I had Sergio pegged from a distance. Out walking his German shepherd puppy on the beach as the sun set on the Pacific Ocean, he was wearing smartly tailored blue shorts you might see on guys in Miami Beach or West Hollywood. In San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua—where backpacking Americans in dirty khaki shorts experiment with dreadlocks and where an ill-fitting Polo shirt is part of the local uniform—his ensemble stood out as particularly well put together.
I was right. Openly gay, Sergio had left Managua two years earlier for this tiny fishing village-cum-tourist town.
While in his late 20s, he had found work as a chef at one of San Juan’s nicer hotels. But he chose to move to this remote corner of the country not for a job but for the relaxed beach lifestyle. Sure, everybody in San Juan, which has a population of less than 16,000, knows your business, but the spectacular views and laid-back vibe are the perfect antidote to the traffic, pollution and messy urban development of Nicaragua’s capital. Still, moving to a small town can be tough. While San Juan del Sur has an abundance of fun-seeking straight people—the town’s off-the-hook Sunday Funday pub crawl is known as an event guaranteed to get you laid—it certainly doesn’t have a gay scene. Was it a hard place to be gay and single?
“It’s okay,” Sergio told me in Spanish. “Nicaragua is changing very fast. Tourism makes a difference, but the people here are changing, too. I don’t have problems. My friends know I’m gay. They like me for me.”
While neighbouring Costa Rica has been in the tourism business much longer—and has a solid reputation as a gay-friendly destination—Nicaragua has worked hard over the past decade to catch up. Its nasty civil war now in the distant past, its crime rate low by Latin American standards, its natural beauty rivalling that of other Central American countries, Nicaragua has rightfully earned a spot on many “next hot places to visit” lists. The start of preliminary construction last December of a canal to rival Panama’s, being built with Chinese money, has also made the world sit up and take notice of Nicaragua’s ambitions. The canal plan (largely considered to be half-baked) dovetails with broader development of the Pacific coast north of San Juan del Sur that will see a new airport, a duty-free port and luxury resorts built on pristine beaches that are now barely reachable by car.
Surfing, sun-tanning and drinking are not the only attractions. Volcanoes, both active and dormant, have created a unique landscape begging to be hiked, climbed, boated and otherwise eco-toured. Colonial cities like Granada and Léon provide spectacular photo opportunities. But relative price and relative security have also contributed to
Nicaragua’s moment. Costa Rica isn’t the bargain it once was. Crime rates have scared many tourists away from Guatemala and Honduras. If Nicaragua’s boom leads to higher prices, bigger hotels, more chains and more package holiday makers, will it scare away the travellers who are coming for the culture? There’s more to distinguish Nicaragua than mere affordability.
“In Nicaragua, we are sincere,” says Alfonso, a project manager for a nonprofit organization from Managua I met one day. “If we are friendly, it is because we’re friendly, not because we have learned to be friendly. That’s one thing that makes us different.”
That Nicaraguan sincerity—the reluctance to embrace something merely to project the right image—is also reflected in slowly changing attitudes toward LGBT people. The country’s perennial right-left struggle certainly hasn’t done the community any favours. The legalization of homosexuality and regulations against discrimination came very late, in 2008, after Daniel Ortega won the presidency in 2007. Ortega started out as a leader in the Marxist-Leninist Sandinista movement back in the 1970s, so you could say that the left came through in the end…30 years after it might have.
Nicaraguan LGBT issues have not been fuelled by the star power of someone like Mariela Castro, daughter of current Cuban president Raúl Castro, whose leadership at the Cuban National Center for Sex Education aims to link Cuban socialism with equality and justice. (I’m not defending Cuba’s human-rights record, just describing the image the Castros, accurately or not, are trying to project.) Second only to Haiti as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Nicaragua pushes some pressing issues off the public agenda with its focus on economic growth and poverty reduction. Only in the past few years has the government moved beyond crisis control.
Nonetheless, enforcement of anti-discrimination laws remains lax. Police are not interested in anti-gay crimes, to say the least.
Yet the very fabric of society is undergoing change. Although the Roman Catholic Church remains very influential (one night in Granada, out of the blue, an hour-long Catholic-themed parade went by my hotel), that was also true of Mexico and Brazil when gay life in those countries went bang. Though many of the LGBT people with whom I talked are still in the closet, most say it’s getting easier to be gay and to be out.
