In celebration of Nicaragua winning Top Emerging Destination 2013 at the Wanderlust Readers' Travel Awards, we've dug this article out from the Wanderlust website archives. Enjoy!
Row after row of dark eyes stared out from the frames. There were boys with Che-style beards, others were clean shaven; most were barely out of their teens and some barely in them. Underneath the haunting black-and-white photos it listed the subjects’ names and the place and year of their death: these ranged from 1959 to 1986.
I was in León’s Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs in western Nicaragua. Run by the mothers of the deceased, strangely it wasn’t a morbid place. It’s just that we don’t want people to forget our children, they told me.
Their children were Sandinistas; León was, and still is, a Sandinista stronghold. The Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was founded around 1962, taking its name from the Nicaraguan revolutionary leader, Augusto Sandino. On 19 July 1979, after almost a decade of unequal battles and the loss of more than 50,000 lives, they entered the capital, Managua, and the country celebrated the end of more than 40 years of tyrannical rule by the Somoza dynasty and its formidable National Guard.
But the triumph was to be short lived. It was the height of the Cold War and US President Ronald Reagan cut all aid to Nicaragua and imposed economic sanctions. Worse yet was the formation of the Contras, a CIA-backed counter-revolutionary force comprised largely of the former National Guard. So began a war of attrition that didn’t end until the Iran-Contra Affair (the sale of arms to Iran to fund the Contras) was exposed in 1986.
“The hands signify the CIA crushing our country,” Maria paused to tell me. I was standing in the middle of a basketball court surrounded by revolutionary murals, one depicting the death of four students at the hands of the National Guard in July 1959; another was a more abstract illustration that Maria, who was passing, had offered to explain.
“I’m from England,” I blurted. “Sí, mi amor,” she said, and patted my arm as she told me that one snake represented Reagan, the other Oliver North. She wasn’t apportioning blame, just a proud Leónesa telling me about her country’s struggles.
Nicaragua has been peaceful for almost 20 years, but it’s still waging a battle against its mala fama (bad press): a lingering negative image of a war-torn country. Ironically, it’s perhaps the safest country in Central America. It’s also its poorest – war, sanctions and natural disasters have all taken their toll; only Haiti is worse off in the Western hemisphere – and one of the most welcoming.
During the 1980s Nicaragua attracted armies of sympathetic internacionalistas who picked coffee as an act of solidarity. Now an increasing number of visitors are attracted by the country’s 76 protected areas, acres of virgin rainforest, over 50 volcanoes, countless beaches and perfectly preserved colonial towns.
Colonial León is Nicaragua’s former capital, and remains its intellectual centre – a liberal alternative to Granada’s conservatism, with the lively, lived-in feel of a university city. The site of some of the hardest-fought battles of the revolution, it embraces the country’s twin passions: politics and poetry.
I walked through its baking streets, where bullet holes scarred the buildings, murals proclaimed Sandino Vive! and posters advertised poetry readings. Its roads were choked with every form of transport: recycled North American school buses, rickety horse-drawn carts and whole families on wobbling bicycles. Blasts of reggaeton and salsa exploded from market stalls and workers queued up at their favourite fritangas (street food stalls), where plump women in frilly aprons dispensed chicharrón – tasty fried pork rind.
At the Historical Ex-Combatants Museum former guerrilleros watched a Colombian soap opera on a battered portable TV. The sun streamed through the dusty windows onto yellowing newspaper cuttings of the insurrection, sepia-tinged photographs curling at the edges and iconic war images, including a laughing long-haired girl, clutching a baby to her breast, a rifle slung over her shoulder.
Above the city El Fortín, the last bastion of the National Guard in León, was finally taken by the Sandinistas on 7 July 1979. I left the stifling heat of its cramped, windowless cells for the roof, where prisoners were once shackled with nothing to shield them from the scorching sun. I looked out over the city, its 13 colonial churches, the dust haze rising from the peanut fields and the cluster of volcanic peaks beyond.
The following day I climbed Nicaragua’s youngest and angriest volcano, Cerro Negro (Black Hill). I could feel the heat from the ash through my boots, cooked by the sun above and the molten lava below. It was like climbing a crunchy black sand dune; for every two steps forward, I slid one back in a cloud of dust. The trail led directly into the crater, where smoking fumaroles emitted noxious gas and the surrounding rocks were spattered with sulphurous hues. From the high point of the crater’s rim I saw Nicaragua spread out like a map: its volcanic spine, green plains and the shimmering Pacific.
If León was the cradle of the revolution, Jinotega – known as ‘City of Mists’ for its wisps of high-altitude cloud – was its birthplace. In 1927, among its peaceful green and granite peaks, Sandino formed the Defending Army of National Sovereignty to fight against the US Marines. Many years later it was the setting of some of the heaviest fighting of the revolution and the Contra War.
Estelí, too, bore the brunt of the fighting, bombed by Somoza and terrorised by the Contras when they swept down from the Honduran border to attack the cooperatives of campesinos (dirt-poor subsistence farmers) created by the Sandinista land reforms. Its Spanish schools – the first stop of the 1980’s international brigades – remain, as do its revolutionary murals, but now its walls are also filled with social murals, in an educational project run with children from poor districts.
But if León and Estelí wear their political hearts on their scuffed city walls, the tranquillity of the verdant Solentiname archipelago belies its revolutionary past. Scattered across the south-eastern corner of Lake Nicaragua, only four of the string of 36 volcanic islands are inhabited and all are without roads, electricity and running water.
