I recently returned to Nicaragua. My only previous visit was towards the end of the Long Trip in June-July 1980. Then, the left-wing Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship less than one year previously. Damage from the war was still widely visible in the country, as was evidence of the devastating earthquake that destroyed Managua in December 1972.
My most vivid recollection of that time was that most of the Sandinistas on the streets and at checkpoints, dressed in green fatigues and carrying weapons, were teenagers. In Managua there were also a fair number of other backpackers and international visitors, later dubbed the “Sandalistas”. Having missed the Cuban Revolution, here was a chance to see another leftist revolution unfold, and either observe it firsthand or give some support. In retrospect, it may have been the last extension of the leftist/Marxist philosophy during the Cold War before it all started unraveling.
From an outsiders perspective, at least in my case in my mid-20s and moderately sympathetic, the Sandinista revolution all seemed sincere enough. A few of us went to see a movie “Commandante Che: Amigo”. The most obvious sign of change was a major push for extending literacy. Signs throughout the country would read “Si tu eres Cristiano, alfabetisar su hermano” (If you are Christian, teach your brother how to read). A young man with glasses and a moustache, Daniel Ortega, was the new face and leader of the revolution. Back then, I stopped only in Granada, spent about ten days in Managua, and then stopped briefly in Leon, before continuing up to Honduras.
Coming back to Nicaragua now made me think of what it might have been like to visit Western Europe in, say, the late 1950s. Visible damage from the civil war years, (which continued for another decade throughout the 1980s as the USA, under Ronald Reagan, supported and funded the Contra rebels), is now gone. The country is relatively poor and inexpensive, and at least to my initial surprise, has become very popular with visitors.
Perhaps its popularity should not have come as a surprise. Nicaragua is significantly less expensive than the Central America countries to the south, but is not plagued with the extent of crime and security problems found in the countries further north. I met many other travelers who had made the same calculation. Infrastructure is improving, particularly in the southwest corner of the country which is the most popular area for visitors. Boutique hotels are being opened, “voluntourism” is encouraged, and options for fair trade, eco-friendly, small scale visits to coffee plantations etc. are becoming increasingly common.
On this trip I spent some time in the colonial city of Granada, less than an hour away from the international airport. Other than enjoying the colonial ambience, I also went out to Las Isletas, a string of small islands in the lake not far from Granada and walked around the active volcano of Masaya. I stayed at the charming Mombacho Ecolodge, not far from Granada half way up Volcan Mombacho which dominates the skyline from Granada. I later went to Isla de Ometepe, a dramatic and charming twin-peaked island in Lago Colciboca (I still prefer Lago Nicaragua), the largest lake in the western hemisphere between the Great Lakes and Lake Titicaca. The Pacific Coast is also becoming more popular with its touristic apex around the town of San Juan del Sur. I opted to stay further north at the superb beach of Playa Popoyo. Most famous among international surfers, it remains a quiet little paradise, with wide beaches extending for kilometres in either direction.
The Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are a typical but very low-key Caribbean paradise, very different from the rest of Nicaragua and predominantly English speaking with that classic Caribbean lilt “dat inspired de name of dis website”. They are located about 65 kilometres off the Atlantic coast from the port city of Bluefields. The flight lands at Big Corn Island. To arrive at Little Corn Island, it is pain before pleasure. The “panga” ride in an open boast last about forty bone-shaking minutes over 16 kilometers of often rough water. Near the front you get a more violent bashing, near the back more of a soaking, though most of the passengers managed to take cover under a green tarpaulin. Little Corn is the more popular island for visitors. It has no roads, no vehicles and is only three square kilometres in size. Although it is somewhat more expensive than the mainland, by Caribbean island standards the costs are very reasonable. The diving was excellent.
Finally I went up to the mountainous coffee country around Matagalpa and Jinotega, driving north from Managua. This was the area from which the Sandinista revolution was launched and in which the battle between the Contra rebels and the Sandinistas continued for more than a decade after I left. Now, more than two decades later, nearly all signs of that are are gone and the area prides itself as the coffee heart of the country.
I met more than a few Canadians on this trip, escaping part of a particularly tough winter back home, in this charming country. The one real reminder of my journey to Nicaragua 34 years ago, were the political posters that I saw throughout the country of Daniel Ortega, back to being President of the country since 2006. He is now flatteringly portrayed as somewhat older and fuller in face. It was an interesting connection to a bygone revolutionary age.