In August 2017, I got to visit & travel around Nicaragua for a week. Like all of Central America, it’s a lovely country with incredible landscapes, good food, and fascinating history – all within a short flight to the US.
It was the 2nd time that I’d traveled to the country (previously in 2006), so it was good to see some familiar sites along with some new ones. For this trip, I generally stayed south of Managua towards Granada rather than venturing up north like I did in 2006. Here’s a few observations from the trip.
Lakes Dominate The Southern Landscape
In southern Nicaragua, lakes define the landscape. The capital borders Lake Managua and Granada borders Lake Nicaragua. But in between both cities, are a landscape of little lakes – almost like Minnesota in the US. They are all from a history of pop-up volcanoes.
Volcanoes Are Surreal
We visited Masaya, which is not only active, but very accessible. A road goes right to the top where there is a fenced viewing area right into the center of the volcano. It reeks of sulfur and various gases coming from the Earth.
But it’s not juts Masaya – there’s volcanoes throughout Nicaragua. It’s surreal to see so many there steaming and active.
Nicaragua Has Always Been a Crossroads
We got to check out Nicaragua’s Museum of History. It surprised me just much of Nicaragua’s history has been of different peoples coming and going. It’s never been the center of any empire – it’s just always been a working crossroads.
Tourist & Real Estate Trends Affect a Country
We took a boat tour of the islands of Lake Nicaragua from Granada. Many of the islands have been turned into island homes for wealthy Nicaraguans, ex-pats, and Airbnbs. Nicaragua’s tourism industry is still fitfully developing, so it was interesting to see a HGTV + Nicaragua re-mix. They definitely jumped on the “island house” novelty trend. It’s fascinating how quickly trends can move around the world. Hopefully it brings some opportunity for Granadans.
Nicaragua has been able to take many of their volcanoes and turn them into adventure travel destinations. We went to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a volcano that’s been filled in with water. You can swim & boat on (in?) it. It was shuddering to feel how quickly the “shore” dropped off – and how deep the lake is.
Even though they have a small resort area, the entire volcano has been preserved, so it’s incredibly scenic with clean water (only rainwater fills it).
But it’s not just the volcano lakes, Nicaragua also has a sledding track on a volcano in the north, and several other volcanoes with hiking & overnight recreation. Very unique.
Preserving Nature in a Dense Country
Nicaragua is a poor, densely populated country without a lot of arable land. Even though they are fighting deforestation issues and have many environmental problems, it was good to see that even in the dense south, they have been able to conserve & preserve many areas for long-term sustainable use.
Granada Has Amazing Colonial Architecture
Nicaragua has never been a center of power of any empire – whether it was Toltec, Mayan, Aztec, or Spanish, so it doesn’t have a lot of the grand, over the top ruins & architecture of Mexico or Guatemala. Additionally, the earthquake in the 1970s destroyed a lot of what Nicaragua did have.
That said, what Nicaragua does have it beautiful, understated, and on much more of a human scale. Granada especially has so much Spanish architecture, but still feels like a place where you could live. It reminded me a lot of the city of Vigan – one of my favorite cities in The Philippines (I used to live a hour from it). Compact, beautiful, but also livable.
Small Countries Can Generate Big Attention
For all the global attention that Nicaragua (unfortunately?) has gotten from the world’s big powers (US, Russia, China)…it is surprisingly small – even compared to its neighbors. It’s 5 million people with most sandwiched along the west coast in a few cities.
It’s like if Henan Province, or St. Petersburg, or Minnesota was a major actor in global politics with regular reporting in national news. Obviously those regions are important. And obviously the Nicaraguan people are important. But in a world of realpolitick, it’s fascinating they draw more attention than, say, Bulgaria or Paraguay (same population as Nicaragua)*
*Then again, Palestine is also the same population…so maybe it’s not that much of an outlier.
The Power of Compound Interest (or Lack Thereof)
It was unfortunate to see just how far Nicaragua is lagging its neighbors in living standards. At the end of the Cold War, every Central American country at about the same economic level.
But in the last 30 years, Nicaragua has just slightly lagged behind its neighbors for a whole range of reasons. Guatemala & El Salvador are now 3x and 2x as wealthy. Costa Rica and Panama are 12x as wealthy. And even hard hit Honduras is almost 1/3rd more wealthy per person.
One of my favorite classes in college was Comparative Latin American Politics, so I kind of knew intellectually all the causes, etc – but it was telling to see the differences in person. In the US, I tend to bucket all non-wealthy countries as “developing” – even though there is incredible variation among developing countries in terms of wealth and standard of living. It was sad to see how far Nicaragua has lagged behind despite being one of the more stable countries in the region (and still relatively unaffected by drug trafficking).
Local Cuisine & Vigaron
Nicaragua’s local cuisine is not as well-known as El Salvador’s, Colombia’s, and certainly not as well-known as Mexico’s. However, it does it exist and they have some interesting local dishes and flavors.
I was surprised at how common the potato was used – lots of potatoes and not many tortillas.
Their national dish is Vigaron – it consists of a cabbage salad, boiled yuca, and chicharrones, all wrapped in a banana leaf. I really wanted to love it, but it’s not my favorite. It wasn’t bad; it was just bland. Lots of folks were using vinegar for flavoring. I thought that some Tabasco would go a long way.
Nicaragua is a lovely country. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to visit more than once in my life, and hope to go back again. They are famous for surfing and eco-tourism – neither of which I got to participate in. Their rum & cigar tours are A++ and the overall deal of a trip simply can’t be beat. Highly recommend.
*Nate’s note from 2022 – so…Nicaragua has had a really rough go of it (to say the least) since I wrote this in 2017. Here’s hope that they will find a path to peace, freedom, and prosperity and encouragement to all the Nicaraguans there.