Nicaraguan Way of Life
Nicaraguans strike a wonderful balance of pride and humility. While many live in poverty and even the middle classes struggle to make ends meet, when asked about their country, most prefer to highlight its rich culture and natural beauty than dwell on the difficulties. And while the nation's distinct ethnic groups have their own cultures, all Nicaraguans are united by their laid-back style, great sense of humor and an openness that manifests itself in their love of socializing.
The National Psyche
Nicaragua has a fierce cultural streak and prides itself on homegrown literature, dance, art, music and cuisine. This spiritual independence is a holdover not only from the revolution and Contra War, but back to Spanish colonization, when indigenous nations won limited autonomy at enormous personal cost.
Though ideological divisions between former Contras and Sandinistas recently seemed to have been addressed and worked through, it seems that the ongoing political unrest of 2018 will lead to yet another generation of Nicaraguans to suffer the trauma of violence. Opinions differ about the original Sandinista years and, no doubt, in time to come, they will differ about the events that are unfolding today, but resilience and the ability to deal with adversity with humor is very much a part of who Nicaraguans are.
Attitudes differ from place to place. Residents of the English- and Miskito-speaking Atlantic coast rarely consider themselves part of Nicaragua proper, and many would prefer to be returned to the British Empire than suffer further oppression by the ‘Spaniards’ on the other side of the country. The cattle ranchers of the central highlands resist interference from the federal government, while coffee pickers in Matagalpa or students in León are willing to walk to Managua to complain to the government if they perceive that an injustice has been done.
Nicaragua is a country in motion. One in five Nicas live outside the country, most in the USA, Costa Rica and Honduras. Waves of migration to the cities, which began in the 1950s, have left more than 59% of the population urban. Most internal immigrants are young women, and most go to Managua; men tend to follow the harvest into rural areas and the surrounding countries. Regular jobs are difficult to find, and more than half of employed Nicaraguans are in the ‘informal sector’ – street vendors, cleaners, artisans – without benefits or job security.
While a strong sense of community permeates all strata of Nicaraguan society, there's a marked difference in mindsets between urban and rural dwellers. The young and the educated in big cities such as Managua, León and Granada have more disposable income, much greater exposure to social media and global trends and a keen interest in what's happening in the world. Life in smaller towns is more laid-back and steeped in tradition, with a strong culture of hospitality (you will be fed until you burst!), with everyone taking a keen interest in everyone they know in lieu of soap operas. The campesino lifestyle is simpler still, and means long hours and hard physical labor. Visiting extended family is pretty much the only respite from the constant work, but there's also a strong sense of self-sufficiency from the living you make from farming.
Despite the country's Catholic background, couples often live together and have children without being married, especially in larger cities. Nicaraguans are generally fairly accepting of the GLBT community, although the community is still fighting for full legal recognition.
Wealth is distributed unequally, with the moneyed elite living much as they would in Miami or elsewhere. For the vast majority of Nicaraguans, however, just putting food on the table is a daily struggle, with over 50% living below the poverty line in rural areas and perhaps a third of the country subsisting on two meals or fewer per day; almost one-fifth of children are at risk of problems relating to malnutrition, while in the Atlantic regions it is around 30%.
However, when hitting the streets, even the poorest Nicaraguans will generally always appear in clean, freshly pressed clothes, which is why they find 'wealthy' backpackers in smelly rags so amusing.
Nicaragua’s solid grounding as an agricultural nation is a blessing and a curse. While the average campesino (farmer) will generally have something to eat, the sector as a whole is vulnerable to a range of threats. Plunging world commodity prices, natural disasters and environmental factors such as soil degradation and water shortages are all problems that Nicaraguan farmers face regularly. Coffee remains Nicaragua's main agricultural export, followed by beef, shrimp, dairy products and tobacco. Industrial production, encouraged under the last of the Somozas, was all but destroyed by the war and is only now beginning to slowly pick up again. By far the biggest industry is textile and apparel production, but the cigar industry is growing rapidly and Nicaragua is the largest producer of premium cigars in the world (mostly for export rather than local consumption). Gold mining is another important industry. Tourism plays an increasingly important role in the economy, and it is here more than anywhere else that many see a bright future for Nicaragua.
By the end of the war, Nicaragua was a heavily indebted nation. In 1979 the departing dictator Somoza emptied the country’s coffers. The incoming Sandinista government engaged in some shaky economic policies (including massive public spending financed by foreign lending), while the economy was being slowly strangled by the US trade embargo. In 2000 Nicaragua was included on the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries list, meaning that a large chunk of its massive foreign debt was canceled after it complied with a series of conditions set down by the World Bank and IMF. These measures – which included privatizing public assets and opening the economy to foreign markets – are highly controversial and it still remains to be seen whether Nicaragua's participation in the program will produce long-term gains for its ordinary residents.
Before the crisis of 2018, things were looking promising. Nicaragua had the fastest-growing economy in the region after Panama, though at the time of writing, how much of a hit the country's various industries will take remains to be seen. One bright spot for urban, educated Nicaraguans is the increased outsourcing of jobs in the USA and Canada to Nicaragua in the fields of customer service, research, marketing, software development and call centers. Unlike other sectors of the economy, these white-collar jobs are less impacted by political unrest.
Feature: Free Trade vs Fair Trade
In March 2006 Nicaragua ratified the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). An agreement between an economic superpower like the US and various struggling nations was always going to be controversial, and plenty of political mileage was made, but it’s worth remembering that, in the end, the agreement was approved by liberals and Sandinistas alike.
The central question to any such agreement is this: who benefits? The US stood to gain from cheaper imports, wider markets, investment opportunities and access to cheap foreign labor, but what was in it for Nicaragua?
The short answer was exports, foreign investment and jobs. What kinds of exports, investment and jobs? Well, there’s been a little spike in the export of primary products such as beef and sugar, but the biggest change to Nicaragua’s economic landscape has been the spread of the maquilladoras (clothing assembly factories) across the country. These factories provide much-needed work (Nicaragua’s underemployment rate runs at around 43%), but critics say the maquilladoras are no real solution – they set up in Free Trade Zones (Nicaragua has four), which aren’t bound by Nicaraguan law, so they don’t pay minimum wage or respect workers’ rights. When exported, goods don’t incur export duty, so Nicaragua ends up earning very little. It’s a process that workers’ rights and environmental activist Ralph Nader calls ‘the race to the bottom,’ where poor countries end up competing to see who can offer the most favorable deal to investor nations.
