Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country on the Central American isthmus. Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, is the country’s largest city and the third largest city in Central America. The multi-ethnic population of six million includes indigenous people, Europeans, Africans and Asians. The main language is Spanish. The indigenous tribes on the east coast speak their own language.
In the 16th century, the Spanish Empire conquered the region. Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821. Since independence, Nicaragua has experienced periods of political unrest, dictatorships and financial crises – the best-known causes that led to the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Nicaragua is a representative democratic republic.
The mix of cultural traditions has produced considerable diversity in art and literature, especially the latter given the literary contributions of Nicaraguan poets and writers, including Rubén Darío, Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Ernesto Cardenal. Nicaragua’s biodiversity, warm tropical climate and active volcanoes make it an increasingly popular tourist destination.
Nicaraguans like to call their country “país de lagos y volcanes” (land of lakes and volcanoes), which describes the general make-up of the country, especially the western half.
The Nicaragua Canal
Since the Spaniards were able to get an idea of the general geography of the country, the idea arose to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific. In addition to several routes through Panama, Nicaragua offered itself, since the Rio San Juan already connects Lake Nicaragua with the Caribbean and the western shore of the lake is only about 20 kilometres from the Pacific at its narrowest point. From a 21st century perspective, however, the Rio San Juan is barely navigable (the rapids at El Castillo cannot be crossed by anything larger than a lancha), and the average depth of Lake Nicaragua is less than 15 metres, far less than the displacement of many modern container ships. However, the dream has always remained in the national consciousness and was a recurring theme in national politics until a recent development when President Ortega signed a contract (later approved by the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly) with a Chinese company to build the canal in the early 2010s. Construction officially began in December 2014 (although the actual scope of the work carried out is not entirely clear to the public) and the contract includes an airport, two deep-water ports and a large tourist facility on the Pacific side. The project is highly controversial both domestically and internationally, so expect extensive media coverage of the issue in the coming years.
There are about 6.1 million Nicaragüenses (often abbreviated Nicas) in Nicaragua. The majority of the population is mixed (about 70%) and white (about 17%). Nicaraguan culture is strongly influenced by European and Amerindian customs and traditions, with some African elements on the Caribbean coast. Most Nicaraguans speak monolingual Spanish and about 90% understand it, but other languages include (in descending order of speakers) Miskito, English Creole, English, Chinese and Sumo. The largest minorities all live on the Caribbean side of the country and include the Miskito (indigenous people, formerly allied with the British), the Garifuna (of indigenous and African descent) and the Rama people. Some of them speak indigenous languages or Caribbean Creole English. Conflict still occurs today as people of mixed descent settle in the east of the country and take over or forcibly displace land where Indigenous or Afro-descendants used to live. Immigrant communities are generally small, but the German-Nicaraguan community was economically important in the coffee trade until Somoza expelled them as a “war measure” during World War II (which Nicaragua “fought” on the side of the Allies). Other immigrant communities include Chinese-Nicaraguans and Afro-Nicaraguans. More recently, large expatriate communities have emerged in cities such as Grenada, but immigration has been and still is overshadowed by emigration.
For economic and political reasons, many Nicaraguans have left their country in recent decades, mainly for the United States and Costa Rica. Between 500,000 and 1 million Nicaraguans now live and work in Costa Rica, not all of them legally, which has led to personal and diplomatic tensions between the two countries. The Nicaraguan diaspora in the United States consists of political migrants, like the Cuban population in Miami, and economic migrants. Unlike their neighbours, however, emigration to the United States is not as widespread or culturally dominant as the presence of Latinos in the United States might suggest.
Units of measurement
Although Nicaragua officially uses the metric system, some common Spanish units are used in everyday speech and even by vendors and others, as well as some American units. One common unit of distance is the “vara”, which is often given as an approximation of distances for directional purposes. Although the actual length of a vara is one metre, in practice it can vary from half a metre to over a metre. When asking for directions or distances, try to ask how long it would take to walk there, unless it is a long distance, as most Nicaraguans do not have a car and are therefore not used to estimating long distances.
The common unit of volume is the American fluid ounce, and beer is often sold in 12 oz bottles (354 ml, sometimes “metric” as 355 ml). When you see 12. oz and a price tag (or “doce onzas”), it usually refers to the beer bottle containing that amount. Gallons are also sometimes used for large quantities of water. For more information on American units, see Metric and imperial equivalents.
Weight is best measured in pounds (imperials), which is about 450 grams (not 500 grams). Other units are the quintal and the arroba, which are used to price commodities such as sugar and coffee, as reported in newspapers.
By 2006, tourism had become Nicaragua’s second largest industry. In the last seven years, tourism has grown by about 70% nationwide, with rates ranging from 10% to 16% per year. Nicaragua has experienced positive growth in the tourism sector over the last decade, becoming the largest industry in 2007. The increase and growth has seen tourism revenues increase by more than 300% over a 10-year period. The growth of tourism has also had a positive impact on the agriculture, trade and finance and construction sectors.
