Life after wartime: Nicaragua tran­si­tions to ad­ven­ture tourism

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AVIVA GOLDFARB

Sled­ding at top speed down a live vol­cano is not some­thing I would ever choose to do on va­ca­tion. But we were trav­el­ing in Nicaragua with our teenage kids, and vol­cano sled­ding was their No. 1 choice of ex­cur­sions.

As I flew down the steep peb­bly face of the black vol­cano astride a rus­tic wooden sled, I plas­tered a grin on my face and tried to fo­cus my jit­tery mind on be­ing brave rather than ter­ri­fied so my chil­dren wouldn’t think I was a wimp. It prob­a­bly wasn’t the best time to for­get our guide’s in­struc­tions on how to brake.

The en­su­ing high-speed wipe­out and bloody abra­sions on my face and leg earned me the nick­name “Gnarly Mom” from our teens for the rest of the Nicaraguan ad­ven­ture — so, of course, it was worth it.

As­cend­ing and slid­ing down Cerro Ne­gro, an ac­tive vol­cano near Leon, was the most mem­o­rable of many novel ex­pe­ri­ences that we had when my hus­band, Andrew, 17-year-old Celia, 19year-old Solomon and I trav­eled to Nicaragua for a week in De­cem­ber. We chose Nicaragua be­cause the three of us en­joy prac­tic­ing our Span­ish (and watch­ing Andrew butcher the lan­guage with good-na­tured en­thu­si­asm). We also sought a mix of out­door and cul­tural ad­ven­tures sim­i­lar to our Costa Rica trip a few years back.

Even the early morn­ing drive to the vol­cano was fas­ci­nat­ing. Most Nicaraguans in the coun­try­side grow and raise their own food and have chick­ens, pigs, cows, (bony) dogs, and horses. Be­sides the an­i­mals, we shared the road with chil­dren pulling wag­ons full of sticks, whole fam­i­lies rid­ing mo­tor­cy­cles (three peo­ple — of­ten in­clud­ing a baby — on one bike isn’t un­com­mon) and carts pulled by beefy oxen.

We knew we were in for the kind of ad­ven­ture our food-and-

na­ture-lov­ing fam­ily fa­vors when, dur­ing the 90-minute drive from Managua to Leon, we pulled over twice to or­der street food like fried cheese, plan­tain chips and que­sil­los, and once more for Os­car to pho­to­graph us on the shores of Lake Managua with the famed Mo­mo­tombo vol­cano in the back­ground.

The Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try is be­com­ing a hot des­ti­na­tion for North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean trav­el­ers for good rea­sons, and the coun­try is work­ing dili­gently to em­brace and en­ter­tain ad­ven­tur­ers. While many Amer­i­cans still as­so­ciate the coun­try with revo­lu­tion and civil war, to­day’s Nicaragua shows few traces of the vi­o­lent con­flicts that ended 27 years ago. The coun­try is peace­ful and the agri­cul­tural and tourist econ­omy are flour­ish­ing.

With a col­lege sopho­more and a high school se­nior, we are keenly aware that we likely have few op­por­tu­ni­ties left to ex­plore the world to­gether. Nicaragua, a coun­try in tran­si­tion, turned out to be a per­fect spot to con­nect with each other as our fam­ily moves to­ward an empty nest.

We stayed in three places dur­ing our eight-day trip: charm­ing bou­tique ho­tels in the colo­nial cities of Leon and Granada, and thatched bun­ga­lows nes­tled into the cliffs at Mor­gan’s Rock, a small eco-re­sort near the Pa­cific beach town of San Juan del Sur. Each served as com­fort­able, color­ful bases for our fam­i­lies’ daily ex­plo­rations.

Leave your stilet­tos at home. Nicaragua is a ca­sual coun­try — we found no oc­ca­sion to dress up — and the cities, while pedes­trian-friendly (even for stray horses and don­keys) have un­even side­walks and gap­ing holes in the pave­ment (a.k.a. an­kle break­ers). Us­ing a wheel­chair or a walker would be a huge phys­i­cal chal­lenge. Even push­ing a stroller would be tricky.

‘City of Po­ets’

Leon is a uni­ver­sity town, the sec­ond-largest city in Nicaragua. It is nick­named the “City of Po­ets” and is the cul­tural hub of Nicaragua. Like most colo­nial towns in Latin Amer­ica, Leon is built around a large cen­tral square lined with a cathe­dral, cafes, restau­rants (the crowd fa­vorite is El Ses­teo, right on the square), im­por­tant civic build­ings and ho­tels.

In Leon and Granada, the squares were bustling with live mu­sic, food, cheer­ful fam­i­lies, ar­ti­san mar­ket­places and street per­form­ers. The bustling food mar­kets are ad­ja­cent to the squares, and although they are pun­gent and in­trigu­ing with gi­ant pa­payas, piles of plan­tains and vats of pick­led chiles, they lack the sen­sory charm of mar­kets in France and Turkey.