With 6.3 million people spread across 130,375 sq km, Nicaragua is the second-least densely populated country in Central America after Belize. The CIA World Factbook estimates that 69% of the population is mestizo (of mixed ancestry, usually Spanish and indigenous people), 17% white, 9% black and 5% indigenous. The most recent census reports that just over 440,000 people describe themselves as indigenous: the Miskito (121,000), Mayangna/Sumo (9800) and Garifuna (3300), all with some African heritage, occupy the Caribbean coast alongside the Rama (4200). In the central and northern highlands, the Cacaopoeras and Matagalpas (15,200) may be Maya in origin, while the Chorotegas (46,000), the Subtiavas (20,000) and the Nahoas (11,100) have similarities to the Aztecs.
European heritage is just as diverse. The Spanish settled the Pacific coast, while a wave of German immigrants in the 1800s has left the northern highlands surprisingly chele (white, from leche, or milk). And many of those blue eyes you see on the Atlantic coast can be traced back to British, French and Dutch pirates.
The original African immigrants were shipwrecked, escaped or freed slaves who began arriving soon after the Spanish. Another wave of Creoles and West Indians arrived in the late 1800s to work on banana and cacao plantations in the east. Mix all that together, simmer for a few hundred years and you get an uncommonly good-looking people who consider racism a bit silly.
It’s just not a weekend in Nicaragua without the crack of a baseball bat (though some locals quip that gossip is the national sport, not baseball!), but there really are other sports in the country – you just have to look.
Football (soccer) is growing in popularity and is especially big in the north of the country. Boxing is also extremely popular and Nicaragua produces some champion pugilists, especially in the lower weight divisions.
Many towns have pickup soccer, baseball, volleyball and basketball games, and foreigners are usually more than welcome to join in. It’s a fine opportunity to interact with the locals without worrying about the subjunctive tenses.
Cockfighting and bullfights, while considered controversial by many people, are still some of Nicaragua's most popular spectator sports, especially in rural areas. Alpha roosters with knives strapped to their feet slash each other apart in miniature bullrings while the crowd place bets and drinks copious amounts of moonshine.
Rodeos and bullfights generally take place during fiestas patronales (saints days). Though considerably less gory than their Spanish counterparts – it’s illegal to use any weapons or kill the bull – if you're even moderately concerned about animal welfare, you might be unsettled by either event.
Feature: Take Me Out to the Béisbol Game
Every Sunday, all over the country, from abandoned lots to the national stadium, there’s one game that’s got Nicaraguans obsessed, and if you think it’s football, you’re dead wrong.
Despite popular belief, baseball was big here even before the marines arrived in 1909 – their presence just gave the sport a shot in the arm. The first recorded series was played in 1887, when two Bluefields teams – Four Roses and Southern – battled it out over seven games. Four years later, baseball fever hit the Pacific coast and by 1915 there was a national championship.
While major-league Nica players are generally treated like royalty here, very few of them don’t dream of going to the US to play, joining a long list of their countrymen, including Tony Chevez, Albert Williams, David Green, Porfirio Altamirano, Vincent Padilla, Marvin Bernard and, of course, Hall of Famer Denis ‘El Presidente’ Martínez, who pitched more winning major-league games than any Latino and who had Nicaragua’s national stadium, Estadio Denis Martínez, named after him.
Every town has some sort of baseball ground, from a dusty lot on the outskirts to some fairly fancy affairs in Managua, León, Rivas and Chinandega (among others). These four towns, incidentally, compete in Nicaragua’s major league.
Games are played on Sunday in villages, towns and cities all over the country, but if you’d like to catch some major-league action, log on to http://lbpn.com.ni (in Spanish) for schedules. For even better atmosphere, check out the biennial Atlantic Series, which features teams from all over the Caribbean region playing off for a cup. The tournament takes place in different cities and towns throughout the region, but is always a great party.
International media-monitoring bodies have reported that freedom of the press in Nicaragua has deteriorated significantly under the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front; FSLN) government, although an independent media still operates in the country.
The current FSLN leadership are particularly media savvy and have made controlling the airwaves a priority. According to the New York Times, since returning to power, Daniel Ortega has invested heavily in media operations, while at the same time cutting government advertising in non-Sandinista outlets. The newspaper goes on to report that Ortega's children run television networks Multinoticias, Channel 6, Channel 8 and Channel 13, and that the FSLN leader now controls nearly half of Nicaragua's television outlets.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ortega uses these media outlets to launch character attacks against his critics as part of an effort to marginalize independent media.
CPJ stated that one such example was directed at television journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of former La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro whose assassination by Somoza was one of the sparks of the revolution. Following the airing of reports on an extortion scheme involving the Sandinista party, Chamorro was formally investigated for money laundering. After a wave of domestic and international criticism, the charges were later dropped.
Despite Nicaraguan law stating that officials must supply accurate information to the media upon request, local journalists have reported restrictions in accessing government press conferences and officials, while those working for government-linked news outlets are given free reign. According to the CPJ, First Lady Rosario Murillo is like a virtual prime minister, managing all government communications; officials in the executive branch are permitted to talk to the press only with her authorization.
While the government controls many of the radio and TV stations, Nicaragua’s two national daily newspapers – La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario – remain critical of the Ortega government (a fact the FSLN repeatedly alludes to when confronted with claims of censorship and media control). The former is your classic conservative rag – understandably railing against all things Sandinista. The latter (more classically a blue-collar publication) seems to draw a distinction between the old-school Sandinistas (whom it still vaguely supports) and the new-breed Danielistas (for whom it has very little patience).
As it consolidates its power and media empire, the Ortega government seems less and less inclined to tolerate independent opinion.
Although Nicaragua’s majority religion is Catholic, Nicaraguan Catholicism retains many indigenous elements, as the decor and ceremonies of churches such as San Juan Bautista de Subtiava and Masaya’s María Magdelena make clear. Liberation theology also made its mark on Nicaraguan Catholicism, influencing priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal to advocate armed resistance to the Somoza dictatorship. Publicly chastised and later defrocked by Pope John Paul II, Cardenal remains a beloved religious leader. Nicaragua’s incredible selection of Catholic churches and fascinating fiestas patronales (saints days) remain highlights of the country.
On the Atlantic coast, Moravian missionaries from Germany began arriving in the early 1800s, and today their red-and-white wooden churches are the centerpieces of many Creole and Miskito towns. More recently, in the 1990s, more than 100 Protestant sects, most US-based and collectively referred to as evangelistas, have converted around 34% of the population; in fact, many of the foreigners you’ll meet in rural Nicaragua are missionaries, who may try to convert you too.
