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Black howler monkeys grumbled in the soursop tree. Long-toed jacana and purple gallinules padded around the lilies. Herons and egrets squabbled in the frothing tideline on the lake’s edge. No ordinary lake, mind you – Lake Nicaragua, only slightly smaller than Titicaca and, when we visited, a wind-worried inland sea of rolling waves.
We – myself, my partner Kate and our guide, Juan Carlos – again paused to admire the active cone-shaped volcano behind the plantain trees before us and the forest-clad dormant one behind, which we would be climbing on the morrow. A caracara hawk studied us from the cambered branch of a towering coconut palm.
In Costa Rica this would have been a national park. In Europe it would have been a safari park. In Nicaragua it was merely the scruffy edgelands of a shoreside holiday resort. It’s good that once again there are people arriving, though not many, yet.
While not quite closed to tourism from April 2018 to February 2019, Central America’s last left-leaning nation found itself in the spotlight of international media when security forces authorised by Daniel Ortega, the president, clashed with protesters demonstrating against social security reforms. Government forces used live ammunition and an estimated 325 died during the period. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office painted the map red and British travellers, and Americans, too, stayed away.
Calm has returned, street protest is prohibited and Ortega is still in the job. But the hiatus came after a frantic pro-tourism period that saw the opening of new hotels, roads, restaurants, real estate projects, even an airport for those who can afford to charter planes. A country that once warred with the evil capitalistic United States has become an “investment opportunity”.
On a two-week visit we toured the Pacific coast to see what all the fuss was about in the new Nicaragua – or Nica, as proud locals like to call it. Arriving from El Salvador by boat across the Gulf of Fonseca, we saw our first fiery summit from the boat: San Cristóbal, at 5,725ft the highest volcano in the country and one of the most active, puncturing the haze of the hot morning. On all sides were dead volcanoes, lopped-off craters, island summits. This slender strip of the New World is very new indeed.
At an old-school border crossing, complete with extinct ceiling fan and surly customs officer, we met Juan Carlos.
“Volcanoes have inspired poets, artists, writers,” he said. “Native Nicaraguans believed a witch lived inside each one and that she had the answers to their questions.”
Some of the answers were fatal, but the country has “the greatest geothermal potential” in the region, according to the World Energy Council. San Cristóbal and its co-joined twin, Casitas, are already being surveyed.
León is Nicaragua’s former capital and second city. As a student centre, it attracts a lot of young travellers, including Americans on binges and spring breaks, but it has a youthful energy and charm of its own. By day, we walked around the old streets, toured the impressive Ortíz-Gurdián contemporary art galleries and took in the view from the roof of the 18th-century cathedral. In the evening we enjoyed espresso martinis and Nicaraguan craft beers at mellow bar-restaurant Yavoy.
Volcano surfing appealed to me from the moment I heard about it. Cerro Negro, formed in 1850, is the youngest volcano in Central America. Consequently, it’s still grey and stony with no vegetation apart from a few firecracker plants clinging to pyroclasts. The ascent is steep, but short, and soon we were looking down into a steaming crater, a hint of sulphur perfuming the breeze. Below us was bright green forest rising to black hills.
We loitered on a ridge before donning overalls, masks and gloves. The “surfboards” turned out to be rudimentary sleds made of plywood with a strip of rubber at one end and a piece of thin rope for steering. Vultures circled ominously overhead.
“How do you stop?”
“Lean forward,” said Juan Carlos.
I sat down on the board and felt a bit silly. “It’s not what I imagined. I thought we’d be surfing, as in stood up.” I was thinking about photographs. “You’d have to be mad to do it standing up.”
“I used to be a skateboarder,” I protested (not mentioning I last did a 360 in 1979).
I was the first to “surf” down Cerro Negro that morning – which was good, because I didn’t know what to expect. Imagine going down a red ski slope on a wooden tray. Instead of snow, the way is paved with cinder-like volcanic dust, which can shred human flesh like a whip. New volcanoes are geometrical: the kinds of perfect cone kids draw in primary school. Leaning forward was, needless to say, ineffectual.
It was exhilarating – and over in a matter of seconds. My high centre of gravity led to serious wobbling and near the end I fell off – twice, well, almost three times – but wasn’t injured. Once I’d made it to the bottom, I enjoyed watching Kate come down, absolutely terrified, leaning forward to no avail (light people have even less effect on the brakes), and travelling extremely fast.
Later on, walking around León, we took in the politically charged street art. Some Sandinistas are still legends here, notwithstanding the widespread distrust in Ortega. If nothing else, the pictures of berets and machine guns remind you the country has seen riots and revolt before, and not that long ago – though with different enemies.
