Our busload of weary tourists arrived a few hours late, thanks to overzealous customs officials from Honduras to Nicaragua, and the point of arrival was less than welcoming. The Ticabus station, one of the two primary luxury bus companies in Central America, is located in what the guidebooks call the “city’s budget travel headquarters”, otherwise known as the Barrio Martha Quesada. By night it’s a scene from a Fellini movie or a set from Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell. Lit by barely flickering street lights, set with grim and shuttered store fronts, it’s populated by denizens of the dark side of the city. Cripples, beggars and women of the working persuasion jostle for position with the currency traders and cabbies hoping for a fare. Fortunately for this group, the next stop was Granada, an hour away and into the welcoming arms of the Hotel Alhambra.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America but also the poorest: Managua, of some two million people, is the capital and the urban population has been soaring, as the countryside offers nothing more than poverty, either now or later. The puffy and grinning visage of the president, Daniel Ortega, is displayed on massive billboards everywhere, proclaiming thirty years of Sandinista triumphs. Although outlawed by constitutional law from seeking another term in office, that minor fact isn’t acknowledged. Everywhere on walls, buildings and more billboards the message is proclaimed: Ortega 2012-2017. Sprayed painted graffiti on every available surface are the words “Viva Daniel’ and the rumor that he hired people to do this isn’t the least surprising. It ‘˜s all part of the new economic miracle, ‘˜capitalistic socialism’ and it seems to be working, at least in the higher elevations of Managua where the new shopping malls and office buildings stand tall. At night, in the Barrio Maria Quezada, it’s a different story and crossing the street for a cold beer while waiting for the bus to Granada is a matter of considering the chances of a casual mugging.
Granada, the oldest city in the Americas, is an hour away by bus or taxi. The grand city of Leon, the other rival for longevity, disputes that claim, but they’ve always been at odds. Granada, southeast of Managua and situated on Lake Nicaragua, is a charming mélange of Spanish-style colonial one and two story tile roofed buildings, burnt down by pirates more than once and destroyed by earthquakes a few times.
Known as the Gran Sultana, she was modeled after the original Granada in Spain. These days the city is a tourist mecca and home to a sizeable contingent of ex-pats who’ve come to settle and enjoy the ambience. The restaurants are good, the cultural scene is vibrant and the nights are soft and warm. There’s a disused train station and one lonely engine with a tender. It’s easy to get to but getting to Leon is another matter: the choices are a Nicaraguan version of a ‘˜chicken bus’ or a taxi for $80USD and the taxi’s aren’t always roadworthy. It was a case of “Door #2” with a slipping transmission and a radiator that kept boiling over. On to Leon!
Sources: Lonely Planet Guidebook, 1st Edition 2006, CIA World Fact Book 2011