NICARAGUA: Awesome!

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

LATIN Nicaragua
The night is black as coal. Gioconda Cabrera, dressed as a 19th century señorita, leads our horse and carriage tour - to a graveyard. She talks to the guard. He unlocks the gates. With only a penlight for illumination, we walk the main path. Massive marble tombs and a huge chapel stand like giant apparitions. Cabrera stops. At the grave of Fruta Chamorro Pérez, the first president of Nicaragua, Gioconda breaks into a haunting aria. I can’t imagine how much a passerby would be spooked by her
melodic sounds.

Belting out a song in a cemetery in the dead of night can be a bit shocking. But, Nicaragua is full of shock and awe. Not the kind the George Bush perpetrated in Iraq but interesting stuff, like steam-spewing volcanoes, quaint colonial towns, mouthwatering food and an ecolodge where you can pick your breakfast eggs from a henhouse. Reasonably priced and populated with friendly people, Costa Rica’s northern neighbor is a pleasant surprise.
Managua doesn’t fit the awesome category. It’s short on attractions and long on fast food restaurants. So, hit the road. Be forewarned that those roads are not super highways. They are shared with chickens, dogs, horse-carts, pigs, goats and lots of Toyotas.


First stop is Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. In 1529, this place so frightened the Spanish, they thought it was the “mouth of hell.” Funny how a sulphur smell and steam spewing volcanoes can play mind games. To save themselves, they erected a giant cross. There is one there still.
The volcanoes that blow me away are Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas. On Ometepe Island, they soar thousands of feet above the windy Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cacibolca).
Some prefer browsing crafts instead of craters. At El Masaya Mercado Viejo Craft Market, there is vibrant artwork, brass, leather, pottery and tchotchkes. A handcrafted hammock is just US $12. The streets of Catarina are lined with wood carvers, plant nurseries and basket makers.


Red tile roofs top buildings at the colonial city, Granada, founded in 1524. During the Artists and Poets Festival (February), the fiesta’s parade stops all traffic. Father Time, Spanish dancers, mariachi-type bands and other colorful, costumed marchers are very entertaining.
Cozy Hotel Gran Francia (www.lagranfrancia.com) is the city’s oldest inn. Its restaurant, across the street, was the former home of a fake French Duke, Georges Choisseul Praslin. The bar’s bizarre décor, odd paraphernalia like handcuffs and guns doesn’t deter patrons from enjoying Victoria, the local beer.


On an early morning plaza tour, Gioconda warbles her way passed monuments, markets and the varied architecture of historic, pastel-colored buildings. The bishop’s quarters are English, while Convento San Francisco is Italian. Inside the grand, Spanish-styled, bright yellow cathedral, Cabrera lets loose with a beautiful aria that resonates against Granada’s crown jewel walls. She shocks us by hiking up her skirt to retrieve her cellphone and a notepad from Capri pants. This is how she conducts her business. At our hotel, Gioconda mounts the lobby staircase for one last serenade.
Then it is off to Nicaragua’s most prominent volcano, Mombacho. It is home to Canopy Tour MiraValle. Seventeen ziplines and two suspended bridges are perched above banana trees and lush cloudforest.

SAN JUAN DEL SUR
Nearby is San Juan Del Sur, a popular surfing, fishing and beach destination. Many expats and North American retirees live here. The huge Christ statue atop one of San Juan Del Sur’s mountains is similar to the one in Rio
de Janiero.
Overlooking the town and the sea is Pelican Eyes (www.pelicaneyesresort.com). The 61-step climb to our room is a bit of a shock to the lungs. It is worth it. From here, the sunset is breathtaking. Down in the village, restaurants and vendors line the beach. The most popular T-shirts have Fidel Castro and Ché Guavara on them. It figures. Nicaragua’s closest trading partner is Cuba.


 After seeing the cities and volcanoes, the time has come for R & R. A bumpy road south leads to Morgan’s Rock Ecolodge (www.morgansrock.com). Wedged within a crescent-shaped bay, this amazing destination is worth all the jolts that we endure. Its brown-sand beach is secluded. The relaxing sound of the sea is never far away from the thatch-roofed bungalows that dot the hillside. The huge lounge-like hammocks on each deck are perfect for that afternoon nap.
Morgan’s Rock’s 7,000 square-acre wilderness is accessed by trucks, foot, mountain bike and kayak. During a hike, holler monkeys scamper across the trees. Birds and lily ponds fill the lagoon on a kayaking trip.


The lodge features amazing cuisine. Cashew and coconut pancakes are mouthwatering. There is also “breakfast at the farm.” With or without kids, this is a fun experience. We milk a cow-well, the cow’s legs are tied so he won’t kick - visit the hens who have prepared the raw material for our breakfast, and learn how to make tortillas. Then it’s chow time. Fresh and yummy!
Nicaragua is so much more than I expected. I am awed, and can’t wait to return.
Agents should note that Nicaragua can be difficult for physically challenged visitors. www.visit-nicaragua.com

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