Nicaragua: A Land of Breathtaking and Unexplored Regions
Nicaragua, a nation of geographical superlatives, is the largest country in Central America. Its diverse landscape covers an area of 129,494 square kilometers with a broad range of climates, regions and topographies for visitors to discover. In a country that remains 80% undeveloped, travelers can enjoy an incredible array of experiences ranging from hiking through rain forests and jungles, discovering deserted beaches, diving untouched reefs, climbing active volcanoes, surfing the perfect wave or just simply exploring the unexplored.
The country known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes” is primarily divided into three regions: the North-Central Mountains, the Pacific Coast and the Caribbean Coast.
This regional capital is 72 miles north of Managua and a base point for many scenic expeditions. From this agricultural center filled with hundreds of banana, peanut, sorghum and sugar cane plantations, travelers can explore fascinating volcanoes, stunning sceneries and isolated beaches, and meet people strongly rooted in their indigenous past. The beautiful beach town of Jiquilillo Beach is a favorite for surfing, while 20 miles west is the vibrant coastal port town of Corinto. Also 7 miles from Chinandega is the old city of El Viejo, with its famous Basilica, a Mecca for catholic pilgrims.
Estelí and Segovias
As you travel north and up out of the sultry Pacific lowlands, your introduction to Nicaragua’s hilly interior begins with the Sébaco Valley, green with rice, carrot, and onion fields. From there, the Pan-American Highway struggles upward to the pleasant city of Estelí, “Diamond of the Segovias,” then continues through mountains and valleys dotted with rural villages whose inhabitants are proud to call themselves norteňos. Most folks here get along by subsistence farming and ranching, while cash crops like tobacco and coffee also define the land; a few communities boast talented artisans in pottery, leather, and stone. Underneath the north’s gentle exterior of pine trees and tended fields are minor ruins of ancient cities, deep pools and cascades, and rugged communities of farmers and cowboys.
Eighty-nine miles north of Managua, this charming city of merchants, artists, ranchers and cigar rollers enjoys cool climates and captivating mountain views. Estelí, a center of commerce in Nicaragua for over a century, has been cultivating some of the world’s most renowned tobacco since the 1950s, when Cuban cigar makers discovered Nicaragua’s rich soil. Travelers can visit local cigar factories and learn the traditions of this exceptional art. Farther north, the peaks are some of the oldest in Central America, and they boast an unforgettable landscape with hardwood and pine forests, stony river valleys, and fields of tobacco, coffee, and corn. Spend a day at the Estanzuelas waterfall and the Tisey wildlife reserve, or head into the hills for a weekend in Miraflor, a precious habitat for some of Nicaragua’s rarest species of birds and orchids. Press farther northward to the small towns of the Segovias–Somoto and Ocotal–dry as dust but alive with history, legends, and lore.
The north of Nicaragua is poorer than the rest, and suffers acutely from drought, poor soils, and deforestation: Nowhere else is the six-month dry season so intense. The challenging living conditions however make for a hardy and hardworking people, quick with a smile or a story. The curious and unrushed traveler will not regret breaking away from the highway and going deep into this northern countryside.
Planning Your Time
If you’ve only got a day and a night, spend them in the city of Estelí, Nicaragua’s capital of tobacco, to sample world-renowned cigars and admire the town’s inspiring collection of murals. With a second day, the bird-watcher, hiker, and historian should focus on nearby attractions like the Estanzuela waterfall, the lodge and trails at Tisey, or the orchid-rich broadleaf forest reserve of Miraflor. With a little more leisurely pace however, you can easily spend another day exploring Miraflor. Or spend it getting a feel for the campesino lifestyle by spending a lazy afternoon in any of the small northern towns off the Pan-American–like Condega, La Trinidad, or Pueblo Nuevo–or find yourself in the highland border towns of Ocotal or Somoto. If you’re really curious, go deeper still, by traveling long loops eastward to Jalapa and Quilalí, or to Cusmapa, the highest town in Nicaragua.
The Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba personally founded the city of Segovia on the banks of the Río Coco where it met the Jícaro, and the first settlers began exploring for veins of gold in the nearby hillsides. But the Spanish abandoned this early settlement and moved farther north along the Río Coco. The Xicaque, Miskito, and Zambo tribes attacked the new settlement with growing ferocity, however, strengthened and emboldened by shiny new firearms from the British, and English pirate Henry Morgan later sailed up the Río Coco and reduced the city to rubble. The Spanish moved west to the present village of Ciudad Antigua, which became the Segovian capital despite continued attacks. Not until the early 19th century did the little village of Ocotal begin to assume any importance, when the Catholics transferred valuable religious artifacts to the new church of Nuestra Seňora de la Asunción. The faithful followed the relics westward, and Ocotal began to grow.
The cloud forest of Selva Negra is located 87 miles from Managua, near the city of Matagalpa, at more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Originally a coffee farm called Hammonia by its German settlers, the farm evolved into a protected forest, where today more than 200 species of birds dwell, including the Resplendent Quetzal and other brilliantly plumed Trogons. The Selva Negra Hotel, part of a coffee plantation run by 5th generation German immigrants, has 24 wooden chalets and 11 additional rooms scattered throughout 120 hectares of forest. Fourteen forest trails allows visitors to observe birds, wildlife and a variety of orchids in their spectacular natural habitat. Jinotega is the gateway to the untrodden, as most of Nicaragua’s landmass lies farther afield to the east. A guide in Matagalpa can take you trekking to summits, waterfalls, and forgotten gold mines. Spend a weekend in a rural lodge, tour coffee plantations, or participate in a village guest program for a closer look at campesino life.
As you turn eastward from the Pan-American Highway and begin the gradual climb upwards, the character of the Matagalpan and Jinotegan highlands will attract your attention immediately. This rugged, determined region of blue-green hillsides, sometimes thickly forested mountains, and small, farming villages of adobe homes and clay-tile roofs is unlike anywhere else in the country. As highlands go, Nicaragua’s center is not that high, rising to barely 2,000 meters above sea level, but after visiting the torrid plains around Granada and Managua, the relatively cool air and the smell of pines will be a welcome surprise. The temperatures favor vegetable production, though many quiet valleys are still thick with corn and red beans. They also favor the production of coffee and east of
Matagalpa, the rumpled landscape of hardwoods and coffee plants dominates. Coffee’s preference for shade has encouraged the preservation of much of this region’s forests, and the mornings resonate with birdcall and the bellow of the howler monkeys.
Matagalpa is the more elegant and historical of the region’s two big cities, with a gargantuan cathedral and several big, shady parks. A city draped over the curves of more than one hill, your legs will quickly notice the changes in altitude as you explore. Jinotega is farther north into the mountains, higher, and smaller. Emphasizing its sense of isolation are the green walls of the valley that cradles it; even the cathedral in the town’s center is dwarfed by the immensity of nature in its lush plaza. Jinotega remains somewhat of a cowboy town, the uncouth little brother of more cultured Matagalpa. Jinotega feels like the end of the road, the gateway to the thousands of remote kilometers that separate the Atlantic coast from the rest of Nicaragua.
Planning Your Time
Two or three nights is sufficient for seeing Matagalpa and Jinotega, but allow an extra day or two if you plan to explore any of the surrounding countryside. Those looking for a peaceful mountain retreat often spend 2-3 nights at either Hotel Selva Negra, Finca Esperanza Verde, or with a homestay program run by a coffee cooperative. Combining such a trip with a night or two in the city can easily consume five or six days–more if you visit the more remote communities.
Awarded as the best socially responsible tourism project in 2004 by Smithsonian Magazine, this is a perfect stop in Matagalpa. This working farm showcases environmentally and socially sensitive practices with a butterfly house and breeding project, organic shade-grown coffee cultivation and solar electricity and hot water. The surroundings are breathtaking, with 46 miles of majestic mountain views, waterfalls and a host of flora and fauna. Visitors can experience interpretive hiking trails, over 150 species of birds, numerous orchids and medicinal plants and make jungle treks to see Howler Monkeys and other exotic animals.
The central part of Nicaragua boasts a wealth of diverse beauty that ranges from the country’s tallest volcanoes and treasured archaeological ruins, to crafts and folklore and some of Latin America’s most authentic colonial cities. This close-knit region, while filled with contrasts, is easy to access. Most of the region is within just a few hours drive from the nation’s capital of Managua.
