Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Scenes of Nicaragua

We went from high humidity and a temperature in the mid-eighties (Fahrenheit), where we were wondering if we should use the hotel's pool and swatting mosquitoes; to freezing temperatures back in Denver and shoveling snow the next day! Its like we're transported to another dimension ... Well, in fact we were! Our two daily realities are worlds apart.

In an earlier post I observed that many horses in Nicaragua are not well cared for. This was particularly true of the carriage horses in Granada. It was much less true in the countryside, and here is an exception within the city. This is some one's prize stallion on a Sunday ride within Granada. You can see the Cathedral in the background, but note the street is unpaved. Actually, in this case it was being re-paved, but in smaller towns like Esteli it may be dirt or gravel and never paved.

Here is a gentleman in a small village we visited north of Esteli called Ducuale Grande. When you zoom in on his t-shirt you see it pictures baseball players. The sport was brought to Nicaragua early in the twentieth century by U.S. Marines, but is embraced by the country as their own. I have never seen a more enthusiastic crowd, and the game we observed looked comparable to a Little League team.

We found people, in general, friendly although not particularly outgoing towards us. In more remote places we were clearly a novelty, a curiosity. As for photos, they were less reserved than the Mayan cultures of Mexico and Guatemala. I did give out dollars for photos unless I believe it would be insulting. I don't think anyone refused my request to take their picture.

Masaya Volcano

This is the lip of the Masaya Volcano. In our own litiginous society I highly doubt we would be allowed this close. In the park's instructions it says: "In case of expulsions of rocks you should protect yourself under the car."

Note the vultures flying over. Actually, the volcano is more populated by a flock of parrots that are immune to the sulfuric gases and have nests burrowed into the volcanic rock.

Along the Pan American Highway

This is an armadillo for sale. She was asking $40, and was angry all we wanted to do was take a photo (which we paid her for).

There was a few mile stretch where a number of people were along the road, selling parrots.

A common sight is cattle being driven along the road, or grazing on the grass.

Summary Impressions

I must first qualify the following comments with the recognition that my impressions are based upon only a brief visit, and my reading from several sources; aggravated by the barrier of language. I know only too well that things are not what they seem. For instance, you might see this photo as evidence of child labor in an Esteli cigar factory. This girl, in fact, the only child there, was alongside her mother. School is out for the Christmas holiday. Another example was Francisca, a compesina who had us for a beans, rice, eggs and tortillas at her home with dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity. Yet Francisca’s view was that we had bigger problems than she.

The Nicaraguan character seems indelibly shaped by their history of sufrido mucho: colonization, dictatorship, revolution, counter-revolution, devastating volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The sum of these events has left Nicaragua’s economy so crippled that the citizens are said to have the highest per capita debt in the world. They are the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti.

The traffic on city and highway streets was sparse in terms of cars. Horses rivaled buses and bicycles as a means of transportation. With the exception of the Pan American Highway, which runs north & south through the country, roads are a minefield of pot holes – if they are paved at all. Electricity for the country is intermittently not unavailable, and other infrastructure problems are a fact of life.

The economy is largely agrarian, and probably its most well known crop is coffee, which was being harvested, processed, dried and roasted during our time there. However, we also saw crops of hops, corn, tomatoes, carrots, bananas, mangos, beans, tobacco and rice. Their cigars also rival those from Cuba in reputation.

Probably the best aspect of our trip was our guide, Juan Miguel from Matagalpa Tours (subcontracted from Va Pues Tours) who tried very hard to give us a good experience of his country. However, Nicaragua hasn’t had a lot of tourism and they’re still learning what we’d like. The country’s strengths as a tourist destination lie in its beaches and eco parks (jungle and cloud forests). We were seeking a more cultural experience, but Nicaragua pales in this regard compared to countries like Mexico and Guatemala. The actual indigenous peoples are on the Carib side of the country, and are so historically autonomous they often don’t consider themselves Nicaraguans. Spanish colonialism brought a brutal end to most indigenous cultures on the Pacific side, leaving in its wake a racial mix known as "mestizos," who are most influenced by the Catholic church. The largest Catholic Cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is in Leon, but even that was a mistake. It was intended to be built in gold rich Lima, Peru, but the drawings were sent to the wrong city.

