The Revolution is over. Forget socialist guerrilla poets and CIA-sponsored terrorism; Nicaragua is safe, sedate, and very happy about its new tourist boom. It still loves its machetes though.
Central America could have been one big, unified state. The volcanoes, the coffee plantations and the starch-laden meals remain consistent throughout; only the national prejudices and heroes change. The big difference when crossing into Nicaragua is how cheap and easy travel becomes. That and the reduced threat of kidnapping.
Nicaragua had a pretty shite twentieth century. It was occupied by US marines to crush any fanciful notions of national sovereignty. The despotic Somoza family took over and ruled the country for more than forty years, until the Sandinistas overthrew the regime. Then the US came back, sponsoring the Contra war to destabilise the Sandinista government. Earthquakes and hurricanes periodically destroyed whatever the wars didn’t.
At the end of the century Nicaragua was back where it had started: terribly underdeveloped, but still fiercely proud. It remains the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). Families are large, houses are small, underemployment is high, wages are low; it’s far cheaper to hire ten guys with machetes than to invest in a lawnmower. Despite this, Nicaraguans are a relaxed bunch, and the country consistently ranks as safest in Central America and as one of the safest in Latin America (after Uruguay).
The twenty-first century has started out far better than the last. These days foreign powers only bother to send aid, missionaries and tourists.
Tourism is definitely booming in Nicaragua. You won’t find anything like the crowds of Costa Rica or Mexico, but still, most towns have a few hostels, at least one book exchange/organic coffee house, and a community of expats – usually the only people in town who can afford the local organic coffee – living it up in their restored colonial villas.
Even so, the Nicaraguan tourist trail is narrow and very easy to step away from. Nicaragua is not a densely populated country; wherever you go, expect to be surrounded by shrieking, buzzing, lurking green. Howler monkeys heave and retch during the day and lizards chirp at night. Unpicked fruit swells on the trees. In the cleared spaces, Nicaraguan life unfolds at a languid pace. Water and electricity services are intermittent. The roads are potholed in the dry season and flooded in the wet. A great many people live between a corrugated metal roof and a dirt floor, usually sharing that space with a menagerie of invited and uninvited animals (including blood-sucking insects and, very occasionally, bats).
In every house in Nicaragua you will be sure to find rice, beans and hammocks. The omnipresence of the last of these (the other two become very tedious) may go some way towards explaining how Nicas manage to remain so mellow (the quality of the local rum probably also helps). For a people so consistently shafted by foreign powers Nicas are surprisingly open and interested in the new wave of invaders washing up on their shores.
Most tourists tend to give Managua the widest berth possible. The city has been scarred by earthquakes and wars, but still boasts the country’s best nightlife, its most diverse cultural mix, and a post-apocalyptic historic centre.
LeÃ³n and Granada, rival colonial towns, are the big tourist centres. Both offer crumbling old edifices and access to volcanoes, beaches and lagoons. In LeÃ³n you can try volcano boarding if you’re in particular need of a one-line anecdote for later (don’t expect too much though). Granada is also a jumping off point for Lago Cocibolca.
Colcibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua, is the biggest lake in Central America and a talisman of the country. The lake used to be full of sharks; now it is full of ferries.
The mountainous north is the place to head for hiking, as well as for coffee, chocolate, cigars and cowboy boots. The north Pacific coast is home to a series of pristine beaches, as well as Flor de CaÃ±a rum. The south Pacific is where the cruise ships dock, the surfers interbreed, and Nicas come to forget everything the missionaries taught them.
The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is its own English-speaking world, where the descendents of escaped slaves and isolated indigenous groups dance around their own very special maypole (seriously). Just off the coast are the Corn Islands, and some of the most beautiful beaches in Central America.