Down but by no means out

When we first started the trip back in October last year, we weren’t even sure if we’d make it to Nicaragua. Due to the political situation it was still on the ‘all but essential travel’ list for both the Netherlands and UK. So we added it (cautiously) to our rough planning and opted to keep an eye on the situation and decide closer to the time whether or not to go.  We were both pretty disappointed at the prospect of not being able to go as it was a place Jeroen had talked very fondly of from his visit 19 (!!!) years ago and we were looking forward to (re) exploring it together and seeing how it had changed over two decades.

Good news finally came.  Just before we got to Costa Rica, we were super happy to hear from fellow travelers that the warning had been downgraded and they had just come from traveling there. Granada, Managua, Matagalpa and Leon were now firmly in our plan as we make our way north towards Mexico!  We were excited to experience experience the vibrancy of city life for a while, especially having spent the previous month being a bit overloaded with nature in Costa Rica.

So, how was it? In the end we didn’t quite get what we expected.

Sure, Granada and Leon gave us some beautiful colonial-style architecture, Nicaraguan history and stunning volcano views, much like Jeroen had remembered (albeit a bit more strewn with pollution than before).

Colonial architecture (Click picture to enlarge)

We loved exploring the coffee farms of Matagalpa, as well as sampling much of the merchandise. In fact we loved seeing the entire farming industry as we drove through the Nicaraguan countryside. And as for Managua, it gave us a a bit of an insight into Nicaraguan city life today; in particular the nightlife, which was cool to experience (even with local drag shows, which we weren’t really expecting from there).

Landscapes & Coffee farm (Click picture to enlarge)

But overall Nicaragua ended up not quite being the vibrant country we’d hoped to find. If anything it felt kind of subdued and sombre. Hostels, bars and restaurants were for the most part fairly empty, guided activities were few and far between (often not even running) and the streets often had little going on in them (especially at night). For Jeroen it almost felt as though nothing had progressed since 20 years ago (perhaps even regressed).

So, what happened? It’s a question that we asked often in Nicaragua, with every local we encountered. In summary, every story we heard from the locals we spoke with came round to the same thing – politics. Turns out we’d not really considered that despite it coming off the ‘list’, Nicaragua was still reeling from what had taken place the years before. With the country being described to us as a dictatorship of sorts (albeit on paper it is not seen as such), with a single political party seemingly controlling most branches of law and government with little room for opposition.

We’d also underestimated the magnitude of what had taken place in the last 12 months; with tensions coming to boiling point resulting in mass riots, anarchy and lives and livelihoods lost. As a result, the political situation has impacted the tour guides, the hostel owners, cafes, bars and restaurants as tourists have stopped coming. Not great for a country that has a big reliance on the tourist economy. Dig a little deeper though and it’s also impacted many other kinds of businesses who are either boycotted (if they are seen as government sympathizers) or face issues with local authorities (if they are seen as government defectors). It’s impacted the feeling on the streets, with constant police patrols in most areas; not because it’s unsafe, but more in order to quash any unrest quickly, leading to a strong sense of oppression in most cities. And to top it all off the events of the past year have supposedly strengthened said ‘dictatorship’ (at least for the moment).

Political Statements (both sides) (click picture to enlarge)

Now, we’re not going to go into taking sides on the rights or wrongs with the current politics in Nicaragua. This is a travel blog, not a political one. Besides, Nicaragua’s political history is a very checkered, complicated one which goes beyond what happened in the past few years (their political cycle seems to be defined by revolutions, followed by regimes promising the earth and not delivering, said regimes falling out of favor leading to further revolutions, and so on).

But, what we will say is that it’s a crying shame the impact this has had on the country!

The Nicaragua we witnessed didn’t seem to be the Nicaragua that it could be (or perhaps was in recent years). Such a shame given the stunning landscapes across the country (the volcanos, the lakes, the countryside); the abundance of cool activities you can do there; the welcoming, kind, open (with some really interesting stories to tell) and miraculously optimistic people we encountered; the cities filled with so much history on the one hand and promise for the future on the other. And despite what our governments might tell us, it was not a dangerous place to be in at all (or at least no more dangerous than any other).

When we say it’s a shame.  We mean for the people there, not for us… albeit we said earlier that we didn’t quite get what we expected – we actually got more in the end. We got to experience first hand (and much more closely than we have in other countries) what happens when politics is unstable (in whatever form that might be) in some of these countries we’ve been visiting. What happens when people try to initiate change. And albeit the overall atmosphere seemed subdued, on a personal level with the people we encountered, we got to witness how hope and resilience will help a people out of difficult times; every person we spoke with repeatedly stating that the Nicaraguan people were strong and would eventually come out of this and rise again – a hope we share for this beautiful place. Most importantly – for the first time we really got to realize how important a role we play as travelers in supporting the journey of these countries; bringing outside experiences, views, culture and essentially investment, all of which help towards rebuilding for them.

People & Nightlife (Click picture to enlarge)

Definitely a defining moment for us on our the trip so far and something we will take with us.  In the meantime, we look forward to keeping an eye on how things change in Nicaragua and visiting it again some time to hopefully see it flourishing again; we won’t leave it 20 years this time though!

(As for our other fellow travelers… our advice – go to Nicaragua and see for yourself this beautiful place!  Help get it back to what it was.  You won’t regret it!)

Till next time…

Carl & Jeroen

Travel stats

  • Countries visited: 11
  • Cities visited: 59
  • Distance travelled: 38.750 km
  • Modes of transport:
    • Plane (16),
    • Night-bus (11),
    • Day bus (32),
    • Boat (6),
    • 4×4 (1),
    • Trekking (2),
    • Taxi (7),
    • Road trip (11)


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