León and Granada, the second and sixth largest cities in Nicaragua respectively, are the two traditional ideological power centers of Nicaragua, and while they are in some ways quite different, they both possess well-preserved colonial centers and a surprising number of expats.
León, with its university and history of intellectuals (especially regional hero Rubén Dario), leant left and was a Sandanista stronghold. Granada was more of a conservative place, as befits its standing as the first city in North America (dating to 1524!) and the seat of Spanish colonial power. (In a classic political compromise, the capital was selected to be Managua as it lies in between Granada and Leon, similar to Bern, Washington DC…etc!)
Fortunately, Nicaragua seemed to be more of a functional, equitable place than the previous few countries we had visited, so we didn’t necessarily have to take sides for political reasons. But of course we do have opinions of what we liked best!
After coming down from the hills of Matagalpa, we stayed three nights in León. Worth noting, we absolutely loved our hotel there, the Flor de Sarta – the greatest (included!) breakfast we’ve had on the trip, a decent location, comfortable rooms and A/C, and a pet chicken named “Coq au Vin.” What’s not to like? The very friendly and hospitable owners were French, and as we wandered around town, we could see the pervasiveness of other expat-run businesses – mostly adding to the local charm rather than ruining it.
For instance, we were pleased to find another outpost of the Kiss Me ice cream franchise, which we had first encountered in Matagalpa. Owned or at least managed by an American, the price for a normal sized ice cream cone (around $2.50-$3) is probably out of reach for the average Nicaraguan, but the store has adapted by also selling what we’d think of as kiddie cones for half that price, but with none of the “kid size” condescension. Besides the interesting flavors (like “Fruit Punch Me In The Mouth”), the waffle cones were exceptional – they cost extra (another 75 cents or so), but they may have been the best waffle cones we’ve ever had. Seemingly this ice cream was either extremely fresh with no additives, or possibly vegan – it had a texture that was less creamy and more crystalline – because I could eat it without ruining my digestive system for twelve hours.
We also ate dinner at a good, but odd restaurant: a Sri Lankan-Polish place, serving curries and pierogies – but not on the same plate. (Though we didn’t speak to the owners, it seemed like it may have been a product of convenience of a marriage between those two nationalities, though how they ended up in Nicaragua is yet another question.) Why they haven’t taken an additional step into the world of fusion (I want a curry lamb pierogi with sambar and raita – or hell, how about a kottu pierogi?) would have been my next question.
In case you’re thinking we just gorged ourselves, we also did that lovely volcano hike up/run down that Melanie posted about (SO much fun), but the hike itself was not the only feature of that visit. Upon coming down, we noticed that there were two vehicles congregating together in a way that indicated one of them was broken. We went up to find a Land Cruiser 90 (aka Prado) which was dead, and amongst the tour group (of five tourists, a guide and a driver), there were three Danish women that we recognized from our hotel. Note to all tour customers in Latin America: you may want to ask if your guides are prepared with such luxuries as jumper cables, or a tow rope – these guys had some thin rope that immediately snapped, and absolutely no backup plan whatsoever.
Given that we were all at the base of a theoretically active volcano, and those folks were looking down the barrel of a long day’s wait to be rescued, we sprang into action to help – trying a jump, a tow start, and finally a tow back to the ranger station. We also carted our hotel-mates back to the hotel, which you’d have thought would have earned us a beer from them (it apparently didn’t).
Not content to only play rescue rangers, we also wandered around town a bit. There is a great art museum (Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián) consisting mostly of Central American modernist paintings, but also the odd Dutch Master and Picasso. Entrance was free, at least the day we went, but there were not a horde of people there, so we enjoyed the art at a leisurely pace, and marveled at the lovely colonial houses that the collection is housed in. (How the paintings don’t get wrecked by being essentially outdoors in the humidity, though sheltered, is a question we’d be interested to ask art experts.)
In general, we really liked León and agreed that it was one of the first (only?) places on the trip that we could picture ourselves long-term. Not that we’re aching to relocate to Nicaragua, but the kind of ease you would want to feel to relocate somewhere was certainly there – one of our highest forms of praise for a city. We just felt very comfortable there!
When we departed, we had grand plans to visit the nearby Flor de Caña rum factory. Unfortunately, we arrived to the gate of the factory only to have our first blowout tire flat of the trip. So the allocated rum time was spent instead finding a pinchazo to repair that flat, then taking the car to a tire shop for new tires – and, after that, we needed to find a repair guy to work on a lug bolt gone bad.
I hinted in the article covering our last flat repair (in Alegría, El Salvador) that things were not all as hunky dory as after the first flat repair. Indeed, when the pinchazo (basic tire repair guy) near León took the flat wheel off of the car this time around, he sheared off one of the lug nuts. This is not typically the fault of the person who takes them off, rather the fault of the person who put them on last (and poorly). It’s possible (shocking, I know!) that our $2 flat repair in Alegría was less a good value than it seemed.
The pinchazo fixed the flat with a patch, but because this was a blowout that extended slightly to the side of the tire, and because the tires (at age 5 and about 35,000 miles) were starting to show signs of age (dry/cracked rubber more than total loss of tread), we felt we should accelerate a tire replacement rather than wait until we were back in the US as originally planned. Fortunately, I had scoped a Bridgestone dealer not far outside of León, and though I was less excited about that brand than Michelins or BF Goodrich, beggars can’t be choosers.
