Nicaragua Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Time is a relative concept in Nicaragua. In a matter of a few hours, you can peer into the primeval mouth of an active volcano, still bubbling after its eruption thousands of years ago … witness the creation of pre-Columbian artisanal crafts at a bustling market that seems frozen in the past … stroll among centuries-old colonial architecture in one of the oldest cities in the New World … and bask in the smiles of a 21st-century nation that has put its turbulent past behind it to become one of the safest and most welcoming places in Central America.
Nicaragua—or “Nica,” as some locals call it—wears its history and culture on its sleeve, and it does so in the most authentic way. For several years, you’ve been hearing that it’s a must-see destination. So we are here to tell you: If you’ve been waiting for the right time to visit, it’s now.
Ancient Past and Colonization
Nicaragua’s original inhabitants roamed the land hunting and gathering as long as 14,000 years ago. Over millennia, people related to the Aztec, Mayan, and other civilizations from Mexico settled the fertile landscape of volcanic soils fed by mountain springs and lakes. Later, trade centers appeared on the shores of the Pacific, the Caribbean, and today’s Lake Nicaragua.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach this land. Spanish conquistadors followed, with their Christian zeal in tow. Some indigenous chieftains and their tribes embrace the religion the newcomers brought while others rejected it violently. It was 1524 when Spaniards permanently settled—in Granada on Lake Nicaragua and in León near Lake Managua. The latter was proclaimed the capital. About 100 years later, the eruption of Momotombo destroyed León, leaving its citizens to rebuild at an alternate location northwest. Today, the ruins of León Viejo (“Old León”) reveal the layout of the country’s original capital.
Post-Independence: From Civil Strife to Peace
Independence from Spain in 1821 did not lead to harmony as many native and mestizo Nicaraguans had desired. Liberals, based in León, and Conservatives, based in Granada were constantly at odds over the distribution of power. To ease the feud and stop an on-again off-again civil war, the capital was moved to Managua. The disorder and chaos culminated when Liberals invited American adventurer (and conniving opportunist) William Walker to join their cause. Walker exploited the power vacuum, held an election, and declared himself president in 1856, only to be driven out by the governments of neighboring countries.
Walker wasn’t the only mid-19th-century American connected to Nicaragua. The nation proved a convenient route for travelers from the Eastern United States who had their sights on the California Gold Rush. The fortune seekers arrived on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, navigated the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, then trekked overland to embark another ship that would take them north along the Pacific coast. Though circuitous, this route was far less treacherous than crossing the continent. Later, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt imagined a similar route for a manmade canal to connect the two seas: Nicaragua was his “Plan B,” should the geopolitical winds not go his way in Panama. The canal here, of course, never materialized. Still, as it turned out, this was the opening chapter of decades of U.S. involvement with the country’s tempestuous politics. Much of the 20th century remained turbulent as age-old tensions between Liberal and Conservative factions flared up, fueled by the corruptions of an oligarchic ruling family.
Today, under the presidency of Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (the party founded in 1961 and named for Augusto Sandino, rebel leader in the 1920s and 30s), Nicaragua has seen greater economic growth than many other Latin American countries.
A Rich and Celebratory Culture
Today, Nicaragua remains close to its roots as an agricultural country. Aromatic coffee, delicious cocoa, rum, and other products come from its highly arable land. Day to day living exudes a refreshing and distinct blend of Spanish and native traditions, finding expression in folklore, music, food, religion, and virtually every other strain of culture.
Colorful, flowing costumes bring vibrant life to El Güegüense, a UNESCO-recognized style of satirical drama heralded as Latin America’s most distinctive colonial-era traditions. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan music follows the beats of the percussive marimba and the strains of the fiddle and the guitarilla, a small guitar. International music such as merengue and salsa can also be heard spilling from cafes and bars from Managua to Granada.
Nicaraguan cuisine, too, takes its cues from the country’s mixed heritage. Local fruits and maize (corn) are staples. Mango, papaya, avocado, yuca, and bananas find their way to most any table. One of the most popular dishes, nacatamal, is cooked like a tamale, its fillings such as corn masa (a kind of dough), pork and vegetables wrapped and cooked in plantain leaves. Fried pork is a key ingredient in vigorón, also cooked in a banana leaf. The country’s national dish is gallo pinto, in which white rice and red beans are cooked separately, then fried together.
Nicaraguans are also celebrated for the care and skill they bring to colorful and distinct handicrafts. Often, artisans cluster together in cooperatives, giving their work greater exposure to more people. Many of the country’s districts are known for their sturdy and colorful handmade hammocks. Potters spin their clay to create ceramics that are at once decorative and functional. Leather, cloth, and even gold are also transformed into beautiful keepsakes by Nicaragua’s talented artists.