Nicaragua, A Country of Contrasts

Saved: April 9th 2014EDIT THIS ENTRY

Background of Nicaraguan History, Geography & Demographics

Ever since I can remember, the name Nicaragua has evoked intrigue in me. It’s etymology integrates Nicarao, which was the largest indigenous tribe when the Spanish arrived, & “agua” meaning water in Spanish. The south has a higher proportion of agua than land, inundated by Lake Nicaragua, the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world. Nicaragua is also called the “country of lakes & volcanoes.” Being amongst the Central American Volcanic Arc, Nicaragua has 19 volcanoes, with 3 being currently active. Lake Nicaragua (home to the world’s only freshwater shark) & Lake Managua are both crater lakes.

This organically rich country is also known as a biodiversity hotspot, making up 10% of the planet’s biodiversity. It has 7 types of forested lands: subtropical dry forest, tropical rainforest, mangroves, wetlands, grass savannahs & tree savannahs. Nicaragua is home to 78 nature reserves, including the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, the world’s third largest rainforest reserve.

In contradiction to Nicaragua’s rich natural biodiversity, it is the second “poorest” country (economically) in the western world, hiding in the shadows of Haiti. The strong humility of this ferocious country is embedded with an impacted history of turmoil & political unrest. In 1821, Nicaragua declared independence from Spain, but was occupied by the U.S. from 1909 – 1933. From 1927 – 1979 it was controlled by the dictatorship of the Somoza Dynasty. In 1978 – 9, the Nicaraguan Revolution upturned this culture into a divided country between the contras vs Sandinista’s (communist leaning group), leaving 10,000 deaths in its shadows. This polarization lead to the Nicaraguan Civil War between the FSLN & Contra’s from 1981 -9. This war became a proxy war during the cold war, tragically decimating this country with at least 30,000 deaths. Additionally, Nicaragua made headlines in the Reagan era when the CIA was selling weapons to Iran, secretly siphoning the money to the Nicaraguan contras, supporting their cause to fight “communism.” This controversy came to light in the 80’s, known as the Iran-Contra scandal. To sum up Nicaraguan political history in a paragraph is blasphemous, but at least this gives a hint regarding the magnitude of history compacted into the last 100 years of this resilient country.

Most people do not know that Nicaragua was the highest contender (overshadowing Panama) for a canal route to connect the Pacific & Atlantic oceans through this vital Central American isthmus. The deciding factor to Panama as the canal route was the eruption of Nicaragua’s Mt. Momotombo in 1902, confirming at the time that this country’s volcanic unpredictibility was a natural impediment to a secure plan for the canal. The town, San Juan del Sur was a transportation hub on the southwest coast during the California Gold Rush in the 1850’s. It lies on the Pacific Ocean on the narrow Rivas isthmus between the Pacific & Lake Nicaragua. In the gold rush people took steam ships up the San Juan River from the Caribbean Sea, emptying into Lake Nicaragua, then crossing the lake & isthmus to San Juan on the Pacific to California, & back of course in the opposite direction.

The coastal town, San Juan del Sur, was just a sleepy fishing village, & became a hub as aforementioned for the years during the gold rush. Now it is a popular destination for surfers, expatriates & tourists vacationing on the Rivas isthmus. It has the comfortable amenities of excellent restaurants, spas, motels & hostels embedded in this hidden paradisiacal cove. Even though it offers these modern day conveniences, there is still an unexploited, sincere charm that welcomes visitors with a comfortable humility & relaxed tempo.

As I said earlier, Nicaragua has always evoked intrigue in me, without any understanding of why. Growing up the name, “Nicaragua” struck a loud, exotic chord amongst what I perceived as static noise of the controversial news in my younger, more self-absorbed years. The intrigue never made sense until the first time I set foot on this primal territory at the ripe age of 48. The contradictions of this complex country came to life when I first visited Nicaragua in the charming town, San Juan del Sur.

