In the 8 days of this trip (June 6 - 13), we spent our entire time within 100 miles of Managua in generally a southeasterly direction from the capital city in the El Raizon, Masaya, and Chacocente areas. After a five hour flight from Los Angeles to El Salvador and a plane switch for the final 45 minute flight to Managua, we arrived Monday at the Managua airport in the twilight. Scrambling with our luggage out to the waiting orange school bus, it almost seemed like a school field trip except most of us had at least 50+ years on any high school students. If we were expecting third world accommodations, we would soon be disappointed because the El Raizon Hotel greeted us with clean linen, comfortable beds, and a very tidy, mango tree filled courtyard - not bad considering the $40-$60 room rate. The only disturbance was the occasional banging of a mango dropping from a high branch onto the steel sheeting over parts of the courtyard.
Nicaragua, similar to many Latin American countries, has a somewhat tortured past. After the Spanish invaded this area in the early 1500's, the indigenous pre-Columbian natives numbered over 1 million, however, after only 20 years the combination of imported Old World diseases, warfare with the Spanish, and exportation as slaves to other Spanish colonies resulted in a decimation of these people to only 20,000 - 40,000 survivors. The life span of a Nicaraguan native slave sent to the silver mines of Peru was measured in months not years, due to the harsh conditions - ahh, yes the good old days! Today there are very few "native" people in Nicaragua but their genes live on in the largely mestizo population of both Spanish and indigenous blood, predominantly in the western part of the country. East, over the central mountains to the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, things are much different with less agriculture and a predominantly Creole population. Most Nicaraguans we talked too had not even been over to that side of their country and it is viewed with some suspicion due to the different more African culture and religious practices. After gaining independence as a separate nation in 1838, Nicaragua cycled through numerous dictators, US-installed "puppet" governments, revolutions, and finally the current socialist but democratically elected Sandinista government. Depending on who you talk to, the president Daniel Ortega, is doing a good or bad job, but there is one common refrain that his wife is not well liked or trusted. Apparently she is using tens of thousands of government money to construct metal sculptures along busy Managua avenues in an effort to "brand" Nicaragua as the metal tree country. There is even some suggestion that these sculptures have black magic influence.
Regardless of the government, Nicaragua faces economical challenges. This is a country where almost half of the people live in poverty surviving on $1 - $2/day, wages are low, opportunity limited, and wealth is controlled by only a select few. Regardless, there is a strong family cohesiveness with multigenerational family groups in neighborhoods, however, this is proving to be more difficult as increased numbers of Nicaraguans are forced to move outside of the country for jobs and then send money home. Generally though, Nicaragua is a safe, geographically beautiful country with friendly people and good food for a very reasonable price. I would recommend it as an adventure travel destination, especially if you have a connection to a non-profit organization like the Chacocente Project we visited.