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In those years, virtually the only North American tourists visiting Nicaragua were cash-strapped revolution sympathizers, nicknamed "sandalistas" for their customary footwear. Just as well: Hampered by the embargo, the country grew short of staples, much less tourism's luxuries. In Managua, the McDonald's had to change its name after hamburger headquarters discovered there were no all-beef patties in its Big Macs.
The embargo was lifted after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 presidential election. Investment started coming back, as did some of those who had fled. In 1994, the summer I made my first trip back home since the war, one of the cool teen hangouts was a new, enormous highway-side gas station, brightly lit and alien as a spaceship. Another was a bar started by two twentysomethings just back from Miami.
In the years since, the number of people visiting Nicaragua has grown more or less steadily. The country hosted more than 600,000 tourists in 2004, twice as many as had graced the "land of lakes and volcanoes" nine years before. The number of visitors from North America alone has jumped more than 50 percent since 2001.
Of course, Nicaragua's numbers don't come close to those of Costa Rica, the eco-tourism powerhouse next door that saw more than 1.4 million visitors last year.
But for many of those choosing to come, that's exactly the point.
"Costa Rica's beautiful, but it's been a victim of mass tourism," says Raj Sanghrajka, a principal in Florida-based Big Five Tours & Expeditions. The company, which specializes in custom vacations, added Nicaragua to its roster last year. "Every Tom, Dick and Harry offers a trip [to Costa Rica]. And as it gets commercialized, it gets less appealing," Sanghrajka says.
Nicaragua's beauty, he adds, is that "anything that any other Central American country has, Nicaragua has a little bit of it. People go to Guatemala, for example, for archaeology and history. Costa Rica is rain forest, Belize is beach resorts. Nicaragua has all that, and it's less traveled."
For how long is the question. Nicaragua now has more than 30 tour operators, who can whisk you anywhere from an all-inclusive, lie-on-the-beach resort such as Montelimar (a former Somoza retreat); the posh new Pacific coast eco-lodge of Morgan's Rock; or more untrammeled destinations such as the biological reserves near the Rio San Juan, on the border with Costa Rica.
Of course, the country also still offers challenges. Nicaragua is now the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, after Haiti. And in mid-April, the U.S. State Department warned travelers to "remain vigilant" after protests over a public transportation fare hike resulted in numerous arrests, injuries and property damage. (The government has since agreed to temporarily subsidize the hike.)
Rob and I, though, wanted to avoid anything prepackaged, no matter how sophisticated or smartly done. We also didn't want any hotel so luxe that it would shake our waning belief in ourselves as intrepid adventurers (though Rob insisted on electrical outlets so he could charge his digital cameras).
What I wanted, as much as possible, was to show my American boyfriend the Nicaragua I grew up in: wild, deserted Pacific beaches; active volcanoes; colonial cities; coffee plantations; verdant mountains. Engagement. Discovery. Freedom. With a recent U.N. report citing Nicaragua as one of the safest countries in Central America, the time seemed right for a road trip.
An Unsettled Capital
Most guidebooks to Nicaragua (you need to look hard for them, but they do exist) urge you to leave the capital, Managua, as soon as you can -- not because it's particularly dangerous but because it compares poorly with the rest of the country.