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may be the largest country in Central America, but it is also one of the least visited. Even after more than a decade of peace, Nicaragua is synonymous in the minds of many with civil war; this reputation, when coupled with the dilapidated infrastructure of a country that has fought its way not only through a bloody conflict but also an American economic blockade, scares many off. Still, many travellers who spend any time there find - much to their surprise - that Nicaragua is their favourite country in the isthmus. Perhaps because it doesn't yet fully cater for the tourist experience, Nicaragua is an incorrigibly vibrant and individualistic country, with plenty to offer travellers prepared to brave Nicaragua's superficial obstacles of economic chaos, cracked pavements and crammed public transport.
Cuba aside, Nicaragua is unique in Latin America in having pulled off a bona fide revolution of the people. The
of 1978-79 and the civil war that followed in the 1980s, while ravaging the country, has also given it one of the most dramatic of recent histories. At times it seems that every Nicaraguan has both horrifying and uplifting personal stories to tell. And even though Nicaragua's long-suffering people would rather forget many aspects of the war, the country's political past continues to inform every minute of its present.
During the 1980s Nicaragua was the destination of choice in Central America for young, socialist-minded
- foreign volunteer workers who came to the country to aid the Revolution by working in the education and health sectors. From 1996 onwards, the AlemA?n government discontinued many of the programmes that brought the
to Nicaragua and tourism slumped, which was bad news for the country's hotel owners and tour operators. Recent years, however, have seen tourist numbers increase as part of the general upturn in interest in Central America.
In comparison with the Maya ruins of Guatemala or the national parks of Costa Rica, Nicaragua offers few traditional tourist attractions - almost no monuments or ancient temples remain, and earthquakes, revolution and war have laid waste to museums, galleries and theatres. For years the country has suffered from a chronic lack of funding, and high inflation and unemployment have also impoverished Nicaragua's infrastructure. However, no one visits Nicaragua and remains immune to the country's extraordinary
(17 in all),
and vast plains of
. A smattering of
- the majority of them on the Pacific Coast - continues to attract the budget
and backpacking crowd, while culture and
are very much alive in Nicaragua, and it is here you can buy some of the best-value high-quality crafts in the isthmus.
More than anything, though, the pleasures and rewards of travelling in Nicaragua come from interacting with the inhabitants of the country's complex society. Its
are well-spoken, passionate, engaged and engaging - Nicaraguans tend to be witty and exceptionally hospitable. The best thing you can do to enjoy Nicaragua is to arrive with an open mind, some patience and a willingness to practise your Spanish.
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