Hospitable people, intriguing historical sites and dramatic landscapes (plus some particularly tenacious green parrots) all combine to make Nicaragua an essential destination for the ardent traveller
Nicaragua is an incredibly poor country, second only to El Salvador in the regional poverty stakes. The reasons for this are many and varied, but they essentially revolve around the political strife that engulfed the country during the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite this strife and poverty, however, the country remains an exciting destination in Central America and one not to be missed by the adventurous traveller. Indeed, it was exactly this turbulent history that intrigued me so much and made me appreciate the kindness and hospitality (even the terrible haircut!) that I received from the country's inhabitants.
Granada is a breezy, beautiful and historical colonial town and a much better place to spend some time than the sprawling capital city of Managua. There are many decent hotels in Granada and the town is a great base from which to explore the surrounding area. Highlights from here include small craft villages, active volcanoes, Fort Coyotepe and Ometepe Island, on Lake Nicaragua.
During a day tour from Granada, I visited the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya as well as an old fortress called Coyotepe. Volcan Masaya is one of the world´s most active and (because of the population surrounding it) most dangerous volcanoes. The last eruption, in 2001, sent rocks tumbling into the parking lot and spewed lava onto the surrounding plains. One can peer into the cone, 250m deep, and see the red glow from the molten magma inside. One thousand tons of carbon monoxide, sulphur and ammonia are jettisoned into the atmosphere every day here, creating a viscous plume of acrid gas of such magnitude that it can be seen from space. Nothing can grow on the cone in the lee of the prevailing winds; and the people living in villages in that direction suffer sever respiratory illnesses because of it. Amazingly, there is one particular species of green parrot that makes its nest in hollows on the inside of the volcano. These tenacious birds survive, seemingly miraculously, in spite of their environment, not because of it, as do the people of this country.
We visited a 200m-long cave in the side of Volcan Masaya, home to a colony of 20,000 bats. In the brooding darkness, we were told stories of Indian rituals held here; of human and animal sacrifices made to the god of the volcano. During the revolution, the Sandinistas used the caves to hide soldiers and weapons. Only eight years ago, a clandestine group was discovered in the cave, performing arcane rituals of witchcraft. I asked our Mayan guide what happened to them. "They arrested. Taken away. They not return again."
When the Spanish conquistadors came to Masaya, they believed that inside the great caldera lay the gates to hell itself. They sent their priest-men to the cone to exorcise the demons, and erected a giant white cross above the place, a replica of which still stands today. I daresay the demons are not yet exorcised.
The fortress of Coyotepe has a dark history, which I will leave it to the reader to discover. Suffice it to say that visiting this place was a sobering yet worthwhile experience. I believe that by seeing places such as this, and learning the history behind them, the traveller is richly rewarded with an insight into the reality of a country and its people, and their place in the world.
Lesson over and it is on to Ometepe Island. This dumbbell-shaped island comprises two interesting and climbable volcanoes. The top of the smaller mountain, Maderas, is shrouded in beautiful cloudforest and it is possible to rappel down into the cone and swim in the lake at the bottom. The hike is moderate in difficulty and well worth the effort. Many options for accommodation are available, inlcuding relaxing hotels on the beach, serving grilled fish and plantain dishes. Other activities on the island include wildlife-spotting, achaeological sites, horse-riding and local crafts. However, it is the majestic twin volcanoes of Concepción and Maderas that most come to see. Enjoy!
There are no direct flights to Central America from the UK. However, connections can easily be made from the USA or from mainland Europe. Iberia offers the most affordable option I could find, flying from London via Madrid.
Central America is an intensely interesting, bustling, vibrant and worthwhile destination. It can, however, be a little intimidating to the first-time (or even second-time!) adventurer. If this will be your first experience of Latin America, I would highly recommend going with an organised tour company, at least for the initial couple of weeks. That way, you will be given an introduction and time to acclimatise before embarking on your own adventure. Several tour operators work in the region; I have used Toucan Travel and have found them to be well-organised, language-adapted and reliable, in this often chaotic region of the world.