5 Days, 3 Cities, 2 Volcanoes: Only in Nicaragua
I get the feeling that Nicaragua is sort of the bastard child of Central America. It’s not as overlooked as El Salvador, but then again, not many countries are overlooked as much as El Salvador.
North of Nicaragua, Guatemala is often viewed as the highlight of Central America with it’s beautiful colonial towns, lakes, and Tikal ruins. Belize offers the stunningly blue and warm Caribbean waters and Honduras, while plagued with violence, has arguably the best diving in the region. To the south, Costa Rica is an eco-tourists’ wet dream and the Latin playground for gringos (which made it, in my opinion, sort of a shit hole) while Panama has it’s gorgeous islands and the world famous Panama Canal.
Nicaragua is in the middle of all that, half forgotten, merely a pass-through for many people going from one place to the next. Maybe that was why it took me so long to get there.
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Managua, like most Central American capitals, is a massive, sprawling, run down place. I landed there at night and didn’t get a proper look but I also didn’t have the urge to stick around and find out: I don’t think there’s all that much to do and time wasn’t on my side.
One thing I did notice in my brief time there were signs of the crippling poverty that pervades the country. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; Haiti is the first. On my way to Nicaragua’s version of Walmart, I saw a bunch of inflatable pools lying around in dirt, all tied to an adjacent fence. It seemed a little strange because it was nighttime and there didn’t seem to be anyone watching them. As I walked a bit further, I saw a little wooden stand next to the pools. Scattered around were bags of clothing and other household items. In the back of the stand, I saw a family sleeping in a couple hammocks.
I suddenly realized that these people were sleeping on the streets, trying to scratch out a living selling kiddie pools. They probably had their entire inventory of goods, which couldn’t have amounted to much more than a couple hundred dollars, laid out on the sidewalk.
These weren’t the San Francisco homeless people I had grown accustomed to. They weren’t panhandling, getting hammered, and shitting on the sidewalk. These people were legitimately trying to make a living but simply could not afford a proper roof over their heads.
And compared to some people in the country, they had it good. Although I didn’t go to it, Anthony Bourdain had an episode where he visited La Chureca which is Spanish slang for “dump city”. In a nutshell, it’s a giant open air landfill where hundreds of families live and work by sorting through trash and selling whatever valuables they can find.
Welcome to Nicaragua.
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After busting out of Managua, I headed to Leon followed by Granada a couple days later. Every time I go to Latin America, I look forward to spending time in a colonial town. There’s something incredibly charming about the old Spanish buildings, the brightly colored churches, and the lively central plazas. For all the terrible things the Spaniards did, at least they left behind a lot of beautiful cities.
The general impression of Leon and Granada is that the former is more rough and tumble. I definitely found this to be true. Leon was more of a city where normal Nicaraguans lived and worked and it lacked the spick and span tourist facade many cities have. A lot of the buildings had chipped paint, the roads were cracked, and you could really see the dirt and grime of daily life.
Grenada was a lot smaller and everything looked a lot newer. It had one broad pedestrian-only avenue filled with tour operators hawking every tour under the sun and tourist friendly restaurants with outdoor seating. The central plaza was filled with stalls selling crappy souvenirs and surrounded by horse and carriages ready to take any willing tourist on an overpriced tour of the city.
Although I did enjoy both places, the highlight was not the cities themselves but rather the volcanoes I visited nearby. In Leon, we hiked up the Telica volcano around sunset. From near the top, we could see the miles of flat jungles and farmland surrounding us. After the sun went down, we carefully headed over to the crater (which had no rails) and saw glimpses of the faint red glow of magma hundreds of feet below.
In Grenada, we visited the Masaya volcano. Since most of Nicaragua’s volcanoes are active, the tour guide handed us sulfur masks. I thought it was a joke at first. Several minutes later, a giant cloud of sulfur starts sweeping over the parking lot and we’re furiously putting on and adjusting our masks. Guess it wasn’t a joke.
We hiked up a path behind the volcano which gave way to a sweeping 360 degree view of what seemed like most of the country. I could see a line of volcanoes running from North to South giving credence to Nicaragua’s “Land of Fire” nickname. The massive Lago Nicaragua loomed in the south while the Pacific could be seen in the west and the Caribbean far far away to the east. I could see the cities and towns that dotted the otherwise lush green carpet but it certainly seemed like nature still ruled in this land.
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I really didn’t spend all that time in either city, only a couple of nights. If I had more time I definitely would’ve stayed longer but I wanted to get to what would end up being the best part of the trip: Isla Ometepe.