Day 1, Nov. 16, 2012: San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur is a welcoming portal to Nicaragua. It greets you with open arms that are comforting, humble & wise. I had absolutely no expectations before arriving, with no research to prepare for my day spent there. I arrived while working on the cruise ship, Island Princess. This ship’s cruises had been gruelling for me, with a large focus on the Panama Canal, sacrificing the itinerary with ports that are cheaper & shorter to make the cruise affordable. All I heard from crewmembers beforehand is that San Juan was tender to the port (usually frustrating me) & that you needed to keep a big eye on your wallet. I even contemplated staying on the ship the first day there, because I was so tired of port disappointments. But in the end, I literally forced myself to give it a go & very grateful that I did.

As we approached San Juan on the tender, the refreshing winds invigorated me from being vitally impoverished by the stale air on the cruise ship. The crescent-shaped harbor, engulfed by precipitous seacliffs, seemed to embrace & protect me from the interior shadows of this vesuvian country. When getting off the tender, I immediately noticed the Christ of Mercy Statue, standing like a guardian over the harbor 134 meter above the shorelines on the northern seacliff. I was struck by the first impression, hmmm a “Rio de Janeiro Light” with the precipitous rise of mountains closely hugging the shoreline & the Christ statue overseeing the harbor from above.

To compare San Juan del Sur as a Rio de Janeiro Light is a flow of words easy to describe. The mountains & seacliffs hugging the shorelines begin this description. Rio’s Mt. Corcovado, the pedestal for “Christ the Redeemer,” reaches an elevation of 700 meters, with the world’s largest art deco statue standing 39.6 meters tall. San Juan’s seacliffs rise to approx. 130 meters in height with the Christ of Mercy Statue standing 24 meters. Secondly, the population of Rio is approximately 6 million people, while San Juan is home to about 18,000 people; so inevitably the tempo is a lot more relaxed in this charming Nicaraguan port.

I walked through the crowd of pedlars selling Nicaraguan T-shirts & tacky souvenirs like they were invisible. However, I was creatively stimulated by the interspersed spectral delight of bright colors, from beautifully woven handmade bags & clothing, which are often a cultural mainstay in Latin America. I began to realize with the awe of a refreshing surprise, that this was going to be a special day in San Juan del Sur.

I walked along the beach observing all of the restaurants & shops, reading over the menus posted outside, planning for the best lunch experience that was not only tasty but ambient. The ambiance part was easy because all of these restaurants were on the beach with decks wide open to the sea air & scenery. After walking for about 15 minutes, I came to the last restaurant on the beach, furthest from the ship. The menu & venue had what I was looking for: pasta with pesto, with the ideal deck taking in the beautiful air & views. So I made up my mind that I would return back here for lunch 2 hours later.

As usual in my travels I created a destiny for my journey & allowed myself to explore along the way with no expectations. My plan was to saunter my way around the crescent-shaped beach, hugged by seacliffs, to an area below the Christ State on the north end of the beach.

As I was walking along, with the string of nice restaurants behind me, I noticed 2 youth hostels, then an inviting swinging bridge crossing the mouth of Rio San Juan del Sur, emptying into the Pacific Ocean. While crossing the bridge’s creaky moving wooden path, my proprioception felt strangely comfortable while treading upon a moving ground, experienced routinely on the cruise ship.

As I stepped off the bridge, there was another hospitable hostel on the beach that looked like a place that I would have enjoyed in my younger days. Continuing to walk, I could feel the tempo change in that I was off the beaten path, where tourists usually turned around. I kept walking, finding an affluent neighbourhood embedded in cooling trees. I walked past a group of children standing in the street with their bikes. They stared at me like I was an alien, then shattered the foreign barrier with their wide toothed grins, as they sang like a children’s choir: “Hola…” waiting in silence for my response. I sang back with a warm smile, “Hola…” as we connected with 1 word and synchronized smiles, transcending any lengthy conversation with a heartfelt, pure connection that needed no more words.

I found a path that took me back to the beach, where I walked along walking toward some boulders on the beach below the Christ Statue. Interestingly, there were very few people on this part of the beach, since it was more residential in front of condominiums & large houses. I walked in solitude in the wake of peaceful silence with only my breath and the tide whispering in my ears. It was beginning to get humidly hot with a strengthening sun, but the refreshing breeze inspired me to keep going. I put on my sun hat & shirt & prevailed toward the rocks.

