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What Should I Know About Nicaragua?

The hot springs of Aguas Termales la Calera is located in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2014
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Nicaragua is a large country in Central America. It covers 50,200 square miles (129,500 sq. km) making it a bit larger than the state of Mississippi. It shares borders with Costa Rica and Honduras, and has coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.

Nicaragua had been inhabited for some time before Europeans arrived, but little is known about the history of the region before the Spanish first landed. The area was inhabited at the time preceding the Spanish by the Nicarao tribe, who had come from Teotihuacán in the north when the mighty civilization fell sometime in the 8th century.

Europeans first spotted Nicaragua at the beginning of the 16th century, when Christopher Columbus lightly explored the Mosquito Coast. It wasn’t until two decades later that the area would be truly explored, and the first Spanish settlements would be established.

Nicaragua was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in these early years, then the Captaincy General of Guatemala, and eventually as a part of the Mexican Empire. In 1838 Nicaragua achieved independence as a republic. From then on Nicaragua would be plagued with a constant rivalry between liberal and conservative forces in the country, often boiling over into full-blown civil war.

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In the late 19th century a Liberal coup elevated José Santos Zelaya to power. He would remain in power until 1909, when the United States backed a Conservative uprising against him, sending in warships after two Americans were executed. The United States moved in Marines, who remained in the country until 1933 to support the Conservative regime. The US left in 1933 after suffering under an increasingly violent guerilla uprising.

The United States left behind Anastasio Somoza Garcia as leader, securing US interests in the region. The Somoza family would eventually consolidate power over Nicaragua into a dictatorship, ensuring that American companies received favorable contracts in the region.

In 1961, the Sandinista movement formed with the intention of overthrowing the dictatorship, and instituting a more Socialist and free political system in Nicaragua. The Sandinista uprising continued for nearly two more decades, and eventually American support of the Somozas waned. In 1979 the Sandinistas took power under Daniel Ortega, and held power following 1984 elections international observers labeled both free and fair, but which later were revealed to be heavily influenced by the government.

Although the US initially continued to support Nicaragua financially after the Sandinistas took power, once Ronald Reagan began president in 1980 things changed course rapidly. The US began supplying the Somoza-backed Contras with weapons, money, and training, and set up an embargo with Nicaragua.

In 1990, following a cease-fire between the Contras and Sandinistas, general elections were held in Nicaragua. Since then Nicaragua has moved towards further democratization, and has begun to rebuild infrastructure damaged during the Contra war. In 2006, in an election certified by the international community as free and fair, Daniel Ortega was elected to power, 16 years after his defeat.

Nicaragua is arguably the premiere travel destination in the Americas for the younger backpacker set, and it offers a great deal for everyone who want to enjoy the beauty of these lush jungles and the friendly people. Banditry can be a problem in parts of the country, but for the responsible travel the danger is minimal. The biggest draw in Nicaragua are the natural attractions, from the hot springs of Aguas Termales la Calera, to the volcanoes of Isla de Ometepe, to the various national parks.

Flights arrive frequently in Managua from airports throughout the Americas, and some cities in Europe. Buses also connect Nicaragua to Panama and Costa Rica, and you can get to both of these countries on the river as well.

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