The picturesque colonial city of Granada abuts beautiful Lake Nicaragua, a habitat for freshwater bull sharks as well as many bird species living on Las Isletas, a group of 365 diminutive islands dotted throughout the lake. Photo by SL-Photography
By Sarah Bedenbaugh
With a reputation as “the land of lakes and volcanoes” and a tumultuous history, Nicaragua is a country of contrasts. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Nicaragua has a multi-ethnic population of more than six million people and is both Central America’s largest country and most impoverished. However, the country’s richness lies in its stunning coastlines, striking volcanic mountains, unparalleled biodiversity, and colorful historic cities. Despite the enormous challenges Nicaraguans have faced in the wake of a political crisis in 2018 and an undemocratic election in November 2021, Pinoleros, as Nicaraguans are colloquially called, remain a warm and welcoming people.
The capital city of Managua is situated halfway between two of Nicaragua’s colonial jewels: the revolutionary city of Leon and the glittering gem that is Granada, founded in 1524. A bitter rivalry over which city should hold the honor of being Nicaragua’s capital eventually led to compromise: the founding of Managua in 1852.
Managua is a comfortable and family-friendly place to live, offering modern commercial centers, restaurants, movie theaters, and farmers markets. American products are readily available in major stores, and the cost of living is low for Americans and tourists. Temperatures in Nicaragua average between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Air quality is generally very good, and beaches, nature reserves, and crystal-clear lagoons are all located within a few hours’ drive for those who seek respite from the city.
Standing near the southern shores of Lake Managua in the shadows of the ever-present Momotombo volcano, Embassy Managua is a 63-acre oasis in the city. The embassy compound is one of only 15 posts worldwide certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. The compound boasts a gym, swimming pool and cabana, playground, baseball field, dog park, and tennis courts. Also on the property is Casa Grande, a historic mansion built in 1938 that once served as the ambassador’s residence and offers event spaces and one of the best views in Managua. In 2021, the embassy shifted to a new chief of mission residence that offers a modern, attractive venue for official and embassy community activities.
Visitors to Nicaragua discover its unique blend of European and indigenous influences. It is often said that every Nicaraguan is a poet, a sentiment borne out in the national devotion to Nicaragua’s renowned poet and writer, Rubén Darío. El Güegüense, a satirical play lampooning Spanish colonialism, was originally told in the indigenous Nahuatl language in the 16th century and is still performed today at raucous celebrations during the feast of San Sebastian in the community of Diriamba.
The country’s most beloved pastime is baseball, different from its soccer-obsessed neighbors. The sport was first introduced to Nicaragua in the 1880s by Albert Addlesberg, an American businessman. Pitcher Dennis Martinez became the first Nicaraguan to play U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) in 1976 with the Baltimore Orioles. He is still considered a national hero more than 30 years after he became the first Latino in MLB to throw a perfect game, one of his 245 career wins in the league.
Nicaragua’s rugged natural beauty is breathtaking, and those posted to Nicaragua enjoy an endless variety of outdoor activities in a relatively safe environment. Even the most famous sites are usually unspoiled by crowds. The Masaya volcano, only twenty minutes from Managua, is where tourists can view glowing lava flows at night. Adrenaline junkies experience the thrill of a lifetime by sandboarding down the slopes of Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America. World renowned surf breaks, sportfishing, and hiking offer more fun and excitement. La Flor Nature Reserve, only half an hour south from the laid-back surf town of San Juan Del Sur, is where visitors can witness the annual arrival of thousands of endangered sea turtles who come to lay their eggs on the beach. Further afield, the jungles of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve and the remote Bosawás Biosphere Reserve offer intrepid explorers the chance to view some of Nicaragua’s exceptional biodiversity. The interior of the country boasts rolling green hills and coffee farms that impress even the most discerning coffee lovers. For adventurous travelers, the autonomous Caribbean coast offers Big and Little Corn Islands, two virtually untouched tropical oases. The city of Bluefields and surrounding communities like Pearl Lagoon are home to the greatest number of indigenous groups in the country and are steeped in tradition, culture, and natural splendor.
Nicaragua declared independence from Spain in 1821. By the 1849 Gold Rush in the United States, Nicaragua became a popular transit point for thousands of miners heading to California who hoped to avoid the lengthy sea voyage around South America. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Transit Company established a lucrative bicoastal trade route from Nicaragua’s San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific, utilizing waterways and carriage roads to cut travel time from six months to one. A U.S. adventurer (and “filibuster”), William Walker, led a private military expedition to Nicaragua in 1855 and managed to install himself briefly as president from 1856 to 1857 before being driven out by a combined Central American force.
In the twentieth century, Nicaraguans valiantly weathered a series of dictatorships, civil unrest and guerrilla warfare, political crises, and natural disasters. The U.S. military intervened twice. Managua was also twice flattened by major earthquakes in 1931 and 1972. Corruption and mismanagement of relief funds after the 1972 earthquake led to a groundswell of support for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and calls for the overthrow of the ruling Somoza regime. A coalition of Marxist Sandinista guerrillas, whose leadership included Daniel Ortega Saavedra, came to power in 1979; throughout the 1980s, their war with Contra forces dominated international headlines in a conflict that still looms large in collective memory today. FSLN remained in power until 1990, when Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega to become the first democratically elected president of Nicaragua and the first woman to be elected president in Latin America. Ortega was again elected president in 2006, and was re-elected in 2011, 2016, and 2021 in elections marred by manipulation and fraud.
A watershed moment for the Nicaraguan people came in April 2018, when hundreds of citizens took to the streets to protest the Ortega government. What began as a peaceful protest was met with violent repression by the government, resulting in more than 300 deaths. A subsequent crackdown saw the cancellation of legitimate opposition parties and the arrests of prominent political leaders, journalists, and civil society members in advance of the 2021 elections—leading the U.S. and other governments to label the polls undemocratic. The embassy continues to press for the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights.
Together, the embassy’s 65 U.S. direct hires and nearly 700 locally employed staff work to advance U.S. foreign policy goals, including deepening an enduring relationship with the Nicaraguan people. While the U.S. bilateral relationship with Nicaragua has been contentious, the two countries share strong economic, familial, and cultural ties. The United States continues to be Nicaragua’s number one economic partner, with Nicaraguan exports to the United States totaling more than $3.6 billion in 2020. Gold, coffee, beef, textiles, and rum are only a few of the many Nicaraguan products destined for U.S. shelves each year. To address the humanitarian needs of vulnerable Nicaraguans in the wake of two devastating hurricanes in 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, USAID has provided more than $17 million in humanitarian assistance and COVID-19 supplemental assistance. The United States also donated Pfizer vaccines through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access facility to help Nicaraguans respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The embassy’s public affairs team supports a slate of programs that deepen connections between the American and Nicaraguan people and champions the next generation of Nicaraguan leaders. Through their social media channels and the embassy’s partnership with the Binational Center and American Space, they showcase the best of America’s diversity, history, and talent with programs focused on U.S. culture, arts, and education. Through their public diplomacy efforts, they tell the story of America and provide critical support to independent civil society and media institutions.
The next several years hold still more challenges for this nation of remarkably resilient people. Guided by a vision of a prosperous, just, secure, and democratic future, Embassy Managua will continue to support Nicaraguans as they chart their own course to calmer waters.
Sarah Bedenbaugh served as a vice consul at Embassy Managua.