Nicaragua has a growing tourism sector, but much of it remains focused on the cruise ports and resorts that have sprung up on its Caribbean coast. If you travel across the country to its Pacific Coast, or Spanish Coast, you will find a hidden gem waiting for you. If you want to see and experience true Nicaragua, the Spanish Coast is calling your name.

If you were to visit the United States of America, you would find that this multi-coast nation has a different culture, flavor, and feel in each region. The Atlantic Coast of the US dates to the colonial era and has a traditional feel, while the Pacific Coast has a young vibe and America’s Gulf Coast offers a laid-back atmosphere. The Central American nation of Nicaragua might be smaller than its neighbor to the north, but it still offers something unique depending on whether you visit its popular Caribbean Coast or its hidden gem on the Pacific (Spanish) Coast.

Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast is known by some as its Spanish Coast, or even its Spanish side. This western coast of the nation is just starting to emerge as a holiday destination for international travelers hoping to avoid the congestion of the country’s more developed tourist destinations along the Caribbean coast. For a unique trip to Nicaragua that leaves you wanting more, it might be time to visit the Spanish Coast of Nicaragua.

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Old Cathedral of Managua. Managua, Nicaragua

Origins of the “Spanish Coast”

The term Spanish Coast is often used to describe the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua in the country’s southwest. Spain was the first European power to set foot on what is now the nation of Nicaragua when Christopher Columbus reached the so-called Mosquito Coast in 1502, along the Caribbean side of the country. Little was done at first as the Spaniards were exploring southward along the coast toward the Panama Isthmus.

Another 20 years passed before the Spanish returned and when they did, their focus turned to the Pacific Coast of the region. The Spanish arrived on the Caribbean side and found no indigenous tribes at first landing. However, as the Spanish explored inward they eventually settled around Lake Managua, building the cities of Leon on its northwest shore and Granada along Lake Nicaragua to the south. For the next 300 years, Spain would exert colonial control over the region and leave a lasting impression on the culture of Nicaragua’s western regions.

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San Juan Del Sur town in Nicaragua

Today, there is a discernible difference between the Spanish Coast and the so-called Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. The Mosquito Coast along the Caribbean Sea is named for the indigenous Miskito Amerindians. This region of Nicaragua was a protectorate of the United Kingdom for nearly 150 years from the early 17th century to the late 18th century. That British history on the Caribbean coast combined with its rapid rise as a Caribbean holiday destination resulted in English being the primary language spoken along the Mosquito Coast. Due to its popularity, the Mosquito Coast caters to tourists and doesn’t always reflect the true background of the nation.

The Spanish Coast, meanwhile, remained under Spanish control for 300 years until Nicaragua began its move toward independence. Many of the people who live in Nicaragua consider themselves mestizo, the result of marriages between Spanish settlers and native indigenous people. Outside of the Mosquito Coast, Spanish is the primary language in Nicaragua.

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Colorful Tour Boat Parked at an Island with Tropical Palm Trees at the Isletas de Granada in Granada, Nicaragua

Culture of Nicaragua

Nicaraguan culture is a unique combination of the festivals and celebrations of the Pre-Columbian indigenous tribes and the Roman Catholic settlers from Europe. Although Spanish is the primary language of the nation, as mentioned earlier, there are other languages that are spoken predominantly along the Caribbean coast. Here, you will regularly hear people speaking English and even Caribbean creole that arose from a mixture of English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Nicaragua’s culture is focused on poetry, music and dance, and sports as the primary sources of pride for Nicaraguans. Among these, music and dance are particularly distinctive on the Spanish Coast of the country. It is here that traditional Latin styles such as salsa and meringue rule. When Nicaraguans on the Spanish Coast are throwing a party, you will know because the music is loud and the dancing is endless. There’s an entirely different feel to parties, both large and small, along the Spanish Coast.

When it comes to sports, you might be surprised to know which sports are the most popular in Nicaragua. Unlike the rest of Central and South America, the top sport in Nicaragua is baseball. This stems from the occupation of Nicaragua by United States Marines from 1909 to 1933. Baseball is so popular, there is actually a professional, competitive league in Nicaragua. If you thought football was next, you’d be wrong. Boxing is actually the second-favorite sport of Nicaraguans, with football coming in a distant third among locals.

Without question, the highlight of Nicaraguan culture is the written word. Nicaragua is viewed as a major source of poetry throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Ruben Dario, a native Nicaraguan, is viewed as the Father of Modernism. At the end of the 19th century, he led the modernismo literary movement. His works were so influential that the Spanish-speaking poetry world views two time periods to its existence: poetry before and poetry after Ruben Dario.

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Statue in honor of Ruben Dario, the most important poet of Nicaragua photo by mundosemfim.

