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Carriage in front of the Cathedral of Granada. This cathedral is probably the most photographed building in Granada. Needless to say, I couldn't resist either.
View of Volcan Concepcion, Ometepe Island. Ometepe is the largest island in Lake Nicaragua, and is formed of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. It is also the largest island formed inside a lake in the world, and at 5,280 feet is the highest lake island in the world. And yes, Concepcion is still active. This place is even more magnificent in person. Photos couldn't begin to do it justice.
Map of Nicaragua, for those who are into that kind of thing, like I am
In recent years I spent a total of two months in study abroad programs in Nicaragua. The first program, in 2010, was a development economics class covering a wide range of topics related to poverty and development, at both a macro and micro level, and especially focusing on the intersection of economics, politics, and sociology. The second was a Spanish immersion and cultural exchange program run by a favorite Honors professor of mine, who is an anthropologist by training, but in the Honors program is given wide academic freedom to teach the subject matters of his choice. We connected as both civil libertarians and as students of the way that all things and subjects in life are inextricably intertwined. He said he was often called a dilettante by his more academically rigid colleagues, a label he wore as a badge of pride and honor. In his defense, in our Legacy of Censorship class together, he gave an hour lecture on the collapse of the financial system that was the finest lecture I attended in three years at the University of New Mexico and a formative experience for all who were there.

Many of my experiences in Nicaragua are far beyond the scope of this diary and several deserve a diary all their own. My purpose in writing is primarily to give a bit of background about myself, the reasons for my trips, and to provide context for the photos. The beauty of Nicaragua is what this diary is really about. I hope you enjoy. Please do follow me over the jump...

Having lived in the desert for quite a few years before this trip, I knew the humidity was going to be an adjustment. The air was so thick you could see it.

My first look at Nicaraguan air.
Casa Xalteva is a school for children, a Spanish language school, and cultural exchange center in Granada, founded around 20 years ago by a professor at UNM. For us, it served as our home base in Nicaragua. Casa Xalteva has opportunities to volunteer and inculcate the children of Granada with subversive liberal values such as sharing, free and artistic expression, enjoying your blessings however small, and being nice to others. I have to say they're doing a bang-up job of it too. If you ever want to visit Nicaragua on a shoestring budget, Casa Xalteva is a good place to start figuring out how to do it. And the kids are even more terrific than I could adequately describe here. They do good work at Casa Xalteva, and the kids are an unambiguous testament to that.
Courtyard garden, Casa Xalteva, Granada, Nicaragua
Political commentary, Granada

                                                 **

Playa Maderas, San Juan del Sur. This is one of the most famous surfing beaches in the world and the site of one of my favorite Zen moments on my second trip
Playa Maderas is considered to have the best surfing in the Western Hemisphere other than Hawaii, and it's a swell place for bodysurfing too. Even getting the blade of an errant surfboard in the eye couldn't deter me. Previous incident notwithstanding (it was a complete accident), I've never been anywhere where surfers and swimmers co-existed so peacefully. Anyone who has surfed in California knows exactly what I'm talking about.

                                                   **

Sign outside a local liquor store in Granada: "Licoreria Colacho, for the very macho man. Touch the door, touch it, touch it..." We all thought this was hysterical
Flor de Cana (flower of cane, referring to cane sugar) rum is one of the divine pleasures of Nicaragua. It's cheap <$20 for a half gallon, even for the good stuff, and it doesn't need a thing besides a little sugar, fresh lime, and ice. Word to the wise though, make sure you get your ice from a reputable source.
Dragonfly on Bird of Paradise, near Granada
                                                   **

Leon is considered the rival city to Granada, and due to a long political history, to this day they still feud like the Hatfields and the McCoys. Some of the nicest people I met in Granada insisted that I didn't need to see Leon, Granada had all the goodities and niceties I could ever want, that Leon couldn't hold a candle to it, and it was just too hot up there anyway. I found Leon to be a fine and unique city well worth visiting in its own right, despite my Granada friends' protestations to the contrary. Leon had the best street food I had in Nicaragua, and fortunately, we spent the weekend there during what passes for a cold front in Central America.

