Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes, is also the land of lush forests, deserted beaches and vibrant colonial cities. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, Costa Rica without the crowds – for now.
The largest country in Central America is still one of its least visited. Peaceful for over 25 years, it’s still waging a battle against a lingering negative image of a war-torn country. Ironically, it’s officially the safest country in Central America. It’s also its poorest – only Haiti is worse off in the Western Hemisphere.
During the 1980s, Nicaragua attracted an army of sympathetic internacionalistas who volunteered to work in the fields as an act of solidarity with the revolutionary government. Now an increasing number of visitors are attracted by the country’s natural beauty.
Go hiking and biking, kayak along jungle rivers and swim in crater lakes. Explore steamy rainforests and mist-wreathed cloud forest. A wildlife wonderland, it’s home to howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys, jaguars and crocodiles, as well as a multitude of birds and butterflies. And there’s plenty to satisfy the most exacting adrenaline junkie: speed along zip lines, surf the Pacific breakers, even surf down active volcanoes.
Kick back on twin-coned Ometepe Island, rising out of the silver flat surface of Lake Nicaragua. Or catch an open-sided boat along the San Juan River into the heart of the Indío Maiz Biological Reserve, the largest area of virgin rainforest north of the Amazon.
Colonial León, the cultural capital, is a hotbed of revolution and poetry, and the starting point for climbing the Maribios volcanic chain, where you can snowboard down the black ash slopes of still-rumbling Cerro Negro. Or pick your own coffee in the temperate northern highlands around Matagalpa and Jinotega.
San Juan del Sur has long been a haunt of surfers in search of the perfect wave, a place to chill by day and party after dark. Further afield, the Corn Islands tick all the Caribbean boxes without the price tag. Explore the reefs, dine on lobster, then flop into a hammock with only the rustle of palm fronds to disturb you.
Picture-perfect Granada is a colonial gem and one of the oldest cities in the Americas. It’s the ideal base to explore Masaya’s volcanic park and barter at its colourful handicraft market, witness centuries-old fiestas, zip-line over Mombacho’s cloud forest and cool off with a swim in the crystalline crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo.
For all its beauty, the welcoming Nicas are the country’s finest asset. Revolution, civil war and natural disasters may have taken their toll on the country’s infrastructure, but its resilient people remain warm and welcoming, and intensely proud of their culture and traditions.
Those with more time can learn Spanish at a not-for-profit school or volunteer with a local charity. Then grab some rum and dance the warm tropical night away to the sultry rhythms of salsa.