By Conor Sanchez
In the nearly two years I’ve lived here, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of Nicaragua. In a place roughly the geographic size of Arkansas, you might not think that’s a big deal, but once you factor in the infrastructural challenges and the high costs of traveling (on a Peace Corps volunteer’s budget), it’s actually a big feat.
During trips to Nicaraguan cities, I can’t help but draw comparisons to cities I have traveled to in the United States. Something in its history, its climate, or in the way outsiders view it consistently reminds me of some place I’ve already visited. Relying on my familiarity with home, I started to make a list of places that I think match the characteristics of cities in the United States, and in doing so, I feel like I understand the country a little better. By drawing comparisons in how one part fits within the context of the whole, I start to see why a certain city gives off a particular vibe or garners a certain reputation.
Think about smaller social groups for a minute, such as an office or a sports team. Everyone has the funny guy, the outgoing one who organizes the parties, or the serious one that gets everyone back on track, etc. Likewise, every country has its economic powerhouse, its conservative culture, its alternative scene. Every country has cities with strong local identities and I’m obsessed with analyzing them, especially as I feel more and more acquainted with Nicaraguan culture. Whereas when I first arrived, every city seemed pretty similar to me, I now notice drastic differences from cities just a few miles from one another.
It made me wonder if a Nicaraguan reacts the same way when they visit the U.S. I like imagining what a Nicaraguan might feel like if they were plopped down in the middle of Nebraska, which would obviously give them a whole different perspective on the U.S. than if they were placed in Miami. Am I having as distinct of an experience living in Nueva Guinea – not in Managua or San Juan Del Sur? In some respects, I’d say – yes – it’s that different.
In any case, below is the list I’ve come up with. I’m sure plenty will disagree and no doubt each of them requires some stretch of the imagination, but bear with me. I do give my reasoning, but mostly these are just based on gut feelings. I start with the city I live in – Nueva Guinea.
Nueva Guinea – Salt Lake City
Just a little over 50 years ago, Nueva Guinea was a thick rainforest with few inhabitants. Then, evangelical Christians from the north began to travel East looking for a place to settle where they could build an agricultural colony rooted in their faith. That place ended up being Nueva Guinea, which they originally dubbed “Luz en La Selva.” Today, evangelical Christianity remains the dominant religion here and it plays a big part in the city’s culture. The Israeli flag – which for them represents the land of God more than a Jewish sovereign nation – adorns hundreds of car windows and storefronts. Few people celebrate La Purísima, a catholic celebration that takes place in December. The catholic church on the south side of town was only built around ten years ago. This city’s history reminds me a lot of Salt Lake City, which was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and other mormons traveling west in mid-19th century seeking a secluded area to safely practice their religion, far away from the violence and the persecution they experienced in the east. At that time, it was the Wild West. This time, it’s Nicaragua’s Wild East.
Leon – Boston
These two cities are about the same age if you don’t count Leon’s original location, which was abandoned after the nearby volcano erupted. Both of them definitely have some of the strongest local identities I’ve ever encountered, to the point where you feel nervous rooting for any other sports team but their own. They have a fighting spirit that tells others, we are who are – deal with it. Both cities have the oldest (and perhaps the most prestigious) higher education institutions in their respective countries. Both served as the epicenters of their respective revolutions. If you want a textbook history of the U.S., go to Boston. The same goes for Leon if want to understand Nicaragua.
Granada – New York City
What New York City is to Boston, Granada is Leon. The only difference is that the historical rivalry between Leon and Granada is a hundred years older (NYC was settled in 1624, while Granada was settled in 1524). Both cities are the number one most-visited places in their respective countries. You really can’t visit the U.S. without seeing New York. The same goes for Granada in terms of visiting Nicaragua. Granada also has some of the best restaurants in the country. After dining at one of them, you can go on a horse carriage ride in its central park.
Matagalpa – San Francisco
The coldest winter I ever spent in Nicaragua was a week in Matagalpa during the summer. Just looking at Matagalpa conjures up images of San Francisco. It’s the only place I’ve actually worn a jacket here. It’s hilly. Walking around town, you’re bound to find yourself walking up an unfathomably steep road, where I hate to imagine what would happen to me if I was driving a car with a stick-shift. I would say it’s one of the more fachenta (a Nica word used to describe something fancy or flashy) places to live in Nicaragua, which also puts it in the same league as San Francisco. There aren’t any beat poets hanging around, but Carlos Fonseca, a Sandinista revolutionary and intellectual who was born there, kind of looks like one. In my opinion, it’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in Nicaragua, which also makes it a great companion to San Francisco.
Juigalpa – Fort Worth
Fort Worth is considered the most cowboy city in the United States. Aside from being stranded there after missing a connecting flight, I really have no idea if that’s true but I’ll take people at their word. I can say for sure, however, that Juigalpa is the most cowboy city in Nicaragua. This is the heart of cattle country. If the department of Chontales were a U.S. state it would definitely be Texas. Arid, rugged, and full of independent-minded Nicaraguans, Juigalpa is a place that takes Hípico (a traditional horse parade that pretty much every major Nicaraguan city has) to a whole new level. On weekends, ranchers and farmers fill a steakhouse called La Hacienda and the city’s fiestas patronales features bull-riding, rodeos, and horseback games. Neither Fort Worth nor Juigalpa boast a ton of tourist traffic, which make them fairly authentic places – what you see is what you get.
Bluefields – New Orleans
New Orleans might be my favorite American city and Bluefields is my favorite Nicaraguan city, so it’s no wonder they remind me of each other. One is known for its spicy, singular cuisine reflecting its history as a melting pot of French, African and American cultures. The other is know as heart of Creole culture, famed for its distinct music, colorful dances and delicious food. Both cities feel a little forgotten about on the outside. Both have been hit hard by hurricanes that nearly wiped them off the map and certainly changed life forever for many of their residents (Bluefields with Mitch in 1998 and New Orleans with Katrina in 2005). Finally, although unique in their significance obviously, both cities host an annual city-wide celebration that send dancers and musicians through the city’s various neighborhoods.
Managua – Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Managua is the capital of Nicaragua and the seat of the nation’s government, which makes it an obvious counterpart to D.C. The president lives here. Laws get passed here (theoretically, in the case of D.C.). It was chosen to be the capital as a compromise to avoid conflict between rival cities Granada and Leon, which isn’t unlike our decision to make D.C. the capital anticipating that southern politicians would resist placement too far north in New York or Philadelphia. What stops me from considering it a true D.C. counterpart is their lack of urban resemblance. Managua is a huge, sprawling mess of a city. Public transportation is terrible and reaching your destination on foot is almost impossible. Earthquakes occur often (one so violent it flattened the city in 1972). On the positive side, Managua has virtually everything – shopping malls, movie theaters, fancy grocery stores, theater, nightlife, parks, museums, and a strong economy. For all those reasons, I say it also compares with Los Angeles.
San Juan Del Sur – Las Vegas
Very little to explain here. San Juan Del Sur is party central. It’s pretty popular among backpackers, especially young Europeans traveling on their gap year. It also has great surfing. South of city you can see turtles hatch from eggs and crawl their way to sea. But mostly, you go here if you want to party.
Chinandega – Phoenix
It’s hot. It’s crazy hot. Outside of the fact that both these cities are known to be deadly hot, I’m not sure they really have much in common. One is known for resorts and golf courses, while the other is known for sugarcane production and a bus called Bus Pelon (bald bus) that gives tours of the city.
Bilwi – Bismark
In short, few people visit this place. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!
Here’s a map so you can the geographic location of some of the aforementioned cities (and a few I didn’t write about):