Nicaragua has likely been occupied by humans since sometime around 18,000 BC. In Managua the traces of human inhabitation exist in well-preserved human footprints from the year 4,000 BC at the Las Huellas Museum. Ceramic evidence of organized settlement in Nicaragua begins around 1,500-1,000 BC and is prevalent in many areas of the Pacific. Nicaragua received migrations from both north and south until the first arrival of the Spanish explorers in 1523.
Southern migrants may have occupied the entire country until the arrival of the more sophisticated Mangue speaking Chorotegas from central Mexico around 750 AD displaced them to the east of the great lakes.
The Chorotegas were then partially dispersed by another wave of migrants in the form of the Nicaraguas, whose final migration from Mexico to Nicaragua and the shores of Lake Nicaragua occurred just 150-200 years before the arrival of the Spanish. They spoke Náhuat (a rustic version of the Aztec language Náhuatl), which would become the lingua franca for the indigenous people after the conquest and may have already been widely used for trading in the region before the arrival of the first Europeans. Also arriving from the north were the Maribios, very similar to Hokano speakers in California and Baja Mexico, and theorized to have migrated from that area. They populated the western slope of what is today the Maribios Volcanic range, in northwestern Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguas and Chorotegas were very successful societies that sat in the middle of a trade route that stretched as far north as Mexico and south to Peru.
At the time of the conquest the eastside of the great lakes was home to cultures of South American origin. It is believed that the northern migrations of the people found in central and eastern Nicaragua at the time of the conquest began around 3,000 BC. The Chontales and Matagalpas may have been of the same language root (Chibcha) as the Caribbean basin Rama, Sumu and Miskito cultures.
The Miskito may be the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Pacific that lost in wars to the invading tribes of Chorotegas in the 9th century. The only indigenous languages still spoken in Nicaragua are of the Miskito, Sumu and Rama, with the latter in threat of extinction. The Chontales appear to have been the most developed of the group, though sadly little is known about their culture, despite ample and impressive archaeological evidence.
Christopher Columbus sailed the Caribbean shores of Nicaragua in 1502 on his fourth and final voyage and took refuge from a nasty storm in Cabo Gracias a Dios (Cape Thank God) as he dubbed it and it remains today.
The Spanish explorer Gil González Dávila sailed from Panama to the Gulf of Nicoya and then traveled overland to the western shores of Lake Nicaragua to met the famous Nicaraguas tribe chief, Niqueragua, in April of 1523. After the conversion of 917 Nicaraguas elite to Christianity, González Dávila left with a fair amount of gold and traveled further north before being chased out of the area by a surprise attack of Chorotega warriors’ lead by legendary chieftain, Diriangén.
In 1524, an army of 229 men lead by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba overcame the local populace and founded the cities of Granada and León on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua respectively. Nueva Segovia was founded in (or before) 1543 to try and capitalize on mineral resources in the northern mountains. The Indian population and mineral resources where quickly exhausted and many of the Spanish left Nicaragua, looking for greener pastures.
The ones that stayed on became involved in agriculture. Cattle were introduced and cacao production was continued. Indigo was the other principle crop along with some trade in wood. The beef, leather and indigo were exported to Guatemala, the cacao to El Salvador. There was also a heavy commercial route between Granada and the Caribbean colonial states via the Río San Juan and trade between Nicaragua and Peru. Granada became much wealthier thanks to its advantageous position in these international trade routes, but administrative and church authority remained in León, creating a rivalry that would explode after independence from Spain. During the 17th century Nicaragua was victim of multiple attacks from Dutch, French and British pirates as well as two attacks by the British Navy in the 18th century.
In 1811 the people of León took to the streets demanding the creation of a new government, new judges, abolition of the government monopoly to produce liquor, lower prices for tobacco and the end to taxes on beef, paper and general sales. All the demands were granted. Ten years later a meeting was called on September 15, 1821 in Guatemala City. Representatives attended the meeting from Madrid, Spanish representatives from every country in Central America, the heads of the Catholic Church from each province, the archbishop of Guatemala and the local senators of the provinces. Independence was from Spain was declared. Nicaragua remained part of a federation of Mexico and Central America until 1823 when the “United Provinces of Central America” met and declared themselves free of Mexican domain and any other foreign power. The five members were a federation free to administer their own countries and in November of 1824 a new constitution for the Central America Federation was decreed. On April 30, 1838 the legislative assembly of Nicaragua, declared Nicaragua independent of any other power and Nicaragua was completely independent.