When I got there, I crawled upon the boulder that was smooth & flat on top, so I could lay comfortably on its surface & just take in the breeze. The Christ Statue was right above me like a guardian. I felt strangely alone, yet peaceful & safe. This is a foreign feeling to oneself, when living on a cruise ship as anyone could imagine. What a sincere moment to be here on these rocks in solitude with the ocean, breeze & sun. Ahh, I agreed with the elements of nature, to hang out there for a while & just be…my instinctive intuition had guided me to this spot for a reason. This is exactly what I needed to recharge my heart & soul…

In the distance I could see the cruise ship, but the people on the beach were mere dots with no distinguishable characteristics. The turquoise bay was colorfully interspersed with fishing boats & sailboats, lingering on the water… The drama of the 3-dimensional world on the cruise ship seemed like a distant, surreal dream. These moments alone on the rocks with the elements of nature were simply real, substantiative & filling me up with vitality. Why do I put myself through this lifestyle, where life on the ship subsists of working long hours, confined in the stale space with air conditioning, preservative-filled foods, drenched in butter, heavily chlorinated water that dries my hair & skin, impacted densely with 2000 passengers, filled up with more pharmaceuticals than the ocean from which we cruise upon. I do it all for moments like this…on the beach in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua with the wind, ocean & culture that transcends all the crusty negativity imploding upon these cruise ships. I then noticed these miniature crabs sidestepping in the sands below. I had never seen them this small & even queried to myself if these were actually crabs. The sun was beginning to overwhelm my comfort zone, & I reluctantly pulled myself away from my sacred space, gathering my colorful, Mexican backpack to move on. My stomach was growling, as it approached noon, so I decided to wander back to the restaurant chosen earlier for lunch.

When I walked onto the deck of the restaurant, I noticed 3 Filipino crewmembers from the Spa in which I worked at a table. This disappointed me because I felt like solitude & getting away from the ship life, but knew it would be embarrassingly asocial to avoid them, so I joined their table. I ended up getting quiet time anyway, as they frantically caught up with their I-phones, while I ordered a local Victorian Beer & pesto pasta. Ahhhh, the breeze & open air scenery of the harbor along with the cold, tasty beer refreshed my senses & psyche. I couldn’t get over how much I loved the vibe of this place with so much charm & beauty, that seems to rest at a constant relaxed tempo, even with tourists & cruise ship passengers dumped upon it. When the food arrived, I ate mine with great pleasure & marvelled at the platter of fried assortment of meats ordered by the Filipinos. Theirs was more typical of Nicaraguan entrees, in which everything is fried & seafood is popular, especially on the coast. Their platter was approximately 1 foot by 2 feet, monopolizing the space of our small table. It was compacted with fried shrimp, oysters, chicken, lobster tail, with token samples of fried plantains & potatoes. This prompted me to add fried plantains to my meal. I marvelled at their ability to eat so much meat & cholesterol. I have counselled & treated with acupuncture many relatively young Filipino crewmembers with high cholesterol or gout, because in their culture, meat is eaten in the highest proportion to other foods at every meal.

After spending approx. 2 hours indulging in the restaurant, I sauntered around the town just taking it in, to notice what it had to offer. This was obviously a hub for many young people to explore Nicaragua, as I observed throughout the day at least 6 youth hostels. I walked by a yoga center & health spa that included acupuncture. But just like the town, these businesses remained charming & unpretentious. They seemed to harmoniously fit along the streets just like the local bar or food store. I overheard a conversation from a group while in a store about living there as expatriates. They were a middle aged, American couple, gloating about the tropical environment & all they could purchase with such little money. I learned later that San Juan is a growing location for expatriates, trying to escape from the cold weather & inflated economies, living comfortably on quite a small sum of money.