Traditions in Nicaragua

Traditional celebrations and festivals in Nicaragua are highly concentrated around the Roman Catholic religion brought to the region by Spanish explorers and conquistadors. Religious freedoms and tolerance are enshrined in the constitution of Nicaragua, and though the nation has no official state religion, Catholicism plays a major role in national traditions. For example, Catholic bishops in Nicaragua are expected to attend important state occasions to lend credibility in the eyes of the populace and make pronouncements on national issues. Moreover, Catholic bishops are often called upon to help mediate between disputing parties when there are incidents of political crisis.

From the capital of Managua to the small village communities spread across Nicaragua, annual festivals and celebrations center on respect for patron saints. One such example plays out in Managua each August in honor of St. Dominic, or Santo Domingo. Each August, there are back-to-back days of riotous, colorful, day-long processions through the city in honor of St. Dominic. Another major religious celebration each year takes place in December and is known as La Purisima. This weeklong festival celebrates the Immaculate Conception, the concept that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary through the power of God. Many Nicaraguans will build extremely elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary in their homes and workplaces during La Purisima.

Outside of the religious calendar, annual traditions in Nicaragua include the International Poetry Festival each February. Hosted in Granada, the festival attracts both poets and literary fans from across the world to hear historic works of the likes of Ruben Dario and works from other latter-day figures such as Ernest Cardenal and Gioconda Belli.

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People wearing traditional dress and colorful masks during the celebration of Carnival Photo by Riderfoot

Tourist Destinations on the Pacific Coast

With so much beauty, culture, and fun traditions to take part in, there’s no time like the present to consider a visit to the Spanish Coast of Nicaragua. While the ports, resorts, and beaches of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast are well-known to holiday revelers seeking sun and sand throughout the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua remains a bit more of a mystery.

If a beach getaway is what you are craving for your next holiday, you will find sandy beaches nestled up against lush, green tropical forests up and down the length of the Pacific Coast in Nicaragua. From the Gulf of Fonseca in the north to San Juan del Sur in the south near the Costa Rican border, you can pick beaches for surfing or calmer family locales. For those who crave the action of surfing, try the beaches of Madera, Puerto Sandino, Miramar, El Transito, Popoyo, Panga Drops, Manzanillo, and Colorados. If you’re traveling with little children or just want calm, lapping Pacific waters, try the beaches of Marcela, La Flor, and El Coco in the south near San Juan del Sur.

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View of Cathedral Granada, Nicaragua

In fact, San Juan del Sur is the primary tourist destination at the moment along the Spanish Coast of Nicaragua. The town celebrated its 150th anniversary back in 2002 and has become the leading tourist destination in the west. You will find white sand beaches along the crescent-shaped bay of San Juan del Sur. The town is looked down upon by the statue of Christ of the Mercy on a hill outside town. This beautiful coastal town offers the option for mild surfing, fishing, jungle zip-lining and hiking, with shops, restaurants, cafes, and street shopping available in town. Here, you can immerse yourself in traditional Nicaraguan cuisine and purchase arts and crafts handcrafted by locals.

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Guadalupe Church at Granada, Nicaragua

For those in search of options off the beaten path, head north along the Pacific Coast. The small coastal community of Popoyo is very welcoming of those on holiday and its beach is a major attraction for surfers. The waters here offer a strong, consistent surface. If you want a different surf challenge, charter boats in nearby El Astillero can take you to other surf locations in the area. Incredibly fresh cuisine is available as well in El Astillero if you are willing to cook your own meal one night. The local market allows you to purchase fresh fish and lobsters directly from the Nicaraguan fishermen who made the catch.

Finally, also located along the northern coast of Nicaragua’s Spanish side is Cococente National Wildlife Refuge. Within the refuge, you can visit one of the most important turtle nesting grounds found anywhere in the Americas. Head north past the town of Corinto and you’ll find a new beachfront property recently developed that combines modern amenities and luxury with the unspoiled nature of Nicaragua’s tranquil forests. Marina Puesta del Sol is set on 600 acres of beachfront and offers lodgings built into the dense indigenous forest. For that quiet, tranquil visit, you might not find any better in all of Nicaragua.

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Nicaragua has more to show the world than the resorts, beaches, and activities offered to one-day visitors on a cruise stop along the Caribbean coast. Take the time to venture cross country and discover the beauty of the Spanish Coast of Nicaragua. Immerse yourself in the true culture of Nicaragua, enjoy its natural splendors lying on white-sand beaches or hiking the dense tropical forests. On Nicaragua’s Spanish side, you can see, smell, and taste true Nicaragua.

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Old church in Leon city in Nicaragua aerial view. Street in Leon