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Least densely populated Central American nation, Nicaragua's appeal as a major tourist destination has been delayed by political reclusiveness and natural disaster. Nicaragua is slowly but surely beginning to recognize its potential as a winter retreat. Boasting the second largest lake of Latin America, Lake Nicaragua, as well as a number of active volcanoes at the Masaya Volcano National Park, the country's geographic features remain its finest attractions. Rainforests extend over a third of the country, making for an ecotourist's dream-come-true, though they will have to endure limited rental car accessibility. For an authentic Caribbean experience, the Corn Islands, slightly off the coast, treat travellers with fine beaches and great diving opportunities. And while its underdevelopment may be Nicaragua's greatest shortcoming for visitors, it also means lower prices for those on a budget and a retro style cultural experience devoid of corporate invasion. There are few adventures more apart from the corporate world than drinking a mojito in old Granada, wandering among the ancient churches of Leon, or exploring the isolated artist communities of the Solentiname Islands.
It is possible that Nicaragua was inhabited by Paleo-Indians as far back as 6,000 years. The ancient footprints of Acahualinca suggest this, along with other archaeological evidence. At the end of the 15th century, western Nicaragua was inhabited by several indigenous peoples possibly related by culture and language to Indigenous groups from Mexico. They were primarily farmers who lived in towns, organized into small kingdoms.
In 1502 Columbus visited Nicaragua, and in 1522 saw the start of the conquest of the country by the Spanish. In 1524 the first Spanish towns were founded on indigenous settlements: Granada and Leon. Brutal conquest was complete in 1529 at Leon with the defeat of indigenous rebellion and export of survivors to become slaves in Peru. During the 17th century, Granada became a sought after Spanish gold depository by pirates of the Caribbean who paddled up the San Juan River numerous times. El Castillo was built to stop the invaders and has it's own history of heroic defense and stunning defeat.
During Independence period, Nicaragua became at first part of Mexico and then gained its independence as a part of the United Provinces of Central America in 1821 which fell apart clearing the path for Nicaragua to continue as an independent republic in 1838. Tennessee born Filibuster, William Walker, and his southern sympathizers managed to take Granada and install Walker as president in 1856, but his proclamation that slavery would be legal alarmed armies in Costa Rica and Honduras to invade to remove the outsider. Parts of the coastline fell into British occupation as a protectorate, Walker was captured by the British and executed by firing squad in Honduras, but by 1860 Nicaragua became reunited.
Much of the 20th century was a war between tropical plantation corporations and subsistence farming. In 1909 Mexico and the United States invaded the country to get rid of the liberal president José Santos Zelaya. In 1933 the U.S. left the country, leaving the Guardia National under control the Somoza family who became brutal dictators with a notorious torture prison at Leon. After Leon student protests were violently suppressed by the guard, the Sandinista Movement gain sympathy, and organized labor to drive Somosa from power in 1979. Daniel Ortega become president and steered a course against cooperation with the US. In 1985 it was discovered that the CIA under the Reagan Administration had mined Nicaragua harbors and were illegally arming the Contras, a landowner armed resistance that had been unsuccessfully fighting the Sandinists. This hostages, drugs, and arms exchange known as the Iran-Contra Affair resulted in resignations and even jail terms for Reagan appointees. In 1990 Ortega lost the elections, but again became president in 2007, and today some believe that he has consolidated economic and political power within the small republic with a Castro style regime.
Nicaragua covers around 130,967 km2 and is located in the central parts of Central America, bordering Costa Rica to the east and Honduras to the west. The Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean forms its northern and southern boundaries respecitvely. About 20% of the country is designated as protected areas like national parks, nature reserves, and biological reserves. The country has three geographical regions: the Pacific Lowlands,, the Amerrisque Mountains (North-Central Highlands), and the Mosquito Coast (Atlantic Lowlands). The low plains of the Atlantic Coast are 60 miles wide in areas. The Pacific Lowlands consist of a broad, hot, fertile plain. Punctuating this plain are several large volcanoes of the Cordillera Los Maribios mountain range, including Mombacho just outside Granada, and Momotombo near León. The Central Highlands are less populated and economically developed and are located between Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean. It is located at elevations between 610 and 1,524 metres above sea level and about a quarter of the country's agriculture takes place in this region, with coffee grown on the higher slopes. Oaks, pines, moss, ferns and orchids are abundant in the cloud forests of the region. The Caribbean Lowlands is a large rainforest region and contains 57% of the country's territory and most of its mineral resources. Here, the Rio Coco is the largest river in Central America, forming the border with Honduras. Nicaragua's Bosawás Biosphere Reserve is located in the Atlantic lowlands and protects the La Mosquitia forest, which at almost seven percent of the country's area makes it the largest rainforest north of the Brazilian Amazon.
