Nicaragua: Hidden in Plain View
Often called the “belly button” of the Americas, Nicaragua is a volcanic nation with a turbulent past. Suffering from dictatorships, isolation, and natural disasters Nicaragua’s stability is a long time coming. In the last decade, Nicaragua has begun to attract an expat community, drawn to its unique landscape. Today, Nicaragua is a prime destination for the travel pursuits of surfers, adventurers and the like.
Nicaragua’s striking beauty, however, is not the subject of this photo-journal. Here, I share what intrigued me most about everyday life there: the blur between the public and the private. In Nicaragua, locals live their lives quite publicly, sitting by windows to eat, play cards, or finish reading the morning paper. Windows, doors, balconies, gates, you name it, are open, ready to be consumed by the public. Despite Nicaraguans living their lives so openly, abuses by the global community happen in plain sight, and yet few visitors look hard enough to notice them. Nicaragua’s history of foreign intervention affects this beautiful nation until today, and the abuses of tourism continues to fuel that history.
Many view travel as an experience that is positive for all those involved — the traveler and the local. Travel is linked to ideals of cross-cultural exchange and prosperity for the local community. Through my own travel experiences, and my interactions with many locals across cultures, I’ve realised that this is a misconception. Below I share stories from the everyday life of this introverted nation in hopes of shedding light on the often obvious, yet unspoken, effects of tourism on local life.
This photo-journal follows the chronological order in which I “discovered” the stories below. I began my journey in San Juan del Sur, a newly gentrified coastal town once a quiet fishing village. I then headed to Granada, the “jewel of Central America”, a city known for its sunsets and colonial history . In Granada, I follow the stories of families affected by Nicaragua’s economic instability as tourism fluctuates the local currency and quality of life is affected. Young women in Nicaragua are particularly vulnerable, as they juggle single household families and are often the victims of sex tourism. Tourists however, mostly come to Nicaragua drawn to its the affordability, and landscape, while others are drawn to the opportunities of “voluntarism”. Throughout Nicaragua, missionaries, often from the United States, come to provide charitable services to the locals in return for conversions to their denomination or churches, continuing a colonial history that Nicaragua has not yet forgotten.
San Juan del Sur was once a sleepy town on the pacific coast of Nicaragua. Over the last twenty years San Juan del Sur became a haven for clichés that attract a young, white, surfing crowd — morning yoga, Buddhist symbolism, vegan-friendly cafes and a rowdy nightlife. Far removed from the reality of Nicaragua, the gentrification of San Juan del Sur is at odds with the everyday life of Nicaraguans. Tourism has left little of the local community to be explored — many local businesses are hidden between craft breweries and speciality coffee cafes that seem to come from a different world entirely.
One wet morning, when the electricity was cut off from the the town of San Juan del Sur, and the town was busy with travellers looking for places to charge their cameras and iPhones, I walked into a craft beer brewery run by young North Americans. They apologised profusely for the electricity cut in the shop. I told that that it was okay, and that the whole town was affected by a black out. “Oh.” replied one of the owners totally unaware that the entirety of San Juan del Sur was suffering from a black out for at least 6 hours. Their lack of awareness seemed characteristic of the general obliviousness of foreigners to the community surrounding them.
It was at that point in my journey that I began to question of the influence of tourism on the local community. As we made our way through the West coast of Nicaragua, where surf spots are quite common, I noticed a pattern: local life was overshadowed by the existence of gentrified businesses, often in tension with the realities of Nicaragua.
The high influx of tourists in Nicaragua has been met with mixed reactions. While many are grateful for a new source of income outside of agriculture — the economic fate of many Latin American countries — others are skeptical. Tourism has caused the rapid rise of living expenses. Many locals and residents find themselves without a home as rent rises, and moving from one home to another is quite common. My guide, Alberto, a Nicaraguan from the city of Masaya near Granada told me:
“I can’t wait to build my own home. I already bought some of the raw materials, like cement, so we can start the building process. I want to move to my own home as quickly as possible. Rent is rising so fast, I already moved homes so many times in the last couple of years. I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford a home in the next five years. I want to make sure Perla and Madeline are okay… that’s why I am using all my savings on this house.”
Rent is not the only living expense affecting Nicaraguans. A friend I met in Granada told me: “tourists come to Nicaragua with the idea that its so affordable and that the local community is poor — so when they go to buy fruit or vegetables from the markets, they overpay. The vendor tells them its for $3 USD, but they throw $10 USD because they think its helping the locals. It’s not helping… it causes prices to rise. This affects families”.
