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The Problem With the Nicaragua Canal That the Papers Missed

The news yesterday that Nicaraguan lawmakers had given a Hong Kong company the right to build a $40 billion shipping canal was reported, at least by the nation's leading papers, with open skepticism. The Wall Street Journal lede called a cross-country, interoceanic canal "a dream that has eluded [Nicaragua] for nearly 200 years," while The New York Times lede said the country hopes the canal "could compete with the Panama Canal—if it is ever built." 

The articles mention the arguments for the canal (it could "propel Nicaragua out of its misery by boosting employment and economic growth," in the Journal's words) and against it (an interoceanic canal already exists, some 600 miles south; building it "would entail slashing through around 180 miles of thick tropical terrain—roughly triple the length of the Panama Canal—and then pumping a virtual sea through a series of locks deep enough for massive cargo ships," the Times reports). 

That "virtual sea" would appear, to a Times reader, as a journalistic flourish meaning "a lot of water." In fact, what the paper of record fails to mention is that there's an actual "virtual sea," of sorts, along all four of the proposed canal routes: Lake Nicaragua, which, as an immeasurably more informative Associated Press report explains, is "the country’s primary source of fresh water. If one of the world’s largest infrastructure projects ever is actually built, the water used by the canal’s locks could seriously deplete the lake, environmentalists say."

One word you won't find in any of these three articles: tourism. The lake, with an area of 3,149 square miles, is the largest in Central America, and within it sits the twin-volcano island—one active, the other dormant—of Ometepe, where I spent about a week while backpacking the Gringo Trail in 2004.

Nicaragua, which was cripplingly hot when I visited in the month of April, doesn't have terribly much to recommend itself to tourists. There's the Pacific Coast surf, the colonial city of Granada, the Corn Islands in the Caribbean—and then there's Ometepe. It is the country's most unique attraction, and yet, at least when I visited, it was not attracting many tourists. I stayed at a guesthouse that let me pitch my tent beside the pebbly shore, and where I spent $5 a day—for everything, including no small amount of Victoria beer.

I spent one day climbing the dormant Madera Volcano, a muddy, misty jungle where roots, vines, and branches meet in one intertangled mess. The rest of my days were spent lying in a hammock, reading classics I had once skipped, drinking said Victoria, and watching clouds mob the volcano's peaks. This is roughly what my notes from the time say, anyway. No need for me to get any more florid about it. Google Images doesn't lie

Nicaragua is attracting a lot more attention now than a decade ago. Tourism is up 51 percent since 2008, and the Times, citing a number of resorts on Ometepe and elsewhere, ranked the country third on its list of "The 46 Places to Go in 2013." They're even photographing models on the lake now.

Which is to say, Nicaragua seems well on its way to being "discovered," in the tourist sense—the next Panama, perhaps (which, in turn, was the next Costa Rica). It will be some time before enough tourists are spending enough money to "propel Nicaragua out of its misery." But it would be a shame—if indeed Nicaragua is on the cusp of a tourist boom—to see the country jeopardize this by tearing a massive swath through the rainforest and turning its most beautiful spot into a befouled waystation for massive ships.