The golden hillsides beyond the east shore of Lake Cocibolca fold upward into the rocky precipices of the Amerrisque mountains, stomping grounds of the Chontal people during pre-Columbian times. Today, the area runs thick with cattle ranches that produce most of Nicaragua’s cheese and milk. To the north and east, the roads dwindle to rutted tracks and old, rural encampments. It was here that the Chontal people carved their totemlike statues, a few of which are on display in the museum in Juigalpa. Most travelers speed through on buses bound for El Rama and the Atlantic coast, but spending a night in Juigalpa or Boaco, where the wild west vibe hasn’t lost its edge, may lead you on to the area’s hot springs, petroglyphs, horseback treks, and burly hikes.
Less populated than the Pacific region, Chontales and Boaco residents are easily outnumbered by their cattle, and in reality it’s the cattle that make this area famous; Chontales ranches produce more than 60 percent of Nicaragua’s dairy products, including dozens of varieties of cheese and millions of gallons of milk.
This entire regions is firmly off the beaten path, so expect to be the only tourist for miles in most of the towns and sights in this chapter. Overall, Boaco is less well-to-do and less enticing than relatively upscale Juigalpa, which dwarfs it in every sense. Boaco makes a reasonable base for treks or drives into the hills between Boaco and Matagalpa Departments. Juigalpa is a much bigger and much more important urban center that remains an overgrown cowboy village. Here you’ll rub shoulders with cowboys and campesinos sporting their cleanest boots on their twice-a-month trip to the city to pick up supplies, strike a few deals, and do their errands.
Juigalpa’s patron saint celebrations in mid-August are among the best in Nicaragua and draw a crowd from as far away as Managua to enjoy the elaborate bull-riding competitions, horsemanship contests, and traditional dances, all under the magnificent backdrop of the Amerrisque mountain range. These mountains remain little explored, and the continual discovery of ancient Chontal statues and sculpture imply the grandeur of the mysteries this area still retains.
Planning Your Time
Many travelers treat this whole region as an uninteresting and unavoidable expanse to be traveled through as quickly as possible en route to Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, but the flavor of Chontales and Boaco play no small part in the flavor of Nicaragua as a whole–from the cowboys, to the wide open sky, to the pre-Columbian relics and the small-town lifestyle. Travelers who tire of the Granada hype and the overwhelming presence of other foreigners will be amply rewarded with a trip to Chontales.
How much time you’ll need in this region depends on your inclination for adventure and ability to forgo some creature comforts. You could easily spend a day and a night in one of many quiet agrarian towns like Boaco, Camoapa, and Cuapa. The attraction is simply a bucolic, rural lifestyle. Most towns in the area have some sort of basic accommodation and small local sites of historical, cultural, or geologic interest. Add an additional day if the bouldering and hiking opportunities at Cuisaltepe or Cuapa whet your appetite, and another day on horseback in San José de los Remates (you can even continue on the high road to Matagalpa).
The lands now known as Boaco and Chontales were first settled by the Chontal people (not their own name for themselves–the word is Nahuatl for the “mountain people,” implying “savages” or “foreigners”). Less is known about them than the Nahuatl, but we know the Chontals were responsible for much of the statuary and stone monuments unearthed over the past decades in the Amerrisque mountain range north of the highway.
The first Spanish settlements of El Corregimiento de Chontales suffered often at the hands of aggressive Miskitos and Zambos (and the British who armed them to do so), whose frequent attacks devastated 7 out of 12 Spanish settlements. In 1749, Camoapa, Boaco (today Boaco Viejo), and Juigalpa were attacked; the towns were nearly destroyed and the churches burned to the ground. Boaco’s then-governor, Alonso Fernández de Heredia, returned the aggression, leading an excursion that returned with more than a hundred Miskito prisoners. The settlers reestablished their communities eight kilometers to the south. Nothing remains of Boaco Viejo today. From 1750 to 1760, these same indigenous groups attacked Juigalpa, Camoapa, Lóvago, Lovigűisca, Yasica, Guabale, Santa Rosa, and nine other communities. In 1762, Boaco was reestablished by Father Cáceres, who was killed shortly thereafter by yet another Miskito attack. In 1782, the church in Juigalpa was–you guessed it–burned to the ground.
