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In a ramshackle yet proud artisan studio in the dusty town of San Juan de Oriente, a young boy about 15 casts pots using his feet for power on an old throw wheel. The wheel hums, the clay spins and the pottery that evolves is astonishingly intricate yet elegantly simple.
His younger sister tends to a new littler of seven puppies, and his even younger brother stares at us with huge brown eyes as we admired the beautiful work.
We buy several for about five bucks, at least ten times less than what we’d pay in Boston. Or what they’re really worth.
This will change.
For the moment though, the boy and his art are apt symbols for Nicaragua, a poor country but wonderfully rich in tradition, culture and the generosity of its people.
Though the black silhouette sculpture of Augustino Calderon Sandino (1895-murdered 1934) with his iconic fedora still dominates the hillside of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, and still cast a very long shadow over the country, the world turns.
And Nicaragua is finally moving into the light.
This beautiful Central American country has regained its footing and is now happily open for tourism.
The infrastructure is developing and one UN report called it the safest country in the region and one of the safest in the Americas.
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It also may be one of the most authentic and least spoiled.
Its elegant, beautifully understated neo-colonial hotels, historic cities and dense, unspoiled rain forests, an ecologist’s delight, will attract the genuine traveler and not, perhaps, the indifferent tourist.
Nicaragua’s east or Atlantic-Caribbean coast is virtually uninhabited, the emphasis here more British than Spanish.
Scattered outposts like Bluefields and Monkey Point across the vast untouched interior lead to the outer Little Corn and
Big Corn Islands, paradises for naturalists, especially divers and snorkelers.
I suspect this coast will be fully developed like Belize or Costa Rica’s with glitzy resorts and easy access.
But Valeria Guzman, International Media Director of Nicaragua’s tourism board, echoes the hopes of true travelers when she says, “We are still developing, and while tourism is our priority, we want to do it right. Want to do it in accord with nature.”
We can only hope.
Those seeking beaches head to the Pacific Coast to places like San Juan del Sur, Maderas and El Coco Marine Park. There are some small restaurants there, occasional hotels, great surfing, and not much else.
And the northern provinces like Nueva Segova bordering Honduras are remote, dedicated to farming and the modest lives of the campesinos.
First time visitors should probably concentrate on the arc around the huge Lake Nicaragua, the country’s most defining geological feature.
It’s possible to rent a car at the airport and do the loop yourself, visiting the colonial cites of Leon, Granada, the capital, Managua, and the artisan towns in between. But unless your Spanish is pretty good and your sense of direction keen, using a tour operator with a local driver and guide is better. They’re very good and extremely conscientious.
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Leon and Granada are the crown jewels in Nicaragua’s diadem. Both are historic, colonial cities, but we sacrificed Leon in favor of the artisan arc of the “White Towns” (Pueblos Blancos) and headed to Granada, an hour’s drive from Managua.
If Leon’s Cathedral is the largest religious colonial building in Central America, Granada (1524) is the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere.
Ringed by the muscular Mombacho Volcano and its lesser mountains, rich in jungle greenery, the city sits on the giant lake and is easily the most beautiful in the country.
The heartbeat is the Plaza Colon, an acre of vibrant life and colorful goings-on.
Cool guys on street corners carry thick wads of Cordobas, the local currency, and ask if you want to exchange them for dollars. It doesn’t matter that everyone takes US dollars anyway…or that there’s a bank with an ATM machine. It’s more fun dealing with the guys.
The plaza is alive with soft drink and coffee sellers and craft vendors, who are more shy than aggressive. They’re also very beautiful with a rich mix of cultural (Mestizo) bloodlines.
Whole families gather to sit and talk and play while others make and sell the Vigoron a kind of national dish made of sweet cassava, crisp pork skin and cabbage salad served on a plantain leaf…all for a buck.
The prices in Nicaragua are, for the moment, shamefully low.
The local beer, Victoria, a terrific lager, costs an American dollar, even in a fancy hotel. And coffee costs a few cents.
A fresh Cuban cigar a few bucks more, and a full meal tops out at twelve dollars, at the classiest restaurant.
Horse drawn carriages line one side of the Plaza.
On the other sides are the pastel, white columned Alhambra Hotel, the dowager colonial Hotel Colon and the rococo municipal building, with its string of colored lights that go blink-blink in the night.
A must see is the Convento San Francisco.
