It has been several years since I was last in Nicaragua and, like many academics of my generation, Nicaragua has always been more of a concept than a tourist destination. In 1979, the left-wing Sandinistas overthrew the truly oppressive Somoza regime leading to Reagan’s support for the Contras paramilitary groups. That was when, as a student, I helped to send care packages to Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan history is not very nice. Brutal colonization, followed by civil war, William Walker’s (the 19th century’s American colonist) attempt to secure the region and when he failed he burned the cities, 30 years of US occupation at the start of the 20th century and 40 more years of dictatorship under the Samoza family. All this occurred in a land of volcanoes and earthquakes – there is even a caldera in the middle of Managua, the capital!
Managua was completely destroyed by an Earthquake in 1972 and the magnificent city of Leon had to be relocated after eruptions destroyed the first attempt… But this dry land has huge lakes and remarkably friendly people whose faces show their diverse ethnicities rather than the crushing poverty that has defined much on Nicaragua’s history.
Minimum wage is among the lowest in the hemisphere at $120 / month. Many Nicaraguans do not remember the revolution… Half the population is below 20 years of age and the birthrate remains high.
In 2014, 68% of Nicaraguans voted for Daniel Ortega as President and now the revolutionary leader is one of the richest people in his country! However – roads are good, streets are safe, land and houses have been built for the poor (of which there are many) and tourism is on the increase.
The maquiladoras – free-trade factories, endemic to the region – are still here but some are closing.
Before his death, Hugo Chavez gave 30 million dollars to Nicaragua and his face is prominent in Managua.
Nicaragua reminds me somewhat of the leaps being made in Bolivia. A lot of populist rhetoric, yet proof that government can alleviate desperate poverty by focusing on infrastructure and wages.
As this is a tourism blog – and I am currently leading a tour here, I should discuss the destination. With active volcanoes, numerous lakes teaming with wildlife and the absolutely beautiful city of Granada, all reasonably close to Costa Rica’s green parks, Nicaragua is very enjoyable.
The current heatwave is too much. 37 degrees plus 100% humidity… but the winter months here are much nicer.
Nicaragua is extremely affordable, but good hotels are the same price as other countries.
Corruption certainly does exist: on top of all the border fees that add up to about $13 per person, I had to pay $25 facility fee to someone. Walking the safe street of Granada at night I was offered drugs and women.
The capital makes for a good day tour, but with no real pedestrian area, there is little point in staying – particularly when there are excellent parks and beautiful colonial cities close by!
Of course, when one first arrives in Managua, one cannot help but wonder why on Earth someone would found a city on the side of several active volcanoes!!
And, lastly, the reason for so much colonial interest in Nicaragua has now returned to the forefront – a canal to compete with Panama. The concession has been paid… So should construction begin, beautiful Lake Nicaragua may lose many of its endemic species, but the transit route could bring real wealth to a very poor country.