My recent trip to Central America began in South America. Friends had raved about Cartagena, so I decided to start in Colombia and work my way north to Nicaragua.
My friends were right. Cartagena is a Caribbean jewel that might just replace Cusco, Peru, as my favorite town in the Southern Hemisphere. Cusco boasts the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman, much of it dismantled by the Spanish to build their churches and government buildings, but Cartagena has a promenade-wide wall in front of the Caribbean Sea, and behind that formidable fortress, more balconies than can be found in Verona, Italy.
An astoundingly brief ten-minute cab ride from the airport, Cartagena’s magnificently preserved historic center encompasses the barrios of El Centro and San Diego, and is home to several small tree-filled parks, all of them lined with shops, cafes and, of course, churches. Late in the afternoon, however, the festive crowd retires to the nearly five miles of defensive sea walls, built in the 16th century to keep out the pirates. From the western-most wall, you watch the sun sink into the Caribbean sea. Cartagena might be the only place on the East Coast where you can watch the sun disappear over the water, since the city is constructed on a peninsula that dramatically juts into the water.
Just outside the walls is the smaller scale barrio of Getsemani, once crime-ridden with drug dealers, but now home to clubs, boutique hotels and hostels. I stayed within the walls in San Diego at the old convent Santa Clara, mentioned in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella “Of Love and Other Demons.” While most of the rooms are new, there’s enough sacrilegious use of the original spaces (the old chapel is now the ballroom, complete with vents in the walls where the priests used to hear confessions) to transport a body back to the 17th Century. Garcia Marquez knew the place well. His home was behind the convent on Calle del Curato. I kept getting different reports as to the exact address of his residence. The Santa Clara concierge told me he lived in the building that is now the boutique hotel Makondo, although Wikipedia puts the house closer to the sea. Regardless, you can’t miss the general environs. Garcia Marquez’s portrait graces the street wall, together with his quote “The loneliest place in the world is an empty bed,” in Spanish, of course.
Frankly, I was more interested in checking out the Palace of Inquisition, finished in 1770 and home to over 800 executions at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s the city’s grandest Spanish Colonial building, although most of the torture equipment was removed a few years ago when the pope visited. I often wonder what it says about me that I gravitate to these places of abject horror. Last year, I did a Danube/Rhine river tour, and was most excited about visiting the Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg.
Equally impressive, although slightly less prurient, is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fort the Spanish ever built in the new world. It’s about a thirty-minute walk from El Centro through Getsemani. While the wall protected the city from the sea, Castillo protected it from invasion by land. Humongous doesn’t begin to describe this fort, and if I didn’t suffer from claustrophobia I could have spent hours inspecting the honeycomb of its many narrow, twisting corridors.
Completely different, and nearer the historic district is the home of Rafael Nunez, Colombia’s president in the late 19th Century and the major force behind the nation’s constitution. This L-shaped house’s second-story balcony includes two “bridges” leading to a raised gazebo that is the dining room. I could have moved right into this Caribbean paradise.
I’m a big fan of the Hop-On Hop-Off buses, but Cartagena’s is the first dud tour I’ve taken. The buses are too big for the streets in the historic district, so the tour concentrates on the barrio of Bocagrande, the land-filled extension of the peninsula that’s now crammed with white skyscrapers. Bus stops are listed as Hilton and McDonald’s, and they nickname this part of town Little Miami. Enough said.
Wherever I went in Cartagena, the citizens greeted the news of my impending trip to Bogota, Colombia, by clutching their chest and shivering. I thought they were warning me, after decades of civil war, about the city’s reputation as one of the most violent places in South America. Even a Spanish-language instructor here in New York City felt compelled to tell me about the notorious pick-pockets of Bogota, his hometown.
So I’m a little disappointed to report that the city reminded me of Los Angeles. Certainly I felt safe in Bogota, what with its abundant police presence and the many private security guards walking attack dogs. Then it dawned on me: With all their shivering, the Cartagenians weren’t registering fear but rather discomfort at Bogota’s moderate and very typical 60-degree temperature, as opposed to the broiling heat (95-100 degrees) in Cartagena at noon.
