Getting in to Nicaragua is easy. After landing at the Airport in Managua, I got off the plane, handed my customs forms and passport to some uniformed guy in a booth and that was that. If my Spanish had been better at the time, I would have asked “are you sure? Is that it?” No questions about what I was doing in the country, no searching my bags, nothing. Just “Bienvenidos a Nicaragua.”
This is the exact opposite of my experiences reentering the United States. I have been a U.S. citizen my entire life. Despite that, some border patrol agent always has to interrogate me about why I was gone, what was I doing, etc.. They all talk in that same accusatory tone, too, glaring and trying to trip you up with their questions. It’s as if anyone who would dare leave the United States of America must be either smuggling drugs or engaged in terrorist activity.
We were sitting on steps at the top of a nearly thousand year old pyramid, high above the tree tops. The jungle was thick around us, a dense bright green that was covered in layers of thick grey mist. We hugged the edge of the pyramid as much as possible; the narrow steep steps descended to a sharp drop off with no railing. Suddenly the sun grew brighter. The morning mist opened up like a billowing stage curtain, revealing a view that stretched for miles and the tops of two other giant pyramids poking above the jungle. That was morning in Tikal.
Tikal is one of those places that everyone says you should visit. It’s also one of the few cases where everyone is right.
The pyramids and buildings of this ancient Mayan metropolis are covered in moss and jungle plants. Howler monkeys populate the trees and their primeval cries echo amongst the crumbling building walls. Wandering through Tikal truly feels like you are wandering through a lost world.
We spent the night in the park, there are three hotels on site, in order to wake up early and start exploring right when they open the gates at 6am. Arriving this early was totally worth the lack of coffee or breakfast. We made our way down the trails while it was still dark, and were able to hear and see the wildlife as the jungle came alive for the day. Walking along the trails, the buildings became more and more magnificent as we went on. By the time the tour busses and crowds began to show up, late morning, we had already seen most of what there was to see and were ready to be on our way.
It’s hard to describe more, because the feeling of actually being amongst the jungle ruins almost defies all words. Pictures barely do the place justice. It’s an impressive glimpse into the ancient Maya world, and worth every penny of entrance or transportation fees. Staring up at those ancient pyramids you get a sense of the majesty and power of this once great civilization.
Everyone says you should visit Tikal. You really, really should.
Belize is a beautiful country. But it’s most beautiful feature isn’t the world’s second largest coral reef, or the palm lined beaches in front of the caribbean sea, or the inland mountains carpeted with thick green jungle. Belize’s real beauty lies with its people.
On a recent trip my girlfriend and I had the opportunity to meet a handful of these warm and wonderful individuals that populate Belize. In Belize City we struck up a conversation with a fruit saleswoman who shared a few stories about visiting her sister in the States and arguing with U.S. immigration agents. In Hopkins, a toddler, the son of a souvenir shop owner, slapped my girlfriend’s butt and grabbed her hand in order to drag her to their house so he could play the drum for us and try to make us dance.
But the moment that captured the Belizean spirit best was when the bus broke down. We were traveling down the Hummingbird Highway on one of those ubiquitous repurposed school busses. The road was rough, as it often is in Belize. As soon as we were far enough along into the middle of nowhere, the bus started rumbling and shaking. Flat tire.
We pulled over near a small village school house, and nearly everyone got out of the bus. A few people were grumbling, but most were patient and took things in stride. A few of the passengers were actually helping the driver and his assistant change the tire. As the rest of us waited, random drivers passing by on the highway stopped and offered people rides.
You rarely hope to get a flat tire when traveling anywhere, but the combination of the gorgeous scenery, and the tremendous display of human kindness and generosity turned that flat tire into one of the highlights of the trip.
Nowhere does Nicaragua’s fiery history come to life more than in León, a sultry university city to the northwest of the capital. Two hundred year old Spanish adobe homes are pockmarked with bullet holes from the revolution. Elegant colonial cathedrals sit to the side of buildings sit next to buildings painted with left-wing murals. University students party in the nightclubs and the occasional vagrant tries to score rum from tourists in the central park. León is a happening place with lively energy not easily found elsewhere, and a far cry from its conservative and manicured sister city, Granada.
For those interested in Nicaragua’s tumultuous history, León features a must visit spot: The Museo de la Revolución. The museum resides in a relatively non-descript building just off of the Parque Central. I wasn’t expecting much going in, since the building was small and looked a litle unkempt. And to be honest, the museum itself wasn’t anything special, a small room with photos, newspaper clippings and a handful of old weapons.
The history is fascinating, and important. The U.S. backed Somoza dictatorship was notoriously brutal, and the victory of the Nicaraguan people in overthrowing this dictatorship, led by the FSLN or Sandinistas, was a historic event. My Spanish speaking guide, a friendly middle aged man with a beer belly, gave a good account of this history. At one point he stopped and asked me again where I was from. I told him the United States, and he put a hand on my shoulder and said “when we talk about fighting against imperialism, I want you to know we aren’t talking about the people, we’re talking about fighting against what your government was doing to us.”
Finally, after showing me a few more newspaper clippings, he stopped at a photo on the wall. It was a black and white picture of an 18 year old kid with a molotov cocktail in mid throw. He pointed at the photo and stated simply “that was me.”
Here I was thinking this was going to be just a simple guided museum tour, and it turns out I was face to face with a former Sandinista guerilla. This middle aged guy with a beer belly had helped topple one of the most hated dictators in Latin America. In fact, all the staff at the museum were Sandinista veterans. At the Museo de la Revolución, you don’t just look at artifacts from the revolution, you get to talk to real life revolutionaries.
Leon has a lot more to offer. There’s a fantastic modern art museum with pieces from all over Central America, there’s an amazing large Spanish Cathedral, there’s an okay beach nearby, and yes, there’s even volcano boarding. But the real draw is being able to interact first hand with people who’ve participated in history.
Granada, Nicaragua is a peaceful lakeside city with impossibly charming cobblestone streets and trendy modern restaurants and health spas nestled in adorably restored colonial Spanish buildings. It’s a conservative city that enjoys a certain degree of isolation from Nicaragua’s turbulent revolutionary past. It’s the Nicaragua you could take your elderly mother to. She would have a lovely time.
And that’s what a number of elderly mothers are doing. Retirees from Canada and the United States are flocking to Nicaragua, and Granada in particular, to live out their twilight years on a budget. The AARP lists Granada as one of the best places to retire abroad, citing the city’s beauty, but also it’s affordability. It’s a city where you can live like a king off of social security. They mention one couple that purchased “3,500-square-foot colonial house with patio and pool for $180,000”. Other articles highlight the lack of taxes on foreign investment and real estate purchases. The great recession has led to a number of people trying to live out the American Dream in the hemisphere’s second poorest country.
My big mistake was arriving in Panama city late on a Saturday during high season with no reservations.
I was exhausted after an eight hour bus ride that had snaked through half the entire length of the country. I got a cab and had the driver drop me off in Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old colonial district and tourist hot spot. A district that, by the way, happens to border a dangerous slum. Casco Viejo itself was undergoing a process of gentrification, with fancy upper class restaurants tucked away in between roofless crumbling colonial facades. It’s an interesting place to walk around and explore, although less interesting when you’re tired and hungry and lugging around a heavy backpack.
My first attempt finding somewhere to stay was Luna’s Castle, a hostel that got rave reviews from the guidebooks, online, and from numerous travelers I’d spoken with. It certainly seemed like a cool enough place from what I could tell from the outside, and the lobby area sure was nice. I never got beyond that. I went up to the reception desk only to find that, of course, they were booked for the night. In fact they were booked solid until a day after my flight left.