Think `Nicaragua’ and what springs to mind? A tin-pot republic, a crumbling economy, oppressive security and a muzzled press? The harrowing images that flashed across our TV screens in the 1980s as dubious US interventions stoked the fires of civil war?

A small group of HBSers recently traveled to Nicaragua for 10 days and found a country unrecognizable from these outdated images. We found a democratic nation firmly established on a path of economic reform and free trade, though it remains desperately poor. It has a free press and a remarkably low-key security presence. We discovered beautiful landscapes, a rich culture and a warm, welcoming people eager to learn about life beyond their borders. And we enjoyed the unique privilege of discussing the challenges of reform with the country’s most senior politicians.

Managua. Six HBSers and their five traveling companions shuffle out of Augusto Sandino Airport into the stifling tropical night. Soon after, their minibus reaches the eerie scrubland that used to be downtown Managua until 23rd December, 1972, when an enormous earthquake razed 600 blocks of the capital and killed 15,000 people in the space of 3 minutes. At every major intersection, gangs of young kids scamper over and bang on the windows to advertise their wares – sweets, trinkets, and bags of cacao. As they near their hotel, a weird figure appears standing atop a hill overlooking the city. A little man wearing a huge sombrero. Here, in 100 ft-high effigy, is the ghost of Augusto Sandino, inspiration for the Sandinistas, a charismatic General who fought against occupying US forces from 1927 until his assassination in 1934. Directly across the street from the party’s plush hotel rooms, stray dogs prowl around a shantytown of corrugated tin shacks.
From the moment chief organizer Juan Carlos Pereira floated the idea of a trip to his homeland, we knew this was going to be a very different kind of Spring Break. With a per-capita GDP of $450, Nicaragua vies with Haiti and Guyana for the title of poorest nation in the hemisphere. It’s impossible to visit as a gringo tourist and enjoy the majestic colonial cities, sandy beaches and welcoming people in relative comfort without feeling distinctly uncomfortable about the economic plight of many Nicas. The guerilla war between the Sandinista regime and the US-backed Contra ended with Daniel Ortega’s defeat in the 1990 elections, but the country remains heavily dependent on foreign aid as it strives to rebuild its economy and attract investment.

Nicaragua today is a country in transition. The incumbent Liberal government is pushing ahead with a painful program of structural reforms, including privatization and public spending cuts, designed to stimulate growth. US/Nicaragua relations – so long uneasy and frequently bloody – have thawed markedly. Nowadays the government is looking to its huge northern neighbor as a vital trading partner, while the McDonalds restaurants and Coca-Cola hoardings dotted around Managua hint at young Nicas’ eagerness to embrace US pop culture.
On our first night in Managua, we dined out with Juan Carlos’s friends Alejandro and Carla, a local couple who’ve taken full advantage of the d‚tente with the US. Alejandro graduated from HBS a couple of years ago and decided to return to Nicaragua to work for a large bank. As we chatted about everyday life in Managua, Carla cast her expert eye over the menu and ordered a sumptuous repast of Nica specialties – fresh guapote fish, gallo pinto (literally `painted rooster’; in fact a staple mixture of rice and kidney beans), tortillas and chicharrones, delicious fried pork rind. It was a happy and optimistic meeting, for it’s surely in people like these two that Nicaragua’s brightest hopes for the future are vested.
The western half of Nicaragua is a startling cultural cocktail of indigenous Indian and colonial Spanish influences. Walk the streets at lunchtime and you won’t be long in hearing a hypnotic marimba/rock fusion blaring out of some sidewalk caf‚, its patrons of every caste and complexion. Nowhere did we get a better idea of this lively blend than in the city of Granada, known as `The Great Empress’ on account of its beautiful colonial architecture. As luck would have it, our visit coincided with a big outdoor folklore festival in the market square. No sooner had we arrived than one of the actors took a shine to Meg Stern and dragged her onstage for a dance in front of an audience of several hundred locals! True to form, Meg showed true star quality with an impromptu routine that had half of Granada clapping and cheering the night away.
Mindful of the recent trauma of T1 exams, our organizer had wisely planned for a spell of complete inactivity at the luxury beach resort of Montelimar, originally built among the sugar cane plantations of the Pacific coast as a private pleasure dome for the dictator Somoza. Nowadays it’s Nicaragua’s only major tourist development. How easy it was to while away three blissful days under the scorching sun, stirring only for a dip in the pool, a run on the beach or – in the case of Arsheya Devitre’s partner Alok and accomplice Jeff – a lucrative session at the blackjack tables, Cuban cigars in hand. Fr‚d‚ric and Laetitia Serres’ attempts to show the rest of us how to ride horseback along the beach sadly came to naught when Jeff’s mangy mount decided it had Kentucky Derby potential and galloped off unannounced!