In Bogota, I made the major mistake of staying at the posh Bogota Victoria Regia, next door to the Four Seasons Hotel. These high-end hotels are clustered in La Rosa, a clubby barrio just south Rosales, the priciest residential district in the city. By “clubby” I mean that my major destination icon was a giant Christmas tree made out of green Heineken bottles. Disco lives in La Rosa, but for me it meant a twenty-minute taxi ride to where I really want to be, the historic district of La Candelaria, home to all the museums, theaters, authentic restaurants, and notable Spanish Colonial architecture. A better hotel for me would have been La Candelaria’s Hotel Casa Deco or The Orchids, around the corner from the opera house, Teatro Colon (unfortunately closed for the holidays). I wonder if top-of-the-line tours, like Alexander & Roberts and Abercrombie & Kent, prefer La Rosa hotels across town due to some outmoded concerns of safety.
Instead of taking the taxi from La Rosa to La Candelaria, I spent two hours walking Carrerra Septima, the Sunset Boulevard of Bogota. A major thoroughfare like the Strip, Carrerra Septima (7th Avenue) runs up against the hills, in this case the Andes Mountains. Unfortunately, Carrerra Septima is much less interesting than Sunset Boulevard. Here and there, a decaying villa sets empty. Otherwise, office buildings and fast-food restaurants dominate – until you get within a few blocks of La Candelaria, and the street closes to car traffic and the pedestrians take over in what is a fascinatingly squalid mix of Manhattan’s old 14 Street, with a dash of vintage 42nd Street, and more used bookstores than I’ve ever seen in any three-block stretch. The architecture can best be described as Distressed Moderne. But then, finally, you come to La Candelaria.
After my two-hour walk, I was looking for one of those celestially green plazas I remembered from Cartagena, but instead found only the gigantically barren parade ground known as the Plaza del Bolivar, surrounded not by cafes and shops but government buildings and the cathedral. As I was soon to discover, Bogota’s version of those charming outdoor cafes are located within historic buildings, often the museums, thanks to the much cooler weather.
Something else was also missing. Where were all the balconies that turn Cartagena into a movie set for a Latino “Romeo and Juliet”? La Candelaria is essentially a one-story barrio with very few multi-story structures. What it lacks in balconies the barrio more than makes up for with museums, most of them free of charge. The Museo de Bolero is actually three museums, each with its own unique plaza for having coffee and a meal. Seeing a few hundred of Fernando Botero paintings, drawings and sculptures made me rethink my critique that he’s a one-trick artist. Especially fun are his corpulent still lifes, ready to explode with their over-ripeness. My favorite Botero, though, was a small drawing of the crucifixion depicting a bloody Jesus with Mary kneeling at the cross, the two of them weighing at least three pounds each. The artist is nothing if not consistent in his love of flesh. Museo de Botero also includes works of many other great 20th Century artists, from Chagall to Bacon, and connects to the Museo de el Banco de la Republica, with a collection that ranges from old religious art to contemporary installations by cutting-edge Colombian artists I’d never heard of. Most intriguing was an art installation that re-creates a bomb as it tears through an office building.
Almost every major city in this part of the world has a Gold Museum. The best is in Bogota. Considering the number of European royal and religious artifacts I’ve seen over the years, nothing has made me understand man’s age-old mania for gold like the pre-Colombian art in the Museo del Oro. The death masks and body plates are dazzling in their stark elegance.
In the neighboring barrio of Macarena, the National Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (devoted to depictions of Colombia’s war-torn past) are also worth a visit. Before going there, however, you might trek slightly west and upward. The home of Simon Bolivar, El Liberator, is tucked away in the foothills of Montserrate. Unlike the Rafael Nunez house in Cartagena, I did not want to spend much time into this dank one-story house, but in addition to its historic value, the “quinta” is surrounded by intricate and densely wooded rock gardens that are their own little rain forest. Farther up the side of the mountain, and only a five-minute walk from the Quinta de Bolivar is the funicular to the top of Montserrate. Much more arresting than the church and monastery at its peak are the bare rock walls and stone arched ceiling of the country dining room at the Restaurant Hostal Abat Cisneros, a 16th Century horse stable. The glass-enclosed patio is far more modern, but offers the best view of the city below.
