Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Las ultimas palabras sobre Nicaragua

Since our final days in Nicaragua we have spent a considerable amount of thinking time trying to nail down exactly why our overall travel experience there left us feeling rather disappointed or negative in its conclusion.

Nicaraguan Sunset - Colette

Like any ‘exotic’ place in the world, Nicaragua undoubtedly has its gems. We had some really good times while we were there. Despite my fear of sounding spoilt or ignorantly judgmental, I have to say that the ‘really good’ times were few and far between, unlike the travel experiences we have had elsewhere. We gave Nicaragua a good enough shot. We managed to see quite a bit of the country and what it had to offer, and in the end we spent a considerable amount of time there, but not necessarily by our own choosing.

Infinity pool at Pelican Eyes resort in San Juan del Sur during 'happy hour'

Through our travels we have learnt firsthand that people are the factor that makes all the serious difference in an experience. With that in mind we are able to recall some outstanding people we met in Nicaragua and their inspiring work. In our eyes, these are the shining diamonds of Nicaragua’s tourism underworld: Diego and his Escuela de Comedia y Mime in Granada, the good people behind the sustainable projects of Selva Negra near Matagalpa and Totoco Eco-lodge on Ometepe Island, our dear hosts and friends at Hotel Valeria in Granada, the welcoming vagabond ex-pats of San Juan del Sur, and of course all the wonderfully warm folk of Tola district near Rivas.

Louise and Andres - just two of the many friendly faces to be found in San Juan del Sur

Despite these truly hospitable and lovely people, we are left with an overall sense that, in all brutal honesty, Nicaragua was not worth such an extensive visit from a traveler’s perspective. It just does not have anything really enthralling to offer when compared to the travel experiences readily available in other parts of Central America.

Nicaragua’s tourism profile paints a very enticing picture for its travel destinations, and in a way this provides clues as to where the focus of the industry seems to be the strongest. The excessively favored Pacific Coast beaches of Nicaragua and its surf scene are actually great destinations, and for that reason are indeed worthy of being placed on the country’s list of travel hot spots. The obvious problem is that not everybody who travels does it for surfing. Likewise, only hanging out at the beaches does not really give you a chance to get to know Nicaragua any deeper than the whitewash.

Playa Maderas

The main problem with this one sided approach is that the other leading travel destinations in the country tend to leave you with an uncanny sense of disappointment; they deliver less than what you might have been offered. To give an idea of this misalignment, here are our experiences of the most popular tourist spots in Nicaragua (in no particular order of popularity):

  • Granada is the colonial tourist heart of Nicaragua. Aside from its pleasing aesthetic exterior, an acceptably good if costly dining experience, and some truly amazing community projects along with their inspiring founders, it really isn’t nearly as nice as it ought to be. The main reason that it remains unimpressive is that most of the good experiences seem to be contrived for the sole purpose of making money and that reason alone. Serve that up with a good dose of scam capital of Nicaragua and a seriously never ceasing beggar scene, and you are left feeling chewed up and confused.
  • Matagalpa is the tourist centre of Nicaragua’s mountainous north. The surrounding landscape is green and picturesque, and the weather is famously crisp and fresh while the rest of Nicaragua is cooking. You could probably find a similar experience in other highland destinations of the world without the limited choice in available outdoor activities and lack of exploration freedom that surrounds Matagalpa.
  • Ometepe Island is the third most profitable tourism destination in the country, famous for its peculiar geography and most recently for agri-tourism. Indeed, if you want to volunteer on a permaculture farm or see close up twin volcanoes floating in the middle of a giant lake, then this is your place! Unfortunately this is about as interesting as it gets. It is a hell of a hassle to get out there, only to be greeted by the mucky brown waters of Lake Nicaragua and the island’s sprawling farm practices being utilized to feed its forty thousand residents. Good luck getting around the island on a low travel budget.
  • San Juan del Sur and its neighboring beaches are a stunning coastline of the Nicaraguan south, and this is more than likely why all the gringos can be found here in dense numbers…or maybe it is because Costa Rica has run out of Gringo-free space, and this being extremely close to the border, well its just similarly good enough and even a bit cheaper, so there you go. Hopefully that little scenario sheds some light on the lack of local ownership and the flash-packer style travel that pervades San Juan del Sur. If Nicaragua had a Cancun, well, this would be its’ own albeit much more interesting version of it.

What rich and breathtaking nature is intended to thrive in Nicaragua’s countryside does not get a chance under the sprawling, low density and generally wasteful farming practices. I am of course referring to slash and burn deforestation closely followed by nutrient depriving monoculture type planting that rapidly devastate the health of an ecosystem, the well known status quo of land rich – money poor countries.

The Jesus statue overlooks San Juan del Sur as the day sets

No good criticism would be complete without providing some basic ideas for improvement, so here are the three main things Daniel Ortega and his government needs to start doing to help Nicaragua become a more rewarding travel destination:

  • Establish much bolder, more extensive protection of the environment and Nicaragua’s natural heritage, beginning with changes in the approach to land use planning. In order to succeed and sustain, some pretty hard-line federal and legal frameworks will need to be installed to uphold this new approach as new generations of government run through top office.
  • Identify and highlight the culturally rich and diverse people-scape in their home communities. Bolster the education and skills training programs while pumping a bunch of government financial support into their arts and culture. Recognize its existence and provide support to the ongoing evolution of their traditional values.
  • Stop placing all the eggs into predominantly one basket and begin diversifying source areas of tourism. Most of the market focus seems to provide for North American tourists and where they might seek travel value most. This approach obviously just can not hold up for too long as much of Central America’s tourism industry has begun to experience a decline in recent years as a result. More diversity in your tourism industry will provide greater stability as the global economy and people’s preferences continue to roller coast.
Time for thinking and reading on our terrace at Hotel La Terraza

In conclusion, Nicaragua has another decade or so left in the major development thrust of its tourism industry; the key to its success lies in taking the right direction now while it is still early days. The responsibility for this is not solely in the hands of the decision makers because travelers are the mass market that votes with its dollar. If you are looking to travel to Nicaragua, my suggestion would be to prioritize your destinations beforehand in order to minimize wasteful experiences and keep the time spent outside of that to a comfortable minimum. Make sure you travel to Nicaragua for the right reasons and support those aspects of its tourism that you genuinely agree with by spending your money with its pioneering leaders.

Street lamp pole in San Salvador - on our Tica Bus route back to Guatemala


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