Nicaragua is located between the Tropic of Cancer and the equatorranging from 11°-15° north and between 83°- 88° longitude. Nicaragua’s northern border runs from the Golfo de Fonseca to Cabo Gracias a Dios with much of the 530 km border marked by the Río Coco. The Caribbean Coast from Gracias a Dios to just south of the mouth of the Río San Juan is 509 km. From the Caribbean outlet of the San Juan to the Bay of Salinas is the 313 km border with Costa Rica. The Pacific Coast is 325 km from Salinas to the Golfo de Fonseca. The total surface area of the country is 131,812 sq km; lakes and coastal lagoons cover 10,384 sq km of this. Nicaragua is the biggest of the Central American republics.
The land is can be divided into three principle divisions. The Caribbean lowlands, an area marked by numerous rivers, pine savannas and the largest expanse of remaining rain forest in Central America. The central and northern mountains and plains are geologically the oldest in the country, with mountains ranging from 500 meters in the south rising to 2,000 meters as they reach the border with Honduras in the north. The central region has a diverse ecosystem with rain forest giving way to tropical dry forest in the south and cloud forest to pines in the north. The Pacific Basin is dominated by Lake Managua, Lake Nicaragua and numerous crater lakes and is also home to a majestic row of volcanoes that run from the extreme northwest at Volcán Cosiguina to the dual-volcano-island Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. The Pacific area contains a mixture of tropical dry forest and savanna with two cloud forests on the volcanoes Mombacho and Maderas and a pine forest on the Volcán Casita.
Lakes and Rivers
Nicaragua’s Pacific Basin holds the two largest bodies of water in Central America and 15 crater lakes. The capital, Managua, sits on the shores of Lake Managua, also known by one of its indigenous names, Xolotlán, is 52 km long, 15-25 km wide, and is 39 m above sea level. Its maximum depth is only 30 m with a surface area of 1,025 sq km. Lake Managua’s Peninsula of Chiltepe holds two crater lakes, Xiloá and Apoyeque. Managua is also home to four small crater lakes. Lake Managua drains to Lake Nicaragua via the Río Tipitapa just east of Managua. The mighty Lake Nicaragua, often called by one of its pre-Conquest names, Cocibolca, is 160 km long, 65 km at its widest, and 32 m above the level of the sea. This large sheet of water averages 20 meters in depth with a maximum depth of 60 meters. Lake Nicaragua covers a total of 8,264 sq km. Just 18 km separate the big lake from the Pacific Ocean on the southern part of its western shores. Lake Nicaragua drains 190 km to the Caribbean Sea via the Río San Juan. The Río Escondido is the principle central river with much commercial traffic as a crucial link between the Pacific and the Bay of Bluefields. In the north, Central America’s longest river, the Río Coco, starts well inside Nicaragua and then runs most of its 680 km as a border between Nicaragua and Honduras.
Lying at the intersection of the Coco and Caribe continental plates, Nicaragua is one of the more geologically active countries in the world. Subduction of the Coco plate underneath the Caribe plate is at a rate of 8-9 cm per year, perhaps the fastest rate of continental plate collision in the hemisphere. It is also the newest of the countries in the Americas in geological terms at 8-9 million years old. The most obvious result of the land in upheaval is a line of more than 40 beautiful volcanoes, six of which have been active within the last 100 years.
The southernmost volcanoes are on the Island of Ometepe. The cloud forest covered Volcán Maderas (1,394 m) is believed to be extinct and it holds a lake in its misty summit and is great for climbing. The active and perfectly symmetrical cone of Volcán Concepción (1,610 m) completes Ometepe. Its last major lava flow in 1957 and last spit out ash in late 1999. The other major cone in the big lake is Isla de Zapatera (600 m), heavily eroded it is extinct and a major pre-Columbian site and National Park.
Along the shores of Lake Nicaragua and shadowing Granada is dormant and mildly fumarolic Volcán Mombacho (1,345 m). Clothed in luxurious cloud forest, Mombacho suffered a major structural collapse in 1570 that wiped out a Chorotega village at its base. Fall out and lava flows from a prehistoric eruption of the Mombacho cone created Las Isletas in Lake Nicaragua. The extinct cone of Apoyo hold the country’s largest crater lake, a 6 km in diameter, deep blue body of water that fills the violent death of the volcano some 20,000 years ago. Just north of Laguna de Apoyo is the famous National Park Volcán Masaya. This complex of several cones includes the smoking, lava-filled Santiago crater and four extinct craters and a lagoon. Masaya is the only volcano on the American continent, and one of four in the world, with a consistent lava pool at its surface.
Managua’s six major cones are all extinct and all hold crater lakes inside their sleeping cones. On the northwest shores of Lake Managua is the imposing and heavily fumarolic cone of the Volcán Momotombo (1,300 m). Its most recent significant eruption in 1905 and a geothermal plant at its the base utilizes its considerable steam energy on a daily basis. In its shadow is the little and extinct Volcán Momotombito, which sits just off the shore in Lake Managua. Momotombito is also the southernmost cone of the marvelous Maribios volcanic chain. Just northwest of Momotombo the chain continues with the various craters the most fierce of which is the little mound of lava and black sand called Volcán Cerro Negro.