But about Bogota being the Los Angeles of South America. Whenever I ventured out of my hotel in La Rosa, I found myself negotiating with a freeway system that had me running for my life across vast stretches of cement. One neighborhood I wanted to visit has been given the acronym BAD, which in a very Manhattan frame of mind stands for Bogota Art District. Why they don’t use the word “barrio” is your guess. After hunting desperately for infrequent crosswalks to avoid being run over, I was able to locate BAD and a few small art galleries specializing in what can best be described as magical graffiti-ism. Bogota is big on graffiti. More than art, what I did find wandering around BAD were several dozen motorcycle repair shops.
With not enough time to do a day trip outside the city (the colonial towns of Villa de Leyva and Honda are recommended), I opted instead to see the Salt Cathedral in nearby Zipaquira. I hadn’t done my research and thought this underground cathedral had been built in a cave, not a machine-drilled salt mine. Catedral del Sal turned out not to be my favorite camp religious experience ever. Nothing will ever top going to Israel’s Jordan River to see crazed Christians attempt to replicate Jesus Christ’s baptismal in what is now a sewage waste dump infested with rats that the locals, selling bread to feed the rodents, call beavers. The Salt Cathedral isn’t that spectacularly awful. On the other hand, it comes equipped with the twelve stations of the cross and disco music blaring from the underground café and souvenir shop as you slowly make your way to the cathedral and its ersatz replication of Michelangelo’s “creation” moment of God and Adam fingering each other. I sat to rest on one of the plastic stone-colored kneelers only to be told to move. I had inadvertently entered a “photo space” and either had to pay to sit or I was going to be photographed in front of a glowing crucifix.
On to Central America, at last, and Panama City.
High-end tour companies tend to book guests into hotels in Punta Pacifica, the largest concentration of skyscrapers in Central America, and that includes Panama City’s very own and awkwardly named Trump International Hotel and Tower Panama, choked by a horrid jumble of freeways that make downtown L.A. look like a dream of urban planning. The Panamanians I spoke to were not in agreement with me about the Trump property being a money-laundering scheme. They insisted the building was half empty because many of its tenants are snow birds, in Panama only for the winter. Since my visit, the real owner of the hotel fired Trump’s people, letting yet another country know what a crook the United States has for its president. With or without Trump’s name on the building, who would want to live or vacation in Punta Pacifica when on the other side of the cove rests the historic district?
Looking for a hotel in Casco Viejo, I found online the very inexpensive Magnolia Inn. Fortunately, its online description referred only to its “luxury suites and rooms” and not its “luxury hostel” facilities, or I might have gone elsewhere. Located in an old villa, the Magnolia Inn has wisely kept the original second-floor parlor and dining room intact. Since there wasn’t space for even a chair in my miniscule but perfectly lovely room, I enjoyed going to the parlor with its two balconies, ample couches, overhead fans (no AC) and tired college kids nursing their surfboards.
Casco Viejo has the potential to be another Cartagena. The city’s very sultry weather invites you to dine along several small parks, and for sunsets there’s the Esteban Huertas Promenade, reminiscent of the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. Many of the Spanish Colonial buildings are beautifully restored, but others are empty and falling apart. After a few days there, I grew to find a perverse romance in some of the barrio’s abandoned buildings, a couple of grand palaces right on the water. But it’s recommended you postpone your visit to Casco Viejo until after the pope visits in 2019. The Catedral Metropolitana and the Teatro Nacional, copied after Milan’s La Scala, are currently undergoing renovation for that big event.
With time on my hands due to the renovations, I took a day trip to the Pearl Islands, about a three-hour cruise from the dock at Isla Perico (a fifteen-minute taxi ride from Casco Viejo). The boat ride reminded me, pleasantly, of going to Provincetown or Nantucket for an afternoon. However, even the most populated of those many small islands, Isla Contadora, offers very few amenities for day trippers. I pretended to be a guest at the Mar y Oro resort, a half-hour walk across the island from the dock, and enjoyed the beach there after drinking way too much coffee at the outdoor restaurant.
