Nicaragua’s Natural Beauty
The landscape of Nicaragua offers things that aren’t possible anywhere else in the world. Last week I went “volcano-boarding” down the Cerro Negro, the only place where such a thing is allowed. Despite the rocks that flew up my pant legs and into my socks and shoes, it was awesome to do. Basically, I slid down the volcano on a sled, using my feet and weight distribution to slow down or speed up. I was given a jumpsuit and brought a bandanna to protect my face. As an alternative to boarding down we were also given the choice to run. But behind the shock value of Nicaragua’s natural beauty, I think are some interesting things to look at. For example, none of the people in my group that climbed the volcano were Nicaraguans. I don’t know if that’s the usual, but it seemed like the only people who were making use of the country’s outdoor activities in this case were foreigners. There was one Nicaraguan working with the company that brought us there, but many people, including the owner, were either Canadian or American. I had a perfectly good experience with them, but it just stuck out in my mind. Is it just that Nicaraguans don’t have any interest in anything like that? Or was it just that one company?
On the way back to León, I was talking with another American who commented on both the lack of paperwork that was needed, and some potentially dangerous spots on the path that weren’t fenced off or marked at all. One spot in particular was probably the worst; there the path was probably about 4 feet wide, but high up on the volcano and with nothing on either side. It would have been a pretty hard fall if someone happened to go down there. No one did, but I just don’t think that that would be allowed in the United States at all. I also don’t think that means that Nicaraguans are less conscious about safety necessarily, but maybe that we take it slightly too seriously. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s a testament to part of my American identity that that’s what we thought. In any case, the volcano has been open to hike for a while and I’d guess that nothing has happened. The other thing we talked about was the lack of paperwork needed. I didn’t actually complete my own paperwork (Carlos and Yessica from the project did) but he seemed to think that it was very light. What would’ve probably taken about 3 pages in the US was done in around a page here.
A few weeks ago I briefly spent time in this place called San Juan del Sur, where there was a comparable situation. San Juan del Sur (SJDS) is popular for being right on the beach, where there are amazing sunsets and good surfing beaches nearby. But pretty much everyone that I spoke to or saw there was a white person. There were a lot of Germans, Dutch, Americans, and Canadians. It didn’t seem like many Nicaraguans (or Nicas) were even there at all. A lot of the hotel prices, for example, were also given in dollars, not cordobas, which is the national currency. Given that 1 dollar is almost 29 cordobas, the prices weren’t exactly geared to the locals. I’m sure that touristy places generally aren’t, but SJDS is a small town. It’s not like Paris or Tokyo where tourists are ingrained into the fabric of the city, and who mesh with the locals there. I got the impression that it essentially was a slice of either the US or Europe just being used as a base for some Latin American adventure.
The state of touristy places is implicitly influenced by privilege. It’s common for white people to get a “gringo price,” typically a decent amount more than a Nica would pay for something. Workers just assume that because a person is white, they can afford to pay slightly more. Maybe that’s true. But it just seems like another example of an interesting dynamic between tourists and native Nicaraguans. The tourist industry makes efforts to get people to visit, while other people (in some cases) take advantage of the fact that someone is a foreigner by overcharging them. It’s obvious that the tourism industry doesn’t speak for everyone, but that is a large part of what people see during visits. As such, it is a delicate give and take. Personally, it seems more genuine to me to have tour guides or hotel staff speak Spanish to me rather than just defaulting to English. But much of the hotel advertising and directions are in English, especially in popular spots like León. So much so that it is refreshing when that isn’t the case. I went to León Viejo this week, the site of the original Spanish colonial city before it was destroyed by the volcano Mombotombo, and I was glad, honestly, when the tour guide only spoke Spanish, and there wasn’t even any option for English. León Viejo is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site situated right on Lake Xolotlán, with the volcano looming in the background, and it made me happy to find that the area can speak for itself.
Nicaragua is a country that is proud of its history and of its natural wealth of resources. It is known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” and it lives up to that name. Yet, I think that in some cases there are interesting implications regarding who in fact takes advantage of its beauty. I understand that businesses should cater to their clientele, but in my opinion, when entire areas do so they may lose part of their identity. The dynamic between tourists and locals here, individually and on a larger scale, will play an important part of what Nicaragua is like in the future. The study of tourism, to that end, is a major that is offered. I’d never heard of that before. The whole interaction underlies the privilege that is inherent with coming from the West, but it still makes me a little uncomfortable that some people in the business may be overcompensating by creating attractions around natural sites aimed at making Westerners feel too much at home.
Aiden Egglin ’17