There are several themes underpinning today’s account of our visit to Nicaragua, some of which will be familiar to those who have read my previous pieces. Firstly, the effect of a person on one’s impression of a place. Next, how and why we travel. And finally how we inevitably tend to rank and compare rather than appreciating each item placed before us on its merits (and demerits).
Today did not start well. I’ve written before about being made to wait for a place to unfold its charms; today would be one of those days. We were disembarking by tender and it seemed everyone wanted to go ashore; it took an interminable time waiting in the theatre before our boat was available. Having noticed previously that those seated atop the tender got to alight first, up we climbed. Well, I’d forgotten to factor in the brisk headwind and choppy seas, so the effect was like one of those Morecambe and Wise sketches where the effect of being at sea is conveyed by throwing buckets of water in the actors’ faces. When my glasses blew off and I asked my wife to tell me when we started having fun, she must have felt it was going to be a long day.
But make it ashore we did, if a little salt-encrusted, and got seated aboard our bus to head off to explore the city of Granada, it’s centre, it’s lake and it’s islets. Our guide introduced himself as Elvis and launched into a fluent introduction in Spanish. Advised that we only spoke English, he kept the joke going so well, with a deadpan face, we were completely taken in. And so began a day in the company of a genuinely funny, warm, interesting companion with whom it was a pleasure to spend time. All our tour guides have been helpful and knowledgeable but Elvis was so much more and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us all.
He told us much of the history of his country; as with most of Central America it includes conquest by the Spanish, self determination, rule by dictatorship and bitter civil war. I remember a brother of a friend many years ago who was a US journalist and had been held captive by the Sandinista; somehow this made the country’s troubles more recent. But the country is at peace now and affording us an authentic warm welcome.
Elvis would charm us with his very personal reflections on life, produce a mystery fruit (later revealed as a papaya and served up at lunch) and perform a magic trick with a Pachira seed pod/flower.
So it was a delight to head off in his company, from the port of San Juan Del Sur, heading north east across a 12 mile spit of land to Lake Nicaragua. We learned that this is a country of 6.2 million people, the capital being Managua with 1.5 million, still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 1992. The country was part of the California gold rush and we drove past a statue of a prospector on a mule, commemorating the point at which prospectors gathered.
Compared with Costa Rica, the infrastructure is clearly more developed with a good road and public transport system and well constructed housing, even in rural areas. The scenery was more lush, with palm trees, banana plantations and fields full of sugar cane and rice. Sugar cane is mainly used to make rum.
Much of this region of the country is taken up by two large lakes, connected by a river. Lake Nicaragua has an area of 8300kmsq; together, the two lakes occupy 10% of the surface area of Nicaragua. This large surface area of water was at one time planned to be the site of the now Panama Canal, at a time when this region was leased to the United States during the 1850s.
On reaching the shore of the lake, we could see the twin volcanoes on the island of Ometepe, 7km from shore.
We continued on, soon reaching the town of Rivas, with its baseball stadium; this is the number one sport in the country and we saw many scratch games as we drove along.
Beside the road, cattle and horses roamed freely or on a light tether
We reached the city of Granada, founded by Córdoba in 1564. It is a pleasant city of some 110000 inhabitants, built in a colourful, low lying colonial style. Driving towards the centre, we passed old squares and market streets. We learned how much of the city had been destroyed by fire in 1856, set deliberately by the American ruler William Walker as he fled invading forces.
We stopped to visit the convent of San Francisco with its collection of religious art and pre-Colombian sculpture; the cool air circulating in the shaded cloisters made a welcome change from the searing midday sun.
The main plaza actually consists of two adjacent squares and is delightful, with its shaded tree lined central area. The cathedral is an impressive neoclassical building with a bright interior. Horse drawn carriages line the square offering tours of the city sights.
Apart from the heat, the delights of the square were somewhat limited by aggressive salespeople and begging and it was a relief to retire to the shade of a nearby hotel for lunch.
Here we reflected on what we had seen, both today in Nicaragua and yesterday, in Costa Rica. We both mentioned that we ‘preferred’ Nicaragua. I also overheard some Americans discussing their experiences on the cruise, saying they hadn’t seen anywhere they would come back to. Contrast this with my piece yesterday, in which I commented that my day in Costa Rica had been one of my favourites of the whole voyage (comments I stand by). One of our friends on Facebook had visited Costa Rica and described the scenery as ‘God’s own country’.
Does this mean it’s not worth coming to parts of Central America? Of course not. Would I come back? Quite possibly. At the very least, I intend to look further into what each country has to offer the discerning visitor. I’ve written before about how cruising can be a ‘taster menu’ for different parts of the world, especially areas where one might not choose to initially invest a longer period of travel. I make no pretence at being knowledgeable or understanding of Central America, but I have visited, listened and watched and decided I want to learn more. That’s surely what travel is about?
Part of my learning is that the Mubacho volcano near the town erupted many thousands of years ago, forming the 365 islands which dot the surface of Lake Nicaragua. A cruise around some of these was the afternoon part of our excursion. Boarding small vessels we cruised around, enjoying spectacular views of the wider lake and volcano.
As we travelled between the islets we saw private residences, small restaurants and hotels. Local people rowed, fished and swam in the waters. We saw birds in flight and wading in the shallows. It was very beautiful and peaceful.
Soon we were heading home. Noticing how beautifully clear the views were, Elvis suggested we make one final stop on the lake shore to take pictures of the twin volcanoes. The cone shaped one, Conception, last erupted in 1935 and is one of seven active craters in a chain of 27. The views were stunning and there was a sense of euphoria among the group, stoked by Elvis’s unceasing enthusiasm as he unselfishly took pictures for everyone who asked, as well as organising a group selfie. My lasting memory of his country is of this likeable man who did so much to facilitate our enjoyment of his beautiful country.