Lake Nicaragua

The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

8th September 2017

Few holiday destinations can still lay claim to be largely unexploited. Olivia Greenway visits one that can: Nicaragua, nestled into the bulge of Central America with Costa Rica to the south and Honduras to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean to the east.

If you’re looking for a location that’s been prettied up to support and encourage tourists, then this one probably won’t appeal. The hotels, unused to Western visitors, are still working on their customer service – and along the roads out of the towns, majestic views are marred by miles of barbed wire fences festooned with discarded plastic bags. However, if you can see beyond that, Nicaragua is blessed with natural beauty: smouldering volcanoes, pristine sandy beaches, lush rainforests and mist-shrouded mountains, with preserved Spanish colonial architecture in many of its cities.

After years of dictatorship and insurgency, Nicaragua had a democratic election and a new president in 1990 and is relatively peaceful now; since then, it’s mainly natural disasters that have challenged the country: earthquakes and flooding.

Flying in to the capital, Managua, at night, the sight of huge fluorescent day-glo-coloured trees lining the main road (at 17 metres high, they’re easily visible from the plane), confirms your suspicion that this is a trip that’s going to be different. Called the ‘Trees of Life’, they were apparently erected at the behest of Rosario Murillo, wife of President Daniel Ortega, in key places around the city. Managua was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1972 and very few of the older buildings survived.

Our first trip is outside the capital, to the higher altitude coffee plantation territory of Matagalpa, with cooler temperatures and lush vegetation. On the way, we stop off at a scruffy-looking café where guirilas – corn pancakes served with a rich sour cream cheese – are being made. You can buy these everywhere and they’re popular lunch and afternoon fare. Surprisingly good, too, and I slip into the kitchen to watch them being made, noting how banana leaves are used to stop them from burning.

Our basic eco-lodge, Selva Negra, is perhaps a little too rustic for my tastes – I do like instant hot water – but it’s popular with American backpackers, and is both clean and cheap. The food, Western style, is similarly priced and tasty. And it’s very pleasant sitting on the shaded terrace overlooking the lagoon, with its water lilies and forested backdrop.

During our tour of the estate the next morning, I’m fascinated to see the coffee bushes with their white flowers, to be followed by red berries. We also see the picked berries being raked over, to givethem access to light and to assist the drying process. They gradually turn a greyish white, shrivel a little, become hard, and are then expertly sorted. Rejects, we learn, are used to make instant coffee. At this point, the tour guide wrinkles his nose: obviously, no one with any taste ever drinks instant coffee. This area also is home to the cigar producing industry, centred around Esteli. Later, in Granada, we’ll see cigars being made, but for now, it’s on to Leon, which proves to be one of my favourite places: a former religious centre, it has 17 churches and the smart, characterful former convent, El Convento – my home for the trip. It’s centrally placed, so ideal for exploring on foot, although you can also use the famous yellow ‘chicken buses’ that stop if you hail them; there are no timetables so you need to speak Spanish to establish where they’re heading.

Transport is all by road – there are no railway services now and the people are poor. It’s quite common to see a skinny horse pulling a trap; many people just cannot afford cars.

I visit the museum in homage to Nicaragua’s famous poet, Ruben Dario, where, rather grimly, his death bed is on display, along with other artefacts. Dario is interred in the cathedral here, the largest in South America. All the newer buildings are painted in vibrant colours, and evidence of the colonial past is around every corner, along with political murals – a nod to the country’s former struggles.

In the market the stall holders are smiling and friendly and keen to connect. I have no Spanish so I nod and point and they, having no English, do the same. Here are corn patties wrapped in banana leaves, corn ‘brandy snaps’, a smoked cheese the size of a house brick, an unrefrigerated meat stall (“If it’s cooked the same day, it’s okay…” my guide tells me later) and a fascinating collection of naïve pottery pig moneyboxes.

We move south to Granada, certainly the only city that is in any way geared to tourism, with plenty of bars and restaurants centred around the streets that lead from the cathedral. The local beer, Tona, is very drinkable – and, at a couple of dollars a throw, cheap. Prime steak is served with chimichurri sauce (the name is said to be a corruption of Jimmy McCurry, the Irishman who invented it) made with chilli and green herbs. A cup of invariably excellent coffee to follow and you have the perfect meal, eaten al fresco at a third of London prices.

The next day, I have a go at making chocolate at Mansion de Chocolate, a boutique hotel and visitor attraction – and said to be the oldest colonial building in the city – with a colourful café surrounding a courtyard, displaying numerous local artworks. Then I move on to trying out my cigar-making skills at Doña Elba. This family-run business employs around six nimble-fingered women to sort and stretch the leaves and then produce deftly – before our eyes in minutes – flawless hand-made cigars. Our final stop is at the Flor de Cana rum factory. The tour here is slightly disappointing as the guide is rather robotic, but the rum itself is certainly pleasant enough…

Much as I enjoyed Granada, I’m pleased to be on the road again and out into the country, to the Masaya volcano, one of around 17 volcanoes that are still active. The sulphur-like smell hits you when you get out of your vehicle at the
summit. Peering gingerly over the edge and looking down, you can see the red bubbling sea of molten magma amid the swirling steam. We move on to an extinct version, Mombacho, where we will hike around the ridge. It’s a steep climb up a tarred track, so we cheat and take a jeep. The rainforest vegetation is lush with creepers and lianas just like in the old Tarzan films. After a very short time, our guide points up into the canopy… and there’s a sloth, the first I’ve ever seen. Sloths are normally very shy but new leaf shoots produced by recent rains have persuaded this one to make an appearance. As we come to the edge of the crater, there’s a view across the valley to distant mountains with Lake Nicaragua below and all around, the sound of cicadas and a carpet of wild mountain flowers.

The yellow sand beaches are popular with surfers; we stick to the Pacific coast and visit the coastal town of San Juan del Sur, where the Victoriano Hotel is beautifully situated on the promenade overlooking the sea. Despite a temperature in the thirties, though, the beach is deserted. You can take fishing trips from the pier, but it’s also worth a wander into town. Even the park benches are awash with colour – it’s certainly a place that feels very much alive. As well as more delicious coffee, and ice cold beer, you will find a lively market, an interesting church and plenty of street art. A trip just out of town will take you to the Christ Statue, reminiscent of Rio, arms outstretched, seemingly guarding the town below with life affirming views.

It’s a good place to end our trip, and reflect on the experience. Nicaragua is certainly original. And its latest tourist-tempting strapline – unspoiled, uncommon, unforgettable – is well chosen. It’s definitely all three.

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