Back in Nicaragua again. But a slightly different itinerary this time around. Spending a day or two on either side of the humanitarian work to see more of the country.
First stop was a town called Granada, east of the capital Managua and located on a volcanic lake where freshwater sharks play. I’d never heard of them either, apparently this is the only place they live. Swimming up the rivers like salmon. Interesting.
We caught a luxury taxi ride from the airport – meaning it had air conditioning – and were there about 45 minutes later. Stayed at a nice place called Hotel Patio del Malinche, a couple of blocks off the main square towards the lake.
Granada herself is much more touristy and appropriate for expat living than is Chinandega. But yet still much less touristy than most places I’ve been. There is a central area where tourists comply with the obligatory invitation of any centralized market to go see what life is about in the local area. Booths targeting tourists don’t quite clog the square but they impede the way with large tents, tables and other accoutrements.
But it all seems a bit staged. Several identical vendors sell things but to no crowds in the off season. No fewer than three ice cream bike vendors pedal over each others’ tracks in concentric circles. It’s like walking into a fair where all the rides are going but nobody is on them. A little off putting.
But when the town realizes that it’s Saturday night and the tourist crowds (such that they are) flock to the many restaurants and bars catering to their tastes, the streets and local establishments shine. Side streets close to the tourist areas even have vibrant local venues. And you’re as likely to run into a group of college kids as not. Tourists have their havens but the places where they’re not really typify this town.
So when the taxi came this morning to haul us off I left with a feeling that I hadn’t really seen the town. I certainly hadn’t done the many local activities available like kayaking and ziplining, but I had also missed out on the real treats like the lake itself and the real life functioning of the city. It’s not a place to spend a lot of a limited amount of time but as a couple of day layover you could do worse.
Back in Chinandega now and glad it’s off the beaten path. True, there’s not a luxury accommodation like we had in Granada but then again I’m not tarred as a tourist. The local places smile at the novelty rather than smirk at the gouging. Happy to be here.
I went to Brazil and didn’t tell you for too long. Sorry, Internets. Here’s a short catchup.
Flew into Sao Paolo to do a presentation for work. Getting a Visa to go was an expensive hassle but got it done by shipping my passport and a pile of cash to some dude in New York who carried it to the consulate the next day, waited around to get it approved and added, then shipped it back. I’m not sure how he got it done, but nobody at the immigrations office seemed to have any problems with it so I was good to go.
Met up with a colleague, then went and got checked into the hotel. He is fluent in Spanish and passable in Brazilian Portuguese so we got around OK. Next day we went into the local office and met a bunch more folks. Ended going out with them for dinner that night and a couple of drinks after. We went by a very interesting place called Hotel Unique, which is shaped like a giant wooden boat. Then we went to a rooftop bar from which we could see a large portion of the skyscrapers in the city of 20+ million.
After the work event I headed down to the small city of Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Another colleague lives there and I met up with him. He had a day of activities planned, including a tour around the corporate and university campus, lunch in the eclectic cafeteria and hanging out with friends. Over the weekend he invited me and a lot of friends over to his place to do a traditional Brazilian barbecue (barbacoa). Their way is different because they set the meat far away from the fire and do a slow roast. They use wood, rather than charcoal, so the meat takes on a smokier flavor too. It was absolutely delicious!
Porto Alegre, POA to those who fly in, is a great little city. About 3 million people so not really a metropolis. Rolling hills for a backdrop and gaucho culture similar to that of Argentina. Lots of beef. Churrascorias and things. Some slow roast the meat for a dozen hours or more so it’s very tender and delicious. No sauce or rubs except a sprinkling of salt so it’s just the flavor of the meat. There’s a really fantastic little place called Costela no Rolete you should ask about if you go! There are some hills overlooking the city and they give a magnificent view of the city, river, rolling hills and plains off in the distance. Very nice city. Great weather the whole time I was there.
Some other notes on Brazil:
- A sweetened, carbonated guarana juice is a popular drink here. It’s easy to see why – tasty and refreshing. There seem to be several regional favorites with slightly different flavors.
- In Rio Grande do Sul they’ve got a traditional drink that’s like a chilled yerba mate. It’s pretty tasty.
