Monkey Point, south of Bluefields, has evidence of one of the earliest human encampments in the Americas, perhaps 8000 years old, marked by clam shells. More impressive, however, is a site in Managua, where a family left their footprints in the volcanic mud about 6000 years ago.
By 1500 BC, Nicaragua was broadly settled, and though much of this history has been lost, at least one ancient treaty between the Nicarao capital of Jinotepe and its rival Chorotegan neighbor, Diriamba, is still celebrated as the Toro Guaco.
The agricultural revolution arrived around 450 BC, when domesticated corn, yucca, beans and other crops were introduced. By AD 300, trading partners as far away as modern-day Colombia and the United States were providing new technology like matates (corn-grinding stones) and tough obsidian tools capable of carving soft volcanic basalt.
By AD 800, petroglyph and statue fever was sweeping across Nicaragua, and many designs, including an Aztec calendar and representations of the deity Quetzalcóatl, heralded the arrival of one of Nicaragua's most important migrations.
With the collapse of the Aztec empire, a tribe of Náhuatl-speaking refugees seeking a prophesied lake island settled Isla de Ometepe in the early 1000s, although some archaeologists question this official story. Colonies of possible Maya origin had already settled the central highlands of Matagalpa, Chontales and Juigalpa, while the Atlantic Coast was home to a number of groups with rather mysterious origins, including the Mayangna and Miskito peoples, the last of whom came across the most curious thing in 1502.
At the mouth of the Río Coco, a storm-whipped fleet of ramshackle Spanish galleons were being led by an aging Christopher Columbus, his crew on the verge of mutiny. The Miskitos led the explorer to safety, and the Americas' fate was sealed.
The first Spaniards arrived on the Pacific Coast in 1522, led north from the Gulf of Nicoya by conquistador Gil González de Ávila. G onzález first met with Cacique (chief) Nicarao on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua at a spot still marked by the Cruz de España. The chief famously subjected González to hours of inquiry about science, technology and history; González famously gave Nicarao an ultimatum: to convert to Christianity, or else. Nicarao ordered his people to comply, but the Spanish did not live up to their end of the bargain; other native groups were thus warned.
Six months later González made Cacique Diriangén the same offer; Diriangén went with 'or else.' His troops were outgunned and eventually destroyed, but they inspired further resistance. After conquering four main Pacific tribes - 700, 000 Chorotega, Nicarao, Maribios and Chontal were reduced to 35, 000 in 25 years - the nations of the Central Highlands halted Spanish expansion at the mountains, with grim losses.
Undaunted, in 1524 Francisco Fernández de Córdoba founded Granada and León, which was later moved after being buried by Volcán Momotombo. In 1633 the first European settlement was founded on the Atlantic Coast by the grandly named British Providence Company, a contingent of pirates.
By forging alliances with the disgruntled indigenous groups and committing acts of considerable derring-do, pirates helped weaken Spain's hold over the New World. This, combined with conflict in Europe, helped bring about Central American independence.
Nicaragua won independence from Spain in 1821, and the resulting power vacuum led to civil war. Conservative Granada had long played rival to the colonial capital, Liberal León - and with independence, its position was suddenly vulnerable. The compromise - naming the fishing village of Managua as national capital in 1852 - only interrupted hostilities.
Desperate, León hired filibusterer William Walker to help, naïvely failing to realize that the Tennessee mercenary had his own agenda. After Walker was finally defeated and León completely humiliated, the conservatives took power for 30 years of peace, if not prosperity. Their cozy relationship with the US became an emotional issue, and when Liberal General José Santos Zelaya took power in an 1893 coup, he rejected a US proposal to build the interocean canal through Nicaragua out of hand.
When the USA began construction in Panama instead, Zelaya tried to backtrack, approaching Great Britain, Germany and Japan about another canal. His reforms - for instance, repealing laws requiring unemployed campesinos (farmers) to pick plantation coffee for subsistence wages - had already alienated the upper classes, thus Zelaya was politically weak when US marines arrived.
For the next two decades the USA dominated politics in Nicaragua. In 1914 the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was signed, granting the USA exclusive rights to a canal that it had no intention of building, just to shut out the competition. The occupation's casual brutality - torture, political killings, dragging the bodies of dead rebels through city streets - intimidated most Nicaraguans and inspired one teenage boy, Augusto C Sandino.
