Hello Nicaragua, isolated for decades after its Revolution of the 1970s but now firmly open for business as visitors experience its lakes, volcanoes, colonial cities and legendary surfing. The country's recent history has left a colorful legacy in street murals and current politics but the roots of its rich culture go even deeper into the pre-Hispanic past.
“The guys were lying down behind the barricades and a woman started shouting at us,” says Francisco Roiz. A guide at León’s Asociacion de Combatientes Historicos Heroes de Veracruz, a museum of the 1972–1979 Revolution, he is telling me about his experience in this revolutionary stronghold as government forces attacked. “She was cursing us and asking us if we were waiting for everyone to be killed. Then she picked up a .22 rifle and started shooting at the National Guard. That made us all get up and fight. She saved our lives.”
The building is a crumbling wreck, still bearing bullet scars from the fighting, with a precarious rusty iron roof that offers a great view. Across the rooftops, I can see many of the 16 churches León is home to. Down below, people are relaxing in the picturesque central plaza with its 18th-century cathedral, Central America’s largest. The peaceful scene seems a long way from the sights Francisco witnessed on these same streets in the 1970s.
As we carefully pick our way back onto solid footing, he tells me of another incident in the mountains. “We were ambushed and one of my friends was captured. The counter-revolutionaries started to torture him with knives. When you are in the firing line and have to listen to your friend screaming for someone to kill him – a friend you were talking to ten minutes earlier – it is something you can never get over.”
Francisco tells me that he was a 19-year-old student, in his last year of high school in León, when he joined the Revolution in 1975. “My friends were talking about political and social change but I did not pay much attention at first,” he says. “Then I started to go to meetings at the university and saw how bad things were with my people and my country. The problem was the suppression, torture, rape and elimination of Samoza’s political opponents. You had no rights. So I joined the FSLN in 1977 and went to the mountains to do military training.”
Cradle of the Revolution
After the darkness, both literal and metaphorical, of the old building it is a mild shock to come blinking into the bright sunlight outside. León is a beautiful, quiet city, home to around 200,000 people and a number of colleges, universities and language schools that mean a majority of its population is young. The plaza is busy with student groups visiting the cathedral, while ice cream vendors sell their wares to courting couples. At night, the center comes alive with clubs and bars that start late and throb with salsa, cumbia and reggaeton. Its youthful profile no doubt helped it win its proudly-worn title of “Cradle of the Revolution”, one it still lives up to with many murals of the struggle. It is equally proud of 19th-century writer Rubén Darío, considered the father of Modernism in Spanish poetry, who is buried next to the altar in the cathedral.
León’s streets are lined with lovely old colonial buildings that show a blank facade to the outside world but are cool and pretty inside. One of the most impressive is another museum, this one world-class and dedicated to the art collection of the Ortiz Gurdián Foundation. Sprawling through two magnificent houses, on which no expense has been spared in restoration, the art runs from pre-Columbian through the 16th century to very much today. Contemporary video installations lurk in side rooms, a strong contrast to the age-darkened oil paintings from earlier centuries. A modern triptych made from the rear widow and two doors of a “chicken bus”, with the windows decorated in Jesus decals, is a witty nod to all that colonial religious art in León’s churches.
In the Museum of Legends and Traditions, folk and carnival costumes are worn by a weird assortment of shop dummies long past their sell-by date. The building is a former jail and scenes of torture and prison life are painted on the walls in black outline. The juxtaposition of colorful folk customs and drawings of men being hung upside down and beaten is an odd one, benefitting neither story. By the entrance stands the hulk of an armored car that is already familiar from an iconic photo of street fighting in León during the revolution. Now it seems harmless and ancient, a well-rusted remnant of a black and white memory.
