San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

León Seeks Lion’s Share of Tourism Market

MANAGUA Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva traveled to Managua for the first time as President to visit with Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega and discuss how Latin America s largest economy can help one of hemisphere s poorest.

Meeting with Ortega Aug. 6, Lula said that he would sign as many accords as needed to contribute to growth, development and social justice in Nicaragua.

By the next day, the two leaders had hashed out 19 separate accords, including plans to build a 68-megawatt hydroelectric plant that will be financed by Brazil.

Yet President Ortega ultimately rejected the Brazilian leader s offer to produce ethanol here, a fuel source that Lula touts as a safe and inexpensive way to power both vehicles and homes.

As part of his five-country tour to promote alternatives to oil, Lula said that Brazil s 30-year experience in manufacturing sugarcane-based ethanol could help put an end to Nicaragua s chronic blackouts.

Every country has an energy problem, Lula said at an Aug. 7 press conference. If all countries have that technology (for ethanol), they will know how to dig a 30-centimeter hole and plant a seed that will produce the oil that they are going to need.

Sandinista officials, however, told reporters that producing ethanol would be technically unfeasible here and that Nicaragua s sugarcane is already slated for use in Flor de Caña rum.

Ortega in the past has criticized ethanol, arguing that it wastes productive land to fuel SUVs when it should be used to produce food for the hungry. Mexico has also rejected a similar offer from Brazil.

Still, many suspect that Ortega is deferring to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a prominent ethanol critic who has quickly become Nicaragua s biggest aid donor.

Despite the setback in producing biofuels, Lula vowed to continue cooperation.Brazil has one the largest economies in the region, with an annual gross domestic product of $966.8 billion, compared to Nicaragua s $4.9 billion.

Before leaving Managua for visits to Panama and Jamaica, Lula offered to cancel Nicaragua s $5.9 million debt with Brazil and promised to finance several social programs in addition to the hydroelectric plant.

Touring with Lula were 30 Brazilian business leaders, who expressed an interest in investing in Nicaragua.

Expanding Ties

The day-long visit by Lula is the latest effort by the Sandinista government to broaden commercial ties with as many countries as possible. Ortega, who relied mainly on Cuba and Soviet support in the 1980s, has signed agreements with more than a dozen countries to fund social programs and alleviate Nicaragua s $3.7 billion foreign debt.

Spain was among the most recent, canceling the $31 million Nicaragua owed and contributing $5.5 million for the country s health care. The former revolutionary government has also established ties with North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, provoking concerns in the United States, Nicaragua s largest trading partner (NT, Aug. 17).

U.S. government officials and potential foreign investors say they hope the Brazilian President will prove a moderating counterweight to Chávez s influence.

Brazil is an example of a leftist government that is responsible and democratic, U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli told reporters at a recent stop in Bluefields.

Historic Visit

This is Lula s first visit to Nicaragua as head of state, and the first time ever that a Brazilian President has visited here. Lula met with Ortega in 1980, when he headed the socialist Workers Party under a military dictatorship and Ortega was Nicaragua s revolutionary leader.

I am very happy, not just because I have returned to Nicaragua, but because Daniel  Ortega has returned to the presidency of Nicaragua, Lula said.

Nevertheless, Brazil s promotion of ethanol is at odds with other leftwing leaders, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, who recently wrote that using food crops for fuel could lead to hunger and genocide. At the July 20 inauguration of the Bolivarian oil refinery near León, both Ortega and Chávez lambasted the alternative fuel (NT, July 27).

With Lula at his side Aug. 7, Ortega attempted to clarify his position by saying that he was critical only of U.S. President George W. Bush s plans to use corn-based ethanol.

Some media have been speculating that we are going to fight and confront the president of Brazil on the subject of ethanol, which is absurd, Ortega said.

Ortega s apparent waffling on the ethanol issue led the opposition daily La Prensa to criticize him in the Aug. 12 headline by implying that he was lost in a labyrinth of rhetoric.

Both Ortega and Lula say they share broad similar goals, namely in fighting poverty.

The ambitious Zero Hunger initiative started here is modeled after a similar program in Brazil, called Fome Zero.

The two leaders also jointly criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba and called for dialogue to end the war in Iraq.

But Lula s trip was less jovial and fiery than Chávez s three visits to Nicaragua this year. The Venezuelan leader often mentions old Sandinista battles against U.S. imperialism and the back and forth speeches with Ortega can go on for hours as the two leaders add to each others points.

During a Managua ceremony attended by a few hundred Sandinista supporters Aug. 7, Lula s most impassioned moments were talking about soccer, Brazil s national pastime.

Lula listened politely to Ortega, but looked at his watch several times before leaving to catch a plane to Jamaica.

As one of Latin America s most diverse and fastest-growing economies, however, Brazil offers some different selling points than neighboring Venezuela, experts say.

You have to export something to have a trade zone, said Riordan Roett, director of  Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. And all Venezuela has is oil.

Medrano says that tourism here has very organic roots in that local families needed to make a few extra dollars, so they rented rooms to out-of-town university students.

Restaurants, too, started mostly as simple establishments geared toward university students who were looking for cheap eats in between classes, he said.

