You’re going where?

“Nicaragua,” I’d say. “Similar to Costa Rica, but way cheaper. And safer.”

Stunned looks.

When I’d mentioned to my curling colleagues that I’d miss some games for a short winter getaway, they simply assumed a Mexican beach resort somewhere. That’s what most people from these parts do for a winter break. They don’t know much else.

That’s what marketing does to us. Give us impressions, we follow them, reinforce them, and create marketing momentum based on limited knowledge. We don’t do a lot of our own research. The momentum spirals. We become part of a herd.

I’ve been to Mexico, too. It’s a nice place, some great beaches and culture and climate. But, having been to Central America a few times, I love it much more. I like the scenery, the climate, the culture, the laid-back spirit, the freedom and the prices. And, after my most recent previous visit, I’d decided that Nicaragua was ideal for me.

I used the Costa Rica reference because it is at least somewhat familiar to locals. It’s gorgeous, with tropical cloud forests, endless wildlife, beautiful beaches, plenty of adrenalin activities, and some volcanoes to explore. North Americans are, belatedly, discovering it, some switching from their Mexican travels. Costa Rica, with its benign government and openness to North Americans has become almost a first-world country. It’s booming, partially fueled by tourism.

And the prices have followed. And so have the gangs (having moved there after El Salvador’s gang crackdown). Yet, it remains Central America’s destination of choice for North Americans, resort expansion on the Gold Coast soaring.

Nicaragua is virtually unknown.

I already realized when I was in Vietnam a dozen years ago that our Western impressions of countries with unfriendly (to us) governments were greatly skewed. Almost everyone in that country participated in freer market economy than we have in Canada, despite being under a communist government.

In Medellin, Colombia, a city with a bad rep, I learned that it was safer than most of the large U.S. cities, and that it had just won the award for the most innovative city in the world.

So it is with our perceptions of Nicaragua. The Ortega dictatorship, unfriendly to the U.S., has left us the impression that country is a basket case, a member of the “troika of tyranny,” (so labelled by former U.S. Security Advisor John R. Bolton).

It scares people who know nothing more about the country and don’t do their own research.

Canada does have a travel advisory on Nicaragua due to its dictatorship and we also have sanctions on certain of its leaders.

But guess what! Our government put out top level travel advisories earlier this year for Germany, Sweden and Spain, as well, due to the threat of terrorism.

One reason for my trip was to scout out what ex-pat life is really like in Nicaragua, and whether the dictatorship is something to be concerned about.

Before I left, I researched. I found that the Ortega regime had done a considerably better job of managing the economy than the governments of most Western countries (source: the Travelling Investor). My partner checked how safe it was for a woman to travel in Nicaragua, and found it listed in the top 10 safest country in the world (which is surely far ahead of the U.S.) Later, I learned that Granada, the city to which we travelled, is “the safest city in all of Central America.”

We talked to ex-pats living there, asking them about living in a dictatorship unfriendly to the West. They almost laughed at us.

“I left a dictatorship,” said a businessman from Langley who moved there four years ago.

“We came here and found freedom,” said a couple who were tired of the nanny state that Canada has become, plus having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.

“Just don’t talk about politics!” they all added. (Who would want to, anyway?)

The government does come down hard on political dissent; there was a serious incident back in 2017. Our guide for the walking tour of Granada made sure he was far from prying eyes and ears when he talked to us about the political situation.

“What about the prospect of a government expropriating property from ex-pats?” I asked.  The aforementioned Canadian couple pointed to the restaurants and hotels along Granada’s main tourist strip: “That one’s owned by a Canadian, the next one too, another one by an American, a European, and more Canadians.” Almost all the businesses are owned by ex-pats. “And most Nicaraguans couldn’t afford, or know how, to operate them.”

The government needs ex-pats and tourists to bring in the dollars so desperately needed for the economy. It’s not anti-tourist, only anti-US and highly protective of its fiefdom.

Tourism is growing, though still in its infancy. San Juan del Sur, where we also visited, is becoming a destination resort similar to those of Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. Nearby are approximately 20 other pristine beaches, including one used for two seasons of Survivor.

Yes, the dictatorship and its unfriendliness to the west is something to take into consideration. But the US dollar is still the currency of choice.

Another consideration is that the country is much more difficult to fly into than Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama. If you hate flying and airports, that’s a deterrent.

But the point is: credibility is not created by marketing or slogans used by those with an agenda. Treat such with a healthy level of skepticism. Do your own research. With the presence of Google (heard of that?), it’s easy.

You might find something more attractive than simply following the herds (be that with travel or any other purchases).

At least, that’s how I see it . . .