Art, Love, Wilderness
Despite poverty, dictatorships and a civil war, Nicaragua has an unrivalled taste for poetry and adventure, writes Kate Hodal…
It was dusty and hazy and night and we were being driven by a sweaty, mustachioed teenager over potholes in a small car whose upholstery was held together with black tape, listening to bad Latino love songs, past scores of people on the side of the road selling sodas, bartering chickens for batteries, talking, waiting, standing. We were in love with life and everyone else seemed to be in love with us, which – in a country known both for its love of poetry and taste for violence – was an unexpectedly good omen.
They say that in Nicaragua, every man’s a poet until proven otherwise. Capable of churning out gorgeous prose and marimba-based melodies despite being plagued by poverty, a couple of rotten dictatorships, a tormented Spanish conquest and a US-led civil war, Nicaragua survives less on oxygen than it does on the arts. In the second poorest country in Latin America, where one out of four lives on less than a dollar a day, tourism is still stunted by CIA travel warnings, despite Nicaragua being the safest country in Central America.
And now is the best time to go – in a region quickly being overtaken by eager young backpackers, it’s still possible to find yourself alone on a long, white stretch of beach with your own turquoise waters and requisite palm trees. Plus, it has two of the largest rainforest preserves in Central America boasting 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and a taste for adventure practically unrivalled in the region.
:: Isla de Ometepe
We’d flown over the sun setting in Nicaragua’s valley of volcanoes, the thorny spine of them forming a verdant, green barrier against the Pacific coast, to discover just how adventurous the Nicas, as they call themselves, really were. We’d replaced our teenage taxista with public transport and were now speeding off to Isla de Ometepe, the largest freshwater volcanic island in the world. Formed of two volcanoes and the isthmus of lava that joins them together, Ometepe is a pre-Colombian site of petroglyps set in the middle of the only freshwater lake in the world that actually has sharks. A small community of fishermen and farmers ekes out a living here, dependent on the coffee and cocoa plantations to feed them through the day. Sleeping at the base of Volcán Maderas in a cabin on a cooperative farm, we’d found an 18-year-old Nicaraguan named Gerald to lead us up the 1.4-km high volcano the next day.
Passing howler monkeys and cawing parrots, giant orchids and huge ferns, we scrambled through mud and over rocks, gripping onto vines to hurl us from one slippery slope to another, Gerald patiently waiting for us as we huffed and puffed the three-hour long ascent. He described the process of cocoa farming, talked to us about the importance of preserving cloud forests and giggled at our Spanish. Maderas is home to one of only two cloud forests in Nicaragua’s Pacific Basin, and at its top is a misty lake that laps at the grassy shore, a body of water so spooky, it seemed like the cold, waiting mouth of the river Styx – the mythical boundary between us and the underworld.
After descending, we climbed atop a US-donated school buses that had been repainted in color combinations that don’t exist outside of Central America: orange and blue and green and black and purple and white, colors that established it as Nicaraguan and therefore, a transportable object to be wired with the soundtrack to Ghostbusters and crammed with people, husbands and sons suspended from the roof, hanging from the back and side doors, out the windows. We scrambled like this across the dusty highway, cutting through more banana and cocoa plantations, across verdant fields and past a farm selling bull semen, to get to Granada, a gorgeous colonial town nestled up on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua.
Granada is one of Spain’s architectural legacies, its colourful Baroque churches, tree-lined avenues, large houses with interior courtyards and ornate wrought iron balconies whispering its past as the second-oldest European-founded city. Its setting between Lake Nicaragua and the green jungle of Volcan Mombacho established it as an important trading centre, whose wealth once attracted the attention of marauding pirates; today it attracts backpackers and architectural enthusiasts. Granada is a beautiful place to see traditional Nicaragua: horses and carriages parade locals down the streets, water pumps abound on street corners and locals are more than happy to give Spanish lessons to lost gringos.
We buzzed through Granada up to Mombacho, the only other volcano in Nicaragua with a cloud forest, to try our hands at a canopy tour. Canopy tours are literally that – a tour of the rainforest canopy – by 600m of cable that keep you suspended above ground. They’re designed less for nature watching and more to get a rush as you zip through the forest at speed in a harness and miner’s helmet, and, while we might have looked ridiculous, we bounded through the branches from platform to platform like monkeys high on life, ending our hour-long foray into the world of flight with a free fall from a eucalyptus tree. At 25 USD a pop, it’s not the cheapest thrill in the country, but it’s definitely worth a go: when else will you get to fly like an eagle through a cloud forest, suspended in a world of reverie?
