Una Excursión Nicaragüense

In the middle of our weeklong home exchange vacation in Nicaragua, we embarked on a guided tour of some of the attractions in our area. Several friends, Ticos and Northerners alike, had raved about a variety of Nica destinations, three of which received unanimous thumbs up la Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, the city of Granada and the beaches at San Juan del Sur. Since we were staying at one of those beaches at the B&B ‘Casa del Soul‘, and Ometepe is too complex to squeeze into a day trip, Granada, the oldest European-founded city in the Americas, moved to the top of the shortlist by default. Our expert guide Edwin Ruíz Fuentes of Macuá Tours spiced the trip by adding a couple places of interest for us to visit along the way to Granada.

First, we visited Edwin’s hometown of Rivas. Rivas is the capital of the district of Rivas, which encompasses the isthmus between the southern Pacific coast and Lake Nicaragua. Hence it actually includes the surfing beaches and turtle reservations around San Juan del Sur and the island of Ometepe. The city of Rivas was founded as ‘La Villa de la Purísima Concepción de Rivas de Nicaragua’ in the 18th century. It has a historical city center with a permanent market district, an ornate Spanish-Colonial style church and bitter memories of battles between Central American national forces and the mercenaries of American filibustero*William Walker, who used Rivas as his headquarters because of its association with Cornelius Vanderbilt’s new shipping venture, the ‘Accessory Transit Company’. The ATC ran steamships from NYC to the Mosquito Coast, the name of which is based on Mískitu, the indigenous people living along the Nicaraguan & Honduran Caribbean coast not the insects, whence ships ferried passengers & goods up the San Juan river and across Lake Nicaragua to Rivas and by stagecoach across the isthmus to the Pacific harbor of San Juan del Sur, where another Vanderbilt steamship waited to complete the journey to San Francisco. This route was cheaper and faster than traveling by stagecoach across the North American continent. At its peak the ATC transported 2000 passengers per months, charging $300 a ticket. Such a tidy income induced Walker, who had his war supplies and mercenaries shipped via ATC and who was the self-elected President of Nicaragua at the time, to nationalize ATC.

Ultimately, William Walker was executed in Honduras, but not before he burned down Granada, his onetime Capital. Rivas was ravaged by the civil war as well and also had to endure a cholera epidemic during these times of strife.  [Shades of Gabriel García Márquez all around us – truly, I was reminded of his work at every corner in Nicaragua! Gabo’s full name was Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, which rolls off one’s tongue ever so beautifully, don’t you agree?]  None of the promises of economic prosperity that Mr. Vanderbilt made to the people of Nicaragua and the Rivas district specifically, ever materialized. Political ambitions and greed ruined ATC and Mr. Vanderbilt soon turned to more profitable endeavors. Maybe that’s the real reason for the life-size statue at the Pan-American highway near Rivas, showing Cornelius gazing East over Lake Nicaragua … with an ass by his side.  

* Filibustero is a Spanish term derived from Dutch ‘vrijbuiter’ or German ‘Freibeuter’ = freebooter, privateer, pirate. It is widely used in Central America to describe North Americans and Brits, who waged wars illegally in the Caribbean & Central America for their personal gain. The original filibustero was Sir Francis Drake.

The plaque over the church’s main doors in Rivas quotes this fundamental Catholic axiom
“Tu Es Petrus Et Super Hanc Petram Aedificabo Ecclesiam Meam”


Renovations are progressing


This was the first of many gorgeous, oversized, wooden doors
we encountered during our excursion




The municipality of Rivas receives additional resources through the nearby border crossing with Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas, which is also a part of the Rivas district. Every person crossing to or from Nicaragua must pay one dollar of municipal tax. Can you imagine the revenue? It’s no surprise that the streets in Rivas are smoothly paved and the town has an underground sewer system to handle the tropical rain during the wet season!


Looking toward the narthex, tropical woods dominate the church nave,
but when you turn toward the apse color and rich decoration prevail …


The dome is painted with an allegory representing the Catholic churches fight against evil. The fresco is quite explicit as to what represents evil: Communism and Naziism are both depicted as modern, burning & doomed warships, while The Faith sails proudly as a full-rigged Spanish galleon. Lying dead or dying are also Masons or Protestants and faithless secular beings.


