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NICARAGUA

Follow in the
wake of pirates
and adventurers

G R E AT E S C A P E
The San Juan River winds
through the Indio Maz
Biological Reserve, which
features trees up to 50 metres
tall and 500 years old

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NICARAGUA
Clockwise from top left The 1915
Cathedral of Granada; locals chat outside
a hairdressers; the citys characteristic
pastel-coloured buildings; a vividly
painted statue of the Virgin Mary

1. Granada
Wander the wide cobblestone boulevards and linger in
the churches of Nicaraguas phoenix-like colonial city

F
OUND IN POCKETS, CASH Granada is the city Nicaraguans are most By the time Mauricio has set out on his
tills and stuffed down sofas proud of, he explains, parked among the last trot, the scorching afternoon heat gives
across Nicaragua is the 100 laurel trees in the central square, scouting way to a gentle breeze. Evening crowds
crdoba note (about 2.50), for customers to take on an afternoon tour. stroll beneath the wrought-iron lampposts
showing the Cathedral of It is the oldest city in Central America, and and acacia trees, beside the peeling stuccoed
Granada, presiding over the nations most it has a history that makes everyone feel faades of barbers shops and Granadas
handsome city. Turn the note over and romantic. Sometimes, when I have people long-closed railway station, where steam
youll see the other famous symbol of in the back of my carriage, I wish it didnt engines have been rusting at the platform
Granada a horse-drawn carriage and its make them quite so romantic! for decades. Games of baseball strike up by
grinning driver, clip-clopping along the Whether seen on foot or from the back of the shores of Lake Nicaragua and the last
citys cobbled streets. a carriage, Granadas architectural harmony rays of sun disappear from the highest spires
The horses, the carriage and the grin all is apt to prompt profound reactions; a of the city. Morgan, Walker and various
belong to Mauricio Sanchez himself part refined antidote to the sprawling megacities others failed to appreciate that Granadas
of the long tradition of Granada carriage of Central America. Jumping on the habit of getting destroyed was matched
drivers. One day Mauricio looked up carriage, the wheels soon rattle beneath only by its habit for rebuilding itself

G R E AT E S C A P E
from a handful of change to see his own, the duck-egg-blue faade of the Iglesia San bigger and more beautiful than before.
moustached face smiling back at him, Francisco and the off-white Iglesia de la
the depiction copied from a photo taken Merced churches both originally built From Granada, its an hours bus ride to San Jorge to
by a tourist a few years ago. in the 1500s, their foundations laid not so catch the hour-long ferry to Ometepe Island.
long after Columbus spied the New World
through his telescope. Inside, people
Carriage driver Mauricio Sanchez shuffle up creaking staircases to the top of Essentials
bell towers for views over the rooftops of
the city: villas with shuttered windows,
courtyards with gurgling fountains and
old tobacco factories in the distance. The
carriage passes squares where locals picnic
on lunches of cassava and pork rinds served
at little kiosks, sitting beside statues of
Nicaraguan poets with sparrows perched
on their learned heads.
Rather surprisingly, Granada has the
moniker The Great Sultan the Spanish
settlers intending to build a tribute to the
citys Moorish namesake over the Atlantic
in the Old World. But whats even more
surprising is that Granada exists at all. In
1665, Welsh pirate Henry Morgan sailed to
Granada on one especially swashbuckling
raid, paddling canoes up the San Juan
River by night and sneaking across Lake
Nicaragua. He did what any self-respecting
pirate would do when confronted with Hotel Dario is a colonial-era hotel with
a city of exquisite beauty after a long, an imposing mint-green front just south of the
exhausting and miserable journey: he cathedral. Rooms with ceiling fans and timber
burnt it to the ground. There followed three furniture are arranged around two elegant
more pirate raids along similar lines, and a Andalucian-style courtyards (from 65;
conquest by maverick American adventurer hoteldario.com).
William Walker in the 1850s a man who Horse-drawn carriages can be hired from
proclaimed himself President of Nicaragua, the Parque Central an hour-long tour takes
and, when this didnt go down so well, left in all the churches and the waterfront park by
the embers of the city with a sign reading Lake Nicaragua (from 10).
Here was Granada.

