- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — When I studied Spanish in Costa Rica in the late ‘90s, my host family always warned me about crossing the border. “Stay away from there,” they said. “You’ll be assaulted, stripped of your belongings and sent running for the airport. It’s muy peligroso (very dangerous).”

Throughout my travels in Latin America and especially back home in the United States, people would often tell me of the dangers in Nicaragua. It was, after all, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and a place wracked by natural disasters, civil war and revolution. Anyone who remembers the headlines of the 1980s can’t help but subconsciously associate Nicaragua with war, chaos and danger.

But adventurous travelers are starting to discover that behind its lingering bad rap, Nicaragua is a quiet and peaceful country struggling to repair its image. Bullet holes and shrapnel marks still adorn many buildings, and a few rogue land mines still lie in the countryside, but Nicaragua’s fighters now use ballots instead of bullets. When it comes to crime, Nicaragua is actually one of the safest countries in Latin America.

Known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” this tiny country has the potential to be one of the hottest destinations south of the border.

The capital, Managua, with 1.6 million residents, often has been the epicenter of the country’s ill reputation. Few cities in the world have been so constantly battered by man and nature — flooded by Lake Managua in 1876, leveled by an earthquake in 1885, damaged by a military arsenal explosion in 1902, destroyed by civil war in 1912, torched by fire in 1931, struck by a polio epidemic in 1971 and damaged by war in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1972, when more than 600 city blocks were leveled by an earthquake that killed 10,000 people, few bothered to rebuild. Most of the former city center still lies in ruins as a patchwork of vacant lots and shantytowns.

Life in Nicaragua is often measured by disasters, but there is a certain beauty in the country’s residents — Nicas, as they are known — a strength to rebuild, reorganize and carry on with a smile. Nicaraguans are tough as nails, a beautiful people who are a testament to human resilience.

Three-fourths of the population survives on less than $2 per day, but there’s always a subtle optimism that better days will come manana. Nicaragua welcomed me with brazos abiertos (open arms), and I’ve always found it ironic that some of the world’s poorest people are the most hospitable.

FIRE IN SWEET SEA

When I stood on the shores of Lake Cocibolca at the ramshackle port of San Jorge, the eerie and magical sight of Isla de Ometepe sent shivers down my spine. The twin peaks of the volcanic island rose from the murky waters of the lake into a patch of clouds.

Also known as Lake Nicaragua, this mar dulce (sweet sea) is home to the world’s only freshwater sharks, sawfish and tarpon. When the sun sets every evening, large colonies of vampire bats take to the skies of Ometepe, and villagers go to sleep knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the Concepcion volcano flexes its muscles.

Ometepe is a little more than 34 miles long and 8 miles wide, but its horrendous roads make circling the island a half-day ordeal of bouncing, cracked axles and broken rims. When the dark clouds above the volcanoes release their rains, it only gets worse.

The island isn’t quite ready for mainstream tourists, but those willing to suffer the abuse of its roads will find some of the greatest natural gems in all of Central America — towering volcanoes, hidden caves; thick jungles; cascading waterfalls; and a plethora of wildlife, including sloth, capuchins, howler monkeys and more than 80 species of birds.

Originally settled by the Nahuatl Indians from Mexico, Ometepe — which in Nahuatl means “land of two volcanoes” — is awash in legends and lore. Hundreds of petroglyphs are carved into boulders and rock faces around the island, most of which are believed to date to A.D. 300. In the marshy areas of Charco Verde, legend has it that an old man (Chico Largo) offers people wealth and prosperity in exchange for their souls, which he changes into cattle.

Cattle, whatever their souls, rule the dirt paths and roads of Ometepe, wandering the landscape freely in search of grazing pastures. Dogs, pigs, chickens and monkeys coexist with Ometepe’s 30,000 inhabitants, from the farthest reaches of the island to the central streets of Moyogalpa.

