Why Go Now: Nicaragua (PHOTOS)

Informed about Nicaragua's political issues over the past decades, I definitely had safety concerns before my trip; but I was stunned when I ended up feeling safer there than walking home in Manhattan.
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Indagare's Amelia Osborne recently traveled to Nicaragua and returned raving about a country that is emerging as one of the most exciting places for green-conscious travelers eager to get off the beaten path. Here are her impressions. Read her article on Indagare.

"Very beautiful and very wild," is how one American living in Nicaragua describes his adopted home. After my first visit there last month, I am in complete agreement and would add a few more adjectives: "untouched," "serene" and "the next big thing."

Having spent some time in Costa Rica and southern Mexico, I had a sense of what to expect geographically, but what surprised me most were the many seemingly contradictory juxtapositions that define the country. Asking hotel managers and tourism experts about Nicaragua's biggest challenge prompted the same resounding reply: "Foreigner's misconception of the country's safety."

I didn't tell them that until I arrived, I had been one of these anxious foreigners. Informed about Nicaragua's political issues over the past decades, I definitely had safety concerns before my trip; I was stunned when I ended up feeling safer there than walking home in Manhattan. One local explained Nicaragua's statistic of having the lowest crime rate in Central America thus: because the culture is so used to being at war (bullet holes from revolution of the 1970s are still visible in many building facades), communities band together enforcing a very strong commitment to local security.

I also wasn't prepared for the scars the country's political issues have left. Nicaragua is emerging from an era that included a corrupt dictatorship, a government coup, a civil war and a period of anti-American socialism. All of this, understandably, discouraged tourism -- until now. Today, capitalistic ambitions exist alongside surviving socialist attitudes. I was fascinated by the state-run co-operative bus system that uses donated Russian school buses from the 1970s, but where the drivers call stations ahead from their cell phones, competing for fares.

Another fascinating contrast is the country's relationship with eco-friendliness and the green movement. I had always considered recycling a first-world's dilemma, but Nicaragua is extremely concerned with their carbon footprint. It is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere (after Haiti), but despite, or perhaps because of this, government and business people are very focused on sustainability, green building and maintenance. Another noticeable aspect is the importance that hotels place on helping their local communities with donations, school and after-school program support and hiring staff from the surrounding areas.

Since my return, I have often revisited my favorite mental image from the trip. Driving along a dirt road heading to a spectacular and deserted beach, we passed four men on a rickety donkey cart. Barefoot and balancing surfboards under their arms, they waved to us, the only car on the road for miles. I couldn't help but think this was the perfect metaphor for the country: They were moving along -- slowly -- using extremely outdated machinery, all the while having a great time and enjoying the experience. There must be deeper meaning to the fact that while my behemoth of a van got stuck in a pothole, their wooden cart passed us, the men still grinning and waving.

Some of my favorite Nicaragua discoveries:
  • Swimming at night in a sea filled with phosphorescence at Aqua Wellness Resort.
  • The Jicaro Sunset cocktail, made with Jicaro liquor, passion fruit juice, banana and coconut milk at Jicaro Eco-Lodge.
  • The organic and locally-made coffee bean and sand exfoliation facials at Coco Berry Spa in Granada.
  • Pueblos Blancos, home to pottery workshops.
  • Amazing leather goods and hand-crocheted hammocks at Masaya market.
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