As an adventure specialist and eager traveller, I was recently approached by Raj, our managing director, with the task of finding a new and exciting destination for us to feature at The Holiday Place.
So far and wide I searched, on and on I went asking around and consulting a bunch of travelling friends and taking time to read an endless number of travel magazines, news, and online articles about up-and-coming destinations. And suddenly, I casually stumbled upon Nicaragua.
It was while browsing an article in Lonely Planet about the destinations of 2014 that I came across Nicaragua. The name alone caught my eye immediately because while I was aware of it being a small country in Central America, I was clueless about what could make such an apparently insignificant nation in any way special or attractive to tourists. I really had no idea what it could possibly offer travellers. So when I found it on the list of "Best Value Destinations for 2014", I became immediately curious as to find out why.
As it turns out, Nicaragua happens to be home to quite a selection of natural marvels and some striking colonial beauties. Grossly overlooked on the main tourist trail and completely outshone by neighbouring Costa Rica which has a more established and more solid tourism product, Nicaragua still packs a powerful punch.
True, that the destination may be unpolished and that the landscape may be a bit rough around the edges, but that's where its actual beauty actually lies. Here you can feel like you've discovered a secret that hasn't been fully let out yet.Nicaragua is a little-discovered paradise that's still off the mass tourist trail, so go and see it now before its rising popularity changes it forever.
Follow us on our journey through Nicaragua's natural and cultural marvels, join us in our trek through impressive volcanoes, sail along the largest lake in the Americas, discover an amazing volcanic island lying in the middle of a lake, mingle with the locals, haggle for beautiful crafts and discover amazing colonial cities that time has hardly touched.
Managua, the beautiful earthquake-beaten capital
We start our journey through Central America's largest and lowest country by arriving into Managua, its busy and, depending where you go, often gritty, capital city. Managua is a peculiar place, a city with no centre, and, even more rarely without conventional addresses.
Despite the initial impression of chaos with the great variety of building styles that go from the older and majestic neo-Classical and modern buildings to the more sombre, squat residential buildings that emerged from the ruins of the 1972 earthquake. This is a city that was once shattered by tremors, and whose once glorious boulevards were extinguished by the tremendous seismic action of 1972. But beyond this chaotic image you will still find smooth roads and a varied range of restaurants and hotels offering good accommodation and hearty local fare you'll simply love to tuck into.
If political stability is something that at all concerns you, rest assured that after years of upheaval marked by the 1979 revolution and the 1980s civil war, Nicaragua has now achieved political stability and is today one of the safest places to visit in Latin America.
After perhaps exploring the residential zone and visiting the historic centre destroyed by the 1972 earthquake, you might be stopping at the local markets to take a quick look at the fruits, wares and knick-knacks for sale, before continuing towards the Tiscapa Hill, or "Loma de Tiscapa", as it's locally known.
Formally called the Tiscapa Hill National Historic Park, this is the site of a former presidential palace where national martyr A. Sandino was executed. Atop the hill in fact you will find a gigantic monument erected to represent his figure. Here also stands (barely) what once was one of the country's most notorious prisons. But also from the top you'll be rewarded with the most amazing views, as you stand on the lip of the volcano Tiscapa (which is what the top of Loma Tiscapa actually is), on a beautiful little crater lake overlooking the city's two cathedrals and the Momotombo Volcano, another spectacular sight to take your breath away.
The land of Lakes and Volcanoes
If there is something that will take your breath away in Nicaragua it will no doubt be the majestic sight of its volcanoes. With as many as 19 of these, all of which are active, volcano-spotting in Nicaragua happens spontaneously without you even planning for it.
Likewise, the vastness and immense beauty of Nicaragua's extensive lakes and lagoons will sure make your jaw drop. Standing out among the crowd are Lake Apanas, Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua, with the last two occupying as much as 10 per cent of the country's total surface area.
The greatest and most famous of these is Lake Nicaragua, a vast expansion of water extending over 8,264 square kilometres. Also known to the locals as "Cocicolba" (its original indigenous name), this is the largest lake in Central America and one of the most scenic places you can find in the whole of Nicaragua. With a large number of volcanic islets dotting this imposing body of water, there are many places from which to contemplate the lake's beauty.
This Sweet Sea (a translation of "Mar Dulce", as the locals also call it) is home to two large volcanic islands, Ometepe and Zapatera and a small archipelago known as the Solentiname Islands. When looking out over the lake from one of these isles, you can feel as though you are trapped in a tropical island surrounded by nothing water everywhere around you.
From the distance, Ometepe Island, the largest of these islets, can bee seen emerging as two large peaks rising from the water. Formed by two volcanoes (Concepcion and Maderas) which are joined by a low isthmus, the shape of this island when looked from above might make you think of an hourglass. Comprising over 31 kilometres in length and extending up to 10 kilometres on width (on the widest part), the economy of Ometepe is based on tourism, livestock and agriculture, with plantains being the major crop grown here.
