Barefoot bliss on Nicaragua's islands
This is an edited version by Louise Roddon of her article published in The Times.
I have just stepped into the Book of Genesis. Or so it feels on this velvet-black evening on Isla San Fernando. I’m off-grid in Nicaragua and as I walk, my torch picks out all sorts of fabulous creatures — toads as plump as small hens, lolloping into the reeds, leaf-cutter ants with cargo hoisted like small green sailing masts. A bat brushes past my face — and, oh dear, is that what I think it is? Yup, add a tarantula to the list.
I’m the only guest in a hotel where electricity is patchy, there’s no wifi and the water never rises above chilly. Yet the simplicity is blissful. Who needs street lighting when fireflies dance through the leaves like steroid-fuelled Tinker Bells?
Ahead of me is a narrowboat ride around the Solentiname archipelago, a day that comes to typify much of my time in Nicaragua.
Startling birdsong mixes with guttural howler monkey whoops. I’m dazzled by the silk-rag brightness of blossoming elequeme trees, but more dazzling is the warmth of the people I meet. On the main island, Mancarron, I’m introduced to my guide’s uncle and aunt. Coffee is shared, the view admired, and then, as with many Nicaraguans, the talk turns to politics.
The planned (but floundering) Chinese-funded Nicaragua Canal is a thorny point. “Imagine how that will affect our beauty,” Aunt Esperanza says, sweeping her hand towards the vast lake. Then, while Uncle Bosco grows quiet in his hammock, she describes President Somoza’s National Guard invasion of 1977. “It was so scary. They set fire to houses, murdered islanders. Bosco was fighting, but I understood why. We had Ernesto Cardenal to thank for our courage.” I had read about this charismatic priest, a man who arrived from Granada and inspired the islanders to express themselves in paint and balsawood carvings, and the campesinos (peasants) to rethink their lowly lot. Cardenal, who later became the Sandinista minister of culture, is clearly beloved. At the adobe church where he preached his liberation theology, bright images of the islands’ crocodiles, parrots and wild papaya trees enliven the whitewashed walls.
Midweek, and Solentiname’s fecund beauty gives way to heavy rains, churning the brown waters of the Rio San Juan. Nature is still the boss here, the river a camouflage for caimans, its huge almond trees sheltering spider monkeys, sloths too, and so many birds. I’m trailing one of the Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz walks, a muscular jungle set behind the river, the Rio Bartola. Macaws and toucans zip through the skies, a kingfisher with spiky Rod Stewart plumage settles on a branch and butterflies as big as splayed hands flit across my path. It’s the stuff of fables, albeit sprinkled with vicious burrowing mosquitos.
Later, on Nicaragua’s Caribbean side, my ears adjust from Spanish to English patois on Little Corn Island. I’m staying at Yemaya Island Hideaway, a sprawl of thatched beachfront bungalows at the top end of tiny Little Corn, which has no roads. Beneath my balcony the sea fizzes on the blond sands, palms provide shelter for hammocks, and the hotel’s organic garden yields delicious salads, fruits and herbs for its restaurants.
Little Corn is an endearing island. Muddy paths through coconut and breadfruit trees lead to the colourful creole houses of the village. There are some decent beaches too, yet I miss those Attenborough-worthy moments of the mainland.
They surface later in Ometepe, the largest of Lake Nicaragua’s islands, whose two volcanoes are separated by a fertile isthmus. We drive past plantain farms and neat schools, our road flanked by flamboyant dragonfruit trees. Pigs snuffle across the tarmac, a cowboy on a horse trails his wayward herd and at the lakeside women thrash laundry to whiteness in the broiling sun.
Up a dirt track we find the Finca Magdalena coffee plantation. It’s a lovely place, first erected in 1888, later grabbed by Anastasio Somoza and now a local co-operative. The original metal coffee sifters and grinders are still in use, and hostellers can bag a hammock in the old workers’ quarters for $6 a night.
Plucking a mango from a tree to munch as we walk, Eric terrifies me with tales of open-jawed deadly snakes. Then, brushing aside nettles the size of ancient Egyptian fans, he stops at an enormous termite mound and begins digging a hole. “Stick your finger in and eat some,” he suggests. “They’ll die on your tongue. Go on, termites are a great protein, especially if you’re lost in the wild.” So I do. And he’s right. They taste like carrots.
By the time I reach Granada, even the town’s benign busy-ness feels excessive. There is respite, though, on a balcony overlooking Parque Central, where I sit in a rocking chair and watch shoeshine boys and fruit sellers. Then, as darkness falls, the square comes more to life, flickering not with fireflies, but tiny mobile screens. Free wifi now draws the people, not camaraderie — a solitary modern-day pursuit that makes me nostalgic for my firefly moments. Even, it has to be said, for the tarantulas.