Take a Culinary and Cultural Tour of the Central American Crossroad
By Hannah Monahan
When I used to hear the word, “Nicaragua” cuisine was not something I thought would be culturally significant. Located in southern Central America, Spanish colonial culture is a major part of Nicaraguan life and naturally plays a part in its food. A huge advantage of traveling to Central America is that it’s far less expensive to get to from the US, and everything is a lot less expensive than in Europe or North America.
A first time visitor to Nicaragua, Brian, said he never even thought about going there, but after he visited, he said it was the highlight of his trip to Central America.
“My wife Maureen and I went to Costa Rica last month for a do-nothing one week vacation. We had planned to lay around, relax and do as little as possible for that week. The day after arriving, there was an assortment of tours offered by the resort. This was the one thing my wife and I do not participate in when we travel.
The thought of getting on a bus and being kidnapped for the entire day is not what we enjoy doing. I glance quickly through the list of offered tours to be polite to our host at the resort when I came upon Nicaragua. I never wanted to go to Nicaragua.
I never thought of going to Nicaragua. Nicaragua was like Iraq to me. So I signed up. Maybe it was because it was so close to the resort. Maybe it was the adventure of going to some bad place for the thrill.
Nicaraguan History Lessons
We pass through the border and there was a handsome man standing in the front of the bus. The Costa Rica tour guide introduced Juan Carlos and handed him the microphone. The rest I will say was “Nicaraguan History.” I enjoy watching the History Channel here in the United States. Juan Carlos was like watching the History Channel and the subject was “The History of Nicaragua”.
He was superb! He taught me more in that afternoon then I would have never imagined. Juan Carlos and Nicaragua was the highlight of my one-week visit to Central America.
With its vicinity to the Caribbean and a strong indigenous culture, Nicaraguan food is a melting pot, literally! Tastes of island seafood, Spanish spices, and fresh indigenous ingredients make Nicaraguan food something different, and delicious! Careli Tours has made a tour just for those who wish to immerse themselves in this countries culture and flavors!
Corn – the Base of Nicaraguan Cuisine
Corn is used throughout Nicaraguan cooking but it has social use in the countries history. Historians say that the vegetable was used for trading between local societies.
Nicaraguans use corn in all forms, from snacks to main dishes, desserts, even in certain beverages. Chicha and Pinol is a traditional Nicaraguan drink based on corn.
The kernels are baked, dried, and ground up into a gritty powder, mixed with certain spices and then added to milk, water, or coffee. Nactamal is a main dish served in the South American country on special occasions like Christmas or weddings. Corn husks or banana leaves are wrapped around variations of meats, cheeses, and vegetables rolled in a ground corn and butter dough and steamed. The presentation is like a gift to each person, unwrapping the corn husks to find the delicious meal inside.
Perrereque is the Nicaraguan cornbread. Made with fresh homemade cornmeal, the corn cake is a staple in many households.
Coffee being so popular and important in Central American countries, you will enjoy many delicious cups of coffee when in Nicaragua. The product is so intertwined in the countries economy there are many coffee farms around the country. Matagalpa is the coffee capital of Nicaragua, is most likely the origin of the beans you will be drinking coffee from!
Positioned in the middle of Central America, Nicaragua has one shore in the Pacific and one shore in the Caribbean. The country’s cuisine varies from coast to coast. From the west, local fruits and corn are primarily used, and from the east, the food has a heavy Caribbean influence using seafood and coconut.
Food in Nicaragua is a cultural event. People of all classes can join for a meal and can talk about the food in positive and negative ways.
The Nicaragua Culinary Tour
Careli Tours wants everyone to experience the food of Nicaragua and has set up a seven-night and eight-day package where visitors will learn how to cook and eat like Nicaraguans and also get to tour some of the countries best spots.
A suggested itinerary will be made for your party but can be altered to fit your needs!
Day 1: Meet your very experienced local guide at the airport and travel to the Los Robles Hotel for an overnight stay. The guides for your trip are friendly, attentive, and are there to make your trip to Nicaragua amazing! Testimonials from guests who have taken the trip say their guide was “very patient and was on time but allowed extreme flexibility during the day.”
Los Robles Hotel is located a few minutes from Managua’s center. You get a feeling of relaxation and a true sense of Nicaraguan life as the hotel is kept a sense of a colonial home for the guests.
The attention to detail is evident in how the staff focuses their efforts on attention to their guest, down to the hand crocheted bedspreads. Complete with a small private patio in each room, you can spend your first night relaxing and getting acquainted with Nicaraguan life.
