We’re often asked if it’s safe to visit Nicaragua these days. And our answer in a word is ‘yes’. But the situation is complicated, so keep reading for a brief history lesson and our recommendations on how to visit this beautiful country (before everyone else discovers it).
REALITY VS. IMAGE
Nicaragua’s image and the reality on the ground have rarely been on speaking terms. What happens in Nicaragua is a mystery to most, but for such a tiny country to make the news, something really dramatic needs to happen. And unfortunately, Nicaragua has seen more than its fair share of news-making events in the past 25 years…
THE ORIGINAL IMAGE CRASH
From the years since the infamous Contra War in Nicaragua (which was fought along the northern and southern borders) finished in 1990, there has been a gradual increase in international travel to Nicaragua. However, it has also become the second poorest country in the Americas, and Nicaragua’s economy improved like its image - a turtle fast asleep. Until travelers brought change…
Nicaragua’s reputation did take time to recover, but its low crime rate (half the murder rate of tourism darling Costa Rica in 2017), stunning natural beauty, friendly populace and authentic travel experience helped make it a cult favorite with travelers – a place to visit before it got overrun by mass tourism and commercialization. Tourism was lifting Nicaragua out of poverty and transforming the economy… until April 2018.
THE PERFECT STORM
University demonstrations against a slow government response to a forest fire in the precious Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua combined with discontent by senior citizens with a new Social Security law designed to shore up the financially weak institution. In a country where political unrest had been reserved to grumbles and shrugs for 28 years, spontaneous discontent of young and old was forming in Nicaragua’s two biggest cities Managua and León. With the exception of poor farmers, who risked losing their farms through public domain purchases for a planned interoceanic canal, demonstrations and protests in Nicaragua had been confined since 1990 to carefully staged events by the parties vying for leverage and power. Now, without warning, the national police were confronted by legit dissatisfaction.
IT HITS THE FAN
What happened next was the use of lethal force against the university protestors – something that surprised even seasoned observers like me. Using live ammunition to break up the protests caused numerous deaths, and the end result was countrywide indignation and protests. The push to put out a fire and change a law transformed overnight into a movement to change the government.
DAMAGE CONTROL – TOO LITTLE TOO LATE
The government canceled the social security law and the forest fire was put out. But the public was ablaze with discontent. A popular form of protest in Nicaragua is makeshift roadblocks. They are a poor man’s objection. You don’t need group transportation for protestors and the material costs are low (ripping up paving stones or downing trees or burning old tires will do just fine). And unlike in many countries, it is considered a right to do so in Nicaragua. A way to say “enough” when the populace and power are not on the same page.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
Tourism around the world can deal with marches and protests. Tour operators reroute transfers, cancel hotel nights in protest areas and the travel business goes on. However, with such widespread frustration, road blocks of all shapes and sizes sprang up around Nicaragua. International travel inside Nicaragua came to a grinding halt from April – July of 2018. The image turtle – who was just about to shop for track shoes – put his head and feet back in his shell and 28 years of painstaking image improvement was swept away. The bad boy image of Nicaragua was reborn and travel to Nicaragua came to a grinding halt.
DISSENT STOPS HERE
After clearing the roadblocks by force in July of 2018, the government cracked down on protest leaders and media unfavorable of their administration. Thankfully a general amnesty has now been called and opposition groups have been released from custody and all charges dropped. However, the government remains largely isolated by the international community, including the United States, which controls the purse strings of many banks and organisms that had helped Nicaragua push forward economically. Nicaragua, one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America at 5% before the protests, remains in recession. Visitors are trickling back in, but international tourism could take years to return to previous levels.
LIFE VEST OR CEMENT SHOES?
This brings us to a central question. Can an international traveler visit in good conscious the countries which have been ostracized by the international financial and political community? The poorer the country, the greater your travel expenses impact the economy you visit. In times of dire need, tourism is a vital income. But to the benefit of whom? If a government is perceived as being unjust, should the traveler “punish” that government by not visiting? Or who is really punished by tourism drying up?
Governments and their principal players don’t suffer as long as they are in power. The populace however suffers greatly by economic strangulation. All visitors who have traveled in Nicaragua have noted the kindness and openness of the people. This has not changed. What has changed is how they view their government and vice-versa. Travelers should never get involved in politics in any foreign country and Nicaragua is no exception, in fact the Nicaraguan constitution prohibits it. By traveling to Nicaragua, you are not supporting any political cause, rather a human one, of intercultural understanding and economic solidarity.
From a selfish standpoint one could also note that while many destinations are being overrun by uncontrolled tourism, Nicaragua’s dubious international reputation acts as a filter against mindless mass tourism. It is a place where your visit matters to the people who invite you into their country. And because of that, you’ll likely learn a lot about the human spirit and its capacity by seeing the Nicaraguans in dire straights but with their sense of humor and love of life 100% intact.
At Wild Frontiers we have been traveling to countries forgotten or ignored since our company was founded. That is the “wild” in our frontiers – not danger, but going beyond the expected and exploring regions and countries that the world has set aside from its travel agenda.
Wild Frontiers knows from experience that these are the places that welcome us most and where our travel budget makes such a huge and positive impact on the local populace. We practice what we preach, reaching out to the path less traveled to learn about places less known, showing with our visit that cultures need not be homogenized or packaged to our liking to warrant our visit. Nicaragua today is one such place.
THE BACK OF OUR HAND
Not only does Wild Frontiers have decades of experience of taking you to places less traveled. We also have one of the most accomplished Nicaragua travel experts in the English-speaking world. Our Latin America travel specialists know Nicaragua inside and out and can shape your travel experience in this beautiful and misunderstood country perfectly. Give us a shout and we will make sure you leave behind the tourist traps and cash cows and spend your travel dollars enjoying authentic culture and nature with an expert guide on a private tour.