Perhaps most interesting, around 13% of Nicaraguans say they are atheist or agnostic, unusual in Latin America.
Women in Nicaragua
Women, especially in rural sectors, are likely to work outside the home and do half of all agricultural labor. This stems in part from ideals espoused by the (original) Sandinistas, who considered women equal players in the remolding of the country, but also from necessity, as many men died or were maimed during the wars, or later emigrated to find work; after the Contra War, the country was more than 55% female. The strong women’s movement is fascinating; check out Boletina at www.puntosdeencuentro.org to learn more.
Despite loud protests by many organizations, in 2006 Nicaragua passed a controversial law declaring abortion illegal even when the life of the mother is at risk. Women's groups say the law has led to the deaths of dozens of women and mostly affects the poor as the wealthy (including the daughters of politicians) are able to travel to other countries for medical attention without restrictions.
Sidebar: Bus Pelones
Many of Managua's retired old school buses have been converted into bus pelones (bald buses) – open-air party buses that give residents without vehicles the chance to cruise the streets of the city in the evening.
Sidebar: Love from Shopkeepers
It's not uncommon for Nica shopkeepers to engage in unbridled flattery and even declarations of love when trying to sell you something, especially in markets.
Sidebar: Ethnic Fishing Villages
Stunning Pearl Lagoon’s handful of ethnic fishing villages are home to Miskito, Creole and Garifuna people who have lived and traded with one another for more than 300 years.
Sidebar: Domino Tournaments
In Caribbean Nicaragua, domino tournaments are serious events with neighborhood clubs decked out in team T-shirts slamming down tiles in front of noisy spectators.
Sidebar: Nicaraguan TV Stations
Most Nicaraguan TV stations have two types of news: a sensationalist ambulance-chasing edition featuring graphic portrayals of fights and accidents – usually displayed on the big screen at dinner time – followed by a far less popular political edition.
Sidebar: Women in Miskito Society
In traditional Miskito societies – mostly concentrated on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast – women own the farmland and plant crops.
Arts & Architecture
Nicaragua, as any book will tell you, celebrates literature, and particularly poetry, with appropriate passion, revering its writers with a fervor reserved, in more developed countries, for Hollywood stars. But it's not all about printed prose, Nicaragua also boasts a variety of homegrown musical genres, energetic dances and renowned painters all shaped by the nation's dominant themes of romance and rebellion.
Nation of Poets
Poetry lies at the very heart of Nicaragua's cultural identity. Both major daily newspapers run a literary supplement in their Friday editions, high-school kids form poetry clubs, and any campesino (farmer) picking coffee in the isolated mountains can tell you who the greatest poet in history is: Rubén Darío, voice of the nation. They will then recite a poem by Darío, quite possibly followed by a few of their own.
Nicaragua is also home to the peculiar cultural archetype of ‘warrior poets,’ folks who choose to go with both the pen and the sword. Among the most famous are Leonel Rugama, who held off the Guardia Nacional while hero Carlos Fonseca escaped; Rigoberto López Pérez, who assassinated the original Somoza in León; liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal; and former Sandinista undercover agent, Gioconda Belli.
The nation’s original epic composition, the Nica equivalent to Beowulf or Chanson de Roland, is El Güegüense, a burlesque dating from the 1600s. A morality play of sorts, it pits an indigenous Nicaraguan businessman against corrupt and inept Spanish authorities; using only his sly wit and a few multilingual double entendres, the Nica ends up on top.
León has been home to the nation’s greatest poets, including Darío, Azarias H Pallais, Salomon de la Selva and Alfonso Cortés, the last of whom did his best work while going insane in Darío’s childhood home. The most important modern writers include Pablo Antonio Cuadra, a former editor of La Prensa and Ernesto Cardenal.
One of the few Nicaraguan writers and poets regularly translated into English is Gioconda Belli (www.giocondabelli.org), who was working undercover with the Sandinistas when she won the prestigious Casa de las Americas international poetry prize. Her internationally acclaimed work is both sexual and revolutionary, and is the best way to get a woman’s-eye view of Nicaragua in the 1970s.
Feature: Rubén Darío
To say that Rubén Darío is a famous poet is an outrageous understatement. The man is a national hero – his birthplace (Ciudad Darío), the national theater and the entire Cordillera Dariense mountain range are named after him.
Something of a child prodigy, Darío could read by age four (he’d polished off Don Quixote and various other classics by age 10) and had his first poetry published in León newspapers at age 12.
Deemed too ‘antireligious’ to be awarded a scholarship to Europe, Darío was sent to El Salvador at the age of 15. There he met and befriended Salvadorian poet Francisco Gavidia, whose work and teachings would have a profound influence on Darío’s style.
Darío traveled extensively – to Chile, where he worked as a journalist and wrote his breakthrough piece, Azul; Argentina, where he became a leading member of the Modernist literary movement; and, last, to Europe, where he continued to write some of what Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called some of the most creative poetry in the Spanish language.
Darío was appointed Nicaragua’s ambassador to France, then Spain, but such officialdom never slowed him down. His hard-drinking, womanizing lifestyle was by now legendary (and somewhat requisite for poets of the era), but it took its toll in 1914 when Darío contracted pneumonia. He recovered, but was left weak and bankrupt. Friends banded together and raised the money for him to return to Nicaragua. He died in León two years later, at the age of 49.
Folkloric music and dance received a huge boost from the revolution, which sought to mine Nicaraguan culture for cultural resources rather than import more popular options, quite possibly at great cost. As a result, you’ll probably be able to see a musical or dance performance during even a short visit, the most convenient being Noches Verbenas, held every Thursday evening at the Mercado Artesanías (National Artisans Market) in Masaya. Also check out cultural centers, close to the Parque Central in most larger towns, or at the municipal theaters in Granada, León and Managua, to see what’s on. Fiestas patronales (saints days) are a good time to catch a performance, which in the northern highlands will likely have a polka component.
Perhaps the most important musical form is marimba, usually played on xylophones made of precious wood with names such as ‘The Lovers,’ ‘Dance of the Black Woman,’ and ‘Fat Honey,’ which you’ll enjoy over a cold glass of chicha (mildly alcoholic corn beverage) at some shady Parque Central. The guardians of this and other traditional forms of Nicaraguan music are the Mejía Godoy brothers, whom you can (and should) catch live in Managua. Luis Mejia (the prince of salsa) is internationally renowned. Manifesto Urbano is another Nicaraguan music collective well worth checking out.
Marimba music was given a new sense of cool with the arrival on the scene of La Cuneta Son Machín (www.lacunetasonmachin.com), a cumbia-rock fusion group heavily influenced by traditional Nicaraguan sounds. If you get the chance, check out their energetic live performances.
On the Atlantic coast reggae and country are king but there are also homegrown sounds including upbeat Maypole music, which is often accompanied by spicy dance moves, and Miskito pop, heavily influenced by the electronic-keyboard music of rural churches, where many of the musicians learned to play.
Considering how few venues there are available for them to play, new talents are plentiful in Nicaragua. If you’re looking for laid-back electronica, try Momotobo. Into alternative rock? Check out Nemi Pipali. Quirky bossa-pop fans should hunt down anything by Belén, while Division Urbana is probably the best of many groups doing the hard-rock thing. Manu Chao fans will probably like Perrozompopo, and for sheer lyrical beauty, floating melodies and electro-pop crossover, keep an eye out for discs by Clara Grun.
Painting & Sculpture
The oldest artistic tradition in Nicaragua is ceramics, dating from about 2000 BC with simple, functional vessels, developing into more sculptural representations by around AD 300. By the time the Spanish arrived, Nicaraguan ceramics were complex, artistic and often ceremonial, and indicate a pronounced Aztec influence in both design and decoration. Remember that it’s illegal (and lame) to remove pre-Columbian ceramics from Nicaragua.
Today, top-quality ceramics are most famously produced in San Juan de Oriente, which is known both for its precise replicas of pre-Columbian museum pieces and exquisite contemporary pieces that blend several ceramic styles; in Mozonte, near Ocotal; and at Matagalpa and Jinotega, which are renowned for their black ceramics.
Almost as ancient an art, stone carving probably became popular around AD 800, when someone realized that the soft volcanic basalt could be shaped with obsidian tools imported from Mexico and Guatemala. Petroglyphs, usually fairly simple, linear drawings carved into the surface of a stone, are all over the country, and it’s easy to arrange tours from Isla de Ometepe, Granada and Matagalpa.
Stone statues, expressive and figurative, not to mention tall (one tops 5m) are rarer but also worth seeing; the best museums are in Granada and Juigalpa. Much finer stone statues are being produced today, using polished, translucent soapstone worked in the backyard workshops of San Juan de Limay, near Estelí.
Painting apparently arrived with the Spanish (though there’s evidence that both statues and petroglyphs were once more vividly colored), the earliest works being mostly religious in nature; the best places to see paintings are in León, at the Museo de Arte Sacre and the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián. The latter also traces Nicaraguan painting through to the present, including the Romantic and Impressionistic work of Rodrigo Peñalba, who founded the School of Beaux Arts, and the Praxis Group of the 1960s, led by Alejandro Arostegui and possessed of a heavy-handed social realism, depicting hunger, poverty and torture.
In the 1970s Ernesto Cardenal founded an art colony on the Islas Solentiname, an isolated group of islands in the southeast corner of Lago de Nicaragua, today internationally renowned for the gem-toned paintings and balsa-wood sculptures that so colorfully (and accurately) capture the tropical landscape. If you can’t get to the islands yourself, try the Masaya markets, or any of the art galleries in Managua or Granada.
A more venerable form of the art is on display every Semana Santa in the Subtiava neighborhood of León, when ‘sawdust carpets,’ scenes painstakingly rendered in colored sawdust, are created throughout the neighborhood, and then swirled together as religious processions go by.
Feature: The Writing (Painting) on the Wall
Nothing quite captures Nicaraguans’ spirit, creativity and political sentiment like their love for murals. Often strikingly beautiful pieces of art in their own right, murals served a practical and political end in the days before the Sandinistas’ Literacy Crusade of broadcasting a message to an audience that was largely illiterate.
There are murals in all major cities, but the Sandinista strongholds of León and Estelí are standouts, where at one stage nearly every blank wall in the downtown was covered with colorful revolutionary messages. The area around the UCA university in Managua has some fine examples, too.
However, with the modernization of the cities, some of the best examples have been painted over, often with propaganda from multinational cell-phone networks.
Estelí has its own NGO teaching mural painting to children and teenagers, and is also home to a new movement of muralistas, who use more recognizable graffiti techniques but continue to paint the walls of the city with images of a social slant.
For a look at murals from around the country, check out the gorgeous coffee-table book The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua by David Kunzle.
Theater & Dance
Traditional music, dance and theater are difficult to separate; all are mixed together with wild costumes to create spectacles that generally also have a religious component, plus plenty of fireworks. Pieces you’ll see performed by street-side beggars and professional troupes include La Gigantona, with an enormous Spanish woman and teeny tiny Nicaraguan guy. Another common piece is The Dance of the Old People, in which an older gentleman woos a sexy grandma, but once she gives in, he starts chasing younger women in the audience.
Modern theater is not well developed in Nicaragua, and only major towns have performance spaces. There’s a growing independent film scene, and you can catch very low-budget, usually documentary films, often with overtly feminist or progressive themes, at cultural centers – but never movie theaters, which show mostly Hollywood blockbusters.
The success of the Spanish conquest let the motherland finally break free of French architectural forms, such as Gothic architecture, and experiment with homegrown styles both at home and in the Americas.
Some of the earliest New World churches are a Moorish-Spanish hybrid called mujédar, with squat silhouettes, wooden roofs and geometric configurations. Influenced by Islam as well as the Italian Renaissance are plateresque (elaborate silver filigree) on altars such as in El Viejo.
Baroque hit big in the mid-1600s, and was the most popular choice for major buildings over the next century. Primitivist baroque, featuring graceful but unadorned adobe and wood columns, and common in smaller colonial towns, was followed by full Spanish baroque style, with extravagant design (stone grapevines wending up massive pillars, for example), sometimes called churriguera.
The most famous examples of Spanish colonial architecture can be found in Granada and León, but colonial gems are scattered throughout the country.
Feature: Churches Of Nicaragua
Nicaragua hasn’t always been this poor – in the 1960s Costa Ricans were sneaking across the border to work here. From the first days of the Spanish conquest through to the late 1800s, when Nicaragua controlled the only warm-water route between the world’s two great oceans, this little country was a major power broker.
With cash to spare and a Catholic population to impress, the authorities constructed churches even devout atheists will enjoy. León may be the nation’s pinnacle of religious architecture, but here are a few other must-sees.
- Cathedrals of Managua The interior of the poignant, burnt-out husk of Managua’s original cathedral is off-limits, but you’re welcome to ponder the new cathedral’s ultramodern domes: cooling towers for a divine nuclear reactor? Homage to Islam? Eggs hatching into a peaceful tomorrow?
- Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Inmaculada Concepción de la Virgen María Even Pope John Paul II visited the beautiful Virgen del Trono, patron saint of Nicaragua and mistress of La Gritería, the nation’s most important religious event.
- Templo de El Sauce Quite literally a pilgrimage-worthy destination; every January thousands come to see El Señor de Esquipulas, the Black Christ.
- Moravian Church in Bluefields Faithfully rebuilt to its Victorian-era specs after Bluefields’ utter destruction during Hurricane Juana; it’s not just lovely, it’s a symbol of hope and perseverance.
- Iglesia Catedral San Pedro This baroque 1874 beauty, known for its twin bell towers, remains one of the country’s most elegant churches despite a desperate need for renovation.
- Templo Parroquial de San Rafael Arcángel This is religion as sensory overload, with beautiful architecture and truly amazing murals.
- Nuestra Señora de Solentiname Ernesto Cardenal and the Solentiname community built this heartfelt and humble adobe church, its murals designed by children.
Sidebar: Selected Poems by Rubén Darío
Selected Poems by Rubén Darío (translated by Lysander Kemp) has verses from Nicaragua’s most famous poet in the original on one page and in English translation on the facing page.
Sidebar: The Inhabited Woman
Gioconda Belli’s The Inhabited Woman is well worth tracking down. It’s a loosely political tale based partly on true events, but the magic here is in Belli’s sensual, poetic prose.
Sidebar: To Bury Our Fathers
To Bury Our Fathers by Sergio Ramírez – one of Nicaragua’s most respected writers (and former Sandinista vice president) – is possibly the best fiction-based portrait of the Somoza years in print.
Sidebar: Carlos Mejía Godoy
Famous Nicaraguan musician Carlos Mejía Godoy, who wrote theme songs for the Sandinista revolution, went on to sue the FSLN for improper use of those very songs.
Land & Wildlife
With more than a 10,000 sq km of virgin forest, 19 active volcanoes and vibrant coral reefs, and thriving populations of birds, butterflies, tropical fish, and various species of turtles, Nicaragua has been endowed with more than its share of natural beauty. Combine that with a low population density and very little industrialization and you'll discover that in Nicaragua, wilderness is never far away – and you'll have it mostly to yourself when you get there.
The formation of the Central American Isthmus began about 60 million years ago, connecting the two massive American continents for the first time three million years ago. Marking the volcanic crush of the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates, the Maribios Volcanic Chain is one of the most volcanic places in the world.
There are 40 major volcanic formations, including 28 volcanoes and eight crater lakes, among them Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo, with hotels and private homes, Laguna Tiscapa in downtown Managua, and Laguna Asososca, with no development at all.
The region’s appeal to early colonists increased as they realized that the soil was further enriched by this striking geological feature. Earthquakes and volcanoes are a part of life along the borders of the Caribbean and Cocos plates, and you’ll find very few authentic colonial buildings that haven’t been touched up since the 1500s.
Nicaragua’s highest mountains, however, are metamorphic, not volcanic. Running down the center of Nicaragua like an opening zipper, they rise to their greatest heights as a granite chain contiguous with the Rocky Mountains and the Andes. They go by several names, including Cordillera Dariense (after Rubén Darío). Topped with cool cloud forests above 1200m, these refreshing regions are home to some of the best national parks and protected areas. Two of the most accessible reserves up north are Área Protegida Miraflor, close to Estelí, and Reserva Natural Cerro Apante, a hike from Matagalpa. Or go deeper, to Reserva Natural Macizos de Peñas Blancas, actually part of Bosawás, the largest protected swath of rainforest north of the Amazon. It’s 7300 sq km of humid tropical and subtropical forest, also accessible by the largest river in Central America, the Río Coco (560km).
Nicaragua also has the two largest lakes in Central America, Lago de Managua (1064 sq km) and Lago de Nicaragua (8264 sq km), with more than 500 islands, some protected, as well as wonderful wetlands, such as Refugio de Vida Silvestre los Guatuzos.
The Atlantic coast is worlds apart, geologically as well as culturally, from the drier, more developed Pacific side. A vast eroding plain of rolling hills and ancient volcanic plugs, here’s where around 90% of the country’s rainfall ends up. This is the region with the wildest protected reserves and worst access – with very few exceptions, it’s difficult and relatively expensive to travel here, as most transportation is by boat. The lowlands are remarkable for their dry pine savannas and countless wetlands and have four major river systems. The easiest way in is along the Río San Juan, a Unesco biosphere reserve.
Feature: Did The Earth Move For You?
Straddling two tectonic plates has had mixed results for Nicaragua. On the one hand, it’s produced the spectacular Maribios chain and the rest of the 40 volcanic formations that make up western Nicaragua’s dramatic skyline, providing geothermal energy, poetic inspiration and hiking opportunities galore.
On the down side, volcanoes have, over the years, blackened skies, changed landscapes and buried entire villages, not to mention the entire original city of León.
Nicaragua’s position between the stationary Caribbean plate and the eastward-moving Cocos plate (the two are colliding at a rate of about 10cm per year) has produced some other geologic excitement as well – most of it spelling bad news for the locals.
Tension builds between colliding plates and is released in the form of earthquakes. Nicaragua gets rocked on a regular basis – the 1972 quake all but flattened Managua, which had already been hit hard in 1931. In 2000, two major quakes in two days leveled villages in the southwest.
When earthquakes happen at sea they cause tsunamis. Tsunamis were registered in 1854 and 1902, but the biggest one in recent history was in 1992, when waves of up to 10m pummeled the Pacific coastline, killing 170 people and leaving 130,000 homeless.
Slower (but no less dramatic) plate movement produced the Lago de Nicaragua – the theory being that the Pacific and Atlantic were once joined, but the upward thrust of earth caused by plate collision cut them off. Volcanic sedimentation and erosion then created the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.
Feature: Parks & Reserves
About 17.3% of Nicaragua's land is federally protected as part of 78 wildlife areas. The system isn’t even close to perfect, and problems with poaching and deforestation are rife. But the government has deemed it worth fighting for and is stepping up patrols in and around parks.
Nicaragua's national parks and reserves are unlike those in many other countries in that the majority have next to no facilities for visitors. Accommodations within park boundaries are rare, dedicated zones to pitch a tent even more so. There are very few marked trails, which makes hiring local guides even more important, and reliable maps of the reserves are also hard to come by.
The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Marena) administers most wildlife areas, often through other public and private organizations. There’s a Marena office in most major towns, and while tourism is not its main job, staff may be able to find guides, transportation and lodging for more-difficult-to-access parks. They can at least point you toward folks who can help; it could be, for example, a women’s organic coffee collective. Have fun!
Following are Nicaragua’s main parks and reserves.
Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya
most heavily venting volcano in Central America, possible gateway to hell; lava tunnels; parakeets
driving to the edge of an active crater, birdwatching, hiking
Reserva Natural Volcán Concepción & Parque Nacional Volcán Maderas
1 island, 2 volcanoes: gently smoking Concepción & dormant Maderas, crowned in cloud forest
hiking, petroglyph hunting, swimming, kayaking
Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz
epic riverboat rides, macaws, walking trees, frogs
canoeing, kayaking, hiking
Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás
largest reserve in Central America, indigenous villages
testing your limits, trail-free hikes
Reserva Natural Cerro Musún
quetzals, cloud forests, huge waterfalls, real trails
hiking, birdwatching, swimming
Área Protegida Miraflor
cloud forest reserve innovatively managed by agricultural cooperative: it’s nature & culture!
milking cows, hiking, swimming in waterfalls, admiring orchids
Reserva Natural Cerro Tisey-Estanzuela
cloud forests, views across the Maribios Volcanic Chain, goat's cheese
hiking, swimming, eating cheese
Monumento Nacional Cañon de Somoto
the Río Coco is born – in the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Nicaragua
hiking, scrambling swimming
Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado
sandy Pacific barrier island; mangroves, sea turtles, lagoons
boating, surfing, camping, swimming
Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera
isolated islands covered with petroglyphs, ancient statues, small volcano, rustic accommodations
climbing, hiking, boating, amateur archaeology
Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor
leatherback & olive ridley turtles, primary dry tropical forest, beaches
surfing, camping, sea-turtle ogling
Reserva Natural Volcán Mombacho
volcanic views of Granada & Cocibolca, dwarf cloud forest, 100 species of orchid, fumeroles, butterfly garden
hiking, camping, riding in military transport
Reserva Natural Volcán Cosigüina
volcanoes, hot springs, crater lakes, macaws, archaeological sites
hiking, camping, swimming, thermal baths
Flora & Fauna
Nicaragua is home to about 1800 vertebrate species, including around 250 mammals, and 30,000 species in total, including 764 bird species (551 resident and 213 migratory).
Animals are slowly working their way northward, a migration of densities that will one day be facilitated by the Mesoamerican Corridor, a proposed aisle of shady protected rainforest stretching from Panama to Mexico. Other countries in on the agreement are just getting started on the project, but Nicaragua’s two enormous Unesco biosphere reserves, Bosawás and Southeast Nicaragua (Río San Juan), make a significant chunk.
Most people are looking for monkeys, and there are three natives: big howler monkeys, smaller spider monkeys and sneaky capuchins. Pizotes, elsewhere called coatis, are the long-tailed, toothy-smiled rodents that are particularly bold on the Rivas peninsula. Several cats (pumas, jaguars and others) survive, but you probably won’t see them. Baird’s tapirs, 250kg herbivores, are another rare treat. At night you’ll see hundreds of bats, including, maybe, vampire bats – which usually stick to livestock.
Birders are discovering Nicaragua, in particular the estuaries of the wild east coast, where migratory birds flock, starting in August and packing places like the Río San Juan and Islas Solentiname by September and October.
While Nicaragua has no endemic bird species of its own, 19 of Central America’s 21 endemics are represented here, including the Nicaraguan grackle, endemic only to Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica. Nicaragua’s spectacular national bird, the turquoise-browed mot-mot (guardabarranco in Spanish), has a distinctive notched tail.
Kingfishers, swallows, scarlet tanagers and Tennessee warblers are just a few of the birds that make their winter homes here. Local birds are even more spectacular, including the red macaw, the yellow-chested oropendola (which hangs its ball-shaped nests from trees), the three-wattled bellbird of the cloud forests, with its distinctive call, and of course the resplendent quetzal.
Other winged attractions are the uracas, (huge blue jays) of Isla de Ometepe, the canaries living inside the fuming crater of Volcán Masaya and the waterfall of Reserva Natural Chocoyero–El Brujo, and the beautiful waterfowl of the Río San Juan.
Other visitors are more interested in the undersea wildlife, which on the Pacific side includes tuna, rooster fish and snook. Lago de Nicaragua and the Río San Juan have their own scaly menagerie, including sawfish, the toothy gaspar, mojarra, guapote and, most importantly, tarpon, as well as the extraordinary freshwater bull shark.
There are lots of reptiles, including five kinds of sea turtle, two kinds of iguana and several snakes. When walking in rainforests, keep your eyes peeled for the feared tercipelo (fer-de-lance, Bothrops asper), the most dangerous snake in Central America. Unlike many snakes found in the region, it is aggressive and often chooses to attack rather than flee danger. It's common in the jungles of the Río San Juan. Other poisonous snakes to look out for include the coral snake and the cascabel, a danger mostly to cattle.
Nicaragua also has plenty of scorpions, you'll find them living in dark corners (they love those atmospheric old houses), under rocks, in wood piles and on the beach. But while they look mean, their sting is not lethal and is more like a hardcore bee sting.
Insects, of course, make up the vast majority of species, including more than 1000 species of butterflies. Tarantulas are common, and be on the lookout for leaf-cutter ants, which raise fungus for snacks beneath massive anthills the size of VW Beetles. Acacia ants are hidden inside the hollow thorns of acacia trees – and the weird-looking woody balls in the trees? Termites.
Nicaragua has numerous animal species on the endangered list – 200 mammals, 179 reptiles and 61 amphibians – including sea turtles and iguanas, both traditional food sources, as well as boa constrictors and alligators. Golden frogs and blood frogs, like amphibians across the globe, are also dwindling. Endangered birds include quetzals, peregrine falcons and macaws, with two of Central America’s last viable populations in Reserva Natural Volcán Cosigüina and Reserva Bíologica Indio-Maíz. Several endangered or threatened mammals also make their homes here, including howler, white-face and spider monkeys; several kinds of cats, including jaguars and mountain lions; as well as aquatic species such as manatees and dolphins. Offshore fisheries are being, or have been, depleted of oysters, lobsters, green turtles and all manner of fish.
Feature: See Sea Turtles
At least five of the world’s sea-turtle species nest on the shores of Nicaragua, all (theoretically) protected except for green turtles, present only on the Atlantic coast and legal to catch July to April.
