There is a nature film I once saw in which gorillas gaze at a bright green lizard making its way over a tropical bush. They don’t move, just stare with their huge black eyes at the creature before them. There’s no mistaking what’s going on: they’re transfixed, natural-born naturalists.
Nicaragua has only 0.1 per cent of the world’s land-mass, yet some 6 per cent of its biodiversity: more species per square inch than just about anywhere else on earth. There’s rain forest, dry forest, cloud forest. There’s pastureland, mangrove swamp and mountain. There are 25 volcanoes, seven of them active. There is land so young, spewed from craters so recently, that it’s still bare rock, supporting a few lichens and mosses. And everywhere you turn, there’s something alive.
It makes it hard to maintain any illusion that the world is “ours”. Sit quietly on any patio and, within a minute, you’ll notice a fine millipede searching the tiles under your feet, a highway of ants travelling to and fro, and endless traffic in the air – flies, gnats, butterflies, parakeets, tanagers, and all manner of bird calls, and at night the unearthly whines, groans and chimes of frogs and toads.
Sit watching any of the insects and you’ll notice the intelligence of their behaviour – the rhythmic wave of the centipede’s legs, the speed and precision of the tiny ants, who exchange information with one quick tap head to head as they pass one another, or the mayfly licking its wings after you have saved it from a dunking in your cold cup of coffee. Nicaragua is a land where you can’t help becoming a bit more like those big bruisers, the gorillas, who drop everything to stare at the marvels around them.
It’s a poor country beside its neighbours, set back by the region’s longest-lasting dynastic dictatorship, the Somozas, and then by two costly wars, the revolutionary war of the 1970s to oust the tyrants, then the war against their old National Guard, rebranded as the Contras, financed by the US.
But today the Sandinistas are once again in power (now in their third term) and proving themselves pragmatic adherents of the mixed economy. The country is not just rapidly improving its education and healthcare, but promoting tourism, which has been growing at more than 7 per cent a year. There are more than 80 national parks and protected reserves and, with my wife and two sons, I set out to visit several of them, under the guidance of Careli Tours, the country’s oldest operator.
Lake Nicaragua is Central America’s largest. Its beauty has elicited hyperbole from visitors over the centuries, above all for its island Ometepe, which rises from the waters graced by a pair of immaculate Fuji-like volcanoes. On the flank of one of them is the Totoco Ecolodge. Look out from its palm-roofed terrace, over jungle falling down to the lake, with vultures cruising past and the other epic volcano, Concepción, rising opposite, and you can just about feel the millions of tons of biomass all around.
Outside are gardens and orchards lush with flowers and cohorts of giant butterflies, as well as crimson grasshoppers the size of sparrows. Life here, on an isolated island in an isolated lake, is unimaginably peaceful. The whole island is like a farmyard, with pigs, horses, oxen, and dogs wandering all over the place. Some of the roads are so bad it’s faster to walk.
One cloudy morning, I drive with my wife and two sons to a grey beach on the lake shore. It all looks oddly like the west coast of Scotland, with clouds shrouding the volcanoes, rain showers disturbing the surface and Constable-like trees spreading along the shore. But, at more than 30C in the shade, it doesn’t feel like it. Women are out washing clothes in the shallows, beating them on flat rocks, then draping them on the lake to rinse. A boy on a white horse drives a dozen silver cattle on to the beach, and they drink at the shore while he chats with the women.
We head out in kayaks, along the shore then up the Istián river, with exotic birds everywhere: tiger heron, limpkin, parrot and four kinds of kingfisher, all unfazed by the gringo family gliding by a few feet away. Up the lazy brown river, through the undergrowth, we see black-scaled caymans, grey and green iguanas. It’s just like the journals of the early Conquistadors, so little has changed.
At night, from Totoco’s terrace, lightning flickers all over the sky, illuminating huge cloudscapes and the volcano across the bay.
There’s a lot of environmental awareness in Nicaragua today, with wind farms, ecolodges and organic farms. But Selva Negra, an organic coffee plantation covering 4,000 hectares in the mountains just north of Matagalpa, is not new, having been founded in the 1850s by German immigrants (like much of the Nicaraguan coffee business). The farm, and the lodge it now runs, hover high in the cloud forest, near where our guide Juan Carlos tells me he was ambushed by Contras during the war.
In the morning, grey light filters through the trees over the farm’s bungalows, each roof covered in a miniature jungle of bromeliads and orchids. The tail end of night is a quiet time: a last small boar rooting through the leaves before trotting into the trees; a bird stabbing at the black soil, and fluttering softly away. Then, out of nowhere, a hoarse gasp breaks the quiet, like a boiler letting off steam. A deep desperate baying comes back. I look up and clumps of leaves are stirring overhead. Howler monkeys, waking up as the first rays of sun light up the trees. It’s a cliché to say the forest is so full of life but that’s what hits your ears on a new morning: the guttural cries of the monkeys, the chirping of birds, the intense whistling, whirring, humming and droning of insects. The whole place is seething. Even a sloth, curled in the fork of a tree, silver-brown arms folded into its armpits, seems intensely alive as it sleeps.
Selva Negra keeps evolving its own new ways of avoiding chemicals, seeking out insect-free plants in the forest and extracting their sap, creating home-made insecticides from fungi and bacteria, using egg shells and sewage to decontaminate the acidic water that is a byproduct of coffee-making, making methane for the kitchen stoves in the process. “There’s no such thing as waste,” says Eddy Kuhl, one of the owners, “only raw materials for something else.”
Mid-afternoon, and the howler monkeys fall quiet. The forest turns dark. Sounds of warfare boom across the sky, cannons, groans of artillery rocking from valley to valley: a storm approaching. The rain arrives, pattering on the roof, hissing on the leaves, slapping the path. A silver chain of drops falling from our gutter becomes an unbroken glass column. An old feeling arises, of the vigour of this land, of Central America so young, so violent with the force of new earth: it was formed only 2m years ago, and its volcanoes are still reshaping it.
Natural profusion has its hazards. The boys find a scorpion, a giant hairy spider, and a dead beetle on its back, legs crossed like the arms of a corpse in a coffin, at least 6in long. On Maderas Beach down on the Pacific, one of the boys suddenly collapses, screaming in the surf. I haul him to shore and take him to a nearby café, where a fisherman takes one look at the blood welling from his ankle and says, “Stingray”. Which brings on a new convulsion of terror in my son, a fan of the late Steve Irwin.
The cure, apparently, is heat, and the man fetches a bucket of scalding water from the kitchen.
Later, watching the surf break on the beach, we spot dark shapes silhouetted in the glassy water. They ride in breaking the surface with black fin-tips. They flap back out and ride another wave in. There’s no mistaking it: they’re rays, and they’re surfing.
Morgan’s Rock, an eco-hotel near San Juan del Sur on the Pacific shore, has consistently won accolades as Central America’s best hotel. Its cottages perch in the forest overlooking a deserted beach. Thatch-roofed, built of dark, glowing hardwoods and mosquito netting, they are half open to the world. Families of monkeys swing by, and owls hoot long into the night.
The place is magnificent, from its 110-metre suspension bridge across a gorge to the main lodge, to its French-horn-like coils of copper tubing on the taps. Part of a large organic estate, with plantations, farms, orchards, cattle ranch and even a shrimp farm, it has its own ranges of hills, virgin forest and natural reserves. You can visit the farms, help out with the milking, ride the trails on horses, collect eggs from the chickens, feed the shrimp – or just laze by the pool.
On an early walk round the bay, I pass rocks strewn with white frangipani blossoms like the remains of a wedding, and watch hermit crabs close up tight and come rolling down the rocks in their shells. Seasnails ooze between pools, crabs leave parallel tracks like neat handwriting across the broad page of dry sand. It’s a beach doing just what it wants, untrammelled by humans.
Later, we break off from splashing around on boogie boards to watch a flock of frigate birds gather in the bay, ominous as bats. They circle closer and all of a sudden the sea comes alive with a crazed tumult of flickering. Trout-sized fish start leaping out, flashing over the water, hurling themselves on to the sand in desperation. A large fin appears: something big is after them, tarpon or tuna, chasing the smaller fish into the shallows. The birds swoop and dive,the world glitters with spray, and the sea breaks open like a fall of coins. The boys run around, half-mad with excitement.
If all that isn’t enough, there are volcanoes down which you can “sand-board” (you sit on a plank, hurtle through a smoke-storm of black sand, and arrive at the bottom a thousand feet lower with no idea what just happened). There are forest canopies you can zip-line through; there are caverns, islands, mangrove swamps, and untouched beaches empty as a desert, all just waiting for a new wave of travellers.
Henry Shukman was a guest of Careli Tours Nicaragua (www.carelitoursnicaragua.com), which offers a week’s tour of Nicaragua’s national parks from $1,300 per person, including half-board, private transfers and guide. For more information on visiting Central America, see www.visitcentroamerica.com
Street markets and splendour
Though Nicaragua’s troubles have held it back, they have also helped preserve it, leaving a string of fascinating historic cities. León, the second largest after the capital, Managua, is scruffy but beautiful, its churches grimy but atmospheric. Its plaza is lit up at night with the lamps of vendors camped under trees: fruit stalls selling mangoes with lime and salt, taco stands staffed by boisterous women, clouds of sweet smoke wafting from their grills.
Nicaragua’s 25 volcanoes straddle the country like a line of watch-towers, dividing the populous Pacific side from the empty east, and they are threaded through the country’s history. In the 16th century, León stood 30 miles from its current location, and became such a by-word for cruelty, its natives worked to death as a matter of course (the native population of 2m fell to 10,000 within 60 years) that when a nearby volcano buried the city in 1610, the citizens decided to relocate and start anew. A curse followed them: another volcano, Cerro Negro, erupts about once a decade and prevailing winds carry the ash straight to modern-day León. It falls in such a thick black rain that the roofs collapse if they aren’t swept, while the streets fill with black drifts and the people wear masks.
The country’s jewel is Granada, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, a perfectly intact colonial marvel that is the oldest Spanish city in the New World. In the early morning, from a balcony in Hotel Dario, a block from the central plaza, you can see over the terracotta roof tiles, past mango trees and royal palms, and flocks of noisy parakeets, clear across to the dark-blue flank of the volcano Mombacho. The peach-coloured cathedral rises nearby. The sounds and sights come straight out of history: a street-sweeper, a woman scattering water from a jug to keep the dust down, sounds of chatting and the rumble and clatter of a mule cart going by.
Almost half of Nicaragua’s economy is “informal”, and a stroll round the market gives you a true sense of this statistic. Thousands of people throng the blocks, selling, buying, heaving and wheeling their goods, on foot and by hand; a market where bartering goes on as it has for millennia. The streets also teem with artisans: lines of men at sewing machines; cobblers seated at their lasts; watch repairers hunched over magnifying glasses out in the sunshine. Mangy dogs skulk between people’s legs, ragged kids play soccer with mango stones, while the streets are thick with the sweet and sour scents of generations of tropical fruit, of ripeness and over-ripeness in the gutters. It’s like a city that time forgot.