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Published: February 10th 2015
When I was teenager in the '70s I read about the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; about Sandino and Carlos Fonseca and their compañeros, how they confronted and eventually triumphed over the injustice and brutality of the Somoza dictatorship. Since that time, I have wanted to come to Nicaragua and see the land of the Sandinistas.
On Sunday we left Salinas Bay, Costa Rica, crossed the border at Peñas Blancas and headed to Granada on Lake Nicaragua.
Nicaragua - the name conjures images in my head; of lakes and volcanoes, of bearded heroes in jungle green and dark eyed women with firey eyes, of a colourful, passionate and friendly people, farming rice and beans, corn and cattle, wearing cowboy hats, bandanas and long leather boots, suffering despots, continuous US interference and Contras, and becoming fearsome guerrillas when the need arises. And the revolution is not forgotten in peaceful Nicaragua.
First stop was Granada, a beautiful Spanish colonial city on the lake, where we stayed at Hotel con Corazon (Hotel with Heart). It's run by an NGO and all the profits are used for the education of disadvantaged kids, through providing scholarships, tutors and employment in hospitality. Hotel con Corazon
was quite inspiring, a place where you feel good about spending your travelling córdobas.
In Granada we climbed the smoking Volcano Masaya, toured the city by horse and carriage, and visited the Isletas (small islands) on Lake Nicaragua. We saw a couple of museums, but mostly we just walked the colourful streets, looking at magnificient churches and other buildings and the Nicas going about their business.
Granada was founded in 1525 and sits on a narrow isthmus between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish moved bullion up the Pacific coast from Peru, across the narrow land bridge and via the lake and Rio San Juan to the Carribean, and eventually over the Atlantic to Spain. So, for three centuries Granada was one of the richest cities in the Americas, and this shows in the lavish buildings. And, of course Granada was also a target of pesky pirates, buccaneers, treasure hunters and rumscullion opportunists and so was attacked many times, totally trashed thrice, and burned to the ground by a filibustering William Walker in 1856.
On Thursday we came to León, the arch rival of Granada - where Granada is gentle, conservative and prosperous, León is
raw, energetic, revolutionary and confrontational. Granada is lime washed in pastels of blue, gold and green; Leòn is block painted red and black.
In León we visited some great museums and galleries, including one in a former gaol, which showed a curious mixture of traditional Nicaraguan folk stories, and the tortures inflicted on political prisoners by Somoza's goons. We've seen Picassos, Latin American Biennalie winners, and a dedication to León's favourite son, Rubén Darío, the father of Latin American Modernism. At night we were treated to a concert in the square with folk dancing and music outside the largest cathedral in Central America. Lots of colourful costumes, boot slapping and skirt twirling...
León's streets are nowhere near as orderly or colourful as Granada's. In fact, the city is a crumbling wreck, and the footpaths are positively trecherous, but there is a lot of heart in León. It's Nicaragua's intellectual centre, site of the first university, and home to philosophers, artists, poets and writers. It has some great street art, contemporary and with echoes of the past. During the revolution, León was Sandinista heartland, and both suffering and triumph are evident on the streets of this amazing city.
The highlight for me was a visit to the Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution). It is in a delapidated building off the main square, and is organised and staffed by former Sandinista guerrillas. We were guided by a fellow who had fought in León, had been shot through the neck, and he told us the story of the revolution, from Sandino to final victory, and along the way, about the loss of so many people, and the brutality of the Somoza regime. Much of his story was heartbreaking, and he only had a few maps and some photos to tell it with. But it came from his heart and will be an enduring memory of León.
And yesterday we visited two museums. The first was a tiny room next to a doctor's surgery, called the Gallery of Heroes and Martyres. It showed pictures and detailed the lives and deaths of some of the twenty thousand people killed during the revolution. It was a stark reminder of how war takes a toll on the young and the very young. The woman who showed us through lost a son and a daughter, and her story was sad and
profound. The second was a dedication to the poet Rigoberto Lopez Peréz, who assassinated Somoza in 1956 and died in the act. The museum was in the house where the assassination took place and was a little eerie.
We leave León tomorrow to head south again on this amble through Central America, to Ometepe island in Lake Nicaragua.
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