An ex-pat friend who now lives in Costa Rica gave me several great recommendations about her adopted country. San Jose never was a Spanish Colonial city, so its historic center lacks charm despite a few late 19th Century European inspired buildings, the most remarkable being the neo-classical opera house, Teatro Nacional. I love the way the theater’s brochure describes the architecture: “a Palladian Neo-Renaissance style heavily featuring grotesque ornamentation.” Also worth a visit is the Museo Nacional, a former military complex that now features an entryway glass atrium, home to king-size butterflies of remarkable color and design.
San Jose, unfortunately, has not done much to preserve its century-old Victorian mansions. I stayed in one of them, the Grano de Oro, which recalls some of that early 20th Century mystique despite its unfortunately remodeled reception area. More authentic, and closer to the opera house and museums, is the Fleur de Lys Hotel, another old Victorian mansion. Having stayed at the Fleur and the Grano, my ex-pat friend recommended the latter. She also derided the Costa Rican cuisine, so made reservations at the town’s best restaurant, La Esquina de Buenos Aires, and we enjoyed a great Argentinian meal in Costa Rica.
Since San Jose is located in the middle of the country, I used it as a center from which to day trip. My friend called the Arenal Volcano (dormant) a “tourist trap,” and instead recommended the lesser known Poas Volcano (so not dormant, however, that’s it was closed to tourists). Since I prefer water over rock any time, I was happy to eschew the volcanoes and instead went with my friend’s tips to white-river raft on the Pacuare River and, the following day, do a boat trip through the Tortuguero Park on the Caribbean side of the country. They were arguably the two most exciting days of my entire three-week trip.
One of the great rivers for the sport, the Pacuare offers number-five rapids, which fortunately were only category four in the dry season that I traveled it. My day-trip tour (Esploradores Tours) offered eighteen miles of river, and at the halfway point I was ready for much more than a nap. Maybe I should have done the two-day tour, which at the nine-mile point puts you up in a riverside lodge for the night. But just when I was ready to sink into total exhaustion, the Pacure River entered a steep, dramatically narrow gorge without rapids where the water was still enough to swim in.
As a tourist, I worry about ruining the landscapes that I travel to see. But more and more I’m beginning to believe that tourism is saving the wildlife in Africa and places like the Pacuare River in Costa River. Not long ago, the national government had plans to build a dam on the Pacuare, at this awesome gorge, but the various tourism companies banded together to stop it. Yes.
The motor-powered boat trip through the Tortuguero (Grey Line Tours) was much less stressful, but not having to worry about drowning or cracking my head open on rocks afforded me the time to enjoy the wildlife. Most amazing were the bright yellow iguanas sunning themselves atop trees and bushes; these reptiles are much larger than the ones you step over in the Galapagos. We stopped for lunch at the Evergreen Lodge, a cluster of log cabins that rest on pilings a few feet above the swamp. I envied those who were spending the night there, but wondered about crawling into bed sheets drenched with that kind of hundred-plus humidity. Even more worrisome were the alligators in that swamp. At night in Namibia, I had to be accompanied by an armed guard when leaving the lodge to retire to my tent for the night. I wondered if that wasn’t the same case at the Evergreen, what with those gaters. Certainly the monkeys were ferocious enough to attack our lunch during the day.
After the Pacure and Tortuguero, the Manuel Antonio Park on the Pacific side was a bit of a disappointment. Although tour companies offer day packages here from San Jose, this is not recommended. Manuel Antonio is not only a slightly longer drive (about three hours) but approaching the park is something of a tourist tangle of motels, restaurants, bodegas, and zip-line attractions. The car traffic inches along, and doing that stretch of road twice in ten hours would not be fun.
