Nicaragua: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
Nicaragua is the largest country located in the Central American isthmus. It is bordered to the north by Honduras, to the south by Costa Rica, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The capital of Nicaragua is Managua, which is also its largest city both in terms of geographic size and population. Population is estimated to be over 6 million. Nicaragua is increasingly becoming a popular tourist destination in Central America for its pleasant topical climate, biodiversity, cultural diversity, and string of active volcanoes.
Spanish colonists coined the name “Nicaragua”, which came from Nicarao, the name of the chief of the most populous tribe in the area. Before the first Spaniard, Gil Gonzalez Davila, came to Nicaragua in 1521, the place was known by the natives as Quauhcapolca. In the indigenous language, “Nicaragua” is close to the meaning “here at the lake”.
Nicaragua is divided into 15 departments and two autonomous regions: Managua, Granada, León, Masaya, Boaco, Carazo, Estelí, Chinandega, Jinotega, Chontales, Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Rivas, Matagalpa, Rio San Juan, the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, and the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. The capital, Managua, is the second most populous city in Central America, after Guatemala City, and the second largest city proper in Central America, after Tegucigalpa in Honduras.
The country has three distinct geographic regions: the Amerrisque Mountains or North-central highlands, the Pacific lowlands, and the Mosquito Coast or the Caribbean lowlands. The highest point in the country is Mogoton at 2,438 m (7,999 ft) and the lowest point is the Pacific Ocean at 0 m. Nicaragua has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is from December to May, while the wet season or rainy season is from June to November. On the Pacific coast, the rainy season is longer and runs from May to November. Mean temperatures vary between 22°C/72°F to 30°C/86°F. Temperature in the mountains is significantly cooler, and varies between 12°C/53°F to 20°C/68°F. The best time to visit Nicaragua is during the dry season in December to May.
Nicaragua is a biodiversity hotspot for its abundance of biologically unique and significant ecosystems. Almost one-fifth of the country has been designated as protected areas such as biological reserves, national parks, and nature reserves. Nicaragua is also surrounded by the Caribbean Plate, which is an ocean tectonic plate under most of Central America and the Cocos Plate. This accounts for the frequently active and sometimes destructive volcanic and earthquake activity going on in Nicaragua. Termors are common especially in the Pacific lowlands area. A series of strong earthquakes have destroyed the capital of Managua at least twice in the last century.
The Pacific lowlands are located to the west of Nicaragua, spanning from the Gulf of Fonseca to the country’s Pacific border with Costa Rica, south of Lake Nicaragua. This area is where the Spanish colonists chose to settle when they came to the country. It is the most populous region in the country, containing more than half of Nicaragua’s total population. The lowlands consist of wide, hot, and fertile plains with the soil enriched by the ash from the volcanoes in the nearby highlands. These volcanoes include Mombacho outside the city of Granada, Momotombo outside the city of León, and a group of volcanoes in the Cordillera Los Maribios mountain range. The Pacific Coast also has two of the largest fresh water lakes in Central America: Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua. Lake Nicaragua is the 20th largest lake in the world, and the largest freshwater lake in Central America. It is home to the one of the rarest freshwater sharks in the world—the Nicaraguan shark. Overall, the favorable climate, abundant rainfall, and fertile lands contribute to make this region the most populated and economically rich part of Nicaragua. The most important cities in Nicaragua are in this region: Granada, León, and Managua, as well as most of the country’s Spanish colonial architecture and artifacts. Beach and resort communities are also typical in the Pacific coast.
The North-central highlands which comprise of the Amerrisque Mountains, is located between the Caribbean coast and Lake Nicaragua. This region is significantly less economically developed, less populated, and more temperate compared to other regions in the country. In the highlands, temperatures are significantly milder, the land is more rugged, and the rainy season is longer and wetter. Erosion tends to be a problem in the slopes during the rainy season. The valleys to the northwestern part of the region have more fertile and populated lands. One-fourth of Nicaragua’s agriculture happens in this region. Coffee is grown on the higher slopes, while in the cloud forest areas, ferns, moss, oaks, orchids, and pines are abundant. The forest is also home to a diversity of bird life such as goldfinches, hummingbirds, jays, resplendent quetzal, and toucanets.