The tropical forests within this large tropical island make it ideal for hikers and nature lovers alike, while eager mountain-climbers can have a go at hiking in one of the two volcanoes. Every morning you can wake up to amazing lake views, take a dip in the natural beach and sink your toes in the silvery volcanic sand.
The tour guides in Ometepe are truly warm and outstanding people with a great knowledge of the island. They will take you to horseback ride, swim, kayak, hike and eat locally as well as show you the hidden beauties of this place. If you go to Ometepe Island you shouldn't miss out on the opportunity to visit the San Ramon waterfalls; a hiking excursion here is highly recommended and truly breathtaking.
Following the volcano trail – the Masaya National Park
With so many volcanoes to choose from in Nicaragua, it's highly likely that you won't be able to explore them all on a single visit, unless you make it your mission to do so. But, if like most people you're in Nicaragua for a limited time and plan to see other sights besides volcanoes, then there are a few you shouldn't miss.
Undoubtedly one of the best and most accessible to head go for beautiful hiking trails and climbing opportunities is the Masaya volcano, part of the Masaya Volcano National Park.
Extending over an area of 54 square kilometres and located just half an hour from the capital city, this park comprises two volcanoes (the Masaya and the Nindiri) and five craters. You will spot one of these smoking craters from the road - the Santiago crater which dates back to 1852 and is the most active in the park. You can in fact drive right up to the crater and observe its "passive degassing" upclose. The gas emitted from this crater has a direct effect in the region's flora and fauna but surprisingly enough, it doesn't seem to affect the colony of green parakeets that live inside the crater.
But beyond crater-spotting and volcano-climbing there are many other pursuits to go for at the Masaya National Park, such as hiking up to a dormant crater to enjoy a birds' eye view of the area or going on a trail that leads to a cave inhabited by bats.
In terms of climbing difficulty, the Masaya is of the easiest, making it ideal for hikers of all abilities and age groups. Even those with physical limitations can make the journey up the craters and enjoy the magnificent views. That being, said if you have serious health problems you might be advised not to climb to the top.
If you do climb up you'll do so in groups of no more than 20 persons, guided by a knowledgeable guide. Children can also climb up but those under 12 should be accompanied by an adult. When you climb up the gassy, active crater you will be there no longer than 15 to 20 minutes so that the sulphur gas emissions don't affect you. The idea of breathing in the toxic fumes, might sound a little scary but the way these tours are organised makes it very safe (don't forget a family of parakeets inhabit this area and for the limited amount of time you'll be on the top, there's nothing to worry about).
But for something truly spectacular plan for a nocturnal tour of the Masaya park; a really magical way to see the sights in a totally different light. Offered daily from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. the tour starts right at sunset with a stop at "La Cruz Bobadilla" and a visit to the green parakeets' nesting site, where you can find them after being out the whole day seeking food. This is where the birds return to for a nightcap. Next you will visit a bat cave and watch in awe as a large number of bats come out for their nightly hunting prowl. It might sound scary to some but it's not at all, it's actually quite stunning!
Whether you see it by day or night, with its big clouds of smoke emerging from the volcano's depths and filling the air, its spectacular views over the active and dormant crater (both strikingly beautiful, one glowing with red hot lava, the other with lush green vegetation) and the great wildlife-watching opportunities, if you only see one volcano in Nicaragua, it should definitely be this one.
Masaya – the city
After a climb to the volcano, a tour around the city of Masaya will be a refreshing way to get to know the craft capital of Nicaragua, where you can see the locals weaving hammocks and creating lovely art pieces that will make for great souvenirs. This town is the third most populous in Nicaragua and it's also widely known as the City of Flowers or "The Cradle of Nicaraguan Folklore".
Here you can admire the traditional houses and shop around from the vast selection of fine crafts at the "Mercado de Artesanias" (Craft Market), a magnificent structure dating back to the early 1900s and housing all kinds of Nicaraguan products, from hand-embroidered fabrics and clothing to wood carvings and hemp weaving. You'll be surprised at the sheer variety of items on sale here, with an area reserved for raw meat as well, another for beauty supplies and another for electronic devices.
On Thursday nights, the market hosts a "Noche de Verbena" (Night of Revelry) where traditional folkloric dancers dressed in traditional costumes perform. If you're lucky enough to be in Masaya during the annual autumn Fiesta of San Jeronimo, you'll be in for a treat as you can get to see colourful street parades featuring folkloric dances and enjoy the carnivalesque "Torovenado" celebrations.
Masaya also has a historical city centre with open squares and two beautiful, large baroque churches dating back to the 16th century – St Gerome's Church ("Iglesia de San Jeronimo") and the Assumption's Parish Church ("Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion"). Other colonial beauties to pot are gems like St. Michael's ("Iglesia de San Miguel"), St. John's ("Iglesia de San Juan") and El Calvario. A walk around town will suffice to allow you to see all of it, so a day in Masaya should be enough to see it all.