The Liberals mounted a noble, if ineffective, resistance to the US occupation, which wilted completely in the late 1920s. But Sandino - by now commander of his own personal army - continued fighting. Although domestic pressure forced the US military to pull out of the country as the Great Depression ground on, they trained the National Guard, under the command of loyal bureaucrat Anastasio Somoza García, as an insurance policy.
In February 1934, after a dinner party celebrating peace accords with the new Liberal president Sacasa, Sandino and his men were murdered outside the Presidential Palace. Somoza, a guest at that party, would go on to overthrow Sacasa in 1937. His US-backed dictatorship, veneered with fraudulent elections and puppet governments, allowed Somoza to amass landholdings equal to all of El Salvador.
After his 1956 assassination in León, Somoza was succeeded by his elder son, Luis Somoza Debayle, the best of the Somozas. His innovative projects were supported by the US Kennedy administration, which in return was graciously granted full use of Puerto Cabezas for launching its disastrous 1961 invasion of Cuba. Somoza called for actual elections shortly afterwards, lost handily to Liberal Renée Schick, then quietly retired. His younger brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was not as eager to give up his birthright.
Luis died in 1967 and Anastasio assumed the presidency. The West Point graduate used the National Guard ruthlessly, stifling a growing call for democracy. An increasingly militant group of university students calling themselves the Sandinistas tried to counter him, but few thought them a viable alternative.
A 6.3 earthquake in the early morning of December 23, 1972 changed all that. Fifteen square kilometers of Managua's city center were reduced to rubble; 6000 people were killed. The world, moved by the holiday devastation, donated aid on an unprecedented scale; Somoza diverted almost everything to family and friends.
The Sandinistas were, with one powerful betrayal, legitimized. Nicaraguans from every walk of life threw in their support, and over the next five years the nation became ungovernable. The National Guard destroyed entire cities and assassinated La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, still somehow failing to win the hearts and minds of the people. Almost every country in the Americas and Europe cut ties with the Somoza regime…except the US.
The revolution marched to victory on July 19, 1979 and Somoza fled the country. He was assassinated shortly afterwards in Paraguay.
The Sandinistas inherited a country in shambles. Poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and staggeringly inadequate health care were just a few of the widespread problems. Some 50, 000 people had been killed in the revolutionary struggle and 150, 000 were made refugees.
The FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and prominent anti-Somoza moderates (including Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of the martyred Pedro Joaquín Chamorro) set up a 'Junta of Five' to administer the country. The constitution was suspended, congress was dissolved and the National Guard was replaced by the Sandinista People's Army. Health-care reforms and a widely lauded Literacy Crusade, which cut illiteracy from more than 50% to 13% in two years, earned the revolutionary government accolades on the world stage.
But the junta was rigged: two of the supposed moderates were secretly aligned with FSLN commander Daniel Ortega, and the other two - Chamorro and businessman Alfonso Robelo - resigned within the year. Unchaperoned, S andinistas nationalized more than 300 businesses and passed the Agrarian Reform Law, nationalizing 'non-productive lands' larger than 500 manzanas (blocks of 350 hectares). Though the number of landowners went from 10, 000 to 30, 000, such reforms did little to quell international concerns about all those Soviet and Cuban advisors, or allegations that the Sandinistas were providing arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.
In January 1981, just days after taking office, US president Ronald Reagan cancelled Nicaragua's aid package and publicly committed his administration to helping the National Guard regroup and re-arm as the Contras, whose mission to overthrow the Sandinista-led Nicaraguan government would last a decade. Reagan constructed bases for Contras in Honduras and Costa Rica, providing millions in training and material aid.
The civil war between the Contras and government forces intensified after Daniel Ortega won apparently free and fair elections in 1984. He declared a state of emergency, shut down the press and initiated a military draft, his troops graciously retooled by the Soviet Union. Contras then targeted the food supply, and over half of the year's wheat and bean crops were lost. In 1985, the US implemented a full economic blockade, including food and medicine. More than 60, 000 soldiers - roughly half from each side - and 50, 000 civilians died.
In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias asked five Central American presidents to sign a desperate peace plan, which also aimed to stop the horrific civil wars tearing apart El Salvador and Guatemala. Among other things, it called for an end to all military aid, specifically from the US and Soviet Union.
All of them signed. Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Reagan criticized the treaty as 'deeply flawed' and, according to Arias, his administration did everything it could to undermine the process. It failed. By 1993 Central America was at peace for the first time in generations.
