words + photos by Ellen Barone
Here's the truth: I want to tell you about Nicaragua and its wild, deserted Pacific beaches, active volcanoes, colonial cities, coffee plantations, and verdant mountains— but then again, I don't.
Writing about delicate cultures like Nicaragua, where complex political, geographical and economic realities have resulted in hardships on one hand - and a simpler, more grounded way of life on the other - always brings up mixed feelings in me.
I want tell you what is great about Nicaragua – a country where gracious women with colorful bundles perched atop their heads amble past colonial buildings painted in faded pastel colors; where green, cloud-fringed volcanoes tower over terra-cotta rooftops; where roadside stands overflow with a colorful bounty of tropical fruits and vegetables; where a quilt of fertile plots blankets the valleys and gentle sloping mountains – but I’m afraid you’ll go en masse and turn it into the Familiar.
While the United States has a shady legacy in Nicaragua, I, an obvious American, was welcomed there. More than a million Nicaraguans live in the United States, and just about everyone seems to know someone living in Florida, Texas or California. "The conflicts are in the past now," a taxi driver in Managua said gently. "We are, at heart, poets, not fighters.”
I experienced this gentle forgiveness and genial warmth often during my three trips to the country. Trusting, honest, and helpful, the Nicaraguan people are the real spirit and charm of the country. Ask for directions and Nicas, as they call themselves, are likely to set aside what they’re doing and lead you where you want to go. Poke your head in an open doorway and they invite you in. Ask to take their photograph and they reward you with a dazzling smile — spontaneous and heartfelt. Express interest in something they are doing, whether it’s weaving a basket or painting a pot and they’ll show you how it’s done. A simple “Como está?” (“How are you?”) and the floodgates open, releasing a charming torrent of Spanish. Their convivial and heart-felt responses are sprinkled with mimed expressions and gestures, as if they anticipate a foreigner’s language difficulties.
Until a few years ago, Nicaragua remained at the edge of my conscious mind as an enigmatic locale: A place of revolution and natural disaster — destination non grata for travelers. However, as a professional wanderer, I embrace destinations off the beaten path. “It’s my job,” I told my neighbor when she asked why I couldn’t “find somewhere safe to go.”
In the plane, I did some cursory but revealing research. “Interpol crime statistics put Nicaragua second only to Canada among the safest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica to the north and south, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean to the east and west, the real image of Nicaragua is a country that is safe and one that is rich in natural resources. Here you can have an authentic experience that will make your travels much richer...” read one tourist brochure.
Once you are on the ground, the hardship inflicted by decades of dictatorship, treachery and revolution is certainly evident. It’s also clear that the country is more challenged by decay and neglect than by violence and crime. Much of the grandeur of Nicaragua’s colonial cities, a Spanish legacy, has faded. An assorted stream of vintage tractors, sputtering scooters, and horse and ox carts share potholed roads with wheezing yellow school buses-- worn-out relics shipped down the Pan-American Highway from North America.
There is real struggle, but an alegría de vivir (“joy of life”) appears to win out. The country pulses with optimism about its future. In December 2005, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cancelled Nicaragua's US$5.309 billion in foreign debt. Fresh coats of brightly- colored paint adorn old facades. New houses and improved roads announce the presence of a burgeoning class of returning Nicaraguans and foreign expats. Where guerilla fighters once roamed, an army of college-educated twenty-somethings (in 2006, 65% of Nicaragua's population was under the age of 25) is eager to shape their country into a land of opportunity. Their weapons are intelligence, enthusiasm and hope.
Consider Ana Azalea Zavala, a mischievous 5-foot bundle of spunk and enthusiasm whom I met in Managua. Like many of her generation, Ana spent part of her childhood in the United States when her family left in the 1980s to escape from the Sandinista Regime. After the regime was voted out in 1990 by a nation desperate to end the war, the Zavalas – along with many of those who fled – came back. "My dad´s dream of coming back to our country always filled my brothers and me with hope. We thought it was important to return. We lived many years in the United States and had a good life there, but we love, and have a responsibility to, our country. It feels good to be back."
Since 1990 the number of visitors to the resilient Central American nation, has grown steadily. In 2009, the country of six million people, roughly the size of New York State, hosted 931,904 foreign tourists. It’s no longer absurd to speak of it as a destination where delighted tourists will find market stalls stocked with bright hammocks or go boating on Lake Nicaragua or surf Pacific waves.
Ironically, it is the nation’s turbulent history, and subsequent snub by the outside world, that has protected Nicaragua from being inundated by consumer culture: it isn’t paved over with blacktop, overrun by tourists, or ‘globalized’ to look like everywhere else — yet. Nicaragua’s delights are simple, natural, personal and inexpensive.
Among my favorite activities are wandering into a pottery studio smelling of earth and clay, where the potter throws his pots on a wheel in the back, or the home of a weaver, basket maker, furniture craftsman, or wood carver, to buy directly from the artisan. I love bringing my coffee aficionado friends organic, shade-grown beans purchased from a cloud-forest farm. I even participated in a harvest and observed expert rollers practicing their delicate art at one of the country’s cigar makers/factories. And it felt good knowing that my purchases, taxi rides, meals and hotel stays directly affected lives in a country where many people earn less than $1 a day.
While Nicaragua may not have the infrastructure and services comparable to its better-known and more trampled neighbor, Costa Rica – it offers some of the greatest natural gems in all of Central America: the largest area of primary-growth rain forest north of the Amazon, mist-shrouded cloud forests, and steamy jungles, more than 600 species of birds, as well as jaguars, sloths, monkeys, toucans, manatees, crocodiles, and the world’s only freshwater sharks.
“You like Nicaragua?” an old and weatherworn woman asked me after I had joined her on a park bench in Granada on one of my trips. “Si, me gusta muchísimo.” (“Yes, I like it very much”) I replied in my best Spanish. “Por supuesto,” (of course) she said quietly, more to herself than to me, as she gently took my hand, wished me well, “Vaya con dios” (“Go with God”), rose and walked away; her gait transmitting the blend of resignation and dignity I’ve come to associate with Nicaragua.
For more information go to www.Visit-Nicaragua.com
Travel journalist and YourLifeIsATrip.com co-founder Ellen Barone did what many of us only dream of doing: at the age of 35, she traded a successful academic career for the wild blue yonder and set out to explore the world and herself. In the dozen years since that intrepid decision, she's journeyed to more than 70 countries in search of evocative images and life-enriching adventures. For the latest travel news, tips and reviews visit EllenBarone.com.