The highlight of our trip came when we returned to Managua for discussions with the country’s most senior politicians. Our first appointment was with Foreign Minister Se¤or Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, an urbane HLS-educated diplomat who enjoyed a successful career as a World Bank mandarin before becoming Nicaraguan ambassador to the US. Se¤or Aguirre proved a remarkably generous and candid host, entertaining us for two hours with his opinions on subjects as diverse as Nicaragua’s outlook on free trade to Margaret Thatcher’s economic legacy in Great Britain. To his credit he didn’t flinch when discussion touched on the murkier aspects of Latin American politics – corruption and graft – but honestly acknowledged both the progress that Nicaragua has made and the challenges that remain.

Juan Carlos had promised us he’d try to get a meeting with the country’s CEO too, but his careful expectation management left us guessing until the last minute whether the Great Man could really fit us into his schedule. We needn’t have worried. That afternoon we walked into the Nicaraguan `oval office’ and found ourselves face-to-face with the imposing figure of Arnoldo Alem n, President of Nicaragua since 1997. Since the constitution prevents Alem n from standing again in November’s elections, we were curious to know what he thought his legacy would be. The President talked proudly of his record in building schools, health facilities and the essential infrastructure Nicaragua desperately needs to develop key sectors such as light industry and tourism. He noted the country’s progress in pursuing economic restructuring and cited the benefits the country now enjoys from the successful privatization of power generation.

The government is rightly proud of its record in establishing a stable democracy, rehabilitating US relations and pushing through economic reforms that have eliminated the hyperinflation of 1990. Yet there’s no escaping the huge social cost of the reforms: unemployment has rocketed with public spending cuts and social inequality is becoming ever more marked.

Our next excursion gave us a glimpse of life in the countryside. Two mighty volcanoes linked by a narrow isthmus, the island of Ometepe rears up boldly from the stormy waters of Lake Nicaragua. Just getting there is a challenge in itself. No sooner had our rusting hulk of a ferry sailed away from its berth when Jimmy, our ever-cheerful and friendly local tour guide, realized we’d left two of the party behind on the quayside. He promptly dived off the boat and swam back to shore to rescue a
sheepish-looking Jeff and Suzanne and ensure their embarkation on the next service. What a hero – especially since Lake Nicaragua is home to the world’s only species of freshwater shark! Ometepe – `Oasis of Peace’, according to the locals – is truly the land that time forgot. In the tumbledown port of Moyogalpa, weather-beaten peasants drove ox-traps laden with plantains down dusty paths, scrawny pigs and goats trailing behind in search of scraps. Our one-day stay was all too short, but we made time for a dawn trek through the cloud forest to see howler monkeys and exotic parrots before heading back to the mainland.

Given the country’s troubled history and dire economic straits, you might think of Nicas as a melancholy people. Nothing could be further from the truth! We spent our last night in Managua in hedonistic Nica style, eating fresh meat and gallo pinto at a grubby roadside caf‚ before careering across town in the back of Jimmy’s pick-up truck to end the night sinking local rum at a dance club.

So farewell, Nicaragua, dazzling land of lakes and volcanoes, blessed and cursed by nature in equal measure, as you move on from broken dreams of times past to embrace a new future. We who enjoyed your warm welcome will cherish the memories for years to come as we follow your progress keenly.

We were: Juan Carlos Pereira (NJ), Fr‚d‚ric Serres (NI), Arsheya Devitre (NH), Maxim Kolodkin (NH), James Campbell (NK), Meg Stern (NK), Cristina Elias (NP), Laetitia Serres (NP), Alok Somani (NP), Jeff Keller, and Suzanne Travers.
The author’s special thanks go to Juan Carlos Pereira for arranging this trip of a lifetime.