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Tourist Profile: Nicaragua

Republica de Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes borders Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. To the east lies the Caribbean, and to the west the Pacific Ocean. Wedge-shaped Nicaragua may be the largest country in Central America, but it is also one of the least visited. Even after more than a decade of peace, it's synonymous in the minds of many with civil war; this reputation in combination with the ramshackle dilapidated infrastructure of a country that has fought its way through a bloody conflict ánd an American economic blockade, scares many off. Still, travellers who do spend any time there find, much to their surprise, that Nicaragua is their favourite country in Central America. Maybe because it doesn't yet take full care of the tourist experience, Nicaragua is an incorrigibly vibrant and individualistic country, with plenty to offer travellers prepared to brave Nicaragua's superficial obstacles of economic chaos, cracked pavements and crammed public transport. Due to their history at times it seems that every Nicaraguan has both horrifying and uplifting personal stories to tell.

And even though Nicaragua's long-suffering people would rather forget many aspects of the war, the country's political past continues to inform every minute of its present. Nowadays tourist numbers increase have increased as part of the general growing interest in Central America. More than anything, though, the pleasures and rewards of travelling in Nicaragua come from interacting with the inhabitants of the country's complex society. Its people are well-spoken, passionate, engaged and engaging - Nicaraguans tend to be witty and exceptionally hospitable. The best thing you can do to enjoy Nicaragua is to arrive with an open mind, some patience and some experience in speaking Spanish.

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In comparison other countries in Central America Nicaragua offers few traditional tourist attractions almost no monuments or ancient temples remain, and earthquakes, revolution and war have laid waste to museums, galleries and theatres. For years the country has suffered from a chronic lack of funding, and high inflation and unemployment have also impoverished Nicaragua's infrastructure. However, visit Nicaragua and you can't remain immune to the country's extraordinary landscape of volcanoes (17 in total), lakes, mountains and vast plains of rainforest. A smattering of beaches - the majority of them on the Pacific Coast - continues to attract the budget surfing and backpacking crowd, while culture and the arts are very much alive in Nicaragua, and it is here you can buy some of the best-value high-quality crafts. Nicaragua has three main eco-regions: Pacific, Central and Atlantic. Most of Nicaragua's population lives in the hot, relatively dry and fertile Pacific lowlands, where much of the agriculture is centred.

It's full of volcanoes, lakes, tropical forests, beaches and mangrove systems This region is also the political and cultural centre of the country - nearly everything thought of as being inherently Nicaraguan, whether food, music, dress or dance - comes from this area. Virtually every traveller passes through the capital city, Managua, but there's little to detain the tourist in the capital. The centre was completely destroyed by an earthquake in December 1972 and there was further severe damage during the civil wars of 1978-1979. The Government has now decided that it will rebuild the old centre, adding parks and recreational facilities. In the old centre of Managua one can still see examples of colonial architecture in the National Palace and the Cathedral. One of the many in Managua and the most interesting of which is Las Huellas de Acahualinca which houses the site where 9000-year-old footprints were found - testimony to Nicaragua's pre-historic past. There are several volcanic crater lagoons in the environs of Managua - Laguna de Xiloa is the most popular of these lagoons. Boats can be hired on the shores of Lake Managua for visiting the still-smoking Momotombo volcano and the shore villages.


You really should visit the 'intellectual' capital of Nicaragua, Léon with a university, religious colleges, the largest cathedral in Central America and several colonial churches. A number of projects are currently underway that will highlight the historical and cultural roots of the city. Or go have a look at Masaya, 26km southeast of the capital, is the arts-and-crafts centre of the country, and both Nicaraguans and foreign tourists descend upon its Mercado Nacional de Artesanía for some of the best crafts in Central America.

