At the border, it only takes seconds to realise that you are crossing into a much poorer country.
A host of useless ´helpers´hover around, attempting to grab your bag as you stumble off the bus, or waving wads of cash which they offer to exchange at rip-off conversion rates.
Red and black flags, the symbol of the Sandinista (FSLN) revolution, are as prominent as the blue and white national flags and the road looks worse than the route up from Costa Rica.
Welcome to Nicaragua!
Since I was a teenager in the 1980s, I have always an interest in this troubled land. A land that dared to stand up to the might of Uncle Sam, a land of revolutionaries in which pictures of El Che (Guevara) are more prominent than football stickers on parked cars.
This is a land in which politics are discussed every day, in which people´s lives burn with a sense of injustice, against imperialism, against corrupt dictators, against greedy landowners.
Perhaps Ireland right now could learn a little from the spirit of the Nicos, another small land with a weak economy which has been bullied by bigger neighbours.
I´ve only been here a few days but, already, I love Nicaragua.
I´ve been amazed by all the warnings I received from people in Costa Rica and Panama. They wondered why I wanted to go to such a poor and troubled land.
They told me I´d be robbed on the bus or held up by muggers and yet here in Granada I feel perfectly safe walking home from the pub in the early hours.
The poverty, the prostitution, the restlessness and lack of opportunity are all around me, and yet I wonder what potential there must be in this land of poets and warriors if they hadn´t been bullied, mined, and mistreated by Ronnie Reagan and his cronies back in the 1980s, and still treated like the ´second class citizens´of Central America right through to this day.
In Nicaragua, the stagnation is palpable. The unemployment rate is colossal and this land of five million people has 1.5 million living overseas, mainly in Costa Rica and the USA.
Crossing the border was like going from Thailand into Cambodia, in that the higher level of poverty and lack of opportunity were palpable.
In Costa Rica, where Nicos do the crap jobs, the Ticos look down on their neighbours to the north. Yet San Jose is an unsafe city in which tourists are warned not to bother going out after 6 p.m. at night.
They haven´t that much to brag about and Nicaragua does not have the gang problems which have troubled virtually all of its neighbours.
Nicaragua today is a bit like Ireland in the 1980s, a basket case of an economy in which the young are forced to emigrate (in the main, to the land of their worst enemy) in search of a better life.
San Jose has enclaves of Nicos, just as Kilburn and Cricklewood were full of unhappy Irish emigrants (who hardly moved to London for the love of the place) in the 1950s and again in the 1980s.
Every day in Granada, I am approached by beggars, but they are rarely insistent or threatening.
I have already met the other three Irish residents of the town and enjoyed a night out in the city´s only Irish pub, O´Shea´s, which is run by a Dubliner called Tom.
I know it is poorer than Panama or Costa Rica, but in the main I have found the people to be incredibly honest and friendly. Relative to most of them, I am virtually a millionaire.
For US10 a night, I have an en suite room and a swimming pool just outside my door. I am staying with an Irish man called Gerry, who is the same age as me. He was made redundant back home last year and decided to head off, buy a gorgeous old colonial house, and live a new life.
I´m going to be in Granada for the next two months, working for an organization called La Esperanza, which means Hope.
What an appropriate name and organisation in a beautiful land of volcanoes and lakes which is crying out for a chance to take its place in the rich modern world.
So far, I´m delighted with the charity I have chosen. I´m going to relish the work, the challenges, and the opportunity to learn.
I´m so glad I came, and that I didn´t pay too much attention to all the vicious rumours and scare stories. Nicaragua isn´t dangerous, just like Ireland wasn´t dangerous during the troubles when people in London would tell tourists to stay away from the Emerald Isle.
Nicaragua is a beautiful land of beautiful people which, like Cuba or Venezuela or must Latin American countries, just needs to be given some hope.
Children need to learn that there is a point to going to school, that at some point along the way they will get jobs or a chance to travel or use a second language.
La Esperanza? If I can only give a tiny bit of hope to a few people during my two months here, then I think this will be the most fulfilling part of (and a perfect end to) my gap year.
These Are a Few of Our Favorite Things
4 months ago