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NICARAGUA

The active volcano


Concepcin, shrouded in
cloud it last erupted in 2010

2. Ometepe
Set a course for an island of twin smouldering volcanoes, black-sand

G R E AT E S C A P E
beaches and ancient legends, set in Central America's largest lake

S
TANDING UNDER A PICTURE Following a footpath along the islands Kayakers on Lake Nicaragua haul their boats
of the Archangel Michael, southern shore, Ometepe today still seems onto the black-sand beaches, and groups of
Captain Donald Jarquin rests his a place of almost Eden-like abundance. friends sip rum at ramshackle beachfront
hands on the tiller of the ferry Gardens of mangoes, watermelons, chillies bars. One by one, lights from distant villages
El Rey del Cocibolca, scanning and bananas shade trails that meander emerge, twinkling like fireflies in the dusk.
the horizon beyond the steel-grey waves. between the lakeside bungalows, passing For now, at least, worries of scheming
Some way ahead, two mountains rise stacked sacks of coffee beans and tangled witches, volcanic annihilation and
leviathan-like from the water, their summits tree roots as they go. accidental gender reassignment could
crowned with wispy haloes of cloud. Pre-Columbian legends have thrived here not be farther from anyones minds.
Ometepe is almost a different country to too. Before long, the path reaches Laguna
the rest of Nicaragua, explains island native Charco Verde: a little emerald-green lagoon Back in San Jorge, its a seven-hour drive to San Carlos
Donald, throttling the engine. People are mirroring the pyramid of Concepcin, at the head of the San Juan River. Alternatively,
different; the landscape is different even kingfishers swooping along its shores and board regular buses for a two-hour trip north to
the volcanoes are different. spiny cedar trees growing along its banks. Managua and catch a plane.
Nicaragua has dozens of volcanoes, from The waters are said to conceal an entrance to
soaring peaks to squat little lumps of lava. the underworld, guarded by a swimming Essentials
None have shaped the countrys landscape witch who barters for mortal souls (and who
as exquisitely as Concepcin and Maderas, also has a penchant for turning them into
two volcanoes that surged out of boiling farmyard animals). It is not the only legend
water long ago and joined to form the island on Ometepe: one story tells of a little stream
of Ometepe (meaning two mountains). whose waters are said to trigger an instant
This mini lost world has long been a sex change though this doesnt deter the
retreat for those wishing to escape the busy women who come here to wash their laundry.
cities along the lakes shore. Ferry-loads of There are geological hazards as well as
Nicaraguans arrive at weekends to hike to mythical ones on Ometepe. Its not long
Totoco Eco-lodge has seven thatched
remote waterfalls, kayak lagoons and paddle before the trail reaches a yellow sign
bungalows on the slopes of Maderas. The
the pebbly shallows of the lake, stalked by reading Ruta de evacuacin with regular
restaurant serves simple but satisfying
the twin summits of the volcanoes wherever eruptions of Concepcin, the government
Nicaraguan food (from 70; totoco.com.ni).
they go. In truth, Ometepe has always occasionally orders islanders to evacuate
The ferry from San Jorge on the mainland to
possessed an almost mystical power over (though they struggle to persuade a good
the port of Moyogalpa takes one hour (from
the Nicaraguan imagination. Aztec settlers portion of the 30,000 inhabitants to leave).
1.20; ometepenicaragua.com). The Laguna
from Mexico thought they had discovered By the time the last ferry hauls into the
Charco Verde is set in the Charco Verde nature
Ojo de Agua is one of Ometepes the promised land when they saw the island docks, Lake Nicaragua sparkles in the
reserve, close to the town of San Jos del Sur
natural water holes, and is they were proved right when they found afternoon sunshine, and the twin clouded
(admission 50p).
popular with swimmers its fertile volcanic soil yielded giant crops. summits blush in the slanting light.

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3. San Juan
Rosa Amelia Herrera lives
with her husband Cristbal

River
on the banks of the San Juan

Follow the route of pirates


and Gold Rush pioneers
into the heart of the jungle

I
T IS JUST BEFORE SUNRISE ON
the San Juan River, and the sounds
of the jungle stir like an orchestra
tuning up. There is the percussive
rattle of cicadas and the staccato
putter of a motorboat, setting the reflection
of the moon on the water trembling as it
departs. There are the whoops of howler
monkeys invisible in the high canopy, and
the deep bass gulps of caimans, wallowing
in the reed-strewn shallows by the banks.
The real maestro, however, is the river itself
foaming over rapids, making the timbers of
riverside stilt houses groan mournfully with
the quickening of the current.
What the Amazon is to Brazil, the San
Juan is to Nicaragua a 119-mile stretch of
water journeying east from Lake Nicaragua