Porthole view of Catedral Asuncion. Leon, Nicaragua. Built from 1747 to 1814, Asuncion is the most famous cathedral in Leon
A view of the inside of Asuncion
                                                  **
Jousting at the Festival of San Juan de Oriente. The swords represent bull penises. I didn't see any evidence that any real bull penises were harmed during the festival, but apparently time was that's what they used to flog each other in the purification ritual. In between jousting matches, we had lots of fireworks and chicha, a weak alcoholic drink made of corn and served in sandwich bags with a straw sticking out of it. The festival was the most fun I had in Nicaragua with my clothes on. The picture only begins to do it justice. A good time was had by all, especially me. Jousting, booze, and gunpowder, what could go wrong?
Per wikipedia:
The patron saint festival in San Juan de Oriente celebrates the birth of John the Baptist on the week of June 24. The celebration consists of many processions with statues of John the Baptist, fireworks, and most famous of all "chilillo" a dance/sport where two "chinegros" use dried bovine penises fashioned in the form of a saber complete with leather handguard to whip their opponent. After a few seconds somebody in the costume of a yegüita (mare) enters between the two people ending the bout. While no winners or losers are declared, the hard whipping does leave marks or scars.
More information on the patron saint festival of San Juan de Oriente here.

San Juan de Oriente, aside from the festival, has an interesting and tragic history. It was destroyed by Contra bombs during the war, and rebuilt by the Sandinistas as an art community, specializing in pre-Columbian pottery.

                                             **

Red-eyed tree frog, on top of Volcan Mombacho (iconic volcano near Granada). The elevation here is about 4400 feet. These little frogs were extraordinarily cooperative in letting me take pictures of them. This is one of many pretty good shots of them that I took that day.
Hello, gorgeous! Las Isletas, Granada. This is part of what I refer to as the Nicaraguan dog and pony show. They take these monkeys and put them out on a tiny island in the lake, and tourists come and feed them and think it's all swell. Needless to say, I wasn't immune to their charms either, and my friend wasn't quite ready for such an intimate encounter
The tour guide on my first trip to Las Isletas said that the locals drank out of the lake using nothing but a T-shirt (I hope the T-shirt was clean, at least) to filter the water. Having seen the water in the lake itself and remembering watching the grey water flow downhill toward the lake from Granada a day or two before, I didn't have any inclination to swim in the water, much less drink it. I found out later that Nicaragua sends 70,000 gallons of raw sewage into the lake, 365 days a year. I did relent on the swimming part on my second trip when we went to Ometepe. And two years later, I'm still me. So far, so good.
Evening falls in paradise, Las Isletas, Granada
                                           *

Sign in what we gringos affectionately call a chicken bus, an old school bus converted to public transit. It isn't spelled correctly, but the sign says: "please, if you throw up, pay 20 Cordovas" (the equivalent of about $.90). Local rides on the chicken bus in Nica are 5 Cordovas for a Nica and 10 for a gringo. I don't know if the fine is an incentive to make it out the window or to pay the poor guy who gets to clean it up if you don't
                                             *

Night photo of Hotel Alhambra, Granada. This hotel is on the opposite side of the park from the yellow cathedral.
                                             *

