Navigating Nicaragua

Nicaragua has been at peace for well over a decade, and it's now becoming a tourist destination.

The country has been at peace for well over a decade, and it's now becoming a tourist destination

Typically the word "Nicaragua" conjures up images of Contras, secret agents and guerilla warfare, rather than somewhere you'd choose to go on a vacation. The reality is, though, that Nicaragua has been at peace for well over a decade - it's just that "peacetime" generally doesn't make the news the way wartime does.

Unlike its Costa Rican neighbour to the south, Nicaragua is still relatively undeveloped - though that's changing. Fast.

And no longer are Americans secretly funding the Contras; instead they're running hotels and bars, even developing beachfront condos.


Most Nicaraguans don't judge Americans by their past governments - they understand well the hypocrisy of politics.

The Cemeterio Granada includes an entombment wall of combatants who lost their lives in the revolution. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
The country has had a turbulent past, much of it connected with outside influences. In 1909, the U.S. Marines first entered Nicaragua. In the 1930s, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, director of the U.S.-established National Guard, planned the assassination of resistance leader Augusto Cesar Sandino and then made himself president after a fraudulent election. He was shot and killed by a poet in 1956. His sons, the Somoza brothers, took over, and thus began a period of torture and imprisonment of political opponents.

In 1974, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), an armed Marxist revolutionary organization named after Sandino - with ties to the KGB - gained prestige after taking several Nicaraguan government officials hostage. The National Guard retaliated by launching a campaign of violence against the FSLN. But the government was humiliated once again in 1978, when the rebels took over the national palace and held 2,000 government officials hostage for two days. By 1979, the FSLN controlled most of the country, and the government fell.

Enter the Reagan administration in 1981. In an attempt to get rid of the FSLN, it funded the Contra rebels (mostly former members of the National Guard) who were hanging out in Honduras to the north. The FSLN formed the Sandinista People's Army, trained by Cubans, Eastern Europeans and Russians. Then there was the whole Iran-Contra scandal, where it was discovered the Reagan administration was secretly diverting funds from weapons sales to Iran.

The '90s saw various elections that resulted in the repeated defeat of the FSLN - but none of the subsequent governments managed to pull the country out of poverty. In 2002, the Sandinistas renamed Daniel Ortega (an important figure in the FSLN) as their party leader, and in 2006 he was re-elected, which didn't exactly thrill the Americans. Today, public opinion is mixed, since Ortega hasn't managed to clean up government corruption or pull the country out of poverty.

Present Day

The civil war hit Nicaragua hard economically, and the effects have lingered. Nicaragua is currently one of the poorest countries in Latin America. According to UNESCO, its GDP per capita is less than $500 US.

Despite its history and economic woes, the country no longer deserves its violent reputation.

The Revolution Museum, displaying heroes and martyrs from the revolution, in Leon. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
The real jewel here is Leon, the political, intellectual and cultural centre of the country - still for the most part proudly pro-Sandinista. You can still see trees painted with red and black rings - the colours of the Sandinista - around town.

This is a city that belongs to the people, and it's not done up for tourists. One night, watching dancers in the Parque Central, I realized I was the only foreigner there - the dancers were performing for the local kids, not for me. In Leon, you're an observer, and that's what makes it refreshingly different from many other destinations in Latin America.

It's poor, no doubt, and many of the buildings are still riddled with bullet holes. This area was hard-hit during the revolution, and it's still struggling to recover, but it's hardly a scary place - just the opposite.

One of the highlights is the revolutionary museum, which runs on such a tight budget the caretakers can only afford to tape faded photos and yellowing newspaper clippings to the walls.

Another is the Museum of Traditions and Legends, which highlights the country's legends (many of which revolve around horrible things happening to men who cheat on their wives - such as being chased by a witch who turns into a ferocious pig). It's housed in the former XX1 jail (in operation from 1921 to 1979), where prisoners were brutally tortured during the revolution. Drawings on the walls depict what happened inside those walls, from beatings with rifle butts to teeth filings.

Towns of note

You can fly to Nicaragua from Canada for about $800. The main airport is based in Managua, the capital, which is pretty sketchy - but you can head straight on to Leon or Granada without spending the night there.

The Iglesia San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
Granada is a sleepy colonial town, though it's slowly being gentrified, and there's a sense this is being done for the benefit of foreigners, as opposed to the locals who actually live there. It's a true pleasure, however, to simply get lost as you wander through the cobblestone streets, past brightly coloured houses. It's one of those places you can get stuck a while, without intending to, though it still has some rough edges.

