’s oldest inhabited city and a treasure trove of exuberant colonial heritage. The city was founded in 1524, and named by Hernandez de Cordoba after the ancient Spanish city of Granada. It claims to be the more the more beautiful of Nicaragua’s two major cities, Léon as the other contender to the same title.
The place is a time capsule: crumbling colonial buildings painted a dazzling array of pastel colours; a labyrinth of narrow cobblestoned streets; neatly manicured plazas where locals congregate and gossip over delicious-smelling street food; shabby horse-drawn carriages at hand to take you around the city.
I spend my first night at Hotel Plaza Colon, set in a grand colonial house overlooking Granada’s Central Park. After 24 hours on the road, I fall asleep almost as soon as I set my foot through the door, having barely enough energy to take a quick shower and brush my teeth. Everything is a little old in this hotel, I love the fact that there does not seem to be an AC here – only an old-school fan.The next morning, I am woken up before sunrise by nature’s most pleasant alarm – birdsong. As the sky is gradually lightening, noisy groups of iridescent back grackles were already up and about, singing their morning song.As I step into the balcony overlooking the central park and the main cathedral, I watch sleepy Granada slowly waking up: some passing the square on their way to work, others sweeping the square and opening up little cafes, some horse-drown carriages already lining up for a day’s influx of tourists.
After a breakfast of deliciously fresh eggs and gallo pinto – a local staple of rice and beans which I would be offered at least twice a day over the next couple of weeks- I embark on a tour of Granada.
Since Nicaragua is on the verge of being discovered, Granada is set to be the next Cartagena. The two are very much alike, although Granada is a lot more tattered, giving it a more authentic feel.
I am taken around in a shabby-looking horse drawn carriage with an elderly coachman sporting tattered clothes constantly smiling at me with his charming tooth-gapped smile.
We make our way through the colourful labyrinth of streets, stopping from time to time to have a closer look at various local sites – a derelict shell of a grand old hospital, a few churches, a train-station recently turned into technical college.
We climb to the top of the bell tower at La Merced Church for sweeping views of Granada with Lake Nicaragua and Mombacho Volcano in the distance.
Afterwards, we meander around the market where locals get the freshest produce in town: meat, fish, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. We pick into a couple of houses. There seems to be a proliferation of beautiful religious decor, since Roman Catholicism is strongly prevalent in Nicaragua.
I finish my tour in a corner cafe in Central Park , Kiosco el Gordito, sampling local favourite street food Vigaron – cabbage salad known as curtido, boiled yuca, topped with pork crackling. Delicious and comforting!
Las Isletas de GranadaThe next couple of days are spent in absolute bliss at Jicaro Eco Lodge, situated on a small private island a short boat ride from Granada with spectacular views of the towering Mombacho Volcano from across the lake. According to National Geographic Traveller, this luxury nature resort is one of the top 25 ecolodges in the world. Jicaro Eco Lodge consists of a mere nine casitas (little houses), which along with a tiny restaurant and spa blend seemlessly into the lush rainforest surroundings. My favourite part of the hotel is a small swimming pool in the centre of the island with pleasantly refreshing water, perfect for an afternoon dip. Each casita has a hammock ideal for a spot of dozing and dreaming. Jicaro Eco Lodge is a true oasis of serenity and a perfect escape destination from Granada when the oppressive tropical heat becomes overpowering. The bed in my casita is facing East, so in the morning I am awakened the slanting rays of the rising sun, fresh breeze (there is no glass but only netting on the windows) and melodic birdsong. It feels like a continuation of a dream and I just want to lay in bed for as long as possible, watching the crimson-orange sun rise up slowly over the canopies of trees.The island itself is part of the charming archipelago of Las Isletas de Granada: 365 tiny islands were formed when Mombacho volcano erupted thousands of years ago and huge rocks were thrown into the lake. These islands are now home to fishermen’s villages as well as private houses and hotels.Having a bit of a penchant for bird-watching, one morning I take a kayaking trip in search of Lake Nicaragua’s many winged inhabitants with one of the guides at Jicaro Eco Lodge. We spend a couple of hours paddling along Lake Nicaragua’s shores, spotting colourful birds every other minute. A fulfilling start to the day!
I spend some time exploring the slopes of the Mombacho Volcano towering above Lake Nicaragua at 1,344 metres high. The volcano is not yet extinct, but its last eruption occurred in 1570. I get a chance to hike around the highest regions of the volcano that are home to the atmospheric and evergreen cloud forest, so-called because of its constant low-level cloud cover. There is water dripping from the trees everywhere… We climb to the very top, and peek into the crater (its in the photo above). My guide amuses me by asking me rather naively: “Do you have volcanoes in London?”
We come across some interesting plants up there, including the flamboyant Hot Lips Plant, so-called due to the shape of its bright red bracts that resemble two luscious lips.As well as the gorgeous 24 hour orchid, which only flowers for a day….
I also go horse-back riding along the trail winding its way along the side of the Mombacho volcano. We pass many coffee plantations; farming on Mombacho volcano dates back from the colonial times.
It is mostly young teenagers picking the coffee beans. Starting at 6 am each day, they work for 8 hours for about $4 a day – in Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country, this is considered to be a reasonable pay.
We come across some interesting stone paintings…And stunning red ginger plants…Afterwards, we have a picnic at a gorgeous farm, where we picked up our horses from. My guide Eduardo tells me his life story and his struggle with the custody of his son. I get a change to play with some adorable baby lizards.
Isla de Ometepe
The next two nights are spent on the dramatic Isla de Ometepe, an extraordinary island formed from two coned volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas. In fact, the astounding beauty of this island was perhaps the highlight of the whole trip.To get to Ometepe Island, I take a local ferry. The rain is coming down in torrents – a robust, tropical rain, which drenches you within seconds. The rain reminds me that it is still a rain season in Nicaragua. The ferry, used by both tourists and locals, seems to be centuries-old, and traverses the waters of Lake Nicaragua at about the same speed as the turtle.
I have some time to kill before getting onto the ferry, so I wander up and down the beach, watching the locals playing around on the beach and bathing.
The two volcano peaks rise like twin giants from Lake Nicaragua, their heads enveloped in a thick layer of clouds. As I am being driven to my hotel, I am blown away by the natural beauty of this island. I spend two nights at a wonderful ecolodge, Totoco Eco-Lodge, nestled in the heart of the rainforest on Maderas Volcano. The lodge offers stunning views of Concepción volcano and Lake Nicaragua. The rooms are simple and spacious with outdoor showers and very eco-friendly composting toilets. There is also a dreamy small infinity pool overlooking the lake.
I spend the whole of the next day conquering Maderas volcano, the smaller of the two, towering above Lake Nicaragua at 1,394 metres. Shortly after the sunrise, I am picked up by Louis, my guide for the day.
I consider myself a very capable hiker, and yet this is perhaps the most gruelling climb I have ever attempted. On paper, climbing the Maderas volcano is very manageable: the round trip, 10 miles, almost 1,400 metres elevation gain. Since a few tourists have gotten lost trying to scale the Maderas Volcano, having a guide here is obligatory.
The next day, it is another early morning. I am to make my way to the highlands of Matagalpa, where some of the best of Nicaraguan coffee is grown. Ironically, I pick up a black coffee at the ferry station: a small plastic cup of water heated up in the microwave with a teaspoon of instant coffee mixed in – regardless of the fact that roughly 50 percent of Nicaraguan exports is some of the worlds most delicious coffee, the locals stubbornly stick to instant granules…