Rivas is not a destination location for tourists and travelers. There are no exciting museums, chocolate factories, cigar studios, or buildings of interest for tourists. There are no universities or cultural centres like in Leon. There are no tourist districts like in Granada. There are no surfers’ havens or party places like in San Juan del Sur on the Pacific. There are no beaches on crystal blue water like you would see on the Corn Islands in the Caribbean. There are no volcanoes nearby to climb. And there are no natural reserves like those found near Las Penitas.
And yet, there is something about this city of almost 30,000 people. Rivas is an icon of day-to-day Nicaraguan life, seemingly untainted by the influences that are found in other Nicaraguan destinations. You won’t find a McDonalds here, or any other North American franchise. Instead, you’ll find restaurants open for supper that you would have sworn were just family homes when you walked by them during the day.
Rivas is essentially a hub city. If you want to head north to Managua, Granada, or Leon, you’ll need to travel through Rivas. If you want to travel to the Pacific beach towns like San Juan del Sur or Popoyo, you need to travel through Rivas. If you want to visit Ometepe Island, you’ll get to the ferry through Rivas. And if you’re heading south to the Costa Rican border, well, you get the picture.
Rivas is just a place for travellers to rest on their way to more interesting places.
My introduction to this city was accidental. Arriving from Ometepe Island, I fully intended to continue south toward Costa Rica. But the flu, or a nasty cold, or whatever it is I had, forced me to go to ground for a few days. I found my way to the Hotel Julieta, where I was given a room for the price of a dorm bed. Only $7 USD per night. For the next week, my wonderful hostess, Julieta, nursed me back to health with soups, smoothies, and therapeutic teas. I grew fond of her and her partner, Mike, and their dog, Nico, who became a permanent fixture on my lap, always looking for a scratch behind the ears. They feel like family to me now.
If you want to experience a typical Nicaraguan life without bumping into a lot of gringos, you might consider spending some time in Rivas. Street markets open early and sell the usual wares that you would find in the bigger cities, only on a smaller scale. Taxis, horse carts, bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles clog the market streets. Whereas the cities might use tuk tuks as transportation, Rivas is partial to the ciclo, a passenger bicycle of sorts. Taxi owners are trying to have the ciclos outlawed, but residents will never give up their inexpensive transportation alternative.
Rivas is like most Nicaraguan cities. There is a central park located opposite the main cathedral, in this case the Iglesia Parroquial de San Pedro. Other churches are scattered throughout the city. Pigeons are abundant. When you sit on a bench in the central park, people come up to you, tell you a story about their woes, and ask you for money. Street vendors cry out the names of their goods. And like in all Central American cities, the most annoying vendors are the men and children selling hammocks, who all get angry at me when I refuse to reach out and feel the texture of the stitching. At the edge of the park are always three flags – the national flag, the Sandinista flag, and the city or municipal flag.
Humans share city space with farm animals. There is virtually no place in town that you will avoid the sound of roosters at 4:00 am. Stray dogs roam the streets and you can sometimes hear them fighting at night. Horses are so widely used that they are nearly as common as cars in the downtown core. It is rare to find a public garbage can anywhere in Nicaragua. So in Rivas, garbage is everywhere, particularly on the market streets, but it is mostly cleaned up before Sunday church service.
Like everywhere in Nicaragua, men are employed on infrastructure projects. But safety never seems to be a priority. In Rivas, the market streets are being torn up to put in new sewage lines. Nothing is fenced off. Holes are wide open to capture the unwary wanderer. I watched as a bulldozer slowly drove forward, tearing up the road, just a few meters behind pedestrians. When enough of the street stones were pulled up, workers lacking in protective equipment, such as steel-toed boots, hard hats, and gloves, would run out and toss the loose stones into the bulldozer’s blade.
At my hostel, they have started renovations. The workers bring their tools and equipment in a cart, pulled by a horse. There are no power tools except for a drill; all wood is cut using a hand saw. The hammers look like they were made in the nineteenth century. Workers crawl up to replace the roofing without using a safety harness.
On the street, pedestrians vie for space with all types of vehicles. Sidewalks are rarely actually sidewalks. Mostly they are just the extensions of residential or commercial property, which is why you can be walking along, first over concrete, then over decorative tile, and then trip over a vehicle ramp or smash your shoulder into a protruding windowsill. In places where it looks like there really is a sidewalk, the space has been claimed by street vendors. Mostly, pedestrians must walk on the streets. Vehicles don’t stop at stop signs for pedestrians. They will slow down to make sure there are no vehicles coming, but they will drive right over your feet if you aren’t careful. The general rule is that if you are an adult hit by a vehicle, the person at fault will be the one with the most money. Although if you are a driver who runs over a child, you will most like be lynched before the police arrive.
If I’ve learned one thing as a pedestrian in Nicaragua, it’s to keep my head up.
The people in Rivas are typical of Nicaraguans in other cities. Almost everyone is friendly and will respond with a smile when I say, “Hola!” People are helpful when I ask for directions. They are respectful when they try to access my money and I say ‘no’. People chat with one another and greet friends with enthusiasm. Women walk with confidence and often carry their possessions or wares on their heads. Most men suffer from machismo and ogle pretty women. Almost all of the adults I’ve seen in Nicaragua are overweight, and Rivas is no different. Children run and play and generally have fun like children are supposed to do. They can have fun with merely a ball for kicking around and a stick for making music on metal posts. Young couples walk hand in hand under streetlights and smooch on park benches. There just isn’t anywhere else for them to go.
Like in all Nicaraguan cities, building doors and windows are barred. House exteriors are often painted in bright colours. Beyond the door of a home is usually found one large room, where all of the family activities occur. There are no screens on the windows. In fact, there is no glass in the windows either. Windows tend to be open and gated or barred, or sometimes they look like lattice-shaped concrete blocks, with holes large enough to let air pass through, but not a person. Doors are more like metal gates. The tops of exterior property walls are often lined with concertina wire or broken bits of glass for security. To keep the bugs off at night, people sleep under mosquito nets or simply bury themselves under a sheet. Hostels only provide sheets for their guests, not blankets. It’s simply too hot at night.
There are expats living in Rivas, but not a lot of them. The ones who live here seem to have arrived and were just too tired to carry on. Properties are less expensive than in the more popular centres, yet you get all of the necessary amenities. As one expat told me, the beaches, volcanoes, and museums are just a drive away. Unlike Granada, it would be difficult to live in Rivas without speaking Spanish.
Rivas isn’t a city to which I would retire. It’s typically Nicaraguan, but a little too vanilla for me. It’s the personal relationships I’ve developed here with the owners of Hotel Julieta that would keep me coming back. That, and the love of the Nicaraguan people and their culture.