Nicaragua: Sandbar Barrels in the Land of the Sandinistas with Garth Engelhorn

When we told friends and family of our plans for a surf trip to Nicaragua, more than once we got the question; is it safe? Why? Well, the short explanation is to say that you’d probably get that same question if 20 or so years from now, you announced a trip to Iraq.

Let me explain in a little more detail, though:

In the early 1900’s, before Panama had been carved out of Columbia, the U.S. Marines occupied Nigaragua, as it was considered a prime location for the Panama Canal. However, when a U.S. backed insurgency created Panama, Nicaragua was no longer strategically necessary and the occupation ceased, but not before helping establish Anastasio Somoza as dictator in 1927. Somoza and his family successors proved to be very lucrative for family, friends, and various American businesses. However, the large majority of Nicaraguans suffered under his regieme. Naturally this led to violent opposition, and even more violent government suppression backed by the U.S. Government.

After decades of repressive rule, ever growing numbers of the business class were fed up and by the late 1970’s the long simmering Sandinista movement was able to overthrow the government. Part of their program was to redistribute land that had been concentrated into the hands of the Somoza, their cronies (one of the Somoza’s alone owned 20% of the country’s croplands) Sandanistas were highly disliked by American business interests and the Carter administration offered little assistance to the new government. Instead, the Sandinistas turned to Cuba and the Soviet Union for support. That was even less popular with the succeeding Reagan administration, which actively worked to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, even after fair elections were won by the Sandinista party. Because Reagan believed the socialist Sandanistas posed a threat to democracy and security in Central America he decided to sponsor their overthrow. After all, they were only a two day drive from Texas? (more on that later).

So the U.S. supported a group of former landowner backed insurgents, called the “Contras”, who unleashed a campaign of terror on the populace. It finally got so out of control (a few Americans were killed among the thousands of Nicaraguans) that Congress finally cut off funding to the Contras, and went so far as to outlaw all but humanitarian assistance to Nicaragua. Not to be deterred, members of the Reagan administration began secret illegal sales of weapons to Iran, so that untraceable money could be sent to the Contras despite the ban. The secret support of the Contras eventually was publically exposed as the Iran-Contra affair and the illegal assistance ceased. By the time the American-backed Contras finally ended their campaign tens of thousands of civilian had perished and the economy was destroyed.

In short, Nicaragua at the time was one of the poorest, most violent places on earth. So is it now safe?

Flying into Managua was similar to flying into mainland Mexico. However, the roads are more like {{{Baja}}} in the 1970s. One of President Reagan’s aids may have checked a map, but he sure didn’t here. Trust me, you ain’t driving from Managua to Texas in two days, no way! The trip from the airport to our destination in the Popoyu area took about 3 hours. Once we got off the main roads, we saw almost as many carts pulled by cattle as we did cars. While on the side roads we did get some looks of curiosity but we never sensed any hostility. Private guards for businesses and larger homes were a common sight. They were typically armed with ancient shotguns or rifles. At one large estate off the beaten track, the guard had what looked almost like a WWII bazooka. We were scratching our heads over that one. Still, we didn’t see any more guns that you would on racks in {{{pickups}}} in rural America. And I for one, am a lot more unnerved by the machine gun armed guards in European airports than what we saw in Nicaragua. Given their callous treatment at U.S. hands, I would not have been surprised to find some resentment toward visiting Americans by at least some Nicaraguans. But we never sensed any. People were always friendly when we had an opportunity to engage them. My feeling is that we are not blamed personally for the actions of our government because the historical experience of people here is that they have had no voice in government, and probably assume the same of us (think about that one a bit).

So is it safe? Not entirely. The water is warm, no toothy critters looking to take a big bite, no serious disease issues like malaria, but the waves have the power to punish you if you get cocky or careless. Hey, that there for, eh? As for us, we busted a couple of boards, but left–otherwise unscathed.

-Mr. Engelhorn


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