- Everything is really expensive. A value meal from McDonalds is over $10, and drinks range from $7-8 for a cheap beer to $30 for a draft in a nice bar. Outrageous!
- Lots of local beers. Fine German and Italian beer tradition. One of the best I had was Bohemia. Classic pilsner taste – very clean. I’m not a big pilsner fan but this one was good and great on a hot day at a cookout.
- At the airport the security line goes very fast. Mainly because a strip search isn’t involved but also because they’re well staffed. Don’t have to take off your shoes. Don’t have to remove your laptop. Don’t have to remove liquids. I don’t know what the rules are for size etc. because I didn’t run into any of the limits. And nobody checks your documents when getting on the plane.
- The grocery store has a whole aisle of meat. It’s fascinating.
Well I was fortunate enough to get bumped to First Class for the 4-hour flight here. It felt more like going to California than London.
Arrived and wanted to get some local currency for walking around money and to bring back. Found a bank of ATMs but didn’t remember the conversion rate and didn’t want to accidentally pull out like $5,000 USD. So I went over to a little cafe and asked if they spoke English and if they took American money. They indicated that the answer to both was “no.” So I tried in my best bad Spanish to ask if they knew the conversion rate so I could get money out of the ATM. They indicated it was roughly C$20 to the $1 USD and offered to sell me a coffee for USD. Good deal. I’m sure they took pity on my for speaking such poor Spanish. I learned that I’m no better at Spanish in Latin America than in Spain. Uf, que lastima.
So I did end up pulling some cash out – C$2,000. I probably won’t spend all of that but I can change it out at the airport when I leave. I used that cash to buy some plantain chips with lime, chile and salt flavoring. I skipped the chips/pork rind mix.
Driving from the airport to Chinandega was a nice tour of the country and the way the people live. There was lots of graffiti, and most of it propaganda courtesy of the Daniel Ortega leadership. “Viva la Revolucion” “Viva Daniel” “Viva la Juventud” I understood. “JS:19:J” and “FSLN” I didn’t.
Dinner was rice, a shrimp dish to pour over it, beans and salad. It was really great! After dinner we sat around a little bit and some folks played guitar, others kicked the soccer ball or threw the football. It was nice and relaxing and a great way to aid our digestion.
After that we headed into town. It was about 2 miles. Walking along the streets we drew quite a few curious looks from folks. Any group of 40 or so will tend to do that. Past the old church, a left here and a right there, down to the Central Park.
We strolled around the park on our own. It was a vibrant place. Kids playing, young parents pushing their kids along in strollers and ice cream vendors (heladores). There was a small gated area in which a few kids were playing soccer. The group spontaneously converged on a little outdoor beer garden for a cold drink. Tona is a “lager especial” and went for about $1 per bottle. It was cold and good and cold. We drew a crowd of onlookers and folks standing outside the fence trying to get our attention.
On the way back I stopped and grabbed some of that carne asada with something that was like a vinegar-based cole slaw, something like a spicy chow-chow (that’s a Southern thing) and fried plantains to share with the group as we walked back. The steak had some kind of lime marinade and was delicious.
The city reminded me of some of the places I’d seen in China a little bit. Soot covered the street (though in Chinandega it’s from the volcano, not dirty power plants and factories) and there was an acrid odor of open fires. Little shops were open selling things and street food vendors dotted the sidewalk selling carne asada.
When we got back we hung out in the main area for a bit before crawling into bed. In a room with 27 friends down near the equator, your fan quickly becomes your closest friend. The breeze it generates as well as the droning noise are great aids to help you snooze. And snooze I did. It was great.
I’ll be heading to Nicaragua for a company-sponsored humanitarian trip in October. The group organizing the trip is Amigos for Christ. I’ll be there a week – the 9th to the 16th. We’ll be doing different tasks, including digging a well and building houses.
Basic information about Nicaragua
- Population: 5.9 million
- GDP Per Capita (PPP): $2,900
- Affluence: 133th in the world – below average
- Currency: Nicaraguan Cordoba
- Exchange Rate: ~20:1 NIO:USD
Looks like we’re not the only ones going: The next season of Survivor is going to be in Nicaragua.