In early April of 2019 I spent a week in Nicaragua with a good friend from college. Using Jicaro Island Lodge as our base, we planned day trips around Granada, Mombacho and Masaya. Our travels overlapped almost a year to the day in 2018 when political demonstrations broke out across the country, only to be violently put down by the Ortega government. Travel warnings against Nicaragua ensued and within a few weeks tourist arrivals diminished and then stopped completely, erasing most of the jobs within the tourism industry (which in 2015, accounted for 5% of the country's GDP.)
What would Nicaragua feel like to a visitor now, one year later? Is it safe? Should one travel there? Some form of these questions arrive in my inbox several times each week and the most honest way to answer was to revisit myself. Following are answers to some of the most frequent queries that I receive about Nicaragua and Jicaro Island.
Is Nicaragua Safe for Travel?
Without hesitation, yes, you can safely travel within the country and people have been for some time, since Canada the UK and most EU member nations removed their travel warnings several months ago. In fact, Jicaro Island Lodge was mostly full during our stay; we shared the island with couples from Costa Rica, the UK, Toronto, New York and a family with teenagers from Kentucky.
The only snafu we encountered was on our arrival day and it was the fault of Spirit Airlines (and my friend for opting to book Spirit Airlines, but I suppose that everyone has to learn that lesson once.) Jicaro Island took care of all of our transfers, adjusted plans to compensate for Spirit's failings and arranged several days of guided touring. In Granada, lingering hints of last year still faintly exist in the form of a quieter town and "cerrado" signs hanging on some of the bars and stores that catered exclusively to travelers. But the market and main square were bustling and vendors were eager to banter, show off their carving skills or have you sample their special version of Vigorón.
Who Should Go to Nicaragua?
Even before last year, Nicaragua was a delightfully raw "un-sanitized" travel experience, especially when compared to Costa Rica's traveler-focused Guanacaste region just across the border. From the wildly painted chicken buses following their own rules of the road to the frequently seen vaqueros herding livestock down dirt paths and across fields, traveling through Nicaragua reminds you that you're far from home. There aren't too many other places in the world where one can drive nearly to the edge of an active volcano and gaze down into a boiling lava lake, sand board down the side of a volcano, join an entire town in passionately cheering on the local baseball team and surf epic waves without battling crowds of other tourists, all in a long weekend .
But you don't have to be a thrill seeker to appreciate Nicaragua. Jicaro Island is a wonderful place to disconnect and recharge; from quiet mornings with coffee and birdsong to yoga classes near the Cenote and Spanish practice with Jicaro's encouraging staff, there are many ways to slow down but still richly engage with and soak in the destination. And of course there is an economic incentive; Nicaragua is very affordable, even in high season.
The Moral Question: Does Travel to Nicaragua Equate Support for the Ortega Government?
This is a complex issue, and one that I don't want to shy away from discussing. The situation in Nicaragua today is similar to Myanmar in the 1990s and early 2000s…and now again today – should one travel to or vacation in a country with a government that kills and imprisons its own citizens?
While attending Semester at Sea in 2005, I did go to Myanmar when it was still under US embargo, and from that impactful trip remain convinced that forging connections with people in other countries, who are living under vastly different realities is important and transformative. Gaining different perspectives & sharing experiences is one of the most powerful educational opportunities in the world. And responsible travel supports people, offers a sounding board for their stories and provides important economic opportunities that extend far beyond a simple transaction.
I also can't discuss Nicaragua without mentioning Mukul, the $40 million beachfront property & real estate development owned by Nicaragua's wealthiest family which put the country on the map as a luxury destination on the rise. Shortly after the protests and violence started, Mukul shut down and remains closed indefinitely, leaving many Nicaraguans without jobs overnight. Some individuals found employment elsewhere, in other countries, like Mario Magoya who now is the Operations Manager at El Otro Lado in Panama. I am not privy to the reasons as to why Mukul has yet to reopen, but I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing the owners would reconsider and welcome guests once again.
Jicaro was also forced to close for a few months, but owner Karen Emmanuel maintained a core team of nearly half of Jicaro's full staff on payroll since last April. She self-funded the operation and continues to cover employee salaries, committed to the local community and the many people who came to depend on Jicaro Island for employment. Howard Coulson, General Manager of Jicaro Island had this to share:
"When we officially reopened in November, employee after employee returned, hugging Karen and crying – "Thank you for opening, I can feed my family again." Karen understands that people are a businesses' most important asset. Without great people, we are nothing. I will never take another job – I will work with her and with Jicaro until I retire."
Written by: Kirsten Gardner (Kirsten is a former Wildland employee and now one of our travel partners and an expert on travel to Central America.)
I recently sent a couple to Nicaragua, who had a wonderful trip (read a review of their trip). To learn more about trips to Nicaragua give me a call at 800-345-4453 or send me an email - and ask me about exclusive deals at Jicaro Island.