We loved Nicaragua, plain and simple. Loved the folks we met and the places we visited. One strong sentiment we heard about, especially among younger students, was a sense of egalitarianism and equality. The revolution seemed to impart the notion that nicas are all in it together, that none should benefit more than another. Older students we met were pursuing business administration, teaching, social work, and medical degrees. Older nicas who remember the revolution seem ready to move on, though their support for president Daniel Ortega is faithful, perhaps for lack of a better choice. As a taxi driver/student said, younger generations are waiting for the old guard to get out of the way. Organic farming, homeopathic medecine, and sustainability were often mentioned. Tourism also is a growing industry. Crime is almost non-existent outside of Managua and popular gringo spots. This alone is a bragging right given the current crime rates in the neighboring countries including the revered “eco-gringo” destination of choice (Read’s words) – Costa Rica (click here for statistics).
We arrived in Nicaragua to the northern highlands of Estili, a bustling city, home to half a dozen top brand cigars (which we didn’t try), and the most murals of any town its size.
Nearby, in the rural cooperative of Miraflor, farmers produce highly prized shade-grown coffee (best we’ve ever had), and host curious gringos like ourselves in rustic accomodations ($20 a night buys you lodging in an “Avatar-like” tree-house plus three meals). Our stay in Miraflor with a multi-generational Sandanista, Dona Corina, was a treat as we learned about local natural medicines, how to identify a good coffee bean, and how the pervasive cloud-forest moisture can kill a computer keyboard.
We headed from Esteli to the hills above the coffee production capital of Matagalpa which houses the “uber-sustainable” coffee finca (plantation) of Salva Negra. The finca family spent decades developing operations to produce top-quality coffee using a holistic approach. This includes growing rainforest-alliance certified coffee, composting, producing methane gas from farm byproducts and using it as an energy source, growing organic produce and raising organic livestock for the restaurant. They have a line of incredible cheeses; Read stashed a stinky “camenbert” in his backpack for later on munching. Furthur, three generations of workers live and work at the finca which provides free housing, food, medical care, and primary school education. There is even sufficient water and vertical drop to produce electrical power meeting half of the needs of the entire operation. The family controls the entire coffee process from seed to table as they have family members in the states who roast and distribute coffee. They’ve won multiple “cupping contests” in Latin America which basically means they produce damn good coffee. We happily got wired on it every morning and plan to buy it via Whole Foods or “Java Vino” their bean distribution company. The preserved virgin rainforest that covers the peak above the finca is full of howler monkeys living free in the multi-layered canopy. Much to Read’s surprise, meter-long coral snakes also thrive in the wet understory, but only to scare the pants off middle-aged tourists dragging along to keep up with their hiking-hungry wives.
Finally, we spent six days on Ometepe, a two-coned volcanic island in the middle of a giant lake that is a tropical playland. While Arden hiked the smaller of the two volcanos (and slid down the muddy trail on her tush), Read enjoyed sea kayaking to a wetlands in search of birds, caymen and turtles, in between hammock surfing sessions. A tandem kayak sunset tour to Monkey Islands was a daily ritual to view two large Spider Monkeys and eight White-faced Monkeys. The Spider Monkeys were formerly pets, chained up in someone’s yard before being sprung to semi-freedom on their tiny island. Unfortunately, while we were there, two tourists kayaked too close to the island; the Spider Monkeys swung down on them in search of food and attacked them. Back at the hotel, Read rendered first aid on some very serious claw and bite wounds before the two were whisked away via speedboat to the mainland hospital. While private clinics in Nicaragua provide first-world standard care, the public system according to one victim was “scarier than the monkey attack”.
Nicaragua on the ground is far from what our media-melded perceptions had us anticipating. Poverty is without a doubt the biggest issue. Yet economic development can’t happen with Nicaragua being held in isolation from much-needed foreign capital. The Sandanista Revolution did achieve its primary goal, the one that most Nicaraguans supported – ridding their country of the U.S. puppet strongman, emblematic of a long history of interference from the north.
We always felt safe in Nicaragua. We never felt animosity towards us, as Americans, despite our entagled histories. We look forward to future visits, and would gladly spend time in Nicaragua, using what few skills and work experiences we have to support Nicas in pursuing their future.