Places To See
Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor
One of the principal egg-laying grounds for endangered Olive Ridley and leatherback turtles is Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor, managed by local environment group Fundación Cocibolca. Between July and December - peaking in August and September - some 30,000 female Olive Ridleys, and a few hundred very endangered leatherbacks, nest here.
Watching turtles laying eggs on the beach, not to mention tiny baby turtles making their death-defying run for the water, especially on the scale presented here, is a truly wondrous sight. Leatherbacks usually arrive solo, but Olive Ridleys generally come in arribadas (flotillas), when more than 3000 of them pack the beaches at a time.
The turtle eggs were once the target of poachers but, in 2005, a federal law allowing 10% of the eggs for human consumption was overturned and the area is now patrolled by eco-cops from Marena (the Ministry of Environment).
Convento y Museo San Francisco
Central America's oldest church, and Granada's most striking building, the Iglesia San Francisco's bright blue facade resembles a big, gaudy cake. Constructed in 1585, it has been burnt down and rebuilt a couple of times since then, and most recently restored in 1989. Inside, you will find the region's best museum.
The church's museum includes a display of papier-mâché Indians engaged in various activities, some great primitivist art, and a scale model of Granada. But its main claim to fame is the Zapatera statuary: big black basalt statues carved sometime between AD 800 and 1200, discovered on the ancient ceremonial island of Zapatera in the 1880s, and brought together in Granada in the 1920s.
Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera
Isla Zapatera, a dormant volcano rising to 629m (2064ft) from the shallow waters of Lago de Nicaragua, is an ancient ceremonial island of the Chorotega Indians and male counterpart to Isla de Ometepe, whose smoking cone can be seen after you take the three-hour hike to the top. This and 13 other islands comprise the Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera.
The national park is designated to protect not only the remaining swaths of virgin tropical dry and wet forest, but also the unparalleled collection of petroglyphs and statues left here between 500 and 1500 years ago.
Perhaps most impressive is a 95m by 25m (312ft by 82ft) expanse carved into bedrock at the center of Isla El Muerto (Island of Death), where many statues have also been found. Several of the other islands also have petroglyphs and potential archaeological sites. But, like the rest of Nicaragua, there simply aren't funds to dig further.
About 500 people live here quasi-legally and self-sufficiently, hoping that no one puts pressure on Marena to do anything about it. Fortunately for them, the government isn't doing much with these islands, which means infrastructure is basic and access is inconvenient. You can camp for free on the island, but bring your own food and water.
When to go?
Nicaragua has distinct dry and rainy seasons, the timing of which varies from coast to coast. With the possible exception of the last month of the dry season (usually mid-April to mid-May) when the land is parched and the air full of dust, there really is no bad time to visit. However, the most pleasant time to visit the Pacific or central regions is early in the dry season (December and January), when temperatures are cooler and the foliage is lush.
Most Nicaraguans spend the holy week of Semana Santa (around Easter) at the beach; all available rooms will be sold out weeks or even months in advance.
Travel Visa Overview
Visitors from most countries can stay in Nicaragua for 30 or 90 days without a visa, as long as they have a passport valid for the next six months, proof of sufficient funds (US$200 or a credit card) and, theoretically, an onward ticket (rarely checked).
Under the 2006 Central American Border Control Agreement (CA-4), visitors to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala may travel between the four countries without having to complete entry and exit formalities for periods of up to 90 days.
Most border crossings are relaxed. Citizens of Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Armenia, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Haiti, India, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Peru, Romania, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Vietnam and Yemen must have a visa to enter Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry (www.cancilleria.gob.ni) has more specifics.
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
This diarrheal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage.
Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure.
The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'rice water' diarrhea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario - only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form.
It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment.
You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera.
Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time.
Unlike the malaria mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings.
Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur.
You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. A blood test can indicate the possibility of the fever. There is no specific treatment. Aspirin should be avoided, as it increases the risk of hemorrhaging. There is no vaccine against dengue fever.
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored feces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are 6 known types of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites. If you are traveling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal.
If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you.
If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbor malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free.
Travelers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-colored clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave. Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own.
This is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution.
Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death.
Also known as enteric fever, typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease.
The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhea and stomach pains.
You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity.
Seek medical help for any fever (38°C/100°F and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating.
Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.
Nicaragua has a range of microclimates, and it's worth checking the weather to see where you want to go first. On the Pacific side, invierno (winter), or rainy season, runs May to November, at its rainiest in September and October when sea turtles nest 3000-strong to a beach. Verano (summer), or dry season, is November to April, the best time for hiking, camping and partying, as it coincides with high tourist season (December to March), most pronounced along the Costa Rican border. As verano desiccates to a close, the Pacific forests lose their leaves and lake levels drop revealing sandy lake beaches that you'll put to good use as temperatures soar.
Then there are the mountains, from the islands of cool cloud forests atop each volcano to the monolithic granite peaks of the central highlands, where seasons become blurred in the chilly misty mornings, with temperatures between 12°C (54°F) and 24°C (75°F). On the Atlantic side rainy and dry seasons are almost entirely academic; along the Río San Juan, one of the wettest places on earth, always pack a raincoat.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Century History
The earliest traces of human habitation in Nicaragua are the 7,000-year-old footprints of the Acahualinca - prints preserved under layers of volcanic ash of people and animals running toward Lake Managua. Around the 10th century AD, indigenous people from Mexico migrated to Nicaragua's Pacific lowlands, and Aztec culture was adopted by many indigenous groups when Aztecs moved south during the 15th century to establish a trading colony.
