Just how different can two cities be? (Leon & Managua, Nicaragua)

Published: August 23rd 2010
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(Day 870 on the road)Even by Central American standards, it seems that Nicaragua has had to endure more than its fair share of misery in its troubled past. The country's history may sound familiar to anyone who has spent some time in the region, with a few noteworthy twists and turns:

Dictators and elected presidents corrupt to the bone, lining their own coffers at the expense of the people. US military intervention for a couple of decades after 1912, installing and ousting presidents as it liked. A few internal coups, promises of a bright future, political turmoil. A ruthless dictator (Somoza) takes over in 1937, amassing huge personal wealth. The people have enough of foreign intervention, civil war breaks out in 1978. The Soviets are getting involved, the US not far behind. The war is over quickly in 1979, the Sandinista revolutionists being victorious.

The US are not satisfied with the outcome, millions of US$ are given to the Contras. The Contra War escalates, a five-year US trade embargo is initiated to weaken the government in 1985. The Iran-Contra-Affair leaks out (the US illegally sold weapons to Iran and channelled the money to Nicaragua), prolonging the pointless and bloody war. A peace treaty is eventually signed in 1987. But the country is in shambles: the Civil War, the US trade embargo and the inefficiencies of a Soviet-style centralised economy result in hyperinflation, sky-high unemployment and falling production.

After a short period of achievement and subsequent high hopes in the 1990s, the situation today seems not much better. Corruption amongst politicians remains stubbornly high, and, dismayingly, the US continues to intervene in internal politics.

In the 2001 election the US pressured the third presidential candidate to leave the race, invited their favourite candidate to hand out US-donated food rations to potential voters, and promised "dire consequences" for Nicaragua if popular Daniel Ortega was elected. The US favoured candidate (Bolanos) won, promising to clean up corruption, only to be later implicated himself on corruption charges. Daniel Ortega was elected in 2007, yet again promising and ever so bright future for the brave Nicaraguan people. More of the same old it seems.

What to make of this all? As with any country, being familiar with the history of the place deeply enhance my understanding of travelling in the country, allowing me to put experiences and encounters into context. We are expecting that love for the US amongst Nicaraguans is rather hard to find given the recent negative events in this ill relationship, similar to neighbouring countries. If interested, here is the Wikipedia article about Nicaragua here.

Somewhat contrasting with what one might think, Nicaragua today is actually considered the safest country in Central America. Not such a big deal I might add, considering that neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador boast the highest and fourth-highest murder rate in the world. All the same, it was refreshing and reassuring to flip through the "Danger and Annoyances" chapter in our guidebook and not just read about how many tourists get mugged and killed in this or that place every day, but to actually be told that all is more or less OK here.

We had bid our final farewell to El Salvador, and had arrived in Leon, our first stop in Nicaragua. Proclaimed as one of Nicaragua's gems (the other two being Granada and the Isla Ometepe), it was also Kristina's final stop on her four-week break from work. And not a bad way to end a holiday! Whilst colonial Leon certainly has its charms, it was a day trip to the nearby volcanoes of El Hoyo and Cerro Negro that really stood out.

Especially Cerro Negro was stunning: One of the youngest and most active volcanoes in the world, this pitch black volcano is constantly fuming and steaming, making a trek here seem otherworldly. Coupled with some great views from the top of its narrow crater rim, we were all suitably impressed, and the images of the smoking back mountain will certainly stay with us for some time to come.

Back in Leon, it was time to say goodbye to Kristina. How fast these past four weeks have gone by! Tino accompanied her to the airport in Managua (about two hours away by collectivo minibus) and returned the next day, giving us two some more time to explore the various churches and colonial architecture (I should really learn more about the different architectural styles). Spanish rule has certainly been brutal here in Central America, but they did leave some very beautiful colonial cities for sure.

And then: Managua, the capital. I am not sure how best to describe this city. A rough and deserted dump without any attractions might be a bit harsh, but after charming Leon, Managua felt like out of this world. It is hard to believe that these two cities lie only two hours apart. It may seem a little unfair to say this about Managua after I have just given an overview of how the country became what it is today through corrupt politicians and foreign intervention, but then again: It is what it is. And Managua is a dump, simple as that.

The neighbourhood we stayed in was pretty rough, and everything we saw during our two days in the city was either falling apart, completely neglected, or simply dirty. Mostly, it was all of the above together.

Worst of all was the Area Monumental, right by the shore of heavily polluted Lake Managua. It was Sunday, but there were no people around to be seen anywhere, save for four blond tourist girls who looked just as astonished and shocked (and completely out of place) as we did.

Crumbling socialist monuments and statues were dotted around in forgotten and littered parks, flanked by large, colourful red posters proclaiming that the revolution was alive, and how Christian and equal the country was. Next to rotten and derelict buildings were sparkling and impressive government buildings proudly flying the country's colours (and even a luxurious Crown Plaza hotel), contrasting in an ever so stark way with the poverty and the neglect all around. Children beggars and drunk people completed the picture. We didn't mind too much leaving this forsaken place.

Next stop: Granada (Nicaragua).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


26th October 2010
Iglesia de la Recoleccion in Leon

wonderful building.
i desire to travel at there. but im in borneo, so far. i just keep it in my dream. love that buildings.
7th November 2010

I was thinking about traveling somewhere to a foreign country and renting a room or small house or apartment? Do you think Managua would be a good place? I am on a budget and have little to spend. Like a poverty thing. I would just live frugal maybe buy a used bicycle and shop at produce markets and cook my own meals be sober drink coffee.etc.

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