The wind is howling like a squall at the beach, battering my walls and patio. The palm tree outside my room is slapping up against my window, and the door, loose in its jamb, is rattling back and forth with every blast of wind. Small animals seem to be clambering on my tile roof; I hear scrabbling footsteps, little squeals, and the occasional thump. Surreal cloud formations have gathered over Volcano Mombacho, and the sunset is casting an eerie orange glow on the cone and its mushroom-cloud top. Children are screaming in the alley beside my room – in fun, I hope and assume – and all the lazy dogs I saw scrounging around in the streets today are now snarling and barking at each other in a most violent way. A car alarm has just gone off, so I decide to take a quick shower since the cacophony is seriously affecting my concentration. The water is lukewarm … no, now it’s cold. Welcome to Nicaragua!
Nicaragua is awesome. Really. It’s not what I expected in the first few hours, but that is my fault. I’ve been to Central America; I should know what the streets look and sound like. A check on the weather beyond daily temperatures would have told me about the windy winter months here; the white-knuckled guy next to me on the plane coming in says he comes here monthly and still hates landing in the January gusts in this gap between the Caribbean and the Pacific. Dozens of Tripadvisor reviews talk about the lack of hot water at many hotels. I didn’t even know I had to pay $10 to enter the country; luckily I had some cash (rare) and sailed right through immigration. My planning has gotten slipshod, I’m afraid, but I kind of like my new travel self: show up and figure it out!
On the heels of a family trip to Colombia between Christmas and the New Year, I have traveled solo to Granada, Nicaragua, to spend most of my last week before I go back to work. I picked this place because I could base myself in a charming colonial town within easy striking distance of the airport in Managua and have loads of activities nearby. Plus it’s warm here. Very warm – 94 every day and wonderfully sunny – and I am basking in it like the happiest of iguanas.
Morning brings clear skies, and a light breeze wafts into my balcony room with a view over the city and Mombacho. The “hotel,” really just five rooms arranged around a series of patios, is a little spot of heaven – all open to the outdoors and filled with hammocks and native plants against a backdrop of white stucco and black and white tiles. The coffee is rich and strong; life is good.
It’s a self-indulgent time in general. My time is my own, my activities are selected only by me, and the entire bathroom counter is mine, all mine! I read as late as I want, and when I wake up I lie there for an hour, looking at Mombacho, checking email, reading some more.
I swim laps in the afternoon, enjoy a massage before showering for dinner. Vegetarian restaurants abound, and I linger over meals of cool gazpacho and La Porteña beer, veggie paninis and fresh salads, as I people-watch from my streetside tables.
I hike Mombacho one morning and even my weather luck is good. The clouds on the summit scuttle away just as we start to circumnavigate the crater, affording a panoramic view of Lake Nicaragua and its 365 little islands, the city of Granada on its shores, and coffee plantations and other volcanoes beyond.
Another morning I set off into the lake to explore those isletas by boat. I float past lily pads, the sun warming my arms and face, and I breathe in the heat and radiance I’ll need to store up for the cold months ahead.
I join a trip to Masaya National Park, where I gaze into the smoky, unsettled Nindirí crater that has had volcanologists jittery the past few days. It huffs and puffs, and if we listen carefully we can hear rocks pinging when they hit the fire far below, out of our sight.
Nicaragua is not all blossoms and sunshine. The countryside is devastatingly poor, and even my little street has a litter-strewn empty lot, pockmarked walls, tired and dusty rooms filled with plastic chairs spied through worn curtains.
Young children and elderly people relentlessly hawk small goods, and the truly disadvantaged beg for food and coins. The country has still not recovered from either the 1972 earthquake that rocked Managua or the years of civil war that spanned the time before and after that natural disaster.
I have some hilariously bad experiences, like an endless day trip in a van with three highly malodorous men, two of whom speak ten words of English and no Spanish. I use my best ESL voice and miming skills to communicate with them, and I tolerate numerous stops in local markets and a pottery factory so they can shop for a shocking array of trinkets. I eat a Snickers bar for lunch one day when my only other option comes from a gigantic burbling pot of fatty mystery meats and vegetables waiting to be stuffed into a cornhusk.
Between outings, though, I happily stroll the streets of Granada, winding up the stairs of one ancient church to see the yellow spires of another set off against the brilliant blue of the lake beyond.
From here I can really see the famous patios of the city. From street level, uninspired doors hide these inner courtyards, but now I see clearly what I’ve only gotten peeks at: terracotta tiles and fountains and a profusion of flowers. Back down in the town, I sit in the shaded central park, walk to the shores of the lake, eat gelato that melts all over my hands within seconds, munch on yucca chips, wave at my human neighbors, and pat my animal ones.
It is a lovely January interlude in the sun, and I leave quite fond of this small friendly town and country.