The power vacuum of the post-colonial period was the stage for continued battles between the Liberal Party of León and Conservative Party of Granada. These conflicts created the environment for the arrival of a strange, brilliant and brutal character named William Walker. Walker was actually hired by the Liberals to help defeat the Conservatives. What the Liberals did not know was Walker’s grand plans to make Nicaragua part of a slave plantation that ran from Guatemala to Panama.
Key to Walker’s success was to be the inter-oceanic steamship transportation of Cornelius Vanderbilt that served a route from San Francisco to New York via San Juan del Sur, La Virgen, the Río San Juan and San Juan del Norte. In September of 1855 Walker and his little battalion landed in San Juan del Sur and confronted Granada’s Conservative Party army in La Virgen and won easily. On October 13, 1855 he traveled north, attacked and took Granada. As per prior agreement, Patricio Rivas of León’s Liberal Party was named president of the republic and Walker as the head of the military. Rivas then followed Walker’s wishes and confiscated Vanderbilt’s steamship line. Walker then used the boats to ship more arms, ammunitions and mercenary soldiers to Nicaragua from both coasts of the USA. Soon he had the most modern, well equipped fighting force in Central America
After a spell as the head of the military Walker decided to run for president. From June 22-24, 1856 farcical elections were held and William Walker was named President of the Republic. Liberal Party chiefs and the rest of Nicaragua united with combined Central American forces to fight the Guerra Nacional (National War). The end of William Walker troop’s myth of invincibility came at the little ranch north of Tipitapa called San Jacinto were the Nicaraguan rebel army won a decisive battle and stands today a museum open to visitors. The tide had turned and battles in Masaya, Rivas and Granada would prove victorious for the combined Central American forces.
William Walker escaped to a steamship, where he calmly watched the final, grisly actions of his troops, who looted then burned Granada to the ground. Walker would later return to Nicaragua, before just escaping with his life. He then tried Honduras where he was taken prisoner by the British Navy and handed over to the Honduran authorities. He was tried, put against a wall and shot by Honduran armed forces on September 12, 1860.
General José Santos Zelaya
Between 1857 and 1893 Nicaragua enjoyed a period of calm. In 1858 the pre-Walker constitution was reactivated, with elections required for public office. The wealthy families of Granada would control the government for the next 30 plus years. The first trains were installed in 1874, along with telephone and telegraph. Coffee became an important crop responsible for more than 50% of exports. In 1893 Liberal Party General José Santos Zelaya overthrew Granada’s Conservative Party President, Dr. Roberto Sacasa. Zelaya would maintain power until 1909 when he was pushed out with the help of the US Marines. Zelaya did much to modernize Nicaragua. The separation of church and state was instituted, as were ideas of equality and liberty for all, respect of private property, civil marriage and legal divorce. The death penalty and debtors prisons were banned and freedom of expression legally guaranteed. Construction was rampant, with new roads, docks, postal offices, new shipping routes built and electricity installed in Managua and Chinandega. A slew of new laws was passed to facilitate business, along with a proper police; military codes and a Supreme Court created. The Caribbean Coast was finally officially incorporated into the country in 1894.
US Marines and General Augusto Sandino
In 1909 an uprising in Bluefields against Liberal President Zelaya was made with the support of the Granada Conservative Party. General José Santos Estrada took control of the eastern coast. Two North Americans who had fought on the side of the rebel army were put in front of the firing squad on orders of the central government. The US demanded Zelaya’s resignation and he stepped down to allow a fellow Liberal Party member to take charge. The US refused to recognize the new president. In May of 1910 the US Marines arrived to Bluefields to establish a “neutral zone”.
Conservative General Estrada marched into Managua to install himself as the new president of Nicaragua. Stuck with debts from European creditors, he was forced to borrow from the North American banks to pay debts. He then gave the US control and collection of customs, as a guarantee for those loans. The Nicaraguan National Bank and a new monetary unit called the córdoba were established in 1912. The Granada aristocrats were not happy with General Estrada and a new round of fighting between León Liberals and Granada Conservatives erupted.
In August the US Marines entered Managua to secure order and establish their choice as president of the country. The Marines would stay in a fluctuating force until 1933. Their desire to leave behind a stabilizing presence in Nicaragua gave rise to a new army would be called the Guardia Nacional (National Guard).
