NICARAGUA TRAVEL – The beachside restaurant was a lantern-lit faux shack. The Pacific Ocean caressed the golden sands of Bahía Redonda. A passion-fruit mojito arrived, followed shortly after by a ceviche. A shooting star crossed the sky. An electric storm out at sea provided a far-off spectacle, fireflies an intimate one.
It was a lovely, cheesy moment in a smart resort on the Nicaraguan coast, but I was thinking about Stalin, Churchill and Sandino.
The Aqua Wellness Resort – which opened in 2011 – was gorgeous, and I liked my little wooden cabin and the monkeys playing in the trees. But it was a place for holidaying couples and families, not a journalist on his tod – and I was reflecting on a long chat with my driver, Tomás Martínez Mesa, earlier that day.
A former militant with the Sandinista movement that established a revolutionary government in 1979, he was 52 but looked about 40 and had a calm bearing and guerrilla army-trained body. He wanted to know how the IRA were doing.
“Well, their party is part of the government of Northern Ireland,” I said. “What about ETA?” he asked. “Who won the Second World War, really?” “What was Thatcher like?”
We were soon chatting about all manner of foreign-policy issues, always coming back to the Cold War and the conflict between the Sandinistas and the US-sponsored Contras in the Eighties, when Nicaragua was in the news almost every day .
If all this sounds like a time warp, it was nothing compared with the world we flashed past on the Pan-American Highway: horse-drawn carts, ox-ploughs, mile-long sugarcane plantations and banana-filled gardens.
Since 2010, Nicaragua – according to Intur, its official tourism agency – has been welcoming more than a million visitors every year. Yet the country remains an enigma. It lacks the saleable Mayan attractions of its poor northern neighbours and the infrastructure of its southern ones, most notably Costa Rica, the self-styled home of “adventure tourism”. But Nicaragua’s natural beauty is undeniable. It’s a land of immense lakes, chains of volcanoes and luxuriant lowlands that – at least in November, after the rainy season – are every shade of green .
I took a small ferry across Lake Nicaragua, which was gusty and furrowed by waves, to stay at a lodge in Ometepe island. From my accommodation on the 4,600ft Maderas volcano I had a lovely view of the taller, more handsome – and active – Concepción (5,280ft). An ecolodge that lives up to that name, Totoco uses solar power, compost loos, outside showers and minimal lighting after dark, and runs a foundation that provides micro-loans for small local companies.
A neighbouring coffee plantation, the Finca Magdalena, provides the organic beans used at breakfast – possibly the most aromatic coffee I’ve ever tasted. A magical setting for catching up on reading or all-out relaxing, it was also a base from which to hike to the summit of Maderas.