Granada: You’d think we’d be sick of pretty colonial towns by now, but I’m not. Granada – with its painted plaster frontages and terracotta tiled roofs, the multiplicity of churches, its regularity of broad avenues and grand central plaza – is Nicaragua’s jewel. Architecturally, it can’t hold a candle to, say, Cartagena in Colombia or Sucre in Bolivia, but it has its own Central American vitality and Bohemian charm – and the easy mix of local and foreign is pretty seductive.
Money is being pumped into this little town, restoring some of its former grandeur from its days as an important trading city with links via Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan river to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe beyond. Buildings on the main square have had a fresh lick of paint, the smarter residences have been turned to hotels and restaurants, boutiques blossom and tourists linger.
Just two blocks from the gentrified main square, things deteriorate dramatically. The pavements disappear under spilling market stalls, sleeping drunks, squatting homeless families and the general detritus of urban life. Here, prostitutes gather to chat before their commute to the tourist zone, ‘glue-heads’ (kids addicted to sniffing intoxicating glue) sleepwalk the street like zombies before passing out in a doorway, country folk bring their wares to market on a horse-pulled cart, dogs bark and shit, toothless old women rock back and forth watching everything from rocking chairs on the street. It becomes, in short, the developing world again.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, but it’s on the up. Its relative safety (crime is much lower here than in any of its neighbours), natural beauty and affordability are starting to bring tourists and investors to the country. It’s still early days in the nation’s stability and much depends on the outcome of elections later this year (11 November): if they pass off without violence, the investors will stay.
We stay in a beautiful guesthouse recently opened by Gerry, an Irish poet, who introduces us to the expat community. True to form, the expats are an oddball mixture of the interesting and the pathetic – people who one feels would struggle to fit into society back home, but who by dint of their foreignness, money and experience of ‘working the system’ have carved a very visibly comfortable niche for themselves here. Many are escaping some dodgy past/present situation, from tax evasion to drug trafficking. Most are alcoholics or have some other dependency, and their numbers are boosted by the new gringo exodus from Costa Rica and Panama, which have become too expensive (and dangerous) for those eeking out a military pension on drugs, booze and prostitutes. Nicaragua is cheaper. A prostitute can be just $5 a night here.
Gerry is not into any of that. When he bought the guesthouse last year, he began the slow process of evicting the longtime gringos and their prostitutes. It’s brought him respect among the local residents, but the gringos are unhappy. A recent crackdown on underage prostitution here is also giving those gringos that live in Costa Rica and just come here for sex tourism trips second thoughts about moving here.
We join Gerry for a drink at the O’Shea’s Irish Pub with a selection of his mates, who have names like Jimmy Three Fingers. They’re mostly a nice, well-travelled bunch. Lou, an American from New Jersey, is a smart relatively recent émigré with a great dry sense of humour. He moved here 6 months ago after spending years living in Asia, and has set up an online newspaper for the expat community. Others run bars and tour companies. Few speak good Spanish despite living here for years.
We take a trip to Masaya volcano, an active lava burp less than an hour away. Nicaraguans, like all Central Americans are unaccountably proud of their volcanoes, considering the devastation and deaths they regularly cause, featuring them on their flags, bank notes and poetry. This one has no visible lava but much acrid smoke, which we admire from the crater rim. In the grim, all-too-recent past, the Contras and Sandinistas took to elaborately murdering their opponents by dropping them from helicopter into the fiery Masaya crater.
By the time return to Granada it’s evening. Kids are hustling, glue-sniffing or, my favourite, breakdancing for tips. Some are brilliantly skillful. We eat at a new place, run by a couple of young gay Californians. The new expats are a different breed entirely. Many contribute to the local economy, they help farmers and cooperatives manage productive farms, run charitable ventures helping street kids or training local employees (unemployment is at 70% in Nicaragua), and they recycle their waste.
Before we notice, we’ve been here a week.