Whilst my trip to Nicaragua was predominantly based around cacao research, I did take some time to explore my surroundings, absorbing the beauty and culture this amazing country had to offer at every opportunity. Morning tortillas made by the roadside, hummingbirds in the city parks, and some really stunning churches!
Twenty years ago Nicaragua was in the midst of being ravaged by a nasty civil war – those who could were fleeing north to Mexico and further up to the USA, but many who remained in Nicaragua either died or were forced to take up arms. Now, remnants of the war to any visiting tourists are all but gone, save for the commemorative statues in Matagalpa and other major cities and the constant presence of armed guards and police. But the horrors of twenty years ago still haunt many of the residents who lived through this devastating time.
Although the country has recovered to an extent, there is still a powerful security and military presence – the Imgemann facility needs to be closely guarded by armed security at all times, and many clubs and bars will have armed security both inside and outside the premises. But this is common practice for successful businesses in the Central American region, so don’t let this deter you. As I mentioned in my original post on Nicaragua’s cacao farms; Miel y Cacao, Nicaragua is one of the safest of the Central American countries.
Despite being safer and somewhat more ‘Westernised’ in parts, many areas within the nation are still poverty-stricken, something which the various farming institutions, including Ingemann, are working hard to improve. I notice this on my morning walks in the local area/s we stay during our farm visits – people earning an extra penny or two through making and selling tortillas by the roadside, just outside their houses. Their houses being so small that they only consist of one large room which contains: table and chairs, bed, large SmegTM fridge, TV and fan – the entire house in one room! These types of abodes can house a whole family – of four or so people, but to them this is normal, this is all they have known, at least they have a room, and a roof over their heads.
Outside they may keep chickens and a pig or two, and grow some corn for their own food. Sometimes, the ‘Raid Man’ (that’s the nickname I gave him) will come through the town, fan powered bug spray machine in one hand, knocking on peoples door with the other; the whole family will clear out – mum still with her hair in braids, dad half-dressed and the kids almost ready for school – it’s a precautionary measure to keep the bugs and mosquitoes at bay. As there is some risk of Zika virus in the country, local officials are keen to prevent an outbreak as much as possible.
There will be small schools and churches in these towns – some of which have American names such as ‘Kansas City Town Hall’ or ‘Kansas City School’. In the larger towns and cities the churches (of Catholic denomination) will be large and grand, more cathedral-like than a humble village church and often gilded with gold. I stumbled across one such beauty on my early morning meander in the city of Matagalpa, whilst the mist was still hugging the hills. The sound of morning song drew me in, and I felt sneaky for standing there and recording the liquid gold of their voices.
That evening, now back in Managua, we hit the town for ceviche and salsa as a perfect finale night to our great Nicaraguan Adventure! Tho this is a real salsa bar, so no part timers and certainly no ‘big fish, little fish, cardboard box’, please.
Next morning we were up early for bargain hunting in Managua market a bustling, busy market with produce and stock piled high ranging from woven straw baskets, forest chilies, monalillo and metate for preparing the traditional ancient cacao drink, to fresh vegetables, live chickens and iguanas – yes, iguana is a native delicacy in Nicaragua. And no, I don’t feel particularly comfortable about it either, but if you think about it, I guess it’s kind of like us eating rabbits, just green scaly rabbits… To help take my mind off the thought of eating green scaly rabbits, I discovered some strange masks – some were animal heads carved from wood and were traditionally used in native dances and ceremonies, but there were also some human masks; very pale skinned with blue eyes, apparently these came into fashion, along with silly dances – a way of Nicaraguan culture rebelling against their Spanish oppressors by making fun of their appearance and customs.
*PLEASE NOTE: The below video is not suitable for vegetarians (or anyone who is squeemish) – contains graphic images of meat.
After the market – stocking up on a variety of items including cigars, forest chilies, metate and monalillo (no iguanas tho, I am pleased to add) we head to Grenada – the little colonial coastal town south of Managua – not the island in the Caribbean. This place reminds me of what I imagine Cuba to be like (yeah, I know, I still haven’t got there yet!) – bright walls now bleached and peeling from years of sunlight and neglect, colonial ‘old world’ style buildings and another grand church. To cool us down after trundling around the streets we ducked into the Grenada Chocolate Museum for a nice chilled cup of pinolillo, the native cacao drink of Nicaragua which the locals use reject cacao beans for! It really is as good as Ingemann staff say, so on my return to UK I recreated it in my kitchen, any to my delight the result was pleasing! After this it was time to explore the only building that had not been painted a bright colour in Grenada – the Inglesia La Merced – with a bell tower giving you a magical birds-eye view of the whole of Grenada, and views far into the distance of the neighbouring volcanoes. Just don’t ring the bell, if you can help it!
The Inglesia La Merced is one of the most interesting pieces of architecture in the town, and arguably the most beautiful church. Built in 1534 and completed in 1539, pirates razed it to the ground in 1655 so it had to be rebuilt. The current baroque facade wasn’t completed until 1781-83, but sadly the building faced further damage at the hands of William Walker and his forces who set fire to the entire town in an attempt to take it over from Central America’s ruling president in 1854. Soon after this the building was restored, with the current elaborate interior we see today completed in 1862. Today tourists come here to see the picturesque views of Grenada from the bell tower, and devout Catholics visit to see an important image of the Virgen de Fatima.
Despite the impression that Grenada is a quaint sleepy colonial town, it’s historical and architectural beauty hold the keys to a much more exciting past. Grenada is Nicaragua’s sixth most populous city, and one of it’s most important – believed to be mainland America’s first European city, after its founding in 1524 by Franciso Hernandez de Cordobra. It was fought over between various European Empires due to its significant positioning in Central America, abundance of natural silver and gold reserves and fertile surrounding land. These days, as with many historically interesting and beautiful locations, most of their revenue now comes from tourism, I only hope will encourage people to learn about, respect and preserve such fascinating places as this for years to come, so other generations can enjoy them.