THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JULY 2016 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE
FOUND IN POCKETS, CASH tills and stuffed down sofas across Nicaragua is the 100 córdoba note (about £2.50), showing the Cathedral of Granada, presiding over the nation’s most handsome city. Turn the note over and you’ll see the other famous symbol of Granada – a horse-drawn carriage and its grinning driver, clip-clopping along the city’s cobbled streets. The horses, the carriage and the grin all belong to Mauricio Sanchez – himself part of the long tradition of Granada carriage drivers. One day Mauricio looked up from a handful of change to see his own, moustached face smiling back at him, the depiction copied from a photo taken by a tourist a few years ago.
‘Granada is the city Nicaraguans are most proud of,’ he explains, parked among the laurel trees in the central square, scouting for customers to take on an afternoon tour. ‘It is the oldest city in Central America, and it has a history that makes everyone feel romantic. Sometimes, when I have people in the back of my carriage, I wish it didn’t make them quite so romantic!’
Whether seen on foot or from the back of a carriage, Granada’s architectural harmony is apt to prompt profound reactions; a refined antidote to the sprawling megacities of Central America. Jumping on the carriage, the wheels soon rattle beneath the duck-egg-blue façade of the Iglesia San Francisco and the off-white Iglesia de la Merced – churches both originally built in the 1500s, their foundations laid not so long after Columbus spied the New World through his telescope. Inside, people shuffle up creaking staircases to the top of 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 city’s Moorish namesake over the Atlantic in the Old World.
But what’s 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 a city of exquisite beauty after a long, exhausting and miserable journey: he burnt it to the ground.
There followed three more pirate raids along similar lines, and a conquest by maverick American adventurer William Walker in the 1850s – a man who proclaimed himself President of Nicaragua, and, when this didn’t go down so well, left the embers of the city with a sign reading ‘Here was Granada’.
By the time Mauricio has set out on his last trot, the scorching afternoon heat gives way to a gentle breeze. Evening crowds stroll beneath the wrought-iron lampposts and acacia trees, beside the peeling stuccoed façades of barbers’ shops and Granada’s long-closed railway station, where steam engines have been rusting at the platform for decades. Games of baseball strike up by the shores of Lake Nicaragua and the last rays of sun disappear from the highest spires of the city. Morgan, Walker and various others failed to appreciate that Granada’s habit of getting destroyed was matched only by its habit for rebuilding itself – bigger and more beautiful than before.
STANDING UNDER A PICTURE of the Archangel Michael, Captain Donald Jarquin rests his hands on the tiller of the ferry El Rey del Cocibolca, scanning the horizon beyond the steel-grey waves. Some way ahead, two mountains rise leviathan-like from the water, their summits crowned with wispy haloes of cloud.
‘Ometepe is almost a different country to the rest of Nicaragua,’ explains island native Donald, throttling the engine. ‘People are different; the landscape is different – even the volcanoes are different.’
Nicaragua has dozens of volcanoes, from soaring peaks to squat little lumps of lava. None have shaped the country’s landscape as exquisitely as Concepción and Maderas, two volcanoes that surged out of boiling water long ago and joined to form the island of Ometepe (meaning ‘two mountains’). This mini lost world has long been a retreat for those wishing to escape the busy cities along the lake’s shore. Ferry-loads of Nicaraguans arrive at weekends to hike to remote waterfalls, kayak lagoons and paddle the pebbly shallows of the lake, stalked by the twin summits of the volcanoes wherever they go. In truth, Ometepe has always possessed an almost mystical power over the Nicaraguan imagination. Aztec settlers from Mexico thought they had discovered the promised land when they saw the island – they were proved right when they found its fertile volcanic soil yielded giant crops.
