Truth about Nicaragua is hard to come by
I recently almost convinced an old friend to come visit me in Nicaragua. Then she read the report of the US state department
and wrote me:
Holy sh*t. I think you left a few things out......
At one level, I'm happy. It seems likely that my adopted home will stay untrammeled by American tourists for quite some time more, yet. It will remain a common destination for Canadians, Swiss, Australians, Chinese, Germans, and Frenchmen, all of whom are more interesting and adventurous than Americans are these days... All the same... I would have liked to have seen her.
This report is from the same state department that built Nicaragua up to being a communist threat to the entire western hemisphere in the 80s. The same department that calls what happened in the 80s a "civil war"
and ignores what happened in the 150 years prior to that or even the previous 2 decades
The truth is a great deal more nuanced. It's why I came here. I wanted not to learn about the war, but how Nicaragua achieved peace, and how it was struggling towards a better (or worse) future, after the horrors of most of the 20th century. My answer - at least thus far - is that it is better in some ways, after two years spent here, and worse in others.
The state dept makes generalizations about the entire country that only apply to specific parts...
That link is a much more scary advisory than the one I read just two years ago, and strikes me as politically motivated in several parts. I would love to write one about the USA that used some of the same phrasing... NYC can be described using exactly the same terminology throughout and even worse statistics (NYC has Wall Street! Noooo criminals to be found there, nooo)
Let me make a few generalizations in return.
Managua is like Washington DC, only hotter, and poorer. More people are armed with machetes than handguns, however, and there aren't actually a whole lot of machetes in the capital, and most of those there are actually in use, trimming hedges, unlike the handguns. Yes there is a lot of petty theft everywhere. It's a poor country. I'm told violence is on the upswing. So is civilization. Being white and going out after dark in parts of Manauga is a bad idea, just like it is in Harlem, but it does have a thriving nightclub scene all the same. I don't think the state department guys ever get out of Managua. Or out to nightclubs.
I know over a half dozen people that have been robbed. In most cases it was avoidable or an inside job. When I lived in cities in the US I knew more people that had been robbed, in less time. When I lived deep in the woods, in Felton, Ca, for 5 years, I felt comfortable leaving the doors unlocked, so comfortable I would actually lose my keys for months at a time. Until I got robbed.
The economy is mostly on an upswing in Managua. There's a lot of outsourced work, particularly in voip and textiles. Lately, tourism where I live, San Juan Del Sur (SJDS) has been down, however.
Let's take apart some sentences of the above state department report:
"In 2008, a U.S. citizen was critically injured in a gang-motivated drive-by shooting that occurred in the San Judas area. Another U.S. citizen was kidnapped and left for dead in the Villa Fontana area of Managua."
* In the entire state of Nicaragua, about the size of New York, with about the population of New York City, *two* US citizens in one year had a gang related problem. And New York City had? Per day?
Several U.S. citizens traveling by bus from San Juan del Sur to Managua have reported being victimized by fellow women travelers who offered to assist them in locating and/or sharing a taxi upon arrival in Managua. In all cases, upon entering the taxi, the U.S. citizens have been held at knife-point, robbed of their valuables, and driven around to ATM machines to withdraw funds from their accounts.
Most taxi drivers are actually darn friendly and most shared trips are fun and end without incident. Everybody that plays fair is very annoyed at those that hurt the country. I've met a few taxi drivers that threatened violence - against those that robbed or abused their fares
- if they could just catch them. People here are proud of their country and at the same time discouraged by all the bad things that do happen. A lot of people are extra nice, not just because of compensating for that, but because they are nice to start with.
Let me give you a story - a 5-6 months back pair of german tourists left their luggage behind on a bus, and assumed it had been stolen. They reported it to the police (I got involved because they stopped at my house all upset, and needing someone that spoke English. I helped them find the police station) - who called the bus company - who found the luggage still on the bus, although it was 100km away by then. They returned it to the bus stop in Rivas... and the Police picked up and returned the luggage
to their hotel!
"The climate is hot and humid, with the “summer” dry season running mid-November through mid-May and the “winter” rainy season running from mid-May through mid-November."
* This is more true of the East coast than the West, in the West the biggest part of the rainy season stars in late august and continues through late november. Humidity here never gets as high as florida or nj, except right before a storm. Also they have winter and summer kind of mistranslated. Nica's on this side of the equator, so summer and winter have similar (tho milder and lacking snow) temperature variations as US summer and winter. The seasons here are described as either invierno o verano. (rainy or dry)
"Nicaragua lacks tourist infrastructure. Except in the cities and major thoroughfares, most roads are unpaved. Public transportation is unsafe and there are no sidewalks"
Mostly true. Ortega has fixed the roads between SJDS and Managua, however. I'll give him that. With increased mobility has come better food supplies, better transport, and increased crime along the highways. SJDS, where I live, is the closest thing to a tourist town there is in Nicaragua and is much nicer than Tamerindo, just across the border in Costa Rica. I like to imagine it is like Sea Isle City, NJ in the 1920s, only with internet, good waves and cars with slightly better suspensions.
