#21: Nicaragua: Bulls’ Testicles in the Land of Fire and Revolution
Romantic old Granada, Nicaragua.
10 Apr 2002
Nicaragua may be yet another land of volcanoes (remember how tired I have become of volcanoes read my previous posting), but it’s one crowned with a glorious history of freedom struggles and revolution, and one at a state of “pre-gringoisation”. Although just across the border from a Costa Rica that is overwhelmed with tourists, Nicaragua basks in a world that is still decades behind the rest of the region. Bull-carts and horse carriages compete with worn-out American and Korean school buses in rush-hour traffic. As another traveller put it, Nicaragua is Costa Rica 30 years ago.
I arrived in Granada, the oldest city in Nicaragua and continental Latin America, after a 10-hour bus ride (during which 3 hours were spent clearing the border controls) passing the not-so-African Costa Rican city of Liberia and the Nicaraguan city of Rivas, where we were treated to an amazing view of the twin volcanoes of Omatepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.
Lake Nicaragua, yet another lake created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, is an unusual biospheric zone by itself. This is a lake of freshwater sharks and swordfish, both of which swam up the Rio San Juan from the Atlantic, got trapped there and adapted to fresh water. Ancient peoples carved out strange statues of half human and half animals, mostly iguanas, crocodiles and sharks.
The Spanish conquistadors sailed up the river and established in 1524 the cities of Granada, and further inshore, of Leon. These cities accumulated legendary wealth and treasures, attracting pirates and mercenaries. Independence came as a surprise in 1821, when the Spanish Empire in Latin America was rocked with revolutions from Mexico to Buenos Aires. Ten years of conflict followed as the Central American republics couldn’t decide whether they wanted to join the newly formed Mexican Empire, a federation of the Central American states, or independence as individual states. It was the last option that won the day, as events turned out.
The first great external challenge to Nicaraguan independence came in the form of William Walker, a Harvard graduate from Tennessee, with outmoded ideas, greedy aims and a heart for an adventure. In 1856, with a gang of mercenaries recruited from the docks of Mobile and New Orleans, as well as an invitation for assistance from a few squabbling local politicians in Granada, he sailed up Rio San Juan with a gunboat. He took Granada by surprise and within weeks, made himself president of Nicaragua. A supporter of the Confederated States, he reinstated slavery (abolished in Nicaragua 30 years before), made English the official language of the country, and offered land to any white North American interested in settling in what he called “Tropical America”.
Not satisfied with controlling only Nicaragua, he wanted all the Central American states as well. He launched an invasion of Costa Rica, and was defeated by its lightly armed peasant army when in Rivas the boy soldier Juan Santamaria burned the house where Walker stayed overnight. Juan died in battle and became Costa Rica’s greatest hero, with the international airport in San Jose named after him (obviously in the 20th century).
The other states of Central America united against Walker and chased him back to Mobile, Alabama, though not before Walker burned beautiful Granada to the ground. He returned a few years later, landing in northern Honduras and was soon defeated and promptly executed by enraged Hondurans. And so ended the first of the North American invasions of Nicaragua.
Fair Granada, beautiful colonial city with grilled-iron balconies and graceful patios. Walker might have burned it down, but the Nicaraguans have rebuilt it. Granada might claim to be the third-largest city of Nicaragua, but with only 80,000 people, it is nothing but an oversized village, where life revolves around siesta and empaï¿½adas.
The city might be the most popular tourist town in the country, but there are hardly more than a few dozen backpackers and other more adventurous travelers. Life on the fast lane means a slow donkey cart ride, or at most a boat ride on the surprisingly strong waves of Lago Nicaragua. Perhaps people still remember the conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s. Memories last a long time, but I suspect not much longer. Sooner or later tourism will come to this sleepy town, and bring in gringolandic rites forever.
As I admired the pretty islands near Granada from a tiny boat, my guide tempted me with buying an island or two. If he is right, the islands aren’t that expensive. You can buy a small one for US$7,000, or a fairly large one with some buildings for US$150,000. For a few fleeting moments, I toyed with the idea of setting up a backpacker hostel on an isle, organize a few full moon parties to make some spare cash, and spend the rest of my life fishing in this idyllic island. Well, I asked him about investor protection and foreign land ownership laws, as well as tax incentives and other dodgy schemes. It was as good as speaking Greek to a Masai warrior. I realized that there are easier ways of curing my sea sickness or gambling away past bonuses, and put the idea to rest, period.
