I went to Nicaragua for 4 weeks starting in the middle of Febuary 2013. I had last been to Central America in 2005
when I went to Costa Rica. On that trip, I met the group from the Esculea de Comedia y Mimo or School of Comedy and Mime from
Granada, Nicaragua. In the meantime they had made a number of trips to Europe where I managed to meet up with them again. I kept saying
that I would come to visit them but it somehow got put off year after year. I flew from San Francisco after having spent a month in California to arrive in Managua. Thankfully, I got picked up at the airport by Diego the director of the school and
Rafa his star pupil who has now taken over some of the teaching and organizational duties. Managua is a big city but has few sites for the tourist but Granada on the
otherhand is one of the most scenic cities in the country.
The heart of Granada is the Cathedral (left), the ajoining central park (right) and a wide walking street (Plaza Colon) that runs between them (middle).
To the south one can see the Mombacho volcano and to the east is the huge Lake Nicaragua.
View of the cathedral from the Central Park.
While most of Managua's colonial buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes, many of central Granada's are still standing.
In addition to the cathedral in the background, there are a handful of other notable churches like the towers seen here of Iglesia de Merced.
From in front of Convent San Francisco, one sees both Mombacho and the cathedral.
The street alongside the Central Park, opposite side of the cathedral, always has a row of horse drawn carriages
catering to tourists and locals celebrating special occasions.
There are souvenir stands in the Central Park where one will find t-shirts and handicrafts from around the country.
One of the most grotesque and misguided things to be offered are stuffed frogs. I assume they at least used to be plentiful
in the nearby lake. They are made into wallets, boxes, cigarette lighter holders or as in the photos, contorted into suggestive poses like some bizarre erotic art.
A bit more charming were the Che key chains.
There are a lot of dogs in Nicaragua on the streets, often sleeping literally in the middle of the roads. Luckily,
they seem very tranquil if not outright friendly. I only remember one incident of a slightly aggressive one, which is such a contrast
to much of Asia where one learns to carry a stick and a pocket of rocks for defense against the ever constant threat of canine attack. Then again,
most of the dogs looked to be regularly feed and taken care of unlike many in poor countries.
Even in the city centers, most Nicaraguan houses are only one story, probably due to the risk of earthquakes.
And although Granada is known to be politically conservative, even there people love to paint their houses in wild colors. This is a section of the main shopping street.
A continuation of the same street with Mombacho in the background, which helps with orientation.
More houses in Granada, typically with many plants.
Iglesia Guadalupe is halfway down main road Calle Calzada between the cathedral and the lake.
The first couple of blocks of Calle Calzada, east of the cathedral, are gringo central. Supposedly blocked to traffic,
there are many foreign owned bars and restaurants. Prices are high but this is the place to see and be seen in the evenings.
One of the most attractive buildings in Granada is along the pedestrian section of Calle Calzada. It houses the Dario Hotel,
a restaurant and a cafeteria called Chocolate. I never ate there but understood that it specializes in chocolate: chocolate cake, chocolate drink etc.
As I knew from a couple of
other countries, house numbers are rarely used in Nicaragua even if they exist. Thus the address for this house would be Calzada
Street, 1 1/2 blocks from Colon Plaza towards the lake.
The esthetic comes from a combination of graceful architecture and lots of plants in the courtyard.
Escuela (y Cafe) de Comedia y Mimo
Farther down Calle Calzada towards the lake is a cafe now run by the School of Comedy and Mime Group known as the Mimo Comedia Cafe.
In the evening they set half a dozen tables out front and offer simple meals as well as drinks.
The front part of the place has a nice bar.
The courtyard is occasionally used as a performance space. Here some of the guys from the school and a couple of visiting
jugglers from Esteli warmed up for an evening performance that I participated in. I had no costumes and just some juggling props, so I improvised
and played the obnoxious tourist in the audience taking photos who jumps in to show what he can do. The idea of the cafe was to create a flow
of income for the school, which otherwise is dependent on sponsors. It is also more central in the town to attract a public for shows.
But they were struggling to make the rent while I was there. They are more expensive than most local places but somehow not
popular enough with the tourists yet. There aren't so many tourists out each evening and much of the Calle Calzada towards the lake front is under
construction and destined to be a center of attraction for tourists. If they can afford to stay open, Mimo Comedia Cafe will eventually be in the center of activity
but in the meantime, most of the tourists tend to congregate a couple blocks up towards the Cathedral.
Here is the front of the School of Comedy and Mime in the outskirts (barrios) of Granada.
The core group of the school
built most of it themselves using a special technique. A steel framework is welded together but then instead of using bricks or pouring concrete for
the walls, a grid of thin steel rods is made. Then plastic bottle are wired together in rows and covered with a layer of chicken wire.
Then concrete is slapped over the structure. In some sections, space is left to put in glass bottles to let light through. They say it is
quicker, cheaper and insulates better than standard methods. Since there is no deposit on such bottles, people tend to throw them on
the ground and many end up in the lake. By collecting or buying up thousands of bottles for construction material, they have contributed to
cleaning up the local environment.
This is the main room of the building, used for training and many activities.
They manage to keep nearly half a dozen computers running. Juggling and performance videos are popular but keeping
up with emails and Facebook are just as important as in America or Germany.
