Standing on the rim of an active volcano focuses the mind wonderfully. Shall I slink back down the slope in cowardice? Or shall I slip into a pair of filthy coveralls, crouch on the snowboard-like sled and schuss down the side of the steaming cone? Not a decision one makes daily, but neither is it an outlier in the choices travelers make when visiting Nicaragua.
In just eight days of crisscrossing that Central American nation, I had to decide whether to sail across open seas in a speedboat, utterly drenched, to reach Little Corn Island in the Caribbean; to zip-line down a 45-degree-angle cable through a monkey-thick forest and land on a tiny platform 50-feet high; and to trek among the sweltering hillsides of Mombacho Volcano in search of a rare orchid that blooms once for only 24 hours. After all that, sand boarding down a volcano was a no-brainer.
On my flight to Managua, I sat next a local banking consultant. “The tourism potential is huge,” he said. “People call it the next Costa Rica. They know about volcano trekking and the lakes and the surfing. On the other hand, it’s the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And I’m not sure whether the government’s socialist leaders will be able to attract international investors, because of the bureaucracy.”
Despite such concerns, I wondered if Nicaragua might hold the promise of becoming the destination of 2017, the where-to-go-next place whispered by the cognoscenti at cocktail parties in L.A. and Manhattan. You know the chatter – get there now before it’s ruined – whether referring to Chiang Mai, Marrakech, Prague, or, yes, Costa Rica. I decided to venture to Nicaragua myself, to see whether this previously under-the-radar country is on the verge of a boom. Will Nicaragua make the leap onto the world stage of tourism, despite the uncertain risks, or will it let its potential promise go unrealized? I know what I did up on the rim of Cerro Negro, that steep, evil-looking volcano. I mounted the sled, kicked myself into a pother of volcanic ash, and shot like a rocket into the void, taking my chances. The question remains what will Nicaragua now do?
A destination doesn’t require an abundance of natural attractions to be popular – think Dubai or Las Vegas – but it helps, and in that category, Nicaragua thrives. For example, you can hardly bend over without bumping into a volcano. One evening my travel companions and I drove to the famous Masaya, where a pit crater had recently opened to reveal a lava lake at its core.
As the sun set, an orange glow from the lava intensified. Our group was about 200 feet above the raging magma, but even from there the heat was palpable, as was the low roar that escaped the volcano’s mouth. The toxic gases there are so strong that visitors are told to remain no longer than five minutes. My group of writers and photographers spent closer to 45 minutes up there, mesmerized by the hellish pit.
The flip side of fire is water, and Nicaragua has plenty of that – so much, in fact, that it has been considered an ideal place to build the next transoceanic shipping canal. The source of that dream is the immense Lake Nicaragua, which stretches nearly across the entire east-west length of the country. But every plan for a Nicaragua Canal has failed due to a lack of investors or political will. For now, Lake Nicaragua is a playground for boaters, kayakers, fishermen, and wealthy vacationers who have built pleasure palaces on many of the lake’s islands.
Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches are another natural resource that may soon be exploited for tourism. Up to now, the relatively few visitors to the key beach towns like Tola and San Juan del Sur haven’t marred the beauty and authenticity of the settings. San Juan del Sur, however, is the place to keep an eye on. The powers-that-be will soon complete a new cruise port for the 1,950-passenger Coral Princess, which stops here regularly.
The facility will feature shops, folkloric dancers, marimba music, crafts stalls, and tour operators. But will those boutiques be selling Toblerone bars or chocolate made in Granada? Will the shop owners be villagers or politically connected investors from Managua? It didn’t take me long to discover the tourism potential of Nicaragua’s natural wonders – it was pretty obvious within a day or two – but, after talking with small-fry tour operators, I was left uncertain about whether the country’s tourism development could remain sustainable.
Take Faustino Jarquin, a surf instructor at Playa Maderas, north of San Juan del Sur. With the laid-back charm so often found among those who live on the beach, “Tino” explained his business plan. For $30, a visitor gets a rental board and just over an hour of instruction. He never has more than five students in a single class, though he could hire a helper and double the size of his groups, if he wanted. But that’s not his way. Nonetheless, even Tino sees the future. “Fifteen years ago there was just one hotel in Maderas Beach,” he said. “Now the resorts go all the way up into the hills. There are more and more tourists every year.” It’s just not clear whether Tino is even interested in a tourist boom.
Luis Vargas, on the other hand, is interested. Luis, the young man who guided me to the top of Cerro Negro, has been leading volcano-surfing groups for the past year. “The Americans who want to try this are mostly from ages 20 to 50,” he said. As we began our slog to the top, Luis asked me about American travelers – what hotels did they prefer, did they like adventure, could they eat Nicaraguan food? He wasn’t just making chitchat. “I want to have my own tour company,” he said. “But for now, I enjoy doing this.” Ambition may be overrated, but I’d feel more sanguine about the future of Nicaraguan tourism if, say, Tino decided to hire a full-time assistant for his surf school and if Luis bought a van so he could pick up the tourists in nearby León and drive them to Cerro Negro himself, thus closing the financial loop to his advantage. Yet I remain hopeful.
Enter David Kone, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a six-year resident of Nicaragua, and the general manager of the new (January 2016) Pacaya Lodge eco-retreat in the hills above Apoyo Lagoon, a volcanic crater lake. Through an NGO called Opportunity International, the lodge trains local high school students in the business of guest relations, hotel management, and other facets of hospitality. All its artworks, decor, and furniture are sourced from local artisans.
Kone is convinced that Nicaragua doesn’t have to be ruined by tourism. “Tourism moved very quickly in Costa Rica,” he said. “Now it’s building here. You can’t stop it, but you can decide whether you’re going to displace the local community or work with them. I know this place is coming into its own. There’s not even a doubt. But at the same time, you can talk to people in the U.S. who don’t know if Nicaragua is in Central America or Africa, and that’s frustrating.”
On our final night before returning home, we were invited to have dinner at a popular waterside restaurant in Managua with the co-director of Intur, the country’s Tourism Department. Shantanny Anasha Campbell is just what you’d want in a dynamic young tourism official. She is motivated, speaks eloquently, has a background in destination marketing, worries about preserving her culture, and she’s realistic. “We don’t have a direct flight from Europe,” Campbell said. “We have limited flights from the U.S. We’re working to get a direct flight from Madrid. To get a direct flight from New York is very important. So, yes, we’re working on our marketing strategy for the U.S. and Europe. For many years we’ve just been shooting in the air, not focused. By next year we’ll have our marketing strategy finished.”
I asked Campbell whether success in tourism could destroy the very reason people want to visit in the first place. From her expression, I knew I wasn’t the first person to raise this issue. “We’re trying to strike a balance,” she said, “a balance between those tourists who want a high-end vacation and those who want authenticity. Nicaragua isn’t about protocol and formal suits and all that. It’s a very natural and authentic place, and I hope it stays that way.”
So is Nicaragua poised to be the destination of 2017? With limited flights, only a million visitors a year – a number on par with Senegal – few chain hotels, and a grassroots approach to tourism, the answer can seem like a no. Yet, when you look at the affordability Nicaragua offers, its bounty of natural beauty, and the variety of experiences a traveler can have there, it seems – to me, at least – that this long-overlooked country is ready for the tourism spotlight.