Former Somoza Estate Calls Tourists, but Only A Few Echos Are Heard

With its soothing coconut-palm groves, expansive beach, widely dispersed bungalows, and a sedate, lime-green tropical mansion, Nicaragua's Montelimar beach resort hardly looks like a scary place.

Still, that's what Juan Marques Morera worries about as he reviews the less-than-satisfactory occupancy figures for the one-time Somoza family estate he's managed as a sun-and-splash vacation spot since 1993.

"When someone says they're thinking about vacationing in Nicaragua," he laments, "people still become a little shaky."

As a recent visit suggested, however, there's little cause for the weak knees.

Despite the minor clashes that still occur sporadically between armed groups and authorities in this Central American country's mountainous north region, Nicaragua's civil war that pitted a Marxist Sandinista government against the US-supported contra insurgency has been over since 1990.

After losing last October's presidential election, which turned the country back to the right with the election of former Managua Mayor Arnoldo Aleman, former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega initially responded with threats of fomenting social disorder. But recently President Aleman and Mr. Ortega shook hands over a commitment to work together for Nicaragua.

Granted, the streets of Managua, the capital city, are less safe than they were a decade ago when the Sandinista military structure controlled them (on one of the last days of the election campaign an American photographer was stabbed and robbed of his equipment); and driving on the country's highways can be a bit hair-raising.

Nicaragua - the poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti - has little money for road repairs, so potholes can be frequent and crateresque. On a 50-mile return trip from Matagalpa to Managua this reporter's rental car had four flat tires - an experience that left one wishing for more of the entrepreneurially spirited boys who fill Managua's potholes with whatever dirt they can find, and then hold their hand out for a few cordobas.

But none of that commotion touches Montelimar, an 80-acre haven of sugar cane, coconut palms, and one long unpopulated beach.

Montelimar - the origin of the name remains in doubt, with some locals claiming it refers to a bird the area's indigenous people revered, and others saying it is simply a conjunction of "monte" and "mar," (mount, where the mansion sits and sea) - is probably almost as much the exclusive get-away for Nicaragua's wealthy as it was in the days of the Somozas.

On one recent weekend, families lolled in the pool or sat on the veranda of the main house, called the Casona, and shared stories of the past - under both Somoza and the Sandinistas.

"Somoza robbed us, but at least he didn't let the whole government do it [as the Sandinistas did]," says Richard Downing, now a Nicaraguan-American who left the country for Miami during the Sandinista revolution and now divides his time and work between the two homes. "People were left so antagonized and bitter by the Sandinista regime that today they talk about San [Saint] Somoza."

Mr. Downing's wife, Irene Caraballo Downing, says her aunt used to come to Montelimar as a Somoza guest. "She's one of those who see [Somoza] as a saint," she says.

Before the Sandinistas, the aunt owned the country's most important printing plant, but it was expropriated for $1, "and now the woman has nothing and the family has to help her," says Mrs. Downing. "If you can imagine, all the ballots for this election were printed by what were once her presses."

Montelimar still has the 1-1/4 mile runway that Anastasio Somoza built in the mid-'70s to make travel to and from the estate easier (It's also the runway he used when he fled the country in 1979.)

And a well-maintained road for much of the hour-plus drive from Managua - built of paving bricks from a factory Somoza's brother once owned - tells the visitor arriving by car that he is not approaching an average little corner of Nicaragua.

The irony is that it was the Sandinistas who launched the project to turn Montelimar into a posh tourist destination catering to the international jet set. (Perhaps the model was Cuba.)

The problem for Mr. Marques and Barcelo Hotels, the Spanish hotel-resort company for whom he manages the property, is that jet-setters have never flocked to Montelimar. And so the owners have had to rely on Nicaraguan tourists.

But in a country where the per capita income barely tops $600, there are only so many families that can afford such luxury. Even though nationals pay less than foreigners, a special midweek nightly rate for nationals approaches what a minimum-wage earner takes home in a month.

So despite summer and some weekend peaks, "Our occupancy is about 50 percent, which is too low," says Marques. "If we could hit 65, that would be OK."

To do that, Marques is working on attracting more of the coach-class international tourists who make tourism such key industries in Mexico or Guatemala or Costa Rica.

Deals have been struck with US tour companies to bring more American retired tourists here, as well as with European airlines to draw more of the European tourists who currently skirt Nicaragua in their Central American forays.

But one of Montelimar's problems may be that, at a time when even many retired travelers are looking for more than just a sunny sky and sandy beach, the estate was built as a refuge from the outside world and largely remains that today. (This reporter had trouble gaining "permission" from an overzealous gate guard to leave the grounds to visit a nearby village.)

The resort does offer water sports and horseback riding, but nearby day trips are limited. (See story at left.)

Montelimar's past gives the spot a special intrigue, but it may be that the chance to sit on a veranda once ruled over by a Central American dictator isn't enough to draw plane loads of the international touring masses.

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