The wild life in Manuel Antonio was a tad low-key for my tastes. Then again, if using binoculars to find inch-long frogs and lizards is your thing…. What the area does offer is warmer, dryer weather than the Caribbean side, plus gorgeous beaches tucked away in coves with the rain forests rising precipitously behind them. (Tortuguero, on the other hand, is flat.) I stayed at the Karahe Beach Resort, a fairly bare bones hotel that is the closest one to the park entrance with direct access to the area’s longest beach, the Espadilla Sur. This expansive cove is filled with big rocks and uninhabited islands that make for colorful sunsets. The Espadilla is also something of a circus, what with horse-back riding under the beach almond trees, surfing and kiteboarding lessons being taught, and vendors galore. I almost became impaled on a couple of lines from a boat that was preparing to take two people parasailing. The hordes of tourists come from the cheaper hotels located just across the road at the entrance to Manuel Antonio.
Much more secluded is Playa Biesanz to the north. The top-end hotels, such as Shana on the Beach and the Paradora Resort, are located in the hills about Biesanz, although there is also public access to this tiny cove.
I’ve taken some dreadful day trips in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Tour companies in Latin American countries do an infinitely better job, and this has been the case from Merida, Mexico, down to Ishuaia, Argentina. In none of these countries have I ever had to endure the usual gift-shop visits or tours of jewel factories; plus, the restaurants chosen tend to be intimate, with a view, and not some tour-bus cafeteria.
That wonderful day-trip track record ended in Nicaragua. Oro Travel didn’t pick me up for my thirty-five mile drive from the Managua airport to my hotel in Granada. No big deal. The taxi cost me only fifty dollars, but I worried about my next day trip from Granada to the island of Ometepe, described to me as the most beautiful spot in all of Central America. Phone calls and emails to Oro Travel did not prevent my missing that highly anticipated day trip. But in the end, I wasn’t too disappointed, not having yet paid for it. Granada itself beckoned.
My arriving in this small Spanish Colonial town at night on a weekend might have had something to do with my spectacular first impression. Chronic travelers keep looking for that experience that’s going to transport you not only in space but time. Driving down the narrow streets of Granada to my hotel, the Colon Plaza, wonderfully located right on Parque Central, I was greeted by an intoxicating cacophony of vendors, birds, tourists, and god only knows what else, and I soon found myself living the opening scenes of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Okay, I know those scenes were shot, respectively, in Venice, California, and the Warner Bros. backlot. But I’m the kind of guy who says “I felt like I was in a movie” when I want to express a hyper-reality. The Plaza Colon is the best in Granada, but on my way to the ATM machine, I passed the far funkier Alhambra, also on the central park. The porch was filled with students getting drunk and hanging from basket chairs. In the lobby, chalk boards announced tomorrow’s activities, whether it be volcano boarding or trekking. The ATM was in a casino right out of Vegas before air-conditioning and an old man resembling Akim Tamiroff in toupee and rouge kissed the air in front of me. It was very Touch of Evil and so much more.
The Parque Central wasn’t as festive as any of the parks in Cartagena, but then the real action here takes place just off the plaza. Calle El Caimito leads to Lake Nicaragua, but closer to the park it’s closed to cars and its many restaurants spill into the street, filling it with tables full of happy eaters and drinkers. The Parque Central abuts the Plaza de la Catedral, a space that oddly brought to mind the buildings around the mission at San Juan Bautista, California, better known as the “Vertigo” church. The Plaza de la Catedral is what San Juan Bautista would have been if that sleepy town on the lip of the San Andreas fault ever had grown up to be a real city. The jewel of this plaza is the Casa de Los Leones, an 18th Century mansion, rebuilt and added on to over the decades, and now Granada’s major performing arts center. Nearby is the local graphic arts center, El Convento San Francisco, which offers another peak into another grand old house. Also intriguingly mysterious is the Mansion de Chocolate, a funky labyrinth of stairways, corridors and indoor patios that are part café, spa and hotel. I spent much time but not a dime here, and no one ever bothered to ask what I was doing. Typical Central American hospitality.
Every couple of blocks in Granada there’s another church. I can’t say the interiors proved overwhelming in their architectural beauty, but the exteriors possessed an unwashed, burnt quality that makes them more a force of nature than man at this point in time.
