Country Facts – Nicaragua
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Nicaragua Country Guide
Nicaragua is a taste of what Central America would have once been like. While tourism the influx of wealthy travellers has transformed countries like Costa Rica and Panama, Nicaragua continues to offer an arguably more “authentic” few of Central American culture.
Here 48% of the population live below the poverty line and agriculture still represents the largest industry. You will fewer high-rise apartment blocks or beach-side resorts, and more history and culture.
This relative lack of development has been further encouraged by way of laws which serve to protect almost a fifth of the Nicaraguan landmass in the form of national parks and nature reserves. This makes Nicaragua one of the very best travel destinations for those looking for outdoor adventure.
Whether it’s trekking through the jungle, zip-lining through the trees or visiting ancient Amerindian ruins, Nicaragua has much to offer visitors looking for a country largely unspoilt by modernity.
Let the adventure begin…
As a Central American country it should come as no surprise that the typical climate in Nicaragua is described as “tropical” – this is to say it is characterised by high humidity and high temperatures. Furthermore, Nicaragua follows the typical seasons seen in this part of the world; namely a wet season/dry season divide, rather than one consisting of a cool winter and a hot summer.
The dry season generally runs from January to June, considerably longer than some of the other Central American countries; in Costa Rica, for example, the dry season usually ends in late April or early May. This prolonged dry season is the best time to visit, as wildlife may be easier to see, and the less extreme weather conditions make for easier sight-seeing and getting about.
The period from June through till October sees the highest levels of rainfall. In these months, flash floods and hurricanes can also occur on a semi-regular basis, which can make travel somewhat problematic. Roads can become impassable and more rural areas can become cut off for periods of time.
Geographers recognize three distinct climactic regions in Nicaragua, and these too can affect the weather experienced. The first of these is known as the “Pacific lowlands” and is characterised by volcanic activity. Here, the backbone ridge that runs the length of the country can lead to eruptions, so visitors are advised to keep an eye on warnings provided. Equally, the dust expelled by these volcanoes, and the nutrients that fall to earth as a result, make the Pacific lowlands one of the richest areas of the country for agricultural production; something that is still Nicaragua’s largest industry.
The second area is represented by the central highlands. This more mountainous region can be considerably drier and more temperate than other areas of the country, helping to make this a rather more manageable environment for many Western visitors.
Lastly comes the Pacific lowlands, generally the hottest and most humid area of all. The soil here is typically poor and lacks nutriment which, combined with the microclimate found here, makes the lowlands far less densely populated and aggressively cultivated that other areas of the country. No surprise then that this area has become known as the “Mosquito Coast” amongst locals.
Nicaragua benefits from a number of different inter-twined cultures which mix and match to create a fascinating patchwork of different foods, music and folklore. To begin, of course, are the various native Amerindian tribes who were present long before the Spanish conquistadors made an appearance.
Concerns over trade routes in the Caribbean also led the east coast of Nicaragua becoming a British protectorate between 1655 and 1860. The British settlements however soon noted how well crops grew here and established a number of plantations, together with imported African slaves to work the land.
Today each of these ethnic groups has an influence on Nicaraguan culture. The Spanish and English, for example, left their language, while the Creole population has made an impact on the local cuisine. This mixture helps to not only make Nicaragua quite distinct from many of its Central American neighbours, but also adds many additional layers of interest when getting to grips with this fascinating country.
Interestingly, Nicaragua is notable for being one of only a handful of countries in the world where abortion is illegal, without any exceptions. This is just one example of how central the family unit is to the Nicaraguan culture.
Like many other Central American countries that experienced Spanish colonization in the 1500’s, the official language of Nicaragua is Spanish. Note that Nicaraguan Spanish is unique and includes a number of notable differences from the language spoken in mainland Spain. That said, the past influence of the British means that English is widely spoken, and many Nicaraguans are proudly bi-lingual. Visitors are unlikely to have many problems communicating in English, even in small towns and villages.
If you’re going to make the most of your time in Nicaragua it’s essential that you’re able to explore everything this incredible country has to offer.