As a result, Medrano estimates that 85% of the hotels and most of the restaurants in León are owned by locals, whereas much of the tourism businesses in Granada are owned by foreigners.

It was not until 2000, when the landmark El Convento hotel opened inside an elegantly reconstructed former convent downtown, did León get put on the map as a tourist destination for folks other than backpackers, students and weekend budget travelers.

El Convento quickly made a name for itself nationally and internationally, and by 2004 three new mid- to upper-range hotels had opened close by: Los Balcones, La Posada del Doctor and Hotel San Juan de León.

Now all the hotels are full. Reservations are almost a must when visiting León, where hotel occupancy is among the highest in the country, according to hotel operators.

A McDonald s is scheduled to open the transnational clown-faced hamburger peddler s first encroachment into this colonial city and three new bank branches two BanPros and a BAC are also scheduled for pending inaugurations.

As the tourism offering has gotten more diverse and higher-end, it has also become more international. One of León s newest restaurants is also its best.

Casa la Golosa, a new French restaurant that just opened one block north of Tierra Tour, has brought a new level of international cuisine to León and to Nicaragua. Located inside a beautifully remodeled and cheerfully painted colonial home, Casa la Golosa offers some of the best service and finest food in the country and at a price that seems almost unfair to the owners. The seafood brochette alone, for under $10, makes the trip to León worth the drive.

King of the Pride

Aside from some notable exceptions, León s growth spurt in recent years has been characterized mostly by the addition of new youth hostels some of which have really set new standards for backpacker joints.

Lazy Bones, a friendly hostel that opened last year with a pool and private rooms that are nicer than those of most comparably priced hotels, is a far cry from the traditional fleabag lodges that normally pass as backpacker holding cells.

But one new hotel is about to change the way that tourism is done in León.

Hotel La Perla, located in one of the city s most historic and elegant neo-classic homes, is about to do for tourism in León what David Ortiz did for the Red Sox lineup in 2004.

La Perla, León s largest tourism investment to date, is scheduled to open by the end of August and will feature 15 hotel rooms, a world-class restaurant, a bar and possibly a casino.

Some of the rooms are set around a small swimming pool in the back, with other, larger rooms including several two-room units occupying the uniquely designed second story overlooking the street and a front courtyard. Two life-size, white marble lions that were custom chiseled in China will greet guests as they walk through the ironwrought gates and up the front steps into the elegant lobby, which was beautifully and painstakingly restored.

Business partners Mark McKnight and Jim Petersen delight in the history of their old home a colorful past that they have taken great efforts to learn and revive in the making of La Perla.

Though the sign on the front of the house says 1808, McKnight says he discovered that the home was probably built a century after that date by a powerful León landowner. In the 1930s, the home served as León s Social Club and played host to many weddings and birthday parties for the city s well to do.

In the 1960s, the building became part of the NationalUniversity s LawSchool, before later being transformed into a barbershop, a Chinese restaurant, university apartments and evidently a clandestine meeting spot for Sandinista insurgents in the 1970s.

Petersen says that construction workers found hidden under the floorboards of the house full clips of bullets for M1 assault rifles, which were promptly turned over to police to avoid any potential misunderstandings about who was planning a revolution.

We got those out of here real quickly, Petersen said with a laugh.

The appreciation of architectural history is apparent in virtually every detail of the restoration and remodeling of La Perla.

In addition to restoring an elegant century-old wooden staircase and banister to its stately former self, McKnight and Petersen have also worked to save and restore all the original wood ceilings and decorative work.

The two were thrilled to discover underneath some of the concrete columns of the house the original wooden columns that had been encased in cement years ago by previous owners. With careful chisel work, construction workers were able to chip off the concrete casing to restore the elegant wooden structures that had been mummified for decades.

The original carriage entrance to the home was then turned into a kitchen that will prepare nightly meat and fish specials for the hotel s restaurant.

Antique furniture and doors were restored and repaired, and a new fountain was built in the front courtyard to highlight a century-old palm tree that came with the house and could be one of the oldest palms of its kind to exist anywhere, according to research by Petersen.

It has given us a real sense of pride in restoring this old building and knowing that it will be here for another 100 years or so, Petersen said. The more you walk around the more you appreciate the architecture and the people in León who are trying to restore it.

McKnight and Petersen also bought the old cinema across the street from La Perla, a funky structure that they jokingly call The Blue Monster for it s enormous blue-metal façade and slight resemblance to the left field wall at Boston s FenwayPark.

The Blue Monster is now scheduled for a major facelift to get in sync with the colonial feel of the city,McKnight said.

The building will have a neo-classical façade built and will be turned into León s first indoor parking garage, with the potential to be converted into a convention center and casino,McKnight said.

The ultimate goal, according to McKnight, is have the best hotel in León, which will help the city s tourism offering compete with Granada and the rest of the country.

Hotel El Convento set the bar here and we are going to try to do better, McKnight said. But competition is good. The more quality places we have here, the more quality an attraction León will become.

Contact Information

Hotel La Perla

La Posada de Doña Blanca

Tel. 311-2521.

Lazy Bones Hotel,

Tel. 311-3472

Restaurante Casa La Golosa

Tel. 311-2869

Hotel El Convento

Tel. 311-7053

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