The fascinating country of Nicaragua has overcome a tumultuous 20th century and, thanks in part to its eye-catching geography, is becoming an ever more popular tourist destination.
- Capital (and Largest City): Managua
- Population (2014): 6,198,154 (110th)
- Total Area: 130,375 km² (97th)
- Official Language: Spanish
- Currency: Nicaraguan córdoba (C$) (NIO)
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the people of Nicaragua were largely a mix of hunter-gatherer tribes. This all changed once Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502. Once the Spanish started to move in, they encountered three powerful tribes (one of which was led by a chieftain named Nicaragua). They converted many to Christianity and made further inroads in the region – setting up a permanent settlement in 1524 (Granada).
Over the next several hundred years, the Spanish founded more settlements while mingling or coming into conflict with the native population. The country did endure hardship with a volcano destroying the capital in 1606 as well the Brits and Spaniards fighting here during the American Revolution.
Nicaragua achieved independence from Spain in 1821, though it quickly became a part of the First Mexican Empire. After the Empire’s overthrow, Nicaragua joined the Federal Republic of Central America before finally achieving its own independence in 1838. More problems were on the horizon however, as the two major cities in the country stood on opposite sides of an ideological conflict – with the liberals in León and the conservatives in Granada.
The 1840’s and 50’s was a time of civil war and strife. An American adventurer by the name of William Walker was invited by the liberals to help fight against the conservatives, but instead took the presidency for himself in 1856. This lasted only a year before he was ousted, following that the conservatives took over for a period of three decades.
The country saw more trouble in the early 20th century, with conservative forces (now rebels) threatening the rule of President Zelaya. In response, the United States intervened in 1909 – forcing Zelaya to resign. In 1912, then President Díaz called upon the US to help calm an insurrection. As a result US Marines invaded, and ended up staying in Nicaragua until 1933. In the latter years of occupation, Augusto César Sandino led a guerilla war against both conservative forces and the US. After the US left, he came into conflict with President Sacasa and a newfound power, the Somoza family. Despite an agreement in place, the Somoza family feared an insurrection by Sandino. After a state dinner, Sandino was kidnapped and executed by members of the National Guard on February 21, 1934.
This ushered in a long era of military dictatorships, largely those ruled by members of the Somoza family. Despite the assassination of Dictator-General Anastasio Somoza in 1956, his family continued to effectively rule the country until 1979. After a 1972 earthquake destroyed nearly 90% of Managua the Somoza family took the relief money for their own purposes and talk of rebellion began to grow.
A group known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front had already formed in 1961, led by Carlos Fonseca. With the earthquake rapidly increasing recruitment, the group looked poised to challenge the Somoza family. In 1979, the Sandinistas officially took power. While the US initially supported the government, aid was ended after it appeared arms were being sent to El Salvadoran rebels.
Rebel groups (known collectively as ‘contras’) had already begun to form in opposition to the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration authorized the CIA to begin training and funding the contras in order to disrupt the government. The contras went on a violent campaign against the population in order to hamstring the government – garnering much international criticism. The US Congress barred funding of the contras in 1983, however the administration continued funding them by selling arms to Iran and funneling the proceeds to the contras. This became known as the Iran-Contra affair and remains one of the most famous political scandals in American history.
Anyways, back to Nicaragua. It was now 1990 and a coalition of anti-Sandinista groups had just won the general election. The Sandinistas suffered continued defeat throughout the 90’s, however their luck would soon change. In 2001, Arnoldo Alemán of the PLC (rival party) was imprisoned for embezzlement. After a protracted attempt to strip the President of his power by the Sandinistas (referred to by some as a ‘slow motion coup’), the Sandinistas returned to office in 2006 under Daniel Ortega. He remains in power today, and the constitution has recently been amended to allow for a third successive term.
Like in most Latin American countries, the culture is a mix of both European and indigenous traditions. Folklore, music, and religion are all deeply important, with some minor regional variations. Whether in music or dance, Nicaraguans have developed a colourful and distinctive culture. Of course, salsa dancing is also popular – especially in the country’s nightclubs.
Nicaragua is also known for distinctive cuisine. Corn is a staple of the diet while dishes such as gallo pinto (the national dish) make use of various crops available in the country. Consisting of beans and coconut, along with carne asada, plantains, fried cheese, and more, gallo pinto is a popular way to start the day.
Baseball is the most popular sport in Nicaragua. The national league is followed throughout the country, while many of the nation’s best have played in the MLB. Beyond baseball, boxing and soccer are also popular– with the latter gaining popularity recently.
While not a very big country, Nicaragua is renowned for varied and spectacular geography – particularly with regards to volcanoes. There are three distinct regions in the country. The first is the Pacific lowlands; a large, hot, and fertile plain home to many of the country’s (active) volcanoes. The north central highlands are a diverse area full of farmland (for coffee, cattle, milk, and more) as well as a large collection of forests and rivers. Finally the Caribbean lowlands are a large area of rainforest void of much civilization and bordered by a winding coastline.
The capital city of Managua is by far the largest in the country and has undergone a resurgence since the devastating earthquake of 1972. Other major cities include the historic León and Granada – both famed for their colonial sites, which were at the centre of the events that shaped Nicaragua’s history.
Did you know?
- Granada is the oldest city in continental Latin America
- Lake Nicaragua is home to freshwater sharks (watch out!)
- It is one of the safest countries in the region
- Nicaragua borders two oceans
- The most famous dance from the country is the ‘Palo de Mayo’
- Street names aren’t used in the address system
- Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and is famed for its volcanic islands
Nicaragua has had a long road to recovery after a tumultuous late 20th century. Thanks to increased investment and tourism, the country seems to be finding its footing looking forward.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).
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