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Money is being pumped into this little town, restoring some of its former grandeur from its days as an important trading city with links via Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan river to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe beyond. Buildings on the main square have had a fresh lick of paint, the smarter residences have been turned to hotels and restaurants, boutiques blossom and tourists linger.
Houses are being renovated and turned into hotel. Nick samples "the world's second best cigar". Just two blocks from the gentrified main square, things deteriorate dramatically. The pavements disappear under spilling market stalls, sleeping drunks, squatting homeless families and the general detritus of urban life. It becomes, in short, the developing world again. Its relative safety crime is much lower here than in any of its neighbours , natural beauty and affordability are starting to bring tourists and investors to the country.
The socialist Sandinistas are in power at the moment. We stay in a beautiful guesthouse recently opened by Gerry, an Irish poet, who introduces us to the expat community. Most are alcoholics or have some other dependency, and their numbers are boosted by the new gringo exodus from Costa Rica and Panama, which have become too expensive and dangerous for those eeking out a military pension on drugs, booze and prostitutes.
Gerry is not into any of that. When he bought the guesthouse last year, he began the slow process of evicting the longtime gringos and their prostitutes. A recent crackdown on underage prostitution here is also giving those gringos that live in Costa Rica and just come here for sex tourism trips second thoughts about moving here.
He moved here 6 months ago after spending years living in Asia, and has set up an online newspaper for the expat community. Others run bars and tour companies. Few speak good Spanish despite living here for years. The cathedral's been rebuilt a few times after revolutions, civil wars, etc. We take a trip to Masaya volcano, an active lava burp less than an hour away. Nicaraguans, like all Central Americans are unaccountably proud of their volcanoes, considering the devastation and deaths they regularly cause, featuring them on their flags, bank notes and poetry.