Not making it to the twin-volcanos island of Ometepe, I did take the much shorter boat trip around the Isletas, a group of over three hundred tiny islands in Lake Nicaragua. It’s where the rum, coffee and drug barons of the country build their getaway homes. Some islands are empty or for sale. One is a cemetery. Squatters appear to have taken over a couple of abandoned villas, but most of the houses are surprisingly discreet, although one modern monstrosity stands over two islands, with the living room suspended above the water.
I awoke early the next day to catch a van to Leon, Nicaragua. In the dark, the plaza outside my hotel could not have sounded more alive, even though there weren’t more than three or four people in the park. “What’s that noise?” I asked the receptionist. “It’s the zanate,” he told me. These black birds’ cackling is the deafening cacophony that greeted me when I first arrived in Granada at night, but now the zanate had the city to themselves. Intoxicating as they sounded, I could only be grateful I hadn’t booked a room overlooking the park.
Leon is no Granada. I didn’t like that the churches were freshly painted, although El Merced features a gorgeous wooden ceiling. Despite its lesser charms, Leon provided me three very memorable moments. El Convento was my favorite hotel of the trip. Unlike the far grander Santa Clara in Cartagena, El Convento possesses the austere ambiance of a really old nunnery. Then there’s the Museum of the Revolution. It’s everything you’d want a museum devoted to a recent Central American revolution to be, and I especially liked its white yet fiery unwashed look. At the museum, former students in that 1979 uprising, now old men, offer guided tours of fading photographs in what they call “the first home of the revolution.” It’s a grand palatial building, built in 1933, with a split marble staircase right out of the Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind. The wooden doors and glass windows are long gone, and birds, lizards and rodents have complete run of the place. My guide, Benito, gave me a private tour in Spanish, careful to speak “despacio” so I could understand almost every other word. Benito was missing a couple of fingers and even more teeth, and could not have been more gracious to this gringo whose government he once despised. He took special pride in the photos in which he appeared, gun in hand, among the students in the streets of Leon. His tour even included taking me to the not very secure tin roof for a view of the city as he pointed out the hot spots of the revolution, as well as four of Nicaragua’s currently smoking volcanoes. “How many active volcanoes does your country have?” he asked me. I have no idea. Is there one in Washington?
Memorable moment number three: Leon is close to the Pacific, so I decided the next day to take a “chicken bus” to the beach. Looking for a proper bus station at the designated location, I soon discovered the departure point was the curb in front of the local market. I asked for the schedule, only to learn that the bus leaves whenever it fills up with passengers. Meanwhile, venders walked through the old school bus to sell everything from donuts to tacos. Every few minutes, once the bus took off, it stopped to let off riders at what appeared to me to be undesignated stops. That hour drive from Leon to the ocean (probably fifteen minutes by car) reminded me of that breathtaking stretch of highway north of Santa Barbara before the 101 turns into the side of the mountain. It’s real ranch country, until you get to the ocean. I’m not sure if I got off at Poneloya Beach or Las Penitas Beach. Whatever, the stretch of narrow road along the water is crowded with small, fenced-in houses. I got out at the first beach stop, but quickly returned to the bus when the access to the water turned out to be a minefield of glass and plastic. It was less congested at the next stop, and I had breakfast at one of the very modest beach-side resorts. No doubt about it. The bus ride there and back was the best part of that adventure.
One thing I did not experience on the chicken bus with all the local Nicaraguans were parents changing their babies’ diapers. That singular joy awaited me on the van trip back to the Managua airport. The liveliest street in Leon, without a doubt, is nicknamed Hostel Central since there are no street signs in this city. The calle is not only chockablock with hostels but clubby restaurants and cut-rate tours. Leon was by far cheapest place I visited for lodging and food (very good), and on my ten-dollar, two-hour van ride I sat among three very young American families and their not potty-trained kids. Fine with me, even the smell was kind of tolerable. But should small children be traveling in a country that requires yellow-fever vaccinations and a month of daily pills? Just asking.
Robert Hofler is lead theater critic for TheWrap. His most recent book is Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts.