When you are Peace Corps Volunteer in a foreign country sometimes that country can become your whole world. It seems very big, with so much to explore and visit. From time to time I certainly feel that way about Nicaragua, but in reality it is not a very large country. It is 98th in the world in terms of area, and 110th in terms of population. Plus, most of the population is on the Pacific side of the country. The Atlantic side of the isthmus is far less populated. To put things in context, there are Peace Corps Volunteers in China, Indonesia, and South Africa – all far larger countries in terms of area and population.
The means of transportation also make Nicaragua feel a lot larger than it actually is. Roads are not as good as in the United States. There are no two-lane highways. Most long distance travel is done on repurposed US school buses. They make frequent stops. Some communities are only accessible by boat or horseback.
Nicaragua is comparable in area to the state of Mississippi. It is slightly smaller than New York State. However, getting around NY and its neighboring states takes far less time than travel of comparable distance in Nicaragua. Taking the example of the mid-Atlantic states, driving from Washington DC to Durham, NC takes four hours. A comparable journey in Nicaragua, based on the map, is Siuna to San Juan del Sur. On public buses, it could take at least 2.5 hours to get from San Juan del Sur to Managua. Then you would have to transfer bus stations (20 minutes in a taxi) and wait for a departure that goes to Siuna. That ride takes 10 hours. That’s a whopping 13 hours, give or take, plus waiting for buses. It is mostly due to less than ideal road conditions and buses making stops. Plus, with the taxis, the trip could cost more than $20. My friend said that she once got a Megabus from DC to North Carolina for $3!
Many Nicaraguans ask us what parts of Nicaragua we have been to, and they are always impressed with how much of their country we have seen. Many of them lament that they themselves have seen far less of their own country than we have. Reality is that they don’t have the time or means to do it though. However, it may seem that Peace Corps Volunteers get around, but really we do not. Large swaths of Nicaragua are off limits to us, either due to Peace Corps regulations or lack of transportation options. In reality, we can’t go to at least half of the country’s land area!
That being said, this past Monday I reached a mini-milestone. I have now been to all 16 of the departments (states) of Nicaragua that Peace Corps Volunteers are allowed to visit. I certainly did not set out from the beginning to visit all 16. Some Volunteers do that, just as some try to hike all of the volcanoes. However, through the various parts of Nicaragua that I have wanted to visit, I managed to pass through all of the departments, except for the Northern Atlantic Coast Autonomous Region, which is off limits to Volunteers due to security concerns.
The last department on the list was Nueva Segovia, way up north in the mountains, nestled against the Honduran border. It is where some of the best coffee comes from, is known for being cool and sometimes rainy, and having pine trees, among other delights. It is also jam packed with history, starting with the colonial foundation of Nicargua, going through Sandino and his rebels, and ending with a heavy contra presence during the counter-revolutionary civil war in the 1980’s. Right now there are only two Volunteers in the whole department, and I went to visit on Monday.
It is actually quite interesting that I went to Nueva Segovia just a week after visiting León Viejo. Córdoba founded the City of Nueva Segovia around some gold deposits in 1524, on the same expedition in which he founded León and Granada. León and Granada squabble over which city was founded first, but in Nueva Segovia they say that they were founded first, and then he headed south and founded the two more prominent cities. It may actually be the case that as he headed north he surveyed the sites for León and Granada, reached the north and founded Nueva Segovia, before returning south and founding León and Granada.
Just like León, the City of Nueva Segovia only lasted in its original location until 1610. Due to attacks from local indigenous people the city was relocated in 1611 further south to the banks of the River Arrayán, which flows into the Coco, the main thoroughfare of the region. That is the site of the current town of Cuidad Antigua, where my friend Anna serves as a Volunteer. Gold from the mines of Nueva Segovia was sent to Cuidad Antigua. From there it was shipped south to León where it was counted and taxed. From León it was sent to El Realejo, the old port that is near the current day port of Corinto, where the gold was put on ships headed north to Acapulco, Mexico.
The gold attracted pirates. They attacked four times before the city was partially abandoned and the northern capital was moved to Ocotal, which serves as the local capital to this day. The most famous pirate attack was made by Henry Morgan (yes, the Captain Morgan). Morgan attacked the Spanish at Villahermosa, Mexico. His ships were destroyed, but he captured six long canoes. His crew navigated these all the way down the Atlantic Coast of Central America to the mouth of the San Juan River in present day Nicaragua. They then brought the canoes (there was something like six of them, and each 12 meters long, if I recall) up the river, portaging around the rapids. Once they reached Lake Nicaragua they traveled by night to avoid being seen and reached Granada, successfully sacking the city.
