This Spring, Carol and I took a side trip to Nicaragua when we were on our usual yearly trip to the USA to see kids, etc. Carol had heard good things about the country and about the Nicaraguan people. She has some interest in living closer to our kids, and further has a fascination with learning Spanish really well. So she planned three weeks for us in Nicaragua. We were going to start out in Granada, the biggest tourist city, and were both going to Spanish school, she had planned, for two weeks. If we like it, maybe this is a new place where we could live? It has a low cost of living, being the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, so we know that we could have a good life there.
The first thing I noticed was the flight from Los Angeles was about 11 hours. We had to fly through Miami to get to Nicaragua from California, no direct flights.
What is called Central America is the area south of Mexico and north of Columbia, on the narrow strip of land the connects North and South America.
Nicaragua is the largest (in land area) of the Central American countries. It was one of the first areas of Spanish conquest, and in Western and Central Nicaragua the Spanish influences are quite strong. As a result, except for the underdeveloped western part of the country, the cultures and costumes of the indigenous people are pretty invisible to tourists.
We landed in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, in the only international airport. We were met by a car from the language school, and we drove another hour to get to Granada. We were taken to our “homestay” residence, at the home of a nice couple with two children. The family made its living by operating the “pulperia” at the front of their house. A pulperia is a small neighborhood grocery and general store common in South and Central America. Nicaragua has 120,000 of these, about one for every 50 people.
Here’s the entrance to the store, our “home away from home.”
Here is the little girl of the family, who finally warmed up to us after a few days. The family spoke only Spanish and tried in small ways to help us with the language.
We entered the home by pushing aside one of the store’s display cases. Our room was in the middle of the house, built of brick and concrete that held onto the heat like crazy. Our room had no AC and only one portable floor fan. It was so hot a night that we could barely sleep. We provided the owner with another fan, so the sleeping was tolerable (barely). We left Tamil Nadu during the hottest time of the year, and hoped to find some place cooler. This was not it.
Granada is the sixth largest city in Nicaragua, with a population of about 120,000. Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. It is said to be the first European city in mainland America (but some on the coast of Panama and Mexico were started earlier). The earliest European city in the hemisphere was Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, founded in 1498. Unlike other cities that claim the “first city” distinction, Granada was not only the initial settlement of Cordoba’s Spanish conquest, but also the first city registered in official records of the Crown of Aragon, and the Kingdom of Castile in Spain.
Granada is also known as La Gran Sultana, in reflection of its Moorish and Andalusian appearance, unlike its sister city and historical rival, León, which displays Castilian trends.
The Central Square of Granada
In the center of Granada, as is the case in most Spanish cities, is a public square, and the the main church fronting onto the plaza.
The plaza is a nice space, with many trees and a variety of vendors. It is named “Plaza de la Independencia,” celebrating the 1821 independence from Spain.
The Main Church
Facing the plaza is the main church of the city, the Cathedral of Granada, first constructed as a parochial church in 1583. The building was completely destroyed by an American named William Walker in 1857. (More on William Walker below.) With new plans from the architect Andrés Zappata the construction continued again and was completed in 1915.
William Walker (1824-1860) was an American adventurer and soldier who became President of Nicaragua in 1856-1857. He tried to gain control over most of Central America, but failed. He was executed by firing squad in 1860 in Honduras. Walker conceived the idea of conquering vast regions of Latin America to create new slave states to join those already part of the United States. This was part of the Manifest Destiny Doctrine popular among many Americans at that time. Two associates of Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, were involved, supporting Walker with the promise that large tracts of Vanderbilt land would be seized from Vanderbilt and given to the associates, C. K. Garrison and Charles Morgan. This made Vanderbilt a big enemy of Walker’s Central American “adventures.”
Here’s the exterior of the Cathedral.
The interior of the cathedral.
When we were at the cathedral there was a special mass for the canonization of the two popes, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
These boys are talking to Richard, he is showing them a photo he took of them.
This is typical of the interior altars.
Here is a bas relief of the last supper. It has the full attention of a little girl.
A Carriage Ride through Granada
One of the regular tourist activities in Granada is a carriage ride through the city. By the plaza, a number of horses and carriages wait. As you walk by the drivers compete for your attention, trying to get you to go for a ride through the city. Some speak English. Most do not.