Every year, about 60,000 US citizens visit Nicaragua, mainly business people, tourists and people visiting relatives. About 5,300 people from the United States currently live in the country. Most tourists visiting Nicaragua come from the United States, Central and South America and Europe. According to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Tourism (INTUR), the colonial cities of León and Granada are the most popular places for tourists. Likewise, the cities of Masaya and Rivas, as well as the towns of San Juan del Sur, El Ostional, El Castillo, Rio San Juan, Ometepe, the Mombacho volcano, the Corn Islands, etc. are important tourist attractions. In addition, ecotourism, sport fishing and surfing attract many tourists to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is known as “the land of lakes and volcanoes” because of the many lagoons and lakes and the chain of volcanoes that run from north to south along the country’s Pacific coast. Today, only 7 of Nicaragua’s 50 volcanoes are considered active. Many of these volcanoes offer great opportunities for tourists with activities such as hiking, climbing, camping and swimming in the crater lakes.
The Apoyo Lagoon Nature Reserve was created by the eruption of the Apoyo volcano about 23,000 years ago, which left a huge crater 7 km wide that gradually filled with water. It is surrounded by the old crater wall. The edge of the lagoon is lined with restaurants, many of which offer kayaks. Besides exploring the surrounding forest, many water sports are practised in the lagoon, including kayaking.
According to TV Noticias, Nicaragua’s main tourist attractions are its beaches, scenic routes, the architecture of cities such as Leon and Granada and, more recently, ecotourism and agri-tourism, especially in the north of the country. As a result of the increase in tourism, foreign direct investment in Nicaragua rose by 79.1% between 2007 and 2009.
Tourism has grown strongly recently and is now the second largest industry in the country. President Daniel Ortega has declared his intention to use tourism to fight poverty throughout the country.
The growth of tourism has had a positive impact on agriculture, trade and the financial sector, as well as on the construction sector. The results for Nicaragua’s tourism economy are remarkable: in 2010, the country welcomed one million tourists per calendar year for the first time in its history.
Ecotourism aims to be ecologically and socially conscious, it focuses on local culture, wilderness and adventure. Ecotourism in Nicaragua is growing year by year. The country offers a range of ecotourism tours and places that are perfect for adventurers. Nicaragua has three ecoregions, the Pacific, the Central and the Atlantic, which contain volcanoes, rainforests and farmlands. Most ecolodges and other ecoregional destinations are located on the island of Ometepe, which lies in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, an hour’s boat ride from Grenada. While some are foreign-owned, like the permaculture tropical lodge Finca El Zopilote, others are owned by local families, like the small but highly regarded Finca Samaria.
More recently, sand skiing on the Cerro Negro volcano in León has become a popular attraction. Both active and dormant volcanoes can be climbed. The most visited volcanoes include Masaya, Momotombo, Mombacho, Cosigüina and the volcanoes Maderas and Concepción on Ometepe.
The most notable features of Nicaragua’s geography are visible at first glance: Lake Nicaragua in the southwest with a mostly low-lying plain in the west that experiences dry seasons and has historically been the most densely populated and agricultural part of the country. In the north, the high mountains have given rise to coffee and tobacco cultivation. This is where the land is coldest and where most of the historical guerrillas, Sandinista or contra, found their hideouts. From northwest to southeast, a chain of mostly active volcanoes stretches across the country – including Lake Nicaragua, the Cosigüina volcano in the heart of the peninsula of the same name, which marks the northwestern end of this volcanic chain, and the Solentiname Islands, the southeasternmost feature of the country of volcanic origin. The eastern part of the country is dominated by tropical rainforest and has historically been sparsely populated. In the south, the Rio San Juan winds through a plain with rainforest on both sides, while in the north the Bosawas rainforest begins in the foothills of the northern highlands and extends almost to the coast. The country’s highest elevations are in the north, with the highest mountain – Cerro Mogoton (2,107 m) – on the border with Honduras. The longest river in the country and in all of Central America is the Río Coco or Wanki, which forms the border between Honduras and Nicaragua for much of its length. Likewise, the Rio San Juan forms the border with Costa Rica, although the river itself belongs entirely to Nicaragua due to a treaty dating back to the 19th century. The Rio San Juan is often seen by Nicaraguans as a national symbol, much like the Germans’ fascination with the Rhine in the 19th century, but because of its historical inaccessibility (before a new road was built, it took 12 hours by bus to get there from Managua), few Nicaraguans have ever been to the river.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the population of 5,891,199 is composed mainly of 69% mixed race (which traditionally means a mixture of European (white) and indigenous (in this case Indian) blood), 17% white, 5% indigenous, 9% black and other races. This proportion fluctuates with changes in migration patterns. The population is 58% urban (2013).
