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.
Anthony, an interior decorator from Nashville, appears surprisingly calm and confident for a U.S. mother about to watch her son be tried for murder in Nicaragua. “I feel good about it; I know he is innocent,” says Anthony, referring to the Jan. 26 trial that could put her son, Eric Volz, behind bars for the next 30 years. Volz, a 24-year- old real estate agent and publisher of a tourism and fashion magazine called El Puente (The Bridge), is charged with murdering his ex-girlfriend, Doris Ivania Jimenez, a beautiful young Nicaraguan woman who was found raped and strangled to death on the floor of the clothing boutique she owned in San Juan del Sur.
The murder has rattled this busy Pacific coast tourist town, and exposed an undercurrent of social tension between locals and foreigners — one that may have been complicated by last November’s reelection to the presidency of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, Washington’s erstwhile cold war nemesis. Like an offshore riptide that goes unnoticed from the town’s beaches, the tension is hard to detect from a distance. Still, residents say, it’s out there. And it can be dangerous. Just ask Volz, who narrowly avoided being lynched by an angry mob of Nicaraguans after being charged with murder last month.
“Send out the gringo, we’ll kill him!” yelled a voice in the crowd of more than 200 locals gathered outside the courthouse for the Dec. 7 preliminary hearing into the murder. There was no similar clamor for the head of Volz’s Nicaraguan co-accused. When Volz was led out of the courthouse, the mob descended upon him and the police fled the scene, forcing Volz and a security agent from the U.S. embassy in Managua to run for their lives into a nearby gymnasium to wait for help.
San Juan del Sur’s Sandinista Mayor, Eduardo Holmann, says the event led to a heated phone exchange with U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli. “He told me you don’t have lynch mobs in a civilized country, and I told him, ‘Yeah, didn’t you use to lynch blacks in the United States?’ ”
Some Americans living in the town are concerned that the mob was a manifestation of festering resentment toward the wealthy expatriates who have, over a few short years, developed San Juan del Sur from a small fishing village into an international tourist destination. Did Mayor Holmann agree? “No,” he said. �You look like a gringo and no one gives you a hard time here.”
He’s right on both counts. Over the last 10 years I have lived in Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, North Carolina and Wellesley, and I feel the safest in Nicaragua. Actually, Wellesley first, then Nicaragua. But the point is, I’ve always felt safe here. Most Nicaraguans have embraced tourism and foreign investment as the new economic motor for the country. My experience is that people here are mostly friendly, open and quick to befriend Americans.
Still, in a country where 80% of the population is on the have-not side of the divide, it would be na�ve to assume that everyone feels included in an economic model based on competition for North American tourism and investment dollars. Many locals feel that they can’t compete and that foreigners are given preferential treatment, and some express anger at rich foreigners buying up their land, fencing off their beaches and romancing their women.
Volz, ironically, had tried to address some of these issues in the pages of his magazine. But when he was moved from jail to house arrest last Thursday, many townsfolk said it was just more of the same. “If he were a Nica, they won’t have let him out,” one local woman complained. But Anthony says the facts clearly show her son was in Managua, two hours away, at the time of the murder; and she is looking forward to having her boy freed and returning home to Nashville next week. “I think he will stay at home for a while, and sleep and eat a lot,” she says.
That might be a good idea for the man whose own puente has been burnt in Nicaragua. “He’s got no reason to come back to San Juan del Sur,” said Maria, a 26-year-old local resident. “If he does, they’ll kill him.”
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1581943,00.html#ixzz1ITnX0fyT
I’ve spent extended time in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua–including multiple trips to Nicaragua in the 1980’s when the Sandinistas governed the country. First, today, Costa Rica, without question, is safer than Nicaragua. Although safety is becoming an issue in parts of Costa Rica, especially parts of San Jose. Second, having traveled all over Nicaragua in the 1980’s on multiple occasions, interviewing common Nicaraguans and members of the opposition, to include editors at La Prensa as well as former Independent Liberal Party presidential nominee Virgilio Godoy, I NEVER heard anything about Sandinistas dropping opponents into volcanos. I am convinced this is not true.
I am retired US Army and was in both Nicaragua and Honduras during the 80s. No one was ever droped into a volcano by helicopter.
I try to avoid Gringo, Asian, and German like the plague. Any suggestiions on countries in S.America, where I can be relatively free of them?