In retrospect, "solidarity tourism" probably wasn't really a sustainable niche.
It emerged in Nicaragua in the 1980s during the Iran-Contra hearings, when U.S. citizens began arriving in the country to demonstrate that not all Americans supported the Contra rebels who were seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega.
Fast forward 24 years. Ortega is once again leading Nicaragua, but the country is now welcoming American visitors who appear to be more interested in beaches and colonial cities than political philosophies and current events.
Fifty-five cruise ships called at Nicaragua's Pacific ports last year, and passengers on shore excursions weren't participating in literacy campaigns or visiting memorials to revolutionary martyrs.
Instead, they were ziplining through a rain forest canopy, staring into the caldron of a live volcano or hiking into the jungle in pursuit of birds, monkeys and sloths. (View a slideshow from Arnie's trip to Nicaragua here or by clicking on the photos. All photos are by Arnie Weissmann.)
As regards tourism, Nicaragua is very much open for business, embracing a decidedly market-friendly approach and reaching out to a broad spectrum of American travelers.
Nicaragua's golden phase
Nicaragua is in what I consider the golden phase of destination development. It is unspoiled but comfortable, welcoming but uncrowded. It offers activities one finds nowhere else -- the soft-adventure sport of volcano surfing, for example -- and a near-perfect blend of what people typically seek in a vacation, from relaxation to natural beauty to recreation.
When visiting Nicaragua today, one gets the overwhelming sense that this destination has what it takes to become much more competitive, and might ultimately take market share from Central American neighbors, Caribbean islands and Mexico.
Where is Nicaragua today? Think Costa Rica in the 1980s, Belize in the 1990s or Vietnam or Cambodia before the Western hotel brands arrived. Ten years from now, people who visit in 2012 will inevitably say, "You should have seen it 10 years ago."
In fact, there might be one group that is already saying that. Surfers discovered Nicaragua's beautiful Pacific beaches (and big waves) decades ago. When I was there recently, I met some who had returned. This time, their hair is a little gray and their families are in tow. They are forgoing simple guesthouses and surf camps to stay in upscale resorts that are, at least for the time being, half-empty.
Chalets in the jungle
Such low tourist density, so close to the States, can feel disorienting. Relaxing for an hour on a shaded beachside hammock at the all-inclusive Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, near San Juan del Sur, I saw only one other guest walking along a beautiful half-mile sheltered crescent bay.
Morgan's Rock offers 15 chalets, each blending into the near-vertical junglescape that leads down to a wide beach. Judging by the group who gathered at the property's dining area for meals, I would estimate that it was not even 50% full. And this was during midwinter break for schools in the Northeast, with rates well below what many sold-out Caribbean and Mexican all-inclusives were charging that week.
I asked the general manager of Morgan's Rock if Easter week was fully booked. She said there were still rooms available.
All of that said, it must be noted that not every guest who enjoys a week at Beaches, Club Med, Sunscape or other well-known all-inclusives in the Caribbean and Mexico would be happy at Morgan's Rock.
For instance, while the resort delivered a four- or even five-star experience in many respects, my family's large, bilevel room, hidden in the trees above the beach, had no air conditioning, no telephone, no WiFi; large swaths of the walling were large screens and windows, and the floors were made of thick boarding.
There were ceiling fans, running water, one double-plug outlet, a large porch and a fat gecko running up and down the screen eating any bug that hesitated a moment too long.
It's possible to request, the night before, that a carafe of coffee or hot chocolate be brought up the next morning, but otherwise there's no room service.
There were no video game rooms, but there was kayaking at sunset among nearby mangroves. There wasn't much in the way of dining options, but the sole on-property restaurant was excellent, reflecting both local flair and the French heritage of its ownership. From October through May, it offers breakfast tours for cruise ship passengers who want to pick their own eggs from the property's hen house and gather herbs and other ingredients in advance of preparing their own morning meal.
There was no spa or fitness center, but there were opportunities for nature hikes and a horseback ride through the hills and onto the beach.
WiFi was available near the dining room, and my wife and I restricted our kids to just one play each on the multiple Words With Friends games they had going. They initially complained, but in the end, I think they were happy enough just to sit with us and relive the sightings of a three-toed sloth and howler monkeys during our horseback ride.
