Official name: Republic of Nicaragua
Area: 129,494 square kilometers (49,998 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mogotón Peak (2,438 meters/7,999 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Western
Time zone: 6 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 472 kilometers (293 miles) from north to south; 478 kilometers (297 miles) from east to west
Land boundaries: 1,231 kilometers (765 miles) total boundary length; Costa Rica 309 kilometers (192 miles); Honduras 922 kilometers (573 miles)
Coastline: 910 kilometers (565 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America. It is located north of Costa Rica and south of Honduras, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. With a total area of about 129,494 square kilometers (49,998 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of New York. Nicaragua is administratively divided into fifteen departments and two autonomous regions.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Nicaragua has no outside territories or dependencies.
In Nicaragua, temperature is affected more by elevation than by season. On the flat lands (in the east and west), daytime temperatures average 29°C (85°F) and night temperatures drop below 21°C (70°F). In the central highlands temperatures are lower, about 21°C (70°F) in the daytime and about 15°C (60°F) at night. In the very high mountains, temperatures can approach freezing after dark.
The rainy season (winter, or invierno ) is from May through November and the dry season (summer, or verano ) is from June through October. The Mosquito Coast gets the greatest amount of yearly rainfall, from 230 to 508 centimeters (90 to 200 inches). Less rain, about 76 to 229 centimeters (30 to 90 inches) per year, falls on the Central Highlands; precipitation here occurs over a longer period of the year. On the Pacific Coast, annual rainfall ranges from 102 to 152 centimeters (40 to 60 inches).
Periodically, hurricanes have caused severe damage on Nicaragua. The most devastating storms in recent years were Hurricane Mitch (October 1998) and Hurricane Joan (November 1988).
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
The country is shaped like an equilateral triangle with its southwest/northeast side along the Honduran border, the north/south side along the Caribbean, and the southeast/northwest side along the Costa Rican border and Pacific Ocean.
The land naturally divides into three topographic zones: the Pacific Lowlands, the Central Highlands, and the Atlantic Lowlands. The Pacific Lowlands is a band about 75 kilometers (47 miles) wide along the Pacific Ocean between Honduras and Costa Rica. The plain is punctuated by clusters of volcanoes, immediately to the east of which is a long, narrow depression passing along the isthmus from the Gulf of Fonseca in the north to the San Juan River at the bottom of the country. This depression is sometimes called the Nicaraguan Depression. To the northeast are the Central Highlands; this region has the highest mountains and the coolest temperatures. The sparsely populated Atlantic Lowlands comprise more than half the area of Nicaragua. These lowlands and the Mosquito Coast are the traditional home of the Miskito peoples (after whom the coastal region was named). Tropical rainforest and savannahs dominate this region, crossed by scores of rivers flowing to the Caribbean.
Nicaragua is situated on the Caribbean Tectonic Plate, but just off the country's Pacific coast is the Cocos Tectonic Plate. Frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions result from action of the Caribbean and Cocos plates. Nicaragua has hundreds of minor earthquakes and shocks each year and occasionally experiences a serious quake. In 1931 and again in 1972, earthquakes virtually destroyed the capital city of Managua. As of early 2003, central Managua had yet to be rebuilt.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
Nicaragua has coasts on the Pacific Ocean and on the Caribbean Sea (an extension of the Atlantic Ocean). There are coral reef systems off the eastern coast, including the largest hard-carbonate bank in the Caribbean; however, most of the reefs are not situated near the mainland due to sediment runoff from the many rivers. Closer to the shore, reef systems form four groups of islands: the Moskitos Cays, Man-of-War (Guerrero) Cays, Pearl Cays, and the Corn Islands. The last three of these island groups are inhabited.
Sea Inlets and Straits
The relatively remote and sparsely populated Atlantic Lowlands and Mosquito Coast are periodically interrupted by lagoons and estu-aries where major rivers end. From north to south, the largest are Bismuna, Páhara, Karatá, Wounta, and Pearl Lagoons. The Bluefield Bay lies at an inlet just north of Point Mono, while the Point Gorda Bay lies in the curved inlet to the south of Point Mono. There are no significant lagoons along the Pacific Ocean side; the Gulf of Fonseca, however, is located at the northernmost point where the coast turns inland at Point Cosigüina.
