Affordable, Low-Key Nicaragua
In a country where history is alive and always present, T+L finds well-preserved colonial towns and remnants of the 1970’s revolution, teeming jungles, white-sand beaches, and charming Caribbean hideaways.
I’m repelled by the prospect of traveling to a foreign place and locking myself into some posh compound for the duration. On the one hand, I will probably never go on one of those charity vacations where you perform worthy labor on behalf of poor people; on the other, the one cruise I’ve taken (from Mumbai to Athens) really was a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.
In other words, I’m a travel moderate, a Goldilocksian, always searching for the just-right balance of comfort and strangeness, not too hot (or scary or primitive) and not too cold (or fake or antiseptic). Rather than Himalayan treks and Patagonian campouts, my taste in adventure tends toward extreme mental more than physical stimulation, a contemplation of danger and valor and their vestiges rather than actual physical risk—meaning vacations to countries with problematic recent histories (South Africa, Israel), and where the United States has fought wars in my lifetime (Vietnam, Grenada) or threatened to (China, Russia, Hungary, East Germany). For me, the next best thing to time travel is going to places where history is vivid and fresh and still unfolding. Extinct volcanoes can be interesting, but active ones are exciting.
Thus my trip to Nicaragua—that is, my second trip to Nicaragua. To the meager extent I was ever an actual, boots-on-the-ground reporter, journalism has been a pretext for interesting travel. Which is what first took me, as a 28-year-old writer for Time a quarter-century ago, to Central America, for a tour of the several civil wars then embroiling the isthmus.
It was 1983. Four years earlier, the Sandinistas had won their Nicaraguan revolution, defeating the Somoza-family dictatorship that had ruled the country brutally, with U.S. support, for most of the 20th century. Three years earlier, the Clash’s great album Sandinista! had come out and gone gold. Two years earlier, the new Reagan administration had started funding the contrarrevolucionarios, or Contras, in their insurgency against the socialist Sandinistas—who, faced with that civil war, had imposed a state of emergency exactly a year before I visited. But my strongest memories are of incredibly cheap steaks, a bedraggled little Managua circus that could’ve been in Fellini’s La Strada, and a very, very friendly American “consular officer” who I’m sure was CIA.
Most Americans, I discovered this time around, haven’t really updated their mental databases in regard to Central America since the 80’s. When I told people I was returning for a week and bringing my wife and one of my daughters with me, friends tended toward bafflement or alarm, incorrectly imagining that the region between Mexico and South America, apart from Costa Rica and maybe Belize, remains an iffy place to vacation.
And although all the shooting wars are long since over, in the case of Nicaragua one does appreciate the misapprehension: the country has been engaged recently in a kind of Groundhog Day re-enactment of its late-20th-century history. After a decade in power following their revolution, the Sandinistas were voted out of office and kept out for 16 years, but in 2006 they managed to retake the presidency, barely, with 41 percent of the vote.
And so once again, as in 1983, the anti-imperialist demagogue Daniel Ortega is president. Once again, familiar propaganda billboards are up in Managua, most of them signed “Daniel”: arriba los pobres del mundo! (“Arise, poor people of the world!”) and avanzamos la revolución! (“We advance the revolution!”). Once again, a cocky, flamboyantly anti-yanqui Latin American socialist is a comradely superstar, but now he’s Venezuelan instead of Cuban: a new neighborhood of social housing on the road from the airport is named after Hugo Chávez. Once again, a Sandinista government is cozying up to Russia, which gives the artifacts one still sees on Nicaragua’s roads—Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas—a kind of renewed salience. Once again, a disapproving administration in Washington has cut off economic aid.
The difference is that these days the Sandinistas aren’t actually very popular in Nicaragua. In last fall’s nationwide municipal elections, despite blatant voter fraud by the government and its allies, the Sandinistas managed to rack up only 38 percent of the vote. And today, as in 1983, the Nicaraguans I encountered were unfailingly friendly, the country’s natural beauty stunning, and its steaks still incredibly tasty and cheap.
For travelers, the main comparable is Costa Rica, directly to the south. Because Costa Rica hasn’t had a civil war in 61 years, and has had a well-functioning democracy and economy pretty much since then, Americans reflexively consider it the most desirable Central American travel destination. But the fact that the Costa Rican tourism industry is five or 10 times bigger than Nicaragua’s, and has been growing like crazy for years, comes with a large downside as far as I’m concerned: too many big, generic, thoughtlessly designed and developed hotels and condos; too much traffic and urban grimness.
