Though we hadn’t discussed it previously, when taking stock of our
honeymoon, Simon and I both agreed that we genuinely liked Nicaragua
better than Costa Rica. We spent a week in each country, and I
suppose we might have come to a different conclusion had we gone to
Costa first, rather than the other way around, but I don’t think so.
Looking back on it, there’s not any one thing I can point to that
brings Nica ahead. Really it was a combination of factors that led us
to favor the poorer country. However, we are definitely out of the
norm of most travelers, who prefer luxury over genuine culture (to a
point. We did stay in some “spa hotels” along the way, and I’m not
going to lie, they were fabulous). That’s not to say that Costa
doesn’t offer genuine experiences, but the prevalence of “eco tours”
that are actually giant tour bus excursions turned us off a bit.
Costa Rica has really taken charge of their own fate (for the most
part, excluding the land grab that is going on right now) and provide
some excellent and easy access adventure tourism. For a price.
However, I was talking about Nica. Up until the whole Ollie
North/Contra affair in the 80’s, Nicaragua was actually the richest
country in Central America. But, the communists (Cuba) started
sniffing around, and Regan couldn’t abide that sort of thing in his
back yard. Long story short, there was a semi civil war, and all of
Nica’s vast resources were spent fighting off the American-funded
Contras (it’s really fascinating, you should read up on it). Today
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere
(Behind Haiti). Oddly enough, Nicaraguans don’t seem terribly hostile
to Americans, but they’re probably too busy working to feed their kids
think about it. There have also been some amazingly corrupt
politicians along the way, and one local guide told us that 3 families
own all of the major money making ventures in the country (including
the presidency). I’m fairly sure the move “Moon Over Parador” was
based on Nicaragua (see William Walker’s biography for an example).
Which brings me to the first thing that was amazing about Nica. ALL
of the work was done by hand. From cutting the grass to chopping down
trees, machetes were the most common tools we saw. It’s an
agricultural country, so obviously there was some heavy machinery on
the larger farms, but for the most part, the heavy lifting and
dragging was done by men and horses. Sugar cane was cut down by hand
and taken away by horse and cart. Horses pulled carts on the highways,
kids rode horses, kids led horses down the highways and city streets,
kids led horses down highways while riding bikes, horses pulled pipes
and culverts to wherever they were going. Obviously I’m not the most
well-traveled person ever, but this is one of the only countries I can
think of where horses are still predominantly working animals. And
while they were definitely skinny creatures (more so in the cities
than the countryside), the horses were mostly well taken care of and
Being a country kid at heart, I was utterly fascinated by the rural communities we came across/drove through. Driving cattle, mostly angus beef, was the main occupation. Pigs were prevalent in the landscape, but seemed to mostly do their own thing. The cattle were multicolored and well fed. And mostly oblivious to our car. The thing that most grabbed my attention, I must admit, was the tack. Instead of bridles, hackamore-type halters and reigns were used on ridden horses, and the saddles had leather coverings with two or more feet of fringe hanging well below the horses’ stomachs. We guessed that this was to help keep flies off the horses, which was confirmed by some guys who let us ride their horses around a volcano. It was really impressive, though some horses were more decked out than others. I took as many pictures as I could (while trying to maintain a respectable distance), and the internet is woefully low on pictures. However, here are some examples. Excuse the dust.
Click here for a video of the rider (for some reason I can’t get it to embed, so I’m giving up). You may want to turn down your speaker volume.
These guys donate “fly fringe” to horse owners in Nicaragua and Honduras: http://www.worldhorsewelfare.org/you-help/flyfringe
The landscape in the western part of the country is, I guess, “dry
rain forest” (which seems like an oxymoron to me, shouldn’t it be an
arid tropical forest?) and we were there during the dry season. It
was not what I would call hot, but the sun was intense and the
humidity was low despite the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The land
cleared for cattle was fruitful, while the existing native forest
consisted of large, though not terribly tall, trees.
The cities of Leon and Granada were built in the colonial style, with
beautiful, and sanctioned, pastel colored buildings and cobblestone
streets. Nicas are also very proud of their churches, which are all
huge (the largest Catholic church in Central America is in Leon) and
extremely ornate. Unfortunately, the prevalence of several active
volcanoes means that earthquakes and lava flows are frequent and the
large structures haven’t fared so well. A fondness for grandeur
coupled with a lack of capital has led to a bit of a “Wizard of Oz”
type architecture for recent construction; very grand entrances, but
if you peek around the corner you’ll see that the front is a facade
hiding the actual tin-roof structure. Another aspect of city life
that we noticed was the evening social gatherings of people in front
of their houses. Nearly every house, no matter how spare and small,
had beautiful hand crafted rocking chairs that were moved out to the
sidewalks in the evenings. Front doors were left open so that you
literally were looking in on everyones’ living rooms as you passed by
on the street. It took quite a while to get used to, and I’m afraid I
gawked at (and even took a photo of) the grand Christmas decorations
and rocking chairs.
A lively, and typical of Latin America- late night social scene meant that street food was prevalent and delicious. Our favorite snacks were the fried plantain strips, served in a plastic bag with shredded cabbage and a pickled chile salsa on top, but pretty much anything you could point to in a cart or on a food truck was guaranteed to hit the spot. We dined on chicken taquitos one night in Leon, which were served with cream and the same cabbage/chile salsa that was ubiquitous on the tables of cafes; it made a sort of spicy coleslaw that soaked into the fried tortilla. And the chicken. From fried chicken to chicken soup, anything with chicken in it was guaranteed to be good. We loved the sopa de pollo so much, we had to try it once we got back (link).
So, what was our favorite part? It’s really difficult to say. It wasn’t so much any one thing that drew us to Nicaragua, as the overall experience and the people. We didn’t make it to the Caribbean side, so obviously that’s the next thing we need to check out before we solidify our opinions. And while it seems Costa Rica has the more spectacular scenery, we just can’t stop thinking about getting back to Nica.