Columbus sailed down the coast of Nicaragua in 1502 but the first settlements of Granada and Leon were established only in 1524.
Granada soon became prosperous thanks to its access to the Caribbean sea via the navigable Rio San Juan flowing out of Lago de Nicaragua. It became the centre of the Conservative Party favouring the Catholic Church and the Monarchy.
Leon which was land locked on Lago de Managua was made the capital in spite of its lesser economic potential. It became the centre for radical clerics and intellectuals of the Liberal Party favourable to social reforms similar to those of the French and American Revolutions.
This twin city set-up polarised the conflict between the Leon Liberals and the Grenada Conservatives which at times erupted into outright civil war. In 1855, the Leon Liberals invited the opportunistic American filibuster William Walker to help them crush Grenada's Conservatives. He prevailed, had himself elected President of Nicaragua and was recognised by the US government. He re-instituted slavery, declared English the official language and announced his intention to take over the remaining Central American Countries. He was defeated by an army of Costa Rican civilians at Rivas in May 1857.
The subsequent compromise of naming Managua as capital in 1857 attenuated but did not eliminate the conflict which flared up again and again with the US periodically sending in the Marines, generally to support the Conservatives.
In 1934 the US trained National Guard Anastasio Somoza Garcia assassinated the Liberal Augusto Sandino and subsequently had himself fraudulently elected president in 1937 He ruled as dictator for the next 20 years, sometimes as president, sometimes behind a puppet president. He was assassinated in 1956 but his elder son Luis replaced him until his death in 1967 when the younger son Anastasio assumed the presidency.
Excesses of power turned the population against him and civil war erupted in 1978. Somoza resigned and the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, led by the revolutionary Daniel Ortega Saavedra, marched into Managua in 1979. The Somoza National Guard was disbanded and replaced by the Sandinista People's Army.
President Carter authorised emergency aid to Nicaragua but when Reagan took office in January 1981, he suspended all aid and started funding counterrevolutionary groups formed by ex soldiers of the Somoza National Guard and operating out of Honduras. The Contra war escalated. The US Congress rejected further military aid for the Contras in 1985 but the Reagan administration continued funding through the illegal sale of weapons to Iran. In February 1990 Ortega called elections he expected to win but lost them to Violeta Chamorro of the Unión Nacional Opositora, a coalition of 14 parties financed by the US.
The contras stopped fighting, the US embargo was lifted and US aid poured in but the promised economic recovery failed to materialise and unemployment remained high throughout the '90s. In 1991 the new government annulled the property transfers made by the Sandinistas.
Now, ten years after the end of the civil war, the deep rift between liberals and conservatives has not yet been bridged and the ordinary people I managed to speak to appear bitter and disillusioned. A sorry state!
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From San José, I took the excellent non-stop Tica Bus service to Managua (8.5 hours including the border crossing) and back tracked to Grenada on a local bus. This photo was taken later at the Nicaragua - Honduras border.
The Costarican company (Costaricans are called Ticos), serves all of Central America from Panama City to southern Mexico. It has become an important institution by providing safe and comfortable transportation through this high crime rate region even during the civil wars that ravaged El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Most buses in Central America and Andean countries are second hand school busses imported from Canada and the US. These, in Grenada, have kept their yellow colour and the original school bus markings have been replaced by their new destinations. I suppose they are safe enough but the seats have been crowded together leaving very little leg room.
The Cathedral, in front of the "Parque Colon", is of course, the city centre.
This grand Episcopal Palace next to the Cathedral reflects the power enjoyed by the bishop in this traditionally conservative city.
Half a block north of the Episcopal Palace on this small plaza, is the "Casa de Tres Leones", a stately private home that now houses a cultural foundation. Its location is an interesting indication of the traditional close association between the Church and conservative landowners in Latin America.
I found a room for only 5 $US at the Hospedaje Central half a block further on this side of Grenada's main street, calle La Calzada.
Here like everywhere else in Central America people feel the need erect "rejas" (iron grilles and bars), to protect their lives and belongings.
Grenada's colonial architecture has the additional charm of looking natural. The city does not look like the systematically contrived restorations of past glories that is often found in tourist sites.
This well restored home between two run down houses looks more like the result of a prosperous individual's efforts than those of a municipal tourist promotion fund.
It does however show that some people have a lot of money in this poor country.
The Convent and Church of San Francisco was the city's first church, founded in 1529. It was rebuilt three times after being torched twice by pirates (1665 and 1685) and destroyed in 1856 by the American filibuster William Walker.
It now houses an interesting museum.
This is the courtyard of the San Francisco Museum mentioned above.
Moving down calle La Calzada towards the lake, one comes to the "Iglesia de Guadelupe" that survived Walker's sack of the city in 1856.
Here is the beach at the end of La Calzada. I did not expect to find this area deserted. I felt uneasy walking the 300 metres to the "Centro Turistico" park which I did not visit for it was also deserted and therefore unsafe. I must admit that I was happy to reach the city centre after covering 2 kms of the deserted calle del Caimito.
After exploring lovely Granada, I stopped in Masaya on my way to Managua. This is an open air restaurant in Masaya's central "Parque 17 de Octubre".
I could not take a picture of the landmark "Iglesia de la Asunción" next to the park for it was covered with scaffolding so I walked up calle San Jerónimo to look at the "Iglesia de San Jerónimo".
On my way, I met this shopkeeper who explained that the iron bars would be useless in case of a hold-up but were nevertheless necessary to prevent some desperate people from taking food without paying.
The recently restored "Iglesia de San Jerónimo" is being supported to prevent cracks from growing.
Masaya is an important centre for Indian handicrafts which are now sold in this restored market place on calle Ernesto Fernandez.
A little further on that street I caught a local bus back to Managua.
Managua, on the southern shore of Lake Managua, became the capital of Nicaragua in 1858 as a compromise between liberal Leon to the north-west and conservative Grenada to the south-east.
Managua was destroyed by earthquakes in 1931 and again in 1972 and further damaged during the 1978-79 revolution. Since then, economic hardship has retarded reconstruction of the city centre.
The Old Cathedral is one of the few buildings that survived the 1972 earthquake.
Inside the Old Cathedral.
The new "Palacio Presidencial" next to the Old Cathedral.
The new Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built some distance from the old, is the object of controversy as some feel that its many small domes make it look like a mosque.
The few rooms available in the Managua Tica Bus terminal were occupied so I stayed in the nearby Hospedaje Meza.
You cannot escape being aware of the harsh reality of a high crime rate when you see how everybody lives in a protective cage here.
After a few days of watching my back I boarded a Tica bus for the 8 hour trip to Tegucigalpa.