The Sandinistas want tourism, but they want it…nice, not huge and helter-skelter. Nicaragua right now reminds me of old city neighborhoods and towns in the American Northeast, where decades of economic doldrums turned out to be a blessing in disguise, accidentally preserving charming old streets and buildings. As yanqui travelers rediscover the increasingly rare pleasures of small-is-beautiful authenticity, Nicaragua’s underdeveloped, relatively untouched realness is a large part of its charm. Just after I returned home, I happened to run into a big-time Hollywood TV agent who told me he too had just spent his vacation in Nicaragua. Thus were my instincts confirmed: the country has become one of those Places on the Verge, discovered by cognoscenti but not yet overrun.
Managua, the capital and home to a fifth of the population, flirts with cosmopolitanism in the manner of a small provincial U.S. city. In the Metrocentro, the newer downtown, there are casinos, and the shopping center next to the Real InterContinental Metrocentro hotel plays hip-hop Muzak. Managua is the sort of place where people are still nostalgic about the Bono visit 23 years ago, and earnestly brag that Iron Maiden played here in 2006.
Managua is not particularly charming, mainly because it was nearly all built during the past few decades: in 1972, an earthquake destroyed 80 percent of the old buildings. In the center of town, near the Plaza de la República (or Plaza de la Revolución, depending on who’s talking), stands the ruined old cathedral, only 71 years old but wrecked by the quake and still scarred by bullet holes from the revolution.
The day and night in transit that one inevitably spends in Managua, however, needn’t be unpleasant. You can have a terrific lunch on the porch at the Cocina de Doña Haydée, just off Carretera a Masaya, Metrocentro’s main drag. The restaurant is run by the Espinosa sisters, Alicia and Irene, and named after their mother, who was still making the pork and chicken nacatamales into her nineties.
But a Nicaraguan vacation is really about getting onto the highways and back roads, up the mountains, out to the beaches. And the pseudo–time-traveling pleasures of the country aren’t just in the realm of political history. I can only imagine the sweet, homey, small-scale Caribbean that my parents experienced in 1960, but I think Big Corn Island must be one of the most convincing extant versions of that heyday.
It’s not flawless—nothing funky can be—but it is perfect. Four square miles of land 45 miles off the east coast (and a ferry ride from the coastal city of Bluefields), it’s reachable via a daily 115-minute prop-plane flight from Managua. The Managua airport experience—each of us stepping onto a luggage scale to be weighed; the long-haired Danish giant checking his guitar; another passenger’s black pistol wrapped in clear tape in order to be checked—was good preparation for the pre-21st-century world into which we were about to be transported.
Big Corn Island is absolutely unspoiled—no casinos, no cruise ships, no hotels with more than 20 rooms, commercial fishing still more important than tourism—but not in the sometimes tedious, uninhabited-virgin-nature sense. The Corn Islands were a British possession until the end of the 19th century, and leased to the United States for most of the 20th. Many of the 8,000 residents speak English, and a majority have African ancestors.
The road around the island is all of seven miles long. So you can take one of the plentiful taxis or walk. The other two choices depend on which kind of gringo you’d rather appear to be: the self-consciously fit yuppie kind who speeds by on a bike, or the dorky middle-aged kind who rides around in an electric golf cart. We chose the latter and, quickly forgetting to be mortified by how uncool we looked, found it an apt way to experience the place. The iconic Caribbean experience is all about taking it easy, not judging, being quietly amusing and bemused. And so, breezing along in our cart at five or 10 miles an hour, we felt in sync as we passed the wild horses trotting in the surf, and veered close enough to the shaved-ice vendor to smell his jars of red and yellow fruit syrups. I saw no revolutionary slogans or 30-year-old bullet holes on the walls of Big Corn Island.
Casa Canada, just south of the wonderfully named Sally Peachy district, is the poshest hotel on the island—which means nicely landscaped grounds, an infinity pool, and a $99-a-night bungalow versus a room for $10 to $40 elsewhere. But it’s definitely, happily, not a sealed-off luxury compound: a few locals appeared each night for dinner, parents sipping beers and frozen margaritas as children swung contentedly on the hanging barstools, all of us watching the hotel’s capuchin monkey, Pancho, scamper from branch to grass to beach and back up into his tree overlooking the sea. The first night I assumed the sound-system playlist to be a Casa Canada quirk: almost nothing but American country music from way back in the day, like Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.”
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.
Many of the islands are single-family vacation compounds for members of Nicaragua’s upper class. The loveliest—impeccably landscaped, with low stone walls, potted flowers, stone steps leading to the water—turned out to be owned by the Pellas, whose century-old conglomerate (rum, cars, energy, banking) has made them one of the richest families in the country. Their Italian ancestors immigrated from the United States in the 19th century; one in six Nicaraguans today is of mainly European descent. An island over from the Pellas’, standing in the shallows, three shirtless, dark-skinned men were flinging nets, catching baitfish.