The author making banana leaf tamales in a coffee cooperative near Matagalpa, birthplace of Carlos Fonseca, one of the founding fathers of the Sandinistas
The fruit of my labor. And yes, it was as good as it looks.
More food porn. This dish is called Vigoron
Vigoron is a recent tradition in Nicaragua, and it's very common to serve to distinguished guests. You start out with a banana leaf, a layer of steamed yuca, then some pork, then top it with some very vinegar-y slaw with lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, and some sorta hot pepper. Ours turned out great with the help of one of the teachers from Casa Xalteva, his wife, and their adventurous tot, who by wanting to be picked up and loved on a frequent basis kept us all from getting a swelled head about making vigoron entirely in Spanish, which we in the beginner Spanish class all thought made us pretty damn cool.
Maracuya (Passionfruit) on the vine, near Matagalpa in Nicaraguan coffee country. Nicaraguan passionfruit is one of the most divine flavors ever, IMHO. If anyone figures out how to infuse THAT flavor into chewing gum, they'll become very rich. I love so many things about Brazil, but their passionfruit (maracuja in Portuguese) doesn't hold a candle to Nicaragua's
                                              **
Sunrise over the Caribbean, Isla Pequena de Maiz (Little Corn Island)
The Corn Islands are a little corner of tropical paradise about 40 miles or so out into the Caribbean Sea from Bluefields, and if you keep going east toward Africa another 60 miles or so, you'll find the Colombian island of San Andres. We flew from Bluefields to Corn Island, and then took a panga boat about 30 minutes or so across choppy seas to Little Corn.
View of the rainforest from the observation tower, Kahka Creek Nature Reserve, eastern Nicaragua. Nicaragua is home of the second largest rainforest in the Americas. Much of it, like in Brazil, has been lost to beef production and the other usual culprits of deforestation. This picture was taken about an hour before sunset, and the forest was alight with a symphonic cacophony of animal sounds. Must experience to truly appreciate it;amazing...
If the kids don't steal your heart, you'd better check to make sure you still have one. Pueblo Nuevo,  eastern Nicaragua on the Wawashang River
Old boat, Rio Escondido near Bluefields, the largest city in eastern Nicaragua
Eastern Nicaragua is geographically and infra-structurally truncated from the much more heavily populated and wealthier western part (the eastern part has 60% of the land area and 10% of the population). Outside of Bluefields, the eastern part of Nicaragua has very few roads, so when we traveled through that part of the country, it was usually by panga boat. The final leg of the trip from Granada to Bluefields began in Rama and consisted of an hour and 45 minute boat ride down the Rio Escondido, with the jungle flying by either side of us at 40mph. When the river opened up to the lagoon, shortly before I took the picture above, we knew Bluefields was close.

An interesting piece of trivia about Bluefields, it receives, on average, 170 inches (inches, not cm) of rain per year.

                                              ***

Yellow cathedral from the bell tower of Iglesia la Merced. This bell tower provides the best views of the city of Granada. Lake Nicaragua is in the background
The author, Alajuela, Costa Rica. Clowning with the locals before returning home...
Required pootie pic. This is Pierre, my consiglieri.
Back home in Albuquerque. Of all the places and things I've seen in the world, there are few better than a sunset in the American West. Every time I come home, I'm reminded of how lucky I am to live here, and how much I'll miss it when I leave.
Looking back over the pictures, I realized how much of my experience was left out. I think about Laguna de Apoyo, the indigenous communities such as the Garifuna in Laguna de Perlas and Blue Energy, the Bluefields based engineering group working to bring clean water and electricity to these small communities in the east. This diary did more than scratch the surface, but there is so much more. Wherever I go in the world, there will always be a big place in my heart for Nicaragua, its places and people. I met and grew to hold dear people on both sides of the recent civil war who lost loved ones, and yet it was very rare to ever see resentment of the American role in the war. The people in San Juan de Oriente opened their hearts and homes, fed us and showed us a rip-roaring good time with what would be modest resources by any American measure. Nicaragua reminded me that for all of our differences, we have a hell of a lot more in common. And that brotherhood still is the best soul food.

Thanks to everyone for stopping in to enjoy the pictures...

Originally posted to camlbacker on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 08:03 AM PDT.

Also republished by Shutterbugs.

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This diary made me want to visit Nicaragua

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Comment Preferences

  •  Most excellent. (12+ / 0-)

    Gracias, amigo. I hope to make it up that way sometime soon. Love the pics.

    •  De nada, OPOL. Nicaragua seemed to be the top (5+ / 0-)

      destination for U.S. expats making visa runs from Costa Rica when I was there because it's cheap, close and Nicas still seem to like us pretty well, even the border patrol types. Besides, San Juan del Sur is an awfully nice place to spend the weekend. You're going to have a lot of amazing places to see just in Costa Rica, but Nicaragua is beautiful and unique in its own way too. And it's still probably the cheapest vacation destination in the western hemisphere. Enjoy that while it lasts...

