Border Crossing Woes into Nicaragua and a Great Time in Granada

Another long travel day to cross into Nicaragua. As we neared the border at Las Manos, this local on board our bus whipped out his calculator and offered his services in changing our lempiras into cordobas. Pretty crafty move, as he got a jump on the other money changers waiting at the border and who were left wondering why no one had further need for currency exchange.

Somewhat extortionist fees at this border – $7 to exit Honduras and another $7 to enter Nicaragua. Of course this being Latin America (read: a hotbed of graft and corruption), the official rates were not visibly posted anywhere, and we just relied on the figures quoted by the officials manning the border offices. The tout who insisted on leading the way to the immigration office (like we couldn’t find it ourselves) apparently got $2 from each transaction, with the connivance of the authorities of course. What a pathetic state of affairs. Nick got held up for 160 lempiras ($10) based on his idiocy, in contrast Marjan forcefully insisted on paying only $5 – the “official” rate net of the tout’s cut.

At the Nicaraguan office, I could see the official thumbing through every page of my passport, in a futile search for a tourist visa. Finding none, he informed me that I needed one and thus would not be allowed entry – which I objected to, having done the research beforehand and knowing fully well that the Philippine passport alone was sufficient to gain entry – after a few minutes going back and forth, our tour leader Chris jumped in and forcefully declared that I was not required to procure one since I was a green card holder. Although this logic was faulty, I kept silent and hoped the tactic would work. This made him blink and think twice. I could see his brain working overtime, processing this bit of information, debating inside himself if he should let me enter or not – finally he asked for a copy of my passport and green card, which I readily supplied and I was in!!! What an relief! I raged at the official’s appalling ignorance of his country’s rules but calmed down a few minutes later. After all those days enduring cramped public buses, thankfully we had a spacious private van which met us at the border and which brought us all the way to Granada by nightfall – my initial impression of the city was that it was quite vibrant, and there was a festive atmosphere that comes only at Christmas time.

The owners of Hospedaje Cocibolca (ironically, the most dismal of all lodging on the trip) graciously invited its guests to a Christmas Eve dinner – the homemade pork was absolutely superb, and along with the strong flor de cana rum, made for a festive night indeed. Before that, we had our Kris Kringle (Secret Santa) activity – everyone wondered who gave Nick his present, and I’m sure no one suspected it was me (being quite a enigmatic personality, according to Marjan). The most imaginative gift was for Chris though, basically a list of coupon “vouchers” entitling her (“the bearer”) to different things – a day without lifting her enormous backpack, a massage (this caused much hilarity as the gender of the gift-giver was still unknown), and a “stress free border crossing” (pretty sure I have something to do with that). We just sat outside the hotel talking, and taking in the celebration – fireworks everywhere! Feliz Navidad!

Well, let’s get the disgusting story out of the way now. Since there were an odd number of men on the trip, we would take turns occupying the single room for some well-needed privacy, as well as relief from snoring roommates. As luck would have it, for the 3 nights in Granada, who else but the youngest of the bunch, Nick, was my assigned partner. He was a nice enough fellow, a bit strange for my taste, but then that’s my general opinion of everyone who is a decade or more younger than myself.

We were sitting around inside the dreadful room at Hospedaje Cocibolca chatting before the Christmas Eve party, and in the middle of our conversation Nick suddenly paused, strained his body and bended his knees a little, and a strange grimace appeared on his face – and suddenly let out a huge fart!!! Impressed at his achievement, wacko Nick exclaimed, “Yeah!!!”. I was flabbergasted at this sequence of events and lost my train of thought. For several moments I sat silent and waited for some sort of apology but it was in vain – for none was forthcoming, and thus I busied myself fanning the air as the noxious fumes slowly wafted thru the poorly ventilated room and threatened to knock me out. Unfortunately, that is my deepest memory of sick Nick, probably imprinted in my mind for eternity. Wonder if I would’ve been kicked off the tour for strangling my roommate?

Along with the northern city of Leon, the Nicaragua Tourism Board has devoted its marketing efforts to promoting Granada as one of the must-see destinations, and it is easy to understand why. This ancient town on the shores of mighty Lake Nicaragua is full of history and Spanish colonial charm and is one of the oldest European settlements in the western hemisphere. Granada has undergone a recent refurbishment, with the Cathedral and other buildings, given a fresh coat of brightly colored paint that is pleasing to the eye and reminiscent of Antigua in Guatemala.

There are a lot of cheap hotels and hostels to accommodate the growing number of backpackers and package tourists, and the restaurant scene isn’t too shabby either. In fact, the best fruit punch I tasted on the trip was on our Christmas dinner at El Zaguan, an upscale family-owned restaurant just behind the Cathedral. It was also on this occasion that wacko Nicko decided to order the parillada, an assortment of various meats guaranteed to fill up the hungriest man alive. I myself had reservations in ordering this dish since it was too much for one person to consume. My thinking proved to be correct. After scarfing down the beef, his strength flagged and he wound up giving half of the meal to the eagerly awaiting Van Hiep and myself, much to our obvious delight.

Activities-wise, an entire day could be spent walking around town and exploring the different churches and museums. The former Convento de San Francisco (pictured) is worth exploring and has a museum inside containing impressive murals depicting various stages of the colonization and liberation of Nicaragua from the Spanish. At Parque Central, I unwittingly stumbled upon the food stalls serving vigoron, a dish which consists of pickled cabbage, tomatoes and onions with yuca and fried pork skins (chicharon), and is the closest thing to fast food in Nicaraguan culture. I sat down and happily ate my $2 lunch (with drink).

Outside of town, there are numerous things to do as well. An hour outside Granada is the town of Masaya, whose claim to fame is the active cone of Santiago at the Masaya Volcano National Park. The inside of this big smoking crater can be observed from a viewing platform (no hiking required). Also nearby is the Apoyo Lagoon, or Laguna de Apoyo, one of the most pristine lagoons in the country. The lagoon, created when a volcano erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago, has tempting sky blue waters which is always great for swimming. I decided to spend an afternoon on a leisurely boat tour of the 365 small islands, called isletas, on Lake Nicaragua. Home to over a thousand fishermen, most of these islands have now become weekend vacation homes for the upper class and foreigners – weekend rentals are a big business, and hey, they throw in a boat for free to ferry you to and from the mainland. As our boat made its way back to the shore at sundown, I was treated to a spectacular sunset – the orange-streaked sky with the huge profile of Volcan Mombacho in the background.

With the rapid rise of tourism (over 500,000 foreign visitors in 2004) in Nicaragua, Granada is sure to be a much-talked about place in the years to come.

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