Nicaragua: Many Attractions, Few Tourists
By Janine S. Pouliot
When I told my friends I was going to Nicaragua, they all said the same thing, “Be careful!” Years of news reports about the civil war between the Sandinistas and Contra rebels had shaped a vague impression of a nation defined by the overthrow of a brutal dictator, political turmoil and violence.
But the reality is that Nicaragua has been a peaceful democracy for more than ten years and has the lowest crime rate of any Latin nation. And it has something else – a surprising absence of foreign vacationers. Unlike its neighbor Costa Rica, there’s little tourist infrastructure to interfere with unconditional immersion in the culture and environment.
I arrive in Managua with no clear expectations. Information for travelers is, at best, sparse. But I hook up with my guide Jorge Hernandez Iglesias, head out of the city and get my first clue about the country. Nicaragua is a land of lush tropical forests, volcanoes, lakes, a bio-diverse river and endless miles of pristine coastline.
The capital sits on the aptly named Lake Managua, pretty as all get-out, but off limits for any form of recreation. Considered officially dead from chemical encroachment, it is, nonetheless, nice to look at.
Twenty miles east of the capital, the gentle beauty of this former Spanish colony surfaces. The little village of Masaya is home to the country’s only craft market, housed within the walls of a Spanish-style structure.
I enter the marketplace poised for battle – the hawking, the haggling, the aggressive sales pitches. But nothing happens. The vendors sit politely within their stalls, smiling and waiting for me to approach. I’m thrown off balance. This isn’t what I’ve come to expect from an indigenous market. It does, however, take the pressure off.
I walk up to the first stall and pick up a beautifully hand-carved wooden box. I open the lid, look inside, flip it over – still nothing. No one bothers me. Finally I ask the price of this exquisite piece of craftsmanship. The woman shyly tells me $4. I curse myself for only bringing carry-on luggage. I want to buy up her entire stall.
Fine pottery, leather handbags, shoes, all manner of wooden items and hammocks are for sale throughout the market. I’m intrigued by the brightly colored hammocks, a quintessential symbol, I believe, of a tropical lifestyle. Jorge takes me to the home of a local hammock maker.
Speed and Talent
We’re welcomed into his personal workshop to watch the weaving process. His four employees stand before giant looms, intensity etched on their faces, their hands flying at remarkable speed hooking and looping the thick thread. I ask the price – around $25.
This is just too good to pass up. I scrunch and squeeze, but I simply can’t compress the hammock enough to fit into my suitcase. I reluctantly hand it back and am, once again, confronted with nothing more than a smile.
From Masaya, we head slightly south to the charming village called Catarina. Every inch seems covered with flowers, potted plants, hanging foliage. Greenery tumbles out of every doorway and window, jams sidewalks, blocks door fronts. The whole place looks like one giant botanic garden – and, actually, it is. The main industry here is plants; the entire village is a veritable nursery.
A Capital Getaway
Nearby is another attraction for weekenders from Managua. One of Nicaragua’s nineteen crater lakes, Apoyo, is surrounded by dense foliage. The lake’s bottom is the deepest geological point in Central America, at 900 feet. The warm clear water is perfect for swimming, sailing or kayaking. The lush fringe is fine for hiking or horseback riding.
At the top of the mountain is a jumble of little restaurants offering superb views, cooling breezes and so-fresh-it-just-stopped-flapping fish. Lakeside sits the Hotel Norome, an eco-lodge comprised of 133 rooms in 56 bungalows.
But we’re headed for another eco-lodge along the Pacific coast that’s all the buzz these days. The one-year-old Morgan’s Rock opened to rave reviews and is one of the only truly upscale hotels in the country.
We head toward the southern edge of Nicaragua, moving further and further away from development, main roads and creature comforts. Soon, the road evaporates altogether. It’s recently rained and the dirt-packed path becomes an impromptu roller coaster. Another teeth-jarring bump and I’ll be a candidate for porcelain veneers.
“This is unusual,” reassures Hernandez Iglesias. Unusual or not, we pass a truck stuck in the mud, a collection of children sitting nonchalantly in the flatbed, a gaggle of oxen nearby placidly watching the drama. We struggle through and continue climbing until, before us, unfolds one of nature’s most stunning sites.
Set on a perfectly curved bay, the little Morgan’s Rock complex is tucked into the undisturbed thick tropical forest rambling up the side of a mountain. The main hacienda is a thatched roof, open-air structure outfitted with sitting areas and comfy couches perfect for sipping a cocktail, reading or admiring the magnificent vista.
The dining room is also located here and serves gourmet cuisine so that guests can commune with raw nature during the day and still be catered to at night. The pampering continues with an infinity pool that opens onto an amazing view of blue water and luxuriant green backdrop.
The 15 bungalows are reached via a 360 foot suspension bridge that sways slightly when stepped on. I stop midway and not out of fear. It’s here that the most spectacular view of the bay becomes visible. It’s an aerial overlook of an otherwise concealed patch of coastline.
Reaching my bungalow makes me wish I’d spent more time at the gym. Climbing up and up through the jungle, my calf muscles begin to complain. But once I get there, all parts of my body agree it was well worth it.