As the oldest city in Central Amerika Granada is located at the foot of the Mombacho volcano. Granada with its splendid lakeside setting and wonderfully atmospheric colonial architecture, has many beautiful buildings and has faithfully preserved its Castilian traditions. Granada is considered the museum-city of Nicaragua. It is the oldest town built by the Spaniards on the mainland (1524) on the banks of Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca. Be sure to have a look the Plaza Principal the fortress-church of San Francisco, seen in this picture with at the rebuilt in neo classical style cathedral, the Church of La Merced, the Church of Jalteva and the fortress-church of San Francisco. Other places of interest include the Park and government buildings. Many of Granada's side streets are lined with typical adobe homes with balconies and arched doorways. The picturesque Alameda, or lakeshore avenue, is another beautiful place that extends from the beach of Lake Cocibolca to the wharf of the 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 bird life. 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 (Island of the Dead). Masaya, 26km southeast of the capital, is the arts-and-crafts centre of the country, and both Nicaraguans and foreign tourists descend upon its Mercado Nacional de Artesanía for some of the best crafts in Central America. Nearby Managua are Pochomil and Masachapa beaches. Montelimar Beach Resort is the largest of its kind in Central America. A visit to the El Velero beach is recommended. On the Caribbean coast there are a number of small ports, the most important of which is Bluefields. The beautiful and as yet unspoilt Islas del Maiz (Corn Islands),, just off the coast of Bluefields, offer a welcome respite from the stresses of mainland life. It's a popular Nicaraguan holiday resort with surfing and bathing facilities that make it ideal for tourists. The Pacific coast has a number of fine beaches, including San Juan del Sur, El Coco, Marsella, Ocotal and many others which are located in the south of Nicaragua in the department of Rivas. If you'd like to see beaches in the way they originally were, without a number of touristic developments you can see them in Nicaragua.

Ecotourism is beginning to have some impact In the Lago de Nicaragua area, with more and more travellers visiting Isla de Ometepe and the Solentiname Islands. Volcano-viewing and hiking are the attractions of Ometepe, with its thrilling twin volcanoes rising out of the freshwater lake. Further south in the lake, near the Costa Rican border, the Archipiélago de Solentiname, 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. Physically cut off from the rest of the country, the Caribbean lowlands - called the Atlantic Coast in Nicaragua - actually make up nearly fifty percent of the country's landmass. Hot, humid and perpetually rainy, this area is sparsely populated and little-visited. Most of its inhabitants gain a living from fishing and subsistence agriculture. Politically and culturally distinct from the rest of Nicaragua, the region governs itself autonomously, regularly fighting tooth and nail with the central government. Descended from escaped African slaves and from the indigenous peoples, the Miskito, Rama and the Suma the majority of Atlantic Coast inhabitants) speak English. Food, dance, music and religion on the Atlantic Coast are West Indian rather than Spanish: rice-and-beans is cooked with coconut milk and the radio play is strictly reggae in the hot and ramshackle jungle towns of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas.

Nicaragua has two distinct seasons, the dry and the wet. The rainy season is called invierno - winter - and corresponds roughly with the Northern Hemisphere summer, from May to November. Verano - summer (December-April) - is hot and often uncomfortably dry; dust covers everything, and the heat seems to rise to a kiln-like intensity. Fewer travellers come in the rainy season - which alone could be a reason for choosing to put up with the daily downpour. The seasons are most pronounced on the Pacific coast, where rain often falls in the afternoons from May to November, although the mornings are dry. Influenced by the Caribbean trade winds, the central mountain region has sporadic rainfall all year, although it is drier in the "summer". Its climate is cooler year-round, with misty clouds covering its blue-green mountain summits. The Atlantic Coast is wet - very wet - year-round, and almost unbelievably hot and humid. As in the rest of the Caribbean region, September and October are the height of the tropical storm season.

Currency: gold córdoba

  • Budget: US$3-5
  • Mid-range: US$5-20
  • Top-end: US$20 and upwards
  • Budget: US$3-5
  • Mid-range: US$5-15
  • Top-end: US$15 and upwards

Comfortable travel in Nicaragua costs in the range of US$30-50 a day. A moderate budget will fall in the US$20-30 a day range if you hire a car occasionally. Budget travelers can get by on between US$10 and US$20 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.

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 toward 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 Liberacíon 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 July 19, 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 that reduced illiteracy from 50% to 13%, and introduced an immunization program that 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, was 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 Sandinistas responded by using much of the nation's resources to defend themselves 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 that 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 that 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, 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, anticommunist Liberal Alliance candidate, Arnoldo Alemán. President Alemán was sworn in January 10, 1997. In November of 1998, Hurricane Mitch trampled the Atlantic coast of Central America, leaving disaster in its wake. The hurricane washed out roads and destroyed bridges throughout the region. In Nicaragua, heavy rains following in the wake of the storm kicked off a mudslide at Volcán Casita that buried several villages.

Over 10,000 people died as a result of the hurricane, one of the nastiest this century. The tragedy prompted several nations to cancel Nicaragua's debt in late 1999, and the country is slowly rebuilding. The 2000 mayoral elections saw the Sandinistas gain control of 11 out of 17 departmental capitals, and popular FSLN member Herty Lewites easily won in Managua. However, Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolanos came out ahead in the presidential election in 2001, beating his Sandinista opponent, former president Ortega. Not giving up on Ortega yet, the Sandinistas renamed him as the party's leader in March 2002.

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.