If youve never thought about Nicaragua as a future vacation destination or even a potential investment option, maybe its time to look closer at the small Central American hideaway bordering both coasts. Read on for useful facts and figures and plan your trip today!
Located between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Country of Nicaragua is an intriguing land of dramatic scenery and friendly people. Although its abundance of waterways, volcanoes, colonial cities and tranquil pueblos offer tourists much to explore, Nicaraguas tumultuous recent history has left it comparatively undiscovered.
Nicaragua is now considered one of the safest countries in Central and South America. Nicaragua today is one of the fastest growing tourist and investment destinations in the region and offers attractive investment incentives. Nicaragua's greatest economic promise may lie in its tourist industry, which has already become the countrys second largest source of income. The population is growing at 2.6% annually. The capital of Managua has a population of nearly one million people and the majority of the four million other residents are concentrated primarily in the Pacific lowlands, a region preferred for its rich volcanic soil and cooler, dryer climate.
Nicaraguas government is a republic that holds elections every five years. The current president, Enrique Bolanos, represents the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) and was elected in 2001, winning a close race over Daniel Ortega from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Nicaragua has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world and its economy is also one of the weakest. With massive external debt, chronic infrastructure issues, and high unemployment, Nicaragua continues to be dependent on foreign aid and debt relief. Luckily, Nicaragua has some of the most varied and abundant natural resources in Central America. Nicaragua's volcanoes have only begun to be tapped as sources of geothermal energy and the rich volcanic soil theyve created is perfect for producing coffee, the countrys largest export. Fish and beef are the second and third largest export commodities and the country has rich forests of commercial timber in addition to petroleum and mineral reserves, including gold.
The country code is 505. To call from one city to another, dial "0" first. Enitel, the national phone company, will place calls for you with a three-minute minimum. Phone cards are available in most major tourist destinations. Internet phones are available at Internet cafes and can be used for significantly lower overseas rates. Remember, however, that connection speed can be a significant drawback.
Tourist information is provided by INTUR, the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism. INTUR has offices in: Bluefields (822-0221), Carazo (412-0298), Chinandega (341-3636), Esteli (713-6799), Granada (552-6858), Jinotega (632-4552), Juigalpa (812-2801), Leon (311-3682), Masaya (522-7615), Matagalpa (612-7060), Ocotal (732-3429), Rivas (453-4914), Rio San Juan (283-0363) and the head office in Managua (222-3333, www.intur.gob.ni).
Banks & Post Offices
Banks accept travelers checks and major credit cards Visa and MasterCard and are available in all large cities. Visitors can obtain US dollars from Credomatics that accept all major credit cards with display of passport (274-4444). Managua, Leon, and Granada have ATMs that accept Visa; however, it does not work with all Visa cards. Tourists should be aware that travelers checks could be difficult to cash outside of banks. Moneychangers will exchange US dollars and several other Central American currencies for cordobas and are readily available on the street and are used by locals and tourists. The exchange rate has been hovering near 14.6 cordobas to the US dollar with rates of exchange reaching as high as 14.78 in February.
There are post offices, called Correos de Nicaragua, in nearly every town, open standard business hours.
Nicaragua has a range of accommodations from luxury resorts to dormitories. Managua has the widest selection with flashy hotels, international chains, a variety of mid-range hotels and budget options located primarily in Barrio Martha Quezada, west of Plaza Inter. Granada and Leon each have a beautiful high-end colonial hotel, several mid-range hotels, some with pools, and a choice of budget options. Other towns attracting larger numbers of visitors such as San Juan del Sur, Ometepe, Matagalpa and Esteli, have mid-range hotels offering air-conditioning and cable television.
Budget hospedajes are plentiful throughout the country, providing rooms with fans and private or shared baths with unheated water showers. These can be booked in the price range of US $3 - 15. The mid-range hotels range in price from US $17 - 60 and the high-end up to $160 in Managua. If you inquire, some mid-range hotels offer rooms without air-conditioning for a lower rate. The auto hotels along the highways are often discreet love shacks.
The protected areas of Mombacho, San Ramon on Ometepe, Miraflor, Laguna de Apoyo, and Indio Maiz Biological Reserve near El Castillo on the Rio San Juan offer
over-night stays in their ranger stations. Camping is also available near San Juan del Sur.
The accommodation choice that offers the most cultural immersion is a home-stay with a local family. Many families supplement their incomes through renting rooms in their homes and usually offer meals at minimal additional cost. This option includes the opportunity to learn Spanish, learn more about the country and make new friends. Home-stays are offered throughout the country and are most easily arranged through Spanish schools, primarily in the more popular tourist areas.
Check with local tourist offices to find hotel listings and inquire about prices and services.
Managua offers the greatest variety of restaurants with choices ranging from elegant dining to international chains to cuisine from around the world, including Italian, French, German, Mediterranean, Mexican, Chinese and Korean. Granada and Leon restaurant offerings range from fine dining to casual. Pasta, pizza and hamburgers can be found in all larger towns.
