Nicaragua: It's Not What You Think

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Katz is a Times national correspondent based in Houston

For much of its recent history, revolution has been Nicaragua's top tourist draw.

After the Sandinista insurrection toppled the regime of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, travelers tended to be either sandal-clad leftists, CIA-backed mercenaries or a fact-finding medley of politicians and clergy. Not exactly a typical vacation crowd. The country was turbulent enough to earn a chapter in P.J. O'Rourke's gonzo travelogue, "Holidays in Hell."

As a college student in the mid-1980s, I was among those curious visitors, ignoring what was then a U.S. ban on direct travel to the newly socialist republic. Although it was remarkable watching a revolution (and, as it turned out, a counterrevolution) in progress, I kept wanting to bail out of my official Sandinista tour bus and savor the natural Nicaragua. There was a rich, sensual quality to the place, an almost primeval beauty that no political upheaval could quash.

This summer, I finally got my chance, returning to Nicaragua for a family vacation with my wife, Raynelda, and our 3-year-old son, Max. Raynelda is from Nicaragua (although she was living in Los Angeles when we met) and we did plan to spend several days in Managua visiting my in-laws. But beyond that, our goal remained essentially the same as any other tourist's in the tropics: take in the beaches, the forests and the island-studded lakes.

Our reward was a splendidly exotic trek across Central America's largest country, one of the wildest, steamiest, earthiest places I've ever been. While Costa Rica has become an eco-tourist haven and Belize a diver's mecca, Nicaragua is less tamed--an overgrown place that is impossibly green, a psychedelic verdure that runs from electric cucumber to dusky jade.

Nicaragua spans the Central American isthmus, from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. It includes tropical jungle and crisp, rugged highlands. Managua, the confounding capital city that served as our base for touring the country, is sandwiched between two mammoth lakes. Volcanoes sprout by the dozens. There are two seasons, dry and rainy, which roughly correspond to our winter and summer, but you can expect it to be hot and humid most of the time.

Butterflies stormed us on the road, dragonflies buzzed us in the pool and fireflies twirled around us at night. We picked mangoes, coconuts and almonds right off the trees. We worked up a sweat dancing to a Latin-Caribbean orchestra and cooled down with Nicaragua's prized Flor de Can~a rum--a sweet and insanely cheap concoction, served by the bottle with a bucket of ice and a plate of limes.

"I feel like I'm seeing my own homeland for the first time," Raynelda sighed one vnight.

Roaming the countryside in a rented car for two weeks was both an affirmation of the pleasure to be found in Nicaragua and a reminder of the inequities that keep most Nicaraguans from sharing in it.

Navigating these contradictions requires a certain pioneering spirit. Although the days of food rationing are over, don't count on finding your favorite U.S.-made products here. Phone numbers and addresses are often unhelpful. The bathrooms, as Max put it, tend toward the "yucky." While English is spoken at large hotels and upscale restaurants, some rudimentary knowledge of Spanish is crucial to getting by.

The Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, effectively ending the U.S.-backed Contra war, which claimed 30,000 lives. Since then, a moderate government has been struggling to rebuild and promote investment. (Next week the country is set to elect a new president; polls give the edge to an even more conservative, pro-business candidate.) The warfare is over; the travel advisories have been lifted. But Nicaragua is still poor--per capita income is only $400--and too preoccupied with its own survival to worry much about the comfort of guests.

That's not to say that it's unfriendly or dangerous. Nicaragua felt placid, even sleepy at times. The only precautions we took were common-sense things, such as steering clear of rural roads after dark, storing cash in a money belt and keeping a tight grip on our camcorder.

Still, we saw disparities everywhere we went. Our first night in Managua, for instance, we stayed at the Hotel Estrella, a clean but unadorned businessman's sort of a place. Outside our window, there was a giant parabolic antenna; in its shadow, a maid was hanging towels on a clothesline. Satellite TV, but no dryer for the linens.

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All around the city, there were sleek, new 24-hour gas stations and minimarts. Nicaragua's elite can now gas up their tinted Land Cruisers while buying a six-pack of Budweiser. But on the same streets, we saw old men still pushing crude handcarts filled with firewood, the only method of cooking for Managua's swelling masses of poor.

Even places that were ostensibly nonpolitical had political implications. Consider our trip to the Pacific, a quick, 40-mile drive from Managua to the all-inclusive resort of Montelimar. It's a spectacular spot, with a wide uncrowded beach, hand-woven hammocks under coconut palms, tastefully designed tile-roof bungalows and a huge pool.

What the ads don't tell you is that Montelimar was once Somoza's private getaway, off limits to all but the dictator's closest friends. It was seized by the Sandinistas after the revolution and developed into a public facility. Unable to manage it, they sold the resort, which eventually landed in the hands of a Spanish firm, Barcelo Hotels. At $65 per adult, per night, all food and drink included, it's a phenomenal bargain. Yet it's far beyond the means of average Nicaraguans, who generally view Montelimar with a mixture of pride and resentment.

