As a Resident Naturalist at UGA Costa Rica, one of the requirements of the job is a “forced vacation,” known as the visa trip. This is true for not only all long term volunteers, but also for any non-citizen in Costa Rica (but as always there are a few exceptions). When you enter the country, you need a valid passport that is good for at least six months and a return ticket. Visas can be given up to a 90 day period. Most tourists receive a 30 day visa, but long term volunteers, visitors, students, and expatriate residents typically want-and get-the 90 day visa. Before or on your last visa day, you need to leave the country for at least 3 days to renew it. If you don’t, there is a potential for fines and other problems.
I arrived in Costa Rica on December 2nd, 2012, and I left for my first visa trip on February 20th, 2013. I decided to go to Granada, Nicaragua for six days for a slightly longer and more relaxed vacation. Granada is relatively close to San Luis; I did not particularly want to spend more than one day traveling.
Many perceive that Nicaragua is still living under the shadow of the Revolution and the Contra War of the 70’s and 80’s, but it is actually one of the safest and most popular tourist destinations in Central America. Granada is the oldest European founded city in the Americas, having been founded in 1524, and its architecture and culture reflect this distinction. It has had a long and interesting history, including being a frequent victim of pirates and being burned to the ground by the nefarious American filibuster William Walker. Granada is also fortunate to be near many impressive natural features. It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. It is near six volcanoes in various states of activity and 365 islands (known as Las Isletas) that were ejected into Lake Nicaragua from a past volcanic eruption.
Traveling there was fortunately very easy. I used public transportation in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua with no problems and relatively inexpensive costs. However, I do caution that I was very vigilant and protective of my bags and tried to make it clear that I had nothing worth stealing by keeping my few important items in secure locations. The border crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua costs a bit in “crossing fees,” and the differences between the countries are immediately apparent. While Costa Rica’s border was very clean and quiet with new buildings, the Nicaraguan side had a significant amount of trash and grungy edifices. It was filled with people selling food and souvenirs, border crossing assistance, and offerings to change money. The same caution as on the bus is extended to crossing the border. You do not need to accept help from anyone, and typically help comes with a price. Taxis in Granada were also very inexpensive, but it is important to note that you should agree on a price before you enter the cab.
My time in Granada, Nicaragua was pleasantly punctuated by a large International Poetry Festival. Besides baseball, one of Nicaragua’s most popular pastimes is poetry. This year the Festival was in honor of Ernesto Cardenal: priest, poet, minister of culture, and revolutionary. Poets came from around the world to do workshops and read their poetry to the Nicaraguan masses. Many Nicaraguan figures were present including Giaconda Belli, Margaret Randall, and Bianca Jagger. I was privileged to get to listen to him read some of his poetry as well as Giaconda Belli and many other intriguing international poets. There were also free performances of Nicaraguan folkloric dancing, musical acts, and a carnival parade to bury the enemies of poetry (arrogance and pride) in Lake Nicaragua.
Besides attending events related to the Poetry Festival, I also visited many of the colonial churches throughout the city. The most interesting was the La Merced Church and the stunning vista from its bell tower of the cityscape and Mombacho volcano in the very near distance. I also toured Las Isletas, which presented great birding opportunities and a chance to see the push and pull of locally owned islands versus foreign-owned. Additionally, some great non-profits are at work in Granada. My Camera, My World supports the education of Nicaraguan children and does that in part through programs that teach children how to use cameras and take pictures of their world. They have a small gallery where they display and sell pictures. Smiles Coffee is a cafe run by deaf-mutes and provides job skills trainings and education for disabled youth in Granada.
Finally, interactions and conversations with Nicaraguans are part of what made the trip so spectacular and part of the reason why I want to return. People were generally friendly and very tranquil (unless you were driving). I learned most from getting to sit next to someone on the bus and learning about how they see their country and culture and what goes on in their life.
Cafe de las Sonrisas
International Poetry Festival
Inside the Granada Cathedral
A view west from Merced
Sunset next to the Granada Cathedral
Article and photos: Katie Lutz, Resident Naturalist