There is no sleeping in in the city of Leon. Even for those nestled, as I am, behind the sheltering walls of a converted convent – walls thicker than anything built in the intervening three centuries – 7am is wake-up time. That is when a loud siren sounds across the town, rousing any sleepyheads and reminding them that it is time to get up and go to work. A second siren sounds at midday, announcing f lunchtime.
It is an odd ritual, redolent of life on a plantation. A local tells me the practice used to be common across Nicaragua. Back when workers were too poor to afford clocks or watches, it ensured everyone got to work on time. Today, the only place it is still practised is in Leon, which seems slightly odd, given that this is Nicaragua's foremost student city. Perhaps it is the only way they can get students to show up for their morning lectures.
I have never come across a city-wide wake-up call anywhere else in the world, but then, Nicaragua is different. Central America's poorest country has a lost-in-time feeling, with a laidback pace that has disappeared from most corners of the globe. The country does not feature on many must-visit lists, but it is hoping to change that, aiming to reinvent itself as tourist destination. Given its magnificent natural attractions, from soaring volcanoes and massive lakes to dense jungles and wonderfully preserved colonial cities, it should be an easy sell.
Unfortunately, Nicaragua also has one hell of an image problem. The last time the world paid it any attention, the country was mired in a decade-long civil war, which began when the Sandinistas overthrew the corrupt dictator Anastasio Somoza. Counter-revolutionary forces known as the Contras, backed by the Reagan administration in the US, fought the Sandinista regime led by president Daniel Ortega. The conflict came to a peaceful end with the 1990 election, when the Sandinistas were defeated by the UNO coalition, led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
That was 25 years ago. Today's Nicaragua is a tranquil, welcoming place. Although half the population lives below the poverty line, this is one of the safest countries in Central America, and warm smiles greet me everywhere I go.
The small-town charm of Leon, where I start my travels, belies its status as Nicaragua's second largest city. Low-slung houses line the narrow streets – in earthquake-prone Nicaragua, high-rise has never really taken off – painted parrot-bright in pink and blue, green and yellow. Horse-drawn carts jostle for space with cars, and farmers sit by the side of the road selling pineapples and mangoes, melons and apples.
Leon's handful of tourist attractions includes a collection of contemporary Latin American art and the Galería de Heroes y Martires, honouring Sandinista martyrs. Its biggest attraction – literally – is the cathedral. For a small fee, you can climb on the roof and admire the best view in town; however, the most intriguing thing about the cathedral is why such a small town needed such an overblown edifice. I ask my guide how Leon ended up with such a grand place of worship. "They mixed up the plans," he tells me with a shrug. "This one was meant to be built in Peru."
I spend most of my time in Leon wandering the streets, admiring the (sometimes crumbling) colonial houses and churches and the colourful murals that festoon many walls, or sitting in squares watching the dramas of daily life unfold. In the evenings, I join the locals in restaurants where wooden shutters are folded back to allow in the balmy air, feasting on indio viejo (shredded meat with onions, garlic, sweet pepper and tomato) and gallo pinto, rice fried with onion and sweet pepper, served with red beans.
One lazy afternoon, wandering through shadow-filled back streets, I come across something surprising: a bustling French bakery, crowded with backpackers who look fresh from a Benetton ad, chowing down on cheap but filling baguettes while tapping in to the free Wi-Fi. And that's when I realise what really makes Nicaragua different. Nobody else has discovered it.
So far, I have occasionally crossed paths with other travellers: a table of Dutch tourists in a restaurant one day, a young German couple buying handicrafts from a street stall on another. However, they are few and far between. Unlike other Latin American cities, Leon does not have rows of cafes and hostels where backpackers congregate. There is not even a McDonalds.
It would be wrong to say Nicaragua is like nowhere I've ever been. But it's like nowhere I have been for the past 15 years. That is about how long it has been since I was in a destination where I felt I had beaten the crowds. There are plenty of other countries where tourist numbers are low – Azerbaijan, say, or Ethiopia – but they are not necessarily countries where you can easily wander around on your own. Nicaragua is.
Not that I'm doing it all on my lonesome. Like most visitors, I have organised a car and driver to take me between destinations. My guide gives me an introductory tour in each new place that we visit. Then I strike off on my own.
I am delighted by how easy everything is. The roads are surprisingly good: the long-distance highways are in superb condition, although in some more remote locations, dirt roads make for a jarring trip. In the cities, boutique hotels are springing up in old convents or mansions built around leafy courtyard gardens. Nicaragua even has its own five-star resort, Mukul, which has attracted celebrity guests such as Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
Celebrities aren't the only ones in on the secret. I run into Japanese travellers at coffee plantations and at the country's premier distillery, Flor de Cana, where I also discover the joys of 18-year-old rum. I meet Americans hiking up volcanoes and trekking through jungles, and Britons kayaking on lakes. If I had made it to San Juan del Sur – the country's premier surf spot – I'm told, I would have seen travellers in their dozens.
I skip the surfing, concentrating instead on the country's magnificent lakes and forests. Standing on the shore of Lake Managua as waves roll in towards me, I feel as if I am on the edge of an ocean. Lake Managua may be impressive, but it is dwarfed by the massive Lake Nicaragua, which is about the same size as Puerto Rico. It is home to about 400 islands, including Ometepe, surmounted by twin volcanoes.
Volcanoes are a Nicaraguan speciality. The country has 19 of them, nine of which are active. At Masaya Volcano National Park, we are swathed in sulphur fumes as we stand on the rim of the crater known as the Mouth of Hell. Mombacho volcano, by contrast, is covered in a lovely cloud forest, where we spot monkeys and tiny orchids.
My favourite thing about Nicaragua, however, is the people. Despite the decades of turbulence, despite the poverty, they are optimistic and resourceful. In a street market in Leon, where vendors display their goods on the footpath, I find a man selling banknotes from the revolutionary era. The notes illustrate the massive inflation that racked the war-torn country: a note originally issued at 20,000 cordobas has been overprinted, its new value: 500,000 cordobas.
Seeing my interest, the vendor starts telling me war stories. Like every other Nicaraguan I meet, he is fiercely political. Everyone seems happy to share their opinion, particularly about the president: none other than Ortega, the revolutionary Sandinista leader who was voted back into power in 2006.
No one approves of his changing the constitution to allow himself to stand for re-election; however, among the people I speak to, Ortega seems to have at least as many supporters as detractors. Even his detractors admit that some of his policies have been good for the country, particularly in making education accessible to all.
Nicaraguans find the funny side in everything, including politics. My guide tells me that one of the candidates in the last presidential election was a corrupt former minister – wanted internationally on money laundering charges – who was surprised when he failed to garner any votes. He rolls his eyes. "We're slow," he says, "But we're not that slow."
Have you ever been to Nicaragua?
Written by Ute Junker. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz.
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