We ex­plored the color­ful city on foot from lovely Ho­tel El Con­vento, where the beau­ti­ful, peace­ful in­te­rior court­yard is pop­u­lated with birds bathing in the cen­ter foun­tain in the morn­ing and bats dart­ing around the ba­nana trees in the evening. Many fam­i­lies up­date the col­ors of their houses dur­ing the hol­i­days ev­ery year, so the doors and walls along the streets of Leon are a de­light­ful mix of greens, blues, pinks and yel­lows.

Given the trop­i­cal cli­mate, many restau­rants and cafes op­er­ate in open air and have invit­ing gar­dens and ham­mocks where guests can re­lax dur­ing the wait for food and drinks — which, es­pe­cially in Leon, could be quite lengthy. While wait­ing for lunch one af­ter­noon at a charm­ing cafe called Las Dos Fri­das, I swung gen­tly in a ham­mock to quell my hunger-in­duced ir­ri­ta­tion at the de­lay. But the dishes, once served, were pre­pared with such care, and the set­ting was so re­lax­ing, that I felt silly for im­port­ing my U.S.-style im­pa­tience.

From Leon we also took a half-day kayak trip to the Juan Ve­nado Is­land Na­ture Re­serve. Pad­dling through the es­tu­ary, we spot­ted dozens of species of ex­otic (to us) birds such as great blue herons and snowy egrets nestling among the man­grove for­est. The high­light of the out­ing was cradling newly hatched olive ri­d­ley sea tur­tles that were be­ing pro­tected by nat­u­ral­ists post-hatch­ing and would be re­leased into the sea that evening to en­sure their best chance of sur­vival.

After a well-earned, de­light­ful lunch of fresh fish at a funky hos­tel on the beach, we stopped in the small vil­lage of San Jac­into, known for its boil­ing vol­canic mud pits, which serve as breath­ing holes for the nearby vol­ca­noes. The vil­lage chil­dren hawk the mud (and rus­tic crafts made from it) to tourists, swear­ing that they treat ev­ery­thing from acne to in­sect bites.

After walk­ing through the mud fields, we had a tor­tilla-mak­ing tu­to­rial from a wo­man who sup­ports her daugh­ter and her­self by mak­ing the tor­tillas for fam­i­lies in the vil­lage. We cooked the fresh tor­tillas on a hot co­mal (cast iron grill over an open fire), then she treated us to a snack of fresh cheese and freshly pressed melon juice, which we en­joyed with our tasty, if mis­shapen, cre­ations.

Shores of Lake Nicaragua

We drove two hours south for our two-night stay at Ho­tel Colo­nial in Granada. The city sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, a mas­sive fresh­wa­ter lake filled with nearly 400 small is­lands, in­clud­ing some that boast ac­tive vol­ca­noes.

Granada feels more in­ter­na­tional, with tourists from all over the world, more shop­ping op­tions, more ag­gres­sive ven­dors in the cen­tral square, more up­scale ho­tels, bars and a wider va­ri­ety of restau­rants — in­clud­ing Ir­ish pubs, sushi bars, and Star­bucksstyle cof­fee shops where you can get Nicaraguan grown cof­fee in a to-go cup. (We opted to sit and sa­vor ours as the Nicaraguans do.) But even in Granada, stray horses and skinny dogs share the restau­rant strip with wob­bly trav­el­ers who have im­bibed too many Macuás (rum-based fruity cock­tails.)

Our fam­ily took a mo­tor­boat ride to ex­plore some of the isle­tas on Lake Nicaragua. While the high­light was the great va­ri­ety of mi­grat­ing and nest­ing birds, we were also in­trigued by the elab­o­rate man­sions on some of the is­lands and mo­men­tar­ily tempted by the “en venta” (for sale) signs on a few. Some of the is­lands have restau­rants or night clubs; one is an aban­doned fort erected to pro­tect Granada from in­vaders.

Like cruis­ing in a gon­dola in Venice, clop­ping through the cob­ble­stone streets of Granada in a horse-drawn car­riage is on the agenda of ev­ery tourist and tour guide. It’s a charm­ing way to get a bet­ter feel for the city and its land­marks, in­clud­ing its his­toric ceme­tery. But the horse lover in me couldn’t help feel­ing sorry for the skinny nags and the pace they had to keep in the Nicaraguan heat.

The four of us got a kick out of the the­atri­cal and in­for­ma­tive hands-on choco­late work­shop at the quirky Cho­coMuseo. Our an­i­mated guide Ish­mael walked us through choco­late pro­duc­tion from see­ing the ca­cao beans grow­ing in pods on demon­stra­tion trees in the cen­ter court­yard of the “museo,” to roast­ing, pound­ing and grind­ing the beans by hand to a co­coa paste, to tast­ing ca­cao the way it was eaten by the Mayans and In­cans (bit­ter!), to ul­ti­mately blend­ing it with co­coa but­ter and de­sign­ing our own choco­late bars with dried fruit, nuts, coarse salt or what­ever mix-ins we pre­ferred. Be­fore we could walk off our choco­late highs, Ish­mael led us in down­ing shots of choco­late-fla­vored liquor while we chanted “Ariba, Abajo, Al Cen­tro, Aden­tro!” (Up, down, to the mid­dle, in­side!)