Captain Morgan was not satisfied with just Granada. There was more gold to be had in the north, so they went back down the river and up the coast once again to the mouth of the Coco River. They then went up the Coco until they reached the Arrayán, from where they launched their successful attack on Nueva Segovia. All. In. Canoes. What blows my mind is that they were able to find Nueva Segovia. It is not like they had satellites. Did they steal Spanish maps on a previous raid? Or maybe there was a British spy somewhere in the vast Spanish Empire of the time. It would make a cool novel or movie. #Trademark.
My first stop on the trip to Nueva Segovia was Ocotal. There is not much to see in Ocotal, but it is the main bus transfer point. Ocotal is infamous in history for being the first town in the Western Hemisphere to be aerially bombarded. Perpetrator: The United States of America. At that time we maintained a Marine presence in Nicaragua to influence policy and maintain the balance of power between political factions in our favor. Enter the scene Sandino, who led a guerilla insurgency against the Marines. In one campaign his rebels were holed up in Ocotal and the Marines called in aerially support. The city was bombed, causing extensive collateral damage. And so went another chapter in the sad history of United States involvement in Nicaragua.
After a quick spin through Ocotal I was brough to Dipilto, the mountainous town north of Ocotal on the Honduran border. It is known for some of the best coffee in Nicaragua, but I am not a coffee guy. It does have some nice pine ranges, and the locals have created a unique art out of the pine trees. They collect dried pine needles and use thread to bind them together and create baskets and other trinkets. The resulting artwork is very pretty. In Dipilto we visited the showroom of a small cooperative of women that make these pine needle baskets.
Cuidad Antigua is the second of the three locations for the City of Nueva Segovia (now Ocotal). Some families remained when the city was moved further from pirate access channels in the 1700’s. Today the town is extremely small. The road into town is paved, but the town itself is just a few square blocks and then hilly farmland all around. There is no internet or restaurants. There are four taxis. That’s it. However, just like all towns in Nicaragua, it has a church, and the locals are quite proud of it. It is old, with its origins in the 1611 relocation, and it has a large statue of Christ that was gifted by an Austrian queen. The locals say that when the pirates came they tried to steal the statue, but it miraculously grew in size so that they couldn’t get it out of the church.
Getting political, Cuidad Antigua is interesting for being one of the very few liberal towns in all of Nicaragua. Liberal refers to the opposition political parties to the Sandinistas (there are two, the PLI and PLC, and their schism is worth its own blog post). In addition to voting for President and National Assembly representatives, Nicaraguans vote for a political party to run their local municipality. As of the 2012 election, 137 of the country’s 153 municipalities are run by the Sandinistas or a closely allied indigenous party.
As a liberal town, municipal affairs are run by the liberals, but the Sandinistas remain in control of the schools, police, medical services, environmental issues, and more. It creates a lot of friction, and has even provoked violence over the years in Cuidad Antigua and other towns. Recently, the Sandinistas put up a statue of Sandino at the highway turnoff for Cuidad Antigua. The locals ripped it down. They are now retaliating by creating a monument to the “resistance fighters” in the central park. Resistance fighters are what they call the Contras that waged a civil war against the Sandinistas in the 1980’s. The Sandinistas call them terrorists. The political rivalry in Cuidad Antigua is so bitter the liberals won’t allow Wi-Fi to be installed in the park. All the towns of Nicaragua are getting Wi-Fi compliments of the national government, but when you sign in it takes you to the Sandinista Youth Facebook page.
Logistics for Nueva Segovia are surprisingly seamless, despite being up in the hinterlands. There are regular busses to Ocotal from Managua, Estelí, the Honduran border (Las Manos is the name of the town on the Nicaraguan side), and Somoto. From Ocotal you can branch out to the rest of the department.
The central park in Ocotal is very nice. The landscaping is excellent. It is like a mini-arboretum/botanical garden. Take a taxi from the COTRAN (bus station). C$ 10 taxi ride.
To get to Dipilto take a bus from the COTRAN in Ocotal to Las Manos (C$ 15 if I recall). To see the pine basket weaving get off at Dipilto Viejo and walk up the hill. Eventually you will see a small house on the right side of the road that has a pretty mural painted on the front of it. I regret not taking a picture. Ask around for a woman named Deysi if the showroom is closed. After your visit you can walk back to the highway and take a left. About 10 minutes down the road there is a roadside restaurant called McDouglas. The food is good, and it is perched above a pretty waterfall.
To get to Cuidad Antigua, take a bus direct to Cuidad Antigua or take a bus heading towards Murra, El Jicaro, or Jalapa. Get off at Cuidad Antigua and wait for one of the town taxis to pick you up and bring you into town. The taxis charge C$ 12. The bus will set you back around C$ 20. I had all of the bus times, but a recent technology malfunction has trapped them in an inoperable device.
In Cuidad Antigua you will want to visit the small museum associated with the church. They ask for only a C$ 10 contribution, and it showcases relics from the church and the history of the city. Ask around at the church until someone with a key opens the museum up for you. Note that there is nowhere to stay or eat in Cuidad Antigua and I recommend it only as a day trip. Bring a picnic.