DESTINATION NICARAGUA

Nicaragua is best known not for its landscape or cultural treasures, but for the 1979 Sandinista revolution and subsequent Contra war, in which the country rose up in hope only to be let down by US interference. The Sandinistas are no longer in power and the prevailing economic ideology, dictated by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF, involves massive privatization and deregulation. This high-speed `structural adjustment' has reduced inflation, provided ready cash for the business elite, and left much of the rest of the country unemployed or in a state of shock. The good news is that throughout this period human rights have largely been respected and the country's battles are now confined to the political arena. Nicaragua is a fascinating destination for those travelers who shun seeing `sights', have an awareness of history and enjoy getting to know a country on a grass-roots level.

 Map of Nicaragua 

 

History

The earliest traces of human habitation in Nicaragua are the 10,000-year-old Footprints of the Acahualinca - prints preserved under layers of volcanic ash of people and animals running towards Lago de Managua. Around the 10th century AD, indigenous people from Mexico migrated to Nicaragua's Pacific lowlands, and Aztec culture was adopted by many Indians when Aztecs moved south during the 15th century to establish a trading colony.

The first contact with Europeans came in 1502, when Columbus sailed down the Caribbean coast. In 1522, a Spanish exploratory mission reached the southern shores of Lago de Nicaragua. A few years later the Spanish colonized the region and founded the cities of Granada and León, subduing local tribes. Granada became a comparatively rich colonial city; León became a hotbed of liberalism. The inhabitants of the heavily populated area around Managua put up a fierce resistance to the Spanish invaders and their city was destroyed. For the next three centuries Managua was but a village.

Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821, along with the rest of Central America. It was part of Mexico for a brief time, then part of the Central American Federation, and finally achieved complete independence in 1838. Soon after, Britain and the USA both became extremely interested in Nicaragua and the strategically important Río San Juan navigable passage from Lago de Nicaragua to the Caribbean. In 1848, the British seized the port at the mouth of the Río San Juan on the Caribbean coast and renamed it Greytown. This became a major transit point for hordes of hopefuls looking for the quickest route to Californian gold.

In 1855, the liberals of León invited William Walker, a self-styled filibuster intent on taking over Latin American territory, to help seize power from the conservatives based in Granada. Walker and his band of mercenaries took Granada easily and he proclaimed himself president. He was soon booted out of the country (one of his first moves was to institutionalize slavery) but showed almost absurd tenacity as he repeatedly tried to invade; his efforts set a precedent for continued US interference in Nicaragua's affairs.

In 1934, General Somoza, head of the US-trained National Guard, engineered the assassination of liberal opposition rebel Augusto C Sandino and, after fraudulent elections, became president in 1937. Somoza ruled Nicaragua as a dictator for the next 20 years, amassing huge personal wealth and landholdings the size of El Salvador. Although General Somoza was shot dead in 1956, his sons upheld the reign of the Somoza dynasty until 1979. Widespread opposition to the regime had been present for a long time but it was the devasting earthquake of 1972, and more specifically the way that international aid poured into the pockets of the Somozas while thousands of people suffered and died, that caused opposition to spread among all classes of Nicaraguans. Two groups were set up to counter the regime: the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberaceón Nacional, also known as the Sandinistas) and the UDEL, led by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, publisher of La Prensa, the newspaper critical of the dictatorship.

When Chamorro was assassinated in 1978 the people erupted in violence and declared a general strike. The revolt spread and former moderates joined with the FSLN to overthrow the Somoza regime. The Sandinistas marched victoriously into Managua on 19 July 1979. They inherited a poverty-stricken country with high rates of homelessness and illiteracy, and insufficient health care. The new government nationalized the lands of the Somozas and established farming cooperatives. They waged a massive education campaign which reduced illiteracy from 50% to 13%, and introduced an immunization program which eliminated polio and reduced infant mortality to a third of the rate it had been before the revolution.

It wasn't long before the country encountered serious problems from its 'good neighbor' to the north. The US government, which had supported the Somozas until the end, were alarmed that the Nicaraguans were setting a dangerous example to the region. A successful popular revolution was not what the US government wanted. Three months after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the USA announced that it was suspending aid to Nicaragua and allocating US$10 million for the organization of counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras. The Sandinstas responded by using much of the nation's resources to defend itself against the US-funded insurgency.

In 1984, elections were held in which Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinistas won 67% of the vote, but the USA continued its attacks on Nicaragua. In 1985, the USA imposed a trade embargo which lasted five years and strangled Nicaragua's economy. By this time it was widely known that the USA was funding the Contras, often covertly through the CIA, and Congress passed a number of bills which called for an end to the funding. US support for the Contras continued secretly until the so-called Irangate scandal revealed that the CIA had illegally sold weapons to Iran at inflated prices, and used the profits to fund the Contras.

