TRAVEL: Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua... a journey through Central America
Nicaragua: An amazing country; an amazing trip. My daughter would have loved it.
Published by The Oxford Times
Want to get one up on the globe-trotting neighbours? Then Central America is the name to drop, says Jaine Blackman
For many years Central America has been off everyone but the most adventurous traveller's list.
Not so long ago I was horrified when my daughter announced she was planning a holiday in the region.
With little real knowledge beyond a sketchy belief that armed revolutionaries, gang warfare and general lawlessness ruled, I talked her out of it.
However, when I had a recent opportunity to visit myself on a press trip organised by the Central America Tourist Agency (CATA), I jumped at the chance to discover more.
And I was so glad I did.
In a 12-day, three-country trip there were so many highlights: visiting Mayan temples; watching molten lava bubble and glow; sailing across a lake so wide it had waves; feeding monkeys from the trees; meeting a former freedom fighter; taking part in turtle conservation... the list goes on and on.
It's true that Central America has suffered some turbulent times and even the most passionate of advocates wouldn't deny the drugs trade, and the violence that brings, isn't a problem in some areas, in some cities, but there are places to avoid and precautions to take in any country in the world you visit.
With a tour guide on hand in each of those we visited – Guatamala, El Salvador and Nicaragua – I didn't feel unsafe for a moment.
And the other ideas of Central American I held: brightly painted old US school buses, colourful houses, political murals, a mix of traditional and modern – from dress, arts and crafts to the donkeys and oxen sharing the roads, were all present and correct.
We travelled during the rainy season and experienced a mix of weather from brilliant sunshine to torrential downpours which could clear as quickly as they arrived and did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for three amazing countries – all of which were worthy of a much longer stay.
I came home full of praise for a trip of a lifetime. My daughter has yet to forgive me.
Our trip began in Guatemala Antigua on a literal high note. Walking towards Arco de Santa Catarina, a covered walkway which originally linked the convents on either side of the street, we heard the infectious sounds of lively marching band music.
What was the occasion? We were variously told "rehearsal for Independence Day", Constitution Day" and "No Smoking Day". Whatever it was, it seemed like the whole town had turned out on a Wednesday morning to march, dance, play and parade.
A good way to get your bearings and great views is to climb the 337 steps of El Calvario and look down on the city.
The former capital was full of life and colour, nowhere more so than the bustling market where locals and tourists alike shopped buying everything from hand crafted gifts to dried fish and chickens.
But although we thought that market was impressive, it paled into insignificance compared to the one we visited the following day in Chichicastenango, a more Mayan area of the country. Held on Thursdays and Sundays, it is astounding in both its size and range of goods – a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells.
On one side of the market is the 400-year-old Catholic church of Santo Tomás where inside supplicants traversed the length of the aisle on their knees, while outside on its steps great clouds of smoke billowed from piles of incense burning in Mayan ritual. Beyond the market was a huge, colourful cemetery, where more rituals were being held, and venturing further was a ceremonial area with Mayan statues. It was both fascinating and spooky.
The other highlight was an awe-inspiring trip to Tikal National Park – which encompasses 575 square kilometres of jungle and thousands of ruined Mayan structures. Many are still to be uncovered but there were plenty to be gazed at and clambered over. Forget health and safety – this was ancient history you could climb on.
Returning to Guatemala City by plane we flew through a thunderstorm; seeing the sky alight with lightning while up in the clouds and having a bumpy ride on the way down was an exhilarating experience and one that I was strangely glad to have experienced... but only when firmly back on the ground.
What to eat: the national chicken dish, kak'ik (turkey stew). Breakfasts throughout the trip were a tasty combination of eggs, refried beans, plantain and salsa.
What to drink: Gallo beer from the oldest brewery in Guatemala.
Hidden gem: Cerrito del Carmen; formerly the haunt of addicts and prostitutes, the park and church – which was built in 1620, pre-dating the formation of the city – underwent a clean-up eight years ago. It overlooks the historic heart of Guatemala City.
What to buy: textiles, naïve paintings and crafts, coffee, jade.
Carlos, our guide in El Salvador, was keen to tell us that his country has suffered from a lot of unjust bad press, especially in the US where tourists are actively warned away.
Ironically the official currency is the US dollar and the country is it is in great need of an influx of foreign cash to help its recovery from civil war and natural disasters; as are Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The tourism industry is in its infancy but there's plenty to recommend a visit.