General Augusto Sandino was a Liberal general who became a national hero by taking the fight directly to the US Marines. Fighting side by side with the Marines to exterminate Augusto Sandino and his rebel army, was the newly created Guardia Nacional. The Marines in Nicaragua’s northern mountains experimented with air bomb attacks for the first time while trying to exterminate Sandino and his rebel army. The charismatic general had widespread support in the north and was not defeated. Sandino relentlessly attacked US Marine positions with what many believe was the first use of modern guerrilla warfare. Finally, with elections approaching in 1933 and with the National Guard under the command of Anastasio Somoza García, the US government announced that the Marines would pull out when the new president took office. Juan Bautista Sacasa was elected, and the day he took power, January 1, 1933, the last regiment of US Marines left Nicaragua from the docks of Corinto.
The Somoza Family
With the US Marines gone, General Augusto Sandino signed a peace and gradual disarmament treaty with President Sacasa at the presidential palace, today’s Parque Loma de Tiscapa. One year later, on February 21, 1934, Sandino returned to the presidential palace for dinner with President Sacasa. After he left the dinner party, Sandino was abducted and executed. His burial place, if he was in fact buried, is unknown.
With the death of Sandino, the Liberal party was divided in two camps, one that supported Somoza and the other President Sacasa. Somoza attacked the fort above León in May of 1936, while the National Guard asked for Sacasa’s resignation.
In June of 1936 Sacasa resigned and new elections held, which were won by Somoza García. Anastasio Somoza García and later his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle would maintain effective power until 1979. Nicaragua enjoyed a period of relative stability and economic growth. The relationship of the US and Nicaragua was never better. This formed a basis for building a business empire that used state money to grow.
At the end of their decades long hold on power the family owned more up to 50% of all arable land and controlled an estimate 65% of the GDP. Somoza García met his death in León, at a party in the worker’s club of León, after accepting the Liberal Party nomination for the election of 1956, assassinated by gun shots of Rigoberto López Pérez. One of Somoza García’s sons, Luis Somoza Debayle stood in for the election and won anyway. He was sworn in as president in 1957. Luis Somoza’s brother Anastasio remained as the head of the Guardia Nacional and the real power of the country and he would quickly take over as president of Nicaragua. In 1954, 1958 and 1959 armed attempts and dethroning the Somozas failed.
In 1961 the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was founded. On 1967 there were anti-government demonstrations in Managua. The National Guard attacked the demonstrators, killing some and injuring many. None the less, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was elected president of Nicaragua once again. In 1972 the great earthquake of Managua struck and an Emergency Committee was created to deal with the disaster, under the direction of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Millions in aid and reconstruction money went through the hands of Somoza’s companies and accounts of the ruler. In 1975 Somoza was re-elected president of Nicaragua and took office in 1976.
In January of 1978 Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of the country’s oldest newspaper, La Prensa and a respected member of society, was shot to death. Most assumed it was work of the Guardia Nacional. Chamorro had been part of the failed 1959 overthrow attempt and 1974 founder of an opposition group to Somoza Debayle called the UDEL. The “revolution” or “war against Somoza” was in full swing with support from all social classes.
The culmination of a 20-year struggle lead for 15 years by Carlos Fonseca Amador (who died in combat) and at great cost of more than 50,000 Nicaraguan lives, Somoza Debayle and the Guardia National were chased out of Nicaragua. The revolution brought major damage to Nicaragua’s economy and cities like Masaya, Managua, León and Estelí. Somoza finally fled on July 17, 1979, after a prolonged and horrifying series of battles. The war was won by a broad coalition of labor unions, private enterprise, the Catholic Church, various political parties and the most visible of all, the FSLN or Sandinistas.
A committee assumed power of Nicaragua on July 19, 1979 made up of five members: Daniel Ortega, Sergio Ramírez, Moisés Hassan, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo. A new legislative body was organized to write a new constitution. Any idea of shared power amongst other groups led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro or the non-Marxist rebel forces like those of revolutionary hero Eden Pastora were quickly dashed. Peace was short lived, as rebel groups formed in the northern mountains and Honduras and in 1982 the Resistencia Nicaraguense better known as the contras (short for counter-revolutionary in Spanish) began attacks. The national monetary reserves were increasingly taxed by more than half of the national budget going to military spending and a US economic embargo sent inflation spinning out of control, annihilating the already beleaguered economy. A peace agreement was reached in Sapoá; Rivas and elections were held in 1990. Daniel Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro.