Islands and Archipelagos
Scores of large islands dot the huge Lake Nicaragua. Two volcanoes, one at each end, formed the dumbbell-shaped Ometepe Island. Its total area is 276 square kilometers (106 square miles), including the Isthmus of Istián that connects the two sections of the island. At the south end of Lake Nicaragua are thirty-six small islands collectively named the Solentiname Archipelago. Some of the larger islands in this group are Venada, San Fernando, Mancarroncito, and Mancarrón.
Besides islands in the freshwater lakes, there also are a few islands off the Caribbean shore, but none exist on the Pacific side. The two Corn Islands are 70 kilometers (43 miles) off the southern coast; they are just 8 kilometers (5 miles) apart. Great Corn Island is about 8 square kilometers (3 square miles) in area; Little Corn Island is about half that size.
The Moskitos Cays is an offshore island group with associated coral reefs situated 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the north shore. The area is home to several endangered species including the Hawksbill turtle, Caribbean manatee, Tucuxi freshwater dolphin, and caiman crocodile.
The two other coralline island groups, the Pearl Cays and the Man-of-War Cays, also sit not far from the mainland. They are sparsely populated with fishing villages.
The most hospitable, populated coast is the Pacific Ocean side. This coastline is relatively straight with few inlets or peninsulas. Cape Gracias a Dios marks the northern end of the Atlantic coastline; near the south, Point Mono juts out into the sea.
6 INLAND LAKES
Lake Nicaragua (Lago de Nicaragua) is the largest freshwater lake in Central and South America; in fact, it is one of the most spectacular bodies of water in all of the Americas. It fills the southern portion of the Nicaragua Depression, which runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. The lake is 160 kilometers (99 miles) long, 65 kilometers (40 miles) at its widest point, and 32 meters (105 feet) above sea level. It is relatively shallow, however, with an average depth of 20 meters (66 feet), and a maximum depth of 60 meters (197 feet). With a total surface area of 8,000 square kilometers (3,089 square miles), the lake is sprinkled with many islands, including the large Ometepe Island.
Lake Managua connects to Lake Nicaragua by the Tipitapa River. The lake is 52 kilometers (32 miles) long and up to 25 kilometers (16 miles) wide, covering an area of 1,025 square kilometers (396 square miles). It is only 30 meters (98 feet) at its deepest point, however. On the lake's southwest side, the Chiltepe peninsula holds two small crater lakes: Xiloá and Apoyeque.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Nicaragua has nearly one hundred principal rivers, most of which drain the Central Highlands through the Atlantic Lowlands and empty along the Mosquito Coast. The majority of them are relatively short rivers with a few longer ones, such as Río Grande de Matagalpa. A few rivers feed the Managua and Nicaragua Lakes. Coco River, Nicaragua's longest river, flows 680 kilometers (423 miles) from the northwest highlands to the Caribbean Sea, forming Nicaragua's border with Honduras.
The river that carries the largest volume of water is the San Juan River, which is only 180 kilometers (110 miles) long. It flows from the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua east to the Caribbean Sea. This deep, navigable river forms the boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
With many rivers, Nicaragua also has many wetlands. Besides the entire Caribbean coast, which is mostly swampy and marshy land, there are three other areas of particular note. Deltas del Estero Real (816 square kilometers/ 315 square miles) in the Gulf of Fonseca is a natural reserve that is part of the large mangrove systems of the gulf, shared with El Salvador and Honduras. Humedales de San Miguelito is situated near the point at which the San Juan exits Lake Nicaragua. It is home to a diverse species of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals. Finally, Tisma Lagoon is a small area of lake, marsh, and river ecosystems on the northwest shores of Lake Nicaragua.
