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Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: May 2011

I had been advised that breakfast at Tortuga was a "pancake breakfast." In fact, that involved guests pouring supplied batter into pans in the kitchenette area of the outdoorsy corridor area and then using supplied honey, and taking some of the organic coffee, which was kept brewing all day and was always free. However, a young woman who worked there made two pancakes for me - each filled the whole pan. I ate surrounded by 8 lovely young female back packers from seemingly as many countries including mine, and the sullen young bearded American boyfriend of one of them.

My plan was to board a mid-afternoon mini bus back to "UCA" and then change to one for Granada. An early start would give me time for a few of the more worthwhile attractions. The first of them was "The Museum of Legends and Traditions," several blocks downhill from the square, then off to the side. A large courtyard was filled with monuments and inscriptions dealing with the country's history, and there were hundreds of neatly uniformed school children inside. A guard asked me for a small sum to enter. After circling the courtyard, another guard opened the gate to an inner courtyard containing a low rise building which had once been a jail and which was the actual museum - a mix of the country's difficult history and of rooms decked out as if for Halloween, with witches, skeletons and dimly-lit horror-type exhibits. On the outer walls were painted scenes of shootings, shackled prisoners and beatings from various periods. It was sad to see. Some of the rooms - originally cells - were kept in their original condition, with appropriate exhibits and explanations. The children, all in the age 8 to 12 range, many giggly and excited, were shepherded from room to room by teachers or guides. At one point, a large group of them burst out of one of the Halloween-type rooms, screaming and shrieking. Apparently their guide had put on some kind of sudden scary spectacle for them. A group of girls approached me as I took photos, eager to pose and then to see themselves on the little screen.

central america street scene flagLeon was hot but pleasant to walk in. I noticed that there were hostels everywhere - backpacker heaven! The streets and sidewalks were kept clean, and there were occasional trash containers. I didn't see any of the ugly political billboards I'd seen in the capital and on the road, but after I passed through the square, I came upon a noisy demonstration at one intersection. Someone at the hostel later told me that the demonstrators were men who had been promised taxi licenses if they rabble-roused for the governing party. He added "but they won't get the licenses." Elections would be coming up in a number of months, I passed through a busy street market, entered a sweetly air conditioned bank lobby to use the ATM, and stopped for water at a cafe. I had begun to notice the scrupulous honesty of the Nicaraguans - or "Nicas" as they call themselves - with whom I dealt, on every level. No one tried to take advantage of my presumed unfamiliarity with the currency or with price levels. Proper change was always given. I could have easily been cheated out of a few extra cordobas - had I been, I wouldn't even have bothered to protest, as the amounts were so small. But it never happened.

I was anxious to visit the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian, billed in one guide as the best contemporary art museum in Central America. It originated with a private collection. This museum is in two buildings, located across the street from each other - one ticket is good for both. Each is built around courtyards, with inner rooms and then larger works of art on the outside walls of these spaces. It's not all contemporary - there was a surprising number of paintings dating back to the Renaissance period. The rule was that photography was allowed in the courtyards and gardens, but that no photos were to be taken of the art. A few times, I had artwork on the outer walls in my focus and had a finger wagged at me, but that was all.

The contemporary art collection was mostly Central American, and was excellent and varied. It included paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There were even a few prints and etchings by Picasso and others of his genres. In one of the two buildings, the art was wholly contemporary and much of it was unconventional and odd - perfectly fitted, I thought, for New York's MOMA or many of that city's lesser museums and galleries. The difference was that I saw very little that made me think "I would never want anything like that in my house." Whereas, in many of the NY museums, I often think that.

My final stop was the Ruben Dario museum, which was close by both the art museum and the hostel. It had once been his house. Dario was from Leon and is often considered to have been Nicaragua's poet laureate. Featured are numerous artifacts of his life, original editions of books, photos and family items. Unfortunately, the explanations provided - and there were many of them - were in Spanish only.

I taxied to Leon's small outdoor bus terminal rather than the UNO station to take the minibus back to Managua/UCA; as with any public transportation, you'll get a better seat if you board at the start of the route. I spent most of the run back to Managua reading Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," but when I took a quick break to look out the window, I saw the same dead cow I'd seen on the way up.


Granada, a city of slightly over 100,000, is perhaps 40 km. south of Managua, on the shore of huge Lake Nicaragua. At UCA, I got off my minibus and walked a few minutes to the left where I'd seen the buses for Granada, then boarded one of those, sitting as it filled up. At least, I thought it had filled up. I paid the $1 fare, and the bus slowly made its way through the traffic and vendors in the southern part of the city. The bus "manager," unlike those previously, was leaning out the door at every stop, calling out the name of the destination and soliciting more passengers, much as was done on the "chicken buses" I'd taken between Antigua and Guatemala City four years earlier. There were previously hidden foldout seats that were pulled out for additional passengers, and several simply stood. We were finally in open country.

I'd initially considered stopping and taking a ferry to Ometepe Island, the largest fresh water lake island in the world, with a population of 42,000 and two volcanoes. One gets there by ferry. But that would have taken up an additional night and two days and drastically shortened the rest of my trip. The beauty of Granada was praised in the guidebooks, and I decided to allow two days and nights there. The bus made good time on the highway, and I soon saw a large banner-like sign welcoming people to the town. We rode slowly through narrow but clean and well-kept streets, and the main cathedral came into view. The route ended at the town square. I'd been advised by the proprietor of the Bohemian Paradise hotel to take a taxi there, that the fare was 10 cordobas - 50 cents - anywhere in town. As I had done elsewhere, I handed the driver a piece of paper with the name and address.

park bench couple central americaIt's difficult to provide accurate descriptions of both a hotel and a town when you've fallen in love with both of them, but I will try. Granada is centered on its Central Park, or town square. It's a large and beautiful one-block rectangular park, well-shaded by trees, with plenty of benches and several monuments. The cathedral faces it on one side; facing it on the other side are several hotels that appeared both old and elegant. There is always a long line of horses and carriages, awaiting customers and reminding me, oddly, of the southeast corner of Manhattan's Central Park. Leading away from the park, in the direction of the lake, is Calle Calzada, a pedestrians-only street with restaurants, bars and shops on either side, and benches for relaxing.