The most common Pacific turtles, the paslama (olive ridley), are only 45kg and at their most impressive when invading a nesting beach (July to December, peaking in August and September) in flotillas of 3000 or more that storm ashore at the same time to lay. Often using the same beaches from November to February, tora or baula (leatherbacks) are the largest (450kg) and rarest of the turtles; because they eat jellyfish they often accidentally consume plastic bags and bottles, which kill them. Both species have edible, illegal and widely available eggs, considered by locals to be an aphrodisiac. In this book we do not list establishments that serve them, but if you see them on the menu, make your distaste known to the proprietors.
Carey (hawksbill) turtles – which nest May to November, peaking in September and October – are inedible and have lousy-tasting eggs; they’re generally caught only for their shells, which are made into graceful, beautiful jewelry that we hope you won’t buy. Caguama (loggerhead) turtles are also inedible, but their 160kg bulk often gets caught in the green-turtle nets.
Most tours only take you to see the eggs being laid, usually between 9pm and 2am, except during olive ridley arribadas (arrivals), when the beaches are packed day and night. Babies usually hatch about 60 days later, just before sunrise, then make their run to the sea; it’s worth camping to see this. It's important never to touch the hatchlings. If you want to get more involved, you can hook up with grassroots turtle-conservation initiatives once you arrive, or contact the Cocibolca Foundation (www.mombacho.org) or the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Places to see the turtles:
Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor Easily accessible from San Juan del Sur, La Flor’s wildlife reserve has the best infrastructure, access and protection for its collection of olive ridley and leatherback turtles – plus camping!
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Río Escalante-Chacocente Access to this wildlife reserve is limited, but it’s within walking distance of rapidly developing Playa El Astillero, so guided tours are just a matter of time.
Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado Conveniently close to León, and olive ridleys show up right on time.
Reserva Natural Estero Padre Ramos Not much infrastructure, but there’s a grassroots turtle-conservation program where you can volunteer.
Pearl Keys This group of expensive-to-access Caribbean islands hosts hawksbill turtles, while green turtles feed on the seagrass just offshore.
Other nesting sites on the Atlantic coast include the Miskito Keys, even more difficult to get to, and Río San Juan Wildlife Preserve, where green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles nest, and which can only be reached via San Juan de Nicaragua, a challenge in itself.
Nicaragua has four major environment zones, each with very different ecosystems and at least 12,000 species of plants spread across the four. Dry tropical forests are the rarest, as their location – below 500m, often right by the beach – and seven-month dry season make them perfect places to plant crops and build resort hotels. These forests are home to more than 30 species of hardwood, including precious mahogany.
Some dramatic species found in the ecosystem include strangler figs, which start out as slender vines and end up entombing the host tree in a dramatically buttressed encasement; the wide-spreading guanacaste of the endless savannahs; and the pithaya, a branch-dwelling cactus with delicious edible fruit. Most plants lose their leaves by January, except in the largest remaining mangrove stand in Central America, partially preserved as Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado and Reserva Natural Estero Padre Ramos, and crossing borders into El Salvador and Honduras.
Subtropical dry forests have sandy acidic soils and four species of pine tree (this is their southernmost natural border); they can be seen in the Región Autónoma Atlántico Norte (Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region; RAAN) and the Segovias.
Humid tropical forests are home to the multistory green canopies most people think of as classic rainforest. Conditions here are perfect for all plant life; almost no nutrients are stored in the soil, but there is a vast web just beneath the fallen leaves of enormous ceibas, formed of tiny roots, fungus and other assorted symbiotes that devour every stray nutrient as soon as it hits the ground.
Cloud forests are found above 1200m and are easily the most impressive (and rarest) biome, with epiphytes, bromeliads (a variety of high-humidity plant that grows in the branches of other trees), mosses, lichens and lots of orchids, which you can see at Reserva Natural Datanlí–El Diablo, among many other places.
The central subtropical forests of Boaco and Chontales have been largely devoured by cattle ranches, and while there are a few reserves, including Reserva Natural Sierra Amerisque, access to these areas is limited. Just to the east are the Caribbean lowlands, where there are swamps and thick, dense foliage that you can see on the riverboat ride from El Rama.
With a developing economy, poor infrastructure and limited resources, Nicaragua faces a tough task in protecting the environment at the same time as lifting its citizens out of poverty.
While there has certainly been progress in recent times, the country still faces a variety of pressing environmental issues.
One of the biggest environmental issues facing Nicaragua is deforestation – the country has lost about 85% of its virgin forest cover since the Colonial period. Since the end of the war, overall forest cover has fallen from 63% to 25%, although the rate of deforestation has slowed somewhat since 2000.
Deforestation is a major issue because it affects the entire biosystem. Root systems prevent erosion, thus keeping water supplies clean of soil runoff. Foliage supplies habitat for wildlife. Trees also help maintain climatic conditions. With climate change, scientists are noticing that pollinating insects are migrating to more favorable environments, leaving plants unpollinated.
Part of the problem is commercial logging. With the national economy struggling after the war, environmental issues took a back seat and liberal governments granted a number of forest concessions that contributed significantly to deforestation.
Illegal logging is another contributing factor, particularly on the Caribbean coast, where the environment ministry has limited resources to patrol and manage vast reserves with difficult access. Farmers illegally clearing land for cultivation are thought to have been responsible for the 2018 fire that destroyed 50 sq km of Nicaragua's prime biodiversity hotspot, Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz, believed to be Nicaragua's biggest environmental disaster to date.
Another major concern is the advance of the ‘agricultural frontier’ – the eastward migration by small farmers slashing and burning forest in the hope of carving out a subsistence livelihood. As the land often occupied is usually humid tropical forest, the soil generally only has enough oomph for two or three harvests, when the would-be farmer has to carve another farm from the jungle. Even more alarming are the wealthy land speculators who illegally clear large tracts of forest, then sell the land and move on.
The traditional dependence on firewood as a means of cooking and heating is another contributor to deforestation, especially affecting the dry tropical forests that surround densely populated regions.
The pine forests of Nueva Segovia took a huge hit from their natural enemy the pine bark beetle in late 1999, with an estimated 60 sq km of forest destroyed by the time it had finished its rampage. Recent hurricanes, particularly Hurricane Felix in 2007, have felled large numbers of trees in the Caribbean region and caused erosion and landslides in areas that have been deforested.
Feature: Nicaragua's Eco-Warriors
If you see a large bunch of heavily armed men making their way through the canopy while you are in one of the country's nature reserves don't be alarmed, it's probably just the national army´s Batallon Ecológico (BECO; Ecological Batallion).
