Nicaragua has some spectacular nature. There is a wide variety of landscapes and habitats that allow for many different types of vegetation and animal species to thrive. For the nature lovers, Nicaragua has a lot to offer.
Rainforest is still present in Nicaragua. Although shrinking, the rainforest has been left relatively untouched. The autonomous regions on the eastern side of the country house some big forests. There are two big reserves: the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in the southeastern part of Nicaragua, next to the San Juan River, and the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in the northeastern part of Nicaragua. Both areas house magnificent trees and a wide range of rainforest animals.
Besides rainforest, which is scientifically identified with the term ‘wet tropical forest’, there are also other interesting types of vegetation present throughout Nicaragua. On several places you can find tropical dry forest where also many tropical plants, trees, and animals live, only without the continuous abundance of water. This type of forest is present throughout the Pacific side of Nicaragua. During the dry season, most of the trees drop their leaves in order not to lose too much water. This could make the forest look dry and yellow. Most forests at the Pacific lowlands of Nicaragua are dry tropical forest.
Another type of forest that can be found in Nicaragua is semideciduous tropical forest. This is a type of forest with more rain and humidity than the dry forest, yet without the permanent rainfall and humidity of wet tropical forests. As a result of the rain, many trees are able to hold their leaves throughout the year. This makes the forest much greener than the dry tropical forest, even during the dry season. This type of vegetation is typically found on the Pacific side at elevations, roughly from 400 meters to 800 meters.
At higher elevations you can find another special forest type: cloud forests. The upper parts of volcanoes or mountains can be permanently enclosed by clouds, which will result in a unique type of vegetation. The permanent humidity makes this an evergreen forest, where the trees never have to drop their leaves. The high humidity furthermore creates high growth and productivity rates, which means that you can find many different types of flora and fauna on a small area. The biodiversity is often very high. Trees are covered in plants like orchids and other plants that grow on the tree trunk and branches, providing great habitats from insects and other small animals. Cloud forests are often rich forests where vegetation is too dense to hike through without a trail. You can find these forests for instance at the Mombacho Volcano and the Maderas Volcano. These are the only areas with a cloud forest at the Pacific side of Nicaragua, and both areas are enclosed by other types of vegetation. Plants and animals living in these cloud forests are therefore isolated from other areas and this has resulted in the development of several unique, endemic species. Endemic means that these species only exist at one place in the world. At the Mombacho Volcano, for instance, you can find an endemic salamander, fern, shrub, and orchid. There are probably even more endemic plants, trees, or animals at these sites, but relatively little research has been done.
The Mombacho Volcano is also famous for another unique type of vegetation. There is always a very strong wind at the top of this dormant volcano. This has limited the possibilities for plants and trees to reach their regular height. Instead, all plants and trees at this area are very short. This rare type of forest is called a dwarf forest.
Other ecologically rich areas include swamps and estuaries. Migratory birds often visit these zones in overwhelming numbers. Examples are the swamps at the Cosigüina volcano, in the most northwestern corner of Nicaragua, and the Río Istián estuary at Ometepe Island.
Lakes, lagoons, and rivers are also available in many sizes and shapes. Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake of Central America. When the Spanish conquerors first crossed this immense lake, they called it a ‘fresh water sea’. Inside the lakes there is an archipelago of islands called Solentiname, and a huge island of 274 square kilometers, composed of two volcanoes connected by a strip of land. There are also some beautiful lagoons throughout Nicaragua. A lagoon renowned for its blue water and pristine surroundings is the Apoyo Lagoon, located between the cities of Granada and Masaya. Some of the lakes and lagoons have unfortunately been contaminated. The most striking example is Lake Managua. This lake is located next to Nicaragua’s capital city, and it could have been a major tourist attraction were it not for all the garbage, sewage materials, heavy metals, and other highly contaminated substances that have been dumped here.
A more welcoming image is portrayed by the Nicaraguan beaches. Bordering two oceans, Nicaragua has a lot of beach to offer. On the Pacific side you can find many hilled beaches and bays that offer great swimming, surfing, fishing, and other water sport possibilities. From many Pacific beaches you can see the sun set which can be truly beautiful. Even more tropical settings can be found at the Caribbean coast. Here you can find the turquoise water, white sand, and green palms that you see in the movies. Two small islands in the Caribbean called the Corn Islands offer many options for tourists. A little more off-road lie the Pearl Keys. This group of tiny islets can be visited from Pearl Lagoon, located north from the most important city at the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast, Bluefields.
All these different habitats house many different animal species. From sea turtles to hummingbirds: you can find it all in Nicaragua. Below is an overview of some of the most interesting animals living in the country.
Birds can be found throughout all Nicaragua. More than 700 species exist in the country, some of them permanently while others only come down to escape the colder climates from up north. The birds come in many colors, shapes and sizes; and birders will find great opportunities for spotting tropical birds in Nicaragua.
Lacking heavy industry, even the capital city Managua offers a breeding place for birds. With its many trees you can spot beautiful birds in the middle of the city. Attractive birds like motmots and hummingbirds can all be found urban limits. The countryside, however, does offer even better birding sites. Forests, rivers, and rural areas can be filled with spectacular birds. Among the birds you can find in Nicaragua are impressive vultures, elegant pelicans, intriguing trogons, and the splendid quetzal.