The first contact with Europeans came in 1502, when Columbus sailed down the Caribbean coast. In 1522, a Spanish exploratory mission reached the southern shores of Lake Nicaragua. A few years later the Spanish colonized the region and founded the cities of Granada and León, subduing local tribes. The inhabitants of the heavily populated area around Managua put up a fierce resistance to the Spanish invaders, and their city was subsequently destroyed.
Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821, along with the rest of Central America. It was part of Mexico for a brief time, then part of the Central American Federation, and finally achieved complete independence in 1838. Soon after, Britain and the USA both became extremely interested in Nicaragua and the strategically important San Juan River navigable passage from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean. In 1848, the British seized the port at the mouth of the river on the Caribbean coast and renamed it Greytown. This became a major transit point for hordes of hopefuls looking for the quickest route to Californian gold.
In 1855, the liberals of León invited William Walker, a military adventurer intent on taking over Latin American territory, to help seize power from the conservatives based in Granada. Walker and his band of mercenaries took Granada easily and he proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua. He was soon booted out of the country (one of his first moves was to institutionalize slavery) but showed almost absurd tenacity as he repeatedly tried to invade; his efforts set a precedent for continued US interference in Nicaragua's affairs.
In 1893 a Liberal general, José Santos Zelaya, deposed the Conservative president and became dictator. Zelaya soon antagonized the USA by seeking a canal deal with Germany and Japan. Encouraged by Washington, which sought to monopolize a trans-isthmian canal in Panama, the Conservatives rebelled in 1909. The American government eventually forced Zelaya's resignation.
For most of the next two decades the USA dominated politics in Nicaragua, installing presidents it favored and ousting those it didn't (sound familiar?), using its marines as persuasion. In 1914 the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was signed, granting the USA exclusive canal rights in Nicaragua; though they had no intention of building such a canal, they wanted to ensure that no one else did.
In 1925 a new cycle of violence began with a Conservative coup. The Conservative regime was opposed by a group of Liberal rebels including Augusto Sandino, who eventually became leader of a longterm rebel campaign resisting US involvement. When the marines headed home in 1933, the enemy became the new US-trained Guardia Nacional, whose aim was to put down resistance by Sandino's guerrillas. This military force was led by General Anastasio Somoza García.
In February 1934 Somoza engineered Sandino's assassination, then set his sights on supreme power. In 1937, following fraudulent elections, he became president. Ever unpopular, Somoza was shot dead in 1956, his sons upholding the dynasty until 1979. Despite widespread opposition, it wasn't until the devastating earthquake of '72 and the international aid that poured into the pockets of the Somozas that opposition spread among all classes. Two groups were set up to counter the regime: the FSLN (known as the Sandinistas) and the UDEL, led by journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.
In 1978, Chamorro was assassinated, the country erupted in violence and former moderates joined with the FSLN to overthrow the Somoza regime. But the Sandinistas inherited a poverty-stricken country and, despite great progress in health and education, it wasn't long before the country faced new problems. Shortly after Reagan took office in 1981, the USA announced that it was suspending aid and allocating funds to the organization of counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras. The Sandinistas responded by using much of the nation's resources to defend themselves.
In the 1984 election Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinistas, won 63% of the vote, but the USA continued its attacks. In 1985, the USA imposed a trade embargo that lasted five years and strangled Nicaragua's economy. By this time it was well known that the USA was funding the Contras and Congress passed a number of bills calling for an end to the funding. US support for the Contras continued secretly until revealed by the Iran Contra Affair.
In 1990, Nicaraguans elected Violeta Chamorro, leader of the opposition UNO and widow of the martyred Pedro Chamorro. Chamorro's failure to revive the economy, and her reliance on Sandinista support, led to US threats to withhold aid. Daniel Ortega ran for president in October 1996 as a centrist, but he was defeated by the anticommunist Liberal Alliance candidate Arnoldo Alemán, who was sworn in January 10, 1997.
Alemán invested heavily in infrastructure and reduced the size of the army by a factor of 10, but his administration was plagued by scandal, as corruption soared and Alemán amassed a personal fortune from the state's coffers.
Ortega ran for president again in 2001, but was defeated by Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños. Not giving up on their man yet, the Sandinistas renamed Ortega as the party's leader in March 2002.
Bolaños took office pledging to clean up the country's corrupt government. He took an aggressive stance and in spite of rifts he created, convinced the assembly to strip former president Alemán of his diplomatic immunity. Alemán was subsequently sentenced to 20 years jail for money-laundering and embezzlement.
Coinciding with Panama's announcement to widen the canal, Nicaragua announced plans of their own to build a rival canal that would incorporate the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua. Although Nicaragua has considered constructing a canal for decades, these plans have always been dismissed by the international community as far-fetched. After years of seeking a return to the presidency, 2006 also saw the re-election of Ortega, much to the dismay of the American government.