One of my annual, late-year blog traditions finds me posting a bit of fond nostalgia about holiday season travel memories from years past. I am snowed in from work as I write this, but my absence merely kicks off a mid-December “stay-cation” that is long overdue; I shopped for holiday airfares to both New York City and Chicago, and while I ultimately had just enough frequent flier miles for a free round-trip ticket, I passed at the last minute, knowing that I would still spend mad money not only seeing the sights but also buying food and drink for whichever friend/friends would end up putting me up for a few days. Okay, had I been able to score “Hamilton” tickets ahead of time I may have pounced – resulting credit card debt be damned – but as things stand currently, return trips to both the Big Apple and the Second City will have to wait.
As for the annual holiday travel posts, I neglected to make such a post in November or December of last year, which seems odd considering I rang in New Year’s Day of that very year in warm, wonderful Nicaragua! It was my first trip to Latin America since moving back to the States from Mexico with my tail between my legs. Likewise, it was my first trip to Nicaragua, and my first time meeting longtime online friend José, whose family hosted me at their seasonal home in Nicaragua’s former capital, León.
León, Nicaragua (2016-17)
León is the longtime liberal stronghold of Nicaragua, one of the most fought-after countries in the isthmus that is Central America. I knew before coming that León is perhaps the second-most-touristed city in the country, after smaller, more conservative Granada. I knew also that the first iteration of León was destroyed by an earthquake in the 16th century, and that the replacement León was rebuilt on an even grander scale just 20 miles away, albeit on more stable ground. Unlike the common tradition throughout Latin America to name the relocated city “Nuevo León,” its residents stuck with just “León,” and renamed its earthquake-toppled predecessor “León Viejo.”
My friend José is a longtime resident of Maracaibo, Venezuela. His parents own a second home in León’s outskirts and spend the holidays there. (I suspect that if Venezuela’s safety situation doesn’t improve, they may consider emigrating to Nicaragua on a more permanent basis. But I digress.) While José has since gotten married and, last I heard, moved to Barranquilla, Colombia with his blushing bride, he was single at the time an invitation was extended to me to join him and his family in León.
They collected me at the airport in Managua, a city that most travelers avoid but that I found myself enjoying during a busy 24 hours later in my trip. We made the 75-minute drive west to León, and I marveled at the scenery. Managua is nestled on the shores of the appropriately-named Lake Managua, which looks beautiful from afar but which is said to be as polluted as Lake Springfield on TV’s “The Simpsons.” Below is a picture of the lake from Managua’s malecón, with the forested mountains in the background eventually rising to become Volcán Momotombo:
As the road veered southwards from the lake, the highway passed between field of sugarcane and the occasional mule-drawn cart. What a world away! A few more volcanoes dominated the horizon as we pulled into León, where José’s parents and uncle greeted me with cold beer and steaks from the backyard parrilla (grill). José and his parents spoke excellent English but his uncle, a jovial man and jack-of-all-trades, spoke nary a word. Although I welcomed that as a chance to practice my bad Spanish, I was horrified to discover that after two years in Tennessee, where the pidgin dialect barely passes for English, I had forgotten more Spanish than most Americans ever learn. Sadly, it has gotten even worse with time. But, again, I digress.
We turned in early, for the next morning found us driving to a lovely stretch of Pacific Ocean shoreline known as Las Peñitas. This crescent-shaped beach was dotted with hotels and surf shops that weren’t doing much business. The strength of its waves, the warmth of its sand, and the freshness of the local seafood reminded me of Costa del Sol, El Salvador, where I had whiled away a few leisurely days five years earlier. We settled in at a restaurant favored by José’s father and used it as a base. Although I swam briefly in a calmer stretch of water near where the beach meets a mangrove swamp, I didn’t fancy being tossed about by the waves, as it was just three days prior that I woke up at home, the morning of my original departure date, with such a backache that I could barely get out of bed. Mostly, I just walked up and down the sand and soaked in the rays. Lovely place, and practically devoid of people, as you can see here:
For me, the highlight was lunch itself. I ordered sturgeon, if I remember correctly, and it was served to me as part of a platter big enough to feed José’s entire family. The teensy side of arroz blanco was almost an afterthought, though I did enjoy more than a few Toñas, Nicaragua’s most popular cerveza. Check out the spread below:
We returned to the family’s home for a mid-afternoon nap; it was December 31st and the town would not be going to bed early. NYE festivities in León come in two forms: gather in the main square (near massive León Cathedral) for a massive fireworks show at midnight, or set up chairs on the sidewalk in front of your house and watch young kids wave sparklers and older kids light bottle rockets. We opted for the latter, gathering at the house of José’s grandma, in the colonial town center.
Foodstuffs and alcohol were never in short supply, especially not the latter (shots courtesy of José’s uncle). As we passed the hours alternately sitting on the front sidewalk and around the dining room table, I felt like part of the family. This level of hospitality is not unique to Nicaragua, nor to José’s family, but is a reminder that while it may be the sites that so often draw me to a foreign country, it is the people that linger longest in my memory.