The most common types of public transport are public buses or local taxis, however both of these modes of transport have their drawbacks. Buses, while cheap, see more than their fair share of petty crime. From muggings to bag snatches, travelling by bus in Nicaragua certainly comes with its risks. Visitors are advised to take care with personal belongings if travelling by bus, and to pay equal care at bus stations where the crowds make it even easier for thieves to escape.
Taxis come in two forms in Nicaragua; those that are registered and those that are not. The former can represent a suitable mode of transport around major towns or cities, though reports of tourists being overcharged abound. Try asking a local for an estimate and negotiate the fair before you step into the cab. For safety, try to book a taxi through a hotel or suchlike. In this way you will be better able to avoid unregistered vehicles, where muggings and kidnappings occur from time to time.
A safer option than either standard yellow buses or taxis are the many “shuttle buses” that criss-cross the country. These can be booked in advance and will pick you up at your residence, and drop you off at your destination. The costs are normally very reasonable, and the greatly reduced chance of becoming a victim of crime, not to mention the practicality of these shuttle buses, makes them a popular option with tourists and expats alike.
Cars can of course be hired by anyone with an existing driving license. Opinions vary; most foreign drivers report good quality roads and an enjoyable driving experience. That said, driving standards in Nicaragua may not be what you’re used to, and accident are commonplace. Vehicles frequently fail to indicate, and many have no working lights. Driving after dark is therefore to be avoided for safety reasons. One factor that foreign drivers can agree on is how muddling attempting to navigate around the capital city Managua can be, and is an experience that few travellers are keen to repeat!
It is interesting to note that Nicaragua has no working train system, the network having been retired some years ago.
Nicaraguan healthcare can be a world of polar opposites. Within Managua you will find numerous hospitals and pharmacies, including the world-renowned Vivian Pellas Metropolitan. This hospital is considered one of the very best in Central America, offering Western-style facilities, not to mention numerous English-speaking and American-educated doctors. Understandably, Managua has become a hotspot in the medical tourism industry, offering world-class care at third-world prices.
Outside of Managua however, the standards of medical care on offer are considerably less advanced. Many visitors report that surgeries and hospitals outside the capital are severely lacking in facilities, and even private clinics can leave a lot to be desired.
The message is clear; if you’re in need of medical assistance, expect to visit Managua for the best care.
There is no reciprocal healthcare arrangement between Nicaragua and the UK or USA, so visitors will be expected to pay for any treatment necessary, often in cash and before any care is offered. While the costs of medical care in Nicaragua are considered quite reasonable, it is advisable to invest in comprehensive health insurance before arriving in the country in order to ensure you can afford the best levels of care available.
The national currency in Nicaragua is known as the “codoba”. That said, US dollars are accepted almost everywhere and essentially act as a second currency. Some ATMs give the option to withdraw cash in either currency, though note that credit cards are less widely accepted outside the major cities than in many other countries.
It is interesting to note that very few currency exchange services in Nicaragua will change Sterling. Visitors should therefore aim to bring universally-accepted US dollars with them instead.
As with so many other expat destinations, schooling in Nicaragua can be divided into local state schools, privately-run schools and international schools.
The standard school year in Nicaragua, found in both state schools and most private schools, runs from February to November, with a long Christmas break separating the academic year. International schools are more likely to follow the typical Western school year with a long summer break in July and August.
As the first language of Nicaragua, most schools teach primarily in Spanish, which can sometimes cause problems for expat children. A handful of the better private schools split the day, teaching one half of lesson in English and the other half in Spanish, and some parents report how quickly their non-Spanish speaking children are able to pick up the language when following such a routine.
Realistically though most expat parents opt for one of the high quality international schools, almost all of which are located in Managua. Of these, the American Nicaraguan School (ANS) is possibly the best-known, welcoming as it does English-speaking expat children as well as children from some of the wealthier native families.