As the threat of attack diminished, the lands east of Lake Cocibolca were developed into extensive cattle ranches. Coffee was introduced around the Boaco area, but before long its production had been pushed up into the better lands in northern Boaco and southern Matagalpa. Cattle quickly became the economic mainstay, followed by the extraction of gold from the mines at La Libertad and Santo Domingo.
In 1524, Spanish conquistadors founded this colonial university town at base of the Momotombo Volcano. Impressive views of the Momotombo and Momotombito volcanoes surround this unique city characterized by cobblestone streets, more than 18 churches, cafes, small shops and throngs of university students. León’s combination of universities and historic ruins creates a unique setting found nowhere else in Nicaragua. Some of its important sites include the house of Rubén Darío, one of Latin America’s leading literary figures, The Cathedral of León, the largest cathedral in Central America, and the various historic churches. Its museums are considered some of the most eclectic in the region, showcasing the many political, natural and cultural aspects of Nicaraguan history. Most travelers stroll León’s streets, walk up (and ride down) Cerro Negro, and then head back south or east. With a week or more, you can work your way farther northwest. In addition to beaches near León, there are a number of remote protected areas throughout the Cosigűina Peninsula.
Northwest of Managua are broad plains of peanuts, corn, beans, sorghum, and sugarcane. The fecund soils that make this the most agriculturally productive region in Nicaragua are a gift from the Maribio volcanoes, an uncommonly active and exposed chain of peaks and cones stretching from Lake Xolotlán to the Gulf of Fonseca.
Fire gives way to water, and the Pacific northwest coastline of Nicaragua includes some of the longest, most isolated stretches of sand in the country. There are coastal islands, endless estuaries, and virgin mangrove stands rich in marine life and waterfowl. Large tracts of this region are still difficult to access, but progress and paved roads are slowly creeping up on them.
You can’t help but feel itinerant in León and Chinandega. Blame it on the heat–this is the driest, most scorching corner of the country. Volcanism seeps from the land in boiling mud pits, geothermal vents, and the occasional rumble. The ruins of León’s first incarnation are a testament to the area’s impermanence. This region suffered tremendously during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when more than two meters of rain fell in three days. Nowhere in Nicaragua was the destruction as intense, and the still-visible landslide at Las Casitas is a silent reminder of the worst of it. For this, Leóneses and Chinandeganos know that life can be short and even violent, and should thus be enjoyed.
León is the principal city of the northwest, a colonial town with the architecture and languid lifestyle of centuries past. This bastion of liberal thought in Central America has narrow streets lined with cathedrals, universities, and cafés. For five hundred years, León’s political history has consisted of long stretches of peace, punctuated by the staccato call of uprising, resistance, and war.
In contrast, Chinandega, Nicaragua’s most northwestern city, is the agribusiness capital of the country, center for both the sugarcane and shrimp industries. Chinandega Department is also home to the Padre Ramos Reserve and the Cosigűina peninsula, whose beaches and surf are just beginning to be visited by foreigners.
Planning Your Time
León is one of the few Nicaraguan cities with more attractions than you can see in a day. Plan on at least two to visit the museums and cathedrals of the city; another if you plan to hike a volcano, and another if you head to the shore. Las Peňitas, Isla Juan Venado, Padre Ramos, and other points outside León require more effort to get to but are excellent destinations for those traveling on a slightly slower schedule. It’s worth slowing down in fact, so you can paddle boats through the estuaries and observe the wildlife (like nesting turtles on Juan Venado). There is plenty to do, whether you come for two days or two weeks.
Steeped in a history of turmoil, Managua is today a city in transition. With a population of more than 1.5 million, Managua remains the nation’s economic, political, academic and transportation hub. It is also the entry and starting point for visitors discovering the rest of the country. Travelers can easily take day trips to a number of nearby attractions, including Masaya Volcanic National Park, which offers a breathtaking perspective of the still-active crater; the relaxing beach resort of Montelimar; the 162-hectare private nature reserve of Montibelli; the craft markets of Masaya; and the historic city of Granada. You can see Managua’s small cadre of attractions in half a day, but if you’re here on a weekend, consider staying to sample the vibrant nightlife. Managua offers several of its own attractions, including the restored Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) and some of the best restaurants in the country.
