Nicaragua: land of lakes and volcanoes

Latin America is one of my favourite places on earth. People are very welcomig, nature is astonishing, landcapes are fantastic. All good ingredients for a perfect trip.

I asked my very good friend Patrizia Pelagatti, expert traveller, fond of responsible and sustainable tourism, to tell me something about her recent trip to Nicaragua. Here are the highlight of our conversation.

By Patrizia Pelagatti

Before planning a trip to Nicaragua, I advise you to read up on the history of the bloody civil war of the Sandinist Front of National Liberation against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, which went on until 1979. Both the population and the economy remained very proven.
Nicaragua is the heart of Central America, it offers beaches on the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific to the west. It is an unspoiled land of lakes, volcanoes and natural reserves, and it stands out for its incredible panoramas and its cultural heritage. The locals will surprise you with their hospitality, humanity and friendliness.

North of the capital Managua are Lake Managua, the city of Leon, the Volcano Cerro Negro volcanoes and the stratovolcano Momotombo.

To the south are the city of Granada, Lake Nicaragua and its islands and it is possible to sail on the Rio San Juan from the city of San Carlos to El Castillo.
A curiosity: All Latin American countries have always been governed by male presidents, this tradition was interrupted for the first time in 1990 by Mrs. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro elected president of Nicaragua, who became the first democtratically elected woman in power in Latin America, and served for 6 years.

The city of Leon.

León is the second city in Nicaragua, after Managua, the Capital.
Located on the banks of the Río Chiquito, it is the intellectual center of the Country thanks to the university founded in 1813.
There are excellent examples of Spanish colonial architecture, including the largest Cathedral in Central America: the Basilica of the Assumption of Mary. Built between 1706 and 1740, with two towers added in 1746 and 1779 it was included by UNESCO into the World Heritage Sites list.
It is possible to walk on the roof of the cathedral and observe a large part of the city of Leon.
The building of the Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas was used as a prison and torture center during the dictatorship, therefore it represents a piece of the city’s history. The museum is interesting only if accompanied by a guide, who are usually former “guerrillas”.
It is also ice to wander along the streets of the city seeking for the numerous political murals that, while telling the story, they also give a touch of color.

Murales in Leon – Photo by Patrizia Pelagatti

The Volcano Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro is one of the youngest volcanoes in Nicaragua, which first appeared in the 1850s as well as one of the most active since then:  it erupted 23 times.
This cone of gravelly basaltic slag contrasts strongly with the surrounding green hills. The climb, if untrained, will be a little prooving but will be rewarded by the spectacular view and the possibility of making a fun descent in sandboarding or simply running, on the opposite side from which you have climbed.

Cerro Negro – Photo by Patrizia Pelagatti

The city of Granada

Granada is the third largest city in Nicaragua by population, located on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua, about 18 kilometers north of the Pacific Ocean coastline. It is framed by the Mombacho volcano, now extinct.
It was established by the Spaniards in 1524, making it one of the oldest cities in the Americas
During the seventeenth century, the city underwent several attacks by French and English pirates who came from the Caribbean via the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua.
One place of interest is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, built in the 16th century, it was destroyed in 1856 by William Walker (an American from Nashville, Tennessee, who attempted to conquer Central America). Rebuilt, it was completed in 1916.
A very colorful and pleasant city to go around, it hosts many Spanish colonial buildings and it is nice to get lost in its markets where you can get in touch with the locals.
It is very common in Nicaragua to eat on the street, using kiosks or small stalls, thus transforming the meal into a moment of socialization. In restaurants, especially the popular ones, it is possible to eat at any time of the day while in the evening the closing time is quite early, in any case the premises located in the most central and tourist areas are open until late.

Lake Nicaragua or Mar Dulce

It is the largest lake of Nicaragua which contains more than 400 islands and islets, including the two large islands of Omepete and Isla Zapetera.
On Isla Omepete there are two volcanoes, the Conception, still active, and the Maderas, which seems to be extinct since centuries. On the island there are several natural attractions.
In the southern part of the lake there is the Solentiname archipelago (36 small islands), also known as the archipelago of artists. It definitely deserves a stay being a good place to start visit the canals and the natural reserves.
To understand its beauty it is necessary to also be familiar with its history, which marked it indelibly in recent decades. In 1966 the priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal * arrived here. He later on became known internationally for his poetic skills and his civil and political commitment that made him join the Sandinist Front of National Liberation in the fight against the Somoza dictatorship. With the triumph of the Sandinist revolution in 1979, Cardenal became a very important personality of the new government as the Ministry of Culture. The artistic community founded by Cardenal still lives in Solentiname, a good place to buy original handmade souvenirs.
The only drawback of this idyllic landscape is that Tarantulas come out of their burrows underground to dry out after the rain. So it’s not a place for arachno-phobics.

Ernesto Cardenal Martínez (20 January 1925 – 1 March 2020) was a Catholic priest, poet and politician. Former member of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, he was minister of culture of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1987. He was prohibited from giving the sacraments in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, but rehabilitated by Pope Francis in 2019

Navigation on the San Juan River (from San Carlos to El Castillo),

If you like small places surrounded by nature where you can enjoy slowness and the sounds of nature, I recommend renting a boat and sailing on the Rio San Juan starting from the city of San Carlos up to El Castillo, an ancient Spanish outpost where foreign ships sailing the Rio from the sea were checked. It is located halfway between Lake Nicaragua and the Atlantic coast.
Once the military function was lost it remained a small village of colorful stilt houses on the river and small houses immersed in the lush green of the forest.
Its peculiar location and the possibility reach it only by river, prevented from turning it into a massive tourist destination. It is a perfect place to relax and enjoy the fantastic view from the fortress, preferably towards the sunset.
The locals are very nice and willing to stop you to talk. At the edge of the village there are family-run workshops where cocoa and tobacco are grown thus making it an
excellent place to buy cocoa beans and support the economy of these families.

San Juan River – Nicaragua. Photo by Patrizia Pelagatti
Rio San Juan – Nicaragua. Photo by Patrizia Pelagatti

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