THE COUNTRY. Nicaragua seems to be one of those destinations which almost guarantees you a questioning eyebrow as a response to the question “where are you going ?”. I probably wouldn’t blame most, because the country is still remembered for it’s wars, conflicts and revolutionaries. I’m hoping I could play the role of a mini ambassador and promote this beautiful country which so rightfully deserves to be on everyone’s list-of-places-to-visit.
Nicaragua is the biggest country in Central America, as well as the least-densely populated. True, it’s ranked as the second poorest in the hemisphere, but has been ranked too as the one of the safest countries in Central and South America. It rated 5th in all of Central and South America by the Global Peace Index, next to Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Panama. It’s capital, Managua, has it’s fair share of bad reputation and is apparently the most chaotic among all the cities in Central America – but if you’ve been to any big Central American city, this doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, it’s a big city, so it comes with it’s big city problems.
THE CITY. Let’s take a rain check on Managua then and let me take you to the one of the oldest cities in the Americas, once built by the Spaniards to show that they can build something beautiful, one they can be proud of …. La Gran Sultan, GRANADA.
Granada, the second largest city in Nicaragua (although Leon might argue with that), lies on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America (next to Lake Titicaca … hey! I was there last year ! 😀 ). Granada sort of reminds me of La Antigua Guatemala, with it’s typical Spanish colonial architecture. The streets are lined with colorful tall adobe walls with towering wooden doors which opens up to beautiful internal courtyards of restaurants, hotels, or just a common household. I know I shouldn’t compare Antigua with Granada, as each of them are beautiful in their own right. Granada is like a beauty queen, long after it’s reign, behind it’s wrinkles and crow’s feet, you can still see the beauty it once was, and the beauty it still is. Don’t get me wrong, Antigua is amazingly pretty, where every wooden door leads you to a perfectly manicured courtyard or a perfectly decorated restaurant. It almost seems too good to be true, a beauty queen at the height of it’s fame, hair and make up done perfectly everyday. Granada, on the other hand, is proud to show it’s age spots, almost unaware of it’s natural beauty and it’s potential, it’s a gem waiting for it’s turn to shine.
The city is definitely not undiscovered. We saw several backpackers milling about, tour buses pulling up on the street once in while, unloading a big group of tourists, and we noticed a lot of young Spanish school students filling up the café’s and bars at night. However, it is still not overrun by tourists, which makes it a really neat place to visit. The city still functions for itself, for the locals mainly, and not for tourists. A lot of locals still live within the centro historico and there are still more households than there are restaurants and hotels. I was hard pressed to find gift/souvenir shops and there weren’t a lot of vendors selling the usual tourist traps. True, there are a lot of vendors walking around selling hand made ceramics, but they are relatively concentrated on Calle La Calzada, the 3 blocks in the city where most tourists seem to hang around. Being a tourist in Granada still gives you that privilege of experiencing a day in the life of a Nicaraguan.
The main plaza, parque central (of course) is flanked by the impressive post-card worthy Cathedral, and restored colonial mansions on all sides, now serving as hotels or restaurants (of course). Unlike Cusco (sorry for the comparison) where the plaza is packed with tourists, here, the plaza is home to locals sitting on the shaded park benches, or just gathering around one of the ubiquitous street food vendors. On each corner of the plaza is a food kiosk, selling drinks (non-alcoholic) and comida tipicas. The kiosks are surrounded by wooden tables and chairs, and are very well lit at night. We found that this is a very peaceful and quiet alternative to the loud and pulsating Calle La Calzada at night.
There are a few more churches in the city that are noteworthy – as you do in a colonial city. We climbed the bell tower of both the Cathedral (where I think the best sunset view is) and the Iglesia La Merced (where books claim to have the best view in the city).
We spent 5 days walking every street and cross street in Granada. One of the wonderful things about Granada is that, all it takes is to walk one block away from the plaza, and you are off the beaten path, and right there you can experience a normal daily life of a Nicaraguense. Kids having baseball or soccer practice; Locals passing time watching TV in their living room; Hotdog stands in almost every corner; Kids playing on the sidewalk; Grandma’s and grandpa’s taking a nap on their rocking chair; Students walking home from school for lunch; Grandma selling jocote (Spanish plum, aka siniguelas) and sliced green mango on a wooden table outside her house; The barber sleeping on the barber’s chair while waiting for customers.
Time seems to move in slow motion in Granada. The entire city seems to be in a perpetual siesta mode, the air continually infused with Nyquil. Something brings me back to my childhood days. It must be the breeze from the lake, or maybe the distant sound of the radio, or maybe the occasional pickup truck that goes by advertising an upcoming event on loudspeakers ….. DOMINGGOOO SYETE DE MARSO, BARRR Y RESSTAURANTTEEE!!! … or maybe the chico, makopa and star apples sold on the street. Or maybe the weather …
THE WEATHER. It’s hot in the morning, hotter in the middle of the day, and back to just being hot at night. It’s hot and humid, but with pleasant breeze towards the end of the day. Every inch of my body is screaming … I’m home. The sun must be harsher though because I got sunburned! Me. Sunburned. Yup. That’s a phenomenon that happens very rarely… we get blue moon in New Year more often than me getting sunburned. It usually takes about 3 consecutive days of laying out in the sun, with the aid of a tanning oil, for me to get sunburned…. But not just by walking up and down the streets. By Day 2, I learned how to use sunblock. I know, I know, I shouldn’t abuse the fact that I have plenty of eumelanin in my skin .