Their heritage of resistance also goes back to this time, and they have a folk dance called El Gueguence which dates back to the sixteenth century in which domination is satirized, and resisted by passive-aggressively outwitting oppressors. Even today there are bullet holes from the Sandinista era still riddling some of the buildings, and a downed airplane we encountered.

The United States is sponsible for some of the country’s poverty and oppression. We have been trying to control the country since William Walker, installed himself as president in the mid-1800's. Marines were sent to Nicaragua at the turn of the twentieth century, and we supported the dictatorship of the Somoza family. Anastazio Somoza, Jr. brought on the Sandinista rebellion himself by stealing all the aid money which came into the country following an earthquake. It was a terrible disaster which left the capitol in ruins two days before Christmas in 1972.

Ironically, the United States also influences the culture of the youth of Nicaragua: we saw kids who wore Nuggets jerseys, and sported the ghetto look of low slung pants and oversized shirts. The Nicaraguans generally were carefully dressed, and very clean – even with few possessions and modest houses. I read that the class differences were expressed in the floors of the houses: the poor have dirt floors, the middle class have cement floors, and the rich have tile. We saw a lot of cinder block homes with tin roofs, but also frequently encountered mud & stick walled structures. In the cities there were row houses in various pastel colors, and as in Vietnam, front doors often left open revealing a small living room (inevitably with chairs around a television). What they must think of our houses when they watch movies and television programs from Norte Americano!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Selva Negra

This is Selva Negra where we stayed for two nights (Tuesday & Wednesday). See the entry earlier today about what it was like. This is the place in the rain forest, which is also a working coffee plantation.

El Chile

This is Francisca and her son who hosted our lunch at her home in El Chile. The second photo is in her grandmother´s house, showing the small alter. The third photo is the kitchen, which is separate because its fueled by an open fire.


Its noon, and we have just checked into our hotel in Esteli. I have been unsuccessful at getting my email, so if you have tried to communicate, it´ll have to wait until our return on December 8th.

The trip has gotten better because of our tour guide, Juan, from Matagalpa Tours (subcontracted to Va Pues Tours). Yesterday probably the highlight for us was lunch hosted by Francisco, a campesina and her grandmother, and seven year old son. They live in mud and bamboo structures: one for the grandparents, one for Francisco and her son, and a separate one for cooking. There is no electricity or plumbing, and chickens run in and out; as well as a scrawny dog and cat. In the grandparents home was a small alter with a statue of the Virgin Mary on it. I'll post a photo if I have the opportunity. We were served tortillas, rice, tomatoes, and beans. Francisca feels we have bigger problems than she, implying she is spared the stress of industrialized life.

We spent two nights in Hotel Selva Negra, 9 km from Matagalpa. It is in the rain forest, and we could regularly hear a troupe of howler monkeys. We also saw parrots fly over, and my flashlight fell on a possum at night. The squirrels have unusually long tails, and there are numerous butterflies. The main building and restaurant is on a small lake populated by a gaggle of very noisy geese who strut between the tables.

Selva Negra was established by a German family three generations ago, and is a working coffee plantation. The cottages for guests are nestled among the rain forest, which grows over the roof. Our cottage reminded Judy of a dungeon, brick with so little light she read at night with a flashlight. For me it reminded me of those motels which haven´t been updated since the forties. Its walls were covered with old calendar photos, and the place smelled of a mixture of Lysol and mildew. The food was awful, unless you ordered sausage and sauerkraut, but the place was so remote you had to eat at their restaurant.

In addition to our lunch with Francisca, we went to a weaver´s home in a small place called El Chile. The road to get there was gravel, pot holes, and if wet, would be 4-wheel drive. Marta is a woman from Argentina, who married a man from Belgium. She obviously is well educated and well traveled. Yet she has been in this remote village for 25 years, and said its a life she prefers to the urban lifestyle. She taught the local women how to use a loom, and they produce purses, place mats, blankets, etc.

Pictured here is Marta and the women in her weaver's collective.