One of the youngest volcanoes in the Americas, Cerro Negro, burst out of a cornfield in 1850 and has risen to 450 m in this short period. Major eruptions occurred in 1867, 1914, 1923, 1947, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1968, 1971, 1992, 1995 and 1999. The August of 1999 eruption opened new craters at its southern base. Cerro Negro was the site for the new speed record for mountain biking (130 mph) and some extreme black sand skiing in late 2001. Further north is the bald and eroding summit of the active Volcán Telica (1,061m). Climbing its rocky backside affords a view of it smoking interior, which last threw forth a good quantity of ash in 1999. The extinct cone to the north of Volcán Casita is notable for its pine forest, the southernmost of its kind in the American continent’s Northern Hemisphere. A side of Casita collapsed during the torrential rains of Hurricane Mitch (1998), burying numerous villages in the municipality of Posoltega and killing more than 2,000 people.
Just northwest, in the spectacular Maribios chain, is the country’s highest cone, Volcán San Cristóbal (1,745 m). San Cristóbal recommenced erupting in 1971 after a long period of inactivity that occurred after the highly explosive years of 1684-1885. Since 1999 it has been throwing a lot of ash and its last major activity was in July of 2001. The northernmost is Volcán Cosigüina (800 m), today with a lake in its crater. Its final eruption was in 1835 in what is believed to have been the most violent in recorded history in the Americas. Ash was thrown as far as Mexico while the ground shook in Colombia. The summit of the Cosiguina cone affords a stunning view of the Gulf of Fonseca and its islands.
The rain soaked Caribbean Coast receives up to 5,000 mm of rain annual at San Juan del Norte, with inland jungle and northern Caribbean Coastal areas soaking in 2,500 mm to 4,000 mm annually. The dry season in this region is between two and three months long, with San Juan del Norte receiving a break from the rains only from mid-March to the end of April. The central and northern highlands between 500 and 1,500 m have their own weather profile with rainfall averaging between 1,500 to 2,500 mm annually. The dry season in the center of the country is longer with seven to eight months of rain and a January to April dry season. The Pacific Basin is classic dry tropical with 700 to 1,500 mm of rain annually coming almost exclusively during the 6 month wet season from mid-May to mid-November followed by a very dry 6 month period. Average temperatures range from 18°C - 27°C depending on altitude and time of year. In the Pacific areas the rain is short bursts of high intensity downpours followed by sunshine and cooler temperatures.
Flora and Fauna
Nicaragua is blessed with rich bio-diversity and thanks to its relatively low population and many nature reserves, much of Nicaragua’s native flora and fauna has been preserved. The forests of Nicaragua cover more than 30% of its land. The country is home to tropical dry forest, significant mangrove forests and major swatches of wetlands. The biggest expanse of cloud forest in Central America is present on Pacific volcanoes and northern mountain ranges, especially within the Bosawás reserve. Pine forests run along the northern territories all the way to the Caribbean with the central-northern mountains home to extensive numbers. Transitional tropical wet forests are present on the eastern side of the great lakes and Lake Nicaragua’s southern coast. The most extensive growth of primary rain forest on the isthmus is in Nicaragua. Plant species are diverse with 350 species of trees, which are part of 12,000 total species of flora that have been classified. There exist an estimated 5,000 yet to be documented. Those classified include more than 600 species or orchids. Equally impressive is the diversity of fauna, most of all the insect life with an estimated 250,000 species. Mammals include some 251 species along with 234 different variations of reptile and amphibian. Bird species are penned at 688 from 59 families.
The Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) better known as MARENA is responsible for the administration of Nicaragua’s 73 protected areas that cover 17% of its land.
Volcanic parks and reserves: In addition to the famous Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, many of Nicaragua’s volcanoes are home to nature reserves. There are more than 28 reserves on volcanoes. The following Pacific Basin volcanoes all have forest reserves on them, critical for the local climate and water tables: Momotombo, Pilas, San Cristóbal, Casita, Telica, Rota, Concepción, Maderas, Cosiguina and Mombacho. Volcanic crater lakes and their forests are also set aside as protected areas like: Laguna de Apoyo, Laguna de Asososca, Laguna de Nejapa, Laguna de Tiscapa and the two crater lakes of Peninsula de Chiltepe, Laguna Apoyeque and Laguna Xiloá.
Some of the most rewarding reserves for the visitor are the wildlife refuges set aside for the massive arrivals of sea turtles. They are at the central Pacific Coast beaches Chacocente and La Flor, which also protect dry tropical forest reserves. Isla Juan Venado is also a place to see turtles, not in the quantity of the other reserves, but with the added attraction of accessible mangroves and their fauna.
Outside of the great, protected cloud forests of the Bosawás reserve, the best place to enjoy the unique flora of the cloud forest is on the Volcán Mombacho, near Granada and the cloud forest of Volcán Maderas on Ometepe Island. In Matagalpa the Selva Negra reserve is also easy to access as well as the by-permission-only Arenal reserve on the border of Jinotega and Matagalpa. Another option is the Miraflor reserve in between Estelí and Jinotega.
Nicaragua boasts the two biggest rain forest reserves in Central America, For its access and reliable lodging Indio-Maíz is a dream for rain forest enthusiasts. More rugged visitors can make the rural journey to the Bosawás rain forest. Few places in Central America can match the natural splendor of the wetlands in Los Guatuzos; this precious wildlife refuge is a spectacle of tropical fauna with numerous and diverse species in easy view daily.