These international schools normally offer high levels of tuition and help to prepare pupils for attending a Western university in the future. That said, reports suggest that at present waiting times for the better international schools are considerable, so the sooner you can get on the waiting list the better.
Food & Drink
Nicaragua is sadly not well-known as a “foodie” destination. Much of the standard fare is quite simple, consisting of a base of either corn or rice. This carbohydrate-rich base may be supplemented with an assortment of locally-grown fruits and vegetables including yucca, cassava and bananas. To some travellers this will represent a wholesome, healthy and low-cost diet. Sadly, for others, this relatively simple diet can be just plain boring!
Relatively speaking, meat is a luxury to the Nicaraguans, so beans are the most common source of protein encountered in cafes, and may be served with almost any meal. The “classic” meal of Nicaragua is Gallo Pinto (“Spotted Hen”) which consists of rice and red beans (the spots) together with seasonal vegetables. This is may be enjoyed at any time of day yet is most common at breakfast.
As a coffee-producing nation, everyone’s favourite caffeinated drink tends to feature prominently in the lives of Nicaraguans. Interestingly the preparation can vary by the time of day. Most commonly coffee is drunk with hot milk for breakfast, while cups enjoyed later in the day are more likely to be served sweet and black.
Most visits to Nicaragua are without incident, but where problems do occur these are most prevalent in Managua, the capital city. Here street crime occurs with relative frequency, and it is not unusual for weapons to be used in muggings. Due to the injuries incurred by some tourists in such situations, travellers are advised not to resist in such situations, but to hand over money and then report to a police station as quickly as possible. Outside of the major cities, these crime rates go down considerably and more rural areas are typically quite safe.
Hitch hiking in Nicaragua is commonplace and is generally safe, though travellers are warned against hitch hiking alone. In pairs or trios, hitch hiking can be a cheap and enjoyable way to get around, though it is considered polite to offer payment at the end of a journey, even though this will rarely be accepted.
In terms of health risks all travellers should seek current medical advice some weeks before travel. Dengue fever exists in Nicaragua, as does Chikungungya virus, and your doctor should be able to advise you on the best preventative drugs to take.
Note that there is no British Embassy in Nicaragua, which can make resolving issues rather more problematic than in some other countries. In case of emergency, British citizens are advised to seek advice from the Honorary Consul. Alternatively, other embassies (such as that in Costa Rica) can be a useful source of assistance. Travellers are advised to take the contact details for these offices with them when they travel, as an added life-line should any issues occur.
Places to Visit
Nicaragua has largely avoided the glitz and over-development of some other popular tourist spots. By all means, Western-style restaurants and night clubs can still be found, but Nicaragua’s draw is really the wealth of natural beauty and ancient history that can be explored here. For lovers out the outdoors, there can be few better countries to visit.
Originally founded in 1524, Granada is reputed to be the first European-named city in mainland America. These days Granada represents a hotbed of classic Spanish colonial architecture and history. Further adding to the cultural heritage on Granada is the Mi Museo museum, considered one of the finest in all of Central America. If history is your interest then a visit to Granada is consequently essential.
Ometepe is in many ways the most intriguing tropical paradise in Nicaragua. Formed from two touching volcanoes that create an hourglass-shaped island, Ometepe isn’t a maritime island; instead it sits within the largest inland lake in all of Central America. One can look out from the jungle-swathed mountain-side across a lake so large that it looks like an ocean. Wildlife abounds on this island, cut off as it is from the mainland, making it one of the best places in the country for bird watching.
Miraflores is world-famous for being a geographical hotspot for orchids. Scientists have found over 200 different species here in this huge National Park. Interestingly, local farmers within the boundaries of the park offer basic accommodation, meaning that one can sleep in the middle of this tropical jungle area; truly a memorable experience for visitors.
San Juan del Sur
This once-sleepy fishing village has now become one of the most popular beach towns in all of Nicaragua. If you want to sample the best restaurants and night life that Nicaragua has to offer then San Juan del Sur is the place for you. It’s also one of the best places to relax on the beach or take your first tentative surfing lesson.
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Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Nicaragua please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.