      I have a couple of errands to run this am, but I'll be back in awhile to answer any questions/respond to comments. Thanks again for reading.

      "Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid..." -- Gordon Lightfoot

      by camlbacker on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 09:31:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the diary! (5+ / 0-)

    I've been dreaming of visiting Nicaragua for years. You have now lit a fire under my butt. I have no money and don't speak Spanish, but I'll work around it.

    Is it true that there are sharks in Lake Ometepe? Can you learn to surf at San Juan de la Sur?  

    Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves. -Thoreau

    by CenPhx on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 09:20:11 AM PDT

    •  Glad you enjoyed, neighbor! The biggest cost of (6+ / 0-)

      going to Nicaragua is really getting to Nicaragua, which from say Phoenix Sky Harbor will typically cost you around $700. Once you get to Nica, food, travel and accommodations are pretty cheap. Word to the wise on that: Costa Rica tends to have cheaper plane tickets than Managua, and sometimes the difference is big enough that it's worth it to fly into San Jose (Costa Rica) and take a bus up to destinations in Nica. I did this the last time I went, and it didn't really cost me any more money than it would have if I had just flown into Managua. And I got to spend a few days in Costa Rica, a country that has captured my imagination for many years (and still does, can't wait to go back...  pura vida!)

      As for the Spanish, there are a few cheap tutorials around to help you learn some basics, and I found Nicas almost uniformly accommodating about the language barrier.

      Regarding sharks and learning to surf, yes, and yes. San Juan del Sur is a fantastic place to learn to surf, and there are sharks in Lake Nicaragua, if that's what you meant. Per wiki:

      Lake Nicaragua, despite being a freshwater lake, has sawfish, tarpon, and sharks.[2] Initially, scientists thought the sharks in the lake belonged to an endemic species, the Lake Nicaragua Shark (Carcharhinus nicaraguensis). In 1961, following comparisons of specimens, the Lake Nicaragua Shark was synonymized with the widespread Bull shark (C. leucas),[4] a species also known for entering freshwater elsewhere around the world.[5] It had been presumed that the sharks were trapped within the lake, but this was found to be incorrect in the late 1960s, when it was discovered that they were able to jump along the rapids of the San Juan River (which connects Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea), almost like salmon.[6] As evidence of these movements, bull sharks tagged inside the lake have later been caught in the open ocean (and vice versa), with some taking as little as 7–11 days to complete the journey
      I learned a little bit reading that...   I had always heard there were freshwater sharks in the lake, but apparently that was debunked somewhere around 45 years ago.

      "Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid..." -- Gordon Lightfoot

      by camlbacker on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 09:54:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Terrific diary ~ thanks (4+ / 0-)

    for the lovely view of a nation I know little about.

    English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

    by Youffraita on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 09:22:11 AM PDT

  •  I miss Nicaragua (and Guatemala) where... (8+ / 0-)

    ...I spent a lot of time during the '80s when both were torn by war, much of it funded by the U.S. legally and illegally. Both are beautiful countries with wonderful people. Although I like Leon and Granada, my favorite city in Nicaragua is Matagalpa. I'm also fond of Jalapa, in the far north, where we helped build a pre-school in the midst of the contra war when the place was packed with refugees.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 09:51:24 AM PDT

    •  I spent two weeks in Matagalpa (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Meteor Blades, camlbacker, Dvalkure

      in 1988 as a short term Tecnica volunteer in the regional epidemiological laboratory.  It is where I learned that American exceptionalism is a lie.  I discovered I had little to offer other than the suitcase full of bacteriological media and stains I brought with me.

      My memories of Nicaragua are bittersweet.  It is indeed a beautiful country and the most beautiful of all are its people. When I flew into Managua for the first time I thought it looked like the garden of Eden.  I discovered it was Rappaccini's garden with 14,000 pesticide related deaths per year and massive mercury contamination in Lake Managua, the legacy of decades of exploitation by multinationals.