THE FOOD. Hmn. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can say about the food. I have to admit, Peru still holds the number 1 spot in my heart … I mean, my tummy … for the best gastronomical experience in my travels. I can only eat so much tostones, and I am not a big fan of beans. The national drink, Macua, is good though . It’s made of rhum plus soda water and mandarina (a citrus fruit that’s like a bigger mandarin orange, a sweeter version of the Philippine dalandan). And oh, there are no McDonalds or Kentucky or any American food chains. Isn’t that nice ?
STREET FOOD…. Is an entirely different story though. It must be major decision for the locals to choose which hotdog stand to go to in the plaza. There’s practically one every 5 feet or so. Plus all the stands for enchilada, fried plantains, some mashed yucca topped with meat, beans and shredded cabbage, a basket of assorted candies and cigarettes, green mangoes and of course my favorite – the green, unripe jocotes. I eat jocotes all day until my teeth are brittle and my lips are white from the salt . Locals use some sort of chili sauce aside from salt, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the chili.
THE PEOPLE. Nicaraguans are very warm and friendly. One of the wonderful things about Granada, is that locals are not tired of tourists yet and I personally hope it stays that way for a while. Locals would be sitting on their doorstep or standing by their door and without hesitation would give us a very warm smile coupled with an “Hola” or “Buenas”. Most, if not all, of these wooden doors are wide open all day, you can practically see the entire interior of the house as you walk by. They don’t seem to mind. Most households seem to have a set of wicker living room furniture set (most likely from the nearby village of Masatepe), and definitely EVERY household has wooden rocking chairs (also handmade from Masatepe). In the middle of the day, we’d see people sitting on their rocking chairs facing a TV, and sometimes asleep. Doors are just wide open, it feels like I can just walk in and sit on an empty rocking chair and nobody would mind. Towards the end of the day, everyone moves their rocking chairs out to the sidewalk, like a daily ritual. The sidewalks become extensions of their living rooms. Everyone moves their chairs out the door and sits outside, feel the afternoon breeze, talk to each other, and just watch the daylight turn into dusk
NIGHTLIFE. Don’t be fooled by the drowsy ambience of this city. Calle La Calzada, the pedestrian-only street on one side of the cathedral which leads to the lake, becomes a mini South Beach as the sun goes down – sans half naked bodies gyrating on tabletops.
The cafes and restaurants would start taking out their outdoor tables and chairs in the late afternoon, and music starts blaring from loudspeakers which are seemingly on a who’s-the-loudest-of-them-all contest. All the tables and chairs are soon packed with people, I don’t even know where they all come from or where they are during the day – probably on some rocking chair watching TV with eyes closed. A lot of them seems to be groups of young students, whose parents are probably thinking their kids are diligently studying Spanish and learning the culture of Latin America (note to self: This is what Jilly will do at night, every night, if she goes to a foreign immersion program). There’s quite a lot of tourists too, and some locals mixed into the crowd. Local kids try different tricks to sell their wares, but they are still not as annoying as most touristy cities (Except for this one boy who thinks he is cute by speaking in tongues in a high pitched voice). After 2 nights, we were Calle-La-Calzada’d-out and for the rest of the week, we opted to just explore and discover other hidden restaurants .
VILLAGES AROUND GRANADA. We hired a cab + driver and spent a day exploring the pueblos blancos (no, they are not white) which are the small villages around Granada. And yes, they are small. These villages are even on double dose of Nyquil, it’s a mystery how people still do their daily tasks. I’d probably be asleep all day. It was very nice though. It’s the simplicity of life at it’s finest. In one of the villages, we just sat in one park bench (while I munched on jocotes) and watched the students spend their lunch break showing off their breakdancing steps, kids playing in the park see-saw and slides, street vendors chatting, or just locals passing time in a bench, just like us. It’s life moving at zero miles per hour. I will never age if I live there.
One of the villages is the birthplace of Augusto Sandino, the man whose legacy was claimed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the man behind the red-and-black banner, a hero to many leftists, a Robin Hood figure to many in Latin America. His silhouette with an oversized cowboy hat can be seen everywhere, from t-shirts, to stenciled graffiti on a wall.
There is one building across the main park which our driver brought to our attention. The walls are filled with bullet holes … and he said something (in Spanish of course) which I didn’t quite understand – but somehow enough for me to grasp the context after hearing the name “Somoza” somewhere in the sentence .
So that was our 5 days in Nicaragua …… a wonderful birthday present indeed. A place and experience I will never forget.