Nicaraguans are by nature a creative people, and the many countries and cultures that have taken part in their country’s history have each left an unmistakable mark on dance, sculpture, painting, writing, and music. There are many opportunities to experience traditional dance and song, but equally vibrant are the artisans, writers, and performers who are creating in the present, helping to form an artistic environment that’s very much Nicaragua’s own.
“Nicaragua,” wrote the poet Pablo Neruda, “where the highest song of the tongue is raised.” José Miguel Oviedo called the writing of Nicaragua , “the richest and most tragic national literary tradition on the continent.” Most start the story of Nicaraguan literature with the groundbreaking words of Rubén Darío. It continues with the vanguardists of the 1950s and 1960s, the subsequent generation of revolutionary poets and novelists, and the current wave of soul-searchers.
Though poverty has placed books out of the economic reach of most Nicaraguans, the Casa de los Tres Mundos art gallery in Managua doubles as ground zero for the Society of Nicaraguan Writers, and is a good place to start if you have questions about readings, book releases, or other events. There are a few bookstores in Managua  that carry Nicaraguan and Latin American selections, as well as Spanish translations of foreign works; Estelí  and León  also boast interesting bookstores to explore.
Poet and author Gioconda Belli was called one of the 100 most important poets of the 20th century. Her work deals with the themes of feminism, mystical realism, and history, all mixed with a breath of sensuality. Her books Wiwilí, Sofía de los Presagios, and El País Bajo Mi Piel (The Country Under My Skin) are widely acclaimed.
The writing of Ricardo Pasos Marciacq reflects not only his appreciation for the long and tumultuous history of Nicaragua but for the richness of its society. His books Maria Manuela Piel de Luna and El Burdel de las Pedrarias are modern classics; the former evokes the years when British-armed Miskitos were wreaking havoc on the Spanish settlements of the Pacific.
Rubén Darío is loved throughout the world of Latin American literature and is considered the father of modernism in Spanish literature. A few of the many other books by Nicaraguan writers worth reading if you have the time and the facility of the language include El Nicaragüense by Pablo Antonio Cuadra, Nicaragua, Teatro de lo Grandioso by Carlos A. Bravo, and El Estrecho Dudoso by Ernesto Cardenal.
Nicaragua ’s traditional folk dances are often mixed with a form of theater, like a play in a parade. There are several dance institutions in Managua that teach folk classics alongside modern dance and ballet, and sponsor frequent performances. The presence of dance schools outside the capital is on the rise, which means fortunate travelers have a good chance of seeing a presentation outside of Managua, especially in Masaya , Diriamba , Matagalpa, León , and Granada .
“El Güegüense,” for example, is a 19th-century dance of costumed dancers in wooden masks that satirically represents the impression Nicaragua’s indigenous people first had of the Spanish and their horses. This dance and others are often featured at fiestas patronales (patron saint celebrations), notably in the Masaya and Carazo  regions.
“El Viejo y La Vieja” (“The Old Man and Woman”) pokes ribald fun at old age and sexuality. One dancer, dressed up as an old gentleman with cane and top hat, and the other, dressed up as a buxom old woman, perform a dance that usually involves the old man trying to dance with young female members of the audience while his wife chases him, beating him with her cane.
“Aquella Indita” is a celebration of the Nicaraguan woman and her reputation for being graceful and hardworking. “El Solar de Monimbó” (“Monimbó’s Backyard”) is a traditional dance from the indigenous neighborhood of Masaya, which captures the spirit of community and celebration.
Besides the traditional folk pieces, Nicaraguans love to dance. Period. And there is no occasion (except maybe a funeral) at which it is inappropriate to pump up the music and take to your feet. The ultrasuave, loose-hipped movements associated with merengue, salsa, cumbia, and reggae are most commonly seen at discos, street parties, or in living rooms around the nation.
The Palo de Mayo is a popular, modern Caribbean dance form featuring flamboyant costumes, vibrating chests, and not-so-subtle sexual simulations. When you see mothers rocking their babies to loud Latin rhythms, and two-year-old girls receiving hip-gyrating lessons, you’ll understand why Nicaraguans are able to move so much more fluidly on the dance floor than you are.
There are a number of Nicaraguan sculptors and painters whose work is displayed at galleries in Managua , Granada , León , and other places. Though the primitivist painters of Solentiname have gotten the lion’s share of the press, there is much more in Nicaragua to be seen. In Managua, there are frequent expos of art, often accompanied by buffets or musical performances.
Music, in an infinite variety of forms, is essential to Nicaraguan society. Expect to find loud, blaring radios in most restaurants, bars, vehicles, and homes. It may seem strange at first to find yourself listening to fast, pulsing merengue beats at six in the morning on a rural chicken bus (or in your hotel lobby at midnight for that matter) when the only people listening are sitting calmly in their seats or rocking chairs. Realize, however, that this behavior is seen as a way to inject alegría (happiness) into the environment, or alternately, to get rid of the sadness that some Nicaraguans associate with silence.
Radio mixes are eclectic, featuring the latest Dominican merengues, Mexican and Miami pop, cheesy romanticas, plus a bizarre U.S. mélange of Backstreet Boys (“Los Back,” for those in the know), Air Supply, and Guns N’ Roses. Another wildly popular genre is the ranchera, which comes in the form of either polka beats or slow, drippy, lost-love, mariachi tearjerkers, performed by one of a handful of super-celebrity Mexican crooners. Old, rootsy, U.S. country music is extremely popular on the Atlantic coast, and in northern Nicaragua, Kenny Rogers (pronounced “Royers”) is recognized as the undisputed king of “La Musica Country.”
Managua  is host to a small, exciting scene of young local bands and solo musicians, most of whom are direct descendants—children, nephews, cousins—of the generation of musicians that brought Nicaraguan folk music to the world. Their acts range from quiet acoustic solo sets to the head-banging throaty screams of a couple of angry, politically minded metal bands. You can hear a lot of them at El Caramanchel.
Live music is also found at most fiestas patronales, performed by one of several Nicaraguan commercial party bands whose sets imitate the radio mixes of the day. Among the most popular bands is Los Mokuanes (named after the enchanted mountain and its resident witch in La Trinidad, Estelí ), who have been around in one form or another for more than three decades. During the war, they were conscripted by the government to don fatigues and perform at army bases throughout the country. Other favorite bands are Macolla and, representing the Palo de Mayo side of things, Sir Anthony and his Dimensión Costeño.