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.
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.