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Though its development as a major tourist destination has been halted by political instability and natural disaster, Nicaragua is slowly but surely beginning to recognize its potential as a crowd-drawer. 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 battle with issues of poor accessibility. For an authentic Caribbean experience, the Corn Islands slightly off the coast afford 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.
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. A conquest that was complete in 1529. In 1524 the first Spanish towns were founded: Granada and Leon. Over the years Nicaragua became a 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. Parts of the coastline fell into British occupation as a protectorate, but by 1860 this part of the country was re-united with Nicaragua.
The 20th century was one of many battles between the conservatists and liberals. 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, which led to the rule of the Somoza family who turned out to be dictators. They on their turn were overthrown by the Sandinist movement in 1979, which led to Daniel Ortega becoming president. In 1985 it was discovered that the U.S. were backing the contra’s who were fighting the Sandinists, which led to a big scandal in the U.S. in 1990 Ortega lost the elections, but he again became president in 2007.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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 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.
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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!
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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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