G R E AT E S C A P E
to the coastal lagoons of the Caribbean Sea,
forming the border with Costa Rica for its
final leagues. And midway along is the Indio
Maz Biological Reserve an area of virgin
rainforest more than 1,500 miles square, in
whose remoter reaches the paw prints of
jaguars, ocelots and pumas can be found.
Taking a guided trek through its muddy whichever direction you happen to look: From San Carlos, its a six-hour bus trip to the
footpaths in the half light of early morning, capuchin monkeys swing from the creepers, capital Managua, from which there are regular
it seems everything is constructed on a wild orchids burst through the leaf litter, the flights to Great Corn Island. From there, it's a
superlative scale. Giant cobwebs cling to rustle of displaced foliage hints at some half-hour boat ride to Little Corn.
towering almond trees, which might have unseen creature escaping the attention of
been saplings when conquistadors first set approaching people. Only occasionally does
foot in the New World. Minuscule poison- the rumble of river traffic on the San Juan
Essentials
dart frogs hop about the ferns, their backs rise above the clamour of the jungle.
coloured luminous reds and yellows. It is Without any surfaced roads nearby, the
a place with a dense profusion of life in San Juan remains an important connection
between Nicaraguas Spanish-speaking west
A cormorant rests on the and its Creole-speaking Caribbean coast
banks of the San Juan but long ago this was the only route into
Nicaragua. In the 19th century when the
Wild West was still wild and Panama was
canal-less steamboats carried Gold Rush
prospectors travelling from New York to
California via the San Juan River. In the
more distant past, pirates from the Atlantic Luna del Rio in El Castillo has five simple
rowed upstream through the jungle to timber-panelled rooms, the best of which have
plunder Nicaraguas Spanish cities. balconies looking out over the San Juan River.
I am so used to the river, I dont even hear Guests can eat excellent fish dishes on the terrace
the sound of it, says Rosa Amelia Herrera, (from 45; riosanjuannicaragua@yahoo.es).
swinging in her rocking chair and watching The main point of access for El Castillo is the
cargo boats slip past. Aged 84, she is one of town of San Carlos at the source of the San Juan
the oldest residents of the riverside village River. From here, two daily panga boats take
of El Castillo, and has lived in the same stilt around 90 minutes (5, departing 6.30am and
house built by her husband Cristbal 10am). Its possible to arrange half-day guided A view across the San Juan
since she was 22. All of my children were tours of the Indio Maz Biological Reserve from River from La Fortaleza, a
born above the current. When I dont hear the tourist office in El Castillo (from 45). 17th-century fortress built to
the sound of the river, I miss it. defend Granada from pirate raids

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Jovan Emanuel with his


djembe. Left Hammocks are
the favoured way to relax on
Little Corn. Right Bicycle is
the ideal way to get around

4. Little Corn Island


Doze in a hammock, go beachcombing on white-sand shores and abandon

G R E AT E S C A P E
your Spanish phrasebook on Nicaraguas most serene Caribbean island

N
ICARAGUA IS A COUNTRY footpaths should be explored with strategic Back on Big Corn, catch a return flight to Managua;
with beguiling geography, slowness. An amble in any direction will, from here its a two-hour bus ride to Len.
from its two vast lakes to within 15 minutes, see visitors arriving at
the chain of volcanoes along a white-sand beach. The beach will, in all Essentials
its spine. This means that probability, be dotted with driftwood and
someone studying a map probably wont coconut husks, tangled nets and beached
notice two punctuation-sized dots of land fishing boats that havent known the splash
off its east coast: Little Corn Island and Big of the Caribbean for generations. Very
Corn Island. Upon disembarking at Big Corn likely there will be people horizontal
airport, with its arrivals hall not much in hammocks slung from palm trees.
bigger than a bus stop, it becomes clear that At the centre of the island is a baseball
this is a place that moves to its own tempo. field where horses graze, with a grandstand
The language turns from hurried Spanish that some say is big enough to seat the
to the slow, mellow tones of Creole. The entire population of Little Corn. At the
quick shuffling of Latin American pop southern end is the Village, which, being
music switches to the gentle bounce of the only settlement on the island, doesnt
reggae on the radios. And, on taking the require the formality of being named. It is
half-hour ferry ride from the quays of Big a place only slightly less peaceful than the
Corn to the shores of Little Corn, the pace rest of Little Corn: dancehall music plays on
of life shifts from slow to the last rung a Friday night, gospel rings out on a Sunday Yemaya resort sits on the northern edge of
above stationary. For though Little Corn morning. The clink of pool games sound Little Corn Island close to the beautiful Otto
technically counts as Nicaraguan soil, from beachfront bars around sunset and, Beach, with cabins set in landscaped gardens.
this is a bona fide Caribbean island. at irregular intervals, a sudden cacophony Theres an excellent on-site restaurant serving
Little Corn is a place where everyone says of drumming comes from a nearby house. Caribbean dishes, regular yoga classes and
good morning and good evening to each Sometimes we play our drums for hours private boats to shuttle guests to and from the
other, says Winston Downs, aka Mr Winnie, without stopping, says Jovan Emanuel. airport on Big Corn Island (bungalows from
mayor of Little Corn Island (population: Hes sitting on his porch playing a djembe 230, sleeping two; littlecornhotel.com).
1,200, cars: 0), sheltering from a brief rain an instrument made from almond wood Little Corn Island is a 40-minute boat ride
shower inside the islands little community and taut goat skin, common to Nicaraguas from Big Corn Island (4). Theres excellent
centre. We dont need roads here because Caribbean coast. Little Corn inspires me. diving in the lagoons around Little Corn Island
Little Corn is blessed with
roads only make people go faster. Why When I touch the drum, I feel a kind of Dive Little Corn is among the reputable outfits numerous palm-fringed beaches
would we need to go faster here? lightness inside me, I feel completely in the Village (open-water PADI course 230; coconut production was the
Being barely two miles long and one mile weightless. But, however loud we play, we divelittlecorn.net). islands primary industry for
wide, Little Corn Island is a place whose never get complaints from the neighbours. most of the 20th century