There are 3 distinct geographical regions in Nicaragua.
Administratively, the country is divided into 15 departments; Boaco, Carazo, Chinandega, Chontales, Estelí, Granada, Jinotega, León, Madriz, Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, Nueva Segovia, Rivas, Río San Juan.
There are two autonomous regions known as RAAN (Región Autónoma del Atlántico Norte) and RAAS (Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur)
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The Corn Islands are located off the Caribbean coastline of Nicaragua and are an even better way of escaping it all in the country. The main islands are the aptly named Big and Little Corn Islands. The main activities include relaxing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and ocean fishing which are magnificent. Picnic Beach is probably one of the most beautiful areas with fine sand, palms and crystal clear waters. Sandflies are the only negative aspect probably. Between the islands you can arrange boats which usually take an hour or so.
Isla de Ometepe is located in the central southern part of the country and is an island in Lake Nicaragua. Actually they are twin volcanic islands and an ideal escape away from the larger cities and crowded areas of Nicaragua. The islands are relatively quiet (except for the growing number of tourists) and there are only a few small settlements on the island including some coffee plantations, and at the Finca Magdalena coffee plantation you can actually stay and take part in the coffee harvest, which is a great but basic experience.
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The Ruins of Leon Viejo are the only site on the Unesco World Heritage List in Nicaragua and the area is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas, dating back to the time of the Spanish Empire of the 16th century. Not everything has been discovered here though and it is more than likely that more archaeological treasures are to be found in the (near) future.
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Also known as the festival of San Sebastian, this takes place on January 19-20 every year, and is a religious feast celebrated by all Nicaraguans. Even though it is now a Roman Catholic festival, it combines the traditions of indigenous and Spanish roots. The dances, songs, and costumes reflect the indigenous culture that predates the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
Literally translating to the “May Pole,” this festival is held throughout May on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Even though it derives from a traditional British activity, signifying the remnants of Britain’s presence there, this truly Caribbean adaptation sees vibrant rhythms and colorful processions blended in with the traditional feast.
This festival is held annually on the Corn Islands every August. It celebrates the release of the 99 slaves on the island by the Queen of England during the nineteenth century, and has turned into the biggest celebration on the islands, heralding their heritage.
This festival typically falls in the last Sunday of October, in the region of Masaya (close to Managua and Granada). It is a Nicaraguan dance festival that begins at noon, and ends at sunset, and is based on superstitions similar to Halloween. People create and wear masks for the processions.
The two similar festivals are parades and processions celebrating the Immaculate Conception in the early weeks of December in the lead up to Christmas. They are held in the cities of Granada and Leon, and provide a true spectacle which most of the townspeople come out to enjoy.
Nicaragua has a tropical climate with generally hot and humid conditions. Temperatures are around or just above 30 °C during the day most of the year and most areas are still above 20º at night. Nicaragua has two seasons regarding rainfall. A dry and slightly cooler November to April season and a wet season (but not raining all day) during May to October. Hurricanes occasionally hit the country from July/August onwards.
Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (MGA) near Managua is where planes depart and arrive. TACA has international flights to and from Miami, Los Angeles, San Salvador and San José in Costa Rica. Other destinations include Guatemala City, Panama City, Havana, Montreal, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and several other regional destinations.
There are no international train services to and from Nicaragua.
There are two border crossings to Costa Rica. By car you can cross Penas Blancas west of Lake Nicaragua. The other one is at Los Chiles east of it but this will mean taking a boat and crossing on foot. There are three border crossings to Honduras, of which Las Manos is the best and shortest route to take if you want to go directly to Tegucigalpa. Others are on the Panamericana from Leon northwards.
