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Affordable, Low-Key Nicaragua

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Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

When I heard out-of-date country tunes playing at every restaurant we patronized, I realized it was, even more curiously, a quirk of the whole island. At the faintly countercultural Anastasia’s on the Sea, there were Beatles and Oasis songs as well. Anastasia’s rents oceanfront rooms of a kind I haven’t stayed in since my twenties, but its restaurant is a place where I’d happily be a habitué. Until I walked the 20 paces to the end of the pier at Anastasia’s, over the dazzling blue-green shallows and into the rustic, colonnaded one-room restaurant, I didn’t even realize that I had a Platonic ideal of Caribbean space: this is it, the real thing, intimate but not claustrophobic, bare wooden walls with blue-and-white trim, open windows, snorkels and flippers for rent in a corner; an absolutely cool, cozy place surrounded by nothing but sky and sea in 20 shades of blue. Our lunch of lobster, fried shrimp, and Toña beer was an excellent pretext for sitting a long, long time and feeling happy to be alive.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who feels that if you’ve seen one central market in a Third World city you’ve seen them all, but I’m just the opposite: no matter where I am I adore wandering among row after narrow row of stalls where scores of peddlers sell anything and everything, and I come out feeling I’ve gotten by osmosis a deeper, stronger experience of that latitudinal and longitudinal spot on the planet. So it was in León, a small city 65 miles north of Managua.

We watched a hairdresser style a customer and a goldworker make a necklace. We bought and ate little red, plumlike fruits called jocote (from the indigenous word xocotl, meaning fruit) sprinkled with a pinch of salt. We passed up the meals served on banana leaves and the cacao drinks, but I did suck on a chicha, a bright pink semi-alcoholic drink made of ground corn and vanilla, served in a plastic bag with a straw. Until my afternoon in León’s market, I’d never seen papayas as big as watermelons, nor had any idea that cashews grow out of the bottom of a sweet, juicy yellow fruit called a marañón. The few obvious exceptions to small-scale localism—a basket of American candy being carried on a woman’s head, the SpongeBob piñatas—made the rest of the merchandise seem all the more indigenous. Somoza’s air force bombed this market during the revolution in 1979, which helps explain why, 30 years later, the city’s political sympathies remain strongly Sandinista.

Unlike in León, in gorgeous old Granada the building-by-building renovation and foreign-traveler-targeted revivification is well advanced. And the local culture seems well suited to gentrification, since, according to a native, the gentry of Granada tend to care a lot about appearances, snobbishly proud of their colonial architecture and old-school customs, rather than devoted to the life of the mind (León) or making a quick buck (Managua).

Hotel La Gran Francia was originally built in the 16th century, and in 1995 sensitively restored. The 21 rooms, on two stories, are built around a large courtyard open to the sky. The floors of the rooms are gold-and–terra-cotta tile with a patina of age. Closing the pair of one-by-two-foot panels on the huge carved-hardwood shutters darkened the incredibly sunny room with incredibly sudden completeness: an unimprovable siesta infrastructure. First-rate breakfasts and lunches (delicious French toast and fruit, fresh fried coconut shrimp, the largest double espresso ever) are served by an eager, friendly staff on the ground floor in a sunny-and-shadowy loggia next to a garden. And, especially at this straitened economic moment, the price is right: a double-occupancy room is $100 a night, and the El Duque suite only $147.

Gran Francia’s premodern official address, Esquina Sureste del Parque Central (Southeast Corner of Central Park), means that the plaza and main cathedral—with its intensely yellow Neoclassical façade—are just a few steps away. It’s a longer walk, down Calle del Arsenal, to El Tercer Ojo, a dark, candlelit restaurant that despite the name (The Third Eye) wears its bohemianism lightly. The crowd is younger and more stylish and Nicaraguan than in the places right on the plaza, and the shelves of books and haze of cigarette smoke (ah, travel) made me wonder if there was a Spanish word for gemütlich. Three orders of tapas made a full dinner for three.

Away from the plaza, Granada’s buildings tend to be of one story, stucco variously painted ocher, green, pink, red, orange, blue, and white. Most are from the second half of the 19th century, because Granada was set afire in 1857 by the private army of William Walker, the original and ultimate Ugly American, during his retreat from the city. (At age 31, Walker invaded Nicaragua, took over Granada, declared himself president, made English an official national language, and tried to re-establish black slavery. And we wonder why Nicaraguans still have a certain reflexive suspicion of American politicians’ intentions.)

Granada is on the northwestern shore of Lago de Nicaragua (a.k.a. Lago Cocibolca), the largest body of fresh water between the Great Lakes and the equator. It swarms with life, a good bit of which we spotted during a motor-launch tour among some of the several hundred tiny volcanic islands scattered just offshore. I’m no birder, but the profusion here—in a couple of hours, not really trying very hard, we spotted an osprey, a great egret, a purple gallinule, a kingfisher, a tropical cormorant, a three-color heron, a green heron, and a gorgeously yellow-tailed Montezuma oropendola—is extraordinary. And thanks to the birds, my mosquito-magnet daughter got not a single bite.

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