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5. Len
Head to Nicaraguas original capital city
to read deep into the countrys poetic soul

I
T IS GRADUATION DAY IN and vegetables. Evenings see students
Len, and students gather outside idling outside the cathedral, beside
the whitewashed face of the a fountain guarded by four growling
cathedral. In the cool reaches stone lions. Wherever you go, a chain of
of the nave, parents mingle with volcanoes still forms a (now fortunately
tutors, watched over by marble saints more distant) backdrop to Lens
and relics brought across the Atlantic from crumbling colonial grandeur.
Spain half a millennium ago. Outside, Len is Nicaraguas city of books,
loudspeakers turned up to seismic volume says Alberto Alvarez Oporta Cruz,

G R E AT E S C A P E
blast pop music across squares full of a secondhand bookseller selling crinkly
revellers, rattling the iron shutters of volumes in the town square, looking to
shop fronts and threatening to loosen pick up more stock from departing
the terracotta roof tiles above. students. Len is our countrys cradle
Like The Godfather Part II, The Empire of poetry we have so much to inspire
Strikes Back and Terminator 2: Judgment poets here.
Day, a sequel can surpass the original Across Latin America, Nicaragua has
Looking east from the top
and this is most definitely the case with a reputation as a country of poets: a place of the cathedral, volcanoes
the Nicaraguan city of Len. Founded in where skilled bards are revered as rock dominate Lens horizon
1524 as the countrys first capital, Len stars, and where everyone, from primary
was initially renowned as a pit of Old school pupils to the president, pens their A woman sells baskets
Testament-style vice ruled by tyrants own verses. In Len its not uncommon Essentials at the side of the street.
with an appetite for money grabbing and to see students selling printouts of their Right The Mexican-style
massacring indigenous locals. And sure compositions to passers-by. Baroque Recoleccin church.
enough, in true Old Testament-style, Albertos favourite poet and Lens Far right A fruit stall holder
Len was destroyed and buried under most famous son lies not far away, buried
ash by a volcanic eruption in 1610. beneath a statue of a more sorrowful stone
Len take two was relocated some lion in the Cathedral. Rubn Daro is
15 miles up the road, and four centuries revered as the Nicaraguan Shakespeare: by
later lives a far happier life as a bookish the time he was 10 he had read the whole
and boisterous university city. Its colonial of Don Quixote. By the time he died, aged
architecture is more ramshackle than 49, his verses could be recited across the
Granadas: its pastel-coloured bungalows Spanish-speaking world. One of the citys Occupying a colonial mansion a five-minute
topped with a tangled mass of telephone proudest possessions is his old home walk north of the city centre, Hotel La Perla has
lines, its streets adorned with satirical now a museum, housing his bible and the comfortable whitewashed rooms and leafy
political graffiti. Dotted about the city are four-poster bed where he breathed his last. courtyards (from 65; laperlaleon.com).
bullet holes and bomb damage sustained Come nightfall, the post-graduation To find out more about the political upheaval
during the Nicaraguan Revolution in celebrations gather momentum. Streets are of 1970s Nicaragua, pay a visit to Lens Museum
the 1970s when Lens students led a closed down, bottles of beer are glugged, of the Revolution (1; Parque Central). The
rebellion against the repressive Somoza stages are assembled, bands play music Rubn Daro Museum is set in the poets
dictatorship. Portraits of revolutionary and poets read commemorative verses to childhood home (1; Calle de Rubn Daro).
martyrs are hung proudly on walls across appreciative crowds. The party doesnt
the city, annual parades commemorate end until the morning sun colours the sky Oliver Smith is senior features writer at
demonstrations in which students were beyond the easterly volcanoes, by which Lonely Planet Traveller and was last year
massacred, and the small Museum of the time its hard to disagree with the verses named AITO Travel Writer of the Year.
Revolution pays tribute to the lost. inscribed on Rubn Daros stone tomb:
Through the day, locals pick their way Nicaragua is created of vigour and glory. NEXT MONTH
around markets piled high with fruit Nicaragua is made for freedom. Great Escape: US NATIONAL PARKS

58 Lonely Planet Traveller July 2016