Saturday, November 29, 2008

Travel Divas, Nicaragua, Part II

Editor's note: The following travel writing was co-authored by Amazing Cheastypants and her wonderful sister Umulu on Thanksgiving Day. Part III to follow tomorrow.

Travel Divas Strike Again, Part II

For those who haven’t been here before, Nicaragua is a country with a rich and storied history – one often intertwined with U.S. history, though not always in a positive way. For example, back in the early 20th century, the U.S. staged a hotly-contested military occupation of Nicaragua that lasted over 20 years and engendered one of the first guerrilla wars ever waged. Eventually, however, we withdrew after setting up a puppet president about whom FDR once famously remarked, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Several sons of bitches later, the Nicaraguan people would rise up and the Sandinistas would execute the second successful social revolution in Latin American history. Sadly, the Sandinistas danced too close to American fears of communism, and as part of our attempt to “stem the red tide” in the 1980s, the Reagan administration funded the Contra War, with disastrous effects for Nicaragua’s social infrastructure, particularly in the arenas of health and education. This has had predictable long-term consequences for Nicaragua’s political and social development, though with a healthy dose of internal corruption and bureaucratic incompetence (and, most recently, election fraud), in some arenas it seems that the country has hamstrung itself. Today, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti having won the day in a photo-finish.

Troubled history and present challenges aside, however, Nicaragua is a fascinating place to visit. It possesses the beauty typical of Central America, with lush mountain vistas, brightly colored flora and fauna, friendly people, and a large quantity of semi-starved livestock wandering around the streets. Don’t worry, the locals know who owns them.

The plan was to hit up a few key locations for Emily to see the country, learn some history, and get a tan, while Cheasty relaxes in the wake of some truly frightening post-electoral violence in Managua. Accordingly, the first two days were spent at a locally-famous beach resort named Montelimar, highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. Before continuing, we’d like to pause for a brief public service announcement about The Lonely Planet Tour Guides. Please adhere to the following rule of thumb: when traveling in Latin America, always assume that no matter what the Lonely Planet tells you, the exact opposite is likely true. In 2003, the Travel Divas braved South America with a Lonely Planet guide written by a series of authors, the majority of whom, a CNN exposé would later reveal, had never set foot on the continent. Thus, we once visited an Argentinian town touted in the LP as “the Berkeley, California of South America.” Allow us to assure you this was not the case. To this day we have a running joke that uses the line “the Berkeley of South America,” to signify something so incongruous to expectations as to induce cardiac arrest, hysteria, or impromptu fainting spells.

Nonetheless, we once again find ourselves at the mercy of the Lonely Planet, and suffice it to say, Montelimar was hilarious, mostly because of the terrible food and exceedingly bad mood music. It was the Clampetts go to Maui, except we were Maui and Montelimar was the Clampetts. It was like going to dinner at your neighbor’s house, and she tells you she’s busting out the good china for the meal. Then you look down and find Elvis Presley peering up at you through your peas. Have you ever had fish cooked so hard that when it hits your plate it clatters? What about pasta pomodoro that turns out to be tomato soup over mushy noodles? A pancake that was so hard to chew Umulu actually spat it out? To be fair, all would have been well had we not landed at the tail end of a tropical depression, but instead of sunbathing and windsurfing, the steady rains kept us actively engaged in a murderous bout of Rummy 500 and occasional hysterical bursts of laughter as we pondered our circumstances.

Happily, we have moved on. En route to our next destination, Cheasty disproved years of Umulu’s skepticism about her older sister’s “superior driving skills,” navigating with the skill of a rally driver some of the worst roads either of us have ever seen, even with our combined experience in developing nations. “How bad?” you ask? These weren’t potholes, they were cavernous pits that would’ve taken out the axle out of a Panzer tank if hit at more than 10 kilometers an hour. Tricky going, but we made it, and boy did we make it.

Mark your calendars, folks, for your upcoming vacation to Nicaragua. The Hotel La Perla in León is FANTASTIC. Owner Jim Petersen has done a stunning job restoring this neo-classical architectural gem in the heart of one of the oldest, most beautiful, and historically significant colonial cities in Central America. Here’s where you find William Walker and his Fillibusters, major events in the Sandinista Revolution, the home of famous poet Rubén Darío, and other key historical events and figures, all of which are depicted in beautiful murals throughout the city. Our wonderful tour guide Julio, of Julio Tours, did a wonderful job interweaving his own personal history and experience of the revolution with the broader national historical narrative, and again, we would highly recommend his services should you ever chance this way. Last but not least, we also spent several fascinating hours wandering through the Ortiz Modern Art museum, where Umulu, truly not a fan of modern art museums (no really, ask her some time about an exhibit called “Light Turning On and Off” for the full measure of her disdain) found herself enthusing over the exhibits just as much as Cheasty did. It was really something special. While the art collection itself is widely acknowledged to be the best in Central America, the setting is amazing, and enhances the experience. Housed in a Spanish-style colonial mansion, the interior courtyards, fountains, stucco walls, tile roof, and enormous shutter windows lend ambience and grace to what is already a memorable art collection. We loved it.

This afternoon we whiled away the time with delicious rum and cokes, gossiped and chatted with Jim the Affable Owner, and dined on typical Nicaraguan food at a nearby restaurant. A lazy half hour in the plaza and an unexpected Carnaval-style parade rounded off the evening, and we find ourselves winding down for a long winter’s nap. (ha ha.) Tomorrow we’re off to pick up our friend Meredith at the airport, and head to Granada, another famous colonial city here in Nicaragua. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Love and kisses to those for whom love and kisses are appropriate, and warmest greetings to everybody else.


Alison in CO said...

A great friend, a fellow Travel Diva, and a sister all wrapped up into one wonderful package. Just one more reason to be thankful this weekend.

Looking forward to the continuing adventures.

naokoandjeff said...


Too long to read...


Cheasty said...

Dear Internet,

Please do not pay any attention to naokoandjeff. Jeff is a dangerously unstable man, but as we speak the FBI, the CIA, and (just in case) the CDC are currently circling his home in helicopters. A SWAT team is standing by to bring the situation under control, and we should be able to report within minutes that Jeff has been taken into custody and calm has been restored. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Yours in grateful appreciation,
The Editors.

Jen said...

Oh, Cheasty! JB would be disappointed in you. Nicaragua = second successful social revolution? Tsk tsk.

LP sucks for the most part. I'm always amazed at how outrageously wrong it can be.

Happy travels and I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Cheasty said...

oh dear god, did i really write that? apparently i did, and do not deserve a PhD in Latin American history. please don't tell anybody, Jen! my apologies to all mexicans everywhere. :)

San Juan del Sur Guide said...

Great post and great bust on the LP. They have literally walked in to our office in San Juan del Sur asking for updated information - pretty sad for a travel "expert" publication. You can find loads of helpful travel information for San Juan del Sur on our site and you can find many Nicaragua rental options on

The best travel months are November thru January (for weather) and if you are planning to surf Nicaragua the best time to visit is between June and September.

Don't bother coming in October since it has the heaviest rains and makes travel and all activities difficult.