But the most exceptional ecotourism near Granada involves volcanoes, a couple dead and one very much alive. Mombacho last erupted about 450 years ago, not long after the Spanish arrived. The ascent to the top is on the back of an open-air flatbed Mercedes truck (a former Sandinista troop-transport vehicle, donated by fellow-traveling West Germans during the 80’s), and the ride up, occasionally at an angle of 45 degrees, past monkeys and a handsome coffee plantation, is positively theme park–like.
The top third of Mombacho, almost a mile high, is all uninhabited rainforest canopy, a cloud forest preserve. Wandering for a couple of hours around these 2,500 acres of nature was just right, an experience more like walking through a vast garden than a tropical wilderness. The hiking trails run between cool shade and bright sun, cozy glens and panoramic lookouts. Pink begonias were in bloom, as was every conceivable color of orchid. The date settings on my mental Wayback Machine spun backward: the 40-foot-tall ferns and lava steam holes look entirely prehistoric. As I knelt to examine the most extraordinary butterfly I’d ever seen—a Greta oto, with transparent wings, which looked as if it had been created by a graphic designer—I turned when I heard my wife and daughter gasp: a white vulture with a six-foot wingspan zoomed past us 20 feet away, then soared out over a sunny field of yellow orchids.
Nicaragua also has active volcanoes, including Masaya, halfway between Granada and Managua, which is the centerpiece of a national park. Masaya’s last big eruption was in 2001, when two-foot rocks flew a quarter-mile. You can drive right to the rim. And for me, standing on the volcano’s lip was as much like an experience of art as of nature—like gazing at an earthwork that Robert Smithson or James Turrell might have made given enough years and millions of dollars and bulldozers. It’s a sublime spectacle, moving, mesmerizing, at once heavenly and hellish. Sunset provides one aesthetic experience—the thousand-foot-wide maw, the flitting parakeets who live in the crater, the clouds of sulfurous steam rising against the brilliant pink and indigo sky—and nighttime quite another, as one looks several hundred feet down through the pitch-black darkness at the glowing red-hot lava bed.
As it turned out, we had saved the best for last. The drive from Managua to San Juan del Sur, just shy of Costa Rica, is on three roads of diminishing quality, each an artifact of a distinct historical period: two hours on the Pan-American Highway past mango groves, banana plantations, and (in spring) chartreuse rice fields; a half-hour on a badly potholed highway featuring prankish anti-Sandinista stickers—avenida d. ortega—affixed to the official signs; and 20 minutes on a dirt road blazed during the California Gold Rush.
San Juan del Sur has become a happening spot, in its ecotouristic, bourgeois-bohemian fashion, the one Nicaraguan beach town whose name seems familiar to significant numbers of Americans. If Big Corn Island resembles one of the lesser Bahamas during the Kennedy administration, San Juan del Sur could be the 21st-century equivalent of Puerto Vallarta in the early 1950’s. And Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge, now five years old, is unquestionably its epicenter of chic.
However, the moment you step inside, it’s clear that the respect for nature and authenticity is wedded to a deeply comforting design. The public areas are understated and cool, each indoor-outdoor space morphing gently into the next, lobby to lounge to restaurant to pool. The floors are polished dark stone, the walls rusticated volcanic rock, the roofs red tile and thatch, the hanging lamps just stylish enough. And the view, unmediated by windows, is killer, a mile-wide Pacific cove with a perfect white crescent beach, the broad embracing arms of land to the left and right nearly devoid of buildings.
To my Goldilocks taste, Morgan’s Rock in every respect strikes the right balance between hard and soft, “green” and splendid, rough and luscious. Its founders and owners are the Ponçons, a family that emigrated from France to Nicaragua in the 1970’s to grow coffee—and in the 90’s teamed up with a British émigré named Matthew Falkiner to start an eco-friendly high-design furniture business called Simplemente Madera/Exchange, or “Simply Wood.” The well-known Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica, founded by a couple of former Peace Corps volunteers in 1993, was the Ponçons’ inspiration for Morgan’s Rock. And they hired Falkiner to design the place.
Fifteen very separate 1,000-square-foot bungalows mostly face the ocean, separated from it and the forest only by a translucent screen. The style is Pacific Rim leisure-Modernist, part open-plan ryokan and part tropical post-and-beam tree house. Each bungalow is built on slabs of volcanic rock. They are all made of solid Nicaraguan hardwood: the raw eucalyptus structural posts, the milled walnut beams, the dark almond floors, the mahogany trim, and the (vaguely Midcentury Scandinavian) Simplemente Madera furniture.
