Destination Focus: Five Things You Don’t Know About Nicaragua
Posted by Kevin Clement
in Americas and Expeditions
If you are someone who was a grownup during the Reagan Administration, and watched the news at all, you have heard a lot about Nicaragua. For a few years there, we all heard a great deal about this previously-obscure Latin American country. Reagan decided to back the Contra rebels in their bid to overthrow the left-leaning Sandanista government, and quicker than you can say “Iran-Contra Affair”, the country was involved in a messy, corrosive civil war, fueled by the machinations of the CIA.
But if that’s all you really know about Nicaragua (and that would pretty much be true of me before my first visit there), your internal Wikipedia article needs some updating. To that end, here is a list of facts about one of the New World’s most inviting destinations.
Fact #1: Nicaragua is one of the safest, most stable countries in Latin America
The dark days are long since over and done. The country is run by a duly-elected president and general assembly. More than 5,000 American expats live there now, and tourism is the second-biggest industry (after agriculture, in the fertile volcanic soil).
Incidentally, besides being one of the most stable New World countries, it is also one of the most beautiful, with more than 50 volcanoes (7 to 19 of which are active, depending on who’s counting), dozens of lakes in an assortment of colors, gorgeous tropical beaches on both coasts, and vast, lush, biologically rich rainforests.
Fact #2: Nicaragua contains the oldest city in the New World
Granada was founded in 1524, scarcely 30 years after Columbus arrived. It became a storehouse and supply point along the route from the rich mines of South America to the treasure houses of the Spanish monarchy. It was built as a showcase city, a demonstration of Spanish wealth and power. Colonial architects spared no expense.
So it is that Granada is also said to be the loveliest of all colonial centers, with Lago Nicaragua at her feet and Mombacha Volcano towering overhead.
Fact #3: An American imperialist adventurer once conquered the country with 56 followers
His name was William Walker, and his goal was to make himself ruler of Central America. During the 1850s he staged several invasions and land grabs on various parts of the region. The states there were little developed and poorly organized in those days, and Walker’s attacks were not easily repulsed.
In 1853, after taking the capital, he had himself declared president of Nicaragua through rigged elections. He instituted slavery (to curry favor with the Southern US states) and declared English the official language of the country. Perhaps his worst mistake was seizing the vast holdings and transportation network that belonged to millionaire industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt.
It took a coalition of all the remaining Central American nations, backed by Vanderbilt’s money, to oust Walker from Nicaragua; the intervention of both the US and British Navies to repulse his other sorties; and a Honduran firing squad to put an end to his career.
Fact #4: Nicaragua has the most intact forest of any Central American country…
…and the lowest population density. Part of the reason is that the conflicts that prevailed over the last few decades have kept it largely off limits to development. What that means is that it has preserved (perhaps by accident as much as by design) more of its biodiversity than other areas in this massively diverse region. Now about a fifth of the land is protected as national parks and nature reserves. The country is home to around 2,000 species of vertebrates, over 700 birds, and at least 12,000 plants, although it’s hard to be precise since at least 5,000 of them are as yet unclassified.
Fact #5: The greatest pirate exploit of all time took place in Nicaragua
The rich Spanish town of Granada, situated 50 miles from the ocean, thought itself safe from attack. But a clever and daring young commander named Henry Morgan thought differently. Leaving their pirate ships behind on the Caribbean in June of 1665, he and his men commandeered native canoes and paddled them up the Rio San Juan by night, hiding during the day. Reaching Lago Nicaragua, they crossed it and took the city completely by surprise.
Granada would be sacked two more times in the next five years, while Morgan would go on to become a buccaneering hero and eventually the Governor of Jamaica…and to wear the unofficial title of Pirate King.
And Bonus Fact #6: Nicaragua is poised to become the next big ecotourism destination
This is what I learned on my previous visits, including the scouting trip for our upcoming Nicaragua and Panama expedition. The political unrest we all heard about is a thing of the past, the mountains, lakes, beaches, and colonial architecture are still there, the teeming forests are largely intact, and the people are incredibly friendly and eager to welcome tourists. Now is a wonderful time to take a Nicaragua adventure tour.
I invite you to join me on our next Nicaragua & Panama Tour.