I remember walking around the block to, shall we say, sober up, and noticing as more and more people piled into a house across the street, only to be surprised by José’s uncle, who introduced me to said neighbors. Prominently displayed on a mantle in the main room of the house was a gold record earned by Santana timpanist “Chepito” Areas, who hails from León and apparently grew up in that house. Alas, I didn’t snap a picture.
GringoPotpourri note: One costumed character who is commonly spotted around Nicaragua during the holidays is La Gigantona, a giant feminine figure, sometimes stationary and constructed of papier-mâché over a wooden frame, and sometimes a person in an oversized costume. La Gigantona represents the tall white woman who came to Nicaragua with the Spanish conquistadors. Any tall white woman in particular? Not necessarily, just a symbolic representation. La Gigantona is often accompanied by a shorter, stouter male figure, El Enano Cabezón. This big-headed character represents the intelligent mestizo, who has both noble Spanish blood and education as well as an indigenous peasant’s knowledge of pre-Colombian traditions. I posed in front of a stationary, three-story Gigantona character outside León’s city hall on my first day in town, and I observed life-sized Gigantona and Cabezón characters dancing in front of the cathedral a few nights later to the rhythm of a too-loud drummer. I include this cultural observation at this point in the article as a side note because the aforementioned Chepe Areas released an album in 1976 so named “La Gigantona.” So there you have it.
Fireworks displays and holiday lights around the neighborhood were low key. A few sparklers…firecrackers one block up the road…that’s about it. At midnight, however, the skies, cloudy with smoke, lit up red, white, and green from the fireworks display downtown. I don’t remember much after that, which surely is the sign of a good time.
The next few days included various rambles in and around town. Among other highlights, José and I climbed the bell tower of León’s stupendous cathedral and walked along the white-washed roof, gazing out on the town below. The cathedral, built in 1747, is the largest building of its kind in Central America, and few superlatives do it justice. The town’s central market building was closed for renovations, so its stalls spilled out onto the streets leading east from the cathedral to another church, the pastel-colored Iglesia de Guadalupe, named after Mexico’s patron saint and with a simple interior that would please Juan Diego, the indigenous monk upon whose cloak the virgin’s image was emblazoned. A long walk in the opposite direction took us to Subtiava, still technically León but considered a suburb by some and home to the church of St. John the Baptist, closed during our visit but said to feature an ornate wooden ceiling.
We also drove out to El Fortín, an abandoned hilltop fortress on the outskirts of town, so deserted that there wasn’t even a security guard on duty. It is always fun wandering around such places; the fort was a bit too far from the center of town for us to easily recognize the town’s attractions aside from its cathedral, but the rough road to the top was memorable, and the pictures displayed at the site of bloodshed during the Somoza dictatorship of the 1930’s – 1970’s were a reminder of the frequent political instability around this corner of the globe. Our drive to El Fortín took us past the city’s beautiful Cementerio Guadalupe, as lovely as Recoleta in Buenos Aires and the Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón in Havana. I could’ve done without the inebriated grave diggers on the grounds hitting us up for money, but they did point out one of the cooler optical illusions I’ve seen: a marble tombstone that includes an engraving of Christ that seems be looking in your direction no matter which side of the image you stand next to.
Further afield, we drove to the ruins of León Viejo one afternoon (link included earlier), getting stuck in a cow crossing traffic jam on the way back. Another day, we walked around the geothermal site of Hervideros de San Jacinto, a mini-Yellowstone field of bubbling mud pots in the shadow of Telica Volcano. A trio of young boys took our hands and simply insisted on being our guides. I went with it, and had fun not only photographing them but also laughing at their fake braggadocio as they dared each other to step closer and closer to the edge of a boiling fissure. That afternoon ended in humorous fashion with one of the boys whipping his junk out in front of a young girl and urinating in her presence, much to her prepubescent horror. No, I did not encourage him; it would seem that male courtship rituals – as well as mortified female reactions – are the same all over the world. 😊
Although José and I often ate dinner with his family, we spent a few late nights walking around the center of town. León is enchanting, and although it remains firmly on the backpacker map, it nonetheless has a better ratio of locals-to-tourists than Granada, Antigua, and other colonial towns in Central America. All of our explorations eventually led us back to Parque Central, León’s main square, its gazebo and cathedral complemented by a collection of near-life-sized nativity scenes, by a dancing Gigantona, and by a Christmas tree that was four times my height.
Soon it was time to move on, and before the trip was over I would spend time in Managua, Granada, and on Isla de Ometepe, where I would tempt fate by climbing Concepción Volcano, one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. All in all, though, the trip peaked early. Ringing in the New Year with friends in León remains one of my great holiday season travel memories.
I wish you nothing but the best for yours.