We sped through the streets of Managua, avoiding oxcarts, stray dogs, secondhand school buses bursting with passengers, women carrying baskets of cheese-filled tortillas called quesillos, teenagers selling just about anything: newspapers, fruit drinks in plastic bags, floor mats, Mickey Mouse beach towels, hood ornaments, as well as live ducks, parrots, and monkeys. Along the road, next to the lottery-ticket hawkers and the tortilla sellers, money changers— called coyotes— waved wads of colorful bills at passing cars.
My friend Brian and I were headed to the Hotel Inter-Continental to meet up with our driver, Julio. Getting there, however, was anything but simple. A labyrinth of 300 barrios, Managua dispenses with street names, never mind street signs. People give directions based solely on landmarks. To get to the hotel we were told to "turn left at the statue of the man with the machine gun and pickax." That, as I knew from a previous visit, we'd have no trouble finding.
Travel in Nicaragua is rough. It can also be infuriatingly slow: the infrastructure is poor, sometimes nonexistent. Handicapped by years of civil war, Nicaragua is, after Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Everything here is tinged with the nation's turbulent political history, from black-and-red murals supporting the left-wing Sandinistas to the revolution's "eternal flame" guarded by a former soldier (a plastic-shaded electric bulb) in Managua's Plaza de la Revolución. Even Montelimar, the country's only high-end beach resort, was once the summer retreat of former dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Though the presidential elections that took place during this visit marked only the second relatively peaceful transfer of power in the country's history, Nicaragua finally seems headed down the bumpy road to stability. Tourists are unlikely to suffer anything other than minor annoyances (as long as they avoid the northern border region, which is still heavily mined and plagued with armed bandits), the water is usually drinkable, and many hotels and restaurants accept credit cards. Yet when compared to its wealthy southern neighbor, Costa Rica, and even struggling Honduras to the north, Nicaragua seems oddly backward. Aeroflot billboards, an Iranian cultural center, and Lada taxis provide the backdrop for former boxing champ Alexis Arguello's Sports Bar, where wealthy young Nicaraguans arrive in Nissan Pathfinders, toting cell phones, to drink Johnnie Walker Red.
Tourists, like entrepreneurs, are something of a novelty here— and that's part of the appeal. If you're adventurous and willing to work a little, Nicaragua will more than repay your efforts. The natural vistas of tropical foliage and volcanic formations are pristine, and the people are eager to welcome visitors after years of strife. To enjoy it, all you need is a four-wheel-drive.
On this visit, while Nicaragua anxiously awaited the results of the election, Brian and I decided we would get out of the capital for a few days and take in the countryside— its cloud forests, lakes, and volcanoes. And we would trust Julio to navigate the roads in our rented Toyota Land Cruiser. On the vertiginous two-hour drive northeast from Managua to Selva Negra in Nicaragua's highlands, he skillfully skirted potholes, following rainbows painted on rocks at irregular intervals by the owners of the resort. Selva Negra, a funky 1,400-acre resort about 4,000 feet above sea level, is built on land that has been in Eddy Kühl's family since the 1880's. Cabins and a youth hostel sit at the base of a misty, forested mountain. Trails wind around several lagoons. Though the cloud forest has been cordoned off by the Kühls, it is by no means tame. Howler monkeys and birds of numerous species lurk in ancient trees, beneath which gurgling brooks and thick moss offer a cool break from the heat of Managua.
Eddy and his wife, Mausi, both descend from the small group of German immigrants who, at the government's behest, came to Nicaragua in the 1800's to plant coffee. German touches abound: the main building is chalet-style; red and pink flowers grow on the roofs of rustic cabins; and the name of the resort itself is Spanish for "black forest." Eddy and Mausi, however, are Nicaraguan-born, and Eddy has amazing stories to tell of the war years. He was exiled by Somoza in 1978; served as an ambassador for Nicaragua's post-Somoza/pre-Sandinista government; and fled to the United States in the eighties, leaving his mother, a local schoolteacher, to hold down the resort during guerrilla raids.
