Today, Nicaragua is best known for its incredible surfing beaches, its affordable cost of living and its appeal to tourists who want to get off the beaten track and explore an undeveloped and pristine side of Central America.
At the same time, the nation is rapidly improving its infrastructure and attracting retirees who love the warmth, scenery and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.
What truly sets Nicaragua apart from other destinations is its rich culture. From ancient settlements to colonial influences, a number of factors have contributed to the incredible country it is today.
A Recap of Nicaragua's Ancient History
The earliest history of Nicaragua is generally known as the pre-Columbian period, which is everything dating before the 15th century when Christopher Columbus arrived. It is believed that the first settlers in what is now known as Nicaragua migrated from Central Mexico approximately 1,500 years ago.
The Caribbean lowland of Nicaragua was considered to be the best place to settle, and the locals there spoke the Chibcha language, lived in round thatched huts and ate plantains, pineapples and cassava.
These natives traded with groups throughout Central America and the Caribbean and developed towns as well as successful agricultural enterprises.
Top Landmarks for a Glimpse Into Nicaragua's Past
Unlike some ancient civilizations, those living in Nicaragua did not create many large monuments designed to stand the test of time. However, there are still some places where visitors can gain insight into the cultures that called Nicaragua home in centuries past.
On Ometepe Island, located within Lake Nicaragua, you can see ancient petroglyphs, or rock carvings, depicting abstract designs like spirals as well as commonly found lizards, crocodiles and turtles, all of which lived in the area then and now.
In Managua, you can see the ancient footprints of Acahualinca. These fossilized footprints were left behind in volcanic ash and mud by a Late Holocene human roughly 2,000 years ago. They weren't discovered until the end of the 19th century, and they remain a major attraction for history and archeology enthusiasts in Nicaragua.
Throughout museums and excavation sites in Nicaragua, there are also ancient ceramics left by early settlers, including many pieces that are amazingly well preserved.
Colonial Culture and Landmarks in Nicaragua
Many of the most popular cultural attractions in Nicaragua today are actually colonial in their nature. In 1502, Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast, and by 1522 larger groups of Spaniards had begun to explore inland.
The Spanish eventually went to war with the indigenous population, a devastating move that nonetheless was integral in the creation of major cities like Granada and Leon.
Today, those two destinations are full of colonial architecture and reminders of the Spanish influence on Nicaragua's history and culture.
In Leon, you can tour the Cathedral of Leon, officially known in Spanish as the Insigne Basílica de la Asunción de la Bienaventurada Virgen María, which was built in the 18th century and draws on Neoclassical and Baroque design styles.
In Granada, don't miss the chance to see the six main churches within the city as well as the impressive Fuerte La Polvora, an 18th century fortress that is open to the public and offers regular tours in both English and Spanish.
Nicaragua has a history stretching back for 2,000 years, providing an endless array of historical attractions and cultural landmarks that help to explain the influences and development of this exciting country in Central America.