Treasures of a pirate's lair

Matthew Hall discovers a once-ignored Central American country now at peace with itself.

Check-in for the 90-minute flight from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, to Corn Islands, a set of Caribbean islands on the opposite side of this Central American country, goes something like this. Passengers cram into Managua Airport's domestic terminal, a shack with three check-in counters. When your name is called, you carry your luggage to the one open desk and hand it to a baggage handler, who tags it and adds it to a pile destined for the bigger of the two islands.

You then hand identification to a smiling check-in attendant, who studiously rules a pencil line through your name on a passenger manifest. So far, so good. Then it gets fun. You're told to step on to the scale usually employed to weigh luggage.

"Really?" you ask, fearing some sort of Nicaraguan airport prank.

"Verdad," the attendant replies. Really.

So you step up to be weighed.

A crowd of airline employees then gathers around the scale awaiting your reading. Bingo! They laugh and cheer. You've won. The prize? A plastic, dinner tray-size boarding pass and a trip to Corn.

The weigh-in, of course, is to make sure the plane is not so heavy it can't get off the ground but it may be a good idea for another reason. Corn's empty white beaches and blue water wrap around an island of 10 square kilometres. Tourist footprints have to be light.

There are few visitors here - making it truly one of the world's best-kept secrets - and island officials want to keep it that way. Sort of. It was only in 1980 that the Corn's received electricity, running water and roads.

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"Before then we had sun and mud," says a local member of Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista party and the island's mayor, Cleveland Webster.

"We want low-impact tourism. Our ecosystem is very fragile. If we put in big hotels, we won't deal. We have to be very careful." Of course, there's a catch. As the local fishing industry collapses from over-exploitation, unemployment runs at 60 per cent. Tourism will probably be the island's economic saviour.

Unlike the Spanish-speaking mainland of Nicaragua, Corn was a British protectorate - and refuge for pirates - until the late 19th century. English is the dominant language. The island's 8000 people are a mixture of Nicaraguan, indigenous and Jamaican.

So what's to do on Corn? Not a lot, beyond disappear from the world. In its guide to visitors, among the advice on drinking tap water (don't), mosquitoes and the best reef diving spots, the island's local government recommends you "forget the stress and the pressure of your normal life. On the islands, it's mostly slow and easygoing."

Just as well, then, that a beer at Anastasia's, a basic guesthouse with an adjoining bar jutting 100 metres out into the sea, costs less than 50¢ and local rum not much more. Tip: do not drink rum by the glass. In Nicaragua, that marks you as a tourist. You drink by the bottle or, if stretched, by the half bottle.

"In Nicaragua, you always have friends around to help you drink a bottle," laughs Chico, a guy at Anastasia's bar.

He has a point. Locals are untainted by tourists. Evidence - a taxi driver argues over his right to undercharge rather than accept overpayment because he can't make change; children rush to be in a photo when they see the flash of a camera; and visitors are a curiosity rather than walking ATMs.

Yet Nicaragua has suffered poor PR in recent years. Tell someone today you're travelling to Nicaragua and they joke you're either an arms dealer, off to join a rebel army or likely to be kidnapped by guerillas. Except they're not really joking, because Nicaragua is so far off the tourist map they've no idea why you might go there. The truth is, in a world where you can find Starbucks and Pizza Hut as easily in Asia or Europe, Nicaragua's road less travelled is exactly one reason to visit.

So, the place is dangerous, right? Truth is often hard to sell. A 2007 study by the United Nations rated Nicaragua as the safest country in Central America along with Costa Rica, an established tourist destination.

Managua claims the lowest homicide rate of any city in the region - one reason being the absence of gang activity that permeates neighbouring countries.

Nicaragua was listed by Ethical Traveler, a non-profit organisation, as one of "the 10-best ethical destinations for 2008", ticking boxes for environmental protection, social welfare and human rights.

"People still have the image of Nicaragua during the war but we have stability, safety and democracy," says a local tourist official, Lucy Valenti.

