Most travellers, experiencing RIVAS as a dusty bus stop on the way to or from Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur or Ometepe, are unaware of the pivotal role it played in Nicaraguan history. Founded in 1736, it became an important stop on the route of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company, which ferried goods and passengers between the Caribbean and the Pacific via Lago de Nicaragua – the town’s heyday came during the California Gold Rush, when its streets were full of prospectors travelling with the Transit Company on their way to the goldfields of the western US. Modern-day Rivas isn’t anything special, and can seem scarily deserted at night, but it’s not a bad place to get stuck, especially if you fancy a taste of the real Nicaragua between gringo-tastic Granada and San Juan del Sur.
The colonial church near the Parque Central, La Parroquia San Pedro, is worth a visit, primarily for a fresco featuring a maritime-themed depiction of Catholicism triumphing over the godless communists. The desperately underfunded Museo de Antropología e Historia de Rivas sits four blocks west and two north of the Parque, with fine views of the rest of the town. Inside you’ll find artefacts of the local Nahua Nicarao people dating from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, prehistoric bones (thought to be from a mammoth), some frightening stuffed animals and a few dusty 78rpm records from the early twentieth century.