If Nicaragua’s capital were a vehicle, it would be a battered 1960s school bus, dented and dinged on all sides, paint chipping through multiple layers of color, four bald tires rolling slightly akilter, but sporting a brand new, $2,000 sound system blaring a merengue classic for its smiling passengers, both rich and poor. Managua rarely impresses; its labrynthine, unnamed streets are complicated to navigate, it is loud and architecturally uninspiring, and there’s no city center to speak of. Though it’s relatively safe, it doesn’t feel that way, and its understated charms don’t exactly jump out at you.
Managua is also the best place in the country to get your gear repaired, see a doctor or dentist, see a movie or show, and party like a salsa star. It also has the nation’s most varied selection of restaurants and night spots. You likely won’t plan your trip around a visit to Managua, but neither should you necessarily avoid it, as Managua does have a charm of its own that will become apparent once you’ve spent a little time here. You may even discover you like the place.
Planning Your Time
Managua’s main historical attractions are clustered in a four-block-square area along the lakeshore, and you can easily visit all of them in about an hour by taxi, or reserve another two hours if you’d like to take one of the lake cruises. It pays however to stick around for an evening, as Managua’s biggest attraction is its nightlife, and its beauty is enhanced by dim (or absent) urban lighting. For the intrepid or for those with more than just an evening to spend in the capital, Managua offers a number of other attractions, including theaters and museums. Just outside the city you’ll find a few excellent, usually overlooked, outdoor activities. You can also visit the Pacific beaches and the Chocoyero-El Brujo Nature Reserve without entering the chaos of the capital. If you’re just passing through, consider a stop at the Tiscapa crater for an amazing view that reveals just how many trees there are in the city.
Managua was not made for walking. Organize your day into trips to different regions of interest, and resign yourself to getting around by taxi, as the buses are slow and rather dangerous, and walkers are at risk not only to petty crime but general harassment (not to mention heat stroke). Negotiate a rate with a taxi driver to take you around the sights (one hour is enough and should cost you about $10). Finish the driving tour at the Malecón, where you can enjoy a boat trip on Lake Xolotlán (Tuesday-Sunday), then move on. Any middle or upper range hotel can organize a guide and/or taxi to help you tour Managua. A taxi will cost around $20 per half day and a guide a similar amount.
Safety in the City
Managua is still statistically less dangerous than other Central American capitals, but you should keep your wits about you, as minor crime from pickpocketing and purse snatching to carjacking seems to be on the rise. The best way to stay out of trouble is to avoid areas where you’ll find it. The safest and cleanest neighborhoods are Los Robles, Altamira along Carretera Masaya, plus Reparto San Juan (near the University of Central America), and Bolonia (south of Plaza Espaňa), all of which offer more upscale accommodation and bed-and-breakfasts.
Dangerous neighborhoods include Renée Schick, Jorgé Dimitrov, La Fuente, San Judas, Villa Venezuela, Batahola, Las Americas, Bello Amanecer, Vida Nueva, Los Pescadores, Domitila Lugo, Santana, and Hialeah. You should be safe enough in and around the major shopping centers and the restaurants and clubs along Carretera Masaya, but in general you’re better off staying in groups when possible–especially when traveling by taxi. And pay close attention to your surroundings. Don’t get into taxis where the driver is keeping his face obscured by a baseball cap or where the driver is traveling with a “friend” in the passenger seat.
Granada is the oldest city in Central America to remain on its original site. The most colorful and comfortable of Nicaragua’s cities, Granada has been charming travelers with its red-tiled roofs, grand cathedrals, breezy lakeshore, and drowsy lifestyle since the days of the Spanish, who used the city as their first Atlantic port (via Lake Cocibolca and the Río San Juan). Just 27 miles from Managua on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, this fascinating and colorful city was founded in 1524 and is now considered a showcase of Nicaragua’s Spanish Colonial treasures. Seventeenth century churches, courtyards filled with flowers, impressive museums, European cuisine and historic buildings converted to boutique hotels distinguish Granada as one of the fastest-growing tourism centers in the country. Travelers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to kayak and explore the nearby “isletas,” a 365-island archipelago formed in Lake Nicaragua when the Mombacho Volcano erupted 20,000 years ago.