Along with two German girls, I visited the craft city of Masaya nearby, and then hopped into local chicken buses exploring the Pueblo Blanco villages of Catarina and Niquinohomo, famous for their idyllic country life and spectacular scenery, as well as their association with Augusto Sandino, the famous revolutionary who inspired the Sandinista Movement which later overthrew the hated Somoza dynasty.
In 1909, American marines landed in Nicaragua and swiftly overthrew Zaleya, the Liberal President who threatened the commercial interests and exploitative practices of the American United Fruit Company. A futile and short-lived opposition to the US was headed by Zeledon, whose funeral in Catarina village was witnessed by young Sandino, a peasant born in Niquinohomo, who in 1926, began an insurrection against US forces. The revolution was successful in forcing US withdrawal from Nicaragua in 1933, which some called the first defeat of the USA in Latin America. Sandino marched into Managua as a champion of nationalism and retired to a farm in the North. The Empire strikes back. Within months, men of the US-backed National Guard, led by Anastasio Somoza, had Sandino assassinated, and Somoza turned the nation into his personal kingdom, even passing the presidency to his sons. The dynasty ruled until 1979, till freedom fighters led by the Sandinista Movement defeated Somoza’s army in a bitter civil war.
After a few nice days in Granada, I moved on to Managua, capital of Nicaragua. If Granada is the standard bearer of Nicaragua’s tourism authorities, Managua is probably the city they wouldn’t want the world to see.
Destroyed by earthquake in 1972, Managua hasn’t been rebuilt, or perhaps, rebuilt properly. International funds which poured in went straight into the bank account of Anastasio Somoza Jr, younger son of the first Somoza and dictator of Nicaragua, who also made a bundle by confiscating land on the pretext of reconstruction and selling them on the open market.
Sickened by the tyrannical rule first by the first Anastasio Somoza in 1936, and then by his two sons in succession (including the younger son with the same name as the father), the Nicaraguan people fought against his mighty American-backed army under the banner of the Sandinista Movement, finally forcing Somoza Jr to flee in 1979. Alarmed by the victory of a leftist movement and the defeat of its ally, the United States imposed sanctions and an undeclared state of war on Nicaragua, whose ports were mined.
Supporters of Somoza, known as Contras, were armed through illegal arms sales to Iran, leading to the Irangate scandal and the Oliver North trial. Ten years of further aggression by the USA, and adoption of outdated economic policies by a government more adapted to a liberation struggle led to economic degradation and decline, as if the wars hadn’t caused enough damage. Finally, the Central American Peace Agreement drawn up by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias ended the prolonged conflict (and won Arias the Nobel Peace Prize). Free elections held a year later, which brought respectable Sra Chamorro to power, confirmed the people’s desire to put the past conflicts aside and begin a new future. Nicaragua is at peace now, its people toiling to repair the damages of decades of Somoza tyranny, Sandinista mismanagement and military conflicts.
Managua is a wounded city of destroyed buildings and empty plots of land. It took me three hours to see this city and its few monuments. The rest of the city is just shanty towns and open space, plus a few shopping malls that are substandard compared to even those in Central America. The highlight of my stay has to be the dinner at a seafood restaurant, where I had a soup named Seven Oceans, specifically a soup of crabmeat, fish, prawns and bulls’ testicles. Well, I had to choose between this and iguana soup. I should have chosen both. Can someone tell me what an iguana tastes like ?
I also visited beautiful Leon, the country’s second-largest city, with an under-equipped Sandino Revolutionary Museum with nothing but badly made photocopies from a history book, pasted on the wall. The enthusiastic elderly guide, probably a frontline Sandinista man, made up for the difference, although I must confess that I hardly understood Spanish beyond simple greetings and pickup lines from my dodgy phrasebook. At the end of this guided tour, I asked my German lady friends, who summarized his tour by the words, “The revolution continues.”
And so I left Nicaragua for Honduras one early morning on the 5am bus. Nicaragua is an amazing country where I have encountered the most friendly smiles and colourful landscapes. A pity I am now short on time, or otherwise I would have spent more time in the islands of Lago Nicaragua and the mysterious Mosquito Coast of the Caribbean.