In small towns, restaurants predominantly serve comida corriente, which means typical Nicaraguan food. The standard plate both filling and tasty consists of meat, black beans, rice (or rice and beans cooked together called Gallo Pinto), plantains cooked sweet or fried, and a salad consisting of lettuce or cabbage, tomato and onion with vinegar dressing. Possible additional side items are corn tortillas, Nicaraguan cheese, vegetables and avocado slices. Typical Nicaraguan food is often served from fritangas, stands on the side of the road. Popularity is a good indicator of food quality.
Seafood options are plentiful along the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and Lake Nicaragua. Ceviche is always a specialty on the Pacific and lobster is available nearly year round. In addition to gaseosas (soft drinks), cervezas (beer), Victoria, Tona and Premium, and Flor de Cana rum, refrescos are popular. These drinks are a local favorite and a refreshing alternative to soda. They are made from local fruits, seeds or maize combined with plenty of sugar and water.
Dont be concerned if there isnt a menu in your chosen restaurant. Wait staff are always patient so feel free to ask questions; however, servers usually speak only Spanish. You must always ask for la cuenta, the bill, as it is considered rude to present it without having been asked.
Water quality varies widely and is not typically potable except in some larger cities. For advice, you may ask at your hotel or a resident foreigner or local Nicaraguan if the water is drinkable. Children, the elderly, and persons with compromised immune systems should always drink bottled water.
Tourism On the Rise
Government figures indicate that tourism earnings continue to rise steadily though the pace of growth is slower than it was in the late 1990s. Income in 2001 was $135.3 million, up almost $7 million over the previous year. Part of this upward trend is explained by an increase in the average amount spent per tourist per visit, going from $114.60 in 1990 to $280.10 in 2001.
Visitors from Honduras lead the pack with that country representing around a quarter of the market. The United States follows with just under 20%. Another almost 38% of entries to Nicaragua came from El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Canada, Spain and Germany combined, amounted to 5.3% of the market, according to the Secretariat for Strategy and Coordination of the Presidency.
Central America joined forces recently in Spain during the International Tourism Fair under the slogan "Central America: So Small, So Big." Each country in the region will chip in $50,000 a year to maintain a tourism promotion agency in Madrid slated to open in March. Talks are underway with the Panamanian airline COPA to open a route from Europe direct to Central America thereby bypassing the current connection in Miami. Iberia, the Spanish airline, is carrying out a campaign to promote Nicaragua.
The World Tourism Organization estimates that tourism to the Central American region rose by almost 10% over last year. Nicaraguan hotel operators report that their income has been on the upswing too. Tourism is considered as one of the most important lines for the future development of the country along with free trade zones for manufacture and final assembly.
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Coffee Down, Veggies Up
You may not notice it at a Starbucks in a US airport concession area, but the world price of coffee is down to crisis levels for growers, due largely to a glut provoked by overproduction around the world. That, combined with bad harvests in recent years due to climatic factors and accumulated debts has led some Nicaraguan farmers to try other alternatives.
Lettuce, beetroot, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and local varieties of squash are sprouting up on farms formerly dedicated exclusively to coffee production. Some growers are opting for better management of the citrus trees sprinkled throughout their plantations, raising yields of oranges, mandarins, lemons, and grapefruit. Others have established poultry and egg operations.
Earnings from this produce may never reach those of the golden days of coffee growing because of a generally depressed economic situation. One hope on the horizon is the proliferation of new tourism developments and the possible arrival of increasingly more visitors to the country hungry for fresh fruit and vegetables with real taste, as opposed to those produced in their home countries with more modern techniques that sacrifice taste and color for production bulk.
Nevertheless, coffee has not been abandoned completely in the highlands of the country. For something different, you could always visit a plantation around April when the plants flower. The panorama of small white blossoms and the smell are unforgettable!
Transport Infrastructure: Getting Better All The Time
It is easier for visitors to get into and around Nicaragua. Managua's Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport has undergone a major facelift over the last couple of years and more is to come with the modernization project undertaken by the federal airport administration, the EAAI. With financing from a $10,000,000 bond issue, the EAAI is also improving its airports on the Atlantic Coast.
At the same time, the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure is pulling out all the stops with a highway improvement program. Included on the list of projects is the stretch from Ticuantepe, south of Managua to Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. It is to be upgraded from the current two-lane blacktop to four lanes with bus bays. Not quite an autobahn but it will definitely make it an easier and more pleasant drive.
One of the major arteries from Managua to Leon is being refurbished while two stretches of the highway going east to the river port city of Rama will be worked on in the months to come. Work is almost completed on stretches of the Pan American highway in the north of the country. Delays due to construction are to be expected, but on the bright side, they will give drivers a chance to stop, stretch their legs, and view the scenery.
Meanwhile, potholing crews are at work on the highways throughout the country, patching and repairing prior to the coming rainy season. Nevertheless, drivers should not let their concentration fade on the highways. Though there may be fewer craters, one must be ever vigilant for cows, horses, pigs, chickens, bicyclists, pedestrians, dogs, and vultures consuming the latest road kill.