Although it is usually cheaper to use domestic buses and cross borders on foot, there are direct services if you don't mind spending a few bucks more and want to travel faster. These include buses between Managua and San José in Costa Rica and to San Salvador in El Salvador. Some continue all the way to Guatemala and Panama. Try Ticabus and Transnica for some examples of international connections. You can also travel easily from Granada to Costa Rica and Panama and from Leon to Honduras and El Salvador. Another big operator is King Quality, which travels on the San José de Costa Rica - Tapachula (Mexico) route, with buses between the capitals of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
There are no regular ferries across the Pacific or Caribbean to neighbouring countries, but there are three river border crossings with Costa Rica which you can take. Although you can theoretically cross the Golfo de Fonseca to El Salvador, this is not a regular crossing (you'll need to hire a private boat) and you should talk to immigration in Managua or San Salvador before attempting it. The price is US$ 65 for the 2-hour trip.
La Costena has services to the following domestic destinations: Bluefields, Corn Islands, Managua, Minas, Puerto Cabezas, San Carlos and Waspam. Atlantic Airlines has domestic flights as well to the same destinations. Taca Regional has some services as well.
There are no domestic rail services in Nicaragua.
Roads are generally in a good condition but some roads are worse after rainy weather. You can rent cars from both international as well as local agencies in Managua, Granada and Leon and several airports. You can also choose to have a car with a driver, for slightly more money.
There are luxurious buses (mostly international routes), minibuses and old American school buses that travel between many major cities and towns. Try to get on a directo or expreso buses instead of ordinario which stop more and travel times can add up a lot. Reservations for domestic routes are not necessary (or possible!), just pay when you get on board. For an overview of schedules and connections, also international ones, see thebussschedule.com.
There are two boats a week between Bluefields and the Corn Islands. An important route is El Rama to Bluefields, down the Río Escondido. Boats for trips around Bluefields, Bilwi and Waspám are convenient as well. And it is also possible to visit one of many hundreds of the islands in Lake Nicaragua, which are very beautiful. Isla Ometeppe is one of the more popular ones. Frequent ferries include those from San Jorge and two boats a week from Granada, continuing to San Carlos and from there down the Rio San Juan to Boca de Sabalos, El Castillo and to San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast. From there, it's possible to travel north again to Bluefields. The San Juan del Sur region is a good place to travel around by boat taxi.
Citizens of the following countries/territories can enter Nicaragua without a visa: Andorra, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Falkland Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Holy See, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macao, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Swaziland, Sweden, Slovenia, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, the Vatican City (Holy See) and Venezuela.
Other tourists can obtain a Tourist Card for US$10 valid for 1 month to 3 months (depending on citizenship - Canada and USA are allowed 90 days) upon arrival, provided with a valid passport with at least six months to run. There is also a US$32 departure tax which is included in airfares with major airlines (American, COPA and TACA definitely). Note that since 2006 a 90-day stay actually means a stay within the Centro America 4 (CA4) region, including Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. You can extend the stay with another 90 days, after which you have to leave the region, for example to Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica.
See also Money Matters
Nicaragua's currency is the córdoba (C$), sometimes called a 'peso' or 'real' by locals. Córdobas come in coins of C$0.25, C$0.50, C$1 and C$5, and bills of C$10, C$20, C$50, C$100 and C$500.
Employment opportunities for foreigners are limited. Since the country has a strongly agricultural and touristic economy, it can be difficult finding employment prospects. Other than that, doctors and engineers are always in short supply, though wages are no where near even the standards of some other countries in the region.
One job of particular interest to foreigners is teaching. If you are a native English speaker and have a bachelor's degree, you can teach at any major Nicaraguan university. The same also applies for other fields. Be aware, however, that courses and majors at Nicaraguan colleges and universities are limited. However, a degree can help you secure a good job and enough spending money during your stay. Instructors earn about US$500 a month and have plenty of free time to roam around. Opportunities have also become available for other languages, particularly romance languages. However, if you desire to teach a course other than English, it is best to consult with the university of your choice and see if they are willing and able to have you teach your course. If this is something you wish to do, you are advised to create a syllabus in advance. It can help you, the applicant, obtain the position faster and easier compared to not having any material at hand available.
Spanish schools and courses are available in most cities, especially Granada. Schools offer homestay as an option. Living with a Spanish family helps to use your Spanish and you learn the culture as a bonus. The courses are usually 20 hours per week.
Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases
Spanish is the official language of Nicaragua and is spoken by 90% of the population. English and creole English are common around the Caribbean coast, and the indigenous population speaks its native tongue.
The typical Nicaraguan diet includes rice, small red beans, and either fish or meat. Nicaraguans pride themselves for their famous gallo pinto that is a well-balanced mix of rice and beans and is usually served during breakfast.
Plantains are a big part of the Nicaraguan diet. You will find it prepared in a variety of forms: fried (subdivided into maduros/sweet, tajadas/long thin fried chips, and tostones/smashed and twice fried), baked, boiled, with cream or cheese, as chips for a dip. Green bananas and guineo bananas are also boiled and eaten as side dishes.
Indio Viejo is a corn meal (masa) based dished made with either shredded chicken or beef and flavored with mint. The typical condiment is "chilero" a cured onion and chile mixture of varying spiciness depending on the cook. Nicaraguan food is not known for being spicy, though either chilero or hot sauce is almost always available (but be prepared for strange looks if you use them extensively).
While nowhere near as omnipresent as in neighboring Costa Rica, salsa Lizano (a kind of Worcestershire-like sauce) can usually be had with your meal and is sold in most supermarkets. Soy sauce (salsa chinesa) and Worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa) are commonly sold in supermarkets as well. If they don't have it, just ask.
A typical dish found for sale in the street and in restaurants is Vigoron, consisting of pork grind, yuca and cabbage salad, chilis can be added to taste.
Fritangas (mid to large street side food vendors and grills that usually have seats and are found in most residential neighborhoods) typically sell grilled chicken, beef and pork and fried foods. They also commonly sell "tacos" and "enchiladas" that can be delicious but have very little in common with their 2nd cousins-once-removed in Mexico. Tacos are made with either chicken or beef rolled up in a tortilla and deep fried, served with cabbage salad, cream, sometimes ketchup or a homemade tomato sauce, and chile on the side. "Enchiladas" don't have anything enchiloso about them (not spicy). They are a tortilla filled with a beef and rice mixture, folded in half to enclose the mixture, covered in deep fry batter and then yes, deep fried. They are served similarly to tacos.
One alternative to the fried offering in the typical menu is carne en baho. This is a combination of beef, yucca, sweet potato, potato and other ingredients steamed in plantain leaves for several hours.
One typical dessert is Tres Leches which is a soft spongy cake that combines three varieties of milk (condensed, evaporated and fresh, hence the name) for a sweet concoction. Your diet expert and your dentist will hate it, but as it is typically only eaten at special occasions, it is okay to indulge once in a while.
On the Caribbean coast you can have pretty much anything "de coco" (with or made out of coconut) try pan de coco (coconut bread)or gallo pinto with coconut. A famous delicacy of the Caribbean coast is rundown (sometimes spelled and pronounced ron-don) which consists of fish and some other ingredients cooked until the fish "runs down" as it takes a lot of time to prepare it should be ordered up to a day in advance and preferably for more than one person.
Accommodation can generally be had quite cheaply throughout Nicaragua. Options range from simple hammocks (US$2-3), to dorm rooms in hostels (US$5-9), to private double-bed ("matrimonial") rooms (US$10-35, depending on presence of TV, air-con and private shower room & WC). You will find more expensive hotel accommodation in some cities as well.
Look for pensiones or huespedes or hospedajes as these are the cheapest sleeps costing under USD5. They are usually family owned and you'll be hanging out with mostly locals. Make sure you know when they lock their doors if you are going out at night. Hotels have more amenities but are more expensive. There are some backpacker hostels in Granada, San Juan del Sur, Isla Ometepe, Masaya, Managua, and Leon; otherwise, it's pensiones all the way.
Rum is the liquor of choice, though you will find some whiskey and vodka as well. The local brand of Rum is Flor de Caña and is available in several varieties: Light, Extra Dry, Black Label, Gran Reserva (aged 7 years), Centenario (aged 12 years) and a new top-of-the line 18 year old aged rum. There is also a cheaper rum called Ron Plata.
