Before I left, whenever I told people I would be going through Nicaragua, they thought that sounded pretty risky. It wasn't that long since the Contra war which raged throughout the 1980s. After the Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship, they received aid from Cuba and the USSR, and the USA funded the Contras, who attacked Nicaraguan territory from bases in Honduras. After the US Congress banned further funding of the Contras, the Reagan administration carried on covertly, selling arms at vastly inflated prices to Iran and using the proceeds to keep the Contra war going.
Peace negotiations in 1989 finally put an end to the war. When we arrived, there had been ten years of democracy and, more or less, peace. In remote mountain areas, factions who wouldn't put down their weapons still fought sporadically, but where we were going was well away from trouble spots. The Sandinistas were still a major political force, a Sandinista had just been elected Mayor of Managua, the capital, and expectations were high for the elections due in 2001.
We spent our first morning on Ometepe exploring around Altagracia. The contrast between the peaceful, stable and relatively prosperous Costa Rica and Nicaragua was sharp. Nicaragua was visibly poorer than Costa Rica - most of the houses were tumbledown shacks, and while every third house seemed to be a shop of some sort, they usually had pretty limited stock, and were dark inside. The shopkeeper would turn the light on only when a customer came in, to save electricity.
I could have passed through Costa Rica entirely ignorant of its politics, but it would be impossible to do the same in Nicaragua. Walls everywhere were covered in political graffiti, supporting the Sandinistas or one of the other political parties, and people wore t-shirts and caps proclaiming their allegiances. According to my guidebook, Ometepe was relatively untouched by the revolution, so I wondered what the mainland would be like.
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