On the other hand, haggling is also damaging. Because many families are only thinking about the next viable meal, they are affected when tourists underpay for goods, and haggling, even over a dollar or two, can be detrimental to the everyday livelihoods of families. That’s why when I was shopping in Masaya, Alberto warned me of haggling with vendors. “You can haggle a bit but not too much. When they go down once, don’t make them go down again.”
Although I couldn’t find literature supporting the idea that Nicaragua might be a spot for sex tourism, locals I spoke to were concerned especially for young girls. Amnesty International reports that the majority of Nicaraguan girls vulnerable to exploitation are under the age of 16.
Local businesses in Granada have taken action to protect girls in the community from sexual predators. By campaigning and refusing to serve tourists seen with young girls, Xiomara, a Nicaraguan business owner in Granada, was able to stop sexual predators from feeling welcomed at her restaurant. Xiomara first noticed the problem three years after opening, when a regular customer came in with a girl in a school uniform. When she asked her employees about the incident, she was told that the man had come in before, and that the girl with him was known around the community for having sexual relations with tourists. Xiomara decided to approach other businesses in Granada to campaign against the sexual exploitation of girls, and began a private sector movement against sex tourism in Granada. Today, Xiomara runs a social enterprise alongside her restaurant to support girls in Nicaragua through education and mentorship.
Sexual exploitation through tourism has been flagged as a concern among Central American governments, and recent incidents in Guatemala and Honduras has made authorities weary of foreign investors and tourists, particularly missionary groups.
Nicaragua is a deeply religious country. Quite often, homes and businesses are decorated with religious symbols. Up until the 1990s, the majority of the country was Roman Catholic with a significant Protestant minority. After the failed re-election of the Sandinista government in the early 90s, this began to change. A huge influx of religious missionaries, from Evangelical, Pentecostal, Baptist and other churches in the United States began converting locals while providing charitable donations. Today, missionaries from Canada and the United States come in droves, offering to fix roofs or provide dental services in return for conversions. Religious dentists and optometrists coming to Nicaragua for missionary work are particularly common. Historically, religion and politics have been intertwined, and the position of the church changes according to the government in power.
The first time I came across an American missionary was in line to board my flight from Miami International Airport to Managua. A middle aged American lady stood in front of me with a luggage tag:
“BAPTIST MEDICAL & DENTAL MISSION KM 9–1/2 CARRETERA SUR MANAGUA, NICARAGUA C.A.”
After arriving in Nicaragua, I found dental missions to be common throughout the country. I also sat next to a group of missionaries on my flight back from Managua but this time it was a different church — I believe Pentecostal — who wore pink t shirts with the words “North Country Mission of Hope” on the front. Missionary tourism is frequent in Central America and comes with its own set of issues, such as sexual exploitation of children and drug trafficking, which has caused the Nicaraguan government to continuously change it legislation. These changes have been met with resistance by many religious groups as well as North American christian media.
Statistics show that missionaries have managed to convert 21% of the Nica population. Interestingly, 12% of Nicaraguans consider themselves to be atheist or agnostic— which is unusually high for Latin America.
What are you Nicaragua?
What are you —
a little triangle of earth
lost in the middle of the world?
What are you —
a flight of birds
What are you
a roar of rivers
bearing polished, shiny stones
leaving footprints of water in the mountains?
What are you —
A women’s breasts made of earth
Smooth, pointed and threatening?
What are you —
Singing of leaves in gigantic trees
Green, tangled and filled with doves?
What are you —
Pain and dust and screams in the afternoon
“screams like those of women giving birth”?
What are you —
Clenched fist and loaded gun?
What are you, Nicaragua
To cause me such pain?
— by Gioconda Belli,
Nicaraguan Poet and former Sandinista
In many ways, and since can remember, I’ve been sensitive to local communities. Their struggles become my struggles, their passions become my passions, and their happiness becomes my happiness. Through my travels around the world I have witnessed the ugliness of tourism and what it does to communities. Travel is a historically colonial endeavour, and unfortunately, its obvious links to contemporary history are never spoken.
I want to thank the beautiful people of Nicaragua for sharing parts of themselves and their country with me. My time in Nicaragua has been eye opening, and I wish that Nicaragua continues to be the peaceful, kind, gentle place I experienced it to be. Nicaragua Libre!