More about birdwatching in Nicaragua can be found in this Birdwatching Special »
See the birds in our Animal Guide.
Another group of animals also abundant in Nicaragua are the insects. New species are often discovered in the unexplored corners of the rainforest; yet new species have also been found at relatively easily accessible sites. The different types of forest and other habitats combined with the tropical climate offer a perfect breeding ground for butterflies, dragonflies, ants, bugs, and many other insects. Although you might experience the abundance of insects as an unpleasant aspect of traveling in Nicaragua, these same insects do improve the biodiversity of the country and they play a fundamental role in the eco-systems (yet we do understand that your enthusiasm will be limited if you just walked into a huge swarm of mosquitoes).
See the insects in our Animal Guide.
When it comes to mammals, Nicaragua has many different types of mostly smaller mammals. In the forests there are spectacular animals like pumas, ocelots, ant-eaters, monkeys (White-headed Capuchin, Spider Monkey, and Howler Monkeys), sloths, and tapirs. These and other mammals are mostly hard to see (monkeys can in general be spotted more easily, especially the Howler Monkey).
The largest mammals on earth can also be seen in Nicaragua. Whales migrating from north to south (and back) can be observed at the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. They are most easily seen during the dry season. They are not the most common animals, but on a boat ride during the right season you have a fair chance of observing these magnificent animals. Other spectacular sea mammals that can also be seen are the dolphins. Again the Pacific offers the best possibilities, mostly because there are more possibilities to get on a boat.
See the mammals in our Animal Guide.
Besides the dolphins and whales there is much more to see in the water. Not only do the Caribbean and the Pacific Coast offer a wealth of sea life; the many lagoons, lakes, and rivers are also great places to see some spectacular flora and fauna.
Some of the most interesting attractions in the water are the reefs. Especially at the Caribbean Sea you can find rich, colorful reefs surrounded by the most spectacular fish and other sea animals. Here you can also find bigger fish like sharks, rays, and barracudas. Schools of fish can also be easily observed around these Caribbean reefs. The Corn Islands probably provide the best place for diving in Nicaragua. More about the reef and fish cam be read in the ‘Reefs and Marine Life’ Special that we published.
Other animals that live at both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean are the sea turtles. These ancient sea reptiles are threatened at many places throughout the world, and also around Nicaragua many turtle populations have significantly decreased in size. There are, however, still many turtles that live in Nicaraguan waters. These animals can be seen when diving or from a boat. In addition, you can also see the turtles come to one of the many nesting beaches at Nicaragua, where they dig a hole to lay their eggs. This already can be a truly remarkable event, but it gets even better: at certain beaches turtles arrive en masse, with up thousands of individuals in a single night climbing up the beach to deposit their eggs. Not all turtles engage in these so-called arribadas. The most famous turtle is the Olive Ridley turtle, and the most famous beach in Nicaragua is the La Flor Wildlife Reserve. The turtles arrive several times a year in these vast numbers, roughly between August and January.
Another related and also remarkable event is watching the little turtles come out of their eggs and crawl to the ocean. Thousands of eggs hatch at the same time, so if you are at the right beach at the right time, you can see thousands of tiny turtles come out of the sand and hurry towards the ocean. To read more about the turtles that live in Nicaraguan waters, read our Sea Turtle Special.
Although some of the lakes and lagoons in Nicaragua have been contaminated, others are still pristine and abundant with fish and other animals. Tropical fish that are sold in other countries as aquarium fish can be seen in these lagoons or in Nicaraguan rivers. Rivers like to San Juan River and the El Coco River are spectacular rivers crossing through pristine rain forest. Big fish like tarpon can be found plentiful at certain areas.
Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Lake Nicaragua is the bull shark. These sharks normally live in salt water; but a long time ago bull sharks living in the Caribbean Sea started swimming up the San Juan River and gradually became adapted to the fresh water of the river. This enabled them to expand their territory and invade Lake Nicaragua. During the Somoza dictatorship, however, a shark fin processing plant was constructed on the banks of the San Juan River, and pretty much every shark was captured and killed. Nowadays, the bull sharks are no more common fish at Lake Nicaragua. Sporadic sightings have been reported, but it is not known if a substantial population still inhabits Lake Nicaragua.
In addition to the sea reptiles there are also many land reptiles living on Nicaraguan soil. A variety of lizard species are among the most frequently seen reptiles, living both in urban areas as well as in rural parts of the country. Green Iguanas are among the biggest lizards, and they can be seen warming up in the sun on rooftops, next to the road, or on walls. They are either green or brown. Smaller but quite interestingly colored are the Black Iguanas, transforming from green to brown as they mature. They can also be found enjoying the sun on streets or in the wild. Green basilisks are lizards that look like they are pre-historic (which they probably are). They are often found close to water – at the San Juan River you can find plenty.
Another water reptile is the caiman. They inhabit rivers, lakes, and lagoons, but pose in general no threat to people. Other, friendlier lizards are the small Asian House Geckos that walk on walls and ceilings and that can be found in many houses (and hotel rooms!). These little animals appear at night when they hunt for insects in the room. The lizards can actually walk on the ceiling, and they are great at catching mosquitoes, flies, and other insects you probably don’t mind getting rid of. These little lizards, however, produce a loud, bird-like sound which might confuse you in thinking there are some bigger animals around.
See the reptiles in our Animal Guide.