Day 2, Dec. 2, 2012: Rivas, Lake Nicaragua & San Juan del Sur

My second day in port of San Juan, I started off my day as an escort for a half-day shore excursion from the cruise ship. This allowed me to go on tours at no charge. Well, the charge is being on a tour bus with 30 tourists from the cruise ship, but nothing in life is free. In countries that are more undeveloped & unconducive to travelling alone, I often will do an organized tour for obvious reasons. My intention was to see Lake Nicaragua & a hint of this country’s Volcanic arc, so my excursion to the isthmus, Rivas & Lake Nicaragua was my chosen tour.

We caught our bus in San Juan, traveling through the countryside to the picturesque town, Rivas, for our first stop. As an escort I really do not do much except sit in the back of the bus & wait to get off last, making sure everyone is happy. I patiently sit while the stiff & slow, elderly passengers limp, shuffle & slowly ooze themselves out of the bus, one by one. Then I quickly scramble for my free time to explore the sites. I dodged the tour guide & just independently walked around. We were dropped off at a beautiful & charming Catholic Church built by the Spanish in 1607. The off-white color with blue trim of the church eloquently blended with the azure sky, mottled with white nimbus shrouds. Everything else about the church was similar to any other Spanish, Catholic Church commonly seen in Central or South America. But I was rather inspired by the colors, that made this church feel more spiritual as though it was an extension from the sky or Heavens. Additionally, I got a mystical photo shot of the Jesus statue looking down from the roof at the main entrance. It seemed to animate into Christ looking down, with the light & clouds emanating behind him, giving the impression of being protected & overlooked upon by our Holy Saviour (I consider myself an agnostic-pantheistic-Taoist, but get in the spirit when I visit).

Across the street was a charming park with brightly painted benches & bougainvillea, bespeckling the serene square block. Also, adjacent to this was another park with a ferris wheel & merry-go-round, stereotypically painted in the bright green, blue, red & yellow colors of this part of the world. The rides were old & in the condition, that what I imagined would have been in the states 50 years ago. This left me with a nostalgic curiosity. The bright veneer of paint seemed to gloss over & ignore the age of the mechanical festivities, inviting people to come join the fun. Just when I was beginning to adjust & resonate with the environs, as usual with a tour group, I was catapulted from this status back onto the bus for the next stop on the itinerary, Lake Nicaragua.

In about 15 minutes, we arrived at Hotel La Mar on Lake Nicaragua. It is owned by Nicaragua’s first major league baseball player, Dennis Martinez, who is one of the 14 pitchers in American history to throw a perfect game. We were able to relax & wander close to the open-air deck with a Nicaraguan band, fruit & drinks along the shores of Lake Nicaragua. This vast lake reveals no shores when you look upon the horizon, with the exception of the distant Ometepe Island, formed by the pair of twin volcanoes, Mt. Concepcion & Maderas, majestically painting the lake’s skyline. Mt. Concepcion (1610 meters) is an active stratovolcano, that has erupted 25 times since 1883, with the most recent being in March 2010. Its fumaroles emit steam & gases, wafting across the sky to remind onlookers of its cryptic activity. Mt. Maderas (1394 meters) is inactive with its crater forming a lake & is known for its magical & rare cloud forests at its majestic altitudes.

Even though we only had a half hour there, I knew that I could make every second count & connect with these natural environs to rejuvenate my soul. I walked along Lake Nicaragua, meditating on the vision of the twin volcanoes. To me they were a conspicuous form of Taoist principles, embodying the opposite forces of yin & yang. The smaller, inactive Mt. Maderas was the yin half of the equation, with the larger, active Mt. Concepcion as the yang. The Feng Shui of the skyline was the ultimate balance of the natural 5 elements in Chinese tradition: vast water of the lake, surrounding the volcanoes, composed of earth, fire & metal. The yin & yang forces balanced the horizon with a natural order of equanimity. I also watched the beautiful white herons or egrets wading along the shoreline. It was breathtaking to observe their long & elegant, S-shaped necks stretched into the winds & bodies blended into the foamy waves, from which they fed on fish. Lake Nicaragua is the only lake with the rare, freshwater bull shark & is not particularly inviting to swim in. The water looked murky & rough, with high winds. Nicaragua is not for the leisurely to lounge in passive, paradisiacal comfort. It offers adventures, with passion & rugged lands to be explored & kept at a distance in awe. It was frustrating to leave, as I stood awestruck, gazing through the distance of Lake Nicaragua at the Ometepe Island & twin volcanoes. My future plans for returning to visit Nicaragua on my own were being shaped here, with thoughts of going to the mysterious Ometepe island as a given. We trickled back on to the bus, with the half-day tour at a close, but now I would be free to have the afternoon on my own in San Juan, another unknown gem of Nicaragua.