In the northern part of the country is Esteli, in the highlands on the way to the Honduras border (so it's a bit cooler than blazing-hot Leon or Granada). Known for its nature reserves and waterfalls, it's also a great place to pick up some high-quality Nicaraguan cigars.

Other areas in the region worth visiting are Moroponte, Tomabu and La Mocuana.

As you can see, the country is not all bullet holes and guerilla memorabilia. The Corn Islands, tucked away in a far-off corner of the Caribbean, are still relatively undeveloped - you can have entire stretches of white-sand beach entirely to yourself.

The area is in the throes of development, though, so it probably won't stay that way for long. Here, you don't feel like you're in Nicaragua anymore - it's more Caribbean, with an edge.

Play safe

The poverty is impossible to miss in this part of the country, so walking around in a sarong with a beach bag does feel a tad uncomfortable.

A shipwreck off the coast of the Corn Islands in the Caribbean. ((Vawn Himmelsbach) )
The Corn Islands used to be (and, many say, still are) part of the drug-trafficking route from Latin America to the rest of the drug-addicted world, and it's also a stopover for pirates. The region is much safer these days, so they say, but tourists are still urged to take a taxi at night rather than strolling alone.

On the Pacific coast is San Juan del Sur, a haven for surfers. The deserted beaches outside of town are much nicer than the one in town, but the scene is not as laid-back as it may appear - many foreigners have been robbed on these beaches (or walking to them), so it's not smart to venture off on your own.

If you're careful and you're a surfer, this is one of the best spots you'll find for the sport in Central America. And the town generally caters to the surfer crowd.

It's best to avoid the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) in the north, along the Honduran border - there have been incidents of banditry here.

There are shuttle bus services to most major destinations around the country. It's possible to rent a car, but the cheapest option (just a few dollars) is to take the local chicken buses. A lot of travellers are afraid to travel this way, which is a shame, because it's a true highlight of travelling through Central America - in fact, if you're worried about bandits, you're much more of a target on a giant fancy tourist bus than you ever will be on a local "chicken bus."

No matter where you're going, a good tip is to wear a money-belt and carry your valuables in a daypack on your lap. It helps to have at least a basic understanding of Spanish, because you'll probably have to change buses a few times if you're travelling around the country, and it can get confusing - but it's also a great way to practice your Spanish with the locals.

Travel costs

But don't focus too much on all the scary things you've heard about Nicaragua - you will likely be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.

You can get a clean, basic room in a family-run guesthouse for under $10, though Granada and the Corn Islands tend to be a bit pricier than the rest of Nicaragua. A mid-range hotel costs between $10 and $20, or you can splash out on a fancy Spanish colonial-style hotel with courtyards, gardens and fountains for a bit more.

Colourful doorways like this one are a common sight along the streets of Granada. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
It's not necessary to book a room in advance - there are plenty of options out there, and you may want to look around for the best deal. In basic guesthouses, air conditioning typically costs extra, and sometimes even doubles the price of the room.

While Nicaragua is a poor country, it's surprisingly easy to find almost anything you need, from camera batteries to USB keys to toiletries (thanks, in part, to a booming ex-pat community). U.S. dollars are a better idea than Canadian currency because they're widely accepted, though you'll usually get a better rate in cordobas, the local currency (it's also easier to use cordobas when you're off the beaten path). Credit cards are widely accepted in the cities, but you'll have a tough time exchanging traveller's cheques.

If you eat like the gringos do, expect to pay more - from $10-$20 per meal. If you eat like the locals do - rice, beans and fried chicken - you'll only spend a few dollars per meal.

Gallo pinto is a typical dish that Nicaraguans eat almost daily (it's considered a national symbol). It's a mixture of fried rice, red beans, sweet pepper, onion and garlic. Other local dishes include nacatamal (dough made from ground corn and butter, filled with pieces of pork or chicken, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet pepper and onion and cooked in a plantain leaf), vigoron (yucca, fried pork skins and cabbage salad on a plantain leaf) and, for dessert, tres leches (milk, condensed milk and cream, on cake with meringue).

And try the fresh fruit shakes, made with milk or water and the fruit of your choice, either  bananas, mangos or papayas. A final note: One thing you won't succeed at in Nicaragua -weight loss.

The author is a Toronto-based writer and world traveler, often journeying alone to destinations far off the beaten path.