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Dave and Jan's travels, day 273:
Managua and Granada

16th February
In our first posting from Nicaragua, I mused on the friendliness of the people and the peaceful and leisurely ambience of the place. Well, it's been reinforced since. This is a nice country to just hang out.

After Léon, we headed to the capital city, Managua. Managua suffered appalling distruction in an earthquake in 1931, and the rebuilt city was levelled once more in 1972. Revolutionary fighting in 1978-9 damaged the remains some more. Shortage of funds and the aggravation of the contra era have meant that little reconstruction has gone on, and to this day the city has about five buildings over one hundred feet high and no centre.

Instead, various commercial developments have sprung up in the old city suburbs. The city actually has a slightly small town feel - it's as if several villages were built very close to each other.

We stayed in a guest house run by a local couple who were extremely friendly and helpful. It was just like living with a family, never more so than when their small children starting squawking around 6 a.m. Still, breakfast was nice, as was being able to chat about the town and other attractions.

Only two large colonial buildings have survived. The old cathedral is no more than a shell with a recently imposed glass roof. Nevertheless, this weathered and crumbling edifice has a unique eerie stillness and beautiful light that actually makes it much more memorable than if it had been just another opulent cathedral. The Palacio Nacional de Cultura is the other survivor and it has been beautifully restored. This building has had various roles in its life, but currently houses various government offices and the National Museum. Entry to the latter comes complete with a guided tour, and as we now expect from Nicaragua, this was delivered by a charming woman named Vilma. As an added bonus Vilma even spoke good English. We learnt a lot about the country's geology - don't worry, we won't be sharing - and saw interesting displays about various parts of the country's history.

One other memorable sight was the Peace Park. After the wars ended, stacks of AK-47s were dumped here and concrete was poured on top. The site of their rusting muzzles protruding here and there gives me a feeling of optimism - people can put war behind them. It's also clear that there's a long way to go. We also encountered the gulf between the rich and poor in Nicaragua. On the shore of Lake Managua, street urchins hustle for cash by selling snack food and begging as ordinary workers pass their Sunday having a quiet beer or a stroll. Fifteen minutes walk from there, an´┐Żairconditioned shopping mall has a security guarded car park full of brand new cars, branches of Gap and other western stores, and a state of the art four screen cinema. The contrast is stark and unsettling, and the gap is visibly wider than in the north. On the other hand, it was nice to go to the cinema.

From Managua we headed east towards Granada, which was the first town built by the Spanish in Nicaragua, and today one of the best preserved colonial towns in Central America. En route we took in the National Park of the Masaya volcano. Whilst not as alarming as our brush with the Pacayo volcano, the crater is gigantic and the constant flow of sulphourous gas is pretty impressive. Take a look at the pictures.

An entertaining example of our continuing linguistic adventures also cropped up here. As we passed the entrance gate, the woman on duty, as far as we could tell, told us to keep our car window done up to avoid problems with the African bandits. Perplexed but obedient we complied. On arrival at the visitor centre the problem was compounded by a keen ranger with an appalling English accent who appeared to explain that the problem was actually dangerous wolves. Only much later did we discover that we were actually defending ourselves against wasps.

And on to Granada. Granada sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, known locally as Lago Cocibolca. At more than 8,000 square kilometres, this is a seriously large lake, including the world's largest freshwater island (!) and its only freshwater sharks. You heard it here first.

We checked into a small auto hotel (motel) in Granada. We'd previously heard that these establishments exist largely for "romance", with lurid tales of hourly rates. We can report that it's all true. Not only did our room come with not one but two complimentary condoms, but also each room had a car parking space complete with discrete curtain, presumably to foil all but the most persistent private eye. And none of the rooms have windows. Quite a place,although its charms didn't forestall us decamping to other, more salubrious surroundings early the next day.

Granada was the first city built in Nicaragua by the Spanish colonists, and today that heritage is preserved better than anywhere else this side of northern Mexico. The nicely proportioned Plaza is surrounded by brightly coloured and nicely complementary neo-classical buildings, each with louvred wooden shutters, ornate iron work and most with colonnaded porticos. It's lovely to look at, and it also combats the fierce heat pretty well. That's not too much of a surprise, as the Spaniards had plenty of experience of architecting for this weather back home. It may not be a coincidence that Spanish colonialists did better in Mexico, Central and South America, whereas the British were more to be seen in the cooler climes of North America. And then of course there's the Welsh braving the rugged winters of Patagonia.

And with another day hanging loose in Granada, we left Nicaragua and pressed onward to Costa Rica.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Old and New Cathedrals

Sandino statue, Managua

Masaya Volcano

Colonial Granada