Moon Handbooks — Nicaragua
Why so Many travelers are discovering this “Black Sheep of Central America”
By Joshua Berman and Randy Wood
Nicaragua, the black sheep of Central America, is sorely misunderstood in the world. Since disappearing from the headlines in the early 1990s, life in Nicaragua has moved steadily forward, leaving behind in the rest of the world’s mind only the olive-clad images of the war-torn ’80s.
But this is not a nation of perpetual crisis! The Revolution and ensuing civil war that ended in 1990, now make up one more chapter in the nation’s tumultuous history, and their recent memory adds grit to the reality of being in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguans–five million of ’em (by the grace of God!)–survive amidst the day-to-day struggle that is life in the Developing World. They do so with an incredible vitality and with the ability to enjoy life in a way more prosperous societies have forgotten. Nicaragua is a place where a beat-up, rusted pickup truck that barely runs has shiny stickers across the back window that read: Sonrie Porque La Vida es Maravilla (Smile Because Life is Wonderful).
This is a nation with much to teach. A friend recently wrote, “Nicaraguans help me become the best that I can be.” While Nicaragua has never failed to attract visitors, the majority have been less than traditional–people from all over the world have come here to work, write, study, paint, and volunteer. Increasingly, they are also coming to relax on Nicaragua’s beaches, hike her jungles, float her rivers, and explore her countryside. If you are only passing through Nicaragua, you may never know what you missed. But then, if you were merely passing through, you wouldn’t be holding this book in your hands, preparing to immerse yourself deep within this geologically and culturally vibrant landscape.
Nicaragua’s toddler tourism industry continues to stretch and improve, nourished by a recent investment boom and steady increase in visitors, and it is this freshness that makes touring Nicaragua such a powerful, rewarding, and challenging experience. Canned tourist programs are few and far between and a trip to Nicaragua means spending time among Nicaraguans. Principal in your endeavors to understand this country is getting to know its people, whose charm, strong opinions, and casual hospitality are probably their nation’s greatest attraction. They will show you that there is more to do and see in Nicaragua than you’ll ever have time for–even if you make this your home for several years.
If you let her, Nicaragua–and all her children–will take you in.
The Nicaragua Handbook features abundant destinations where it is entirely possible that the reader will be the only foreign traveler in town. This extraordinary opportunity carries unique cultural (and logistical) challenges. Consequently, this book will be most appreciated by travelers who find this lack of established infrastructure inspiring and exhilarating, rather than a shortcoming. Visitors who rise to Nicaragua’s challenges find themselves changed by the experience.
The Poet is the High Priest
“Throughout Nicaraguan culture, the poet is the high priest. The prophet. The maker of visions. The singer of songs. The one who knows and can say it for others the way others feel it but cannot say it for themselves.”
Margaret Randall wrote this in her collection of interviews with Nicaraguan writers entitled Risking a Somersault in the Air, commenting on the extraordinary role that poetry has played in Nicaraguan society. Salman Rushdie was equally impressed when, during his tour of Nicaragua and the Sandinista government in the mid-1980s, he found himself surrounded by young warrior-poets at all levels of society.
Indeed, an inordinate number of the Revolution’s leaders were published writers–including Minister of the Interior and Head of State Security, Tomás Borge and President Daniel Ortega, both of whom published poems from Somoza’s prisons in the 1970s (Somoza’s forces found and destroyed the only manuscript of the book Ortega wrote during the same time period). Ortega once told Rushdie, “In Nicaragua, everybody is considered to be a poet until he proves to the contrary.”
Literature (and painting, pottery, theater, music, and crafts) was strongly supported by the Sandinista government, whose Ministry of Culture stayed busy instituting poetry workshops and publishing magazines and books.
The man in charge of this effort was Father Ernesto Cardenal, whose poetry is internationally acclaimed and widely translated into English. Gioconda Belli, whose work evokes the sensuality of her country’s land and people, was named one of the 100 most important poets of the 20th century. But Nicaraguan poetry, no matter how entwined with the Revolution, goes way back, before even the life of Sandino.
Invariably, one must turn to Nicaragua’s literary giant, Rubén Darío, who 100 years ago set the stage for his nation’s love affair with poetry by producing a style that was revolutionary and unprecedented in Spanish literature.
