- Where to Go
- The Best of Nicaragua
- Nicaragua’s Best Surfing
- Hiking Nicaragua’s Ring of Fire
- Nicaraguan Arts & Crafts
- Nicaragua’s Great Green North
- Sportfishing in Nicaragua
- Down the Río San Juan
- Nicaragua’s Celebrations & Fiestas
- Volunteering in Nicaragua
- Diving & Snorkeling in Nicaragua
- Managua’s Revolutionary Driving Tour
While Nicaraguans can trace their ancestry back to many sources, most of the population is a blend of Spanish, Native American, and sometimes other European stock. Indigenous blood runs most strongly in the northeast, where the Spanish had less influence, and on the mid-Atlantic coast, where English and African influences were dominant.
In the Pacific region, the indigenous population thinned from 800,000 when the Spanish arrived to less than 60,000 after a couple centuries of conquistador policy (i.e., war, slavery, genocide, and diseases). The native peoples of the northeast, including Matagalpa and Jinotega, were less affected, and thus retain larger indigenous populations today.
The term mestizo refers to any mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood and describes the majority of Nicaraguan citizens, whose Spanish colonial ancestors began intermingling with the locals about as soon as they got off the boat.
A second wave of mestizaje (mixing) occurred from the 1860s through the 1890s, during the wave of rubber and banana production along the Atlantic coast, and again in the 1950s as Pacific farmers moved eastward in search of new agricultural lands at the expense of the Sumu-Ulúa and Miskito peoples.
Note: Mestizo Nicaraguans sometimes use the term “indio” as a derogatory label for anyone with Native American features (high cheekbones, straight black hair, short eyelashes, and dark brown skin).
After decimating the indigenous peoples of the New World, the Spanish realized they lacked laborers; so they imported African slaves to their colonies in the Americas. Beginning in 1562, English slave traders, and later Dutch, Spanish, and others, supplied the colonies with human cargo.
Along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, African slaves intermingled with Miskitos, giving birth to the Zambo (or Sambo) people. They also bred with the Spanish and English, forming the Creoles, primarily found today in Bluefields and San Juan del Norte. Creoles speak a form of English that still bears traces of 19th-century Queen’s English, as well as Caribbean and Spanish traits.
Their culture includes distinct African elements, including the belief in a form of African witchcraft called obeah or sontín, the latter a corruption of the English “something,” or “something special.”
Modern-day Miskitos are really a mixture of several races, and include traces of English and African blood. The Native American Bawihka people, whose territory extended from the Río Coco (Wangki) at Cabo Gracias a Dios south to Prinzapolka, mixed with the African-slave refugees of a Portuguese ship that wrecked on the Miskito Cays in 1642. They later mixed with the English during their long occupation of the Atlantic coast.
Over the centuries, the word “Miskito” has been written many other ways, including “Mosquito,” “Mosca,” “Mískitu,” and others. The name derives not from the insect but from the Spanish word mosquete (musket), a firearm the British provided the locals to ensure a tactical advantage over their neighbors.
The Miskitos’ warlike nature and superior firepower helped them subdue twenty other Native American tribes along the Atlantic coast of Central America. They were valuable allies to the English, who used them in raids against inland Spanish settlements, and crowned their “kings” in an Anglican church in Belize City. The Miskitos also absorbed the Prinsu tribe (located along the Bambana and Prinzapolka Rivers) and the Kukra tribe.
Today the Miskitos inhabit much of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, from Bluefields northward and all along the Río Coco, which they consider their spiritual home. There are additional Miskito settlements on both Corn Islands, but their two principal centers are Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) and Waspám. Their language, Miskito, is the old indigenous Tawira language enriched with English and African vocabulary.
The Kukra people were assimilated by the Miskitos over the last two centuries and no longer exist as a tribe. Of unknown but reportedly cannibalistic Caribbean origin, they once inhabited Bluefields, the Corn Islands, and the area around Pearl Lagoon. Today, the only trace of them is the name of the small Pearl Lagoon community of Kukra Hill.
The Garífuna, as a distinct culture, are relative newcomers to the world. Their history began on the Lesser Antillean island of San Vicente (Saint Vincent), which in the 1700s had become a refuge for escaped slaves from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, including Jamaica. These displaced Africans were accepted by the native Carib (Arawak) islanders, with whom they freely intermingled.
As the French and English settled the island, the Garífunas (as they had become known), established a worldwide reputation as expert canoe navigators and fierce warriors, resisting the newcomers. The English finally got the upper hand in the conflict after tricking and killing the Garífuna leader, and in 1797, they forcefully evacuated the Garífunas from San Vicente to the Honduran Bay Island of Roatán. From there, many of the Garífunas migrated to the mainland communities of Trujillo, Honduras and Dangriga, Belize.
Today, they exist up and down most of the Central American Caribbean coast, with a small but distinct presence in Nicaragua, primarily around Pearl Lagoon. Orinoco (originally Urunugu) is the largest settlement of Garífunas in Nicaragua, established in 1912 by the Garífuna John Sambola. The communities of San Vicente and Justo Point are both Garífuna as well. During the 1980s, the Contra war forced many Garífunas out of their communities and into Bluefields, Puerto Limón (Costa Rica), and Honduras.
“Sumu,” is a derogatory word the Miskito used for all other peoples of Ulúa descent (it means stupid; conversely, the Mayangna name for the Miskito was wayas, which means “stinky”). The Mayangna, as they prefer to be called, are a combination of several Ulúa tribes, including the Twahka, Panamka, and Ulwa, who once settled the Kurinwas, Siquia, Mico, Rama, and Grande Rivers of the Atlantic coast.
Mayangna tradition has it that in the 9th and 10th centuries they were the inhabitants of a territory that extended from the Atlantic coast and Río Coco to the Pacific, but they were forced off the Atlantic coastal lands by the more aggressive and warring Miskito and out of the Pacific by the Nahuatls, Maribios, and Chorotegas. The Mayangna are now centered around the mining triangle and the massive forest reserve of Bosawás.
The Rama are the least numerous indigenous people in Nicaragua, numbering only several hundred. Their language is distinct from Miskito and Mayangna and is closely related to the ancient tribal languages of Native American tribes of Panamá and Colombia. Today, only several dozen people can still speak Rama and anthropologists are scrambling to document what they can of the language before it disappears entirely.
The Rama people inhabit the pleasant bay island of Rama Cay in the Bay of Bluefields, where they fish and collect oysters. They also grow grains and traditional crops on small plots of land on the mainland of Bluefields Bay and along the Kukra River. The Rama people are reserved and keep mostly to their traditional ways, even using traditional tools and implements. They are excellent navigators and fishers.
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition