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Singing with the Sandinistas

As a young politics student in the 1980s, the distant nation of Nicaragua always held an exotic and indefinably enigmatic allure.  Caught in the cross-fire of my adolescent imagination I saw a country of impassioned politics and khaki-clad soldiers fighting to lay the foundations of a brave new socialist experiment. Fresh buzz words were quickly appearing everywhere – Sandinistas and Contras, Irangate and illicit arms deals, corruption and communism through the “back door”. The list was seemingly endless. And floating somewhere in the middle of it all, amidst the cool cynicism of get-rich-quick Britain, dog-eared posters in student bars encouraged young and idealistic volunteers to go off and work for “coffee brigades” deep in the mosquito infested jungles of Central America.

To my young and impressionable mind, it seemed as if Nicaragua was on the brink of a brave new world. 

Twenty years later, and sitting in the relative comfort of an air-conditioned car, next to our nominal guide and driver Elvis, the brave new world was starting to look a little less idealistic.

Mira, amigo – look around you,” Elvis boasts, bearing down on a battered-up old chicken bus packed to bursting point with an assorted mix of less-than-enthusiastic locals, “Internet cafes, Realty offices, gringos……..Things are changing here, my friend – and fast”

Nicaragua 2004 is all the things you probably thought it wasn’t – safe, cheap, peaceful, culturally diverse, geographically beautiful and ideal for surfing.

We are in bustling Granada, a rich colonial gem of a city, full of horse-drawn taxicabs and decaying neo-classical facades which languish a few layers of paint away from their original Spanish-era splendour. Granada is the Nicaragua of romance and myth, a veritable museum piece that quietly contradicts the woeful hard luck tales of war, hurricanes and grinding poverty that have been the staple of the international news media for decades. Quite imperceptibly, nothing prepares you for the gritty authenticity of its vibrant yet unthreatening streets – the rocking chairs in the doorways, the atmospheric hub of the central park, the warm nods of Buenas noches that greet you at dusk, the simple congeniality of the people – gradually tugging away at you, taking a hold, inviting you in.

History is not Granada’s only positive draw card. Lapped by the waters of Lake Cocibolca and lying in the shadow of the imposing Mombacho volcano, the wealth of geographical beauty is equally hard to ignore. And hidden somewhere in the small-print, there are a number of other latent secrets nestling quietly nearby. San Juan del Sur with its ruggedly appealing Pacific beaches, the salt water crater of Lago Apoyo, the indigenous legends that haunt the strange volcanic island of Ometepe.

In the circumstances, it’s perhaps no small wonder that the city is crawling with inquisitive gringos walking around with the words “Real Estate” quivering on their lips. 

Elvis – like all good tour guides – finds us outside the Amigos Travel office, a fledgling tourist agency that operates out of the tastefully restored Hotel Colonial. As my wife and I sneak innocently past his doorway in search of accommodation, he quickly spots the guitar that has been glued to my hand ever since I left Costa Rica. The temptation is too hard to resist. We are promptly ushered inside.

“You play Carlos Mejia Godoy?”

“Er……. Well no …….actually”

“Ah…..then I will show you amigo”, says Elvis philosophically, cradling my guitar beneath his shoulder as if it were an extension of his arm, “Ruben Dario, Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli……. Nicaragua is a country rich in artistic tradition. You just have to know where to look”.

He isn’t a million miles from the truth. “In Nicaragua,” ex-President Daniel Ortega once said during a conversation with the writer Salmon Rushdie, “Everyone is considered a poet until he proves to the contrary”.

A musical bond of sorts is quickly formed between us and the next day, taking me under his wing, Elvis spirits us in a car quickly out of Granada along a rather pot-holed road on a kind of magical mystery tour – guitar poised strategically in the back seat.

The landscape is green and verdant and, from the relative comfort of Elvis’s Toyota, we are able to glimpse Arabica coffee bushes planted strategically underneath the shade of the tall cedar trees that pepper the roadside.


Granada is Latin America’s oldest surviving colonial city. In the 1850s it was unceremoniously razed to the ground by the American filibuster, William Walker, in an early show of US muscle-flexing, but it arose defiantly from the ashes. And today it’s rising again, albeit with the usual flurry of foreign interests.

Except that this time the invaders are dressed up, not as Contra rebels, but as Real Estate agents.

Rather belatedly we arrive in the nearby “White town” of Catarina, just in time for lunch. The small thatched roof restaurant is perched like a look-out post above the enormous crater of Lago Apoyo. The view of the surrounding lakes and volcanoes is breathtaking.

Inside, a band of musicians are stalking the floor knocking out rather cheesy renditions of Guantanamera  to a group of gringos with north American accents who sit clustered around a nearby table talking property prices. Meet Des and his colleagues from Alaska, fresh from a hike up Volcan Mombacho and still brimming full of superlatives for Nicaragua, the country, its people, its prices and – perhaps more importantly for them – its property buying potential.

Va entonces”, says Elvis as if to attract our attention, “Time for a little concert, don’t you think?” He summons the group forward with a wave of the hand and noisily clears his throat. There is a kind of automatic and respectful silence.

“Senores y Senoras, I give you – the music of Carlos Mejia Godoy…………..”

Elvis and his band

To the uninitiated, Carlos Mejia is the proverbial John Lennon of Nicaraguan song-writing. In the 1980s he created the musical soundtrack to the Sandinista revolution almost single-handedly and his songs are no less relevant or popular today. As if to encapsulate the point, the sweet sound of Elvis’ voice quickly fills the air, the melodies clear and lyrical, the words rapt in their expression of passion and loss, destruction and rebirth. 

“Now that you are free Nicaraguita, my love for you will blaze out like fire.”

And it seems like a fitting finale in the circumstances – a free Nicaragua – because wasn’t that what the world had always wanted? The gung-ho Reagan administration, the idealistic coffee brigade volunteers, the misguided students, the Real Estate agents, the Sandinistas, the war-weary Nicaraguans caught up as ever slap-bang in the middle of it all.

Part of me thinks that it was almost worth the wait.

Information for Travellers

The author flew to Central America with Continental Airlines into San Jose, Costa Rica. From here a bus to the Nicaraguan border costs approx. $10 and takes 4/5 hours.

Granada accommodation – Basic: The Bearded Monkey $5, Medium: Hospedaje Italiano: $25, Deluxe: El Club $40.

Want to learn Spanish? Granada has many options, often with a home-stay thrown in for good measure. Try 1 on 1 tutoring for lessons starting at less than $5 an hour:

If you would like to volunteer in Granada have a look at “La Esperanza”, an organization that works to provide better educational facilities for kids in rural villages.

For ethical treks and tours, check out Quetzal Trekkers, Profits from their trips go to help local street children.

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