Nicaragua is a predominately mestizo culture with a mix of Native American and European roots. This process of cultural integration began long before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers and continues to this day. Due to relative isolation in the eastern section of Nicaragua for the first several centuries, fairly well defined ethnic cultures are still present in the communities of Miskito, Rama and Sumu indigenous cultures as well as Afro-Caribbean’s from Jamaica (Creole) and Afro-Amerindians from San Vincent (Garífuna) Island. The Hispanic mestizo culture of the western 70% of the country dominates the ethnic profile of the Nicaraguan. Recent surveys suggest a country 96% mestizo, with 3% indigenous and 1% Afro-Caribbean. Amongst the peoples classified as mestizo are many of close to pure indigenous roots that have lost their distinguishing language, but retained many cultural traits of pre-Columbian times.
According to a year 2000 census Nicaragua’s population was estimated at 5,126,860. Population density varies greatly from department to department with the principle concentration of people in Managua and vicinity and the traditionally (since pre-Conquest times) populous cities of the Pacific basin where 83% of Nicaragua’s population lives. On a national level population density is at 42 persons per square kilometer, making Nicaragua the least densely populated country in Central America. Current population growth is pegged at 3.2% annually and the average size of the Nicaraguan family has diminished from a 1950 average of 7.3 children per mother to 4.7 today. The country is very young with 45% of the population under the age of 15 years. Only 3% of the population are over the age of 65. The average life span of the Nicaraguan has risen since 1950, from 42 years of age to 63 years.
Spanish is the official language of Nicaragua. English is becoming more common and is spoken in the nicer hotels in Managua, Granada and Leon, at tour operators and car rental agencies. On the Caribbean coast Spanish, Creole English, Sumo, Rama and Miskito are all spoken. Nicaraguan Creole English is similar to the English spoken in Jamaica and other Caribbean states.
Just over 70% of the population if Roman Catholic. There are also Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Seventh Day Adventists; Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon and many other sects. The dominant religion on the Caribbean Coast is the Moravian Church. Religion and spirituality in general are very important parts of Nicaraguan life. Religious festivals occur in every village around the country and different dates during the year. The ceremonies take place to honor each town or city’s patron saint and are a colorful mixture of ancient and modern Catholic beliefs with influences of pre-Conquest traditions. The Easter week celebrations are something special, particularly in León. See individual destination chapters for more details.