Granada has always been important politically for Nicaragua, and it is the home of many of the country’s economic and political elite. Most travelers eschew Managua and flock to Granada because of its charm and lethargic pace, making it their base for further exploration. Some decide to stay, as evidenced by the many real estate offices that have sprung up over the last decade.
Granada is pleasant to explore by foot or old-fashioned horse carriage. Nights, the sky fills with stars and the neighbors come out to chitchat on their front stoops; inside even the most nondescript colonial facade is an open, private courtyard designed to capture the evening breeze. Granada’s restaurants are varied and high quality, offering something for just about everybody. Granada lacks the five-star luxury or business hotels of the capital and coast but instead offers a wide selection of small, charming guesthouses, bed-and-breakfasts, and colonial lodges.
Planning Your Time
A full day and night in Granada is the minimum and allows you to explore the streets, sleep somewhere interesting, and enjoy a good meal or two. But a lot of Granada’s charm lies in the interesting excursions reachable if you use Granada as a base camp. Leave half a day for a boat ride in Las Isletas and another day for Volcán Mombacho. Most people devote another day for visiting the pueblos and markets in Masaya. While you could conceivably day-trip to the Laguna de Apoyo as well, the hotel options make it a fun place to stay (when was the last time you woke up inside a volcano crater?).
Granada grew quickly as a sort of trade hub; sailing vessels would navigate their way up the Río San Juan and across the lake to Granada. As a result, an affluent Spanish merchant class developed, largely of Veracruz, Cartagena, and La Habana origin. From its beginnings, Granada was a symbol of Spanish opulence, an unsubtle show of mercantile success in the New World. The competing nations accepted the challenge, sacking and burning the city at every available opportunity (the English buccaneers were particularly effective).
After independence from Spain, Granada was the capital of Nicaragua each time the Conservatives took power (León was the capital when the Liberals won). As the Liberal-Conservative feud escalated, it was the Liberals who first called upon the American filibuster William Walker for support. He executed Granada’s most ruthless sacking, even by pirate standards. Before he was eventually driven from Granada, he finally burned the whole place to the ground, and buried a symbolic coffin in the central plaza under a wooden sign that read, Aquí Fue Granada (Here Was Granada).
Despite the sackings and reconstruction, Granada remains little changed from its earliest colonial incarnation; if Córdoba were to rise from the grave today and walk the streets of La Gran Sultana as it is sometimes called, he would find it eerily familiar. But these days, Granada is changing fast. Less influential than the old families these days is the influx of foreign capital, new ideas, and fast business. A decade ago, Granada was a “sleepy colonial jewel.” The hum of the Internet cafés, chic eateries, tour services, and trendy hotels indicate it has woken up.
From Granada’s central tree-lined plaza, a.k.a. Parque Central and Parque Colón look south to the giant Volcán Mombacho. Just behind the cathedral on the park’s east side, Calle La Calzada runs due east about one kilometer to the municipal dock on the lake. A lot of the lodging and restaurants lie along this street or within a block or two of it.
At the lake, a paved road runs south along the water’s edge to the Malecón (waterfront), a would-be tourist complex that’s emptier than it should be, but remains a peaceful, wooded, lakeshore walking park. An easy taxi ride farther south are the marinas that provide boat access to the isletas and Zapatera.
West of the plaza is the Xalteva (pronounced more or less, with a hard “h”) neighborhood and eventually the cemetery and road to Nandaime. In this neighborhood, one block west of the Plaza, is Calle Atravesada, running north-south between the old 1886 train station (now a museum, which has closed for lack of funds) to the bustling chaos of the municipal market. This is one of Granada’s main thoroughfares and a modern commercial center, of sorts, for banks, movie theaters, and the like.