The Arias accords succeeded not only because both sides truly thirsted for peace, but because both were having problems with their arms dealers. The Soviet Union, months away from collapse, was mired in its own political upheaval, while the Reagan administration had just been busted in an embarrassing debacle known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
In accordance with the Arias accords, Ortega lifted press censorship, enforced a ceasefire and called for general elections to be held in 1990. His second presidential bid was opposed by a coalition, the Unión Nacional Opositora (ONU; National Opposition Union), united only in their opposition to the FSLN, the embargo and the war. Their candidate, former Junta leader and La Prensa publisher Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, became the first female head of state in the Americas. Conservative commentators speculated that Ortega would refuse to step down, but the transition of power was relatively peaceful, although there were some lovely parting gifts (farms, islands) to the Sandinista faithful, a move known as 'La Piñata.' The USA finally called off the embargo, but the country was in ruins.
Although Chamorro had been perceived as a weak candidate, she rose to the office. Two of her children had been Sandinistas, two of them Contras, thus all Nicaraguans understood that national reconciliation was no abstraction to her. She decentralized the government, brought the police and military under civilian control, and cut the military's numbers from almost 95, 000 at the war's peak to less than 20, 000. Her best efforts were thwarted by unpleasant realities - poverty, hunger and continued US interest in the region - but for all the compromises she was forced to make she constructed a stable foundation upon which the nation could rebuild.
Chamorro's replacement, who handily beat Ortega (despite the FSLN's new, less threatening campaign color - pink!), was a blast from the dictatorial past: corpulent Liberal Arnoldo Alemán, voted one of the world's 10 most corrupt politicians by the UN Human Rights subcommission. Alemán siphoned some US$100 million from government coffers, which may be chump change where you're from, but not in Nicaragua. Even after Hurricane Mitch savaged the country in 1998 - killing 4000 people and destroying a surreal 70% of the infrastructure - he stayed on the take. When current (at research time) president Enrique Bolaños, also of the Liberal Party, took office in 2001, he promised to put Alemán in jail. To everyone's surprise Bolaños actually did it. But it was too late, in a way.
In 1999 perennial FSLN presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, honing in on Arnoldo Alemán's post-scandal political weakness like a bull shark in a kiddy pool, joined with the disgraced president in El Pacto. The secret (for 10 minutes) agreement has effectively ensnared the country in a two-party electoral system while simultaneously keeping Alemán out of prison, a neat trick if you can pull it off.
Despite these Machiavellian manipulations Ortega lost the 2000 presidential elections, though his influence remains at least equal to President Bolaños': the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta) couldn't pass until the two had a long, probably symbolic, meeting behind closed doors. The real upset was in the Región Autónoma del Atlántico Norte (RAAN; North Atlantic Autonomous Region) where the Yatama political party, blocked from running for office, called on its almost entirely indigenous constituency to boycott the elections. A Sandinista candidate won in Bilwi - a bit shocking in the Contra stronghold - and the World Court ruled that elections were tainted. In the 2005 municipal elections Yatama returned to the ballot and won three major towns.
Banking on similar international pressure against the pact, current presidential candidate Herty Lewites, a much-loved former Managua mayor and the brains behind Hertylandia theme park, has founded his own political party: Alianza Herty. Lewites, a former Sandinista gunrunner and member of the FSLN's inner circle, mistakenly believed that there were primaries for his party's presidential candidates. Daniel Ortega wasted no time correcting Lewites, excommunicating him from the FSLN and forbidding him to use red and black (and, presumably, pink) in his campaign.
Lewites went with baby blue and regularly appeared with the man who should have been his top political rival, Eduardo Montealegre, the Liberal stalwart who refused to play puppet to the not-quite-incarcerated Alemán, and was forced to found Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense - Partido Conservador (ALN-PC) to make his bid for the presidency.
After 16 years in opposition, the leftist FSLN (Sandinista) party returned to political power in January 2007, ending a long neoliberal period that had, significant advances in the tourism sector notwithstanding, failed to kickstart the country’s economy. However, the left had been far from united behind President Daniel Ortega, a father of the revolution but these days considered by many on both sides of the political fence to be a power-hungry crackpot.
The early days of his current presidency were a flurry of activity, with Nicaragua’s energy crisis seemingly solved via a deal with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ortega pledging to maintain good relations with the USA (then jeopardizing that by announcing a meaningless goodwill treaty with Iran), and afterwards taking some rather anti-parliamentary legislative steps. One thing is certain; life with Ortega won’t be dull.