(One important note: The split-level design in my room had too high a drop between levels to be safe for young children. Be sure to book a suitable room for clients with kids 7 and under.)
Cinder surfing and zipping
Cerro Negro in north-central Nicaragua, not far from the colonial city of Leon, isn't the tallest, most active or best-looking of Nicaragua's 19 volcanoes, but it offers an irresistible opportunity: sledding or boarding down a snowless mountain. After a 50-minute walk up and across the top of the 2,400-foot black, dome-shaped cone, you can either mount a modified snowboard or sit on a one-man toboggan for a two-minute descent, sending cinders and ash flying.
My family opted for sleds clad with a smooth metal bottom, but I did watch a young Canadian snowboarder come down standing up. He said it was fun, but he had a hard time settling into a comfortable speed: When he pointed the board straight down, he started going too fast, he said, but when he cut to the side he slowed too quickly. Nonetheless, he said, it was a thrill.
Volcanoes are an integral part of any trip to Nicaragua. They not only provide a beautiful backdrop for photos, but the active ones are high-altitude portals to what lies below the earth's surface.
Science lessons have never been as much fun as when you're staring into a smoky caldron, listening to your guide explain what's going on below. Nicaragua features a drive-up volcano: the Santiago crater in the Nindiri cone of Masaya National Park, about 16 miles from Managua. After parking your car in a large lot, you walk about 50 feet and peer over a stone fence, into a misty crater. It's an impressive sight, and if arriving just before sunset, visitors can also climb the adjacent Masaya volcano for wonderful views in all directions as the orangey sky is enlivened by volcanic mist. A very short drive (it'll be dark at this point) brings you to a small platform where you can lean forward and see the lava glowing on the floor of Santiago crater -- not only see the glow, but hear the convulsions of lava bubbling up to the surface.
From there, it's possible to take a flashlight tour of a long, underground lava tube, formed centuries ago during a period of high volcanic activity. After 10 minutes of walking into the tube, if you turn your flashlight off, you'll be standing in pure, impenetrable darkness.
The rich volcanic soil on the slopes of some of the volcanoes is ideal for growing coffee, and a visit to Mombacho, a volcano near Granada, offers the opportunity to visit El Progreso Farm, a working coffee plantation. (It was there I learned that I have erred for decades when ordering a rich, dark roast coffee if I was feeling particularly in need of a morning lift. It turns out that the roasting process actually removes some caffeine from the beans, and dark roasted coffee provides less buzz than a lightly roasted blend.)
A short walk from the coffee plantation is a canopy tour, with a course of ziplines, tightropes and belay drops. As far as these experiences go, I'd rate it somewhere in the middle range: not as good as can be found in Costa Rica but better than some Caribbean courses I've been on.
At the very top of Mombacho is a wonderful hiking trail through the jungle, just below the rim of the cone. It traverses a landscape reminiscent of Tarzan movies, but with sloths rather than chimps in the branches above and with occasional fumaroles releasing some of the volcano's steaming pressure.
Restored colonial centers and isletas
Two cities, Leon and Granada, feature an opportunity to mix among Nicaraguans along streets lined with fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture.
(The capital, Managua, is somewhat characterless and offers little for tourists.)
Leon has a classic Central American colonial cathedral, market and square. It is about to undergo a significant upgrade: Its center has recently been proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage Site, and funding has been provided to restore its historical area.
We stayed at El Convento Hotel, a former convent associated with a church that was built in 1639. The family that owns it also collects art, and the property is filled with regional paintings and sculptures. A few blocks away, the family also opened Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian, a museum featuring classic and modern pieces as well as an impressive collection of important contemporary Central American artists.
Though other tourists can be seen walking the streets of Leon, it is Granada that attracts the most foreign visitors. The exterior of its cathedral is in better shape than Leon's, and horse-drawn carriages queue up around its large square to offer city tours.
One side of the square is lined with wonderfully restored hotels. We stayed in a high-ceilinged room in Hotel Plaza Colon, a beautiful property with a courtyard swimming pool and excellent service. (If you're there on a weekend night, however, avoid the rooms to the right as you walk into the courtyard; the band at a nearby bar doesn't quit until 1 a.m.)
