I felt like a schoolgirl playing hooky. We awoke early Friday morning, dressed, ate, and then, instead of heading to the office, we took off for the airport to catch a flight to Managua. Just Lief and me. No kids. No checked luggage. Not even our laptops. We had planned this quick escape weekend to Nicaragua spur of the moment, a romantic weekend for two, in one of our favorite countries, a place where we spent a lot of time early on in our marriage but hadn't returned together in years.
Almost immediately upon arrival, it all came back, all the reasons I like this country as much as I do. Nicaragua is naturally and dramatically beautiful, but lots of places are beautiful. What sets Nicaragua apart is its heart. You get the feeling, spending time here, that this country is always trying really hard to pick itself up and carry on...to make things better.
Nicaragua and its people have struggled in ridiculous ways over the past 100 years plus. Pre-1900 Nicaragua was on a track to prosperity. Then a series of events took place that, when you study them now, in hindsight, defy understanding or explanation, leave you shaking your head in despair.
That's the effect Nicaragua's story over the past century has on me anyway.
Not the Nicaraguans, though. Their collective struggles haven't left them bitter or despairing but resilient and resourceful. They are also, I was reminded all weekend, surprisingly when you think about all that they have lived through, big-hearted, friendly, and quick with a smile. Gate-keepers and waitresses, taxi drivers and street vendors, businessmen and bankers... they are all cheerful and pleasant with a sense of humor that helps them, I guess, to keep things in perspective. When we passed one of the many posters around Managua showing President Daniel Ortega promising great things in 2014, I asked our Nicaraguan driver what these billboards were all about. What's going on in 2014, in particular, I wondered.
"Nada," he replied with a chuckle. "It's just propaganda."
Speaking more practically, what's the scene in Nicaragua today?
Cleaner, for one thing. Granada, San Juan del Sur, and even Managua are noticeably less littered than I'd remembered. We net several people who talked about different "pueblo limpio" projects that seem to be having the intended effect.
Nicaragua right now is cleaner... and busier. Granada, my pick for the most romantic city in Latin America, is more active today, I'd say, than at any time during its near five centuries of history. The setting for this colonial town is like out of a fairy tale -- the lake, the volcano, the mountains. At night the backdrop is an ink-streaked sky that, just before the sun sets, illuminates the yellow and white cathedrals in ways that would have inspired Matisse to set up his easel.
That background is there, as it's always been, but it's harder to pick it out today for the crowds. The streets of Granada and the central square are packed from early morning until late evening with travelers and backpackers, expats and locals, retirees and investors. It's a crazy mix of folks that creates the atmosphere of a carnival. One street extending from the square to the lake has been pedestrianized and is lined with restaurants and bars, all with outdoor seating. Musicians and singers wander from outdoor table to outdoor table serenading for tips. Young men set up boom boxes on the sidewalk, hit play, then break into Michael Jackson routines and acrobatic displays. Old women sell scarves they've woven, men hawk bootlegged CDs. This isn't a place to come these days for a quiet dinner.
But you have other options for that. Granada boasts good new fine-dining establishments and five-star hotels, more choices for where to eat and where to sleep than ever.
Everything is a bargain. Panama City, where we call home, is no longer a cheap place to hang out, but everywhere in Nicaragua sure is. We stayed in one of Granada's best hotels, the Gran Francia, for $60 a night including breakfast and Wi-Fi. We drank Nicaragua's Flor de Cana rum (great stuff) and Cokes for less than a buck a go. We bought handmade hardwood serving bowls and platters as souvenirs for $4 and $5.
The traveler's dollar (they take dollars almost everywhere) goes a long way in Nicaragua still, and so does the retiree's. This is one of your best choices in the Americas for a place to retire for a comfortable and rich life on a modest budget.
In our travels last weekend, we met several who have done just that, including one couple of retirees living in a charming home they've built for themselves overlooking crater Lake Apoyo. Brian invited Lief and me inside to have a look. He opened the front door to his living room to reveal a panoramic view of the glass-still indigo lake just beyond. Quite a setting.
Retired now just outside Granada, Brian and his wife Nancy have become very involved in their new community, starting a business that employs dozens of locals and opening a health clinic.
"Nancy and I spend about half the year in Oregon and half the year here in Nicaragua," Brian explained. "We couldn't be happier. We're getting ready to return to Oregon soon, but we don't want to
I understand the attraction for Brian and Nancy and all the others who are seeking out this part of the world at this stage of life and putting down real roots in this place. Nicaragua does that to you. Draws you in. Gets under your skin. Stirs your imagination...