Nicaragua

The largest country in Central America, Nicaragua lies between Costa Rica and Honduras and has a population of roughly 5.5 million. Settled by the Spanish as early as the 16th century, Nicaragua had become an independent republic by 1838. By 1978 opposition to the government had led to a civil war which was won by a Marxist guerilla force, the Sandinistas. From 1979, these Sandinistas ruled the country and enjoyed great popular support, but were hampered by the extreme poverty of the country and the US-sponsored guerilla forces who attempted to destabilise the regime throughout the 1980s. Today the country is gradually rebuilding, although environmental hazards like 1998's Hurricane Mitch continue to play havoc with economic stability. Bananas, sugarcane and cotton grow abundantly, and coffee and beef are the main exports. Resilient and welcoming, Nicaragua's real wealth lies in its people.

Language

Spanish is the official language of Nicaragua, and is spoken by over 97% of the population, the only major indigenous language being Miskito. This is spoken in the north-eastern part of the country, and a Creole based on Miskito and English is widespread on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.

Currency

The currency is the Nicaraguan Cordoba. At the time of writing (Autumn 2006) 1 Cordoba was worth £0.03 / $0.06 / €0.04. Visit www.xe.com/ucc for up-to-date conversion rates.

Weather

Nicaragua's climate is hot and tropical in the lowlands, the tierra caliente, cooler in the highlands, the tierra templada. Don't underestimate how cool it can be in the mountains, which reach an altitude of 2100 m. The country is generally dry from December to April, and wet from June to October. The eastern (Caribbean) coast of Nicaragua is one of the wettest regions of Central America, with an annual rainfall of 150 inches, and there is a risk of hurricanes during the wet season.

Attractions

National Parks - Nicaragua has more than ten stunning protected areas. The Masaya Volcano National Park has active craters, and you can see the endemic green parakeets nesting in the crater walls by hiking one of the numerous trails around the park. Nearby Mombacho Volcano Reserve boasts tropical cloud forest and views of the immense lake Cocibolca and its islands. Look out for white-faced and howler monkeys and over 175 bird species.

Turtles - Nicaragua is home to the critically endangered Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles. Nesting peaks in August and September, and to witness it for yourself is an amazing experience, with thousands of diminutive newly-hatched turtles scrambling towards the water. Consider volunteering with an organisation like Rancho Esperanza, and do your bit for turtle conservation!

Managua - the Nicaraguan capital was almost destroyed by the earthquake of 1972, and is today a chaotic, lively city with 1 million inhabitants. Don't miss the Huellas de Acahualinca, a series of fossilized footprints over 6000 years old, and the old cathedral.

Unspoilt coastline - Nicaragua's Caribbean beaches are palm-fringed, white sand affairs. The idyllic Islas del Maiz, 80km offshore, are encircled by coral reefs and turquoise waters - perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving.

Shopping

Nicaraguan goods include gold and silver jewellery, embroidery, shoes and paintings. The craft market in Masaya is particularly good. There are large stores and international brands on offer at the Centro Comercial Managua in the capital.

Nicaragua has yet to enforce laws making the sale of endangered species illegal, so choose your souvenirs carefully. For environmental reasons, try not to buy any goods apparently made of turtle shell, avoid turtle soup and eggs, and steer clear of coral too.

Nightlife

Managua and Granada offer an active nightlife centred around bars rather than nightclubs. One of the best ways to enjoy yourself in Nicaragua is to time your visit to coincide with a local festival. The Mayo Ya includes a popular dance known as the Palo de Mayo and the coastal town of Bluefields is a great place to witness this fiesta.

You will hear the pure, clear sounds of marimba music throughout the country. Often played at social occasions, the marimba - a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone - is usually accompanied by violin and guitar.

Driving

  • Drive on the right hand side of the road.
  • The speed limit is 30 kph in built-up areas, 80kph on highways and 50 kph elsewhere.
  • Drink driving prohibited and the law is rigorously enforced - drivers may be jailed until sober, or until they have been tried.
  • Seatbelts must be worn by drivers and passengers.
  • Children under the age of 12 must sit in the rear of the vehicle. For child under 4 years, a car safety seat must be used
  • The use of mobile phones while driving is prohibited.
  • The majority of Nicaraguan roads are unpaved, take extra care during the wet season, when torrential rain causes serious erosion and limits visibility.
  • Hand signals are commonly used in place of indicators when a driver wishes to signal a turn.

Food and Drink

Most Nicaraguans are peasant farmers, with a diet of maize, rice and beans, supplemented occasionally by meat and eggs. Most commonly red beans and rice are fried with onion, pepper and garlic to make Gallo Pinto, which can be delicious. Dishes vary regionally, in León you'll find Quesillos, tortillas stuffed with cheese, cabbage and cream, while Sopa de Mondongo (tripe soup) is a speciality of the Masaya district.

Desserts are very sweet, the dulces found throughout Latin America. The delicious Cajeta de Coco is made using coconut and yucca, while Arroz con Piña is a thick drink made with pineapple and rice, and flavoured with vanilla.

Beer is common throughout Nicaragua and there is much disagreement about the superior brand - try Tona or Victoria and decide for yourself! Chicha de Maíz is a cloudy, home-brewed maize beer, it's worth sampling and is very filling. A 2006 competition to find a national drink of Nicaragua produced el macuá - a deliciously refreshing blend of white rum, guava juice, lemon juice and sugar. Non-alcoholic drinks include fresh juice made from the exotic-sounding sapodilla, jocote and mamoncillo as well as more familiar tropical fruits.

Tourist Information

www.intur.gob.ni is Nicaragua's official tourist information website.

All car hire locations in Nicaragua