A couple of backpackers I’ve spoken to lately have lazily described Nicaragua as a less touristy Costa Rica. To my mind the neighboring countries are completely different. If you were to hypothetically bus over the border – like I did – you would instantly recognize just from the simple, dusty and rundown street-side homesteads that Nicaragua is poorer, more rural (its the biggest but least populated country in Central America) and less developed.
But it’s not just this that separates the two countries. Costa Rica has recently elected a centre-right government focused on developing strategic ties with the US to encourage foreign investment and job creation, which is completely out of step with the rest of the region – including Nicaragua – who remain steadfastly leftist and socialist. While Nicaragua is still recovering from a protracted civil war (all though it did end 4 years before South Africa’s own dawn of democracy), Costa Rica formed a unique, unarmed democracy, abolishing the military as far back as the 1950’s. While Costa Rica was largely ignored by its Spanish colonizers because of its lack of mineral wealth and tricky geographic conditions, Nicaragua was both developed and targeted during the colonial era as a strategic trading post.
My first stop in Nica was one of these very posts, Granada.
Set on Lake Nicaragua (apparently the tenth biggest lake in the world) and circled by volcanic mountains, Granada is a typical colonially influenced, new-world city drowning in tropical heat, informal but frenetic enterprise and decay, alternately pretty and dirty. It’s link to the Caribbean Sea via the Rio San Juan linked its history to pirates, who sacked the city no less than three times.
It’s most infamous conqueror, though, was an American filibuster (love that word) William Walker, who joined forces with the neighboring town of Leon to seize Granada. The only problem was his ultimate, evil plan of annexing the country for the US, inspired by the recent takeover of California from the Mexicans. Before anyone knew it he had himself elected President of Nicaragua – obviously recognized by America, reinstated slavery, declared English the official language, invaded Costa Rica and mortgaged the entire state for a spot of personal borrowing. As with all good messiah complexes, this came to dramatic end when the warring cities united to usurp Walker and send him packing in 1856. It was said (well… by one of our tour guides anyways) that William loved Granada “like a woman” and couldn’t bare anyone to have what he couldn’t, so as he left he had the city burnt completely to the ground.
One of Granada’s most scenic attractions is a trip by boat to some of Lake Nicaragua’s small islands just a few minutes from the city’s shore. It’s also a fine example of the glaring gap between a small, mega-wealthy elite and local poor. You can tell the islands owned by rich families and expats by the luxury, spacious holiday homes literally adjacent to those repatriated to local families who reside in simple wooden structures. This is a country, after all, where 50 % of the population live below the poverty line.
So it’s definitely not the more politically “mature” Costa Rica. While I wasn’t there long, I found Nicaragua easier to get around but with less “tourist-specific infrastructure” (quite refreshing actually), a younger, backpacker-ish crowd and fewer American retiree’s (probably to do with lower prices) and a much stronger, local culture with hardly any western influence, except of course for a few stubborn fast food outlets.