Most Nicaraguans consider the election of Doña Violeta (as she is affectionately known) as the beginning of democracy in Nicaragua. The widow of assassinated La Prensa director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro had her two sons on both sides of the fence in the 1980’s, with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Junior with the contras and Carlos Fernando Chamorro with the Sandinistas. As she brought together her family, she brought together the country. Doña Violeta was forced to compromise on many issues and at times the country looked set to collapse back into war, but miraculously Nicaragua’s first woman president spent the next five years mending the country into one whole piece. The Nicaraguan military was de-politicized, put under civilian rule and reduced from over 150,000 to less than 30,000.
In November of 1996 Liberal Party candidate Arnoldo Alemán won the presidential vote. Alemán made strides in augmenting economic growth and foreign investment in Nicaragua and improvements to road and school infrastructure. In 1998 the worst hurricane to strike Central America in the 20th century brought to Nicaragua little wind, but biblical rains for five days. More than 2,400 lives were lost in flooding and landslides. The disaster encouraged foreign countries to consider external debt pardon, in what could be a possible savior to the world’s most indebted country in proportion to its GDP. Elections in November of 2001 were won by Liberal Party candidate and former Alemán Vice-President Enrique Bolaños. The 2001 elections were the third consecutive democratic presidential election in Nicaragua and boasted a record turnout at the polls.
The administration of Bolaños a businessman and member of the Nicaraguan upper class was undermined by opposition both from Daniel Ortega and his own former boss Arnoldo Alemán. Don Enrique had promised to clean up his own party’s corruption and in a brave move brought charges against Alemán for misuse of government funds in August of the year he was elected. Don Enrique’s liberal majority in the national assembly did him little good as his own party representatives rallied behind their imprisoned leader leaving Bolaños with little support or power. Despite this the Nicaraguan economy saw rapid growth in tourism and other industries and a real estate boom with increasing foreign investment capped off by the signing of the CAFTA free trade agreement with the USA and Central American states. Meanwhile Alemán maneuvered his congressional forces to lower the minimum for presidential election to 35% while running an opposition candidate to Bolaños 2006 candidate pick, splitting the Liberal vote and assuring Ortega’s return to power.
With 38% of the popular vote Daniel Ortega returned to power in Jan of 2007 and quickly moved to consolidate power in all branches of government, as well as in the military and police forces. Ortega also had a key article of the political constitution declared un-constitutional, since it prevented him for running for more terms. Thus, freeing him up continuous consecutive terms. Ortega is currently in his 3rd consecutive term as president with his wife as Vice-President now and has a firm grip on power. During Ortega’s return economic gains were solidified and great advances have been made in infrastructure, especially roads, ports and energy. Tourism in Nicaragua continued to grow with Nicaragua making many top 10 lists worldwide as best new destination to visit. International investment slowed, but national investment took up the slack making Nicaragua one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. Personal and press freedoms waned and discontent simmered. In April of 2018 student protests erupted in León and Managua, then countrywide. Please see our Nicaragua Protest (link to 7D) page for more details.
Nicaragua is located between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator ranging from 11°-15° north and between 83°- 88° longitude. Nicaragua’s northern border runs from the Gulf of Fonseca to Cape 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 2018. 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.
ua’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 2016 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 fiercest 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. Now tourists use the mountain for sledding or boarding giving it world fame as an adventure mountain.
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 2018. 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 January of 2019. The northernmost is Volcán Cosiguina (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.
Nicaragua’s economy is based on agriculture, which contributes more than 40% of GDP. The principal export items are coffee, beef and dairy products, gold, sugar and peanuts. It is still considered the least developed country in Central America, and the second poorest in the Americas by nominal GDP.
Gross domestic product: 13.81 billion USD (2017) World Bank
GDP per capita: 2,221.81 USD (2017) World Bank
GNI per capita: 5,680 PPP dollars (2017) World Bank
GDP growth rate: 4.9% annual change (2017) World Bank
Gross national income: 35.3 billion PPP dollars (2017) World Bank
Internet users: 10.6% of the population (2011) World Bank
The Nicaragua monetary unit is the córdoba. The currency is on a program of scheduled devaluation against the US dollar and at time of publishing was rated at 33 córdobas to the US dollar. Dollars are used widely in Nicaragua and many services for visitors are quoted in dollars and can be paid in that currency.
