TRAVEL JOURNALISM…Matthew Meltzer…Jan 8, 2019
TThe signs at the beach bars and hostels along Playa Santana were a little misleading. Hotels and bars that didn’t look like they’d been touched in months were promising parties, happy hours, and imminent reopenings.
“Closed until summer,” said the black scrawl outside Taberna 99. It’s unclear which summer, exactly, the sign was referring to. Could be 2019. Could be 20-never.
“Back next season,” read the one hanging in back of Buena Onda Beach Resort. “Next” being a relative term.
“Beach party,” Waves & Dreams advertised, though the only “party” going on seemed to be between long-abandoned beach chairs.
These relics I saw while riding a horse along Nicaragua’s Playa Santana this fall were a little sad — reminders of a vibrant, albeit short, golden era of Nicaraguan tourism that peaked during 2017 and early 2018. For a brief moment, places like these thrived, and Nicaragua was the tourism darling of the Western hemisphere.
It was easy to understand why people fell in love with the country as I rode this stunning beach in the Rivas Department. Cascading Pacific waves crashed into the golden shoreline as majestic tropical mountains reflected the last light of the evening. The region is best known for being home to surf breaks like Panga Drops and Colorados and to the sprawling Rancho Santana, a private residence and luxury resort with five spectacular secluded beaches. Though the resort has remained open, it’s literally the lone beacon of light along this mountainous shoreline at sunset.
“The original reaction was, ‘Oh, this will pass soon,’” Tanya Lexin tells me at the bar at Rancho Santana. She has worked there for eight years, heading up its spa and fitness programs. We are the only ones at the bar, outnumbered by the staff about four to one. “Then it lasted a little longer than people were comfortable with. Then small little hotels, as soon as we saw tourism halt, they couldn’t keep their doors open, running that risk of when it might return. Some of our neighbors, it looks like they’re not opening anytime soon.”
The cataclysmic crisis Lexin refers to is the civil unrest that befell Nicaragua in the spring. An unpopular proposal to roll back national pensions touched off massive protests in April, and the ensuing government crackdown splashed images of the military attacking protesters all over international news.
Countries around the world began branding Nicaragua with the dreaded Level 3 travel advisory — or the respective nation’s equivalent — advising citizens to seriously reconsider all nonessential travel.
This was bad news for a country that spent 20 years correcting its banana-republic image as an unstable, poor, and dangerous place. Just as it was finally on the brink of hitting the tourism scene bigtime, it plummeted back to square one.
“Last high season between November and April was spectacular,” says Hans Pfister, CEO of the Cayuga Collection, overseeing hotels in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. His company had to close one of its premiere resorts, the Jicaro Island Lodge, in the wake of the crisis. “There was talk of direct flights from New York and Madrid. It seemed like, OK finally, it only took 20 years, and finally, it’s happening. And then the crisis came, then we’re back to… it feels like we’re back 20 years ago.”