Across the square, a pedestrian street caters to tourists, with a restaurant row featuring French cuisine, Irish pub food, gelato counters, tequila bars, pizza parlors and open-air restaurants offering grilled meat prepared tipico.
At the far end of that street is the shore of Lake Nicaragua. On weekends, its beach is filled with local residents swimming, playing music and having a good time, making it a great place to mix with Nicaraguans. (Be advised, however, that even in touristy areas, not much English is spoken.)
At the end of the beach is a dock where one can hire a small boat to visit the isletas, or small islands, that create sheltered channels for a mile or so before the 100-mile long lake opens up.
Although there is one island that features a restaurant and swimming pool, the real draw of the isletas is the opportunity to watch birds as you sputter among the waterways. Most islands are privately owned and not much larger than the vacation homes that are built upon them (our guide said most were owned by Americans).
In the 45 minutes we were motoring about, we saw 21 different species of birds, ranging from a hunting osprey to several waders and even a small woodpecker. Additionally, one island has been populated with three types of monkeys. On the outermost island are the ruins of San Pablo Fort, built in 1783.
History and current events
Driving up and down the national highway that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, President Daniel Ortega's smiling face can be seen against a bright pink or red background (chosen by his wife, we were told), with slogans meant to inspire. In one, Ortega can be seen embracing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The cities offer some insight into the country's history and national politics. The sentiment "Hugo, Daniel and Fidel, all of Leon is with you" was stenciled in Spanish on a building in central Leon.
Granada has several excellent murals commemorating various aspects of the country's turbulent history. It was the birthplace of Augusto Cesar Sandino, a philosopher/revolutionary who led the fight against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua (1927-1933). A few years later, the corrupt Somoza family took over. U.S. Secretary of State Sumner Welles once called Anastasio Somoza a bastard, to which President Franklin Roosevelt famously replied, "Yes, but he's our bastard."
Ultimately, it was Ortega's Sandinistas, whose name was inspired by Sandino, who drove the Somozas from power in 1979.
The "he's our bastard" mindset on the part of the U.S. defined much of 20th century relations between the two countries. Although most of U.S. behavior toward Nicaragua over the past 100 years could frankly be characterized as not in the best interests of ordinary Nicaraguans, the Nicaraguans I met seemed genuinely warm and friendly. Apparently, "solidarity tourism" served to help Nicaraguans differentiate between American policy and American people.
In doing research before the trip, I learned that Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Having been to the poorest, Haiti, I had braced my 9- and 11-year-old sons against the possibility of seeing widespread poverty.
They did see people living in shacks with corrugated tin roofs and some people wearing clothing that was dirty and tatty, but conditions along the fat strip of land between the Pacific and lakes Nicaragua and Managua, where we traveled, were not particularly jarring. Although it might be the second poorest, in the areas we explored it felt far closer to the median than to the poorest.
In fact, encountering ox-carts and farmers traveling by horseback along the roads, coupled with the absence of familiar fast-food restaurants and hotel brands (outside of Managua), served as a welcome reminder that, although we were only a couple of hours away from Miami, we were truly visiting a foreign land.
The strong sense that one is in a destination on the cusp of significant growth is reflected in a nascent 42-room wellness spa, Aqua Wellness Resort, near San Juan del Sur. It was about a third full when I checked in.
A conversation with its enthusiastic management team suggests it is evolving in an organic and backbeat fashion. Though the resort has been garnering rave reviews since it opened last year, it's described by its managing director, Canadian Trevor Barran, as a "work in progress."
Barran has a degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton, and tends not to think like a traditional hotelier does. His manager of operations, American Chris Shanks, a self-taught botanist and landscape designer, also comes from outside hospitality: He arrived in Nicaragua 10 years ago to work on social aid projects. And the chef, a Brit named Ben Slow, learned his trade by bicycling across India and Southeast Asia and asking if he could cook with local families along the way.
Barran's German-born architect wife, Karin Eigner worked on the design of the restaurant and some of the creative beachfront and cliff-hugging units, which had been initially conceived by Hal Sorrenti and Matthew Falkner for Aqua under its original CEO and founder, Dan Rubano.
The property features a yoga platform, beautifully positioned above the gently curving Redonda Bay (yoga -- and breakfast -- are included in the rates). Although all beaches in Nicaragua are, technically speaking, public, Aqua owns all the land fronting the bay.
