Nica possesses some of the most fun sandbottom tubes in the world, and it tends to get proper crowded. If tourism ain't booming, and you don't mind a little political turmoil, might be worth booking a ticket. Nick Rosza shot by Chris Papaleo
Nicaragua Is Burning, But Should That Stop You From Going?
Everyone knew this situation was going to happen but we didn’t know when. It was like a time bomb that finally detonated. Now there is no way to go back.
My first trip to Nicaragua, in 2007, coincided with the inauguration of Daniel Ortega.
It would be Ortega's second stint in office, following his 1985-1990 term as president, a period locked in a vicious civil war between the US-funded Contra rebels and Ortega's Sandinista government.
The country was in the grip of poverty, lacking solid infrastructure, most roads mere rutted dirt tracks and the country's power supply notoriously unreliable. A headline from an English language ex-pat newspaper caught my eye, with its headline claiming the state owned power company had declared a goal of achieving a single 24 hour period without outages within the year.
But there was an air of hope about the recent election. It seemed many Nicaraguans believed that Ortega's win was the beginning of a new era for the country. Since 1855, when American freebooter William Walker invaded the country and installed himself as President following a disastrous attempt to achieve the same goal in Mexico two years prior, the Central American nation had been the target of meddling from the large nation located far to its North. American interventionism propped up the Somoza dictatorship throughout the late 60s and into the 70s, then funded the Contra rebels by illegally selling arms to the Iranian government in the 1980s.
To his people, Ortega was the promise of self-determination. He embarked on a infrastructure initiative, building roads throughout the country, improving power service, and increasing funding to education. Future trips showed, to my outside eye, a country on the rise. Nicaraguans seemed to possess a spirit of true hope for the future, a belief that possibility was finally within grasp.
On April 16, 2018, university students in Managua launched demonstrations criticizing their government's lack of response to forest fires in the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. Two days later, President Ortega announced a plan to cut pensions and social security benefits, while simultaneously increasing the amount Nicaraguan citizens and businesses would pay into them.
Protestors calling for the resignation of Ortega took to the streets armed with homemade mortars, firearms, and slingshots. Building barricades on highways leading in and out of the capital, Managua, the opposition to the Ortega government effectively reduced transport along major arteries to a crawl.
In response, as protests increased, the Sandinista Youth launched counter protests in support of the reforms. Pro-government paramilitary groups, armed civilians, and riot police have banded together to dismantle the blockades, touching off a wave of violence that has left at least 200 dead.
With the current partisan crisis in my own country, it's difficult, if not outright hypocritical, to attempt to evaluate where things went wrong for Nicaragua. In an effort to understand the situation from the perspective of a Nicaraguan citizen I reached out to Marvin Arguello Martinez, a man born and raised in San Juan Del Sur, a long time leader in, and proponent of, the area's skateboarding scene.
"Everything started with the reform of INSS, the Labor insurance, increasing the percentage to paid by Nicaraguans and by private companies, and decreasing the retired payments that elders receive.
"This reform was made in order to pay the government debts and avoid INSS bankrupt. But this was not the first reform made by this government, it was only one of the many bad things this government has done. This was the 'drop that broke the glass.'
"Since Ortega stole the presidential election in 2011, violating the national constitution by serving a third term (only two are allowed), and then changing the constitution to eliminate term limits, we knew this was going to be bad. That was the first time Nicaraguans started to protest against the government. The repression started and many people were scared to protest so they swallowed it.
"During the 2016 elections, more than half of Nicaraguans didn’t vote because of fear and the feeling that it was a waste of time. So he won again. Everyone knew this situation was going to happen but we didn’t know when. It was like a time bomb that finally detonated. Now there is no way to go back. Ortega must go and there is no way we can wait until next year for presidential elections. This has to be done as soon as possible!"
At the moment the strife has not spread throughout the entire country, being largely contained to the cities of Jinotepe, Masaya, and Managua. However the economic shockwaves are being felt throughout the nation, as tourism, an economic source on which the country has become increasingly reliant, has undergone rapid decline.
"Tourism is dead," Mr Martinez says. "We can easily see it from my town. It feels like when I was a little kid. You barely see foreign people around town."
It's a situation echoed by Kimberly Yemma, proprietor of the Popoyo Surf Lodge.
"We have been lucky at Popoyo Surf Lodge because we are still open and we have not had to let go of any employees yet," Ms Yemma told me. "That being said, we are running at about 15 percent capacity and this time of year we are normally almost full. Most of the other hotels in the area have completely closed down and had to let go of ALL of their employees. So, basically, the unrest in Nicaragua has stopped tourism 100 percent and it is affecting hotels, surf camps, hostels, etc in all of Nicaragua."
However, Ms Yemma continues, that needn't be the case.
"I do not think that surfers are in danger. I have been in Managua multiple times since this started and was in Jinotepe just three days ago, which is one of the current hot spots still. I actually spent quite a bit of time talking with the young men that are guarding the roadblocks in the country. They were super respectful and still very much pro-tourism. We even took pictures together. They had masks on, morteros, and one guy even had an automatic rifle. But I did not feel in danger at all.
"Surfers need to keep coming. The lineups are empty and the situation has not affected the peace out on the beach at all. We have never had one problem getting into the airport to get our clients, other than longer than normal drives out to the camp to go around roadblocks. I do not feel that it is unsafe to come down to Nicaragua. For anyone who is nervous about flying into Managua, the other option is to fly into Liberia and meet with our drivers at the border. I do NOT recommend any driving at night and I do recommend traveling only with operators who know the detours."
Leandro Zouain, of the Miramar Surf Camp, shared a similar sentiment regarding the safety of visiting surfers. "The problem here is between the people against the government. We are going to Managua everyday and nothing has happened."
Mr Martinez begs to differ, though he does not, admittedly, believe that visitors will be in any danger. "I think tourists should postpone their trip to Nicaragua for now, to be safe, even though I'm sure the government isn’t stupid enough to mess with a foreigner. Because that would cause a bigger problem in the country."
The decision whether or not to visit Nicaragua this season is up to the individual, but it seems likely that surfers willing to take the chance will be amply rewarded. With violence contained to disputes among local factions, thus far failing to spill out onto impartial observers, the adventure-minded among us have a rare opportunity to experience solitude in an increasingly crowded country renowned for very consistent surf and non-stop offshores. With local economies in desperate need of a financial influx, and south swell season well in full bloom, there seems little reason to forego your planned trip.
If anything, it seems like good reason to begin planning one.