In 1990, the Nicaraguans went to the polls and elected Violeta Chamorro, leader of the opposition UNO and widow of martyred La Prensa editor, Pedro Chamorro. Chamorro's failure to revive the economy, and her increasing reliance on Sandinista support, led to US threats to withhold aid, but the civil war was over at last. Daniel Ortega ran for president in October 1996, apologizing for Sandinista 'excesses' and calling himself a centrist, but he was defeated by the ex-mayor of Managua, anti-communist Liberal Alliance candidate, Arnoldo Alemán. President Alemán was sworn in on 10 January 1997.

In November of 1998, Hurricane Mitch trampled the Atlantic coast of Central America, leaving disaster in its wake. The hurricane, a class 5 at its prime, swept over Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama, causing mudslides and flooding, washing out roads and destroying bridges throughout the region. In Nicaragua, heavy rains following in the wake of the storm kicked off a mudslide at Volcan Casita that buried several villages. Over 10,000 people died as a result of the hurricane, one of the strongest and nastiest this century.

 

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of Nicaragua
Area: 129,494 sq km (50,503 sq mi)
Population: 4,275,000 (growth rate 3.4%)
Capital city: Managua (pop 933,600)
People: 69% mestizo, 17 % European descent, 9% African descent, 5% indigenous peoples
Language: Spanish, English Creole, Miskito
Religion: Roman Catholic 90%, Protestant 10%
Government: Republic
President: Arnoldo Alemán

Environment

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America. It is bordered in the north by Honduras, in the south by Costa Rica, in the east by the Caribbean Sea and in the west by the Pacific Ocean. The country has three distinct geographic regions: the Pacific lowlands, the north-central mountains and the Caribbean lowlands, also called the Mosquito Coast or Mosquitia. The fertile Pacific lowlands are interrupted by about 40 volcanoes, and dominated by Lago de Nicaragua, which is the largest lake in Central America. The Mosquito Coast is a sparsely populated rainforest area and the outlet for many of the large rivers originating in the central mountains.

Lago de Nicaragua supports unusual fish, including the world's only freshwater sharks, as well as a huge variety of birdlife. The cloud and rain forests in the northwest contain abundant wildlife including ocelots, wart hogs, pumas, jaguars, sloths and spider monkeys. Birdlife in the forests is particularly rich: the cinnamon hummingbird, ruddy woodpecker, stripe-breasted wren, elegant trogon, shining hawk and even the quetzal, the holy bird of the Maya, can all be seen. The jungles on the Caribbean coast contain trees which grow up to almost 200ft (60m) high and are home to boas, anacondas, jaguars, deer and howler monkeys.

Nicaragua's climate varies according to altitude. The Pacific lowlands are always extremely hot, but the air is fresh and the countryside green during the rainy season (May to November); the dry season (December to April) brings winds which send clouds of brown dust across the plains. The Caribbean coast is hot and wet; it can rain heavily even during the brief dry season (March to May). The mountains of the north are much cooler than the lowlands.

Nicaragua was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in November 1998, one of the strongest storms to hit the country this century.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$1.3 billion
GDP per head: US$410
Inflation: 11%
Major industries: Coffee, cotton, sugar, meat and bananas
Major trading partners: Belgium, Luxembourg, CIS, Japan, Germany, Cuba, USA

Culture

Earthquakes and war have obliterated much tangible evidence of Nicaragua's cultural heritage, especially its colonial architecture - although León retains many fine old buildings. Poetry is one of Nicaragua's most beloved arts and no other Central American country can match its literary output. Rubén Darío (1867-1916) is known as the 'Prince of Spanish-American literature' and recent work by Nicaraguan poets, fiction writers and essayists can be found in most bookshops. Bluefields, the largely English-speaking town on the Caribbean coast, is a center for reggae music. The Archipiélago de Solentiname in Lago de Nicaragua is famous as a haven for artists, poets and craftspeople. Sandinista street art in the form of modernist murals is especially prominent in the university town of León.

Spanish is the language of Nicaragua but English and a number of Indian languages are spoken on the Caribbean coast. The main religion is Catholicism, although there are a number of Protestant sects such as the Pentecostals and the Baptists. The Moravian church, introduced by British missionaries, is important on the Caribbean coast.

