What usually comes to mind when thinking about the people and culture of Nicaragua? I am originally from Spain, and similarly to many in the U.S., I assumed that all Nicaraguans spoke Spanish and that their culture was purely Hispanic.
However, I was shocked when I found out that there is still a substantial population of indigenous groups in Nicaragua, making up about 5% of the population. These groups still live and communicate by their own laws, traditions, languages, and culture. In practice, and by law, they have been granted almost full autonomy over their two regions, the RAAN (Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region) and the RAAS (Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region), though a significant amount of them live in the Rio San Juan department as well.
These indigenes are made up of five different groups with six indigenous languages. The names of these groups are: the Miskitu, the Creole, the Sumo, the Garifuna, and the Rama. There used to be more that lived on the Pacific coast, but the few small communities that remain have lost their culture and languages completely. What is even more unfortunate is that, similarly to what happened on the West coast, after centuries of struggle against outside forces, the indigenous communities of the RAAN and the RAAS are rapidly being encroached upon as well. Purposeful attempts to take their land have mostly stopped, except for the proposed construction of the Nicaragua canal and a few proposed ports. The larger problem that these indigenes face is globalization and their youth’s stronger interest in learning English or Spanish, rather than preserving their own languages and cultures.
However, it is not too late to come visit their pristine homelands and get a glimpse of their Pre-Columbian cultures and traditions. Though, fair warning, these trips are for the more adventurous, since there are little to no amenities or signs of modernity along the way.
It is best to make your Pre-Columbian cultural visit to the RAAS and the Rio San Juan department just south of it. Unfortunately, tourism is not even slightly developed in the RAAN, where it can be a bit dangerous if you are not careful.
Rio San Juan Department
Probably the best place to get a glimpse of a mostly untouched and unsullied rainforest, as well as meet several indigenous communities, is the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Essentially, this is the wildest, yet still accessible, part of Nicaragua that you can get to without being a professional explorer. Many parts of the western area of the reserve are not accessible for visits or hiking, but as long as you stay near the river and the nearby villages, you will still see an entirely new world.
The journey starts from one of the small towns outside of the reserve such as El Castillo. From there you can continue by boat southeast on the San Juan River. You can also start your trip from the port town located within the reserve called San Juan de Nicaragua (formerly known as San Juan del Norte or Greytown).
Note: You must hire a guide to enter the reserve or else you will not be allowed in by the guards.
No matter which entrance you choose to use, you will be able to see a vast amount of fauna including manatees, pumas, crocodiles, and jaguars. However, your true interest may be in seeing some of the still inhabited, Pre-Columbian settlements for which you will want to enter through the San Juan del Nicaragua entrance.
A short guided hike from San Juan del Norte, there are several villages inhabited by the Rama people. The Rama in these villages are friendly and, for a possible small fee, you can even stay in one of their huts for a night or two. That way you can say that you truly have slept in a Rama village. The Rama can also guide you around the area to visit ruins, see manatees, and witness their way of life.
In the RAAS you can visit several indigenous towns using Bluefields as a jumping off point or basecamp. In Bluefields you can get an interesting look at Caribbean culture, Nicaraguan style. But for your first truly indigenous experience, you may want to head to a more remote settlement, such as Monkey Point, by boat. It is suggested that you hire a guide through a hotel or touring company in Bluefields first, since many of the areas outside of it are almost impossible to navigate without the help of a local.
Monkey Point is one of the small indigenous villages that is under threat from external powers. Several countries want to invest in building a $350M port there, where you will currently find nothing but nature and a small settlement. For now, Monkey Point can still be visited in its original form. Here you can see the small peninsula that is inhabited by mostly monkeys as the name suggests. Slightly deeper into the coast is where you will find the actual settlement. There you can find lodges for rent if you wish to stay for longer than a day trip, which is recommended if you wish to truly obtain the jungle experience. Within the village there are some locals who will speak English. They can help facilitate your visit and help you buy traditional arts and crafts, as well as guide you around the area.
As I mentioned before, even in the deepest parts of the rainforest many of these Amerindians have lost or are losing their languages, cultures, and traditional ways of life. Now is a perfect time to come visit them, and even study their cultures, since some of their traditional villages are still accessible to tourists. Unfortunately, in the next decade tourists and academicians may no longer have this opportunity. By that point many of these cultures may only exist in the history books.