Perhaps not surprising, attitudes are most relaxed in Managua, where the elites live, as do many gay people. Alas, it’s also a city most tourists try to avoid. A sprawling hodgepodge of unappealing neighbourhoods, it’s not the reason one buys a ticket to Nicaragua. But many of the country’s winning destinations are not far away from the capital’s cosmopolitan glow.Alfonso, now in his mid-30s, says he came out to his family and many of his coworkers a couple of years ago. He was surprised at how unfazed they were by the news. His mother now laughs when he talks about guys along with his sisters. Holding hands in public? Nope. Same-sex marriage? Still hard to image.
“But people won’t give you a hard time if they know you’re gay,” Alfonso asserts. “People don’t like to make a big deal about things like that.”
About 100 kilometres from the simple pleasures of the beaches around San Juan del Sur, interior-design junkies will have a field day in the historic city of Granada. Founded by the Spanish in 1524 and built to impress, its streets are lined with stunning colonial buildings. The exteriors are often understated—maybe a three-storey yellow wall with some columns along the front. But wonderlands may await those who step inside. Lush courtyards connect to even more lush courtyards, with unique annexes and pavilions creating maze-like effects.
I went for brunch at the city’s Chocomuseum (Mansiondechocolate.com/chocomuseo) and, looking for a washroom, wandered through one elegant corridor after another, eventually stumbling upon an infinity pool and spa. From the street, you’d have no idea—neither about the size of the place nor the art and furniture treasures all through it.
Granada is rightfully proud of its historic bones. Hotel Dario maintains a sparkling neoclassical look, as if it were still the early 19th century, with tea served at 3 p.m. sharp. But the city’s hoteliers and restaurateurs aren’t afraid to experiment. El Tercer Ojo Granada (Eltercerojonicaragua.com/el-tercer-ojo-granada/) has opened up its colonial street wall to better flaunt its funky Far East décor to anyone wandering by. I was able to duck into dozens of hotels and restaurants for a look-see without staff so much as giving me a second look. They’re used to it.
Granada’s gay-friendly bar closed shortly before my visit. But I noticed the establishment that had taken over the location had embedded the rainbow colours in its logo. Sure enough, the broad array of patrons in the narrow little karaoke pub included quite a few I’d consider “family.” In particular, there were a few women—perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect nails—I’d categorize as trans. In such a conservative country, trans people remain on the vanguard. They’re like human rainbow flags, announcing their existence to all around them. Last year’s Miss Gay Nicaragua competition attracted international attention when winner Carlos Castro, known as Amerika Ithzell Korkobas Berdrinadxy, toured the country promoting sexual diversity.
Several times I spotted drag queens/trans people in the most out-of-the-way places. When I was changing buses one day in the chaotic Rivas terminal, I saw a statuesque woman strolling the dusty platform selling nutty snacks from a plastic bag she carried on her head. Her lips more red than any I’d seen before in Nicaragua, she looked like she’d just stepped out of a fancy-dress ball. First I thought, how brave! Then I realized I was the only person on the platform who looked at her twice. In a country changing so fast, being who you are without attracting comment might be the biggest sign of real progress.
Where to go
Managua For many travellers, the capital is primarily a transportation hub, except for the nightlife. The country’s biggest gay bar, Tabu Discoteque and Lounge (Facebook.com/TabuDiscotequeLounge), boasts drag and stripper shows.
Granada A fantasy for “Architectural Digest” readers, the city is worth a couple days of wandering. Hotel KeKoldi (Kekoldi-nicaragua.com), the sister hotel of KeKoldi in Costa Rica, offers affordable gay-friendly accommodations.
San Juan del Sur Though you won’t see many rainbow flags, the locals and expats here run mostly judgment-free businesses. Eat poutine and drink Caesars at The Loose Moose Canadian bar or spend an afternoon savouring organic fair-trade coffee at El Gato Negro. For those who love surfing, boarding and climbing, the Canadian-owned Surf Ranch (Surfranchnicaragua.com) will make sure you’re always in action.
Léon The country’s second-biggest city, and its liveliest one, is home to Nicaragua’s other gay bar (Facebook.com/go.bar.leon) and a gay expat-owned guesthouse (Gayleonnicaragua.blogspot.com/).—P.G.