A Year and a Day #24: Christmas and New Year\’s Eve, but where was the fiesta? – Nicaragua

Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but where was the fiesta?
Sunday, 11th January 2004

Gari and myself travelled out of Honduras just before Christmas and
arrived in Leon, Nicaragua’s second largest city. We then stopped in
Grenada for a few days and took a bus to Costa Rica’s capital San
Jose for New Year’s Eve. Both our Christmas and New Year’s Eve
destinations: rather disappointing; Grenada: fantastic.

Across the border to Leon

The most unpleasant border crossing of my life so far – high midday
heat, a crush of collaborating subhuman tricycle taxi drivers and
sweaty t-shirted money changers crowded out the very air we tried to
breathe. Nine dollars entry fee and an hour plus wait for a stamped
passport only piled on the sense of an omnipresent con. Then, ten
minutes into Nicaragua an official boarded the bus and demanded a
dubious dollar from each foreigner. We reached Leon unimpressed and

Leon was hot, slow, and while there was a nice atmosphere over
Christmas, not a lot happened. We walked the streets, bought
Christmas presents for each other, and had brief chats with locals
in the town square. I remember just feeling really tired in Leon,
unsure where to take my travels next, wondering if I was running out
of backpacking steam.

Grenada, the gem of Central America

O Grenada! This is by far my favourite city of Central America.
Admittedly, the morning I first arrived, I wrote:

“Feel tired, very tired. Walking around Grenada’s bustling and quiet streets, I keep thinking – all the same! Feel a chronic lack of interest in exploring – feel like I’ve seen every pretty colonial building, every fat bellied money changer, every donkey pulling a cart in so many places I don’t even see them when I look at them. No idea of how to stop being tired. We have been travelling a bit faster than I would usually, and I should really pause for a couple of days somewhere. A change of scene and activity for a while would be great – looking forward to climbing volcanoes and hiring kayaks in Costa Rica.”

But soon after the above was penned, I wrote out my article about
diving in Utila in an internet cafe and cheered up immensely.
Writing does just seem to relax and invigorate me; I composed
myself, sent the email out and went to meet Gari.

Grenada is a very special place. More tourists than Leon, but this
country has so few tourists that is hardly a big concern: this is no
Nicaraguan Antigua. Instead the happy town bustles along with little
regard for us visitors: even the specially built “Tourist Zone” on
the shores of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua is almost entirely
peopled by Nicaraguan families lolling in the sunshine. We hired a
small boat and its captain took us among the archipelago of tiny
islands off Grenada’s “coast” of this immense freshwater sea; we
envied at the bespoke floating mansions of Nicaragua’s elite on
their miniature rocky kingdoms. Actually, one of these mini islands
cost only around 50 or 70 thousand dollars, according to our guide,
a reminder of how far Nicaragua is off the map.

People in Grenada seemed to really enjoy living in this city,
understandably. It was a place where time seemed to slow down,
particularly when under a palm tree’s shade in the city’s exquisite
main square. Days could have rolled by frictionless for me, only
needing a novel or a writing pad and money to buy icy fruit drinks
to keep me cool. Grenada was hotter than anywhere I had been for a
while, though each day I adapted better to the strength sapping sun.
The old and beautiful houses all seemed to open up to a central
courtyard, whole inner walls sometimes missing to provide better
ventilation. Nicaraguans leave their doors open all day it seems,
only locking a separate metal door of bars if worried about
security, so we walked past peering in like nosy neighbours, noting
their family photos and sofas. The most incredible thing we noted
about these houses was how many rocking chairs Nicaraguans have �
rich or poor, each living room was filled with enough rocking
capacity to comfortably seat most of China. In the happy evenings,
families sat chatting, babies contentedly undulating in their
mother’s rocking arms. And at night, Grenada’s temperature was

perfect, a warm breeze percolated every street, keeping the night
long lived and exciting. Admittedly, with another bout of dodgy
shitting, I went to bed early most nights.

I liked Nicaragua a lot, and would probably come back here first of
any of the Central American countries I have been to. The beaches
are supposed to be fantastic, I suspect few if any tourists visit
many of the out of the way places and on the Atlantic side are the
apparently idyllic Corn Islands.

Something about Nicaragua that made me realise how far away from
England I am: the moon was the wrong way round. The bright crescent
started at the bottom of the moon, like a silver smile, then slowly
filled up to the top. Last night, looking up at the Costa Rican sky,
the collection of gray craters on the full moon are gathered on the
left like a monumental C, as though the man on the moon is resting
his head on one side.

San Jose, Costa Rica

Into orderly and developed Costa Rica, a computer scanned our
passports and we were across the frontier. This was immediately a
different world to the other Central American states to the north �
smarter cars, English spoken widely and cutlery is served in a
hygienic polythene bag. Our bus drove to the capital, San Jose. San
Jose is an enjoyable, varied town, life goes on with almost no
preparation or interest in travellers, leaving the visitor free to
explore at their own pace.

New Year’s Eve was a fantastic disappointment. Hoping for a wild Rio-esque street party, instead we got a Saturday night out in
Portsmouth. We wandered around the huge fairground at Zapote on the
edge of the city, but it was clear that few people were staying to
celebrate midnight there. We went back to the centre, had a rest and
wandered the streets � they were empty too. With a growing sense of
confusion and not a little worry, we tested the nightclub district
to the north, El Pueblo Commercial � that was largely empty as well.
Our taxi driver explained that in fact most Costa Ricans celebrated
New Year’s Eve at home with their families, then around 2 or 3am
headed out to a nightclub. Well, the rest of the night was OK and
dismal. When the nightclub district did begin to fill up with young
people, there was no carnival atmosphere, merely that
depressing, “spent three hours getting ready, so only my friends can
talk to me” attitude familiar from many nights out in London. It
didn’t do much to inspire us, and we went home rather glumly.

But the happy ending was that on the second day of the new year, I bought
my ticket to Asia. I dithered around, trying to find a cheapish
flight to Bangkok, and was quickly reaccquainted with the byzantine
nightmares of booking long distance tickets. It turned out that a
travel agency here had a cheap ticket to Hong Kong one way ($750 / £408, via Amsterdam), and when I had Internet
browsed my way to realising Chinese New Year was coming up on the
22nd, I knew that was where I would be going. Five more days in
Central America, then I cross the world by plane to the Far East.

Been excitedly planning the next stage of my travels, think I will
make my way to Vietnam after Hong Kong, and travel down the county,
across Cambodia and into Thailand… 2004 looks to be a strange
year, a whole year of travelling.