From León we drove south, passing magnificent lakes Managua and Apoyo and the Masaya volcanic complex, where I was thrilled to see a small lump of red lava through the billowing mustard-coloured smoke. As Masaya is prone to “burping” – suddenly releasing incredible energy – the authorities only allow visitors short stays. In the event of a particularly big, hot belch, the body count will thus be kept down.
On the drive we passed oxcarts and cowboys, sugar-cane trucks and herds of cattle. The main road was generally good, if litter-strewn. We stopped to buy delicious fruits, including meaty zapote and sweet bananas, and to try a traditional baho stew of meat, yucca and plantains cooked in banana leaves. In Granada I tried vigorón (fried pork, yucca and cabbage cooked in banana leaves) and also made three bars of rich chocolate at the local ChocoMuseo.
As a follow up to my enthusiastic pounding of cocoa beans, I hoped a climb up Maderas volcano on Omotepe island might burn some of this off. Putting on technical gear for the only time on the trip, we set off after breakfast. The local guide, Hamilton, was a mute pacemaker – dashing along at full tilt, as if he wanted to get up and down and back home asap.
We climbed from sun and heat and light into grey gloom, cold rain and a spooky cloud forest. The path was a sharply inclined trench of wood, twisted roots, loose rocks and pools of standing water. Lianas and branches blocked the way. On some stretches, the earth had become a slippery soup. Nine kilometres of this was tougher than 20 at home.
The summit was not an emotional high point. The mist was at almost head height, a continuous drizzle making things quite chilly. I stepped close to a lake and my right shoe sunk down into the soft bank as far as my calves. The claylike mud was sucking me down. Hamilton looked on, laughing – in his silent way – until I begged for assistance. We snaffled some sandwiches and made our way down. Dusk, among the coffee groves, was a golden and glorious return to wondrousness.
In Granada, new hotels such as über-cool Tribal and the Miami-style Paraíso condominiums compete with more stately properties like the Plaza Colón – on the main square – and atmospheric La Gran Francia. In recent years, the city has seen perhaps three dozen restaurant openings, from pioneering Ciudad Lounge, which serves superb steaks, fine Nicaraguan cigars and Californian wines, to trendy Garden Café, for organic brunches and superfood smoothies, to Pita Pita, which has brought Levantine food to the city.
The lake, too, boasts smart lodgings, from acclaimed Jicaro Lodge, crafted from the refuse left by a hurricane, on an islet minutes away from Granada, to the Finca San Juan de la Isla on Omotepe island – where this story opened, amid monkeys and other marvels.
The epicentre of Nicaragua’s gentrifying makeover is the south-east coast, branded the “Costa Esmeralda” – though the waters are actually more sapphire in colour, or else white with roiling surf. The most significant opening, in 2013, was Mukul, built by billionaire Carlos Pellas Chamorro; it’s a gated, somewhat generic-looking deluxe resort, with vast rooms and airy public spaces, world-class cuisine, armies of smartly uniformed staff, rich honeymooners at every turn, and a golf course carved into the rare tropical dry forest. On June 25 2018, the priciest pads in Nicaragua closed until further notice; you can’t run a joint with those overheads without moneyed American guests.
Development is still needed in Nicaragua. Since I last visited five years ago, there has definitely been an upswing in construction, ambition and aspiration. But the big money needs to filter down to ordinary people (tipping is seen as a “second salary” by managers) and fund civic improvements – good roads, clean beaches, the enforcement of laws covering pollution and the environment. Nicaragua, at a crossroads, can choose to go the way of the Dominican Republic – all-inclusives, plastic luxury, mega-consumption – or follow Costa Rica down the path of responsible growth.
Because, in truth, it’s not about the swish hotels, nor the fusion cooking, nor the volcano sledding. It’s the beautiful landscapes, spirited, friendly people and the simple, pure pleasures that make Nicaragua special, as Sandro, the barman at SoLost, proved at dusk – placing a small table on the beach for us and sending over rum cocktails. A cornily perfect sunset painted the sky. An arrow of pelicans beat a low path home. The last surfer gave up as his wave turned dark. Peace, again, on Costa Nica.
Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a 13-night tailor-made tour of the Back Roads of Central America, exploring the towns and striking natural landscapes of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, from £3,295 per person (two sharing). The price includes return flights from London via the United States, three and four-star accommodation, transfers, some meals, an experienced local tour manager and guided sightseeing. Also featured are a boat ride across the Gulf of Fonseca to Nicaragua, guided tours of León and Granada, and visits to the San Jacinto geothermal springs and Juan Venado Nature Reserve.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office still warns that “visitors to Nicaragua should exercise a high degree of caution” and “remain vigilant” in view of the 2018 protests. However, it adds that “the situation is now quieter” and emphasises that, prior to 2018, “most visits [to Nicaragua] were trouble free”.