Nicaragua was not on any of our lists of places to visit — I don’t think my wife and I had ever even said the word Nicaragua to each other before my wife’s company began doing business there. For a Central American trip, Costa Rica would have been a more likely choice, and we had talked about doing just that in 2002 — I had convinced her to marry me on the Amalfi coast in Italy instead.
Like many Americans, if my wife had said, “hey, let’s vacation in Nicaragua”, it would have given me pause. I’m sure my response would have been “what? … why? … … what?!?”. My first thoughts would have to do with Sandinistas, Contras, incursions from Honduras, an unstable government, unfriendly socialists, violence and poverty.
The poverty aspect may have some degree of truth — I’ve read that Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. Despite the State Department’s warning to avoid public demonstrations (a great idea in any country), we found the country to not be affluent, but it was also friendly, beautiful and inviting. Even our brush with the Nicaraguan military wasn’t all that off-putting.
In any event, my wife’s company sent her to Nicaragua, and my first response was “you’re not going down there by yourself”.
On the flight from Miami to Managua, we sat next to a native Nicaraguan, now a current US Citizen working in Miami. She seemed pleased that we would be visiting Managua and San Juan del Sur. I got the impression that she wanted us to see the best parts of her country — Nicaraguans definitely have pride in their country, but not in an off putting “we’re better than you” manner. She was both friendly and quite gracious for my assistance with her bag — given my 6’1″ frame, and her not quite 5’0″ frame, the overhead bin was nearly impossible for her, and not an issue for me. This was our first, and very pleasant, encounter with the citizens of Nicaragua. There were exactly zero unpleasant experiences.
Our stay in Managua was pleasant enough. We spent one night on each end of our trip at the Camino Real near the airport. Oddly, the picture on their homepage doesn’t do justice to the hotel. Our stay in Managua was limited to the hotel and driving through some poor-looking sections. The Camino Real has a mostly gracious, reserved, friendly staff, an inviting bar, a free welcome drink and a very reasonably priced restaurant. On the night before traveling back, we spent an hour at their beautiful pool sipping wine and watching some corporate visitors having quite a lot of fun. (And this picture does the pool no justice either.)
On the road from Managua to San Juan, we tossed our luggage into the back of a pickup. Pickups seem to be the mode of transport. It’s not uncommon to see a Toyota pickup with 8 people sitting or standing in the back. (It’s also not terribly uncommon to see oxen or horses pulling carts, rickshaws, and bicycles all sharing the road. At one point, we saw a small pony darting across the two-lane highway. You’ll see many methods of transportation.) We definitely saw some poorer areas on the road. However, stands selling good were everywhere. Capitalism is alive in Nicaragua!
I had noticed only one US-style strip mall in any of the towns we drove through — most of the edifices were pretty modest by North American standards. As a fellow travel companion and I agreed on, we were pretty surprised by the amount of garbage seen by the side of the road near Managua. In the picture below, you can see a modern gas station with a simple stand built out nearest to our driver, Jennifer. The stands are ubiquitous, the gas stations less so.
The reason for our trip, to drop off Dane to address issues with one of the company’s turbines, was quite interesting. The turbines do fit the landscape quite well, but it’s a little out-of-place to see these very modern edifices after seeing other structures that are quite a bit more modest in design.
In San Juan, we were guests at The Pelican Eyes Resort. This resort is quite picturesque, and given the foliage, reminds me a great deal of Italy.
Walking out of our resort, one immediately notices a change in affluence.
I referred to the resort as “the compound” as it was protected by a boom barrier and one, often two, uniformed security guards controlling ingress and egress. Taking a back road into the resort, one is also presented with a boom barrier and similar uniformed security.
The change in affluence though is not to say the area around the resort is dangerous. In fact, the area seems to have many small businesses and families living in close proximity.
We often mistake lack of affluence for danger, or at least I’ll admit some guilt in that area. (Affluent neighborhoods in Chicago seem to be experiencing a crime rate, not on par with an affluence that one might think brings safety.) Employees and resort guests appear to be welcome to come and go from the resort. My first thought is that the resort likely provides a decent amount of revenue for San Juan. Would-be criminals are likely not very welcome, especially given the potential for bad press given social media and online reviews.
If you are a thief, and you want to find your way into Pelican Eyes beyond security, you’re then welcome to climb 100-300 stairs to rob someone’s room. Then you need to climb back down, get around security again to get away with my dirty laundry.
The area around the resort reminded me of my neighborhood growing up before it turned bad. Lots of families outside, little stores, a church, plenty of street activity — kids playing, dogs sleeping on the sidewalk, people sitting outside at night talking and visiting. Quite different from the modern-day American suburbia where we drive into our garage and press the garage door opener button to seal ourselves away. (And that is only to say that it’s different, not better or worse.)
In this little Nicaraguan neighborhood, I didn’t ever feel threatened, and to some extent, while carrying an E2D LED Defender Ultra didn’t create overconfidence, it didn’t hurt either. As it turned out, it was particularly helpful navigating the dimly lit 311 stairs back to the room. (Interestingly, the retired Army Colonel we were traveling with noticed “the defender” immediately.)
We were approached my street vendors on several occasions. A simple “no” or shake of the head sent them packing. Except for one who had just the hat I needed at the rock bottom price of $10. He will not be getting rich anytime soon unless he’s acquiring those hats for free. Even then, he’s not getting rich soon.
The resort itself, as these pictures show, is quite beautiful. This was our view daily for breakfast.
In the evenings, our views looked like this.
Overall, not tough to take.
The highlight of our trip was a sailing adventure. We docked off a white sandy beach and Terry, Sue Anne and Dee all swam to shore (note to self — bring trunks to Nicaragua next time).
Soon after they returned from the beach, it became home to 8-12 Nicaraguan Army regulars. That’s a story for another time.
A little side trip I took was to Fight Club San Juan. I wasn’t able to take a class there, and there were no heavy bags to practice on. To say this gym is gritty is an apt description. There is a boxing ring where presumably classes are held. There were a few mats, some mirrors for shadow boxing, a bunch of free weights and no lack of weight benches. I enjoyed working out there quite a bit, my wife not so much.
One particularly nice feature of the gym was the temperature. It was easily 90 degrees inside, so working up a sweat was quite easy. I was soaked after 5 minutes of shadow boxing.
Should we return to San Juan, I would definitely spend a bit more time there.
Whatever the politics here, the people seem to be interested in capitalism and business.
To a large extent, given my last few experiences in France, I honestly feel safer in the bits of Nicaragua I have seen than I do in Paris — at the very least, people here are not trying to take advantage of me and preaching to me about whoever happens to be taking up residence in the White House. They are happy to provide a service — they are always gracious when accepting tips. While they might want to sell me a hat or might be working hard for a tip, they are definitely looking to trade rather than take advantage of. My recollections of Paris are replete with taxi drivers trying to rip me off, restaurant owners wanting to lecture me on the evils of America and hawkers stopping me in the street trying to swindle money out of me. In the future, it’s Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur and other parts there, not Paris.