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Hola Nicaragua! Managua

The itinerary NA originally provided completely excluded Managua. They were going to put us up in a hotel close to the airport the night of our arrival and then whisk us north to Matagalpa in the morning. That didn't surprise me, based on what I'd read about Managua. The lowdown was that there was little for tourists to see, and lots of downside in terms of crime and other city blights. However, that didn't sit well with us. Big cities and big markets are part of our travel DNA, regardless of the presence of tourist attractions. We requested a hotel in the middle of the city and a late afternoon departure, which would give us a few hours to see the city and more importantly a major market. The largest market in Managua is Mercado Oriental, but extensive research convinced me that the widely-reported danger of crime was real enough that we had to avoid it. Instead we chose Mercado Roberto Huembes, a slightly smaller but much safer location. For more about Mercado Oriental, try this article or this video. The videographer has a great YouTube channel about what it's like to live on the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

We enjoy the challenge of DIY traveling, but I have to admit it was nice to get off the plane and see a guy holding up a placard with my name on it among the throng of shouting taxi hustlers. The main boulevard downtown was lined with brightly lit floats celebrating the Nativity as well as Managua's famous "Trees of Life", a recent creation of the country's First Lady. We could see a lot of people milling around the sidewalk and some street food stands. I wished we could have stopped to walk around, but I didn't want to take advantage of our driver late in the evening and I wasn't sure we'd be safe.

The driver took us to the restaurant I'd picked for dinner, which turned out to be mediocre and mostly empty. Check out my nearly-raw churrasco!

Our room for the night was very basic, but in the morning we saw the hotel had a beautiful pool area with an outdoor dining patio.

After our complimentary breakfast, we met our driver and a guide to show us some sights of Managua. Our first stop was the hilltop Loma de Tiscapa, which was appropriate considering that to understand Nicaragua it's important to know a little of the modern history of the country. Most of the 20th century was characterized by a struggle between conservatives from the South, backed by the United States, and liberals from the North. In the 1920's, liberal general Augusto César Sandino pushed out the Conservative government in a guerilla war but was ultimately forced to share power with the US-backed strongman Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza soon had Sandino killed and assumed full control of Nicaragua, engendering a family dynasty that would rule for half a century. In the 1970's, the Sandinista guerilla movement was greatly strengthened after it became known that the Somoza regime had embezzled billions in international aid that was sent in response to a devastating earthquake. In 1979 Somoza's regime collapsed and the Sandinistas took control. However, in an anomaly for Marxist revolutions, the Sandinistas were not highly repressive of their opposition and largely maintained the democratic process. They held an election in 1984, which they won handily and was generally recognized to be legitimate, and then actually lost to their opposition in 1990. Since then the Sandinistas and their opposition have traded the presidency back and forth, with the current president being Daniel Ortega, the original architect of the Sandinista revolution.

Loma de Tiscapa is the former site of Somoza's presidential palace as well as the horrific prison where he tortured his political opponents. Fittingly, the hill is now crowned with a giant silhouette statue of Sandino overlooking the city. Directly below is the Tiscapa crater lake.

On our next stop, we walked through Parque Central to the Museo Nacional, where we took a brief walk among exhibits of Nicaraguan history. Across the plaza from the museum is the Santiago of Managua Cathedral.

Just north of the Museo Nacional is the lakeside Paseo Xolotlán. Here we found a rather barren plaza full of Trees of Life and views over heavily-polluted Lake Managua, also known as Lake Xolotlán.

Next was the day's main attraction, Mercado Roberto Huembes. We weren't disappointed. The market was large and contained hundreds of stalls replete with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and seafood. Among the unique sights were tortillas being made and live iguanas to be used for soup.

We ate twice, first at a small tortilla stall and then at a larger food court where the selection of soups was too tempting to forgo even though our stomachs were mostly full. We split a mondongo, which was a huge pile of tripe and starchy vegetables in savory yellow broth. Despite our best efforts we were unable to finish the bowl, but there was a friendly toothless dude who immediately scooped up the remnants.

I made a couple of videos of the Huembes market. It was a great market with lots to see and delicious food. While it didn't quite reach the heights of Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca or Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, I found it more enjoyable than the markets of Mexico City and a lot better than what we found in Panama City. We never felt remotely uncomfortable or unsafe in the market or anywhere else in Managua. Of course, we were never out after dark and we were never on our own except in the market.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:00 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua!

A month after we'd gotten home from our Central Europe road trip in August, it was already time to think about where we were going to go for the kids' winter break from school. Staying home with the kids off school for two weeks was definitely not an option. I was also determined to go somewhere warm rather than have to worry about my Florida kids being miserable in cold weather. I flirted with Senegal but eventually decided the risk of malaria was too high. Next came Ecuador, but I didn't feel comfortable with the crime in Guayaquil or the altitude in Cuenca. I've already been to Colombia and Costa Rica, and to Brazil four times. The Yucatan was a possibility, but we'd been in central Mexico just two years earlier. I thought about a Caribbean cruise involving Bonaire and Curaçao, but I've actually never taken a cruise before so I put the idea on the back burner. One night I was fooling around with Google Maps, which is always open on my desktop. I like to click and drag the map around and zoom in and out, and my eye kept falling on that big lake positioned incongruously in the middle of Nicaragua. I'd never thought very seriously about going to Nicaragua. I wasn't sure how safe it was, or if there was anything to see that was differentiated from Costa Rica. My zoom function showed me a tantalizing hourglass-shaped island in the middle of that gigantic lake, along with a lot more interesting-looking lakes, peninsulas and islands around the country. Soon I had more windows open researching various places in Nicaragua and after a couple of hours I knew we had our destination.

My next job was figuring out how to do the trip. Renting a car didn't seem like the best move, given potential concerns about the quality of the road network and some crime issues. It seemed like the best option would be to base ourselves in the colonial city of Granada and arrange some field trips to nearby attractions like volcanoes and islands. Fortunately, while researching day trips I came across a company called Nicaragua Adventures which had stellar reviews across the board on TripAdvisor. We'd never traveled with a tour company before, but I thought that the relative cheapness of Central America might allow us to arrange a personalized itinerary so that we could get everywhere we wanted with one outfit without sacrificing our independence. I sent the company an inquiry and after trading a couple of e-mails, I had a ten day itinerary in hand that was far more extensive and ambitious than the localized trip I'd been thinking of. I decided on the maximum amount I'd pay to close the deal, and when I got the quote it was comfortably on the lower side of that number. We were going to have assistance on a vacation for the first time.

That's the story of how we ended up traveling for ten days around a country which up until that time I'd never seriously considered visiting. Nicaragua turned out to be a unique and exciting country full of natural wonders, beautiful landscapes, and friendly people. It's a great example of why when it comes to travel, it always pays to keep an open mind.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:58 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

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