Most of the guests looked like us--Nicaraguan expatriates, several of them with North American spouses, splashing around with English-speaking kids. Max had a great time in the pool, with its snaking waterways and bridges. He also enjoyed some of the hotel's more extravagant touches, such as a human-size chess set and a botanical garden with a zoo full of goats and turkeys and deer.

Every night for dinner, we walked up the steep path to La Casona, the elegant, white-columned, hillside mansion that served as Somoza's personal quarters. It seemed worth the trip to Montelimar just to say that we'd sat in a wood-and-wicker rocking chair, sipping Flor de Can~a on his back porch.

For a more authentic Nicaraguan experience, we simply drove 10 minutes down the coast to Pochomil, a funky strip of thatched-roof shacks that teems every weekend with working-class families.

As we strolled the boardwalk, each proprietor greeted us, promising to serve the freshest fish anywhere on the beach. We finally settled on a place called the Piragua, where we ate lobster and a plate of soft-boiled huevos de palasma--turtle eggs--that vendors sell out of buckets everywhere here and are served by the dozen. The eggs look sort of like Ping-Pong balls and had a rich, earthy flavor--enhanced by a squirt of lemon, salt and chile--but, knowing that many turtle species are endangered, we feared we had breached environmental etiquette and vowed not to eat them again.

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After a few days at the beach, we returned to Managua, one of the indisputably strange, exasperating cities of the world. A massive earthquake in 1972 destroyed the downtown, leaving a ghostly patchwork of ruins now inhabited by squatters. Commerce was pushed to Managua's sprawling outskirts, eliminating any central zone where shops and restaurants might cluster. Most streets have no signs, most establishments have no recognizable addresses and most neighborhoods have at least two names, from the pre- and post-revolutionary eras.

It wasn't easy finding a good mid-range hotel to serve as our base. I'm of the belief that traveling with children requires a few concessions to comfort, such as a pool, air-conditioning and TV, thus eliminating most of Managua's budget pensions and hospedajes. Anyone with cash stays at the Hotel Inter-Continental, the faux Mayan pyramid that remains the closest thing to a downtown landmark. We tried it for a night, but at $140 for a bland, stuffy room, it was a dud. Finally, we settled on Las Mercedes, across from the airport, where we got a kitschy motel-like cabin for $65, surrounded by nice gardens.

For all its hassles, Managua still has a romantic sort of insouciance. We ate wonderfully greasy street fare known as fritanga--fried pork, fried plantains and fried cheese--served with a heap of rice and beans atop a banana leaf. At a folkloric club, La Buena Nota, we enjoyed a night of native song by Nicaragua's legendary troubadour, Carlos Mejia Godoy. At the restaurant Mirador Tiscapa--another of Somoza's former haunts--we danced dreamily at the edge of a crater-turned-lake just south of the old downtown.

From Managua, it was an easy trip to Masaya and Granada, the country's principal tourist destinations. Before reaching Masaya, about 15 miles southeast of Managua, we turned off the highway and entered the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. A narrow road winds through fields of petrified lava and ends right at the lip of a seething, belching crater.

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The view was awesome, both of the surrounding countryside and the live pool of lava underneath us, especially after we hiked up the 180-plus steps to Bobadilla Cross, a lookout built in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors atop the volcanic cone. Before them, indigenous tribes venerated the volcano, often sacrificing young maidens to its yawning maw.

The Spaniards were more circumspect, erecting a cross to keep the devil at bay. According to legend, Somoza returned to the old ways, tossing his political enemies into the fiery hole from a helicopter.

At Mayasa, a colonial town noted for its artisans, we visited the market, which has everything from $100 Nikes wrapped in cellophane to bloody cow heads swarming with flies. The market has terrific rocking chairs and hammocks, but the afternoon was even more humid than the steam-bath days we had come to expect, and we quickly traded the shopping idea for a couple of icy Victoria beers at a market stall.

Granada, which lies just beyond Masaya, is also a charming old colonial city, where horse-drawn buggies trot around town for the benefit of tourists--not for lack of automobiles. It's also the gateway to immense Lake Nicaragua, the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world.

We originally had hoped to visit the Isla de Ometepe, a post-card perfect volcanic island shooting out of the lake. But we hadn't left ourselves enough time for the eight-hour round trip via motor boat. Instead, we took a tour of the isletas, the more than 300 tiny, pirvately owned islands that dot Granada's shoreline.

Almost as soon as we hit the lake, however, it started to rain sending us scrambling to the nearest island for cover. We ended up sitting out the storm in a makeshift cafe, the rain almost deafening as it pounded against the corrugated tin roof.

There was one region left that we wanted to visit before returning home, the forested, northern highlands that produce the country's leading export-coffee. The drive out of Managua offered the most marvelous vistas we had seen yet, craggy Andean-looking peaks, lush olive-colored valleys and an ever-shifting sky of cool, gray clouds as we climbed closer to 4,000 feet.

