Nicaragua is best known not for its landscape or cultural treasures, but for the 1979 Sandinista revolution and subsequent Contra war, in which the people rose up in hope only to be derailed by US-orchestrated interference. The Sandinistas are no longer in power and the prevailing economic ideology, dictated by the likes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), involves widespread privatization and deregulation. This high-speed 'structural adjustment' has reduced inflation, provided ready cash for the business elite and left much of the rest of the country unemployed or in a state of sticker shock.
The good news is that throughout this period human rights have largely been respected and the country's battles are now confined to the political arena. Nicaragua is a fascinating destination for those travelers who shun seeing 'sights,' have an awareness of history and enjoy getting to know a country on a grassroots level.
Warning: Since the end of the civil war, armed criminal groups have operated out of the northern sectors of the country, especially along the Honduran border. Travelers visiting the border region should exercise a special measure of caution.
Full country name: Republic of Nicaragua
Area: 129,494 sq km (50,180 sq mi)
Population: 4.8 million (growth rate 2.3%)
Capital city: Managua (pop 1 million)
People: 69% mestizo, 17% European descent, 9% African descent, 5% indigenous peoples
Language: Spanish, English Creole, Miskito
Religion: Roman Catholic 90%, Protestant 10%
GDP: US$11.6 billion
GDP per head: US$2500
Major industries: Coffee, seafood, sugar, meat, bananas, food processing, chemicals, metal products, textiles, clothing, petroleum refining and distribution, beverages, footwear
Major trading partners: Canada, Japan, Germany, Venezuela, USA, the rest of Central America
Visas: Citizens of the UK, USA, the Scandinavian countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and European Union countries do not need visas and are issued a tourist card (US$5) valid for 90 days on arrival. Citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and European countries that do not have reciprocal agreements with Nicaragua will require either a visa or a tourist card allowing a 30-day stay.
Health risks: cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, rabies, typhoid
Time: GMT/UTC minus 6 hours
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric, but the gallon is used for gasoline (petrol)
When to Go
Nicaragua has two distinct seasons, the timing of which varies from coast to coast. The most pleasant time to visit the Pacific or central regions is early in the dry season (December and January), when temperatures are cooler and the foliage is still lush. With the possible exception of the last month of the dry season (usually mid-April to mid-May) when the land is parched and the air full of dust, there really is no bad time to visit.
Nicaraguans spend Semana Santa (Holy Week) at the beach; all available rooms will be sold out weeks or even months in advance.
LAND & CLIMATE
Region: Central America
Neighbours: Nicaragua is bordered on the north by Honduras, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, on the south by Costa Rica, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean.
Size Comparison: Less than half the size of Ecuador
The Nicaraguan highlands cross Nicaragua from the northwest to the southeast. The Cordillera Isabelia, reaching elevations of more than 2,100 metres (more than 6,890 feet), is the highest of the several mountain ranges that cut the highlands from east to west. A chain of volcanoes, which contributes to local earthquakes, rises along the Pacific coast. In the east, the swampy Caribbean coastal plain known as the Costa de Mosquitos, or Mosquito Coast, extends some 72 kilometres (some 45 miles) inland.
Major Rivers and Lakes
Situated inland from Nicaragua’s Pacific coast is huge Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in all of Central America. To the north and linked to Lago de Nicaragua by the Río Tipitapa is Lago de Managua. Most of Nicaragua’s rivers are along the east coast and empty into the Caribbean.
Weather and Climate
The coastal regions of Nicaragua have a tropical climate with a pleasant mean average temperature of 25°C (77°F). In the higher elevations of the interior, the temperature ranges from 15° to 26°C (59° to 79°F). The rainy season is from May to October, with annual rainfall averaging 3,810 millimetres (150 inches) along the Caribbean coast.
Access to basic services is severely limited in Nicaragua. Only 32 percent (1990-1997) of the rural population has access to safe waterby far the lowest figure for any country in Central America. Proper sanitation is available for only 35 percent (1990-1997) of the total population. Only 35 percent (1990-1997) of the country’s rural residents, and 34 percent (1990-1997) of the urban residents, have access to sanitation facilities. This situation contrasts sharply with the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Honduras, where 95 percent and 97 percent (1990-1997) of the urban population, respectively, has access to adequate sanitation.
Pressure to increase agricultural output in Nicaragua has fueled deforestation, as more land is cleared for agricultural use. The country has one of the highest percentages of agricultural land in Central America, and food products make up 59.9 percent (1996) of Nicaragua’s total exports. But because food exports have failed to provide the projected income, the government continues to press for increased agricultural output. As a consequence, 2.51 percent (1990-1996) of the nation’s forests are lost each year.
Problems that accompany a loss of forestland include severe soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Nicaragua is home to 16 species threatened with extinction. The country protects 7.4 percent (1997) of its land in parks and other reserves.
During the early 1980s, under the Sandinista government, environmental degradation in Nicaragua briefly slowed due to the government’s progress on social issues, including environmental protection. Among the efforts of the Sandinista government was the establishment of the Nicaraguan Institute for Natural Resources and Environment (IRENA). The remainder of the decade, however, brought civil war, political change, and economic hardship to Nicaragua. This time of turmoil was accompanied by a relative neglect for the environment that continued into the 1990s.
Nicaragua is party to international treaties concerning biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, ozone layer protection, and whaling.