A typical meal in Nicaragua consists of eggs or meat, beans and rice, salad (cabbage and tomatoes), tortillas and fruit in season. Most common of all Nicaraguan foods is gallo pinto, a blend of rice and beans, with cooking water from the beans added to color the rice. Other traditional dishes include bajo, a mix of beef, green and ripe plantains and yucca (cassava), and vigorón, yucca served with fried pork skins and coleslaw. Street vendors sell interesting drinks such as tiste, made from cacao and corn, and posol con leche, a corn and milk drink. Nicaragua boasts the best beer and rum in Central America.

Events

Each town and city in Nicaragua has annual celebrations for its patron saint. These celebrations, known as Toro Guaco, include distinctive masked processions and mock battles involving folkloric figures satirizing the Spanish conquistadors. The most famous of these saints' days are held in honor of San Sebastian (January) and Santiago (July).

Facts for the Traveler

Visas: Citizens of the UK, USA, Netherlands, Hungary, Belgium, Scandinavian countries, Greece, Switzerland, Spain, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia do not need visas and are issued a tourist card valid for 30 days on arrival. Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most European countries do require visas, which allow a 30-day stay.
Health risks: cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, rabies, typhoid
Time: GMT/UTC minus 6 hours
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Weights & measures: metric but the gallon is used for petrol (see conversion table)

 Money & Costs

Currency: new córdoba

Relative costs:

  • Budget room: US$3-5

  • Moderate hotel: US$5-15

  • Top-end hotel: US$15 and upwards

  • Budget meal: US$2-4

  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$5-15

  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$15 and upwards

Comfortable travel on Nicaragua costs in the range of US$30-50 a day. A moderate budget will fall in the US$10-$30 a day range if you hire a car occasionally. Budget travelers can get by on between US$5 and US$10 a day if they confine themselves to public transport. The Caribbean Coast is a bit more expensive than elsewhere in the country.

While the last several years have witnessed the rapid expansion of the private banking system, traveler's checks remain difficult to cash, except at border crossings and in Managua. Casas de cambio such as Pinolero and Multicambios provide the service, but it's not easy to find a bank that will do so. All over Nicaragua, many moderately priced hotels and restaurants accept credit cards, and in some parts of the country, even most of the cheapest places accept them. Note that Nicaraguan córdobas cannot readily be changed in any other country.

Most Nicaraguans do not leave tips in inexpensive restaurants. In good restaurants you could leave up to 10% of the bill. Some restaurants include a service charge with the bill, and this is usually clearly shown. Don't confuse a tip with the nationwide 15% value added tax that is shown on each bill. Be certain to bargain in large outdoor markets.

 When to Go

Nicaragua has two distinct seasons, the timing of which varies from coast to coast. The most pleasant time to visit the Pacific or central regions is early in the dry season (December and January), when temperatures are cooler and the foliage is still lush. With the possible exception of the last month of the dry season (usually mid-April to mid-May) when the land is parched and the air full of dust, there really is no bad time to visit.

Nicaraguans spend Semana Santa at the beach; all available rooms will be sold out weeks or even months in advance.

Attractions

Managua

The capital of Nicaragua is spread across the southern shore of Lago de Managua and is crowded with more than a quarter of Nicaragua's population. It's been racked by natural disasters including two earthquakes this century, and since the 1972 earthquake the city has had no center. Much of what was formerly the city center is still vacant land; in some parts, people have constructed houses out of tin and cardboard boxes on the bare dirt.

Several of Managua's attractions stand around the Plaza de la República, including the lakeside municipal cathedral, which was once an impressive edifice but is now in ruins. Near the cathedral is the Palacio Nacional, which has two giant paintings of Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca at the entrance. The Huellas de Acahualinca museum houses the ancient footprints of people and animals running towards the lake from a volcanic eruption. The Museo de la Revolución has interesting historical exhibits with an emphasis on the revolutionary struggle this century. There are also several lagunas, or volcanic crater lakes, which are popular swimming spots.

Barrio Martha Quezada is a residential district with many simple, cheap guesthouses and places to eat. This is where backpackers tend to congregate. On weekends there's dancing and partying around the Plaza 19 de Julio.

Around Managua

The large volcano at the center of the Volcán Masaya National Park , which still steams and belches, is surrounded by smaller volcanoes and thermal springs. Legends say that the Indians used to throw young women into the boiling lava to appease Chaciutique, the goddess of fire. The Spanish believed it was the entrance to hell, inhabited by devils. Entrance to the park is only 14 miles (23km) southeast of Managua.

The Laguna de Xiloá, a stunning crater lake 12 miles (20km) northwest of the city, is a favorite swimming spot. At El Trapiche, 11 miles (17km) southeast of the city, water from natural springs has been channelled into large outdoor pools surrounded by gardens and restaurants.