Traveling to the base of Concepcion by horseback, I encountered massive herds of steers being chased down narrow, steep paths by Nicaraguan cowboys. Lonely boys picked mangos from trees, large lizards rustled through the shrubs, and monkeys rioted every time I approached them.

Concepcion has one of the most perfectly shaped cones in Central America and a height of 5,282 feet. The quintessential volcano rises from the brush and exposes its rocky and jagged surface, scarred from thousands of years of lava flows and tremors. Although it last erupted in 1957, the mountain towers over the island as a constant reminder of nature’s fury, belching molten lava and sulfuric gases. As with many active volcanoes, the mixing of hot and cold air creates an almost-permanent cloud at the peak. Those with the strength and stamina can make the two-day journey to the volcano’s peak and stare straight down into the belly of the beast.

On the other side of Ometepe, the now-dormant and less intimidating Volcan Maderas is encased in coffee plantations and thick forest. I climbed partially up the slopes of the 4,573-foot Maderas to find a 200-foot cascading waterfall that rolled down the slopes through banana plantations and onward to the sweet sea below.

At the top of Maderas, deep in its rocky, mist-shrouded crater is a small lake of frigid turquoise water. It offers intrepid travelers one of the world’s most unusual swimming experiences, in a lake in the crater of a volcano on an island in the middle of a lake in the middle of Central America.

SACKING NICARAGUA

When traveling through this land of lakes and volcanoes, it’s impossible to escape its history of war, piracy and foreign occupation. Bullet holes adorn colonial buildings, murals honor men with AK-47s, and the spirit of popular revolution still lingers in the air.

Most Nicas are more than willing to share their experiences with visitors, as just about everyone over 30 has recollections of the Sandinista revolution, the following contra war and a catalog of natural disasters.

The United States has a dubious and suspicious legacy in Nicaragua, but Americans are welcome. Gringo culture is as popular as ever and, unlike in the rest of Central America, baseball is the national sport (a product of years of occupation by U.S. Marines). More than a million Nicaraguans live in the United States, and it seems that just about everyone in Managua knows someone living in Florida, Texas or California.

“People still resent some of the things los Estados Unidos has done in the past. But no one holds that against the American people,” one of my taxi drivers in Managua said. “I think Nicaragua is ready to put many of these things in the past.”

Founded in 1524 by Hernandez de Cordoba, Granada — also known as La Gran Sultana (the Grand Sultan) — is the one of oldest cities in Central America. As a port town and a symbol of Spanish wealth, Granada was eyed by various powers and pirates. In 1855, the notorious gringo William Walker stormed into the town with his mercenaries and declared himself president of Nicaragua. Bent on taking over a Latin American territory and institutionalizing slavery, he kept returning to Central America until he was executed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860.

Granada has a turbulent past, but many believe it has the potential to become Nicaragua’s crown jewel of tourism. It is the country’s third-largest city, but it retains a colonial atmosphere with a tranquil historical center that takes travelers back in time. Fresco vendors roll carts down cobblestone streets, families drag rocking chairs out to watch the sunset, and young boys shine shoes and knock mangos out of the trees in the central plaza. In the early mornings, old men whisk rickety horse carriages down dusty paths and wade-fish using nothing more than a hook with a line tied around their wrist.

The narrow cobblestone streets weave through a patchwork of red tile roofs that contrast sharply with the pearl-blue sky. All of Granada rolls downhill to the shores of Lake Cocibolca, just beneath the shadow of the cloud-covered Volcan Mombacho. The few gringos who wander down to this Nicaraguan jewel will find it to be worlds away from the chaos of Managua.

Leon, just 11/2 hours west of Managua, was founded by Cordoba the same year as Granada. The original Leon was deserted when Mombotombo erupted in 1610, and the rebuilt city was the Nicaraguan capital a few times before 1852. While Granada was historically a conservative town, rival Leon has always been a breeding ground for leftist ideologies.

