An Undiscovered Gem

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Monday, June 19, 2006

Our high hopes for Costa Rica were not met, but our low expectations for Nicaragua were easily exceeded. We only visited two places (San Juan del Sur for lunch, and Granada for two nights), but both were delightful. Nicaragua is coming back.

Nicaragua remains a very poor country. Per capita GDP is slightly below Bolivia, but momentum is definitely on Nicaragua's side. Growth has been strong for the past two years and the country is eagerly accepting foreign investment. Coldwell Banker has even opened an office to sell vacation property to gringos that want a little more serenity than is found in Costa Rica. Nicaragua has approved CAFTA and as that gets implemented, the economy should take another leap forward.

As you probably remember, the 1980's found Nicaragua embroiled in a civil war between the Soviet backed Sandinistas and the US funded Contras. As the cold war ended, the Sandinistas started to run out of steam and agreed to hold elections. Daniel Ortega, the head of the Sandinistas, probably overestimated public frustration and lost to an opposition candidate whose entire platform consisted of a pledge to end mandatory military service, and by implication, the war. Ortega has run in the subsequent 3 elections and maintains a decent base of support but is not expected to break 25% in the polls in this year's balloting. The Nicaraguans we spoke with seemed to believe that the Sandinista's (think Cuba) economic model was a dead end.

One of the several benefits of being an ally of the Soviet Union was access to their automotive technology. (The Soviets never tried to sell any cars in the US. This was unfortunate because GM might have actually been able to handle this type of foreign competition.) We had the opportunity to take a taxi ride in a vintage Lada and were able to appreciate a few of their innovations. One of these is the suspensionless car that effectively connects each pothole directly to your spine (it made the Jeep seem like riding in a Cadillac). The Soviets also came up with a unique strategy to curb speeding. If the velocity of a Lada exceeds about 40 kph (25 mph) the body starts vibrating so that it feels like riding in the inside of a giant kazoo. This is difficult to tolerate for very long. Unfortunately, Soviet engineers (presumably based in Moscow or another far northern clime) decided that air conditioning was for wimps. This made things a little sticky in Nicaragua.

Many people in Latin America seem to view gringos as rich targets for a variety of scams. We tend to drive in a state of high alert, particularly after getting stuck up by kids with guns in Rio. Just outside of Granada a bunch of kids held up 2 ropes across the road to try to make us stop. I had no idea what they wanted, but assumed it was not in my best interest. I accelerated (this is a NYC taxi trick to make sure pedestrians have no doubt that you are not going to give the right of way) and the ropes were dropped. The kids looked quite surprised and I congratulated myself for my decisiveness and ability to avoid some sort of ripoff. We later found out that the kids were trying to raise some coins for a local charity. Oops. I don't think that did much to improve international relations.

We did not see much evidence of crime. Tourists and locals seemed quite comfortable walking the streets of Granada late at night. That being said, many businesses posted guards armed with shotguns. To enter a bank you get searched with a metal detecting wand.

I am not sure if there is enough tourist infrastructure to plan a full vacation in Nicaragua, but if you get a chance to visit Granada or the beach town of San Juan del Sur, you should go. If you like getting somewhere before the hordes, now is your time.

Next we are headed for Honduras and El Salvador.
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