      Before I went, I had thought the land of poets appellation might be hype, but it is quite true.  My second night in Matagalpa I went to a poetry reading at the local community center.  A young man came over and started to make conversation.  He asked me where I was from.  I nervously replied, "Los Estados Unidos."  "El pais de Ben Linder!" was his gallant response.  He then asked me if I wrote poetry.  I said I did not.  he said nice to meet you, got up and walked off.  I guess someone who did not write poetry was not interesting to talk to.

      Light is seen through a small hole.

      by houyhnhnm on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 11:57:56 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Cool diary, thanks. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    carolanne, camlbacker

    They Killed Will? Those Bastards!

    by blueoregon on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 10:33:35 AM PDT

  •  The Land of Poets (0+ / 0-)

    La republica de los pajaritos, la flor mas linda de mi querer.

    Light is seen through a small hole.

    by houyhnhnm on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 11:25:53 AM PDT

  •  Beautiful pictures (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    camlbacker

    and diary, thank you.

  •  Thanks everyone! If I had known my day was going (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dvalkure

    to be like it is today, I would have waited until tomorrow to publish, so I could give the comments more immediate attention.

    "Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid..." -- Gordon Lightfoot

    by camlbacker on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 12:51:37 PM PDT

  •  you left an option off your poll! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Ernest Mann, camlbacker, Dvalkure

    I've been to Nicaragua, thought it was awesome and want to go back sometime!

  •  one of my favorite paintings (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    camlbacker

    that i ever did was a selfy with Volcan Concepcion in the background with Lake Nicaragua and the beaches of Ometepe as the background.

  •  ah, memories . . . I was in Nicaragua in 1988 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    houyhnhnm, camlbacker

    which was, alas, during the Contra War (I was with the Witness for Peace group). All told I was in Managua, Matagalpa, Rio Blanco and, for most of the time, Bocana de Paiwas. I didn't get to do much exploring, though, what with all the bullets flying around . . . I was told that there was pre-Columbian rock art near Paiwas, but alas it was too dangerous to go see it.

    But even back then it struck me what a wealth of natural beauty Nicaragua had, and what a truly magnificent tourist industry could be based there, if Nicaragua had the money to build the infrastructure to support it . . . .

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 01:49:47 PM PDT

    •  My brother spent a lot of time there at that time (0+ / 0-)

      his presence was unfortunately sponsored by Uncle Sam.  

      Iron sharpens Iron. Normal is a dryer setting. STOP illegal immigration NOW! -- Make it LEGAL. If Corporations are People--Let's draft them.

      by benamery21 on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 05:08:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  nice...lived in managua for six months in 2001 (0+ / 0-)

    we were there when 9/11 happened, and the people of nicaragua were wonderful to us...btw, i got a rash swimming in san juan del sur!

  •  Energy trivia (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    houyhnhnm, camlbacker

    A majority (51%) of Nicaragua's very small electricity production is from renewables as of 2013 per MEM (Minister of Energy and Mines of Nicaragua).  Geothermal power is being rapidly expanded in the country.

    Iron sharpens Iron. Normal is a dryer setting. STOP illegal immigration NOW! -- Make it LEGAL. If Corporations are People--Let's draft them.

    by benamery21 on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 05:06:35 PM PDT

  •  Thanks! Two weeks ago I booked another flight (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dvalkure

    to Nicaragua, so your diary grabbed my attention. My first trip there was three years ago, and I had no firm idea what to expect as I'd heard lots of conflicting stories, including more than a few suggesting that lots of Nicaraguans didn't have much time for Americans. To my pleasant surprise I found that far from true. I also found that for me travel by chicken bus besides being economical, not difficult, and more often than not thoroughly enjoyable.

    This will be my forth trip to Nicaragua. I'm going to visit friends in the northern cities of Estelí, Jinotega, and Matagalpa. And I'll interview a few more people for a possible article on life after the wars.

    Man's most judicious trait, is a good sense of what not to believe. Euripides

    by A Ernest Mann on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 06:23:33 PM PDT

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