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Nicaragua In the News

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Nicaragua has become the major hot spot of Central American tourism


Of all the nations of Central America, Nicaragua is generally regarded as the safest for tourism — with less street crime and violence, and less pick-pocketing and robberies than even Costa Rica.And yet, though its tourism is growing rapidly in a percentage sense, Nicaragua still receives the fewest tourists of any Central America nation. The civil war between ”Sandinistas” and ”Contras” that ended about 20 years ago and a devastating earthquake that leveled the capital city of Managua are usually cited as the reasons why Nicaragua’s tourist industry is still in its infancy.

Which creates an opportunity for a certain type of American traveler — an adventurous sort who seeks ”the Caribbean as it once was.” Someone who values the emptiness of Nicaragua’s beaches and rain forests, delights in the tiny, 10-room lodgings that make up the great bulk of Nicaragua’s ”hotels” and who enjoys an intimate contact with a people who are gracious to a fault.

In one of the small hotels on Little Corn Island, about 30 miles off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, dinner is served at 7 p.m. sharp and consists of a plate of fish (caught that morning) with two sides washed down by beer, and served uniformly to both the staff of the hotel and its guests, who all eat at the same long table.

If that’s the kind of Caribbean vacation you desire, you find it in Nicaragua.

The other reason for Nicaragua’s growing tourism is less pleasant to discuss: The country suffers from abject poverty, and its price structure is absurdly low.

A devastating article in the June 12 issue of The New York Review of Books pointed out that 80 percent of the country’s population subsist on less than $2 a day. Twenty-seven percent of the population is “undernourished.”

Abandoned by the United States after our successful defeat of the Sandinista movement and left to drift without substantial aid or investment, Nicaragua is governed by a president (Daniel Ortega) who hasn’t the slightest knowledge of economics or a plan to improve his nation’s economy. He survives only because of essentially free oil shipments from Venezuela.

The United States, preoccupied with the Middle East, pays little attention to a nation that once worried us a great deal.

And because everything in Nicaragua is dirt cheap, the country is awash with real estate speculators throwing up retirement homes for elderly Americans, and additional hotels for tourists seeking a vacation in an area near the equator where the weather is hot in every month of the year.

For the tourist interested in culture, the colonial capital of Granada shows the high aesthetic standards of the conquistadores, who left glorious structures that have been well-preserved and reflect the art and architecture of 17th and 18th century Spain. Several of those buildings have been converted into high-quality hotels. The Nicaraguan city of Leon is of similar but lesser interest.

Among the beach areas, the Corn Islands are one of two popular coastal draws. You get there either by plane from Managua (about $175 round-trip) or via a daylong trip by bus and ferry from other cities. Once there, you find yourself in a different world of backpacker-like tourists living in extremely modest lodgings and enjoying nature and a laid-back form of life, to put it mildly. In addition to enjoying a pristine tropical innocence, you snorkel and scuba-dive or simply enjoy the outdoors, to which you walk on tiny Little Corn Island (where there are no cars) or hop a taxi on Big Corn Island, paying $1 as your fare to any point on the Island.

The other tourist magnet is San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast, the site of considerable construction and development. Surfing is the chief draw here and surfers are a special type of visitor whose presence may or may not enthrall you. Surprisingly, the surfers are joined by growing numbers of elderly U.S. retirees, drawn by the claim that $15 a week can hire a sleep-in maid/cook and $20 a week a gardener who doubles as a chauffeur, enabling Americans to live ”like kings” on their Social Security income.

I have been both horrified and offended by these sales pitches, and they highlight the ethical dilemmas posed by economies like Nicaragua’s. To live off another person’s poverty is a frequent decision in travel, justified on the grounds that you are creating a livelihood for the less fortunate. If you’re made comfortable by that rationale (I’m conflicted), then you’ll want to consider Nicaragua for your next vacation.