Selva Negra is also still a working coffee plantation. "We feel responsible for the coffee that comes out of this country," Eddy said as he proudly walked us through rows of coffee plants shaded by evergreen trees. The small amount of coffee produced here each year can be found by aficionados at places like New York's Dean & DeLuca.
One night, because Brian and I got back late from a hike and missed dinner, we had to drive into the nearby town of Matagalpa for a meal. We tried three restaurants, but all were shuttered. Not surprisingly. Dozens of people, some shouting, were milling about the streets. Little girls were spray-painting storefronts; pickup trucks crowded with angry-looking young men circled the town center. When Julio drove the wrong way down a one-way street, the crowd yelled at us.
We had stopped and were trying to read our guidebook when a police truck with flashing lights made a sweep of the Parque Central. Julio rolled down the window and, after much deliberation with the machine-gun-toting officers, turned to us. "Matagalpa is closed, jefe," he said. "Threat of a demonstration." Early returns showed that Matagalpa's favorite candidate, Sandinista Daniel Ortega, was trailing, and already there were accusations of election fraud. So much for a late dinner. We accepted a police escort to the mountain road and drove back to bucolic Selva Negra.
In the morning we wolfed down a German breakfast and watched mist roll across the mountaintop while a worker cleared algae and lily pads from one of the lagoons. Mausi told us she had mixed feelings about the military tank that marks Selva Negra's entrance. "We tried to move it but couldn't, so we painted a rainbow on it," she said. "We tried to plant flowers in it, but that was difficult because the soil gets too hot. Eventually, though, grass will grow. Then flowers. We like to think we'll have flowers when there's finally peace in this country. And that will be soon."
Headed south for Granada, a town near Lake Nicaragua that dates from 1524, we descended into the fertile Sebaco Valley, passing children using small shovels to fill potholes and holding out their hands for cordobas. Two little girls had pulled some string across the road to form a makeshift tollbooth. Kids held up fish for sale, while adults wrestled with bigger game— including an armadillo.
In Granada we stayed at the Hotel Alhambra, whose wicker, palms, and pillared arcade give it the faded air of a Spanish colonial relic. From the patio we gazed at the town square, surrounded by stately buildings in bright yellow, pink, turquoise, and orange. Men drove horse-drawn carriages past kiosks where schoolchildren in navy uniforms were buying cacao (chocolate milk) and raspados (ices).
At Lake Nicaragua, about 10 minutes from Granada, we hired a rickety African Queen-style craft. Our captain, Evarito, slowly maneuvered it through Las Isletas, 365 palm-fringed islets created by the volcanic eruptions of Mombacho, on the mainland, and Concepción, on the large island of Ometepe. The only boats we passed were wooden canoes, a few equipped with motors, some carrying bare-chested men pulling in huge fishing nets, some with smiling children navigating between their island homes. Most of the islets are uninhabited, yet the area supports a vibrant indigenous community and a school. A handful of the larger islets even have tiny bars. Wealthy Nicaraguans have just started building houses on private islands, and there are plans to develop several others, but at the moment they are all stunningly peaceful.
By the time we returned to Managua, the city's former right-wing mayor Arnaldo Alemá n had won the election. My wealthy Nicaraguan friend Alex, who had supported the victorious candidate, invited us to celebrate at a bar called El Cartel. The waiter kept bringing half-liters of Flor de Caña Extra Seco, bottles of Coke, and buckets of ice, and we mixed our drinks at the table, filling our glasses with rum and adding just enough Coke to turn the drink a dark amber. Apparently this, not the sissy umbrella-and-fruit-juice way, is how to drink the stuff. To get the true flavor, Alex explained, "you have to be able to taste its bite." The same goes for Nicaragua.
JASON WILSON is editor of Grand Tour, the Journal of Travel Literature.