Our carriage was pulled by a matched pair of white horses.
As he drove through the city, one thing the driver/guide made a point to show us was tombs of revolutionary fighters from the 1979 revolution of the Sandinistas over the Samoza government. This kind of public art, glorifying the revolutionaries, is a big part of what we will see throughout Nicaragua.
The dictatorship of the Somoza family lasted for 43 years, from 1927 to 1979. The Somoza family came to power as part of a US-engineered pact in 1927 that stipulated the formation of the Guardia Nacional to replace the United States Marines who had ruled the country from 1912 to 1927.
Here a painting on a wall peeks through the trees. Most of the public art focused on the Revolution and its martyrs.
This monument marks the start of the street of revolutionaries.
The monuments along the center of the street mark the actual burial places of some of the fallen.
Here is a street in Granada. The houses are built in Spanish style, pretty much closed up in the front, with no yard and little external decoration. Most open up to interior spaces that are open to the sky and that let a breeze flow through the building.
Granada is a city on a lake, located along the coast of Lake Nicaragua (a.k.a. Lake Cocibolca), the world’s twentieth largest lake. As we near the lake, we see another park with sculptures honoring Nicaraguans. The two groups that were honored most were the heroes and martyrs of the Revolution and the beloved regional poets.
The carriage ride took us to see the lake.
Language School and Home Stay
Our main plan for the trip to Nicaragua was to go to Spanish Language school. Carol speaks some Spanish now, and has done so since high school Spanish classes. I speak little, only what you can absorb living in California. I was going to classes to see how hard it would be for me to learn the language. To live in a place like Nicaragua, where there is little English, you have to have some basic capacity for the language. So we wanted to see how hard it would be for me. And at 70 years, learning new things is not as easy as it once was. Carol even made sure that my hearing aids worked and were adjusted, so I would be able to better hear the teacher.
Here is the school. We have just entered the space. It is a narrow space leading from the street. There is bright light at the end of these rooms. This is sunlight from the interior open space typical of these Spanish-Colonial buildings.
Each student has their own little cubical where they would sit with their teacher.
We ate breakfast and sometimes lunch in our home stay. In the evening we would always walk into the main part of the city to eat.
This is typical of those restaurants; an inviting entrance into a very pleasant interior where we would sit and eat.
We’d also have a drink in the evening, maybe a beer with dinner. These are the two main Nicaraguan beers, Victoria and Tonia. We liked them both, but Tonia more.
After about two days in the heat in Granada we pretty much decided to cut this part of the trip short and do more touring within Nicaragua. When Carol talked to the people at the language school, telling them that we were going to cut our classes short by a week, the owner suggested that they could move the classes for us next week to a nearby town, Catarina, that is higher in the mountains and cooler. So we took a trip with them to this town. The trip was by local bus.
Catarina was cooler, and is an area where flowers are grown for sale as plants. The streets were pretty and green, as seen below, with a number of plant nurseries selling their plants.
When we got to Catarina, we walked up a hill to a public area where we could overlook the Apoyo Lagoon. This is a lake in a dormant volcano. When the Apoyo Volcano last erupted, about 23,000 years ago, it left a huge 7 km-wide crate. Filled with water, this forms today’s lagoon.
Nice view. This is a tourist area (mainly for Nicaraguan tourists), and there were several restaurants that overlooked the lagoon. On the other side of the lagoon, on the horizon, is Granada.
Schoolgirls in Catarina.
We thought it was cooler, but more cut off from the world, a small town of 5,000 people. Not enough to motivate us to stay longer, and not interesting enough to consider as a place to live. We took buses back to Granada.
That night we went again to the tourist area to eat. The main street is nicknamed “Gringo Street,” and it is lined with shops and places for the tourists to eat and drink. Many of these places extended into the street, with tables set outside the restaurant.
This is the atmosphere on Gringo Street.
We had fish and chips at O’Shea’s. In many tourist places around the world you will see Irish bars and eating places. I guess the idea is the the Irish drink and have a good time, so come join them!
A place on a side street was a Beatles (John Lennon) bar and café, shown here, on “Penny Lane.”
In many of the places there was a plant filled interior space to sit and eat. Quite pleasant.
Museum at Cathedral San Francisco
The Cathedral San Francisco is the oldest in Granada and maybe the oldest in Central America.