The rest of the roads are unpaved. That's what a 4WD is for. People actually NEED SUVs here, a snorkle is a good idea, too. There are sidewalks in SJDS and in most cities except portions of Managua - but I strongly point out sidewalks are kind of unimportant when the primary mode of transport is foot or horse. It usually is pretty safe to walk right in the middle of a street here, and stop there to have a conversation. It gets to be a habit, even. That habit is a dangerous one to take to the states.
Public transportation is unsafe everywhere I've ever lived. Here however most of the mortal dangers lie in the Expresso buses which drive at insanely fast speeds and have a tendency to roll over.
"U.S. citizens are cautioned that strong currents and undertows off sections of Nicaragua's Pacific coast have resulted in a number of incidents of drowning. Powerful waves have also resulted in broken bones, and injuries caused by sting rays are not uncommon in popular resort bathing areas. Warning signs are not posted, and lifeguards and rescue equipment are not readily available. U.S. citizens contemplating beach activities in Nicaragua's Pacific waters should exercise appropriate caution."
Hazard a guess at how many people drowned in California last year? With all that gear available? How about New Jersey?
(Actually, two people drowned on the pacific coast (try to remember, this country is the size of New York State) here last month. I was lucky to not have been one of them. Them waves were Biiiggg. I had a lot of fun.)
"Hiking in volcanic or other remote areas can be dangerous and travelers should take appropriate precautions. Hikers should have appropriate dress, footwear, and sufficient consumables for any trek undertaken. Individuals who travel to remote tourist or other areas for hiking activities are encouraged to hire a local guide familiar with the terrain and area. In particular, there have been instances of hikers perishing or losing their way on the volcanoes at Ometepe Island. While they may look like easy climbs, the terrain is treacherous and heavily overgrown. "
* Well, duh. Darwin was here. Ometepe is a bitch of a climb. A guide is always a good idea. I love the placement of the "or" there. Thousands have probably lost their way. Died? No Sé.
"Earthquakes are common, but the last major earthquake, which destroyed the city of Managua, occurred in 1972. "
* How one can hold in your head "common", and "1972" and "Managua" all at the same time and parse out the fear is a good question. Gawd. One major earthquake in 47 years is "common"? Building your capital city right on top of a major fault line (and not moving it afterwards) is "common"?
"Although extensive de-mining operations have been conducted to clear rural areas of northern Nicaragua of landmines left from the civil war in the 1980s, visitors venturing off the main roads in these areas are cautioned that the possibility of encountering landmines still exists."
* Thanks for all the help... USA and USSR - The USSR at least has an excuse for not cleaning up all the mess - that country collapsed before Nicaragua found peace. The article is very true in that the northernmost, easternmost part of Nicaragua is a gawdawful mess of humidity, poverty, multiple hurricanes, and the remnants of a war never cleaned up. It's on the opposite end of the country from where I live. I wouldn't live there - not because of the landmines, but because of the hurricanes. I hate hurricanes. Where I live the hurricanes never cross. Nor are there earthquakes.
"The U.S. Embassy warns U.S. citizens to exercise extreme caution when driving at night from Managua’s International Airport and to avoid traveling the Tipitapa-Masaya Highway at night."
I completely agree with this comment. It's not the potential stoppages by random criminal elements that worry me - there are no lights on the highway and driving at night you are likely to run into an errant ox, major pothole, or a drunken bicyclist, all of which are more dangerous to you than the criminals.
"U.S. citizens should exercise particular caution when visiting the following beaches: Maderas, Marsella, Yankee, Coco, and Remanso. "
* this happens to be all
the local beaches. 1) The criminals making Marsella and Madaras a problem were arrested several months ago. So far as I know there have been no incidents since. Remanso remains a problem... I haven't been to yankee recently, except by boat... In all but a very few cases it's just someone's camera getting taken. The problem at remanso does include guys with machetes...
Sure... notice to ALL TOURISTS - stay away from the beaches... especially Remanso! More waves for the locals, that way, methinks, for a while longer.
"Police coverage is extremely sparse outside major urban areas, particularly in Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast autonomous regions."
The east coast has great diving but that is about it. I've never been there and don't intend to go unless with a group....
"Municipal elections took place across Nicaragua on November 9, 2008. Violent demonstrations followed as opposition groups questioned the authenticity of the results. Activities observed during protests included but were not limited to tear gas, rubber bullets, setting off fireworks, rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus and vehicle burning, and physical violence between law enforcement and protestors and between political rivals. "
And this differed from the American election, how? Oh, yea, America limits demonstrators to "free speech zones"... but I was talking to a cab driver in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and he said people were shooting off AK-47s in parts of that city in celebration of Obama's victory...
I incidentally wrote about this here
. The election was intense, people really got into both the sandinistas (FSLN) and ALN - emotions ran high, there were many fierce debates - and there was much evidence of fraud afterwards - and the outcome was unresolved but gradually faded to a dull sense of discontent among the lost. Perhaps next election
, everyone thinks, and resume their discussions of the more important things in life - music, sports, sex, and food.
I stayed on after the election because, well, freedom of speech remains far more sacrosanct than, say, in China. People really do say what they think of Ortega, and say it loudly. The newspapers are remarkably biased in multiple directions and seem without censorship... or rigorous fact checking. It's entertaining, and I look forward to seeing how the next election turns out.
I am really rather scared to read the state dept's report on Mexico... or anywhere in Central America... hell, New York City...