And if you think Nicaragua is not serious about environmental protection, try telling these guys. Made up of some 700 soldiers, the battalion was created in late 2011 to combat deforestation and the illegal lumber trade, and has an annual budget of US$6.2 million. It sounds like a reality TV show, but these guys take their job very seriously.
And they've already had some success. Only months after their inception, they seized 112,000 cubic meters of illegally felled lumber in the Wawashang reserve on the Atlantic coast.
But the soldiers don't just carry guns, they also carry shovels so they are able to plant trees in their downtime. Together with the national forestry institute, they have created a network of 28 tree nurseries that will supply saplings for an ambitious reforestation plan in natural reserves affected by illegal logging.
Another pressing issue is the use of agricultural chemicals, which is widespread in Nicaragua, although nowhere near the levels of its famously 'green' neighbour Costa Rica. Any time you travel in rural areas you'll see farmers decked out with their pump backpacks ready to spray herbicides, fungicides, pesticides or fertilizers on their crops. Chemical use is poorly regulated and many of these products end up in the local river systems.
In 2010 there was a major fish kill in Pearl Lagoon that was unlike any that even older members of the community had seen. Many locals blamed agricultural run-off, either from the local palm oil plantations or farmlands up the Río Grande de Matagalpa, although a government-sponsored investigation found no evidence of this.
Whether or not it was connected to the fish kill, environmentalists maintain that large-scale African Palm plantations destroy critical habitat for endangered species and contribute to soil erosion.
While mining companies provide well-paid employment (even if profits do go straight out of the country), conservation groups maintain that cyanide, mercury and other industrial pollutants flow into the water table. The mines in Las Minas are of particular concern to environmentalists because they are located on the edge of the Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás, the largest nature reserve on the Central American isthmus. Small-scale mining in rural Chontales has lead to mercury contamination in local water supplies around La Libertad.
Feature: Not for Sale: Nicaragua's Natural Resources
It's not ecologists or politicians but Nicaragua's indigenous communities that are the most fundamental players in the conservation of the disappearing forests of the Caribbean lowlands.
In 2001 the indigenous Mayangna of Awas-Tingni won a landmark battle when the Inter-American court ruled that the Nicaraguan government had violated the rights of the community by signing a deal with an Asian company for lumber extraction on 620 sq km of the community's land.
Shortly afterward, the national government passed a new autonomy law giving the indigenous communities of the Atlantic autonomous regions free determination of the use of their territories and the management of all natural resources found on their land. Nicaragua has since issued land titles to Awas-Tingni and many other indigenous groups in both the Región Autónoma Atlántico Sur (South Atlantic Autonomous Region; RAAS) and Región Autónoma Atlántico Norte (North Atlantic Autonomous Region; RAAN).
However, the issuing of titles without providing support to reclaim the lands has created problems for some of the communities. Many indigenous groups don't have the resources to patrol and protect their lands, which are subject to land invasions by mestizo farmers. Particularly affected are the indigenous Rama, who number less than 5000, but administer a large territory stretching from the Río San Juan to Bluefields Bay. Many Rama have been displaced by armed farmers who refuse to respect the titles.
Sustainable tourism is one way these communities are able to exercise ownership and derive profits from their lands without destroying precious natural resources.
Global warming is taking its toll in Nicaragua. Of the 18 original Pearl Keys, six have been swallowed by rising sea levels. A few are visible seasonally, but they are no longer the full islands they used to be. The smaller keys remain at risk.
Nicaragua is also particularly at risk to both flooding and drought. The extended dry period is often followed by heavy downpours. Flooding is made worse by deforestation in catchment areas.
Erratic rains have severely effected small-scale farmers, many of whom have no access to irrigation systems. However, a water harvesting project in the north of the country is dramatically increasing yields among farmers in that region.
It’s not all ecological doom and gloom in Nicaragua. Environmental consciousness is growing within Nicaragua and there have been a variety of victories, on small and large scales.
The government has declared the environment a national priority and has made a measurable commitment to fighting deforestation and other pressing environmental issues. (Of course, with the violence gripping the country as of summer 2018, environmental protection has once again taken a back seat).
Each municipality now has a department devoted to natural resources and, in general, respect for conservation laws has grown, while practices such as wildlife hunting and trafficking are on the downturn.
The government has also mobilized the army to protect endangered sea turtles and created a special ecological battalion to fight the illegal lumber trade.
Nicaraguans are starting to organize on a community level. Restaurant owners in San Juan del Sur have agreed not to offer menu items made from turtle eggs, and the communities in the Cordillera Volcanica act as volunteer firefighters when wildfires threaten the endangered dry tropical forest. There has also been a significant move toward growing organic coffee and vegetables in the north of the country, with many farming cooperatives adopting chemical-free methods.
For an overview of Nicaragua’s protected areas, the issues they are facing and some of the efforts being made to save them, start with the official Ministry of Natural Resources website, www.marena.gob.ni. For general activism (some of it related to the environment), check www.nicanet.org.
Sidebar: Sustainable Harvest International
Sustainable Harvest International works with indigenous communities to help them move away from slash-and-burn agriculture and toward more sustainable methods. For more info go to www.sustainableharvest.org.
Sidebar: Nicaragua's Biodiversity
You can learn all you ever wanted to know (and probably a fair bit more) about Nicaragua’s stunning biodiversity at www.bio-nica.info.
Sidebar: Guides for Wildlife-watchers
Wildlife-watchers migrating to Central America should read L Irby Davis’ Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico & Central America or Adrian Forsyth’s Tropical Nature: Life & Death in the Rainforests of Central & South America.
Sidebar: The Naturalist in Nicaragua
The Naturalist in Nicaragua by Thomas Belt was published in 1874 but is still available in reprints. As much about human life as the insects it studies, Charles Darwin called it ‘the best of all natural history journals.’
Sidebar: Species in the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maíz
The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maíz, arguably Nicaragua’s best-preserved rainforest, is home to more than 400 bird species, 200 reptile species and four species of wildcats (including puma and jaguar). It's a biodiversity hotspot with a greater number of animal species than the whole of Europe.
Sidebar: Mesoamerican Biological Corridor
The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the world's third-largest biodiversity hotspot, was established in 2008 to protect 106 critically endangered species. It stretches from Panama to Mexico.
Sidebar: Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
The tiny strawberry poison dart frog (Dendrobates pumilio) is famous for its color morphs, with around 30 different color combinations identified.