Day 2: Spend the morning in Managua being taught the culinary basics by some of the best Nicaraguan chefs in the country. Previous guests have said cooking in Managua “was great– chef really knew how to explain things, excellent lunch! It was a great way to start off”. Here you’ll learn the mixture of Indigenous, Spanish, and Creole influences in the traditional food.
After lunch, you will travel to Colonial Leon. On the way, you will learn how to make “Quesillo”, an on the go cheese tortilla wrap and a popular dish in the country. When you arrive in Leon, you will check into the El Convento Hotel for the next three nights.
The El Convento Hotel is rich with history, built on a site that was the oldest building in town that was once a monastery, a school, a nunnery, and a jail. Each room has all the modern comforts but maintains that traditional Spanish atmosphere. This hotel is often accredited with being one of the best in the country, complimented with the renowned Restaurante El Victoriano.
Day 3: You will visit the small town of El Viejo. El Viejo “the old one” is rustic village rich with authentic Spanish culture, known for its wide variety of homemade foods. The Chorotega Pre-Columbian Museum holds 1500 indigenous pieces and is the best collection of artifacts in the area. The museum guide “provided his expert outlook on everything from archaeology to geology to food” around the country, say guests who have taken this magnificent tour.
Next, you will travel to the colonial church in the town, Menor Basilica. With its original colonial decorations, the building maintains a warm wood ceiling and painted glass windows. The windows hold the story of the church’s history. One story of a Virgin Mary statuette used by conquers to get through Indian villages is especially important to the town’s culture.
The Flor de Caña Rum Distillery is the largest alcohol spirits distillery in the Americas. When you arrive you will be taught the process used to distill, quality control, and bottling of the rum. And of course, you will get to try the award-winning rum in the showroom after your distillery tour.
Day 4: First you will tour colonial Leon. The colonial city, Santiago de los Caballeros de León, is known for its neoclassical and gothic architecture displayed in the buildings and churches. You will visit the main attractions in the area, including a magnificent art collection, before you travel to the Leon University.
The University was the second in Central America and played a major role in the fight against the Somoza dictatorship in the 70s. The Botanical Gardens of the University have become a tourism hotspot, being the first garden of its kind in Central America. Its mission is to protect the vegetation of tropical dry forest ecosystem, with 1,200 plant species, and 90 species of birds inhabiting it. Make sure to bring a camera!
Back at the hotel that evening you will learn how to prepare the Nicaraguan national drink, Macua. The cocktail is made with white rum from the distillery you visited yesterday, along with guava, orange, and lemon juices.
Day 5: Today begins with a voyage to Colonial Granada, where you will be staying in Plaza Colon Hotel for the next three nights. After a delicious lunch, your guide will direct you to Masaya Market. Filled with local foods and artisan crafts, you will get to shop for regional crafts and artwork!
From there you will visit Masaya Volcano National Park, for a breathtaking look onto a large crater and the beautiful countryside of Nicaragua. Leaving Masaya you will head to Granada City for rest after a fun-filled day.
Plaza Colon Hotel is set in the middle of Historic Granada. Surrounded by a cheerful nightlife of bars and cultural venues, the hotel captures the historic aspect of the city with its colonial architecture and courtyards.
Day 6: You will take a historical tour of Granada, the oldest European settlement in the Americas. Taking the tour by horse-drawn carriage, you will be enveloped in colonial culture. You will see on your tour the mysterious stone idols made by Indian ancestors.
Today you will also learn about the long history of cigars in Nicaragua. From their primitive form with indigenous people up to the Spanish Monarchy, cigars are deeply routed in the countries heritage. Visiting a tobacco farm, and the Dona Elba Cigar Factory, you will learn the process of making hand-rolled cigars, and enjoy some as well!
Day 7: Heading to the local market to find the catch of the day will be the first thing you do today. Although on the Pacific side of the country, experiencing Caribbean cuisine is important to learning Nicaraguan cooking. You will be making the Caribbean dish of the day when you return from the market with the fresh ingredients!
Later that afternoon you will head to Mombacho Cloud Forest where you will meet with a park ranger and head to the Volcano Reserve. Heading up to the summit of the mountain you will learn about the luxurious vegetation and enjoy unbelievable views. At the top of the volcano you will see why it is called the cloud forest standing over the blanket of clouds down below.
Day 8: A sad day, you will head back to the airport with a private transfer and reflect on the amazing Nicaraguan experience you just had!
Depending on how many people in your party and the number of rooms you will need the price ranges for this tour go from $1500 to $2500 per person. Each day, besides travel days, two meals are provided with the cost of the trip. Experience the culture and cuisine of Nicaragua with your family and friends today with 2012 tours leaving daily!
Hannah Monahan is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and a communications major at the University of Mass in Amherst. She now lives and teaches in Boston.