“Green” is not just a fashionable veneer at Morgan’s Rock. You choose your dinner at breakfast in order to minimize wasted food; there’s no room service so that leftovers don’t encourage the monkeys to break and enter; empty termite nests are burned in the evening to ward off mosquitoes; the hot running water is solar-heated; and the pool is filled with chlorine-free salt water. And the resort supports five nearby grade schools. But the social progressivism and eco-regimen come across as sensible and good-humored, never overbearing or grim. (In sensibility as well as competence, the Sandinistas could probably learn a lot from this little self-sufficient utopia.)
The menu is full of meat as well as fish, and nearly everything served is grown or raised or caught on-site. Our meals at Morgan’s Rock were, hands down, the most delicious we had in Nicaragua. I’ve never had a better gazpacho, and though I hadn’t considered myself a fan of guavas or tamarind, the guava cheesecake and tamarind sorbet convinced me otherwise.
Early one sunny, windy morning, we walked barefoot into the surf and climbed into a launch that took us a hundred yards out to board Eco 1, the resort’s 28-foot fishing boat. It was just us, first mate Eugelio, and Captain Henry. Captain Henry—fortyish, tan, fit, twinkly, conscientious—is like a certain kind of 50’s Hollywood star, Victor Mature or Tony Franciosa, except unselfconsciously sexy and inclined to treat us as if we were celebrities. I think I saw animated hearts swirling around my wife’s and daughter’s cross-eyed faces as they stared at him—and when he gunned the engines and stood at the wheel, bare-chested, swigging a bottle of bright red Fanta, I’m afraid I felt a little gay.
As we sailed north, dolphins tagged along. Pelicans circled and, once or twice, swept down to catch a baby barracuda just beneath the water’s surface. We anchored near a tiny rock island so that Eugelio could dive for lobsters and we could snorkel.
Then, without another boat in sight, we put out our fishing lines and trolled—not sitting in special chairs with fancy rods and reels, but standing, holding a simple, foot-long notched board with 50 yards of monofilament wrapped around it. The primitivism of the operation made my success all the more thrilling: again and again I caught fish, a mackerel, another, another, and two bonito, all within an hour. But what Captain Henry did next turned this expedition into the single most awesomely gratifying hunter-gatherer experience of my life. After putting four of the fish on ice, he took out fresh green peppers, an onion, cilantro, a couple of limes, and an extremely sharp knife, squatted on his deck, and with craftsman-like efficiency proceeded to turn one of the mackerel into the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten.
After we were put ashore, me carrying the largest of my fish, I rehearsed my question as I walked through the empty restaurant and into the kitchen. The cooks didn’t seem surprised to see a damp, barefoot American in slightly bloodied swim trunks holding up a six-pound fish. “¿Puede usted cocinar esto,” I asked, “para nuestra cena?” “Certainly,” they answered, and I thanked them sincerely, and I felt as Hemingwayesque as I’m able.
But then I went back to my very handsome suite to take a nap on my high-thread-count (organic) sheets as my wife read a novel on our Kindle, and before turning to the restaurant to dine on my grilled bonito I stopped to check my e-mail. In other words, we were bobos in paradise.
Getting There and Around
Fly nonstop to Managua from Houston, Miami, or Atlanta on American or Delta Airlines. A number of outfitters can provide custom, on-the-ground itineraries, including Latin Excursions (866/626-3750; latinexcursions.com) and Solentiname Tours (011-505/265-2716; solentinametours.com).
Where To Stay
GREAT VALUE Costa Norte, Big Corn Island; 011-505/937-0016; cornislandparadise.com; doubles from $39; dinner for two $20.
GREAT VALUE South End, Big Corn Island; 514/448-8339; casa-canada.com; doubles from $99, including breakfast.
GREAT VALUE Esquina Sureste Parque Central, Granada; 011-505/552-6000; lagranfrancia.com; doubles from $100.
San Juan del Sur, 011-505/670-7676; morgansrock.com; doubles from $516, all-inclusive.
Real Inter-Continental Metrocentro Managua
GREAT VALUE Costado Sur Centro Comercial, Metrocentro Carr. a Managua; 888/424-6835; ichotelsgroup.com; doubles from $169.
Where To Eat and Drink
Cocina de Doña Haydée
Km 4.5, Carr. a Masaya, 71 Planes de Altamira, Managua (and other locations); 011-505/270-6100; dinner for two $28.
El Tercer Ojo
Costado Sur del Convento San Francisco, Calle El Arsenal, Granada; 011-505/552-6451; dinner for two $24.
Restaurante Brumas de Apoyo
Tasty regional dishes. Mirador de Catarina, Catarina; 011-505/558-0251; lunch for two $19.