The most traditional of Nicaraguan instruments is the Marimba. Its exact origin is not known but most believe that it is a derivative of an African instrument. Despite its rather crude appearance it is a complex instrument. It is composed of 22 wood keys and shaped in the form of a triangle. The wood used is mahogany or cedar. The marimba player plays with rubbed-headed sticks called bolillos. The instrument has very clear and sonorous tonalities. Most marimbas are used for folkloric music and typical music of the countryside, yet today the marimberos perform any rhythm from cumbia to salsa to merengue. The country’s most famous marimberos are from Monimbó, the Indian barrio of Masaya, where there is a long tradition of marimba crafting and playing.
Folk Music is still very popular today and has deep roots in Nicaraguan culture. One of the most important creators of the Nicaraguan song is Víctor M. Leiva (Managua, 1916) who authored the song "El Caballo Cimarrón"(The Untamed Horse) in 1948, the first Nicaraguan song recorded inside Nicaragua. During his long performing career he painted musical portraits of the Nicaraguan’s daily life. Victor M. Leiva received a Gold Palm award in United States, as the second greatest folkloric composer in all of Latin America. Another legendary folk singer-songwriter is Camilo Zapata. Zapata was born in 1917 and still performing today, he wrote his first song at the age of 14 and his songs have made him the face and heart of Nicaraguan regionalism.
Two brothers from the northern town of Somoto are largely responsible for the continued popularity of folk music in Nicaragua today. Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy have not only brought the form to the forefront of Nicaraguan music, but their creativity and dedication have created new forms, like the famous Misa Campesina (peasant mass). Originally from the rural splendor of the Solentiname Archipelago this music uses marimbas, guitars, atabales (Indian drums), violins and mazurcas. The songs were composed by Carlos Mejía Godoy and recorded in the 80’s, by the “Popular Sound Workshop”. La Misa Campesina has been translated into numerous languages and is even sung by Anglican, Mormon and Baptist Churches in the United States.
Arguably the oldest form of painting in Nicaragua is the petroglyph. These mysterious stone pictorials are found in every corner of Nicaragua and their quantity and diversity is amazing. The depictions are of ancient beliefs, family histories, calendars and other scenes in relief that remain a mystery to today’s art lovers and archaeologists alike. This art was lost with the arrival of the first Europeans in the 16th century and the painters of the colonial period were usually Spanish.
The first notable Nicaraguan painter was 19th century artist, Toribio Jerez, who authored a collection of portraits of the Bishops of Nicaragua. At the beginning of the 20th century the most appreciated work was that of Alonso Rochi, who’s paintings of urban scenes and flowers received acclaim. The maestro of modern Nicaraguan painters was one who gained an equal amount of fame from teaching as he did from painting. León painter Rodrigo Peñalba (1908-1979) spent years studying and painting in Rome and gained fame at home in the 1940’s. The visitor can see his paintings in León at the gallery across from the Iglesia San Francisco and at the museum in the Masaya Volcano National Park.
At the beginning of the 1950’s the work of Asilia Guillen (1887-1964) brought primitivism (naive) painting to the forefront of Nicaraguan fine arts. Primitivism may be the most famous school of art of painting in Nicaragua, thanks largely to the priest Ernesto Cardenal, it most enthusiastic promoter. The talented campesinos of the Archipelago of Solentiname were given a course organized by the priest and today the islanders paint the vibrant natural beauty of their islands. The naïve painting of Solentiname has taken the island artists to far off locals like Finland and Japan and their work can be found in galleries around the world.
A departure from the traditional concepts introduced by the master Rodrigo Peñalba was organized under the banner of the Grupo Praxis formed in 1963. This group of revolutionary artists joined in a new style of painting under a social ideology that was based on opposition to the Somoza regime. Grupo Praxis style is marked by the use of monochromatic colors with the backdrop of Nicaragua’s volcanic and tellurian landscape. Leading artists of the group include the well-known painter Alejandro Aróstegui. After the Praxis Group painting styles became increasingly diverse with a post-modern movement and an outburst of mural painting in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s figurative painting and hyper-realism became additional movements accentuated by a new and important figure in Nicaraguan painting and installation art Patricia Belli. Belli’s striking and emotional statements transmitted through a diverse use of media have kept her on the cutting edge of the Nicaraguan art scene.
Fernando Saravia was one of the first to earn the title of “el maestro” in Nicaraguan sculpture. Saravia worked in clay cast, mould, and carve stone and wood. Saravia’s original sculptures brought much notoriety and he in turn went on to help form the best known of modern Nicaraguan sculptors including the priest Ernesto Cardenal. In the 1980’s, Ernesto Cardenal, an accomplished artist, was the Minister of Culture. Under his direction a program was created in San Juan de Limay, a small village north of Estelí. There had already been a tradition of soapstone (marmolina) carving there. The colorful stone is found in abundance in San Juan de Limay and the project refined the quality of San Juan de Limay’s artisan sculpting. During this period sculptors like Luis Morales Alonso and Aparicio Artola came to fame with beautiful and unique works in soapstone. The work of San Juan de Limay’s artists can be found across Nicaragua and Central America.