Leon escaped some of the piracy that Granada withstood during the 1800s, but it saw heavy fighting during the Somoza dynasty. Along with neighboring Chinandega, it was bombed heavily in 1978 by followers of Anastasio Somoza Debayle when the Sandinistas captured the town.

Leon remains a Sandinista stronghold, as is evident in its political murals, voting record and occasional protests. Wandering the outskirts of the central park, I noticed leftist murals depicting the history of Nicaragua along with sarcastic portrayals of the CIA and shrines to Latin American revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Augusto Sandino.

What was once Latin America’s hotbed of revolution is now a tranquil university town of quiet, shaded parks and colonial churches.

HANG THE HAMMOCK

Volcanoes are an inescapable part of Nicaragua’s geography and have had a major impact on its human history. There are 40 — six of them active — and it seems that the towering cones dot the horizon just about everywhere in Nicaragua. Volcanoes bring fertile lands and thermal power, but it all comes at a cost. Along with catastrophic eruptions come mudslides and avalanches that have destroyed villages and caused entire cities to relocate.

Along with its wars and turmoil, Nicaragua’s volcanoes have made international headlines. In January 1835, Volcan Cosiguina blew its top and threw ash as far as Mexico and Jamaica.

Even extinct volcanoes can be deadly. When Hurricane Mitch rampaged through the country in 1998, torrential rains filled the crater of the Casita volcano, causing the crater lip to collapse. An avalanche of mud, water and rock roared down to the communities below and killed thousands.

Volcanoes entrance and mystify even those who have lived beside them for years. It is rumored that a dictator had dissidents thrown into Volcan Masaya.

With all this geothermal activity, the landscape of Nicaragua is always changing. More than 20,000 years ago, Mombacho’s violent eruption threw the top half of the volcano into Lake Cocibolca. The rocks and boulders eventually developed into 365 tiny islands off the coast of Granada. Las Isletas now support growing communities of impoverished fishermen who live alongside tiny islands owned by Latin American elites.

SAN JUAN DEL SUR

I went down to the Pacific coast on a rickety bus jam-packed with people, livestock and produce. San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s premier beach town but is worlds away from being a tourist beach resort. In the town, pigs still root around in the park, chickens peck around the chaotic market, men ride horses along the beach, and locals wade into the surf to fish for their next meal. All-inclusive resorts, fancy tour buses and poolside bars don’t exist here, and you’ll never hear Jimmy Buffett playing in the background.

Those looking for baby-blue water and crystal-clear sand should stay in Margaritaville; the beach, like many others in Central America, is an untrampled place of dark brown sand with submerged logs and jagged rocks. But San Juan del Sur never was meant to be a place to kick back with a margarita in hand. It is a place to travel back to a simpler time, soak up the Latin rhythms and hang with the locals.

I spent my time on the coast simply wandering around — biking down the jagged coast to small villages, hiking the dusty unknown paths that lead somewhere in the jungle, and riding in the beds of pickup trucks with bananas and livestock.

Eventually, I hacked my way through the jungle to find my own perfect beach, where there was nothing but me and the monkeys.

After being entranced by San Juan del Sur’s famous sunsets, I would crash in a hammock, sweat, drink beer, swat mosquitoes and listen to the sounds of the Central American coast. Without the rumbling of air conditioners, the zooming of passing cars or laughing of throngs of tourists, I could hear the insects play their symphony throughout the night, with occasional interruptions by a pack of howler monkeys.

Under the cover of darkness, sea turtles fought the waves to shore to seek out nesting grounds. Some of the most memorable nights of my life weren’t spent in resorts — they were spent in hammocks in the coastal villages of Central America.

It’s in a place such as this that the true Nicaragua reveals itself. Past the stereotypes and behind the headlines, this quiet country is destined to become the next hot spot in Latin America. It’s an undiscovered, untrampled land of lakes and volcanoes, and those of us who seek authentic experiences will have the place all to ourselves for quite a while.

Every night in Nicaragua, I went to sleep with a smile, thankful that I didn’t take anyone’s advice to stay away.

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