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Guidebooks offer unique views on unique land

As Nicaragua’s resilient tourism industry pushes towards the milestone of 1 million annual tourists – a goal it’s expected to reach in the coming weeks – the brisk-selling Moon handbook guide to Nicaragua continues to accompany the country in its tourism maturation.

Guidebook authors Randall Wood and Joshua Berman, former U.S. Peace Corp volunteers who left their hearts in Nicaragua after their two-year posts here ended in 2000, have teamed up again to pen the fourth edition of their Moon Handbook for Nicaragua, released last month by Avalon Travel.

The 470-page guidebook and its “Living Abroad in Nicaragua” companion book – the two of which have sold some 50,000 copies over the past eight years – are considered by many Nicaragua insiders to be the most complete books available on Nicaraguan tourism and expat-living, providing information for travelers and foreign residents of all wallet girths.

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Well-Saddled: Guidebook co-author Joshua Berman, left foreground, says his new Moon guidebooks can help tourists and
expats get “off the gringo trail” and explore lesser-known attractions in Nicaragua. Courtesy of Joshua Berman

This year’s handbook includes expanded sections on Nicaragua’s growing surf scene, community-based tourism initiatives in the interior of the country, and Chinandega’s emerging tourism options on the northwest coast. Berman, a jovial man with a passion for all things Nicaraguan, said the guidebook also has new information about touring coffee cooperatives and cigar factories up north, as well as travel tips about how to “get off the gringo trail” and explore lesser-known corners of the country.

“Moon guide is the most thorough and comprehensive guidebook that’s out there,” Berman said.

Superlatives aside, the Moon books are not – however – immune to the limitations of the old print-press system of releasing “updated” guidebooks more than a year after they were reported and written.

Despite being “hot off the press,” the handbook and the updated “Living Abroad in Nicaragua” companion, now in its second edition, fall into the inevitable trap of recommending some places that closed more than a year ago, while failing to mention other hotspots that were birthed after the authors’ copy deadline passed.

Some of the information describing the political situation in the country also has a quaintly dated feel to it, even though the political situation in Nicaragua tends to be more cyclical than linear (meaning that even old news will again reappear as tomorrow’s headlines, as part of Nicaragua’s infinitely and dizzily spiraling political novela).

While most of the outdated information in the books can be blamed on Nicaragua’s dynamically blossoming tourism sector, which is evolving faster than the guidebook-publishing industry, some of the other omissions are – in The Nica Times’ humble opinion – bordering on negligent.

For example, in the brief section on English-language media in Nicaragua, the authors merrily recommend several defunct or irregularly published handbills, yet unpardonably fail to mention The Nica Times (even though Berman did remember us when it came time to ask for a review of his guidebooks).

But never fear, Gentle Reader; you and others like you were able to find The Nica Times without the aid of the Moon guidebook. More power to you, Wise Traveler!

Still, for what the authors do choose to write about, they cover it pretty well. And what really distinguishes the Moon book from other Nicaragua guidebooks is the authors’ shared passion for and intimate knowledge of life in Nicaragua.

After finishing the Peace Corps, Wood went on to work for the U.S. Embassy in Managua and married a Nicaraguan woman, while Berman continues to lead tours here and promote the country with the enthusiasm of a convert.

Both men maintain close ties to the country and its people, and share an obvious fondness for all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make Nicaragua so uniquely … well, Nicaraguan.

“I have traveled around the world but I keeping coming back here to Nicaragua; there’s no place like it,” Berman said.  “I have deep connections here; there are people here who have taken me into their family. I still call my Nicaraguan mom ‘mommie’ and she still irons my jeans before I leave the house.”

The Living Abroad in Nicaragua book, which instructs people on how to get residency, start a business and import a container full of goods, also includes useful insights to life and communication here.

For example, on page 126, you can learn how to point using your lips or “tell the whole world you have diarrhea” by miming a plunger pump while twisting your face into a grimace.

The authors’ familiarity with Nicaragua’s subject matter allows them to avoid tired travel-writer clichés, such as the famously inaccurate phrase, “Nicaragua is the next Costa Rica!”

“We are trying to be clear that Nicaragua is absolutely distinct in this region and in the world,” Berman said. “There is such a vibrancy here that I don’t see in neighboring countries; there is such a pride here, from language to food to music. The people are proud to be Nicaraguan, but they are so open to foreigners as well.”

Berman, who was in Nicaragua last week sporting a pair of freshly ironed jeans as part of his book-promotion tour, acknowledged that the political situation in Nicaragua has scared off some expats, but insists the second coming of Daniel Ortega is not a deal-killer.

“Some have picked up and gone,” he said. “But a lot of people are holding steady and taking it day by day. There is a little uncertainty in the air, but people just push forward.”

He added, “People still have great projects here. Nicaragua is still attracting really creative and skilled people who are coming to make a difference and do good.”

Berman notes that political tensions also don’t seem to be affecting tourism, which continues to grow at an impressive clip, despite last year’s global economic downturn.

“There may be political uncertain in air but people still coming here and I think there’s a great future for tourism here,” he said.

All in all, Berman said, tourism – especially sustainable, community-based tourism – is poised to grow here in the coming years. And now that the baby boomers are retiring, expats are expected to start arriving here in greater numbers.

That combination is good news for both Nicaragua and the Moon guidebook series.