Desiring an international experience to make you feel alive again? Needing travel authenticity and real, deep adventure? Need to meet real people finding their way through real life? Seen enough cheap junk in the tourist markets of the world to fill seven hundred lifetimes? Visit Nicaragua for some change.
Nicaragua, part 2. The Transnica bus dumped us on a street corner in Granada sometime mid-afternoon. Four of us were let out, Susan and me, and two apparently confused and terrified Europeans. They went off down the street bewildered. We negotiated a $1.00 cab across town to our hotel. Humorously we would see them again and again during our stay.
We checked into our hotel and to our delight the place was beautiful beyond words. A grand early Spanish colonial entryway flanked by two pairs of giant 3” thick, 10’ tall, arched, carved, raised panel mahogany doors. They were propped open to greet a quaint stoop sheltered by a terra cotta roof. The exquisite post and beam porch was strung with large hand-hammered antique iron lamps (candles replaced with modern electrical lights). The entryway spilled into a large, traditional courtyard with a garden filled with local flowers, bushes, and decorative tropical trees. Our room was upstairs in the adobe building. It had a comfortable balcony overlooking a second courtyard and pool, complete with a view of Granada’s tiled rooftops set to the backdrop of an active strata volcano. Within 5 seconds I hatched a plan to buy a big fat, hand rolled Nicaraguan cigar to smoke (I’m not a smoker but when in Rome…) right there on the front stoop and watch the night and the people pass by. I ended that night by doing exactly that. Susan and I made a new friend in a 31 year old inn keeper, Alvaro. For the better part of the night we shared stories about our respective pasts and he gave us his humble version of the Nicaraguan history, their current struggles, and their real needs. Theirs is not a bright tale filled with good endings. It is a tale of hundreds of years of abuse, prejudice, violence, and neglect. But as we found in Alvaro, and every person we met in Nicaragua, they just pick up the pieces and move forward. Every time. I admire them deeply for that. Backing up a little to explain how I came about a cigar (or five), we went out for a walk in the waning sun after checking into the hotel. We ended up in a horse drawn carriage tour of the first city in the whole of North America (Central America has historically been regarded as a region of the North American continent). Our driver was enthusiastic about showing us his city, making sure to stop and laugh at every opportunity, or tell us the history of a boulevard or building. The real highlight of the carriage ride was a visit to a locally famous family-run cigar factory.
Our driver rapped on the door until an old woman answered, unbolted the hand-forged iron gates and welcomed us inside. She showed us their tobacco processing area and antique wooden cigar roller molds on tobacco-stained rolling tables. Everything about the place was exactly as it should be. The air was ripe with the rich odor of the world’s finest tobaccos, wood, and freshly brewed coffee. Exquisitely crafted cane-back rocking chairs were gathered around a mahogany table, where the resident Scarlet Macaw perched to watch curiously as I got close for photographs.