Juan then took us to the top of a mountain in El Chile, which we weren´t prepared for, as it was a trail best navigated with a walking stick and machete, neither of which we had with us. Worst of all it was so steep Judy didn´t make it to the top, and I fell three times. When we got back down we were both soaking wet. We were enticed up there for the view, but it was a hike that took a toll on both of us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


This is the process of drying coffee beans. They are spread out on plastic sheets, and then raked until dry. The coffee harvest is currently in progress. The day after this photo was taken we were taken through a processing plant where the coffee beans are separated from their husks, go through several washings, and a fermenting process before they are put in 150 pound bags and trucked to these fields to dry, after which they are roasted. You ought to see these guys hefting those bags! Coffee is the biggest export, and during harvest season people from all over the country come for the jobs, which I read pay about $2.50 a day. No gym membership needed here. The biggest customer for their coffee is the USA, and we were told by Juan that the country was very concerned that the re-election of Daniel Ortega would jeopardize that trade, as well as the help they need from other countries. Their own national debt rose so high that the country couldn´t even pay the interest ... and that was before Hurricane Mitch killed 6,000 people and left thousands homeless. The country still has not fully recovered.

Granada Waiting for the Virgin Mary

You would think these are young people from Denver, but it is in Granada. They were celebrating the Virgin Mary being moved from one church to the Granada Cathedral again last night, along with thousands of others who walked down to be blessed and then walked back as the statue was brought up the street accompanied by a small band. Again last night is was promised at 7pm, and it was after nine when they finally passed us. However, on this night we were waiting in a high end restaurant.

Monday, December 3, 2007


This is Patio Del Malinche, our hotel in Granada. The hotel pleasant is enough, currently populated by German guests. It has good showers and air conditioning, and a small pool. The breakfast is full of many different fruits. Lydia, the manager has been quite helpful in arranging tours, and helping us navigate around the city. She also selected two restaurants that were described in the Lonely Planet as "the best in the city". I have, however, had to start on cipro -- due to Montezuma's revenge.

This is a photo of the waiters at the Mona Lisa Cafe (pizza & pasta). Note the "after" (a week in the USA) image of Mona Lisa with blonde hair and a boob job!

With the dollar I gave this gentleman for his photo he promptly left his stand of nachos and sauces and got a dinner for himself on a palm leaf : beans, rice, fried bananas for less than half of the dollar.
Horses are everywhere in Nicaragua, although most of them are very small and skinny and often have open sores where their harness fits. They are used for carriages to take the tourists around the city, but also used to haul carts, more often than trucks.
Thusfar we are underwhelmed by Nicaragua. The people are very poor, and the infrastucture is lacking -- for example even main roads are full of potholes. They say they haven't discovered tourism, but the cost of tourist activities is relatively high -- higher than Guatemala. We originally signed up for a horseback tour, but declined when it turned out to be $100. For half that price we went to the mouth of the Masaya Volcano, which was steaming sulfur fumes. The driver then took us to the Masala Market, which was specifically for tourists followed by a lunch in an area specifically for tourists.

The town square has loud masses at the Granada Cathedral, with amplified services and lots of people and singing. Last night we gave up waiting for the parade of the "blessed virgin", a festival that started at an indeterminate time. The square was full of young people (we see very few people over 40 years old). They were cruising, and preening for each other. After waiting for the parade for three hours we gave up and went back to the hotel.

The next morning I got up early and went to the local market as they were setting up. It wasn't a colorful market, and I didn't stay long. Tomorrow we leave Granada with a driver and a guide, headed for the mountain country, hopefully for a better impression of the country.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Arrived Safely

We arrived safely in Managua, and were quickly picked up by the hotel shuttle for the short trip from the airport to the Best Western Las Mercedes Hotel. Its $96 per night, and the room is very basic and somewhat rundown. But we are only here overnight and then a shuttle service picks us up in the morning to head to Granada. It does have free Internet, but getting used to their keyboard is an adjustement!

I have been reading a book on Nicaragua published by In Focus by Hazel Plunket, and she is very ominous:

"An estimated 75% of the population are now unable to adequately feed or clothe themselves and 60% are out of work. Cuts in spending on health and education, the removal of food susidies and the loss of agricultural credit have combined to worsen the situation of the majority. In an attmept to make ends meet women, men and children have taken to the streets, where they sell any assortment of goods. The compeitition is fierce and the returns miniscule. In desparation, others have turned to crime and prositution, which are invariably more lucrative. Before 1990, Managua was safe to wander in, but it is now becoming increasingly dangerous and attacks on foreigners have become commonplace."

On the other hand, the Lonely Planet describes Nicaragua as the safest country in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Canada. It also says its the second poorest, second only to Haiti. We should be fine: we´re leaving Managua tomorrow (the dangerous capitol), and most of the trip will have a guide-driver-translator with us.