Nicaragua is the largest geographic country in Central America but its least densely populated. This country dominated international headlines in the 1980s, a victim of Cold War politics. After its decade long civil war from 1979 to 1990, Nicaragua has slowly recovered from the shambles it was left in and is fast becoming a major tourist destination of Latin America. Tourism infrastructure has greatly improved in the last decade. And the country is all open arms to travelers when it comes to the visa process and the renowned friendliness and warmth of its people. Nicaragua today offers its visitors the vine of its beautiful coastlines, sweeping highland sceneries, forested mountains, and enormous sparkling lakes in the backdrop of fiery volcanoes.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover Nicaragua in 1502. He was followed some twenty years later by the first Spanish colonial settlements in Granada along the shores of Lake Nicaragua and in León east of Lake Managua. Soon afterwards, several Spanish Conquistador-led forces invaded Nicaragua and parceled out the country. Many of the native Indians died from disease or were otherwise enslaved to work the lands or sent off to other parts of Central America.
While originally a part of the kingdom of Guatemala in the 1520s, Nicaragua joined the Mexican Empire and then later achieved independence from Spain in 1821. In 1894, Nicaragua reincorporated the Mosquito Coast, which had been claimed and colonized by the United Kingdom for two hundred years prior.
Since Nicaragua’s independence, a rivalry between the liberal and intellectual elite of León and the ealthy conservatives of Granada have caused many civil wars and revolutions, including one during the 1840s and 1850s, another in 1893, several more between 1909 and 1933, and the most recent conflict from 1979 to 1990, which resulted in a death toll of 30,000. This is not to mention the brutal dictatorship of the Somozas between 1936 and 1979 suffered by Nicaragua. Throughout Nicaragua’s years of civil wars, revolutions, and bitter turmoil, the United States government continually supported and funded the conservatives, capped off by their infamous clandestine support of the Contras’ attempts at overthrowing the democratically-elected but left-leaning Sandinistas in the 1980s.
Since the 1990s, however, Nicaragua has moved away from its internal strife and have held elections that have been judged free, fair, and untampered with even after the fact. The country has experienced economic growth and an increase in tourism as a result.
Nicaragua’s natural attractions are numerous. In the western-southern end of the country, the enormous freshwater Lake Nicaragua is inhabited by several large and small islands like Ometepe and Solentiname as well as shore-side communities. Not only are these spots perfect for fishing, sailing and swimming, but you’ll also find conical volcanoes like the Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas that you can climb and explore and volcanic crater lakes which you can swim in. There are also national parks like the Volcán Masaya National Park on the northwest periphery of Lake Nicaragua or Chococente in San Juan del Sur, where you can spot everything from exotic birds to nesting turtles.
The north-central region of the country, known as the northern highlands, is full of green hills and pine-forested mountains. This is the area where you can find many coffee plantations, cloud forests, and nice eco-lodges you can stay at. In and around Jinotega and Matagalpa, you can find great hiking trails and bird-watching habitats.
On the Atlantic coast, there is more of an Afro-Caribbean, Reggae culture. You can visit the Corn islands and their sandy, pristine beaches and laid-back Jamaican lifestyle. This area is great for diving, snorkeling, swimming, and eating mouth-watering seafood.
The Pacific coast, however, is probably better suited than the Atlantic coast for surfing and sailing. Many surfers hit coastal beach towns like San Juan del Sur and resort towns like Montelimar as well as local beach spots like Poneloya, which is near the big city of León. So perfect are the waves and sun of Nicaragua’s pacific coast, they have bred a loyal following of surfers who come back year after year.
For the more historical and culturally inclined, the conservative Granada, the liberal León, and the political Managua are three colonial towns rich with architectural buildings and cultural museums. Granada is the most well-preserved of the three whereas Managua has less historical remnants that have survived, the city having been destroyed by civil wars and massive earthquakes.
The best shopping town in Nicaragua is Masaya, which has many of Nicaragua’s artisans and artists. Managua and Granada are great for shopping as well. In all three places, you can find modern goods like shoes and leather products as well as local handicrafts and potteries. In these towns and especially in Solentiname, you can buy many colorful paintings from the hands of Nicaragua’s reputed artists and art communities.
Nicaragua is most famous for its gourmet coffee, its northern highlands producing some of the finest Arabica beans. You should definitely try out some of the different varieties, especially if you’re in Matagalpa where you can stay at resorts located on coffee plantations.