There are no desert regions in Nicaragua.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
Nicaragua has numerous rainforests, some of which are protected as reserves. Ecologically, two exceptional reserves are Reserva Natural Miraflor and Reserva Biológic Indo-Maiz. Miraflor (206 square kilometers/80 square miles) is remarkably pristine and has tropical savannah at lower altitude, pine forest higher up, and cloud forest at its highest elevations. Miraflor also contains a tiny lake at an altitude of 1,380 meters (4,528 feet), as well as a 60-meter (196-feet) waterfall.
DID YOU KNOW?
Tourists frequent the fumaroles (steam vents), hot springs, and boiling mudpots of the Swarms of San Jacinto (Hervideros de San Jacinto), southeast of Telica. Scientists are studying the geothermal activity causing these phenomena to see whether it could provide a possible source of energy for the region.
Biológic Indo-Maiz covers 3,626 square kilometers (1,400 square miles). In only a few square kilometers within the preserve, a habitat exists for a greater number of species of birds, trees, and insects than are found on the entire continent of Europe. Indo-Maiz protects the largest contiguous extent of primary rainforest in Central America, a 7,300-square-kilometer (2,820-square-mile) area that is called the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
Nicaragua has three inland mountain ranges and a chain of volcanoes. Cordillera Isabella runs southwest to northeast, toward the Honduran border. Cordillera Dariense runs nearly west to east, defining the southern edge of the triangular Central Highlands. The rugged mountain terrain in between is composed of ridges from 900 to 1,800 meters (1,968 to 5,905 feet) high. River valleys drain mostly to the Caribbean. Cordillera Los Maribios is the chain of volcanoes, which originates in the northwest. Three smaller mountain ranges cut across the Atlantic Lowlands in the southeast. From north to south, they are the Huapí Mountains, the Amerrique Mountains, and the Yolaina Mountains. The highest peak in Nicaragua, Mogotón Peak, sits on the Honduran border, about 161 kilometers (100 miles) inland from the Pacific Ocean. The peak rises to a height of 2,438 meters (7,999 feet).
A chain of seventeen volcanoes runs along the Pacific Coast. Six of them have erupted in the last hundred years. The most significant active volcanoes in this chain are Concepción, San Cristóbal, Telica, and Masaya. Concepción Volcano, Nicaragua's second-highest volcano is situated on the north end of Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. This symmetrical volcano erupted frequently during the twentieth century; in December 2000, it spewed ash over the countryside.
A complex of five volcanoes northwest of Managua is named for its oldest volcano, San Cristóbal (El Viejo), which also is the highest peak of the Maribios Range. Casita, immediately east of San Cristóbal, was the site of a catastrophic landslide in 1998.
Telica, located northwest of the city of León, has erupted frequently since the 1800s. Telica's steep cone is topped by a double crater which is 700 meters (2,300 feet) wide.
Masaya, near Managua, is one of only four volcanoes on earth with a constant pool of lava that neither increases nor recedes. It is the primary tourist attraction within one of Nicaragua's oldest national parks.
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Nicaragua has more than ninety principal rivers running through canyons of various depths. In comparison to mountain ranges in North and South America, and even compared to adjacent Honduras, Nicaragua's highest mountains are modest, so few of its canyons are notably deep.
There are no major caves in Nicaragua.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
There are no significant plateau regions in Nicaragua.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
Several areas in Nicaragua rely on river dams as a source of hydroelectric power. Two of the largest dams are the Mancotal and El Salto Dams. Though both of these structures were damaged during 1998's Hurricane Mitch, reconstruction has taken place with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
DID YOU KNOW?
Central America contains the seven nations of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The land area containing these states is often called the Central American Isthmus. An isthmus is a narrow section of land connecting two larger land masses; in this case, the isthmus joins North America (at Mexico) to South America (at Colombia).
14 FURTHER READING
Glassman, Paul. Nicaragua Guide: Spectacular and Unspoiled . Champlain, NY: Travel Line, 1996.
Griffiths, John. Nicaragua. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Haverstock, Nathan A. Nicaragua in Pictures . Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1993.
Kott, Jennifer. Nicaragua . New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Nicaragua Network Environmental Committee. http://environment.nicanet.org/resources.htm (accessed April 17, 2003).