Nicaragua.When one utters the name of this beaten down country, the following things come to mind: Anastasio Somoza. Hurricane Mitch. Daniel Ortega. The Iran-Contra Affair. The connotations that are usually associated with Nicaragua are almost always negative. It is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti. But it is a country with so much more. It is a country whose people are filled with resilience. When faced with all manner of trials and tribulations and stark adversities, they still do not admit defeat. They “power up” and go on with their lives. I saw this during the four days I spent there back in 2005.
The program with which I studied abroad in Costa Rica offered students the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua towards the end of the semester. Although I knew not a fig of the country from a tourist standpoint, I knew that I would most likely never travel there on my own once back in America, so what better time to go than now? Some of my fellow interns at the newspaper where I worked raved about Nicaragua. The only negative mention of the country was in regards to its capital city, Managua. Although at one time a beautiful colonial city, much of Managua was decimated in the infamous 1972 earthquake and sadly was not rebuilt since the dictator at the time, Anastasio Somoza, pocketed all of the aid money. Andy and Corey, two extremely laid back, party hard, drink even harder types, had said they couldn’t wait to get out of there. Now if two young guys in their 20s found it to be dirty and seedy, I figured they weren’t embellishing.
The program staff arranged for us to go to Granada, one of the country’s two most popular and well known colonial cities and at one time the capital of Nicaragua. As the story goes, Granada and Leon (the other colonial city and another former capital) share a feud that goes back centuries to when Nicaragua was still a colony of the Spanish Empire. Granada had always been the liberal capital and Leon, the conservative one, so when governments would change hands and power would shift from the conservatives to the liberals, the capital would change as well. Although I would have also been interested in visiting Leon, time did not permit, but Corey and Andrew, my fellow intern compadres, had traveled to both cities, and claimed that Granada was the better of the two.
My first thoughts of Nicaragua were how blazing hot it was. Although weekends spent along the Pacific coast in Costa Rica had been on average at least 25 degrees hotter than the temperatures in San Jose where I was living, Nicaragua seemed even hotter. When we finally arrived in Granada after the excruciatingly long ten hour bus ride, there seemed to be no place where you could escape from the scorching sun. The streets were empty and I figured that the locals really were embodying the whole siesta mentality. Although the walk to the hostel where we were staying only took ten minutes, I was completely drenched with sweat by the time we arrived.
We hadn’t been told much about where we would be staying, but I wasn’t expecting much based on the previous accommodations the program had arranged for us-weekends spent with native families in houses that were one step up from a shack or eco-lodges that literally were one with nature. When all I could do was think, breathe, and see the heat, I was already wishing I was back on the air-conditioned bus. However, I was in for my biggest surprise when I saw where we were staying.
The Hostel Oasis was literally an oasis for me. One step inside the door and you were greeted by the coldest burst of artificial air ever. It was heavenly. Having never stayed at a hostel before then, my knowledge and understanding of them was limited to stereotypes based on what I had seen in the movies and read about. While there was the typical bunk bed look-a room filled with an endless row of multiple tier bunk beds that were slept on each night by young backpackers in search of the cheapest and best travel deals-there were also private rooms, and this is where we stayed. Although I still had to share a room with three other people, I at least knew them, plus we had our own bathroom which is always a nice thing while traveling.
Another nice added feature about the hostel was that breakfast was included. Although I have stayed in four other hostels since then, only two of them included breakfast, and that was just cereal and toast. No, at the hostel in Nicaragua, it was a fully cooked to order including eggs, tropical fruit, and of course the quintessential national dish of both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, gallo pinto. In Spanish it means spotted rooster and consists of pre-cooked rice and beans fried together with different spices. I never knew that fried up beans and rice cooked in cilantro could taste so good. Central American cooking may be considered incredibly plain when compared with French and Italian food, but it sure is good.
I like to say that when I was in Nicaragua I became a vampire, or at least a temporary one. Although the program leaders had organized an outing to the las isletas, an archipelago of 375 little volcanic islands that are located inside Cocibolca Lake, I didn’t go. It was simply in the words of the great Cole Porter, “too damn hot.” So I spent the bulk of the sun-filled day inside the confines of the air-conditioned hostel, reading my book and sipping on cuba libres, (Spanish for rum and coke) which is also how I discovered the terrific flor de caña, the country’s most well known rum.
I did go on one outing during the day, to the famous Masaya Crafts Market. I found the getting there part to be more “native” than the market itself, even though it’s billed as a top cultural experience. We ended up going on a public bus, as it’s only about 10 miles from the center of Granada. Although the quality of the public buses that I rode in Costa Rica varied from relatively decent and newer to school buses that had been decommissioned in the United States for being too old and outdated, nonetheless, they were sent to Central America and “recycled.” No matter, you still paid the driver when you got on. However, in Nicaragua everyone just boards. And then more people board because every possible inch represents a potential fare. If that wasn’t bad enough, there is a worker whose job is to collect tickets from passengers when the bus is traveling at breakneck speed and there isn’t any room whatsoever to pass up and down the aisle. Yes, that is Nicaraguan public transportation for you, paired with chickens in cages riding on the laps of passengers and people throwing their garbage out the window.
Granada was truly a beautiful city, full of stunning colonial architecture that was present on just about every street. Coming from Costa Rica, which during the time of the Spanish Empire was considered Spain’s “backwater” colony (which explains why Costa Rica, unlike other countries in Latin America, has hardly any colonial style buildings that still exist), it was wonderful to visit a city like Granada. There was a particular building that captured my eye, a former monastery that was painted in a shade of powder blue that was almost as clear as the bright blue sky above. Whenever I think of Nicaragua, this beautiful blue edifice is the first thing that comes to mind.
I didn’t find any Sandinistas or for that matter nor any Contra rebels when I was in Nicaragua. What I did find was a country filled with extremely hospitable people and a form of Spanish that was definitely not as clear as that spoken in Costa Rica. I discovered incredible bargains, including the $3 horse and carriage ride that took me and two other girls from the program around the city and out to Lake Nicaragua for almost an hour, unlike the highway robbery that is committed by the carriage ride operators in New York City’s Central Park, with charging $25 for a 20 minute ride. I ate incredible Italian food and learned that Nicaragua was home to many Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century (they didn’t all just go to America). Nicaragua is a country still very much in the throngs of economic poverty, subject to failed promises by the government and politicians. Yet its citizens are very much committed to making things work, to eradicate the image that many still have of Nicaragua, to make it a place that tourists (more than just the penniless backpackers and college students on a sponsored program) would want to come and visit. I know I want to.