Nicaragua: Latin America's Next Design Capital?

Central America's safest country is also among its least visited by travelers. Just over one million people visited Nicaragua in 2011, compared to 2.2 million travelers who visited Costa Rica and the nearly 1.9 million who visited Guatemala last year.

And though they have may have visited Nicaragua's popular neighbors, many travelers either know little about Nicaragua itself or hold outdated visions of the country.

Juan B. Padilla, a tour guide for Nicarao Tours, says that misperceptions about Nicaragua are rooted in the history of its civil war and a lack of visibility in international media. Padilla's point was affirmed by an informal survey I conducted on twitter and Facebook, in which respondents said that while they perceive Nicaragua as less expensive than other Central American destinations, they also view the country as “edgy,” “sketchy,” and “dangerous,” even though its civil war ended more than 30 years ago and problems related to gangs, drugs, and crime are lower than in neighboring countries.

“The good news,” Padilla says, “is that those perceptions are starting to change.” Slowly, the number of visitors to Nicaragua is increasing and growth projections for tourism are favorable. More people are curious to know what Nicaragua has to offer.”

With less expensive hotels and food than other Central American countries, a diverse range of activities to experience, and a well-developed transportation infrastructure, Nicaragua is about to be outed as the region's best-kept secret for travelers.

That's certainly the hope of INTUR,Nicaragua's tourism board, which has been stepping up its efforts to promote Nicaragua in the US and Canada. In addition to traditional tourism marketing and promotion strategies, such as advertisements intended to inform travelers about Nicaragua's attractions and inspire them to visit, INTUR is also throwing its weight and its money behind some novel initiatives that have typically been left to private sector interests.

INTUR, along with 2010 Project Runway Latin America finalist, Shantall Lacayo, recently hosted an international design fair called Nicaragua Diseña 2012. The fair, which featured Nicaraguan fashion designers, craftspeople, architects, and visual artists, was intended to put Nicaragua on the map as an up and coming destination for fashion-forward and design-conscious travelers who respect cultural traditions but are also seeking contemporary creative expression.

Though it was the inaugural year of the design fair, both INTUR and Lacayo reported that they were thrilled with the outcome of the event. By the end of the first day of Nicaragua Diseña, it was clear that the event had already outgrown its venue, the Convention Center of Managua's Crowne Plaza Hotel.

“The leap [represented by the fair] was like a leap to the moon,” said Fernando Fuentes Fraile, a Venezuelan designer who has lived in Nicaragua for nine years and teaches fashion design at  Universidad del Valle. “The fair marks a before and after.”

He said it let them know that Nicaraguan design exists and that it's world-class.

Fuentes acknowledged that numerous obstacles stand between young Nicaraguan designers and a full-time, fruitful career as creatives in a country where the average annual household income is US $1,170 -- most fashion and designer goods are simply out of reach for most people.

But with an increased presence in the international design scene and an increased number of travelers who come to Nicaragua to seek out such designs, says Fuentes, the possibilities for his students are numerous and represent significant professional and economic growth, not only for the young designers themselves, but for their families and their communities.

Nearly a dozen of Fuentes' students and 10 of the country's fashion designers presented their Spring 2013 collections at Nicaragua Diseña; they were joined by nearly two dozen exhibitors whose work ranged from contemporary furniture made from recycled and rescued materials to spray paint paintings, handmade, haute sandals, and leather goods. Though the majority of this year's attendees were Nicaraguan, INTUR and the designers expect that future iterations of the fair will attract travelers from abroad who love design and are interested in learning more about modern-day crafts and clothing in Central America.

INTUR has already announced that it intends to hold the second Nicaragua Diseña fair next October, and both the tourism board and Lacayo are already hard at work thinking about how they can make the well-executed event even better.

Nicaragua Diseña included at least three designers and one model from the traditionally Afro-Nicaraguan town of Bluefields. Regardless of their origins and personal histories, the participants in this year's inaugural international design fair agreed that the event held enormous significance for them.

“I will never forget this moment,” said Danean Gonzalez Goff, one of the designers from Bluefields. “It will motivate me to keep moving forward, to continue making sacrifices, and expand people's understanding about Nicaragua.”