For years, I’ve always bought into the sentiment that Nicaragua was a dangerous place. But as I was reading through information about the country, I found out that is actually not really the case today. In fact, it’s one of the safest countries in Central America, and it has the lowest crime rate as well. So, where does this come from? Perhaps, it’s left over from American propaganda from the early 1980s. I don’t know for sure, but if I was wrong about that, it leads me to ask what else am I wrong about Nicaragua?
The name Nicaragua is derived from the word the Spanish gave to it. They named the country after Nicarao, one of the chiefs of one of the largest tribes. However, Nicarao wasn’t really the leader of the largest tribe according to some historians, but a guy named Macuilmiquiztli. Regardless, the name stuck and here we are.
Nicaragua sits in the middle of Central America and is the largest country in he region. It’s bordered by Honduras to the north, Costa Rica to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The country is generally divided into three sections: Pacific Lowlands (hot, fertile plains), North Central Highlands (forested with rivers), Caribbean Lowlands (rainforests). Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake and actually has 430 volcanic islands. It’s also home to the bull shark, the only freshwater shark in the world. The rainiest area is the Mosquito Coast along the Caribbean. Because of the tropical climate (although it varies depending on altitude and location), there is quite a biodiversity here.
The earliest people arrived in Nicaragua from Mexico around 500BC. Eventually the Aztecs and Mayans spread into this area. In the early 1500s, Christopher Columbus made his way to Central America and explored his way along the Miskito Coast. Like in true Columbus fashion, he tried to force the different tribes to convert to Christianity. Two of the three followed suit, but one tribe wasn’t having it. They fought against them but in the end, they fell to the Spanish. The Spanish started building permanent cities: the first was Grenada, and the second one was León. They also began intermarrying with the indigenous people, creating a mixed race called the mestizos. However, they were also killing them off with their nasty European diseases that the natives had no immunity for. During the early 1800s, Nicaragua was part of the First Mexican Empire, but later joined the Federal Republic of Central America. During the mid-1800s, the two cities of León and Granada became politically polarized; the Liberal Elite were in León and the Conservative Elite were in Granada. The Liberals invited American William Walker into their fight, but Walker set himself up as president instead, to which most of Central America came for him to boot him out. Great Britain, who had been controlling the Mosquito Coast since the mid-1600s, finally gave it back to Nicaragua (even though it remained autonomous for several decades afterwards). The 20th century was quite a turbulent one for Nicaragua. In response to helping the Conservatives and generally keeping peace, the US stepped in. The Marines moved into Nicaragua and stayed from 1912 to 1933. (They did try to leave once, but everyone started killing each other, so they came back.) The Somoza family would rule the country for several decades, leading in a ruthless fashion. The country would undergo another revolution. The Sandinistas took over in 1979, and the Carter Administration initially gave them money in support but got pissed when they found out they were using the money to support rebel forces in other Central American countries the US didn’t like. Reagan one-upped Carter by getting the CIA to fund and train the contras. Later on, people got pissed about that, and Reagan started selling weapons to Iran and taking the money to fund the contras that way (known as the Iran-Contra Affair). The Sandinistas were eventually voted out, and although elections have generally been fairly peaceful (more or less), there have been quite a bit of shady and illegal deals (fraud, embezzlement, corruption, mayhem) by top officials. However, Nicaragua was the first country to democratically vote in a woman in the Americas. It’s more than what we can do, apparently.
Today, the capital city is Managua, a city of about 1.3 million people (metro area) located along the shores of Lake Managua (also called Lake Xolotlán). The capital city was moved here in 1858 because no one could agree whether León or Granada should be the official capital city. However, Lake Xolotlán has been polluted since the late 1920s. (Thanks, Industrial Age.) Managua was the first capital city to declare itself rid of literacy. It’s become an educational hub for the country with 48 universities and 113 colleges. It’s also the economic center and home to many multinational and national headquarters. Not to mention that it’s the head of the government, media, and culture. The city is filled with museums, shopping centers, sports venues, world-class restaurants, theatres and entertainment, and historical sites.
However, Nicaragua remains to be one of the poorest countries in the Americas. Workers here have some of the lowest minimum wages in this part of the world. They depend quite a bit on agriculture (mainly bananas, other fruits, coffee, cassava, sugar, cotton, and beef) and remittances from abroad. Nearly 80% of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Infrastructure is still weak in many of the rural areas, and sanitation hasn’t made it out to many of the rural areas either, but changes are being made and improved. However, tourism is quickly growing, and many people visit each year for its ecotourism opportunities: Nicaragua has been dubbed the “land of lakes and volcanoes.”
Officially, Nicaragua doesn't have an “official” religion, but Nicaraguans tend to take religion seriously. For the most part, anyhow. And when it comes to religion, Roman Catholicism is the most dominant religion in the country. There are also pockets of Protestants, Anglicans, Mormons, and Moravians throughout the country as well. Because of its historical ties with Roman Catholicism, there are very strong ties between cultural fests and holidays with the religion and its patron saints.
Although Spanish is the official language and most widely spoken language in Nicaragua, there are a number of other languages spoken throughout the country as well. Along the Miskito Coast, the Miskitu language is still spoken there by the Miskitu people. Very few of the Rama people still speak their Chibchan language fluently, although most speak a Rama Cay Creole. There are also English-based and Spanish-based Creoles spoken throughout the country. In recent years, the Garifuna people have tried to bring back the Arawakan language (who mostly speak Miskito Coast Creole today).
Managua, like many cities across the world, doesn't name their streets. And I thought I had read somewhere years ago that U2’s song “Where the Streets Have No Name” was about Managua. But when I researched this further, Managua wasn’t the inspiration for this song. It was actually about Ireland (and Northern Ireland). Makes sense now that I think about it. Again, there are so many things that I thought I knew about this country that is apparently not quite true. So, I’m looking forward to setting the record straight with myself and maybe you, too.
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