The cabin’s screened walls provide a continuous connection with the incredible surroundings. But inside, there’s a king bed, an architecturally interesting bathroom with exposed curly copper piping and plenty of space. The rich woods include eucalyptus for structural posts, walnut for the building’s frame, almond trees for flooring, laurel for door and window frames and teak for furniture. Construction took more than one year.
But this is also serious agri-tourism. The owners have re-planted almost 100,000 native hardwood trees to reforest the area and operate a dairy and butterfly farm. Tours through the grounds are available by a knowledgeable guide who explains the exotic plantings and helps visitors spot a monkey or two overhead.
I take off again to head further up the Pacific coast to Nicaragua’s only all-inclusive resort, Barcelo Montelimar. This hotel has a “past.”
From 1936 to 1979, Nicaragua was in the grip of the Somoza family, who ruled with an iron fist, suppressing political freedom and violating human rights. They also took for themselves. And one of the spots they claimed was a golden swath of coastline, the open ocean stretching on to infinity.
When Somoza was overthrown, the newly established Sandinista government (FSLN) took control of this paradise and sold it to the Spanish hotel chain Barcelo. Thus, the birth of a resort. Today, 292 rooms include a high rise building and bungalows distributed throughout a tropical park-like garden with native plants and trees. The ultra enormous pool has a bar and restaurant plunk within its center.
But this resort is eminently affordable. Internet specials off season start at roughly $55 dollars per person for everything: room, buffet meals, alcohol, casino, nightly entertainment, etc. Several evenings a week, dinner is served á la carte in the mansion that was once Somoza’s private estate.
It’s a weird feeling sipping a drink on the terrace where the absolute ruler once sat. Sort of like dining at the White House, should the president ever be deposed.
But this resort is low key and casual. It’s a middle class place packed with Nicaraguans and a few Europeans. However, English is spoken.
Party Central America
A day trip from the Barcelo Montelimar is to the funky beach town of San Juan del Sur. Weekends it’s crammed with merry makers from Managua and the thatched roof restaurant shacks lining the beachfront are full to capacity.
Summer is the busiest season, although it’s hotter than blazes, Nicaragua being 11 degrees north of the equator. But that doesn’t seem to deter the backpackers and surfers who descend to take advantage of the crashing waves and general party atmosphere.
Simple inexpensive hotels dot the area. But, for the first time, foreign investment is beginning to take root. Large homes claiming the best real estate overlooking the harbor are being constructed by Americans who get a huge bang for their buck. As prices in Mexico begin to rival those of any tropical resort, Americans are searching for alternative cheap places to winter. A few are finding it in Nicaragua.
Pretty As A Picture
My last destination is the brightly painted city of Granada, set on the second largest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua, known as Cocibolca. The original city was founded in 1524 by the Spanish explorer Hernandez de Cordoba. Interestingly, this Latin American nation has as its currency the cordoba, rather than the peso, named after its founder.
In 1855, the American lawyer/journalist-turned adventurer William Walker arrived here with the objective of setting up an adjunct US slave state. He invaded with a small but well-armed force. Declaring himself president, he gained control of Granada before being expelled by a combined Central American army in 1857. His parting gesture was to burn Granada to the ground.
When it was rebuilt, it took on the ambiance of a southern US city along the lines of Charleston, SC. It’s leafy green plaza Parque Colon is surrounded by grand palace-like buildings with second story balconies, white columns and balconies.
The plaza square is anchored by the magnificent Granada Cathedral, although the city is chock full of old churches, interspersed with little pink, yellow, orange and green adobe buildings. Strolling the appealing town is a good way to get acquainted, but I opt for the even more leisurely horse and buggy.
Along the lake’s edge, the malecon or walkway is a pleasant place to take in views of the lake. It’s also the launching pad for boat rides or kayaking expeditions among the many little islands within the huge lake.
I stop for a typical Sunday breakfast at the recently restored hotel La Gran Francia, which practically drips colonial ambiance, having survived Walker’s inferno. I order nacatamal, a local favorite comprised of corn meal, pork, tomatoes, sweet peppers and rice steamed inside a giant plantain leaf. I wash it down with pitahaya juice, an indigenous deep purple fruit that tastes a little like beat juice.
Nicaragua sits waiting to be discovered. For the adventurous, it’s a truly unique destination.
American Airlines and TACA Airlines provide direct service from Miami. The flight is roughly two and a half hours and averages $400.
Outside the main cities, Nicaragua can be hard to negotiate since many roads have no names. It might be easier to hire a guide at roughly $30 a day. Inquire at your hotel about a government licensed tour operator.
Hotel Norome, Masaya: 011-505-883-9093. Rooms start at $65 double occupancy.
Morgan’s Rock, Pacific coast: from the US: 011-506-296-9442. Rates start at $170 per person, double occupancy and include three meals, soda, juice, local beer, service charge, taxes.
Barcelo Montelimar, Pacific coast: www.barcelo.com, 1-800-BARCELO. All inclusive rates vary with season, check online.
Hotel La Gran Francia, Granada: 011-505-552-6000. Rooms start at $95 double occupancy and include full breakfast, taxes.
For more information: visit-nicaragua.com, 1-888-SEE-NICA.
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