Following a footpath along the island’s southern shore, Ometepe today still seems a place of almost Eden-like abundance. Gardens of mangoes, watermelons, chillies and bananas shade trails that meander between the lakeside bungalows, passing stacked sacks of coffee beans and tangled tree roots as they go. Pre-Columbian legends have thrived here too. Before long, the path reaches Laguna Charco Verde: a little emerald-green lagoon mirroring the pyramid of Concepción, kingfishers swooping along its shores and spiny cedar trees growing along its banks. The waters are said to conceal an entrance to the underworld, guarded by a swimming witch who barters for mortal souls (and who also has a penchant for turning them into farmyard animals). It is not the only legend on Ometepe: one story tells of a little stream whose waters are said to trigger an instant sex change – though this doesn’t deter the women who come here to wash their laundry.
There are geological hazards as well as mythical ones on Ometepe. It’s not long before the trail reaches a yellow sign reading ‘Ruta de evacuación’ – with regular eruptions of Concepción, the government occasionally orders islanders to evacuate (though they struggle to persuade a good portion of the 30,000 inhabitants to leave).
By the time the last ferry hauls into the docks, Lake Nicaragua sparkles in the afternoon sunshine, and the twin clouded summits blush in the slanting light. Kayakers on Lake Nicaragua haul their boats onto the black-sand beaches, and groups of friends sip rum at ramshackle beachfront bars. One by one, lights from distant villages emerge, twinkling like fireflies in the dusk. For now, at least, worries of scheming witches, volcanic annihilation and accidental gender reassignment could not be farther from anyone’s minds.
San Juan River
IT 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 to the coastal lagoons of the Caribbean Sea, forming the border with Costa Rica for its final leagues. And midway along is the Indio Maíz 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 footpaths in the half light of early morning, it seems everything is constructed on a superlative scale. Giant cobwebs cling to towering almond trees, which might have been saplings when conquistadors first set foot in the New World. Minuscule poison dart frogs hop about the ferns, their backs coloured luminous reds and yellows. It is a place with a dense profusion of life in whichever direction you happen to look: capuchin monkeys swing from the creepers, wild orchids burst through the leaf litter, the rustle of displaced foliage hints at some unseen creature escaping the attention of approaching people. Only occasionally does the rumble of river traffic on the San Juan rise above the clamour of the jungle.
Without any surfaced roads nearby, the San Juan remains an important connection between Nicaragua’s Spanish-speaking west and its Creole-speaking Caribbean coast – 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 rowed upstream through the jungle to plunder Nicaragua’s Spanish cities.
‘I am so used to the river, I don’t even hear the sound of it,’ says Rosa Amelia Herrera, swinging in her rocking chair and watching cargo boats slip past. Aged 84, she is one of the oldest residents of the riverside village of El Castillo, and has lived in the same stilt house – built by her husband Cristóbal – since she was 22. ‘All of my children were born above the current. When I don’t hear the sound of the river, I miss it.’
Little Corn Island
NICARAGUA IS A COUNTRY with beguiling geography, from its two vast lakes to the chain of volcanoes along its spine. This means that someone studying a map probably won’t notice two punctuation-sized dots of land off its east coast: Little Corn Island and Big Corn Island.
Upon disembarking at Big Corn airport, with its arrivals hall not much bigger than a bus stop, it becomes clear that this is a place that moves to its own tempo. The language turns from hurried Spanish to the slow, mellow tones of Creole. The quick shuffling of Latin American pop music switches to the gentle bounce of reggae on the radios. And, on taking the half-hour ferry ride from the quays of Big Corn to the shores of Little Corn, the pace of life shifts from ‘slow’ to the last rung above ‘stationary’. For though Little Corn technically counts as Nicaraguan soil, this is a bona fide Caribbean island.
‘Little Corn is a place where everyone says good morning and good evening to each other,’ says Winston Downs, aka Mr Winnie, mayor of Little Corn Island (population: 1,200, cars: 0), sheltering from a brief rain shower inside the island’s little community centre. ‘We don’t need roads here because roads only make people go faster. Why would we need to go faster here?’
Being barely two miles long and one mile wide, Little Corn Island is a place whose footpaths should be explored with strategic slowness. An amble in any direction will, within 15 minutes, see visitors arriving at a white-sand beach. The beach will, in all probability, be dotted with driftwood and coconut husks, tangled nets and beached fishing boats that haven’t known the splash of the Caribbean for generations. Very likely there will be people horizontal in hammocks slung from palm trees. At the centre of the island is a baseball field where horses graze, with a grandstand that – some say – is big enough to seat the entire population of Little Corn.
