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An Introduction to the Republic of Nicaragua

Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua (Spanish: República de Nicaragua), is a sovereign representative democratic republic and the most extensive nation in Central America. It is also the least densely populated with a demographic similar in size to its smaller neighbors.

The country is bordered by Honduras to the north and by Costa Rica to the south. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west of the country, while the Caribbean Sea lies to the east. Falling within the tropics, Nicaragua sits 11 degrees north of the Equator, in the Northern Hemisphere.

Map of Nicaragua

Map of Nicaragua

The country’s name is derived from Nicarao, the name of the Nahuatl-speaking tribe which inhabited the shores of Lago de Nicaragua before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the Spanish word Agua, meaning water, due to the presence of the large lakes Lago de Nicaragua (Cocibolca) and Lago de Managua (Xolotlán), as well as lagoons and rivers in the region.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Nicaragua was the name given to the narrow strip of land between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean. Chief Nicarao ruled over the land when the first conquerors arrived. The term was eventually applied, by extension, to the Nicarao or Niquirano groups that inhabited that region.

The Nicarao tribe migrated to the area from northern regions after the fall of Teotihuacán, on the advice of their religious leaders. According to tradition, they were to travel south until they encountered a lake with two volcanoes rising out of the waters, and so they stopped when they reached Ometepe, the largest fresh-water volcanic island in the world.

Since its independence, Nicaragua has undergone periods of political unrest, military intervention on behalf of the United States, dictatorship and fiscal crisis — the most notable causes that lead to the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Nicaragua is a representative democratic republic which has experienced economic growth and political stability in recent years. In 1990, Nicaragua elected Violeta Chamorro as its president, making it the first country in the Americas and in Latin American history to democratically elect a female head of state.

The population in Nicaragua, hovering at approximately 6 million, is multiethnic. Roughly one quarter of the nation’s population lives in the capital city, Managua, making Managua the second largest city and metropolitan area in Central America (following Guatemala City).

Nicaragua’s biological diversity, warm tropical climate, and active volcanoes make it an increasingly popular destination for tourists, surfers, biologists, and volcanologists.

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Lake Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua

Lago de Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca or Granada or (Spanish: Lago de Nicaragua, Lago Cocibolca, Mar Dulce, Gran Lago, Gran Lago Dulce, or Lago de Granada) is a vast freshwater lake in Nicaragua of tectonic origin.

With an area of 8,264 km2 (3,191 sq mi), it is the largest lake in Central America, the 19th largest lake in the world (by area) and the 9th largest in the Americas. It is slightly smaller than Lake Titicaca. With an elevation of 32.7 metres (107 ft) above sea level, the lake reaches a depth of 26 metres (85 ft). It is intermittently joined by the Tipitapa River to Lake Managua.

The lake drains to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River, historically making the lakeside city of Granada, Nicaragua, an Atlantic port although it is closer to the Pacific. The lake has a history of Caribbean pirates who assaulted nearby Granada on three occasions. Despite draining into the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean is near enough to be seen from the mountains of Ometepe (an island in the lake).

A volcanic island in Cocibolca Lake, Granada, Nicaragua

A volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua

Before construction of the Panama Canal, a stagecoach line owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company connected the lake with the Pacific across the low hills of the narrow Isthmus of Rivas. Plans were made to take advantage of this route to build an interoceanic canal, the Nicaragua Canal, but the Panama Canal was built instead.

In order to quell competition with the Panama Canal, the U.S. secured all rights to a canal along this route in the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916. However, since this treaty was mutually rescinded by the United States and Nicaragua in 1970, the idea of another canal in Nicaragua still periodically resurfaces. Ecocanal is one of these projects.

Lake Ecology

Lake Nicaragua, despite being a freshwater lake, has sawfish, tarpon, and sharks. Initially, scientists thought the sharks in the lake belonged to an endemic species, the Lake Nicaragua Shark (Carcharhinus nicaraguensis). In 1961, following comparisons of specimens, the Lake Nicaragua Shark was synonymized with the widespread Bull shark (C. leucas), a species also known for entering freshwater elsewhere around the world.

It had been presumed that the sharks were trapped within the lake, but this was found to be incorrect in the late 1960s, when it was discovered that they were able to jump along the rapids of the San Juan River (which connects Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea), almost like salmon.

Flooded beach in Playa Santo Domingo, Isla de Ometepe

Flooded beach in Playa Santo Domingo, Isla de Ometepe

As evidence of these movements, bull sharks tagged inside the lake have later been caught in the open ocean (and vice versa), with some taking as little as 7–11 days to complete the journey.

Numerous other species of fish live in the lake, including at least 16 species of endemic cichlids. A non-native cichlid, a Tilapia, is used widely in aquaculture within the lake. Owing to the large amount of waste they produce, and the risk of introducing diseases to which the native fish species have no resistance, they are potentially a serious threat to the lake’s ecosystem.

Nicaraguans call the Lake Lago Cocibolca or Mar Dulce (literally, Sweet Sea; in Spanish, freshwater is agua dulce). The lake has sizeable waves driven by the easterly winds blowing west to the Pacific Ocean. The lake holds Ometepe and Zapatera which are both volcanic islands, as well as the archipelago of the Solentiname Islands. The lake has a reputation for periodically powerful, unnavigable storms.

Lake Nicaragua from Ometepe

Lake Nicaragua from Ometepe

In the past 37 years, considerable concern has been expressed about the ecological condition of Lake Nicaragua. In 1981 the Nicaraguan Institute of Natural Resources and the Environment (IRENA) conducted an environmental assessment study and found that half of the water sources sampled were seriously polluted by sewage.

It was found that 32 tons (70,000 pounds) of raw sewage were being released into Lake Nicaragua daily. Industry located along the lake’s shore had been dumping effluent for an extended period of time. Pennwalt Chemical Corporation was found to be the worst polluter. Nicaragua’s economic situation has hampered the building of treatment facilities nationwide.