León

León is traditionally the most liberal of Nicaragua's cities and remains the radical and intellectual center of the country. Monuments to the revolution, including bold Sandinista murals, are dotted all over town and many buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Though scarred by earthquakes and war, the city is resplendent with many fine colonial churches and official buildings. Its streets are lined with old Spanish-style houses which have white adobe walls, red-tiled roofs, thick wooden doors and cool garden patios. Its cathedral is the largest in Central America and features huge paintings of the Stations of the Cross by Antonio Sarria as well as the tomb of poet Rubén Darío. The Galería de Héroes y Mártires has a display which includes photos of those who died fighting for the FSLN during the 1978-79 revolution.

The Caribbean Coast

Unlike the rest of Nicaragua, the Caribbean coast was never colonized: it remained a British protectorate until the late 1800s. The only part of the rainforest-covered coast usually visited by travelers is Bluefields but some visitors also head out to the Islas del Maíz. The journey from Managua to Bluefields involves a five-hour boat trip down the Río Escondido. Bluefields' mix of ethnic groups - including Indians (Miskitos, Ramas and Sumos), Blacks and mestizos from the rest of Nicaragua - make it an interesting place, and the people here definitely like to have a good time; there are several reggae clubs and plenty of dancing on the weekends.

Like other islands off the Caribbean coast, the idyllic Islas del Maíz were once a haven for buccaneers. The larger of these two islands, which are about 43 miles (70km) off the coast, is now a popular holiday spot. There is clear turquoise water, white sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms, and coral reefs.

Off the Beaten Track

Las Isletas

Las Isletas is a group of 356 small islands just offshore from Granada in Lago de Nicaragua. The locals make a living out of fishing and growing tropical fruits such as mangoes and coconuts, and there is a remarkable variety of birdlife. The island of San Pablo has a small fortress built by the Spaniards to protect against British pirates in the 18th century. Isla Zapatera is protected as a national park and is one of Nicaragua's most important archaeological areas. Giant stone statues erected by Indians in pre-Columbian times have been moved elsewhere but you can visit other ancient tombs and structures. There are more tombs and some interesting rock carvings on Isla del Muerto.

Archipiélago de Solentiname

The Archipiélago de Solentiname, in the southern part of Lago de Nicaragua, is the site of a communal society established for artists by the poet Ernesto Cardenal. The islands are known for their distinctive school of colorful primitivist painting. They are a great place for hiking, fishing and taking it easy. Boats to the Solentiname islands depart from San Carlos, on the southeastern corner of the lake.

Activities

The Selva Negra forest near Matagalpa, the mountains in the north and the islands in Lago de Nicaragua offer great hiking. Among the many spectacular volcanoes of interest for climbers are the Volcán Masaya and the two volcanoes on Isla de Ometepe. Lago de Nicaragua offers fantastic opportunities for fishing, and surfing is popular at Poneloya beach, near León, and at Playa Popoyo near Rivas.

Getting There & Away

Nica, Nicaragua's national airline, flies to few international destinations, but flights to/from Managua are available with a number of Latin American, European and North American airlines.

There are three overland border crossings into Honduras, at Las Manos, El Espino and Guasule, and one into Costa Rica at Sapoá. There is also a river crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica at Los Chiles, reachable by boat from San Carlos. Fishing and cargo boats from Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, both on the Caribbean Coast, are always coming and going; you may be able to hitch a ride to another Central American port or island.

Getting Around

There are three domestic airlines offering flights, mainly between Managua and Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas. Local bus services are regular and frequent, albeit very crowded. Nicaraguan buses are infamous for their pickpockets so take precautions and keep an eye on your baggage at all times. Boats are the only way to get to some places in Nicaragua, notably on the Caribbean Coast and on Lago de Nicaragua. Trips down the Río San Juan to El Castillo and San Juán del Norte are not cheap.

Recommended Reading

  • Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista by Omar Cabezas is a classic account of the Sandinista guerrilla experience.

  • Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family by Shirley Christian is a historical narrative of the 1979 revolution by the leading US journalist on the ground at the time.

  • The Jaguar Smiles: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie is a short travelogue assessing the Nicaraguan revolution. The book is limited by the briefness of Rushdie's visit.

  • Death, Dreams and Dancing in Nicaragua by Australian journalist Penny O'Donnell is an entertaining account of the establishing of public radio stations Sandinista-style during the revolution.

  • So Far From God by Patrick Marnham is an unflinching and lucid appraisal of Central America, its Spanish legacy, its current problems and its troubled relationship with the USA.

  • PJ O'Rourke takes a rather more light-hearted approach in Holidays in Hell

  • Poets of Nicaragua, edited by Stephen White, is a useful bilingual anthology.