From Mombacho we bummed a crowded minibus decorated with Jesus stickers to Masaya, Nicaragua’s capital of handicrafts. Nicaraguans from all over – and tourists from Costa Rica – come here to shop its large markets selling hammocks, textiles and rattan furniture. Although the city itself is quite unremarkable – boasting only a few pretty churches and Spanish homes – the people are extremely friendly and eager to talk about their city as they give you a ride to the Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, located inside a massive extinct crater, now home to more than half a dozen cones that have sprung up over the last seven thousand millennia.
The park’s main attraction is the active smoking crater of Santiago, which still exhales tons of sulphur from its molten lava pool. The park has an eerie sort of beauty – a lunar landscape with trees shaped like women’s silhouettes and parakeets that nest inside the smoking crater – and can be hiked through its 20km of trails. Park guards make sure that no one gets into places they shouldn’t, as they actually hide from the visitors to ensure that they don’t get up to anything untoward. We discovered one guide dressed like a member of Run DMC (black shades, black leather jacket and black jeans, despite it being 50C) who was watching our proximity to nearby vultures; and another guide actually hid in the trees with his bicycle, speeding past us here and there to follow us into the superb visitor centre, which has an interesting taxidermy section of the animals found in the park and diagrams of how volcanoes are formed.
We hitched a ride with the smiling, bicycling marauder to Laguna de Apoyo, arguably the most beautiful of Nicaragua’s 15 crater lakes. Turning a deep turquoise colour in the sun, the Laguna was created by a massive volcanic explosion some 23,000 years ago and its green hills are now home to over 65 species of birds, howler monkeys, iguanas and white-faced capuchin monkeys. We climbed through its trails to catch a superb view of the laguna and its surroundings, and spent the evening on the dock drinking rum and watching shooting stars speed across the sky. Divers keen on exploring the murky waters can see petroglyphs on the lower crater walls, and mojarras, a unique species of fish found only in this lake: scientists at the nearby Proyecto Ecologico offer diving, kayaking, birdwatching, and reforestation programmes that make staying at the Laguna informative as well as adventurous.
:: Corn Islands
Mesmerized by the beauty of Nicaragua’s west coast, we flew from Managua in a tiny 10-seater plane over a sweeping expanse of virgin rainforest, bright blue lagoons and a deserted coastline to the Caribbean side of the nation, divided from the Pacific by poor roads and heavy jungle. This part of Nicaragua, along with half the coastal area of Honduras, was never colonised by the Spanish and was instead a British protectorate from the late 17th century to the late 19th century, known as the Miskito Kingdom.
Populated then, as now, by an indigenous Miskito population, the region’s rum and timber production attracted black labourers, many from Jamaica, resulting in an Afro-Nicaraguan population that call themselves criollos, speak a bizarre mix of Jamaican English and Spanish, listen mostly to reggae, and feel entirely isolated from the politics and culture of the capital.
The region’s relative isolation made it not only difficult to access from the Spaniards’ point of view, it also made it a haven for pirates, which is as true then as it is today: many of Corn Islands’ problems seem to relate to its proximity to both Colombia and the United States, allowing the Caribbean isles to serve as a resting point in between drug trades. That said, despite the obvious warnings the many guidebooks proffer, and the slightly freaky vibe – and looks – that the islanders can give off, the Corn Islands are one of the very few places in the world where you can still call a white sandy beach your own.
Little Corn has some of the finest coral reefs in Latin America to snorkel or dive; National Geographic Explorer rated them a nine out of 10. You’re as likely to see manta rays as eels, groupers, sharks, African pompano, corals and giant sponges resembling MC Escher mazes. A PADI diving centre offers diving certification for 250 USD, or – for the more faint-hearted – rentable snorkeling equipment.
But be warned before you venture out to sea: the turquoise waters can get quite rough and the reefs themselves cause numerous breaks in the sea that can make an easy exit hard. I noted in my journal after one snorkeling session that “I thought I might die four times”. That said, Little Corn’s sea-focused economy also makes its cuisine a delicious experience, and we followed up my near-death experience with a delicious meal from El Cubano – a local fisherman who catches lobster in the day and cooks it that night in a parmesan, garlic, tomato and onion sauce. He might have looked like a pirate with his curly black hair and gold teeth, but I felt I couldn’t have been in safer – or friendlier – hands.