Mountains around Granada from the cathedral.
Centro Cultural Antiguo Convento San Francisco
In the museum there are a number of paintings showing history and legends associated with Granada.
I think this one shows the angels bringing the Spanish conqueror, Hernández de Córdoba, to Granada. History is written by the winners, and this seems a case of this rule.
Within the museum are exhibits of native cultures. This is a kind of ancient “ride” where people would be strapped with ropes to a pole, which would turn and spin the people in the air. What a ride! They wrapped a rope around the pole and then pulled it out to cause it to spin.
La Colonia Supermarket
We had read about a quality super market in Granada, so in checking the area out as a possible place to live, we wanted to see this. There are actually two good markets. One is associated with Walmart, and the other is a high-end grocery chain, the Colonia Super Market.
Here is a shot of the market from the outside.
Inside it is clean and bright and stocked with shelves full of foods like you could find in the US. This is better than anything we have seen in Tiruvannamalai, or even Pondicherry or even Chennai. A big plus. The people at La Colonia are friendly and helpful. We heard that the atmosphere in the Walmart-related store is depressing.
There are nice sections for fruits, vegetables and meat, though these are items that you might purchase at local markets for a much lower price.
They have a good liquor department, again unlike anything we see in Tamil Nadu. We got a clerk to pose holding a bottle of Nicaraguan rum.
So the supermarket shopping in Granada is better than India. We ended up finding Colonia Supermarkets in each of the big cities we visited, so this is available throughout the country.
A big part of the tourist life in places like Granada is night life. In Granada this is eating and drinking and watching all the people. There are also street artists who put on shows.
There was a group of break dancers who performed on Gringo Street. They had a boom box for music, and did their spins and moves on the street. You can see that they have got a crowd watching. We were sitting in a street side restaurant.
They put on a good show. One guy was a great spinner!
Our most fun night out on the town
We also encountered street musicians. These two guys, Los Maribios Nicaragua, gave us our best evening’s entertainment while we were in Nicaragua.
We were walking back to our room after eating dinner. Next to the plaza we saw something getting set up, by musicians.
The two musicians call themselves Maribios NIcaragua. The have a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/maribio.volcanes. They play a variety of wooden flutes, drums, and guitars. Most of their music has a Central American or Peruvian flavor.
They started with “The Sounds of Silence.”
Next they featured a local singer, who was blind.
The musicians switched instruments often to get the sound they wanted.
When the music started to play, this man, a borracho, a drunk, came out and started moving with the music. I think it was his best night, too.
Here is Richard, shooting video with his little camera. The borracho was interested in what he was doing.
Then the crowd started dancing, and formed into a line dance.
Carol joined into the dancing. In the video below she is dancing with the borracho.
I also danced with my friend the borracho a bit. As we danced he told me that he used to play the guitar. So he has a good feeling for the music. The thing about Carol and dancing is that she doesn’t. She danced tonight with the borracho more than she has danced with me in the 24 years we have been together.
Nicaragua is called “the land of lakes and volcanoes.” a string of active volcanoes runs up the west coast. These active volcanoes sometimes erupt. The other thing they are associated with is earthquakes. Cities in Nicaragua historically have been leveled by these earthquakes.
This wikipedia map shows the volcanoes.
The Mombacho volcano is closest to Granada. We drove there one day to see it.
The road carried us through broad fields of black lava. A few plants push through the lava. I think maybe this big field was deposited in the big eruption of 1772. It takes a long time to turn lava into volcanic soil.
Not much that we could see, though. It was a big crater, with thick grey smoke rising from it.
Kind of other worldly. It is very much still active. Its last eruption was in 2003.
Before we left Granada (one week before we had planned) we got to see a funeral procession start. This was right across the street from where we were staying. The heart of the procession was this black horse-driven glass-walled hearse. The family and friends walk behind it to the grave yard. The memorial service for the man was done at his home.
Next we will go to Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua. I don’t know much about it yet. Carol set up a two-week tour of Nicaragua with one of the agencies in town (not a travel agency on Gringo Street, however. They wanted twice as much for the same trip). The agency is driving us to the ferry that takes us to the island.
After the extreme heat here in Granada, we were sure this wasn’t a town we wanted to live in. So we will keep looking at other parts of the country. Maybe the next place will be where we feel at home.