The Caribbean lowlands is a wide rainforest region located to the east of the country. It contains 57% of the entire territory of Nicaragua and majority of its mineral resources. For this, the region has been heavily exploited, although natural diversity still remains. The Caribbean lowlands is irregular compared to the Pacific lowlands, due to many deltas and lagoons. La Mosquitia Rainforest is located within the Boasawás Biosphere Reserve in the Siuna municipality. The rainforest accounts for 7% of the land in the country, making it the largest rainforest north of the Amazon. Rio Coco, which is the largest river in Central America, is in this region, on the border with Honduras.
The official language in Nicaragua is Spanish, spoken by 90% of the population. Although Spanish is spoken throughout the country, differences occur in accents, vocabulary, and colloquial language in many areas. On the Caribbean coast, English-based Creole and Spanish are spoken. The Miskitu people speak Miskitu, the Garifuna people who are descendants of African migrants are currently reviving their native Arawakan language, while other indigenous tribes living on the eastern coast speak their own native languages. The population in the country comprises of 69% mestizo—a mixture of European and Native American blood, 17% white (with Danish, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Turkish ancestry), 9% black (mainly English-speaking Creoles) and other races, and 5% Amerindian—descendants of the various pre-Columbian indigenous groups.
Religion is a huge part of Nicaraguan life and is even referred to in their constitution. Religious freedom and tolerance is exercised throughout the country. While Nicaragua has no official religion, Roman Catholicism has traditionally been dominant religion in the country. In recent years however, there has been a decline in the numbers of Roman Catholic members, while members of various evangelical Protestant groups have been gradually increasing.
Nicaraguan culture is deeply influenced by Spanish culture and infused with Native American character. Folklore, music, dance, and religious traditions are dominant. Inhabitants of the Pacific coast identify strongly with the mestizo culture, while those living in the Caribbean coast have similarities with the culture of other Caribbean nations that have also been under the British Protectorate. Nicaraguan music is a mixture of Spanish and indigenous influences. One example is the marimba, a musical instrument that’s common across countries in Central America. Marimba music is played mostly as background instrumental music in social functions. Palo de Mayo is a lively and sensual dance music that’s popular especially in the Caribbean coast, while the Garifuna people are known for their native music called Punta. Dances such as bachata, cumbia, merengue, and salsa are very popular in the most prominent cities of Granada, León, and Managua. These dances have become a huge part of the city night life. Nicaraguans are proud of their art and literature, particularly of the contributions of Nicaraguan literary figures like Rubén Dario, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, and Ernesto Cardenal.
Nicaraguan cuisine is also a mixture of Spanish and indigenous origins. It is not spicy in general. A typical local meal consists of rice, beans, meat or fish, salad, and fried plantains. There are significant differences in the staples of the Pacific and Caribbean Coast. Corn and local fruits are the staple in the Pacific coast, while seafood and coconut make up the most of the Caribbean coast cuisine. In the whole country, rice, beans, corn, and plantains are consumed often. Plantains are prepared a number of ways: baked, boiled, mashed, steamed, or fried in many forms. Fried sweet plantains are maduros, fried long thin chips are called tajadas, while smashed and twice fried plantains are known as tostones. Gallo pinto is the national dish of Nicaragua. It’s a mixture of white rice and red beans that’s cooked together and fried. This dish has several variations including the addition of coconut milk or grated coconut by the Caribbean coast locals. Gallo Pinto is usually served as breakfast and can be accompanied with a salad, carne asada, fried cheese, and plantains. Nacatamales is a large tamale made with chicken or pork mixed with seasonings and is a traditional Sunday food. Indio Viejo is a corn meal dish mixed with shredded beef or chicken then flavored with mint. The accompanying condiment is chilero, which is a cured chile and onion mixture, with varying levels of spiciness based on the preference of the cook. Quesillo is a common street food. It’s a string of local cheese resembling mozzarella that’s been pickled with onion, and mixed with sour cream and a little salt, then wrapped in a tortilla. Vigoron is a dish sold in the streets and in restaurants. It’s a dish of pork, yucca, cabbage salad, and chilis. Carne en baho is a combination of beef, potato, sweet potato, yucca, and seasoning steamed in banana leaves for several hours. A typical dessert is Tres Leches—a soft sponge cake made with three types of milk: fresh, condensed, and evaporated milk. When in Nicaragua, try indigenous fruits like avocado, banana, jocote, mango, papaya, pipian, tamarindo, and yuca. Food is relatively cheap in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguans are fond of drinking a variety of natural fruit juices: jugos naturales are pure fruit juices, refrescos naturels are fresh fruit juices mixed with sugar and water, and liquados are fresh fruit shakes mixed with milk or water. Pinolillo and cacao are cacao-based drinks mixed with corn, milk, and sometimes cinnamon. Rum is the liquor of choice in Nicaragua, and Flor de Caña rum is the popular locally made rum in the country. It comes in several varieties: Black Label, Extra Dry, Light, Gran Reserva (aged for seven years), Centenario (aged for nine years), and the most expensive 18-year old aged rum. Ron Plata is a cheaper rum brand. Local beers include Brahva, Premium, Toña, and Victoria. If you are unused to drinking untreated water, do not consume drinks from street vendors. It’s recommended to bring bottled water with you whenever you travel, or drink purified water in restaurants. To be on the safe side, ask first if the water they serve in the establishment is purified drinking water before ordering any kind of drink.