Tuk-tuks block the road as they stop suddenly
Driving south towards Managua, the flatness of the landscape reminds me of the African veld. Dry soil and thorny trees add to the similarity, until the road passes through stands of bamboo, palms and banana trees. Maize and peanut fields, cattle ranches and chicken farms break the monotony. The houses are plain and functional, roofed in corrugated iron and painted in faded colors. One tiny home has been converted to a Pentecostal church with a fresh coat of sky blue paint, a sign of the growing influence of North American missionaries. There is little traffic on the road, whether it is because there are few private cars or because gas is so expensive, it is hard to say. Colorful buses and smoky three-wheeled tuk-tuks block the road as they stop suddenly or slow for potential passengers.
León may be the Cradle of the Revolution but Masaya is the country’s folklore capital, where I discover how far back that anti-establishment attitude goes. The country’s third most populous city celebrates an annual festival in honor of its patron saint, San Jerónimo. “The Virgin of the Assumption was made the town’s official patron in 1819 by King Fernando VII of Spain when he declared Masaya a city,” says folklore expert and teacher Irene López, who I meet in a museum in the town’s Monimbó district. “The Virgin is a religious icon but Saint Jerónimo is the working people’s choice, celebrated with drinking and dancing for three months, from the end of September to the beginning of December.”
A large part of the festival’s appeal is the range of costumes, most of which poke fun at various outside groups, particularly the ruling classes. “One very popular group is ‘El Torovenado’, who use marimba music and verse to satirize current affairs or politicians,” says Irene. “Some of the dancers wear costumes that originally mocked the Spanish, such as the ‘Negritas’ or ‘Diablitos’. They used masks to hide their identity – and still do – but other groups, such as the ‘Inditas’, who wear an elaborate form of indigenous dress, do not. Then there are the ‘Húngaras’, who recall the gypsies who came here to work in the early 1900s. People were afraid of them because they thought they were witches as they used cards to read the future.”
Things should stay as traditional as possible
Her friend Felipita Cermeño quotes the work of poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, who believed these rituals predated the arrival of the Spanish and may have been used in worship of the volcanoes of the region, merely changing focus as the power structure shifted. “The music and dance changed under Spanish influence but it definitely has indigenous roots,” she says. “Flowers still used in the dances were used as perfume by indigenous women. They are also changing as the times change; for example, the present fashion is to paint the dresses. At one point people were using costumes from other countries, not just places like Colombia but also Japan. So we have brought things back to their roots. Things should stay as traditional as possible.”
Masaya’s place at the heart of the country’s craft industry is shown by its large markets, filled with a colorful choice of pottery, hammocks and fabrics among many other handmade goods. A new market aimed at the growing tourist trade lacks the character of the old one, which is also packed with stalls selling meat, fruit and clothes, and buzzes with the friendly and relaxed air of long-familiar neighbors.
“I am so proud to be from Masaya because the people here are so hardworking,” says Irene. “But it is a big responsibility because you are expected to know a lot about music, arts and crafts. If you don’t, you are not from Masaya. It is the cradle of culture and folklore in Nicaragua and also of revolution – we have been fighting the Spanish since the 1500s. We fight for justice!”
Masaya stands near León’s great rival Granada, another colonial gem on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Granada was founded in 1524, the same year as the original city of León, but its open and graceful Moorish and Andalusian architecture is a contrast to the more severe Castilian style of its sister city. The two siblings have always struggled to get on, even launching a civil war in 1854 when León invited U.S. filibuster William Walker to invade. The American declared himself President of Nicaragua and burned Granada to the ground after his overthrow. Managua had been made capital of Nicaragua in 1852 when neither city could agree on a better compromise.
More outward-looking than León
“The initial rivalry between León and Granada probably started back in Spain,” says Granada-born historian Fernándo Lopez Gutiérrez. “The people who founded the two cities came from different areas. Old León, next to Lake Managua, was an important area for exploring the north during the Spanish Conquest. They hoped to find a route across Lake Managua to the Caribbean but they didn’t. Granada did and its wealth was founded on that connection between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, with goods passing back and forth across Lake Nicaragua and through Granada. It soon became one of the most important ports in the region, and that made it more outward-looking than León. We have always had a lot of foreigners here, not only Spanish but many others too. It was sacked many times in the conflicts between England and Spain: seven times in 60 years.”