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Unfortunately, the road was an obstacle course of gaping knee-deep potholes, which called for a certain improvisational flare behind the wheel of our dinky rental car. At several perilous junctures, we encountered barefoot street urchins halfheartedly shoveling gravel into the rough spots; it didn't seem to improve the road, but that didn't stop them from hustling us for a few cordobas.

It may have taken three or four hours to get there; I did so much swerving and shifting along the way that I don't exactly recall. Our pay-off, though, was the Selva Negra (Black Forest), a historic coffee-growing enclave surrounded by nearly 2,000 acres of virgin woodlands, off-limits to all cutting, hunting and burning. The area was first settled in the 1880s by German immigrants, invited by the Nicaraguan government to promote coffee cultivation.

The plantation still produces a potent blend. A Teutonic, stone-and-wood lodge with green-and-white shutters was added 20 years ago by the immigrants' descendants, Eddie and Mausi Kuhl. The inn, which features a lakeside patio and restaurant, is at the center of two dozen rustic cabins scattered under a dense canopy.

For $50 a night we were given a cute little dollhouse of a cottage, with walls of exposed brick and a roof that had sprouted a 2-foot-thick layer of flowers and moss. We hiked on the Selva Negra's vast network of trails through several miles of rain forest and a cacophony of birds and monkeys.

The chilly air was a treat after so many sweaty days. But a stubborn shower forced us back to the lodge, where we sipped steaming pots of cafe con leche, later dining on hefty plates of bratwurst and sauerkraut. Before leaving, we toured the coffee plantation, then bought 4 pounds of the Selva Negra brand to take home.

It was one last reminder that everything in Nicaragua, even the most blissfully pleasant, is rooted in the reality of its struggles. Selva Negra, like the rest of Nicaragua's fine coffee, is sold almost exclusively on the export market. Although it fuels the nation's economy, average Nicaraguans can't afford a high-quality brew, instead drinking the freeze-dried crud we were served elsewhere on our trip.

That doesn't mean travel here can't be a sensory blast. But it does mean that Nicaragua's ongoing struggle can't be easily diminished.

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GUIDEBOOK: Nicaraguan Know-how

Getting there: Continental (via Houston) and TACA (via San Salvador) offer connecting flights to Managua, Nicaragua; advance purchase fares start at $658 round trip.

Where to stay: Hotel Las Mercedes, Kilometer 11, Carretera Norte, Managua; telephone 011-505-263-1011, fax 011-505-263-1083. Rates: $65, double occupancy. Kitschy cabins in a nice garden setting. Hotel Inter-Continental, Avenida Bolivar Sur, Managua; tel. (800) 327-0200 or 011-505-228-3530, fax 011-505-228-3087. Rates: $215, double occupancy. Sleek, modern; rather small, sterile rooms. Barcelo Montelimar, Kilometer 65, Carretera Masachapa; tel. (800) 858-0606 or 011-505-269-6769, fax: 269-7669. Rates: $135 for two, food and drink included. Caribbean-style resort; stylish bungalows with lots of wood and tile. Hotel Montan~a Selva Negra, Kilometer 140, Carretera Jinotega, Matagalpa; tel. and fax 011-505-612-3883. Rates: $58, double occupancy. Brick cottages in highland jungle. Great coffee.

Where to eat: In Managua: Los Antojitos, Avenida Bolivar, in front of Hotel Inter-Continental; local telephone, 222-5256. Typical Nicaraguan food (grilled meats, chicken, fried plantains and cheese); tropical patio. From $15 for two. Bar y Comedor La Piragua, Pochomil: Simple, fresh fish and turtle eggs. From $10 for two.

Tours: 801 Travel, 801 Brickell Ave., Miami, Fla. 33131; tel. 305-375-9254. Affiliated with Careli Tours in Managua; tel. 011-505-278-2572. Offers various tour itineraries of Nicaragua, including the islands of Lake Nicaragua and the coffee plantations.

Entertainment: Mirador Tiscapa, Paseo Tiscapa, Managua; tel. 222-3452. Open air restaurant and nightclub with dance floor. La Buena Nota, Kilometer 3 1/2, Carretera Sur, Managua; tel. 266-9797. Upscale nightclub featuring Nicaraguan folk music. Cover charge.

Car rental: Targa Rent-a-Car, Managua Airport or Hotel Inter-Continental; tel. 011-505-222-4881, fax 011-505-222-4824. Weekly rates from $240, unlimited mileage. Hertz, Managua Airport or Hotel Inter-Continental; tel. (800) 654-3131 or 011-505-266-8399. Weekly rates from $240, unlimited mileage.

For more information: Embassy of Nicaragua, 1627 New Hampshire Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009; tel. (202) 939-6570. Nicaraguan Consulate, 3303 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 410, Los Angeles, CA 90010; tel. (213) 252-1178. Nicaraguan Ministry of Tourism, two blocks from Hotel Inter-Continental, Managua; tel. 011-505-222-7423.

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