Local living – getting a feel of colonial Granada and Leon
Just before you end your tour of Nicaragua, there are two cities that you shouldn't miss if culture and beautifully well-preserved colonial architecture are appealing to you.
First off, we have Granada, a historically important city in Nicaragua with amazingly rich heritage and marvellous colonial architecture. A longstanding centre of commerce and prolific economic activity, the Granada of today is one of the major growers of organic coffee and cocoa, while plantain and bananas are also grown within the city's boundaries
But nobody comes here for the coffee or chocolate (although perhaps they should, as a matter of fact you can enjoy some delicious home-grown coffee and chocolate at El Chocolate Coffee Shop inside the Dario Hotel) instead the more obviously attractive features of the city are its grand colonial buildings, narrow cobbled streets and majestic town square, surrounded by grand and colourful houses. Even the building that now houses the Bank of Central America is an architectural colonial marvel to be admired.
This once glorious city, founded in 1524 by the Spanish Crown, and known as the first European city in mainland America, was visibly damaged after years of decay, but in more recent times the government has directed funds to the preservation and restoration of many of the city's historic builds. In fact, the Spanish government has also provided financial aid for further refurbishment of the city and to avoid further deterioration in the future.
So, Granada, as it stands today, the oldest city in the New World, still shines with almost regal beauty. You can see it in the colourful charm of its numerous colonial buildings, including the Guadalupe Church and the Church of La Merced (you should climb up to the bell tower of the latter to enjoy sweeping views over the entire city). Other sites to explore in Granada include the Mi Museo with an interesting collection of Nicaraguan Pre-Columbian ceramics and the "Choco Museo" where you learn about the growing of cacao and the process of converting it into the chocolate we all know and love. Before you leave you get to enjoy a freshly-made selection of chocolate drinks, chocolate bars and coffee. You even get the opportunity to join a class and make your own chocolate bar!
From Granada you can also head to the nearby Mombacho volcano, a dormant beauty you can hike or explore. Or perhaps you'll prefer to sail along Lake Nicaragua (located south of the city) and enjoy the views of the Granada islets – there are 365 of these! These small isles of volcanic origin are teeming with vegetation and bird life, some of which are inhabited and offer facilities for tourists (such as the afore-mentioned Ometepe Island).
Dubbed "La Gran Sultana" (the Great Sultan) in reflection of its Andalusian and Moorish appearance (after all the city was named after the Spanish, Andalusian city of Granada), the city stands in sharp contrast to its sister city and eternal rival of Leon, which displays a more Castilian appearance (it's no coincidence that it was also named after the Spanish city of Leon).
The Castilian City of Leon
Nicaragua's second largest city, famous for its numerous historical colonial churches, grand colonial residences and secular buildings, is also the cultural, political and intellectual centre of Nicaragua, home to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) founded back in 1813.
In fact the original city of Leon, first founded in 1524 by the Spanish colony, was completely destroyed by a series of earthquakes, and subsequently abandoned. Its remains can still be seen today in what is known as "Leon Viejo" (Old Leon). The ruins of the former city were excavated in 1960 and as of the year 2000, Leon Viejo has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Compared to the significantly quieter and smaller (but also probably prettier) Granada, the city of Leon has a vibrancy to it that can't be matched elsewhere in the country. This university town, where the uprising of the Sandino revolution started, is a liberal city that proudly embraces its history with prominent murals and statues as reminders of the Sandinista guerrilla.
Grenada may be better preserved, with a fresh lick of paint and numerous restoration works, but what Leon may lack in colour and vibrancy it makes up for in the amount of striking colonial architecture, in fact it has the best architectural marvels of the two cities.
Top sights not to miss in Leon including the Leon Cathedral, the biggest in Central America, the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava, one of the oldest in the city, and, lastly, the finest art museum in Nicaragua; the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian. There are many, many more buildings, churches and places to visit in Granada but the list would be long and you might not have time to see them.
In this beautiful city you really don't need a car to get around; in fact you might want to do as the locals and get out and about on foot or by bicycle. There are also trucks that operate as buses (known as Ruletos) and frequent taxis for longer, more tiring journeys or for venturing out of the city.
Nicaragua – much closer than you think
Although there are no direct flights to Nicaragua from the UK at present, there are some excellent flight connections to Managua Airport (MGA), with the likes of KLM, American Airlines, Copa and Delta all servicing the Central American country from various points in the UK, such as London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Birmingham, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Bristol. So you really have a choice of point of departure when planning an escape to Nicaragua. With all flights including a stopover in another destination, the flight time between the UK and Nicaragua can vary from 16 to 20 hours, but as the journey will be divided you won't spend all of it crammed inside a plane.
When you first think of Nicaragua you might imagine a little undeveloped Latin nation with little to offer a well-seasoned traveller, but once you discover its raw beauty that image will change forever. In fact I dare you to find anywhere else in the world quite like it.