A recently expanded spa treatment menu offers everything from body massages to ear candling, though the spa facility itself is somewhat modest and simply equipped. There is no fitness center, but beach rental equipment, available for token fees, includes kayaks, surfboards, paddleboards and snorkeling gear. Lessons for the board sports, as well as for fishing, are also offered.
Slow's menu reflects both a focus on "wellness" and his diverse Asian fusion training. Much of the produce he serves is grown on Slow's and Shanks' adjoining farms on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.
Each member of the management team is a pleasure to speak with, and their chemistry results in some fun surprises, from clambakes to the building of a brick oven for baking pizzas to digging an outsized marshmallow roasting pit on the beach (complete with 6-foot-long sharpened bamboo poles, so kids can keep a safe distance from the pit when roasting).
Game changer on the horizon?
Not five minutes outside Aqua's gate is a low brick wall with letters spelling out "Guacalito de la Isla." It is the entrance of a 1,600-acre, low-density resort being developed by Carlos Pellas, who is not only the wealthiest man in Nicaragua but one of the wealthiest in Central America. Although much of the development will consist of privately owned villas, it will also contain Casona Mukul, a 39-key luxury boutique hotel with a David McLay Kidd-designed golf course and a spa developed by the same director who put together the spa at Las Ventanas in Cabo San Lucas.
The additional 39 rooms, and even a new golf course, would not be enough to move the needle significantly for Nicaraguan tourism if they were standalone developments, but the infrastructure being built around the entire Guacalito project might very well change the game. Plans include building an airport nearby and paving roads for miles up toward the national highway.
This area is not far from San Juan del Sur, which is the primary tourist center in the south (it also has a cruise ship terminal). Guacalito could do for southern Nicaragua what Casa de Campo did for the La Romana area of the Dominican Republic.
Value, delivery and a vision
The Nicaragua value proposition is simply too high to maintain its current imbalance of supply and demand. Relatively speaking, one gets a lot for the money. The infrastructure is good enough and improving, and the service delivery is of satisfactory quality at the better properties.
My arrangements were made through Careli Tours, an established operator that also handles the lion's share of the cruise shore excursions. I found the outfit to be professional from start to finish. The company is run by Lourdes Fuentes and her husband, Axel, who learned the trade in Costa Rica during its golden phase of tourism. Our guide for the week, Juan Carlos Mendoza, was simply amazing and extraordinarily well-versed in Nicaraguan history, botany, ornithology and volcanology.
I was also encouraged about Nicaragua's future after having lunch with its tourism minister, Mario Salinas Pasos, in Managua. Salinas, a former architect, real estate developer and manager of Aeronica, the country's airline before the Sandinista revolution, understands what it takes to create a welcoming environment for tourists.
He is also an unapologetic Sandinista. He saw tourism languish when there was no "clear vision" for the sector before 2007, and he has worked with Ortega to "promote laws to facilitate tourism," including lifting restrictions on tourists entering the country and dropping laws he felt were discouraging development. The country lowered taxes on retirees looking to settle there and instituted stricter environmental safeguards.
Salinas still feels the infrastructure is not where he wants it and has an eye to developing the Caribbean coastline. (Currently, there isn't even an all-season road connecting the Pacific and the less-developed Caribbean coast.)
The Sandinista in Salinas came out when outlining his vision for where he wants Nicaraguan tourism to go.
"Tourism, properly developed, will help us create wealth to combat poverty, and will help us preserve the country, nature, culture and traditions," he said. "That's not an easy task. When tourism becomes mass tourism, it invades everything without taking into consideration a country's natural strengths. It can create great damage to the environment and tends to erode a nation's culture. It's very difficult, to stimulate growth while not destroying our richness.
"The most important thing of all," he continued, "is to achieve a unity of vision for government and private enterprise, both domestically and internationally. I'd like for everyone to have the same vision, to achieve a unity around a vision of developing tourism in Nicaragua."
In other words, he is hopeful that "unity tourism" will be a superior replacement for "solidarity tourism."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.
This article has been updated to add that the design for the Aqua Wellness Resort had been initially conceived by Hal Sorrenti and Matthew Falkner for Aqua under its original CEO and founder, Dan Rubano.