It’s my last evening in Nicaragua, the largest republic in Central America. The sun has already set. Darkness is nibbling away at the last of the dusk.
I am inside Masaya Volcano National Park to see a spectacular show of nature. Only, I don’t know what exactly it is. The thought makes me anxious and excited. As we drive up the hilly slope, the tour guide Elvis tells me, “It will stay in your memory forever.”
Every minute seems like an hour until we arrive at the summit. Elvis hurriedly escorts me through the blackness to the edge of a volcanic rim.
I peer into the crater below and instantly, a burst of colours assaults my vision. I see a combination of red, orange, crimson, yellow and many unknown hues spinning around the walls, as if chained by a ruthless, invisible monster. The smoke spiralling through the luminous mass tells me what I see 500m lower is fire from the burning of volcanic rocks. The grand spectacle of light hypnotises me.
“Technically, it’s called magma. It becomes lava when the molten mass gushes out from the vent,” says Elvis. I feel both blessed and contended to come so close to one of nature’s most awesome – and awe-inspiring – forces. I thank Robyn Smith of Movidas Journeys, an Australian tour operator specialised for tailor-made journeys in Central America, for including Nicaragua in my itinerary. “If for nothing else, it’s worth travelling across the world to this off-beat destination just for this sight,” she had told me. Beholding the incredible sight, I can’t help but agree.
Nicaragua generally finds space in world newspapers only in reference to civil wars, killings or natural disasters. Not much is known about its hidden treasures. Hence my Nicaraguan odyssey, which started a few days earlier, has been like a discovery mission with surprises awaiting around every corner.
The well-known cliché ‘There is something for everyone’ fits well for Nicaragua. It’s a haven for nature aficionados, adventure seekers, culture lovers, history buffs – and of course rum and coffee connoisseurs.
Nature’s splendour is of high order here. With Caribbean Sea on the east and Pacific Ocean on the west, the landscape is dotted with many mountains, lakes and lush valleys. Seen from the sky, Nicaragua appears as a cluster of several water bodies and pointy outcrops tucked in the centre of the isthmus connecting North and South America. The water bodies are lakes and pointy outcrops are volcanic mountains. There are so many of them, it’s natural to nickname Nicaragua as the Land Of Lakes And Volcanoes.
Nicaraguan volcanoes form part of the famous Pacific Rim of Fire. Adventure seekers can hike up on some of them; those not seeking an adrenaline rush can still enjoy their beauty from various lookouts. Seven from the lot of around 50 are still active and smoke billows from their top.
Towering over the shores of Lake Managua, one of the nation’s largest waterbodies, the 1300m high and highly active Momotombo volcano is the most striking. However, the Masaya volcano, protected inside the national park, is the easily accessible one because of the paved road leading to the mouth of the crater. Inside the park is a nice museum which is a great venue to pick up more about Nicaraguan volcanoes and geological mysteries behind their formation.
I gather from the exhibits that the myriad lakes and lagoons were once part of the ocean and got separated as results of volcanic eruptions. One such is Lake Nicaragua which, archaeologists believe, was once part of the Pacific Ocean. Anyone standing at its shore will see this 8000sqkm body of water more like sea than anything else – the presence of sharks and other marine life in the lake only strengthening the impression.
Locals claim this lake to be the ultimate chillout spot in Central America. I can’t vouch for it. But can surely say cruising this lake, edged by the majestic Mombacho volcano and crowned by numerous islands, mostly inhibited by herons, egrets and kingfishers, is a most relaxing encounter with nature.
It will be a big mistake to think there isn’t much to Nicaragua beyond fascinating nature. Equally enticing are the nation’s 500 years of history and culture, which can be best experienced in Granada and Leon, two of the nation’s oldest settlements founded by Spaniard Francisco Fernández de Córdoba in early 16th centuries. Visitors generally stay at either of these townships, dotted with reasonably good hotels, restaurants, bars and cafés. Both are not far from other popular attractions and are also located close to capital Managua which is the nation’s getaway for international visitors arriving by air.
The landscape of the two cities is pretty similar. Full of squares, parklands, churches, museums and rows of colourful houses separated from each other by their pastel hues, they reflect styles which were imported from across the Atlantic. The tiled-roof dwellings are mostly lowset as anything high-rise was never thought of in the earthquake-prone zone. Horse-drawn carriages are still used to carry people and goods, giving an old-world character to the ambiance. More of that antique flavour comes out when talking to friendly locals who enjoy their slow-paced lifestyle and are happy to live without much of modern-day infrastructure.
A majestic cathedral in each city dominates the skyline. Splashed with yellow and white in the body and red in the domes, Granada Cathedral is almost like the nation’s pictogram. It reflects a Moorish tint, while the one in Leon, which is Central America’s largest cathedral, has a Castilian influence. These two are definitely showstoppers but not the only ones to command attention. There are many other beautiful churches in both cities, each displaying distinct architectural flavours.
Almost from their birth, both cities were locked in a pitched battle to become the nation’s political capital. This animosity stemmed in civil wars, deaths and massive architectural destruction until the neutral Managua was selected. Granada was virtually burned to the ground but has now gradually been restored to its past glory. In Leon, bullet holes in some buildings are painful reminders of the horror days, while a Mausoleum in the city centre stands as a symbol of respect for the dead. The stormy history of the two cities, along with rest of the nation, is engraved in murals on the surrounding wall.
Elvis works as a guide with Careli Tours, who are experts on the region. But he has other qualities too. Like his more illustrious namesake, he sings very well. So we are melodiously entertained whenever the moment is right. He tells us Nicaraguan people are very proud of their culture and heritage. This sentiment resonates when I drop in at the only McDonald’s outlet in Leon. It’s housed in a colonial building with no sign of the usual golden arches on the façade. The inside looks more like a museum of Nicaragua’s natural splendours and architectural marvels rather than an advertisement of burgers and chips. Next to the counter is an image of Leon Cathedral, perhaps repeating to the modern generation the nation’s past glory. “To preserve our culture, we could change even McDonald’s in our country,” comments Elvis while I queue for a Big Mac.
Getting There Fly Qantas (www.qantas.com) to Santiago Chile and then Copa Air (www.copaair.com) to Managua with an aircraft change at Panama City.
Stay Hotel Colonial (www.hotelcolonialgranada.com) in Granada, located close to the main cathedral
Nicaragua Visa Australian passport holders need no visa to enter Nicaragua
Money Nicaraguan Cordoba (NIO) 1 AUD = 24 NIO