Poet, journalist, diplomat, and favorite son of Nicaragua, Rubén Darío has become the icon for all that is artistic or cultural in Nicaragua. Today his portrait graces the front of the 100 córdoba bill, his name is on most of the nation’s libraries and bookstores, and his sculpted likeness presides throughout the land. His legacy is incredible and Randall asks if today’s poets owe everything to him, or to the fact that they, like their hero, glean their inspiration “from that violent expanse of volcanic strength called Nicaragua.”
Alcohol and Papa H
“So he sipped the drink, which was cold and clean-tasting, and he watched the broken line of the keys straight ahead and to the westward… But over half of the drink was still in the paper-wrapped glass and there was still ice in it… I wonder where she is now… I could think about her all night. But I won’t.” –Ernest Hemingway
Forget the girl, think about the drink: it goes largely undisputed that Nicaragua makes the best rum in all of Central America. Rum is the drink of choice among Nicaraguans and it is more often than not served up in a rocks glass with Coca-Cola and spurt of lime, called a Nica Libre (a clear shout-out to the comrades in Cuba).
Of all the rum produced in Nicaragua, Flor de Caña is considered the best, of which the caramel-colored, 7-year-old Gran Reserva is the best of the best (except, of course, their 12-year Centenario, which is twice as expensive).
Flor de Caña produces a half-dozen varieties of rum, which increase in price and quality as they go up in age. A media (half liter) of 7-year, bucket of ice, bottle of Coke, and plate of limes (called un servicio completo) will set you back only $4 or so. Reach, however, for the plastic bottle of Ron Plata, and take a giant step down in price, quality, and social class. Enormously popular in the campo, “Rrrrron Plata!” is the proud sponsor of most baseball games and not a few bar brawls.
The national beers–Victoria and Toña–are both light tasting pilsners and, well, you can’t really say anything bad about an ice-cold beer in the tropics. Expect to pay anywhere from $0.60-$1 a beer (if you’re paying anything more than that, you are either in the Hotel Inter or a strip club).
A recent addition to the national beer market is the slightly higher priced Premium, as well as liter-sized bottles of both Toña and Victoria–an excellent bargain at under $2. Together, Victoria, Toña, and Flor de Caña are known affectionately by those who care as Vickie, Toni, and Flo.
Should you decide to partake in this part of the culture and get drunk (borracho, bolo, picado, hasta el culo), be sure you have a decent understanding of your environment and feel good about your company. Remember that many a travelers’ disaster story begin with “Man, I was so
Always take it slow when drinking in a new place, and remember that your hydration level has an enormous impact on how drunk you get. And oh, by the way, rum does not make you a better dancer, but it may improve your Spanish; and if you are drinking it alone, staring straight ahead over the broken line of the keys, try not to think about the girl.
Granada–The Oldest City
Granada is at once both the oldest city on the continent and the most developed tourist destination in Nicaragua. Some consider this “colonial jewel” to be the future of Nicaraguan tourism, the vanguard of what could be; true, if one is holding up Antigua, Guatemala as the archetype–i.e. the Backpacker Mecca model, where there are more foreign-run Internet cafes and hostels than actual native residents.
But most agree that the city’s charm will never be taken over–too many of the distinctive buildings are private homes of well-off, proud Nicaraguans who wouldn’t think of giving up their piece of Granada. And there is a reason for Granada’s recent boom.
It is a fascinating city–full of bright colors, violent history, lake breezes, and the sounds (and smells) of horse-drawn carriages.
Granada is the place to meet other vagabonds with whom you’ll swap stories over a few liters of Victoria in the tropical shadow of Volcán Mombacho. This is also your base-camp for boat trips through the Isletas and canopy tours in the Mombacho cloud forest. There’s even a ship to Ometepe and the Río San Juan–but hold your horses, bucko, and check into one of the funky hospedajes for a couple of nights.
Take in some Granada before going back to the wilds of Nicaragua. Nowhere else in the country will you find such an array of excellent restaurants set against a rainbow of architecture. This is less a “city” than a large, relaxed colonial town, where most evenings find the people out on the sidewalks, talking and laughing. Walk the streets, tour the Churches, then enjoy a free concert in the park; there is much to love about Granada.
copyright 2006, Avalon Travel Publishing.
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