The Sandinistas want tourism, but they want it…nice, not huge and helter-skelter. Nicaragua right now reminds me of old city neighborhoods and towns in the American Northeast, where decades of economic doldrums turned out to be a blessing in disguise, accidentally preserving charming old streets and buildings. As yanqui travelers rediscover the increasingly rare pleasures of small-is-beautiful authenticity, Nicaragua’s underdeveloped, relatively untouched realness is a large part of its charm. Just after I returned home, I happened to run into a big-time Hollywood TV agent who told me he too had just spent his vacation in Nicaragua. Thus were my instincts confirmed: the country has become one of those Places on the Verge, discovered by cognoscenti but not yet overrun.
Managua, the capital and home to a fifth of the population, flirts with cosmopolitanism in the manner of a small provincial U.S. city. In the Metrocentro, the newer downtown, there are casinos, and the shopping center next to the Real InterContinental Metrocentro hotel plays hip-hop Muzak. Managua is the sort of place where people are still nostalgic about the Bono visit 23 years ago, and earnestly brag that Iron Maiden played here in 2006.
Managua is not particularly charming, mainly because it was nearly all built during the past few decades: in 1972, an earthquake destroyed 80 percent of the old buildings. In the center of town, near the Plaza de la República (or Plaza de la Revolución, depending on who’s talking), stands the ruined old cathedral, only 71 years old but wrecked by the quake and still scarred by bullet holes from the revolution.
The day and night in transit that one inevitably spends in Managua, however, needn’t be unpleasant. You can have a terrific lunch on the porch at the Cocina de Doña Haydée, just off Carretera a Masaya, Metrocentro’s main drag. The restaurant is run by the Espinosa sisters, Alicia and Irene, and named after their mother, who was still making the pork and chicken nacatamales into her nineties.
But a Nicaraguan vacation is really about getting onto the highways and back roads, up the mountains, out to the beaches. And the pseudo–time-traveling pleasures of the country aren’t just in the realm of political history. I can only imagine the sweet, homey, small-scale Caribbean that my parents experienced in 1960, but I think Big Corn Island must be one of the most convincing extant versions of that heyday.
It’s not flawless—nothing funky can be—but it is perfect. Four square miles of land 45 miles off the east coast (and a ferry ride from the coastal city of Bluefields), it’s reachable via a daily 115-minute prop-plane flight from Managua. The Managua airport experience—each of us stepping onto a luggage scale to be weighed; the long-haired Danish giant checking his guitar; another passenger’s black pistol wrapped in clear tape in order to be checked—was good preparation for the pre-21st-century world into which we were about to be transported.
Big Corn Island is absolutely unspoiled—no casinos, no cruise ships, no hotels with more than 20 rooms, commercial fishing still more important than tourism—but not in the sometimes tedious, uninhabited-virgin-nature sense. The Corn Islands were a British possession until the end of the 19th century, and leased to the United States for most of the 20th. Many of the 8,000 residents speak English, and a majority have African ancestors.
The road around the island is all of seven miles long. So you can take one of the plentiful taxis or walk. The other two choices depend on which kind of gringo you’d rather appear to be: the self-consciously fit yuppie kind who speeds by on a bike, or the dorky middle-aged kind who rides around in an electric golf cart. We chose the latter and, quickly forgetting to be mortified by how uncool we looked, found it an apt way to experience the place. The iconic Caribbean experience is all about taking it easy, not judging, being quietly amusing and bemused. And so, breezing along in our cart at five or 10 miles an hour, we felt in sync as we passed the wild horses trotting in the surf, and veered close enough to the shaved-ice vendor to smell his jars of red and yellow fruit syrups. I saw no revolutionary slogans or 30-year-old bullet holes on the walls of Big Corn Island.
Casa Canada, just south of the wonderfully named Sally Peachy district, is the poshest hotel on the island—which means nicely landscaped grounds, an infinity pool, and a $99-a-night bungalow versus a room for $10 to $40 elsewhere. But it’s definitely, happily, not a sealed-off luxury compound: a few locals appeared each night for dinner, parents sipping beers and frozen margaritas as children swung contentedly on the hanging barstools, all of us watching the hotel’s capuchin monkey, Pancho, scamper from branch to grass to beach and back up into his tree overlooking the sea. The first night I assumed the sound-system playlist to be a Casa Canada quirk: almost nothing but American country music from way back in the day, like Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.”