The small factory was a little dirty – but not too much. It was a little more ornate than other buildings we had visited – but not too much. T he fine glass case was a little slumped and scratched – but not too much. The people were as friendly as they could be while they gave us a little cigar education, and lit me a little gift to enjoy on the rest of our horse-drawn carriage ride. I bought a box of five of their best. That first night we chose dinner from a top local recommendation, seconded by a travel guide. Nicaragua is known for the quality of its beef, and the depth of their cooking, so this native Texan had to put that to the test with grilled meat from everyone’s favorite spot. I ordered the grilled sampler and was totally blown away. In fact it was so good that Nicaraguan food now lives in the same sentence as my beloved New Mexico cooking, Texas and Carolina barbecues, and my favorite regional cuisines in Mexico. Yes, they are the finest foods in the world, and yes, I have dined well in Paris, and New York, and spent Christmas dinner with my Sicilian mentor and his 90+ year old mother’s cooking, so sorry to crush those food romances ya’ll. Back to the story, sorry for the foodie digression but Nicaraguan food is THAT good, served with a nice wine and it is heaven. So we turned in early and got up early, around 5:00. We relaxed and read in bed for a while to the backdrop of chirping, squawking parrots (a sound I will genuinely miss when I return to the States). The inn served us a hearty breakfast with freshly prepared watermelon juice (awesome!) and world class coffee. Then we walked out to the front stoop where I enjoyed that hand-rolled cigar the night before and hailed the first cab with a vague notion of what we wanted to see that day. Enter Jorge. I could live a hundred lifetimes and never cease to be utterly impressed by guys like this. We got into his little Corolla, and he was already speeding along the narrow streets before we could explain where we wanted to go. He was going in the right direction, and while I know he knew where we wanted to go because we’re gringos – it is more fun to think of him as clairvoyant. Off we were to Masaya, the internationally renowned home to the fine artisanal wares of Nicaragua. He lived in Miami for several years as a refugee during the Sandinista regime, and acquired a very solid grasp of the English language while there. During the drive he pointed out and told us stories about everything he could think of regarding his country. When we pulled into Masaya, he asked if he could work for us exclusively for the whole day for $40, and that he would take us anywhere we wanted to go. I told him I would consider it, to drop us at our destination and pick us up in three hours. He took us straight to the front door of the craft market and agreed. We wandered around and enjoyed the handmade leather goods, hammocks, paintings, carvings, ceramics, and textiles before jumping in to a local dive for a hard-to-describe, slow pit-cooked, spicy mash of yucca, potatoes, sausage, green bananas, onions, peppers, and homemade tortillas. Wow! After an unusually early lunch we visited another stand for a rum and tropical fruit mid-morning smoothy… While we sat, Susan scouted a children’s traditional dance competition which turned out to be simply terrific. We wandered around Masaya for an hour or so, striking up fleeting conversations with strangers, enjoying the great ancient Guanacaste trees and beautiful architecture before returning to the market to find Jorge on time to the minute. So I agreed to hire him for the rest of the day.
Jorge took us to see the active strata volcano, Volcan Masaya. He drove us up to the caldera and then down to the museum for a guided tour. We then travelled to see the furniture and hammock factories in the homes of Pueblo families lining the roads through Masatepe and circled back around through the picturesque artisan town, Catarina Mirador. Catarina saddles a small mountain, overlooking a brilliant, crystal clear volcanic depression crater lake called Laguna de Apoyo. On the horizon beyond the lake visitors can get a clear view of Granada city and the western shore of Lake Nicaragua behind it.
On the drive back, Jorge continued to share his life story with us, never missing an opportunity to teach us something else about a site we were driving past, or giving insights about the current political atmosphere in the country. To round out the excursion Jorge drove us along his favorite stretch of shore line outside of Granada, and told us which restaurants to patronize and which to stay away from. He promised to take us for local barbeque when we return – stating that the restaurants are good, but the home cooking is great! Jorge is proud of his country and he embraces his people’s recently earned freedom and liberties with pride, we could not have asked for a better guide. These are only some of the things we did. Granada’s streets bustle with smiles and laughter and the clank of dishes and drinks. Everywhere you look there are people relaxing after a day’s hard work in beautifully crafted rocking chairs. Everyone waves and their smiles are contagious. There were more wonderful meals. Evening walks. Conversations. Susan even spoke to a well-known actor staying in our hotel. This trip was a multisensory blur very rich, I will never forget. Jorge dropped us at the door of our hotel exactly where he picked us up about 9 hours earlier. He told us that it had been his pleasure working for us and that he hoped our stay was great and that we would return to his beautiful country again and again. I hired him for a final ride to the Transnica station the following morning, and yes, he was five minutes early, with family and his boss in tow, in the cab. Back on a bus. Back across the border. Back on a plane. Back to Costa Rica. Back to the gorgeous mountains of the south. We had great food, great drinks, heard great music, saw great art and crafts, experienced great weather, and most importantly met many wonderful people. Make it a point. Put it on your bucket list. Susan and I already long to go back. Keep up. Stuart.