The spoils of civil war do exist. A giant statue of Augusto Sandino, the early 20th-century revolutionary leader who inspired later rebels, overlooks Managua from the lip of Tiscapa Lagoon, once the crater of a volcano. Flags of rival political parties fly over cities, towns and villages while, on Managua's main streets, government-sponsored billboards spruik its achievements.

Nicaragua is a country of natural beauty but there's still not much to keep tourists in Managua. The city was levelled by an earthquake in 1972 and its centre was never rebuilt to previous heights - literally. A tour of the city can be made in an afternoon; the more interesting sites lie near the Plaza de la Revolucion, memorials for what once was.

The Catedral de Santiago - or the "old cathedral" - was built in 1920 and, like a chapter from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, apparently shipped brick by brick from Belgium. It survived a 1931 earthquake but succumbed to the 1972 disaster and was condemned. It now stands as an empty shambles, the construction of a new cathedral deemed less expensive than restoration.

Outside its main city is where Nicaragua's beauty truly unfolds. Granada, less than 50 kilometres from Managua, is named after the Spanish city and presents a showcase of colonial architecture - ragged and regal.

The city has a rich history. Pirates fought for its strategic location on the edge of Lake Cocibolca and, in 1856, after leading a mercenary army into Nicaragua, it was here that Tennessean William Walker declared himself president of the country. Several months later, he allowed one of his generals to burn the city to the ground. Local legend claims nothing remained beyond a burnt inscription that read "Granada was here".

Rebuilt, it remained reasonably untouched by more recent conflict and now includes boutique hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants and streets lined with horses - for actual transport, not only tourists.

Driving to a coffee farm near Matagalpa - a two-hour bus ride into the hills above Managua - another reminder of war, an army tank, lies where it was abandoned by government troops in 1979 as Sandinistas took control of the country.

The civil war raged here but Matagalpa is the heart of the country's coffee region, an industry also developing its own tourist trade. Owners of coffee farms, or fincas, have realised foreign interest exists in organic and fair-trade techniques for growing and selling.

Selva Negra's coffee beans are found in supermarkets in the US but beyond coffee production, the farm has evolved into a rainforest resort that attracts backpackers, scientists and, occasionally, wedding parties.

Selva Negra is owned by fourth-generation Nicaraguans, descended from German migrants. You can work this out from the farm's accommodation - 24 wooden chalets built somewhat bizarrely in a style at home in Bavaria. You won't require an alarm clock. Monkeys bang on your chalet roof at dawn.

Finca Esperanza Verde is a nearby farm awarded for socially responsible tourism by the Smithsonian magazine.

The self-sufficient farm sells some of its crop to Starbucks, hosts visitors in solar-powered cabins and offers almost 100 kilometres of hiking trails.

Both farms employ a significant number of locals - for both agriculture and tourism - a critical factor for a developing country such as Nicaragua. "Tourism has become one of the most important instruments to eradicate poverty," says Nicaragua's Minister for Tourism, Mario Salinas, echoing an earlier message from Corn.

"We hope that income will be distributed to help the development of communities."

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

American Airlines, a code-share Qantas partner, flies daily from Miami to Managua. The flight takes two hours. See aa.com. La Costena, a subsidiary of TACA, flies from Managua to Corn Island twice daily. See tacaregional.com.

WHERE TO STAY

Managua has hotels priced from $US70 ($76) a room as well as basic smaller hotels and pensions.

In Granada, Hotel Plaza Colon overlooks the main square and has rooms from $US79. See hotelplazacolon.com.

On Corn Island, the waterfront Arenas Beach Hotel has higher-end rooms from $US60. See arenasbeachhotel.com; Anastasia's on the Sea has basic rooms on the water from $US29. See www.cornislandparadise.com.

Near Matagalpa, Selva Negra has bungalows from $US60 and also dorms. See selvanegra.com; Finca Esperanza Verde has rooms from $US40 and dorms for $US15. See fincaesperanzaverde.org.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See www.visitnicaragua.com.

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