Of course, with a missing lug bolt, we’d have to get that fixed too. At first, the Bridgestone guy said that we’d have to organize that ourselves after the tire change, as they only do tires and fluid changes there. (BTW – kudos to that guy for speaking really good English – a rarity in the automotive world in Latin America!) But when the mechanics sheared off TWO MORE lug bolts in the process of getting the same wheel off…we weren’t going to be able to drive anywhere until it was fixed. Suddenly we and the tire guys were partners in not having our Land Cruiser be stranded in the Bridgestone garage for the rest of eternity, and a local roving mechanic was summoned to the scene.
The repair appeared pretty simple – take the brakes off, take the…rotor I guess?…off, then hammer out the lug nuts from the front. Then, the mechanic ran off with 600 Cordobas (US$22) to the auto parts store to buy six (better to replace everything on that wheel!) lug bolts and nuts of the appropriate variety for your car. (It’s TRULY AMAZING how he knew the exact price of those six lug nuts and bolts, since he brought back a receipt for 600 Cordobas exactly. *eyeroll*)
To reassemble, he first coated the non-threaded part of the lug bolt with grease, then tapped it into the hole. Then, in what I thought was a fairly good solution, he used an impact wrench, a washer (which was basically an old A/C bearing), and the new lug nut to pull the new bolt flush – by tightening it slowly with the impact wrench. Clever. For his expertise, we paid an additional US$22, and the Bridgestone folks were able to mount the final tire. (We chose Bridgestone Revo A/T 265/75/16, which are smaller than the 270/70/16 that came with the car in the US, but have a similar radius, are easier to source, and should offer marginally better gas mileage. Plus they are a lot more common a size, at least in Central America, which meant that they were in stock and ready to mount.)
I was amazed to note that four new tires, mounted, in Nicaragua cost approximately US$5 more than the previous set of tires had cost the previous owner in Santa Monica, California. On the one hand, I am sure somewhere in the US we could have gotten tires for slightly less. On the other hand, given import duties in all of these Central American countries, some people have paid A LOT more for new tires of decent quality than we did.
We then drove on our new knobby treaded tires (and btw – thank god, because Costa Rica has a lot of rocky roads) onwards to Granada. We stayed at a B&B run by a Canadian fellow named Rob, along with his Nicaraguan wife, who we didn’t meet as she is recovering in Managua from an illness (get well soon!). We enjoyed the four nights at his place, which was a colonial house with a small pool in the courtyard, and a different home-cooked breakfast every day. But we didn’t like Granada as much as León.
This was a moderately controversial opinion, not only with Rob (who by now is a local partisan) but also our fellow B&B guests. My theories are that perhaps Granada’s charms are more evident to long-term residents, or that Granada appeals more to North Americans and León to Europeans (adopted or otherwise), or that perhaps we visited León on a few of its more tame weather days (certifiably true). But wandering around Granada produced none of the endorphins of León, and the restaurant scene was objectively less diverse (no Kiss Me, no Sri Lankan pierogies). Also, it seemed like everything tourist oriented in Granada was twice as expensive as the rest of the country – probably because it’s been developed as a tourist destination for much longer, and has proximity to both the capital, Lake Nicaragua, and the emergent San Juan del Sur beach resort area.
Nonetheless we enjoyed our days in Granada and nearby, including a “tour” of a German guy’s home brew operation outside Managua, which he bottles and sells locally under the label “Erdmann’s.” We encountered the beer first in a restaurant in Granada, where it fetched an absurd US$6 a bottle. (Buying from him direct dropped the price by half, and in retrospect, knowing how expensive everything is now in Costa Rica, that looks like an even better deal than it did at the time.) As we had been slightly disappointed by the Cadejo tour, I thought it would be nice to visit a bit more personable brewery, so I e-mailed and was invited to drop by the next day.
One of the nicer aspects of the expat life in Central America is how it seems to enable dabbling – people seem to have time and space to indulge more of their passions, or perhaps fill in some market gaps, and even turn them into semi-commercial enterprises. The dabbling extends to the flavors: for a small brewery, they had a really decent variety of styles and flavors. We tried three of his beers there, then bought ten bottles of various types to take with. My favorite unusual one was flavored with green passion fruit (called Calala), and Melanie quite liked the lemongrass (grown in his garden!) wheat beer. He also made a good IPA and black IPA, which are not styles that Germans are known for – kudos to him.
As for other activities besides (or before?) beer: like León, we saw another (crazy!) volcano, which you can read about in Melanie’s article. Unlike León, we actually made good on our promise to go to the beach. We had to search a bit, as the coast at La Boquita (the closest to Granada and Managua) isn’t necessarily as nice as other places, but finally, at “Playa Hermosa” near Huehuete, we found a beach that was beautiful and totally abandoned. (The water wasn’t the clearest, but not every place can be El Placer, Mexico!)
Since we’d missed the rum factory tour, we decided a tour of some other vice would be appropriate before we left Nicaragua. So we had a look at two cigar factories, though neither of us smoke. Of the two, Mombacho was the clear winner for friendliness, if not gritty authenticity. Located in a frankly gorgeous colonial mansion, and financially backed (according to our guide) by some North Americans, the smell inside the rolling rooms alone was enough for us. And the view from the roof rivaled the nearby church tower – with the benefit that you could actually see the church tower on the panorama.
After Granada, we were again headed for a border, this time to Costa Rica. More on that next time! But we feel like we’ll be back to Nicaragua – there’s a lot to do there that we missed, and we found the people (except for the Bajo lady!) and the country very friendly.