The route between the oceans might seem a piece of historic trivia but its importance is still highlighted by Nicaragua’s latest plans for a rival to the Panama Canal. “The canal has always been a problem for this country,” says Fernández. “During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, [U.S. railroad and shipping billionaire] Cornelius Venderbilt ‘discovered’ the route along the San Juan River and across the lake, with only 28 kilometers by land. It was the main trade route between between New York and San Francisco, which is why William Walker was so interested in Nicaragua. In 1917, there were seven different projects to build a canal across the isthmus. But, if it happens, it will be a really serious ecological problem. For example, Lake Nicaragua is not deep enough for the big ocean-going vessels, so will have to be dredged. There will also need to be good locks to make sure the lake is not polluted with seawater.”
The glory of the lake reveals itself on an early morning boat ride. Once off-shore, a cool breeze off the water and from the moving boat is a pleasant relief from the heat of the day. Scores of islands of all sizes provide shade for a wide range of houses at every income level from rustic charm to jaw-dropping wealth. Larger Islands have tennis courts and boat lifts; a deserted one is defaced by “For Sale” signs.
Every paradise will have its serpents
One island is a refuge for some monkeys, rescued by a vet from owners whose orphan pets outgrew their welcome. A local restaurant delivers fruit every morning but they are obviously also used to being fed by passing boats, judging by the welcome they give. A particularly cheeky one jumps onboard with her tiny infant and rummages through bags looking for treats. She grabs a tree branch to jump back onshore after a polite telling off from my boatman.
I stop at “Pirate Island” for a fresh juice and to spend some time wondering why I do not give it all up for a life on Lake Nicaragua, the kind of idle thought we all have when we stumble on an idyllic place. Then a motorboat roars by, its owner rudely ignoring a wave of welcome from several hands, and I realize that every paradise will have its serpents.
Back in Granada, I wander though town to discover a series of coffee shops and restaurants, their walls covered in art for sale, that would do justice to any modern city. Granada’s conservatism is such that, in stark contrast to León, it practically sat out the revolution and was already welcoming back foreign tourists by the 1980s. “Americans doing business just across the border in Costa Rica saw an opportunity here,” says Fernández. “Granada was destroyed and rebuilt in the 1880s but has remained unchanged since. It is perfectly preserved. León saw a big cotton boom in the 1940s and 1950s, and they did change. Costa Rica has no colonial cities, so tour operators there started offering special add-on packages to visit, and Americans were soon investing in property. We’ll see if tourism will put Granada back on its feet.”
Revelers of all nationalities
At night, the pedestrianized Calle La Calzada could also be almost anywhere. Pizzerias and an Irish pub are among the many venues thronged with revelers of all nationalities, while strolling musicians and hawkers try to tease some small change out of them. A spinning figure comes bobbing through the crowded tables. It is “la Gigantona”, a giant blonde woman in Spanish dress pursued by a dwarfish figure with a very large bald head, the clever Nicaraguan peasant outwitting his supposed better. This dance originates in León but it is no surprise that the street hustlers of Granada have no problem in appropriating it. As I watch, I enjoy a refreshing national beer, Toña, savoring the cool of evening as a blessed relief from the heat of the day. I stroll down to the lake to enjoy the breeze, then explore a few side streets where bars and clubs have a more local vibe.
Near Masaya is a volcano of the same name where a road leads almost to the top, making it the only volcano in the western hemisphere where you can drive to the rim. I peer down into the vast crater, shrouded in sulfuric smoke, following the wise advice of signs warning me: “Do Not Enter!” Every so often, the winds shifts to blow a gust of noxious fumes towards me, so I wander away to enjoy a spectacular view of the countryside far below stretching out to the distant horizon. Another sign asks drivers to park their cars facing out. It looks like a very petty requirement, until I understand why. “It is so people can escape quicker in an emergency,” says park warden Santos Cerda.
Even so, I note that all the cars are parked facing in. It is the kind of attitude to authority I have come to expect from Nicaraguans. As for the visitors to the country, I can only imagine they are also in no hurry to escape its fascinating mix of history and natural beauty.