Three blocks to the left, and parallel to Calzada, is Calle Corrales, and Bohemian Paradise is 4 or 5 blocks down it from where the park is. The hotel doesn't stand out from the homes on either side - as is so often the case in Nicaragua, the houses are up against one another and are right on the sidewalks, which are generally elevated above street level. There are two gate-type entry front doors, both see-through with bars but kept locked - a staffer is always on hand to let guests in and out. The large and airy lobby contains comfortable furniture, a shelf of books - mostly guide books - and tables featuring local handicrafts, available for sale with the profits going to local artisans. There's a small semi-open kitchen area which also contains a desk, and in the lobby there is one computer with free internet, as was the case everywhere I stayed. The lobby walls feature several paintings, including a very large one of a large grey-black rescued male dog named Lobo, who is now 12 and lives at the hotel, along with a variety of well-cared-for rescued cats, including a beautiful calico, who also live there and mostly hang out in the lobby. Extending towards the back is a sort of open corridor area. My room was large and well furnished, with a very large bed and remote control excellent a/c and cable TV, much like that in Managua's Villa Angelo. The hotel is very "green"-minded, and explanatory sheets are provided explaining the importance of turning off the a/c when you leave the hotel, and not putting toilet paper in the toilet (I always travel to less-developed countries with a lot of newspaper-delivery plastic bags, saved up for that sort of thing)

I had had some e mail correspondence with Lucy Bartlett, the friendly and accommodating American woman who has owned and lived at the hotel for some years. She had allowed a very large discount for cash payment, which I was happy to accept. She sells cold bottled water cheaply, as well as delicious chocolate chip cookies and eclairs; the proceeds of those goodies go towards local social service causes. She works with such agencies as well as helping to rescue stray dogs and cats. The painting of Lobo had been done by Peta Kaplan-Sandzer, an artist who works and lives in Chicago but comes to Nicaragua to paint stray dogs. Her catalog and postcards were on a lobby table.

One of the hotel staff, Pancho, had told me about a local dish, the vigoron, which is sold at kiosks at each of the 4 corners of the central park for $2. I wanted to try it, and also asked Lucy for recommendations about restaurants. As always when I travel, I wanted the food of the region. She mentioned several that were behind the cathedral, and also the Alhambra Hotel, which faced the park and had a huge platter of all sorts of Nicaraguan meats and veggies. It was, she said, enough for two people.

I tried the vigoron first. The kiosks are covered and surrounded by small tables. The dish is a sort of pyramid, consisting primarily of yuca chunks, slaw, bits of other veggies, and 4 or 5 pork cracklings, all on a banana leaf and soaked in a tasty vinegary light dressing. It was delicious. The one distressing aspect of the park were the many small boys, seemingly in the 8 to 12 year old range, begging for money. If you walk slowly or sit anywhere in the park other than at the kiosks, you are likely to be approached. I sadly waved them off. Some, I was told, were homeless; others were sent there by their parents. I did not encounter them elsewhere in the town, or in Managua or Leon.

I approached the spacious and elegant front porch of the Alhambra, debating whether to order the platter and simply sample the various dishes and then stop and ask if I could take the rest with me. That was when I heard someone call my name. I looked up and there were three young American men whom I'd first met in Leon. They were up on the porch, and I decided to share the platter with them. We all sat together, they bought beers all around, and eventually the platter arrived, and it was indeed overwhelming, featuring steak, salad, veggies, seafood, fish and three large shishkabobs each of beef and chicken.

During the dinner and drinks, five young woman - two of them apparent transsexuals - approached. They spoke no English, and neither I nor two of the young men spoke Spanish. The one who did bantered with them, and one of them asked for some beef from a shishkabob, which I was happy to share. They left and, eventually, well fed and watered, we left as well. It was dark, and we lost track of the relatively simple and short route back to the hotel. I finally took a cab, my $1/10 cordoba note in hand.

Because of the lack of daylight savings time, I retired and woke early. I only saw one other guest in the hotel. I had breakfast alone in the lobby. One of the cats was on the table I used, and I gave it a few bits of one of my granola chunks. Eventually, I left my cool air conditioned room after checking up on the news. I headed back to the park. Lunch was another vigoron, and I wandered about happily and aimlessly. At one point, I returned to a little restaurant only a few doors from the hotel for a cold beer. The place is owned and run by a Canadian couple. The husband is the wait staff and the wife does the cooking. That's it. I'd been told it was a good place for a beer in a chilled mug. There were four 50-ish women at an adjoining table speaking English, and I struck up a conversation. Two were from the US, one from Canada and one from Germany. All were now happily resident in Granada. I asked them how they liked it. One said "if we didn't like it, we wouldn't still be here!" I took a taxi to the beautiful old Merced Cathedral, far more impressive than the 1920s version in the center of town. I walked most of the way back to the park. At one point all passed a group of men idling on the sidewalk. One made as if to grab for my pocket and I scooted away from him. They just laughed - they'd been teasing me. Scaring a gringo, I guess. I took another cab to the TicaBus station and bought my ticket for the next day's 1:00 PM departure for San Jose, Costa Rica.

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