I’m repelled by the prospect of traveling to a foreign place and locking myself into some posh compound for the duration. On the one hand, I will probably never go on one of those charity vacations where you perform worthy labor on behalf of poor people; on the other, the one cruise I’ve taken (from Mumbai to Athens) really was a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.
In other words, I’m a travel moderate, a Goldilocksian, always searching for the just-right balance of comfort and strangeness, not too hot (or scary or primitive) and not too cold (or fake or antiseptic). Rather than Himalayan treks and Patagonian campouts, my taste in adventure tends toward extreme mental more than physical stimulation, a contemplation of danger and valor and their vestiges rather than actual physical risk—meaning vacations to countries with problematic recent histories (South Africa, Israel), and where the United States has fought wars in my lifetime (Vietnam, Grenada) or threatened to (China, Russia, Hungary, East Germany). For me, the next best thing to time travel is going to places where history is vivid and fresh and still unfolding. Extinct volcanoes can be interesting, but active ones are exciting.
Thus my trip to Nicaragua—that is, my second trip to Nicaragua. To the meager extent I was ever an actual, boots-on-the-ground reporter, journalism has been a pretext for interesting travel. Which is what first took me, as a 28-year-old writer for Time a quarter-century ago, to Central America, for a tour of the several civil wars then embroiling the isthmus.
It was 1983. Four years earlier, the Sandinistas had won their Nicaraguan revolution, defeating the Somoza-family dictatorship that had ruled the country brutally, with U.S. support, for most of the 20th century. Three years earlier, the Clash’s great album Sandinista! had come out and gone gold. Two years earlier, the new Reagan administration had started funding the contrarrevolucionarios, or Contras, in their insurgency against the socialist Sandinistas—who, faced with that civil war, had imposed a state of emergency exactly a year before I visited. But my strongest memories are of incredibly cheap steaks, a bedraggled little Managua circus that could’ve been in Fellini’s La Strada, and a very, very friendly American “consular officer” who I’m sure was CIA.
Most Americans, I discovered this time around, haven’t really updated their mental databases in regard to Central America since the 80’s. When I told people I was returning for a week and bringing my wife and one of my daughters with me, friends tended toward bafflement or alarm, incorrectly imagining that the region between Mexico and South America, apart from Costa Rica and maybe Belize, remains an iffy place to vacation.
And although all the shooting wars are long since over, in the case of Nicaragua one does appreciate the misapprehension: the country has been engaged recently in a kind of Groundhog Day re-enactment of its late-20th-century history. After a decade in power following their revolution, the Sandinistas were voted out of office and kept out for 16 years, but in 2006 they managed to retake the presidency, barely, with 41 percent of the vote.
And so once again, as in 1983, the anti-imperialist demagogue Daniel Ortega is president. Once again, familiar propaganda billboards are up in Managua, most of them signed “Daniel”: arriba los pobres del mundo! (“Arise, poor people of the world!”) and avanzamos la revolución! (“We advance the revolution!”). Once again, a cocky, flamboyantly anti-yanqui Latin American socialist is a comradely superstar, but now he’s Venezuelan instead of Cuban: a new neighborhood of social housing on the road from the airport is named after Hugo Chávez. Once again, a Sandinista government is cozying up to Russia, which gives the artifacts one still sees on Nicaragua’s roads—Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas—a kind of renewed salience. Once again, a disapproving administration in Washington has cut off economic aid.
The difference is that these days the Sandinistas aren’t actually very popular in Nicaragua. In last fall’s nationwide municipal elections, despite blatant voter fraud by the government and its allies, the Sandinistas managed to rack up only 38 percent of the vote. And today, as in 1983, the Nicaraguans I encountered were unfailingly friendly, the country’s natural beauty stunning, and its steaks still incredibly tasty and cheap.
For travelers, the main comparable is Costa Rica, directly to the south. Because Costa Rica hasn’t had a civil war in 61 years, and has had a well-functioning democracy and economy pretty much since then, Americans reflexively consider it the most desirable Central American travel destination. But the fact that the Costa Rican tourism industry is five or 10 times bigger than Nicaragua’s, and has been growing like crazy for years, comes with a large downside as far as I’m concerned: too many big, generic, thoughtlessly designed and developed hotels and condos; too much traffic and urban grimness.