Diego and the remaining members of the core group live at the school. After attending regular school, up to 30 or more smaller
kids come by to be feed and to train - all without cost. Thus a lot of cooking goes on and a couple of women often come in to assist Gisha who formerly
trained and performed with the group before having a child a few years ago. Somehow they made things tasty although the basis of nearly every meal there
and throughout Nicaragua is beans and rice, which surprisingly never seemed to give me gas like I would have suspected. Also to be seen in this
photos is Miraim who was a German volunteer teaching acrobatics and trapeze. Until now, most of the school's sponsors have been
German and Swiss as well as the volunteer or two who often contribute special training and/or English, German or other academic tutoring.
Behind the school they have a bit of land with many fruit trees. The last few years they have also hosted a performers'
festival that I unfortunately just missed. Tents were pitched here and they managed to accommodate around 150 participants. In addition
to all the crazy people around, 7 cats and 4 dogs call this place home.
At the back of the land is a performance/training space with a hardwood floor and high conical roof made from timber and
thatch. Next to it are a bank of toilets and a good view of Mombacho volcano. There are also large water tanks under the floor here and in the main building.
Although water is cheap compared to the cost of electricity there, they could thus collect rain water in the rainy season. It was the dry season while I was in Nicaragua
from mid-Feb. to mid-March and I only once experienced a short, light sprinkle the whole time.
There is a constant breeze from the lake here making it a literally cooler place to train than inside the main building.
When I first arrived in Nicaragua, I spent most of my time for 9 days at the school. As they were taking a bit of a
break after holding the recent festival, the smaller kids were not there then but I got to meet and train with them at the end of my trip.
From most anywhere in Granada, one can spot Mombacho volcano looming off in the distance about 10 kilometers away.
I had hoped to find others to go with to visit it especially as I had heard recent firsthand accounts of tourists getting robbed between the
main road and the entrance. Eventually, I gave up and decided to go on my own, taking a taxi from the school to the entrance rather than just
taking a bus towards Masaya and walking from there. The entrance only cost around 3 dollars. There is also a truck that takes people up the
road to the station towards the top for another 8 dollars round trip but it runs infrequently and I was too late. The road is quite good but
gets a bit steep towards the end of a more than hour hike.
Shortly before arriving, the truck did pass me in the end and parked at the top.
There are a series of very scenic trails from the top where one is really in the thick of the cloud forest.
I only had time for a short circular walk around one of the multiple cones with a nice overview of Granada and the lake. Other trails can
take up to 4 hours, time better spent than just climbing to the top if one can afford(and is in time!) to take the transport to the top. I was around
half way down on my descent when I came upon 2 Danish sisters who had just been robbed by an older guy with a machete. There was a fancy
finca nearby whose employees called the police and eventually gave the sisters and myself a ride back to Granada. Despite their helpfulness,
one had to wonder if the culprit wasn't one of the finca workers supplementing their meager wages.
Hearing from others, I came to the conclusion that armed robberies on Mombacho are fairly frequent despite claims to the
contrary by locals. I felt that most Nicaraguans were friendly, honest and helpful but that small percentage of thieves concentrate themselves at the places
one is most likely to find tourists alone and vulnerable, like sweating up a steep volcano trail. I would not characterize Nicaragua as especially
dangerous for Latin America yet denying the risks is naive. And although Granada is quaint and much smaller than Managua, it does have its share of risks.
Masaya is a good sized town half way between Granada and Managua where I made a day trip.
This was my first real trip on buses in Nicaragua which was similar to experiences in many other countries. The buses are colorful,
generally old school buses imported from Canada or the USA making them rather small and not especially comfortable but they are relatively
affordable and the main means of transportation for most people. The front of the insides are typically decorated with small trinkets and lots of
Christian mottos and icon. The bus stop in Masaya was alongside a big market and is convenient because all of the intercity buses stop there. I would later
experience that in many towns there are multiple stations or places where one needed to find the buses, often meaning a change of
locations to carry on to another town. Intercity bus services also tended to start early but finish in the very early evening making it difficult to return.
I took this shot on the road from the bus station to the center of Masaya but it could be almost anywhere in Nicaragua.
Despite a beautiful countryside, the national problem of littering is as bad as I've seen anywhere. People just throw garbage everywhere.
I think it has greatly increased in recent years since the people have more disposable income that they freely spend on junk food like
chips while traveling and then throw the bags out the bus windows.
The next interesting scene that presented itself was more likable. There was a plaza in front of a smallish church,
where a group of kids were hitting piñatas. I didn't get to ask what the occasion was but they strung up at least 5 or 6 of them one after the other.
Ones sees piñatas sold at many shops and even some shops that seemed to sell them exclusively.
The main thing of interest in Masaya is the handicraft market housed in the historical market building.
The handworkers of Masaya are national renowned for their fine craftsmanship. Typical are mask and wood carving,
boxes and baskets, pottery, wall hangings and furniture; the taste of which seem to be fixated on bright colors. Even though I didn't buy anything,
it was interesting to look at the variety and I was surprised how low key the sellers were. One could really look without being hassled to buy like in so many other places.
Like most everywhere in Nicaragua, the town was centered around a cathedral and large plaza. This central park was especially
large and had a lively atmosphere.
Certainly there were candy and snacks of all sorts for sale on the central plaza as if anyone wondered where all of the garbage comes from.