In the mid-1960s a Nicaraguan rebel priest, Ernesto Cardenal – an intriguing mix of poet, mystic and guerilla – founded a small spiritual community among the islands’ campesinos. Joined by Roger Pérez de la Rocha, a young and talented painter from Managua, they created a community of primitivist artists, taking their inspiration from the lush landscape. Today the islanders combine painting and wood-carving with farming and fishing, exhibiting their work in San Fernando Island’s small gallery. But while their paintings depict Solentiname as a pastoral utopia, for a while it was also a hotbed of revolution.
The 14-seater, single-prop plane took off from Managua without any preamble. We flew over Masaya’s sulphur-belching crater and Granada’s colonial grid with its myriad of tiny islands. We passed the twin volcanic peaks of Ometepe Island – Concepción’s perfect cone wreathed in wisps of cloud and squat Maderas, flecked with green fields – and across the tea-coloured sweep of the San Juan River, snaking its way along the watery border with Costa Rica.
The plane thumped down on a dirt runway and a short taxi ride later I was in San Carlos, a ramshackle, hustling frontier town on the lakeshore, with open-fronted shops that spilled their wares into the street, salesmen who flaunted waistcoats lined with fake watches and money changers who covertly offered me Costa Rican colones.
Elena Pineda met me at the bustling dockside and whisked me into a panga (motorised canoe) for the short journey to San Fernando. The Spanish conquistadors mistook the enormous lake for the sea, until they saw their horses drinking from it, and christened it El Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea). It was far from sweet that morning. The lake’s normally silver-flat surface matched the molten lead of the sky. The choppy water made the panga buck and hop like the meanest bronco, and I swathed myself in plastic sheeting against the spray. Only black cormorants braved the sudden storm, skimming the waves in strict formation.
But it ended as quickly as it had begun and the clouds parted to reveal a cobalt-blue sky. The boat chugged past leafy islands – some barely more than clumps of trees – where exuberant howler monkeys swung from branch to branch. A pair of white ibis stalked through the shallows and yellow butterflies floated in and out of view. From the hubbub of León and Cerro Negro’s barren slopes, I had arrived in a tropical Eden.
Elena showed me to my room at Cabaños Paraíso. Bright and simply furnished, the shower used the chilly water from the lake and the bulbs ran on solar power. The paradise factor was the islands’ beauty and isolation.
That afternoon I took a boat to Mancarrón Island with my guide, Eduardo Guevara. Walking up from the dock we arrived at Cardenal’s erstwhile church. Inside, the altar from where he preached liberation theology and the whitewashed walls were covered with colourful motifs painted by the islanders in a celebration of nature. Outside sat an enormous metal monument in the distinctive Sandinista colours – black for death and red for blood – and in the children’s playground a large stone bore metal plaques dedicated to five islanders, including two of Eduardo’s brothers and Elena’s husband, Laureano.
In machine-gun Spanish, Eduardo told me that at dawn on 13 October 1977 a group of young guerrillas had paddled silently across the lake to San Carlos and attacked Somoza’s barracks. Against all the odds, and despite heavy casualties, they briefly succeeded and became local heroes.
Laureano, one of the raid’s commanders, was later killed fighting the Contras on the Honduran border. I asked if he had been a staunch Sandinista. “Yes,” Eduardo replied, “but it was more than that. He loved the islands and wanted them to have access to education, medical care and a better standard of living.”
Over a glass of golden Flor de Caña rum, Elena told me that Somoza had retaliated by destroying the community, leaving the church standing but smashing the altar to look for weapons, arresting and torturing those connected to the guerrillas. Cardenal was proclaimed an outlaw and Elena and others were forced to flee to Costa Rica where they campaigned for Nicaragua’s freedom.
Later, I sat on the wooden jetty bathed in yellow moonlight, dipped my feet into the lake’s inky ripples and read from an anthology of poems written by the islanders more than 30 years before. They were simple evocations of everyday life – nature, friendship and love, as well as skirmishes and prison cells – and little seemed to have changed: fireflies danced, cicadas chirruped, the strains of an acoustic guitar and a girl’s laughter drifted across the water. But then I read a footnote about one of the peasant-poets: ‘Elvis Chaverría was captured during the raid on San Carlos, taken up the Río Frío, and shot in the head’. I shivered despite the warm night air.
One source of inspiration for this poetry was the wildlife along the Papapurro River, now the main waterway of the Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge. I set off by panga at first light, serenaded by a chorus of tropical birds. Leaving the lake, we headed slowly down the river where curtains of foliage lined the banks, and mahogany trees jostled with giant palms.
Within minutes we had disturbed the fishing expeditions of herons and cormorants, while scarlet macaws took umbrage at our intrusion and burst noisily into the air. Iguanas sunned themselves on tree trunks, and white egrets perched in the branches like strange fruit. It was as if one of the islanders’ paintings had come to life.
The following morning I dressed in the dark to take the first slow boat back to San Carlos. As we glided across the moonlit lake from island to island, picking up workers, students and sacks bulging with giant avocados, I took a long, last look back as Elena had done many years before. I’d been captivated by the land of lakes and volcanoes and its irrepressible people. It was as Elena had said: Nicaragua may be poor in material wealth but it is rich in spirit.
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