These silver embossment altar rails are the pride of the Rivas community




My personal favorite was the tile floor in the church. I like all types of traditional tiles, which are quite a source of enjoyment for me in old European houses. In the Roussillon region of France and, I suppose, extending into the former Catalan Kingdom, now Spain, the variety of painted cement tiles is absolutely delightful. Here, in Rivas and later in Granada, I noticed different versions of these multi-hued tiles. They are very attractive and, if only to me, quite special.



The black pole in the picture’s center is the corner pole
of our rickshaw roof


Every old church in Central America has a green space El Parque next to it. In Rivas, we learned the original meaning of these pleasant gardens, where the town’s citizens perambulate and enjoy their leisure time. During colonial times the Spanish clergy regarded indigenous people as soulless heathens. They were not allowed to pollute the sacred space of churches, yet, they had to be saved from Lucifer’s fire and brimstone all the same. The parks you see today were created for these Untermenschen to assemble in close proximity to the church. After Holy Mass for the proper Spanish congregation was concluded, the priest would emerge and conduct a second Mass in the park.

Right here, at el parque, Edwin sprang a surprise at us. The remaining tour of Rivas was to happen in the same manner, in which the locals move about town: in a human-powered bicycle rickshaw. Our cycle driver pulled right up in front of the church and off we went. I have to admit, it’s a great way to see a town from a pedestrian level, without actually having to walk block after block. On the other hand, this mode of transportation makes it difficult to take pictures. You can’t stop at will, because you’re zipping along at a pretty fast clip, and, despite the smooth road surfaces in Rivas, it’s a bumpy ride. Here are some of my jiggly snapping results, to give you at least a brief glimpse into a bustling Nicaraguan town.


Tiled sidewalks & arcade-like roof overhangs provide protection during the wet season


See the cycle driver with the neon green awning? Very similar to our coach.
Tip Top Domicilio is a Spanish food preparation & delivery service, which apparently has expanded into Central America. I believe Pide, the umbrella company, is Australian owned.


Not to be missed, even on the most overcast day:
‘Claro’ – mobile phone, Internet & TV service provider


Different types of power …


… working horses can be seen everywhere. The hand-crafted equipage here is quite ingenious.


Just one block over from the buzzing market district, tranquility descends.







Leaving Rivas we continued in the direction of Granada on Carretera Panamericana, making a right turn onto NIC 4 past the town of Nandaime, then turning left on NIC 18 toward Catarina. At this intersection, you can also turn right for the Estatión Biológica del Volcán Mombacho & its National Park. Regretfully we have to leave this one for another time!



Instead, we were heading for the ‘mirador’ or overlook over the volcanic lagoon of Apoyo, a sleeping volcano, yes sleeping, not dead, that blew its top thousands of years ago, giving rise to the formation of an enclosed lake biotope. Since the lagoon water isn’t intermingling with external water sources, separate populations developed in this distinct gene pool, allowing several species unique to Apoyo to emerge. Unfortunately, this also makes the lagoon much more vulnerable to pollution, since there are none of the usual tributaries for water renewal.


Looking toward Volcán Mombacho, shrouded in clouds




North rim of la Laguna de Apoyo, as seen from el Mirador de Catarina.
Lake Nicaragua and Granada at the horizon.
(See google map screenshot above for orientation)


Apoyo Lagoon was recently declared a protected zone, but since there are cattle ranches, small settlements, vacation homes & even tourist resorts throughout the tropical dry forests surrounding the lake and the lake shore itself, it is extremely difficult to find a balanced approach to human needs and conservation.


These are the typical mototaxis or auto rickshaws or caponeras used around Catarina for people transports. Because the chain of volcanoes in this region makes the countryside a lot more hilly than in coastal Rivas, the human-powered cycle rickshaws we saw there, wouldn’t work here.

On our final approach to Granada, we saw this quarry of volcanic stone. Edwin said this red volcanic ‘dirt’ is used for road construction throughout the country.


I believe I shall continue with the narration about the beautiful colonial city of Granada, La Gran Sultana, in a separate post. See you there shortly!

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