Go­ing eco

We in­dulged our last three nights at Mor­gan’s Rock, the stun­ning eco-re­sort. That part of the coun­try is known for its beach towns, where ex­pat surfers ride waves and fam­i­lies from all over Nicaragua come to va­ca­tion. At Mor­gan’s Rock, smil­ing staff mem­bers greeted us with fresh juice cock­tails (rum was op­tional) and led us past the stun­ning pool down to the pri­vate cove dot­ted with al­lur­ing ca­banas, ham­mocks, an open-air spa and yoga stu­dio, and a beach bar. It felt like the howler mon­keys might drop in at any mo­ment for a ba­nana smoothie.

We crossed the 50-yard-long sus­pen­sion bridge to our bun­ga­low nes­tled on a cliff over the ocean, one of only 15 rooms at Mor­gan’s Rock. I was de­lighted when Andrew cau­tioned me with words I never hear in Chevy Chase: “Watch out for the mon­key poop” on the steps to our room. The beau­ti­fully de­signed split-level ca­banas sleep up to five peo­ple and have large screens to keep the bugs out, large fans to keep the air cir­cu­lat­ing, a rock­ing daybed on the bal­cony where we could re­lax and lis­ten to the sounds of the waves, and out­door and in­door show­ers. The place was a trop­i­cal par­adise. Three days seemed too short.

Be­cause Mor­gan’s Rock is nes­tled in a cove, the wa­ter is calm and warm(ish) enough even for skit­tish ocean swim­mers. Across the sand is an es­tu­ary lined with the stones per­fect for skip­ping, which Andrew and Solomon did for hours. The re­sort also has kayaks, surf­boards, boo­gie boards and bi­cy­cles for guest use, and of­fers a range of ac­tiv­i­ties from horse­back rid­ing to fish­ing to surf­ing lessons. How­ever, I pri­mar­ily used the time to re­lax, read and re­gain a sense of in­ner peace after a hec­tic au­tumn. Fol­low­ing a late af­ter­noon mas­sage, I drifted to sleep on the mas­sage ta­ble to the sounds of the sea and awoke sur­rounded by can­dles whose flames were danc­ing in the soft breeze.

We woke up early one morn­ing to take a break­fast ex­cur­sion to Mor­gan Rock’s farm. As we bounced along in the open-air jeep, our guide pointed out mon­keys and a sloth (we steered around an iguana) and the shrimp and tree farms.

At the farm, we milked a cow (tak­ing care not to pull on the teat re­served for her calf) and gath­ered still-warm eggs for break­fast. One of the cooks from the re­sort, Xiomara, scram­bled the eggs and made the most mag­nif­i­cent salsa and gallo pinto (rice and beans). She was de­light­ful and couldn’t stop gig­gling about Andrew’s poor tor­tilla-shap­ing skills. Un­like many of the other an­i­mals we saw, the flocks and herds at Mor­gan’s Rock looked healthy, well-kept and well-fed.

On New Year’s Eve, after a sump­tu­ous buf­fet on the beach, we drank cham­pagne and Macuás and danced to live lo­cal mu­sic with the other guests and with the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the lodge own­ers, who have a house just down the beach from the re­sort and who we had met walk­ing on the shore our first day.

To usher out the year and wel­come a new one, Nicaraguans stuff a life-size pup­pet of an old man with fire­crack­ers and set him ablaze at mid­night. With ma­jor life changes on the hori­zon for our fam­ily in 2017, the daz­zling spec­ta­cle seemed ap­pro­pri­ate to launch us into the new year.

AVIVA GOLDFARB

Andrew Goldfarb, 48, slides down Cerro Ne­gro, an ac­tive vol­cano near Leon, Nicaragua.

CELIA GOLDFARB

o by Celia Goldfarb)

AVIVA GOLDFARB

Clay pots dot a pri­vate beach used by guests at Mor­gan’s Rock, an eco-lodge near the Pa­cific beach town of San Juan del Sur.

ANDREW GOLDFARB

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Our Lady of Grace Cathe­dral in Leon’s Cen­tral Square, which dates to 1814, is a UNESCO World Her­itage site; Celia Goldfarb, 17, feeds a ca­puchin mon­key on Mon­key Is­land as the au­thor, her mother, watches; vigeron, a spe­cialty dish made of mashed yucca, fried pork skins, chiles and pick­led cab­bage, is served on a ba­nana leaf.

AVIVA GOLDFARB

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

DE­TAIL Leon Pa­cific Ocean 100 MILES NICARAGUA Mor­gan’s Rock HON­DURAS Managua Granada At­lantic Ocean COSTA RICA

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