Setting the Scene: Nicaragua
Rather than try to fill my stories with informational background, I’ll instead share some interesting and helpful information here to use as a resource. Ready to learn about Nicaragua?
Geography and Landscape
Nicaragua is a country in Central America, bordered by Honduras to the north, Costa Rica to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It’s about the size of the state of Alabama, to give you an idea of land area.
The climate is tropical and divided into two primary seasons: dry and rainy. I visited during the rainy season, in June, so it rained on us a little every day and my boots came home significantly more muddy than when I arrived. The cities at sea level are consistently hot and humid, with high temperatures averaging around 87°F. Thankfully, we spent several days in the mountains where the temperatures were much more comfortable and the night cool enough to sleep in long sleeves and pants.
Fun fact: Nicaragua is the only country aside from Syria that did not originally join the Paris Climate Agreement. Its reasons for not signing it were perhaps a little surprising: they said the agreement did not go far enough. Nicaragua already gets about half its energy from renewable resources and plans to keep increasing that number, in part because it’s a country that stands to be severely impacted by climate change. For a country dependent upon agricultural exports, an increase of just a couple of degrees in average temperature will mean coffee and other exportable goods cannot grow. It needs the global citizenry to work together to keep climate change to a minimum.
Nicaragua is known as "the land of lakes and volcanoes"—19 volcanoes line the western portion of the country, six of which are active and have erupted in the last 20 years. Seeing an active volcano has been on my bucket list for years, so I was particularly excited about this fact.
Archaeologists have documented people in Nicaragua as far back as 12,000 BCE (I find that hard to wrap my mind around), and civilizations were alive and well around the same era as the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan pre-Columbus.
Ah, yes, where would we be without a mention of the conquering white dude who wiped out native civilizations in the name of finding gold for the Spanish crown? Columbus came over on his fourth voyage and explored the eastern coast of Nicaragua in 1502.
The two colonial cities of Granada and León were founded in 1524 and later served as opposing battlefronts during the civil war(s) after the country gained independence from Spain in 1821. Granada served as the home of the Conservative camp, while León housed the Liberals. Managua, which still serves as the capital city today and houses the country’s only international airport, was created as a literal middle ground between the two feuding cities.
What the government didn’t realize at the time of settling Managua, though, was that it’s placed right on a fault line: seismologists expect it will experience a severe earthquake every 50 years or less.
The last big quake was in 1972, which effectively wiped out Managua and destroyed the city center. (Do the math and you’ll see the city is due for a big quake any time.) In the wake of the earthquake, people set up haphazard neighborhoods near water resources outside the city, and with little urban planning and support provided by the government, this redevelopment has given Managua a very sprawling, uneven landscape today. A city center still doesn’t actually exist, even though this is the country’s capital and largest city.
People and Food
Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western Hemisphere, following only Haiti.
To give you an idea of the kind of poverty we’re talking about, just 66% of people in Nicaragua have running water at home. Or consider that only 56% of people living in rural areas use “improved” sanitation facilities, which means something like flush toilets or latrine with a slab. Does the latter sound like an “improved” option to you?
Only 56% of children make it to fifth grade country-wide, and the statistic is much more grim if you subtract wealthier families in urban areas. The child-labor rates are similarly staggering: 15% work alongside their families, particularly during the coffee harvest.
The standard Nicaraguan diet consists of a lot of meat, Gallo Pinto (rice and red beans), eggs, and corn tortillas. I ate a lot of all of these while I was in the country, especially in the rural communities. Plantains are also very commonly eaten, but while bananas are found easily, they’re grown more to shade the coffee plants and provide food for livestock (namely pigs). Other fruit like mango, papaya, dragonfruit, pears, and watermelon are easy to find in urban areas.
Avocados grow locally and are becoming more popular. Carrots, squash, and potatoes are abundant and generally just boiled as preparation (which made them bland and mushy but also safe for foreigners like myself to eat).
Herbs and spices don’t feature prominently in the Nicaraguan diet. While in the rural campo, salt was even a challenge to come by. As a result, the food was bland as a rule but could be spiced up with a homemade Chilero: an onion, chile-pepper, bell-pepper, carrot blend soaked in vinegar that could be found on nearly every table. It looked a little suspicious, as it was housed in any leftover container with a lid, but I figured that anything floating in vinegar was probably a safe bet. I’m glad I tried it, because it was one of my favorite food items during my time in the country.