Historically, Nicaragua has had it rough. In the natural-disaster category, it’s a blue-ribbon winner: Earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes have taken turns ravaging this Central American country, and its politics have been equally turbulent. Recent times alone include a dynasty of torture-prone dictators toppled by socialist Sandinista insurgents who subsequently found themselves engaged in a civil war with contras bolstered by U.S. weapons sales to Iran.
On my first visit, in 1983, I was on assignment for Life magazine, accompanied by a photographer. The Sandinistas were running the country, the contra conflict was escalating, and there was a subliminal sense of danger in the capital city, Managua. Many prominent families had decamped for Miami, and those who stayed behind were warily hanging on to land, businesses and homes that the Sandinista top brass had shown an appetite for appropriating. Military service was mandatory, and the streets were filled with camouflage. I spent time with baby-faced soldiers, not much taller than their Russian-issue Kalashnikov rifles, who wore trash bags as raincoats. A young boy returning from the battlefront on the back of a horse-drawn cart made an indelible impression: The flesh of one shin was peeled back like petals on a tulip, the result of a grenade. My hotel room was pawed through; our car was tailed; story subjects, afraid their phones were bugged, pretended not to know me when I called them after an interview. Before I met with a highly placed Sandinista minister, my bags, containing all my notebooks and tapes, were confiscated. Back in his inner sanctum of an office, he propositioned me while brandishing an unsheathed sword. I spoke enough Spanish to convey politely that an affair would be unprofessional—on my part—and he was probably too amused to be insulted.
I returned to New York three weeks later, just in time for the Fourth of July, and I choked up watching the fireworks from an apartment rooftop. It was a Michelle Obama moment: For the first time, I was consciously grateful for my country. Nicaragua had made me a patriot.
Cut to a yoga class in Santa Monica, 2009. As we rolled up our mats, the teacher, Sara Ivanhoe, announced she was leading a retreat at a five-star eco-lodge on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. It didn’t seem that long ago that I’d signed a form promising not to hold Time Inc. responsible if I were blown to bits or otherwise inconvenienced during my assignment there. Who goes to Nicaragua on vacation? Well, as it happens, close to a million tourists did last year, and the government hopes to raise the figures exponentially. The same PR company that reps the upscale Peninsula Hotels has been hired to promote the country as an undiscovered destination. It’s “the new Costa Rica,” with resorts ranging from swanky to simple, and natural wonders abound: turtle migrations, sustainable coffee plantations, rain forests chockablock with exotic birds, monkeys and flora. The position of two large freshwater lakes in the middle of the country makes the surfing spectacular. Winds from the Caribbean coast blow uninterrupted to the Pacific, creating ideal wave conditions year-round.
So I signed up for the retreat, six days at Morgan’s Rock, the country’s most exclusive resort. Ivanhoe worked out the itinerary with Nicaragua-based Adrienne Ward, an ex–New Yorker and the founder of BigWorld-SmallPlanet, a business that arranges Central American yoga retreats. We’d have two yoga classes a day, unlimited hammock swaying, no TVs or newspapers and various cultural sightseeing ops. I’d recently been let go from my magazine job—one of thousands of journalists pink-slipped that year—and it was time to figure out the next step. If Nicaragua could repurpose itself as a high-end tourist destination, surely I could conjure a second act, too.