As usual when a half-day tour concludes, I burst off the bus like a young school kid running out the school door for recess. The freedom & independence is at my beck & call with free range to explore as I please. This was especially inviting as my former experience in San Juan had been so positive, that I excitedly began my afternoon with an open & eager mindset. I was really hungry & in search of the perfect spot for lunch. My emerging thirst with hunger, prompted me to stop at a health food/smoothie cafe, filled with young people & most importantly, no cruise ship people. It had an open wall with brightly strung beads hanging vertically in the entrance, feeling as though the outside was an extension of the cafe. I felt comfortable in this bohemian environment & waited patiently for my large smoothie, with chocolate, bananas, soy, peanut butter & more. The Latino chatter of the young people & relaxed tempo comforted me into a familiar zone, that I have experienced in many places of the world. I am always in search of the café society wherever I visit, & this was it for me to cherish alone with no hint of stale cruise ship culture. Across the street I observed (& took a photo) of a laid back scenario portraying this creative culture. In it the ukuleles & guitarras store was called Volcan’s Music, brightly painted in lemon yellow & lime green. Outside, a man stood playing a ukulele, with 2 other men intently listening. A dog that looked like a pit bull was sprawled peacefully in front of the entrance sleeping. To the side was a brightly painted bike in red, green & yellow. The bright colors, along with the colourful music scene, painted a scenario that was deeply organic & artistic to me about human nature at its best. I really liked the vibe of this area. It was genuine, without the bohemian pretension that can sometimes be more arrogant than a blue blooded group of billionaires. Like everything here, nothing was over the top, just genuinely nice.

The smoothie curbed my appetite, but I was still in search of a good meal & ambience which I found at the El Gato Negro Café & Bookstore. After spending almost 20 years living in the Pacific Northwest, this type of ambience felt very much at home for me. Inside, there was much to stimulate your mind with books, magazines, art, photography, tarot cards & more. The café roasted its organic coffee from its own farm. There was a vast assortment of healthy, organic options, which is simple in Nicaragua, since they do not use pesticides in this country because they are “undeveloped.” I ordered a vegan Shepherd’s Pie made with lentils, mashed potatoes & roasted vegetables. It was scrumptious & satiated my palette to perfection. It was so nice to be in an environment that was creatively & nutritionally stimulating. I noticed the clientele consisted of what appeared to be surfers (golden tan, young & athletic), bohemian types reading books with an intelligence that wafted through the air like the aromatic coffee & healthy assortment of cakes, muffins, & entrees. After an hour of contemplating, eating & just simply being, I pulled myself away to wander the streets, bartered with street venders to buy Nicaraguan T-shirts & bags, & then ventured back to the ship.

I reluctantly navigated myself away from San Juan del Sur toward the ship’s tender. I felt like metal forcefully being pulled away from the powerful magnetic field of a magnet. My 2 profound days in Nicaragua were deeply fulfilling to me. Nicaragua offers genuine, unexploited culture & primal, natural beauty unique to our homogenized world. It’s my hopes that Nicaragua takes on the attitudes of its neighbour, Costa Rica, with its investment in green politics & no military to endorse it’s natural infinitude of peace & biodiversity. Nicaragua remains fresh & untainted by the synthetic threads of existence, transcending into an organic realm of rich biodiversity & cultural authenticity. I intend to return on my own to explore this country’s rare charm & viscerally, real beauty in a deep journey through its omnipresence.

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