For Brits, seeing signs outside classy restaurants saying "No guns" and having armed security guards at the equivalent of Tesco takes a bit of getting used to but we soon relaxed among friendly locals.
We started our stay on the Pacific coast at the Casa De Mar Hotel in Sunzal. A Mecca for surfers where you can brave the breakers... or relax on one of the restaurant terraces overlooking the ocean and watch those who have.
The following day Carlos was excited to show us the Joya de Ceren archeological site – a pre-Columbian Maya farming village preserved remarkably intact under layers of volcanic ash – "the Pompeii of Central America".
It was interesting and worth a visit but, with Tikal fresh in our memories, slightly underwhelming.
We perked up again on reaching Suchitoto with its cobbled streets and Spanish colonial architecture.
A group of men sat chatting at the main square shooting the breeze in cowboy hats and boots with holsters on their hips and machetes close at hand: it was like walking into a Western.
But this was no Wild West, the town also boasted beautiful boutique hotels and plenty of arts and crafts, including a workshop where we made our own indigo-dyed scarves.
Next it was off to Puerto Barillas estate where you can stay in well-equipped lodges between palm trees and get back to nature with kayaking and boat trips, cycling and more.
Excursions included visiting a community of spider monkeys, so tame they came down from the trees to snatch bananas from our hands; seeing how cacao was processed at nearby San Jose Real de La Carrera and helping to tag wild turtles to aid conservation efforts.
But for me the real highlight was visiting Cinquera, a village which was hit hard in the civil war which raged from 1980 to 1992 and meeting Rafael, a former guerrilla fighter turned park ranger who gave us a first hand account of the conflict.
What to eat: pupusas, soft corn tortillas with a variety of fillings.
What to drink: horchata, a milky drink which includes ground seeds and cinnamon.
Hidden gem: the whole country is largely undiscovered by British tourists.
What to buy: Mayan handicrafts, coffee, hot sauce and chocolate.
We knew Nicaragua was hot stuff the evening we arrived with a trip to Masaya Volcano National Park where you can drive to the edge of the crater and watch molten lava bubble and glow – an amazing sight.
Staying mainly in the capital, Managua, being shown around by the very experienced Careli Tours, which has been organising holidays for 25 years, and being invited to a party where the guest of honour was the ex-beauty queen minister of tourism, this certainly felt like the country most geared up to receive overseas visitors.
We were told gun laws are more stringent than the US and that the former female guerilla fighter chief of police Aminta Granera has done much to fight crime and corruption.
It's a land of stunning scenery with an abundance of lakes and volcanoes with plenty to suit all tastes from culture vultures to adrenaline junkies.
Those who fell into the latter group in our party were delighted to discover a new sport – volcano-boarding. Trekking for about an hour to the top of the Cerro Negro volcano – in the rain, carrying their wooden boards – they then made the descent down 400 metres of steep loose rocks and sand... and were buzzing with excitement at the end. It takes all sorts: the rest of us were more taken with our next port of call, the striking colonial city of Leon where impressive architecture is the backdrop to revolutionary graffiti marking its role in the people's fight for democracy.
For years the mantle of capital city shifted back and forth between León and Granada – another beautiful place on our agenda – with Liberal regimes preferring León and Conservative ones Granada, until as a compromise Managua was agreed on in 1858.
During our whistlestop tour we also got to see the lively Pacific coast town of San Juan del Sur, popular with surfers and water-sports enthusiasts, staying at the stunning nearby TreeCasa resort – where you can stay in up-market tree houses... and they mix a mean jalapeno margharita.
There was a visit to the Park Adventura Las Nubes, where our volcano-boarders went zip-wiring from the top of the mountain while the rest of us sipped ice-cold beer and admired the view; and a boat trip on the massive Lake Nicaragua – 100 miles long and 40 miles wide and home to 400-plus islands.
An amazing country; an amazing trip. My daughter would have loved it.
What to eat: nacatamal – rich corncakes filled with meat and vegetables and steamed in banana leaves are a weekend breakfast dish treat.
What to drink: The El Macuá, the national cocktail named after a tropical bird, made with white rum and fruit juices, usually lemon and guava juice.
Hidden gem: Leon. Rich in culture and history León has long been the political and intellectual centre of the nation – so not surprising it's twinned with Oxford.
What to buy: Coffee, Flor De Cana rum, hammocks ($60 for a family-size) and hand-made cowboys boots ($80)... well, that's what I bought.