The capital Managua is the largest city with an estimated population of 2.2 million in 2010 and over 2.5 million inhabitants in the greater region. In 2005, more than 5.0 million people lived in the Pacific, Central and Northern regions and 700,000 in the Caribbean region.
There is a growing expatriate community, most of whom come from all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Taiwan and European countries, for reasons of work, investment or retirement. Most have settled in Managua, Granada and San Juan del Sur.
Many Nicaraguans live abroad, including in Costa Rica, the United States, Spain, Canada and other Central American countries.
Nicaragua has a population growth rate of 1.5% in 2013, resulting in one of the highest birth rates in the Western Hemisphere: 24.9 per 1,000 according to UN data for the period 2005-2010. The mortality rate was 4.7 per 1,000 for the same period, according to UN data.
The majority of the Nicaraguan population is mestizo (a mixture of Americans and Europeans), about 69%. 17% are of European origin, the majority are of Spanish origin, some are German, Italian, English, Turkish, Danish or French.
About 9% of Nicaragua’s population is black, living mainly on the Caribbean or Atlantic coasts of the country. The black population is mainly made up of English-speaking black Creoles, who are descendants of runaway or shipwrecked slaves; many are named after Scottish settlers who brought slaves with them, such as Campbell, Gordon, Downs and Hodgeson. Although many Creoles supported Somoza because of his close ties to the United States, they joined the Sandinista cause in July 1979, only to reject the revolution shortly afterwards as a reaction to a new phase of “westernisation” and the imposition of central rule from Managua. In the mid-1980s, Zelaya’s government divided the department – the eastern half of the country – into two autonomous regions and granted the black and indigenous populations of this region limited autonomy within the republic.
The remaining 5% of Nicaraguans are Amerindians, the descendants of the country’s indigenous population. The pre-Columbian population of Nicaragua was composed of many indigenous groups. The Nicaraguans, who gave the country its name, were present in the western region, as well as other groups related to the Maya in culture and language. The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua was inhabited by indigenous peoples, most of whom were related to the Chibchas, who had migrated from South America, mainly from what is now Colombia and Venezuela. These groups include the Miskitos, Ramas and Sumos. There was a significant indigenous minority until the 19th century, but this group was largely culturally assimilated into the mestizo majority.
Religion plays an important role in Nicaraguan culture and is particularly protected in the constitution. Religious freedom, guaranteed since 1939, and religious tolerance are promoted by the government and the constitution.
Nicaragua has no official religion. Catholic bishops are expected to offer their authority on the major occasions of the state, and their opinions on national issues are closely followed. In times of political crisis, they can be called upon to mediate between conflicting parties.
The largest denomination, and traditionally the religion of the majority, is Roman Catholicism. The number of practising Roman Catholics is declining, while the number of members of evangelical Protestant groups and Mormons has been rising sharply since the 1990s. There are also strong Anglican and Moravian communities on the Caribbean coast.
Roman Catholicism came to Nicaragua in the 16th century with the Spanish conquest and remained the established faith until 1939. Protestantism and other Christian denominations came to Nicaragua in the 19th century and gained many adherents on the Caribbean coast during British influence in the 20th century.
Popular religion revolves around the saints, who are seen as intercessors (but not mediators) between the people and God. Most localities, from the capital Managua to small rural communities, honour the patron saints, chosen from the Roman Catholic calendar, with annual festivals. In many communities, a rich tradition has developed around celebrations of the patron saints, such as Managua’s Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo), who is honoured in August with two colourful, often rowdy, day-long processions through the city. For the masses, the highlight of the religious calendar in Nicaragua is not Christmas or Easter, but La Purísima, a week-long festival in early December dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, during which elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary are erected in homes and workplaces.
The country’s close political ties have fostered religious attachment. Buddhism has grown through a steady influx of immigrants.
Economy of Nicaragua
Coffee is one of Nicaragua’s most important exports. In Jinotega, Esteli, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa and Madrize, coffee is exported all over the world, to North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Many coffee companies, such as Nestlé and Starbucks, buy Nicaraguan coffee.
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. Its gross domestic product (GDP) in purchasing power parity (PPP) was estimated at USD 17.37 billion in 2008. Agriculture accounts for 17% of GDP, the highest in Central America. Remittances account for more than 15% of Nicaragua’s GDP. Almost one billion dollars are sent into the country by Nicaraguans living abroad. The economy grew by about 4% in 2011.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, 48 % of Nicaragua’s population lives below the poverty line, with 79.9 % of the population living on less than 2 dollars a day. According to the UN, 80% of indigenous people (who make up 5% of the population) live on less than one dollar a day.