Local beers include Victoria, Toña, Premium, and Brahva. Victoria is the best quality of these, similar in flavor to mainstream European lagers, while the others have much lighter bodies with substantially less flavour, and are more like the palid mainstream US lagers. A new beer is "Victoria Frost" which is similarly light.
Nicaraguans drink a huge variety of natural fruit juices and beverages (jugos naturales which are usually pure juices, and (re)frescos naturales which are fresh fruit juices mixed with water and sugar). Popular are tamarind, cantelope, watermelon, hibiscus flower (flor de Jamaica), limeade, orange, grapefruit, dragon fruit, star fruit (usually mixed with orange), mango, papaya, pineapple, and countless others. "Luiquados" or shakes of fruit and milk or water are also popular, most common are banana, mango or papaya with milk. Also common and very traditional are corn and grain based drinks like tiste, chicha (both corn), cebada (barley) and linaza (flaxseed). Most fresh drinks are around NIO10–20. As in other parts of Central America, avoid juices made with water if you are not conditioned to untreated water, unless at a restaurant that uses purified water (in Spanish: agua purificada).
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Nicaragua. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Nicaragua) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Nicaragua. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country and it is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Nicaragua has made considerable strides in terms of providing police presence and order throughout the country. Crime is relatively low. However, starting in 2008, reports of low-level gang violence began coming in from Honduras and El Salvador. The National Nicaraguan Police have been successful in apprehending gang members and reducing organized crime.
Do not travel alone at night. Pay for a taxi to avoid being assaulted in dimly-lit areas. Tourists are advised to remain alert at all times in Managua. Although gang activity is not a major problem in Managua nor Nicaragua, caution should be exercised.
Internet cafes can be found in most larger cities and popular areas, but even in smaller towns you will usually be able to connect somewhere.
Wifi is generally free at most hotels, with the notable exception of larger chain hotels, which generally charge between US$3 and US$8 per day.
See also International Telephone Calls
The international phone code of Nicaragua is 505. The general emergency number is 911, though you can contact police (118), fire (115) and ambulance (128) separately if you want.
Nicaragua's cell phone system utilizes GSM 1900 technology. So, if you have a GSM phone that supports the 1900 band you can either use your phone as is at international rates or if your cell phone is unlocked , you can purchase a SIM card for your phone and you will have a local cell number and be charged local cell rates. Both Claro and Movistar provide cell phone service in the country. Claro is run by the old national phone company (ENITEL) that has now been privatized.
Another option is to buy a cell phone locally. Disposable cell phones are quite inexpensive, usually costing about US$20.
You can also purchase local prepaid phone cards that can be used at pay phone across the country. The different pay phone systems each have their own phone cards, so pay attention to which type you purchase.
Correos de Nicaragua provides postal services. It's fairly cheap but not extremely reliable or fast. Post offices are generally open Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 6:00 pm and Saturday from 8:00am to 1:00pm. Airmail postage for a standaard letter or postcard from Nicaragua to North America is US0.60 and US$1 to Europe. Mail takes on average between 7 and 10 days to get to the U.S. and Europe. Though it's fine for sending a postcard, you'd better use companies like TNT, DHL, UPS or FedEx to send parcels internationally.
Ask atufft a question about Nicaragua
I have traveled independently through Leon, Granada, Masaya, San Carlos, along the San Juan River to El Castillo, and to the Solentiname Islands and so can advise these places.
Ask Rudynica a question about Nicaragua
I work as a tour guide in Nicaragua and have traveled to the most important places and can help anybody with tips to plan their trip.
Ask i c e a question about Nicaragua
I'm 19. I just drove the panamerican highway With my family, to panama and back and spent good time in each country. If you would like any help or reliable info just ask!! Love this part of the world!! Speak Spanish! Been all over the world!
Glad to help in any way!!
Ask travelnica a question about Nicaragua
I live in Nicaragua and I have been around the whole country as a tourist. If you have any questions on activities, transportation, hotels, or anything else related to Nicaragua, let me know!
Ask caguide a question about Nicaragua
am a travel and tourism specialist for the entire Central American region stretching from Guatemala through Costa Rica, based in El Salvador, a still exotic destination in the heart of Central America. I live and work in the region for over 18 years so am not just another traveler passing through. I speak the language and am deeply immersed in the culture, customs and history of the pueblo(people). Donald T. Lee
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