Nicaragua: The Classic Banana Republic
by Marshall Snider
A fellow traveler in Nicaragua questioned our sanity. We were riding in a rickety, hot, crowded former American school bus, with leg room sufficient only for former American school children. The bus was bouncing along a dusty road paved with potholes, and the scenery outside the dirty windows consisted mostly of abject poverty. The only other gringo on the bus asked, "Are we crazy?"
A question like that usually answers itself, and the answer would seem to be "yes." But in this case, we were relatively sane. Nicaragua is not a destination for people who demand the comforts of mass tourism. But it is a wonderful place if you want to see what a country is really like, from the ground level.
Nicaragua is a nation to which history, geography and geo-political maneuvering have been very unkind. This Central American republic has endured over a century of the U.S. meddling in its internal affairs, supporting civil wars and dictators, imposing trade embargos, and buying the rights to build what would have been the Nicaraguan Canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (the U.S. had no intention of building the canal there; we just wanted to be sure no one else did).
The result of all the war and external interference has been to impoverish a people who had done us no harm, but who we thought we had to control to keep them out of the hands of the Communists, who were in the process of self-destructing anyway. Most Nicaraguans really didn’t care; they just wanted to eat.
Today, Nicaragua provides travelers the unique experience of a tropical vacation in a slow moving part of the world, without the interference of first class facilities or hordes of tourists. Visitors can enjoy rain forests, volcanoes, beaches and colonial cities without tripping over a gaggle of gringos at every turn. If that sounds appealing (and it doesn’t to many people), this is a place worth visiting as the country rebuilds.
Nicaragua’s tourist industry is in its infancy. Prices are modest to cheap and the facilities are clean, if not fancy or well appointed. Pleasant hotel rooms can be found for $8-10 per person; a good meal may cost $3-4; and a filet mignon with appetizer, salad and drinks ran an outrageous $11. Bus and boat rides on public transportation carry you great distances for under a dollar.
Granada is a city of classic colonial churches on the shore of massive Lake Nicaragua. Once you put aside the fact that the church bells all go off at 5:30 in the morning (every morning) you can appreciate these massive and beautiful structures. The outside of the churches have not weathered well (the first thought is that they were damaged in the war, even though the war did not come to Granada). But inside they are spectacular in their grandeur.
Off of Granada’s beaches lie Las Isletas, hundreds of small islands offering lush foliage, abundant bird life, and an occasional restaurant that offers lake fish and cold beer. Lake Nicaragua also boasts the world’s only fresh water sharks, who migrated from the Carribean Sea up the San Juan River to the lake (for reasons known only to the sharks).
Ometepe Island dominates the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe is a large island shaped like an hourglass, with a volcano at each end. It boasts long beaches, fruit plantations and a very poor population. Still, the people in the villages are friendly, though a bit shy with strangers. Along with baseball, being shy with strangers seems to be a national pastime in Nicaragua.
If you are very fit, you can climb one of Ometepe’s two volcanoes. While they top out at no more than 5,000 feet, getting to the summit is a major ordeal. First off, the concept of the switchback has not yet made its way to Nicaragua. The trails go straight up the hill, and tend to have mud up to the ankles. You need to be extremely hearty and well motivated to reach the craters, and then clouds tend to obscure the views. Still, even at the lower reaches of the mountains, there are howler monkeys, parrots, colorful butterflies and petroglyphs of the ancient civilizations. It’s worth the walk, even if you come down early. Other volcanoes in this country can be reached by vehicle, so even the unfit can stare down the mouth of a smoking, active crater.
For a real vacation, Nicaragua offers the Corn Islands. There is a choice: you can go to Big Corn Island or Little Corn Island. Apart from the size difference, Little Corn is less developed, which is hard to imagine considering how basic Big Corn is. You can reach the Corn Islands by an arduous two-to-three-day bus and river and ocean boat trip. Or, you can fly there in an hour.
But even flying to the Corn Islands can be an adventure. Nicaragua must be the only developing nation in the world where the buses run on time, but the planes don’t. Even in remote regions of the country, the 11:30 bus is there at 11:30. But a round trip plane journey from Managua to Big Corn Island had one leg that left 45 minutes late and another that left a half an hour early. Not only are the schedules flexible; so are the destinations. Two passengers who were supposed to get off the plane at the intermediate town of Bluefields did not get off the plane, because the pilots forgot to land at Bluefields.
However you get to the Corn Islands, you have arrived at a paradise of white sand beaches, turquoise Caribbean waters and no tourists. A comfortable bungalow at the best hotel on Big Corn, right on the beach, with an endless supply of Flor de Cana rum, runs $38 ($44 if you turn on the air conditioner, which is not often necessary thanks to the cool night breezes). There isn’t much to do on these islands, but why go to such a place to do anything? Just being there is as relaxing and unhassled as it gets.
Undiscovered, slow-paced, friendly, interesting and inexpensive. Plenty of opportunity for adventure, or just to relax. Not many people will go there, and that is just fine for those who do.