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8 Weeks in Nicaragua
I have gotten some great responses to my picture stories of my trip to Nicaragua in 2000 -- in English, y en español. A couple of people have asked for advice on visiting Nicaragua & I have had so much fun answering them that I decided to make a page of it.
My Nicaraguan Picture Stories
If you want to go to Nicaragua, here are a few things that I recommend you must eat, must see, or must read (not necessarily in that order).
Sample the local food!
I'm all for eating what the locals eat, even if it seems strange to me at first. I was staying with families almost the whole time & just ate whatever they put in front of me. After a few days I had very little fear.
One thing that I was especially nervous about before hand was the water & ice. I was going to be super careful, but the first day I arrived in León I was handed a huge lemonade full of ice. I popped a pepto pill (a precaution I highly recommend before eating anything risky) & drank it, then asked the other students & they all said they were drinking the water & even brushing their teeth with the tap water. It's got chlorine in it so it's just about as safe as ours I s'pose (as in not, but y'know).
One of the most fantastic meals I ate (on a trek to La Paz Centro) while I was down there was a quesillo, which is fresh cheese wrapped in a thick tortilla & coated with a sour cream & lime-based salsa. With the quesillo we drank tiste, one of many local rice drinks, which was served in a wonderful gourd glass.
When I got to Santo Tomás, Chontales, the "wild west of Nicaragua," I impressed Bob's family by asking for quesillos. Most of the cheese in Nicaragua is made in Chontales so I figured I had already braved it & it could only be better where it was made (it was delicious). I also greatly enjoyed the all-day ritual of making rosquillos, a little donut-shaped cheese & corn cookie, with my host mother.
If you are an omnivore like me, try the local specialties, but stay away from "salsa roja" -- no matter what it's coating, it's catsup (it's not like México). I would have put more spice on everything if I could have found some hot sauce, but I enjoyed the simple food, even the ubiquitous gallo pinto.
That said, one of my favorite salsas (great in winter when there aren't any tomatoes) is a recipe from Nicaragua. There it's more like a salad, but it works either way.
Prepare & combine all ingredients, then you can serve it immediately or let it sit so the flavors can soak in. It will age well, but I rarely let it!
Wander the streets!
If you are interested in handicrafts you've got to go to Masaya & visit the old (local) market as well as the new (tourist) market. Even if you don't want to buy anything.
The school that I went to (Nicaragua Spanish Schools) was nice because they have a few different locations, but I was only really impressed with their school in León (& that's because I got Nubia, the best teacher there!). The school & nature preserve at Laguna de Apoyo is a fantastic school in a lovely place. If you are interested in studying spanish, I highly recommend it -- Bismark is a great teacher. Even if you just want to visit a rare unspoiled place without having to travel too far, I highly recommend it (there's even a hot shower!)
In & Around León
What I would recommend more than anything else is that you take lots of time to wander the streets & look at the murals. They are just about the only ones left over from the Sandinista struggle & they are fantastic -- colorful & moving. There are also oodles of little stencils & more modern graffiti that I found very interesting as well (a window into the politics of the place). I made sure to get lost at least once a day & I still saw very little of the city in 3 weeks.
Learn to walk slowly. It's usually hot down there, especially in León, & the locals slow down to stay cool. Try it. Also, what people, if they're friendly, will be muttering to you as you go by is "adioooooh" which is adios with a dropped s & it's kind of like aloha. Just respond in kind, or even get to it first & get a surprising smile. Then again, lots of people just ignore gringos so don't take it too personally.
A good place to meet other gringos (& find some food, decent coffee or beer) is the big open café on the corner across from the Cathedral & central square, where there are also Friday markets in the evening with music & trinkets (though nothing worth buying! it's almost all plastic & cheap just like our trinkets in the US). The café should be very obvious as a gringo meeting place, but the locals do visit as well (it's been there for a loooong time). It's called El Sesteo.
If you want to try to hook up with some people who are taking classes at the Spanish School, go find La Casa de Cultura, about 3 blocks away (to the west?), & check out the art in there & there's also a little bar where students might be sipping cokes or beers in the afternoons. Classes are in the morning & they *might* let you come along one afternoon as they always have one sort of activity or another.
I enjoyed visiting the home where Rubén Darío lived for some time. Couldn't tell ya how to get there but you should find it. There's also, near La Casa de Cultura, a little home that looks like it's just a gift shop which is owned by Las Madres del Martires y Heroes (mothers of martyrs & heros) with photos of many of the young people who fought & were killed in the struggle for freedom. Obviously I'm interested in that sort of thing, but it is a powerful experience. Look at the architecture everywhere -- in that house there were walls put in to split a much larger (abandoned) Somocista house into smaller sections to be owned or at least inhabited by many more people. The central courtyards in most houses are wonderful.
I loved going to the beach, Poneloya, even though I didn't exactly swim. It ain't Pacific, that's for sure. My version of swimming there meant starting out where the waves were at about knee level, so that when they crashed in on me I were not long off my feet. Down about the end of the road there's a great huge hurricane-damaged hotel that provides shade & liquid when you're out of the water.
A visit to León Viejo, the oldest city in Central America (in ruins of course) is a treat (which should get better as they are improving the educational aspect & preservation of the park) & provided a great view of the big volcanos across the lake (Lake Managua).
Do your homework.
Speaking of history, another thing I found very valuable was to read up as much as I could on the people & history of the country. I was just beginning to become aware of the world during the 80's, but I, like many in the US, had no idea... I always wondered why it was "Iran/Contra" (why a Spanish word?) but I was too gullible & too new to bother really looking into what horrors my government was supporting, even organizing, against my neighbors down South (as it had been doing for many many years & will continue to do for many more from the looks of it).
When Bob told me he was going to go live in Nicaragua for 2 months in '98, I knew just enough to be shocked that he would want to go to such a dangerous place. Then I was shocked at my idiot gringa reaction & I spent the next 2 years seeking the truth about Nicaragua, particularly the recent struggle of the Sandinistas(then I visited & learned more than the books could tell). It was not easy to find many books, but the ones I found kept me looking for more.
León has always been the liberal capitol of Nicaragua & the Sandinista history is very vivid there. I got only a taste, but I wouldn't have savored it so, or even sought it out, if I hadn't done all that searching & reading before I left. When I return I will have to bring an extra suitcase just to fill with books. Mi maestra offered to photocopy her Sandinista teachers' textbook (one of few surviving copies she told me, one of her most prized possessions) but I declined because of the weight. Sigh.
I would recommend haunting your local stores (after all, buying a book is a political act) regularly as many of the books I list below are hard to find, but the ones I have underlined are available on Amazon (just click the title).
a few links
Apoyo Nicaragua: intensive Spanish school or ecotourism destination -- a fantastic school in a lovely place
Nicaragua Spanish Schools: schools in different locations, including a home stay with a local family
San Juan del Sur: beauty, history, waves, what more do you need?
Volcanes.com: unas fotos de Nicaragua (flash site)
NicaNet: the Nicaragua Network - Working for Social Justice
Lengua Rica: if you are in Olympia this is the place to learn to speak Spanish: 100% Spanish -- it's the way to go. Ethan is a patient, innovative & entertaining teacher. If you're not in Oly, you can try the CD.
Poesía.com: Poesía latinoamericana, cada día un nuevo poema.
Astor Piazzolla: a listening booth with hours & hours of tango music. I'm a big fan of music as a way to learn about a culture & a language. This is hardly the right region for Nicaragua, but it's a great collection.
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