Despite a tumultuous history, Nicaragua is a peaceful haven in Central America with interesting cities and natural delights
As I clambered around the rim of Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano, one of the world’s most active, I nervously adjusted my helmet. I recalled that just days earlier, gases unleashed from the caldera had suddenly begun blasting head-sized chunks of pumice rock through subterranean channels, cannon-like, and high into the air. This had settled down enough to allow visitors to return, albeit only for limited time periods due to the sulphurous fumes emanating from the crater.
Centuries ago, high atop a hill of solidified magma next to the caldera, a Spanish holy man placed a special cross, intending to exorcise the evil presence from the mountain. So far it hasn’t worked. The locals still know the volcano better by its sobriquet La Boca del Infierno: “the Mouth of Hell.”
Volcanic activity at varying stages has produced diverse landscapes in Nicaragua, from an extinct volcano that filled with water, to the fuming crater of Masaya Volcano. On his tour, Dr. George Burden (left, inset) had to limit his time at the crater due to the toxic fumes.
Ironically, I could hear chirping from deep within the crater, though I saw nothing through the smoke. Our guide, Luis, informed us that a tiny species of parakeet, the chocoyo del crater, has adapted to living in the fumes of the volcano, protecting it from predators. It is said the parakeets ingest clay from a nearby river that somehow detoxifies the noxious fumes.
Park authorities limited our time in “hell,” as only so much crater time is allowed. Next time I’ll have to join the chocoyos and ingest a little river clay beforehand.
My next stop was the little town of Catarina, one of the so-called pueblos blancos, or “white towns.” The name is generally attributed to the buildings of these towns being mostly white-washed, though locals whisper of the local brujas, or “white witches,” who practice benign forms of magic for those worthy of their services.
Much in evidence in these towns are markets full of wonderful flowers, pottery, leather and woodwork at ridiculously low prices. Though I’d had no intentions of buying anything, I soon found myself with several pieces of magnificent pottery and meticulously crafted carvings.
A small island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is home to spider monkeys, which face significant habitat loss in the country.
Adjacent to Catarina is the Laguna de Apoyo, offering a scenic view of a lake within an extinct volcano’s crater. Its slopes are covered in flowers and greenery. It is hard to believe that not too long ago, this was a smouldering landscape like that of the Masaya crater.
The next stop was Granada, which Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded for his hometown of Granada, Spain, in 1524, making it one of the oldest cities in the New World of European origin. The grateful Nicaraguans named their currency, the córdoba, after him, and at present a Canadian dollar will get you about 20 of them. Granada sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Historically, a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific was initially planned to go through Nicaragua, as it would have required a mere 19 kilometres of excavations to connect the two oceans. However, due to political manoeuvring and concerns about an active volcano in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the site was moved southward to Panama.
Granada has become a haven for expatriates from around the world, and its Central Park, cathedral and Bishop’s Palace provide a delightful Old World ambiance. But with its smouldering volcano in the background, perhaps it is more reminiscent of Naples, Italy, than any Spanish city.
Next, Luis took us lakeside for a boat ride through the Nicaraguan version of Ontario’s Thousand Islands, an archipelago of tiny islands, many with houses on them ranging from the prosaic to the luxurious. The waters sparkled silver with sardines jumping to feed on tiny gnats that swarmed over the lake. We approached a seemingly deserted island, only to have three residents greet us: two spider monkeys and a white-faced monkey. Posing and capering for our cameras, they were so endearing I wished I could take one home for my daughter. Luis, however, informed me that they bite.
Of course, civil war and revolution have marred Nicaragua’s recent history. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front fought and won a war against the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his National Guard and Contras. The group was named for Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary whose efforts made him a hero throughout Latin America. Now under President Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista leader, the country has the lowest crime rate in Latin America.
After a full day, my tour group made its way through the tedious process of crossing the border to Costa Rica for the next leg of the journey. Luis, who is a Nicaraguan national, had taken great pride in showing off his country. As he departed the tour bus, he revealed that his last name was Sandino, that he was related to Augusto Sandino and that he had two brothers whom the Contras had tortured. It must be gratifying for Luis to see his country transformed from war and insurrection to peace and democracy, great changes since the 1980s.
Cross of Francisco de Bobadilla – Wikipedia Creative Commons
All other photos by George Burden – All Rights Reserved
Written by Dr. George Burden on November 5, 2013 for The Medical Post