A tiled, multi-arched series of courtyards borrowing much from the Arabs (as does most of Spanish colonial architecture), the Convento has no brochures and no web site. It does have startling shrieks of parakeets zipping from tree to tree in sudden flashes of green.
Soft breezes drift through the rooms filled with memorable local art, and the tranquility of the Convento is disturbed only by powerful murals depicting the struggle of the indigenous people and their harsh Spanish conquerors.
We took the outer road back from Granada to Managua to visit and photograph the cluster of the “White Towns” with enchanting names like Catarina, San Juan de Oriente, Masatepe and the college town of San Marco.
Why they’re called the “White Towns” I’m not sure.
But each is A gem.
Catarina overflows with nurseries, basket makers and artists carving dramatic horses with lively flowing wooden manes, or making cane rocking chairs.
Niquinohomo’s workers squat in their homes and workshops carefully crafting bamboo for furniture, and in Massatepe, ox still pull carts and locals busily weave the traditional baskets and paint colorful wall hangings.
There are no showy showrooms and virtually no one takes Mastercard.
In Masaya, next to Managua, the hammock makers still plait their colored threads by hand using a very old loom, then sell them in the local crafts market, not far from the impressive volcano park where steam still shrouds the living monster.
Back in Managua, it’s difficult to know what to think.
It’s tempting to dismiss the city, but that wouldn’t be fair.
The former colonial city center was wiped out in the horrific 1972 earthquake and with that, its essential charm.
There’s too much sprawl and too many traffic jams, typical of many big cities.
Still, there are little treasures to appreciate.
Like the donkey carts that clop past street-corner fruit vendors selling fresh fruit that tastes like real fruit.
And in the Zona Rosa there are small classy restaurants and cafes like Cocina Dona Haydee. The more upscale hotels and shops are located here.
Visit the National Park where Sandino’s statue stands along with other revolutionary markers and the defunct National Palace, all overlooking the city.
Some travelers like to point out that Nicaragua is where Costa Rica was twenty or so years ago.
I don’t agree.
Nicaragua is following its own path based on its own unique history and culture.
With some wise planning, a little luck and the resourcefulness of its gracious people, the country is becoming its own special destination for the thoughtful, curious traveler
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When you Go
INTUR, the national tourism office of Nicaragua, works with individuals and groups to arrange travel in the country. There are several good tour operators like Gray Line (www.graylinenicaragua.com) offering half day and full day trips, car rental and hotel reservations.
But INTUR maintains a list of bona fide tour operators on its sophisticated and useful web site: http://www.visit-nicaragua.com
•American Airlines, Continental, Taca and Delta serve Nicaragua from the US. Delta has a daily non-stop service from Atlanta to Managua.
•Currency is the Cordoba (about 17 to one US dollar), but US dollars are readily accepted as the exchange rate. ATMs are in the larger cities.
•Time is one hour ahead of East Coast.
•Bird Watching and Eco-Tourism
Nicaragua is prime for Eco-Tourism with an astonishing variety of birds and preserved rainforests. INTUR helps with these kinds of trips. Especially ask about the Montibelli Reserve. http://www.montibelli.com
•The 21-room La Gran Francia Hotel (1524) in Granada is an elegant, understated neo-Colonial hotel with an Arabesque open-air courtyard, punctuated by a small cobalt blue dipping pool. The surrounding wicker rockers, vines, plants and a sweeping staircase create an authentic refinement most hotels can only dream of achieving.
•Eat a Pineapple
In the pineapple plantation area of St. Juan de la Conception, stop at any of the roadside vendors selling the delicious fruit and ask to have one sliced on the spot. Sprinkle a touch of salt, and for sixty-cents you’ll taste the one of the sweetest most memorable pineapples ever.
Lake Nicaragua is dotted with hundreds of isletas, many with private homes whose owners have covered the shores and ledges with bright flowers and gardens.
•Try a Nacatamal
This corn tamale packed with rice, meat, corn, pork and potato is the foodstuff of the indignities people and a favorite of Nicaraguans.
•Adventure Travel in Nicaragua
Mombotours offers adventure travel in Nicaragua, including zipping above the jungle, kayaking and coffee plantation tours. The staff are well-trained and knowledgeable and
their coffee plantation hacienda serves good, local brew with views of the lake and mountains.
• Intermezzo del Bosque sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the city. About a half hour’s drive through rather lush suburbs, the open-air restaurant serves good food but better music. Go when Grupo Chekere are playing Cuban and Nicaraguan beauties.