At the southern end is the ‘Village’, which, being the only settlement on the island, doesn’t require the formality of being named. It is a place only slightly less peaceful than the rest of Little Corn: dancehall music plays on a Friday night, gospel rings out on a Sunday morning. The clink of pool games sound from beachfront bars around sunset and, at irregular intervals, a sudden cacophony of drumming comes from a nearby house.
‘Sometimes we play our drums for hours without stopping,’ says Jovan Emanuel. He’s sitting on his porch playing a djembe – an instrument made from almond wood and taut goat skin, common to Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. ‘Little Corn inspires me. When I touch the drum, I feel a kind of lightness inside me, I feel completely weightless. But, however loud we play, we never get complaints from the neighbours.’
IT IS GRADUATION DAY IN León, and students gather outside the whitewashed face of the cathedral. In the cool reaches of the nave, parents mingle with tutors, watched over by marble saints and relics brought across the Atlantic from Spain half a millennium ago. Outside, loudspeakers turned up to seismic volume blast pop music across squares full of revellers, rattling the iron shutters of shop fronts and threatening to loosen the terracotta roof tiles above.
Like The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a sequel can surpass the original – and this is most definitely the case with the Nicaraguan city of León. Founded in 1524 as the country’s first capital, León was initially renowned as a pit of Old Testament-style vice – ruled by tyrants with an appetite for money grabbing and massacring indigenous locals. And sure enough, in true Old Testament-style, León was destroyed and buried under ash by a volcanic eruption in 1610.
León ‘take two’ was relocated some 15 miles up the road, and four centuries later lives a far happier life as a bookish and boisterous university city. Its colonial architecture is more ramshackle than Granada’s: its pastel-coloured bungalows topped with a tangled mass of telephone lines, its streets adorned with satirical political graffiti.
Dotted about the city are bullet holes and bomb damage sustained during the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1970s – when León’s students led a rebellion against the repressive Somoza dictatorship. Portraits of revolutionary martyrs are hung proudly on walls across the city, annual parades commemorate demonstrations in which students were massacred, and the small Museum of the Revolution pays tribute to the lost.
Through the day, locals pick their way around markets piled high with fruit and vegetables. Evenings see students idling outside the cathedral, beside a fountain guarded by four growling stone lions. Wherever you go, a chain of volcanoes still forms a (now fortunately more distant) backdrop to León’s crumbling colonial grandeur.
‘León is Nicaragua’s city of books,’ says Alberto Alvarez Oporta Cruz, a secondhand bookseller selling crinkly volumes in the town square, looking to pick up more stock from departing students. ‘León is our country’s cradle of poetry – we have so much to inspire poets here.’
Across Latin America, Nicaragua has a reputation as a country of poets: a place where skilled bards are revered as rock stars, and where everyone, from primary school pupils to the president, pens their own verses. In León it’s not uncommon to see students selling printouts of their compositions to passers-by. Alberto’s favourite poet and León’s most famous son lies not far away, buried beneath a statue of a more sorrowful stone lion in the Cathedral.
Rubén Darío is revered as the Nicaraguan Shakespeare: by the time he was 10 he had read the whole of Don Quixote. By the time he died, aged 49, his verses could be recited across the Spanish-speaking world. One of the city’s proudest possessions is his old home – now a museum, housing his bible and the four-poster bed where he breathed his last.
Come nightfall, the post-graduation celebrations gather momentum. Streets are closed down, bottles of beer are glugged, stages are assembled, bands play music and poets read commemorative verses to appreciative crowds. The party doesn’t end until the morning sun colours the sky beyond the easterly volcanoes, by which time it’s hard to disagree with the verses inscribed on Rubén Darío’s stone tomb: ‘Nicaragua is created of vigour and glory. Nicaragua is made for freedom.’
PHOTOGRAPHY: PHILIP LEE HARVEY