One of most talented Nicaraguan sculptors today is Miguel Angel Abarca. The son of coffin carvers, there is no material that Abarca has not mastered from wood to marble to granite. Abarca also changes styles as easily as materials and his mastery of both that make him unique in the Nicaraguan art scene, he never stops experimenting and what he produces is routinely both unique and sublimely beautiful.
The art form that dominates Nicaraguan cultural life is poetry. With the greatest national hero being a poet, Nicaraguans have poetry running through their blood and soul. The king of this passion is Rubén Darío (1867-1916), the most celebrated of Nicaraguan artists and a true great in the history of the Spanish language. Darío is known as the “Father of Modernism” thanks to his groundbreaking innovations in the Spanish language. The modernist school headed by Dario advocated aestheticism, the search for sensory and sensual values, using the effects of color, voice and synthesis. His landmark work Azul is considered the fundamental work of modernism. Darío published numerous other collections of poetry, a novel and narratives as well as editing literary magazines. Dario’s work had a significant impact on the Spanish language and tributes continue to be paid to his artistic production since his death in León in 1916.
The Vanguard movement followed Darío’s penchant for innovation and was founded by Luis Alberto Cabrales (1901-1974) and Jose Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994). The Vanguard movement exerted an important renovating influence on Nicaraguan literature. Coronel Utrecho’s work Oda a Ruben Dario (1927) contains the essence of the new style and marks the transition from the Dario school of Modernism to the Vanguard movement. Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002), the movement’s principal author, wrote a declaration reaffirming the national identity, which was later incorporated into his first book Poemas Nicaraguenses (1934). Another member of the Vanguard was Manolo Cuadra (1907-1957) who became known for his poems, Perfil and La palabra que no te dije, published in Tres Amores (1955). Pablo Antonio Cuadra was responsible for a truly prolific literary production, including Libro de horas (1964), a collection of Náhuatl myths El Jaguar y la Luna (1959. He wrote about the life of the mammal in Cantos de Cifar and Al mar dulce (1926); his excellent treatise against dictatorships in Siete arboles contra el atardecer (1982) and Poemas para un calendario (1988).
The generation of the forties brought the themes of love and freedom to the forefront and the emergence of poets Ernesto Mejia Sanchez (1923-1985) and Carlos Martinez Rivas (1924-1999). Mejía Sanchez cultivated a style marked by brevity and precision in his most important works Ensalmos y conjuros (1947) and La Carne contigua (1948) and Martinez Rivas used a modern rhythm, making his ideas felt through quick turns of phrase and ruptures of his own language. El paraiso recobrado (1948) was a revelation and the publication of Insurreccion solitaria (1953) even more so. He published a series of poems titled Allegro rato, in 1989, which continued his experimental line.
Ernesto Cardenal’s (1923) poetry tries to reflect common language and simple expressions. Founder of the expressionist poetry current, he opposed the subjectivity of lyrical poetry. Through his poetry he attacked the Somoza family dictatorship for more than four decades. La ciudad deshabitada (1946), Hora 0 (1960), Oracion por Marylin Monroe y otras poemas(1966), are poems reflecting religious, historical and Christian themes as well as the topic of social commitment.
Sergio Ramirez Mercado is one of the most internationally known Nicaraguan writers. He has published numerous novels and books of short stories including De tropeles y tropelias (1972), and Charles Atlas tambien muere (1976). In 1998 he won the International Prize for Fiction of the Alfagura publishing house of Spain that also published his later works:Margarita esta linda la mar (1998), Adios muchachos (1999), and his most recent work Mentiras Verdaderas (2000). He is considered among the finest novelists in Latin America today.
Another modern great is Gioconda Belli. Her first book was a sensual collection of poems, Sobre la grama (1974), and it broke new ground for Nicaraguan literature with its frank femininity. De la costilla de Eva (1987) speaks of free love at the service of revolutionary transformation. Her novels, La mujer habitada, Memorias de amor y de guerra and El pais bajo mi piel, among others, have been published in more than twenty languages.
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 Mayagna 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 60% 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 and Los Pueblos Blancos.