According to the World Bank, Nicaragua ranks 123rd among the best economies to start a business. Nicaragua’s economy is “62.7% free”, with high levels of tax, government, labour, investment, financial and trade freedom. It ranks 61st among the freest economies and 14th (out of 29) in the Americas.
In March 2007, Poland and Nicaragua signed an agreement to cancel $30.6 million borrowed by the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s. Inflation has fallen from 33,500% in 1988 to 9.45% in 2006 and foreign debt has been halved.
Nicaragua is primarily an agricultural country; agriculture accounts for 60 % of total exports, which are worth about 300 million US dollars annually. Almost two thirds of the coffee harvest comes from the northern part of the central highlands, from the area north and east of the city of Estelí. Soil erosion and pollution from the intensive use of pesticides have become serious problems in the cotton district. Yields and exports have been declining since 1985. Today, most of Nicaragua’s bananas are grown in the northwest of the country, near the port of Corinto; sugar cane is also grown in the same district. Cassava, a root crop similar to the potato, is an important food in tropical regions. Cassava is also the main ingredient in tapioca pudding. Nicaragua’s agricultural sector has benefited from the country’s close relations with Venezuela. It is estimated that Venezuela imports about $200 million worth of agricultural products. In the 1990s, the government began efforts to diversify agriculture. New export-oriented crops include peanuts, sesame, melons and onions.
Fishing boats from the Caribbean coast bring shrimp and lobster to the processing plants in Puerto Cabezas, Bluefields and Laguna de Perlas. Turtle fishing flourished on the Caribbean coast before it collapsed due to overfishing.
Mining is becoming an important industry in Nicaragua, contributing less than 1% to the gross domestic product (GDP). Due to growing environmental concerns about the destruction of tropical forests, restrictions on logging are being introduced. But logging continues despite these obstacles; in fact, a single deciduous tree can be worth thousands of dollars.
During the war between the US-backed Contras and the Sandinista government in the 1980s, much of the country’s infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. Transport facilities in the country are often inadequate. For example, it is not possible to travel from Managua to the Caribbean coast via the motorway. The road ends in the town of El Rama. Travellers have to go the rest of the way by boat on the Río Escondido – a five-hour trip. The Centroamérica power plant on the Tuma River in the central highlands has been expanded and other hydroelectric projects have been launched to supply electricity to the country’s new industries. Nicaragua has long been seen as a possible site for a new sea-level canal to complement the Panama Canal.
The minimum wage in Nicaragua is one of the lowest in the Americas and the world. Remittances account for about 15 % of the country’s gross domestic product. Growth in the maquila sector slowed in the first decade of the 21st century due to increasing competition from Asian markets, especially China. Land is the traditional basis of wealth in Nicaragua, with large fortunes derived from the export of commodities such as coffee, cotton, beef and sugar. Almost the entire upper class and nearly a quarter of the middle class are large landowners.
A 1985 government study classified 69.4 percent of the population as poor because they were unable to meet one or more of their basic needs for housing, sanitation (water, sewage and rubbish collection), education and employment. The definition standards for this study were very low; a dwelling was considered substandard if it was built with waste materials and dirt floors, or if it was occupied by more than four people per room.
Rural workers are dependent on agricultural wage labour, especially for coffee and cotton. Only a small number of them have permanent jobs. Most of them are migrants who follow the crops during harvest time and find other work in the off-season. The “lower” farmers are usually smallholders who do not have enough land to feed a family; they also work in the harvest. The “better” farmers have enough resources to be economically independent. They produce enough surpluses beyond their own needs to be able to participate in national and global markets.
The urban underclass is characterised by the informal sector of the economy. The informal sector consists of small businesses that use traditional technologies and operate outside of legal labour protection and taxation. Workers in the informal sector are self-employed, unpaid family workers or employees of small businesses, and they are generally poor.
Informal sector workers in Nicaragua include plumbers, seamstresses, bakers, shoemakers and carpenters, people who wash and iron laundry or prepare food for sale on the street, as well as thousands of peddlers, small business owners (who often work from home) and market stall operators. Some work alone, others work in the small talleres (workshops/factories) that are responsible for much of the country’s industrial production. Since income from the informal sector is usually very low, few families can live on a single income. Like most Latin American countries, Nicaragua is characterised by a very small upper class, about 2% of the population, which is very wealthy and holds political and economic power in the country that is not in the hands of foreign corporations and the private sector. These oligarchic families have ruled Nicaragua for generations and their wealth is politically and economically integrated horizontally and vertically.
Nicaragua is currently a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, also known as ALBA. ALBA has proposed the creation of a new currency, the Sucre, to be used by its members. Essentially, this means that the Nicaraguan córdoba will be replaced by the sucre. Other nations that will follow a similar model are: Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Honduras, Cuba, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda.
Nicaragua is considering building a canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. President Daniel Ortega says this will bring Nicaragua “economic independence”. Construction on the project is scheduled to begin in December 2014.