Nicaragua is among the poorest countries in Central America. It is primarily an agricultural country, with tourism as a second major industry, and mining fast becoming another major industry. Agritourism and ecotourism in particular, are increasingly becoming popular in northern Nicaragua. Aside from this, tourists are also drawn to Nicaragua for the plethora of beach resorts, Spanish colonial architecture, and nightlife at relatively affordable prices.
Crime is reportedly lower in Nicaragua compared to other Central American countries. That being said, there are still dangerous neighborhoods in some parts of the country. Tourists and foreigners are strongly advised not to travel or walk the streets alone at night. It is safer to ride a taxi back to your hotel or destination. Although gang-related crime is not a major issue, crime mostly involves opportunistic attacks like petty theft especially in Managua and Rivas. It is important to always remain alert. In this regard, tourists are recommended to travel and explore in groups. When riding a bus, make sure your bags are secured with a lock and are always within sight.
Tourists are advised not to use foreign currency in local transactions as much as possible. Use local currency and do not exchange foreign currency with random individuals or in non-tourist areas.
When in rural areas in northern Nicaragua, never veer off main roads because there is the possibility of coming across landmines left over from the civil war in the 1980s. Work is still currently underway in completely clearing the area of landmines.
Locals are highly suspicious of anything that might look to be related to child pornography. Do not take pictures of local children without the permission of their parents.
Getting around Nicaragua
There are plenty of modes of transportation to choose from in Nicaragua. The most common form of transportation is by bus. Majority of the buses are “chicken buses”—old secondhand, US school buses repainted and redecorated as per Nicaraguan “road art” standards. They’re called chicken buses because they’re originally used to transport humans and their livestock, as well as other types of goods. These buses are always full, and it’s not unusual for some passengers to stand for the whole duration of their trip. Traveling in chicken buses may be cheaper, but it’s not the safest or most comfortable either.
Most cities in Nicaragua have one main terminal for long distance buses. The Express Bus service is offered in all of the larger cities, and is the best mode of transportation for longer trips that last for three or more hours. The best way to get a sure seat is to buy your seat ticket early. Reserved seating means no passenger will be left standing during the trip so there’s no overcrowding. Travel is also more comfortable because these express buses have air-conditioning, high-back reclining seats, wide windows with curtains, and even a TV that plays movies.
Another mode of cross country transportation are minibuses or microbuses. These are privately-owned vans that can accommodate up to 15 people. Minibuses have regular routes to and from Managua to nearby cities like Granada, León, and Masaya. They operate all day until the early evening, except on Sundays.
There are plenty of taxis especially in the big cities. One important thing to remember is that in Nicaragua, taxi fares are almost always negotiated before getting inside the taxi. This is especially the case in Managua. Recently, incidents of taxi-related crime have been increasing in Managua. To be on the safe side, check if your taxi has its license number painted on the side, the taxi sign is on the roof, the taxi operator plate can be seen in the front seat, and the light is on inside the taxi at night. Note the taxi name and license number. For extra precaution, you can have your hotel arrange a reliable taxi for you.
Many local residents travel by motorcycle. Hitchhiking is common in small towns and rural areas, but is considered dangerous in Managua.