Nicaragua was a pleasant surprise

El Calvario church in Leon, Nicaragua

Coming down the Panamerican Highway from the North I had seen borders with a significant poverty gap or income gradient. For example, the US – Mexico border in Tijuana, or the Mexico – Guatemala border near Tapachula. After reading a biker text book I expected a similar gradient when riding from Honduras into Nicaragua after Choluteca. Nicaragua is described as the 3rd poorest country (after Haiti and Bolivia) in all of the Americas, with poor roads and shanty towns / huts along the way.

However, after crossing the border I cycled along on a fairly new, perfectly engineered road with smooth pavement and wide shoulder. I hear the US had financed this road just about five years ago. (In fact, the highway in Costa Rica was both narrower and in parts of poorer quality.)

New Highway between Nicaragua / Honduras border and Chinandega

There were many new bridges built with various country flags indicating the donor nations (I remember Korea and Japan). There were no more or less simple huts than in El Salvador or Honduras. Quite the opposite, I noticed several new buildings with colorful paintings and lush gardens. There were no more or less cell phone towers and billboard signs, no more or less garbage along the road; I just couldn’t tell a difference.

Then I reached Leon with its colonial buildings and churches, a vibrant tourist town with lots of flair. Reminded me a bit of Morelia in Mexico, perhaps on a smaller scale and thus somewhat more peaceful. Nicas, as the people are called, seem friendly and industrious; I was still looking for the extreme poverty described as being palpable everywhere…

Street scene in Leon, Nicaragua

Unfortunately I had to cross Managua by bicycle, which was terrible. Traffic is very heavy and the roads are a nightmare (cobblestone, narrow roads with lots of potholes), it’s hot and stinky, walking around the hotel at night was not recommended – in short, a place to avoid if possible.

The mountains in the North with Pico Mogoton were similar to Honduras and El Salvador, with comparable road infrastructure and bus service. Lago de Managua and later Lago de Nicaragua provide a beautiful backdrop with volcanoes rising on islands in the middle. Nicaragua is rich in natural beauty and diversity.

Refreshment stop on shores of Lago de Managua with volcanos

The next gem was Granada, which sits on the shore of Lago de Nicaragua and has colonial architecture similar to Leon. Sitting at a restaurant at the central plaza I felt again like at the tocala of some nice little town in Mexico.

Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua

My last night I spent in Rivas near the Costa Rica border. Here the Nicas were again very friendly, from the restaurant owners who insisted on me bringing in my bike to the firemen who invited me to stay overnight to the retired Ivan (a Nica who had been businessman in the US) selling bread from the store in his house inviting me into his home for a chat over some coffee, reminiscing about old times.

Ivan running the bakery store who invited me into his home for coffee and conversation

A final sign of new development came on the last morning when riding South of Rivas along the lake shore. It was very windy, similar to Tehuantepec in Mexico; and just like there I came upon a wind farm with tall wind turbines. As I stopped for photos and just to take in the sight and sound of the giant, rotating rotor blades an armed guard approached from a nearby guard station. I suspected that he would send me away, but to the contrary he was happy to talk and inform me about this project built 2 years ago: 19 wind towers, producing 40 MW of power, with 11 more towers planned. The first such wind farm in Nicaragua, with several more in planning.

Wind farm on shores of Lago de Nicaragua South of Rivas

All the above (except Managua) left a positive impression on me. I think the chapters in the text book about Nicaragua will have to be rewritten somewhat, and hopefully with political stability and further investments the Nicas will soon get to enjoy more prosperity and climb up in the ranking and out of poverty.

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