Less than an hour south of the capital, Masaya and the dozens of villages that comprise the Pueblos Blancos are known for their residents’ artistry. You will find artisans, metalworkers, leatherworkers, carpenters, painters, and musicians. In fact, no other region of Nicaragua is as blessed with a sense of artistry and creativity as Masaya and the surrounding villages, called the Pueblos Blancos. Many of the handicrafts found in markets throughout the country are Masayan: handwoven hammocks, terra cotta pottery, musical instruments, and more. “The City of Flowers,” as Rubén Darío christened the town a century ago (he was talking about the girls, not the flora), rarely garners more than a brief afternoon market visit for most travelers. It is a city relatively devoid of monuments, historical buildings, and traditional sights. As a marketplace however, it is unsurpassed, and wandering through the cool alleys of the crafts markets is a cultural tour through Nicaragua, a vivid expression of this people’s vitality, passion, and creativity. If you are eager to come home from your trip with something special, this is the place to find it.
Adjacent, and an inextricable part not only of the landscape but of the culture is Volcán Masaya. One of the world’s most accessible volcanoes, one of only two on earth where you can drive up to the crater lip and look inside, and Nicaragua’s most thoughtfully planned national park, Volcán Masaya is extremely active. You’ll smell the sulphur when the wind is right. As such it’s a rewarding and memorable experience well worth your time, and possibly one of the top three things to do in Nicaragua. Then visit the shaded stalls of Masaya’s craft markets. Spend a lazy afternoon driving through the Pueblos Blancos and take a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, the country’s nicest swimming hole. You could easily devote two full days to this region, either by staying in Masaya or the Laguna, or by traveling here each day from Granada. The Pueblos make a nice diversion for those spending a longer time in Managua, as the hills are markedly cooler.
Planning Your Time
Most people visit the craft markets, city, and volcano in one day, but if you are relying on public transportation, it may take longer. Naturalists more interested in the volcano can just as easily spend a long day on hiking trails, in the visitors center, and on guided tours. It’s possible to make Masaya your base for excursions, but most travelers opt instead to stay in Granada, which has a better selection of hotels and restaurants. On any trip to the Masaya craft market, be sure to allow for time to walk to the cliff-top lookout near the baseball stadium (el malecón), where you’ll also find the hammock factories. You can also kill an hour or two at the Coyotepe fortress, where the views are pleasant and the wind takes the edge off the heat.
A trip through the Pueblos Blancos can occupy a full day, even if driving. It’s fun to start at one end, work your way up to Catarina, have lunch, and then continue. You can visit the Pueblos Blancos by public transportation, as the buses run this route frequently throughout the day, but having the freedom of a vehicle will greatly facilitate your ability to pick and choose as you work your way through the villages. Lastly, though very few travelers stay the night in Masaya, consider doing so during one of the city’s colorful festivals, when the town really comes alive.
Masaya (population 90,000) sprawls over a tropical plain nestled against the slopes of the volcano by the same name; at its western edge, paths carved by the Chorotegas trace the steep hillside down to the Laguna de Masaya. Twenty indigenous villages of Darianes used to cluster at the water’s edge. Masaya was officially founded as a city in 1819 and has grown ever since. Several centuries of rebellion and uprising–first against the Spaniards in 1529 and later against William Walker’s forces in 1856, the U.S. Marines in 1912, and in a number of ferocious battles against the National Guard during the revolution, earned the Masayans a reputation as fierce fighters.
Travelers find Masaya less picturesque than Granada and it’s true the streets and building facades in Masaya are less cared for. But the Masayans are a creative people with many traditions found nowhere else in Nicaragua, such as their solemn, mysterious funeral processions. Perhaps Masayan creative energy goes into its delightful arts and crafts instead of the architecture. Your best introduction to these delights is Masaya’s Mercado Viejo (Old Market), which is so pleasant and compelling that many visitors choose not to stray beyond its stately stone walls. But it’s well worth the money to charter a horse-drawn carriage to carry you to the breezy malecón, to see the crater lake 100 meters below.
Orientation and Getting Around
Masaya sits due south of the Managua-Granada Carretera along the east side of the Laguna de Masaya. The street that runs north along the plaza’s east side is the Calle Central, and as you travel it toward the Carretera, it becomes increasingly commercial. One block east of the southeast corner of the park, you’ll find the stone walls of the Mercado Viejo (Old Market). Walking six blocks west of the central park takes you to the hammock factories, baseball stadium, and malecón; traveling due south leads you to Barrio Monimbó; going five blocks north puts you in the heart of the Barrio San Jerónimo around the church of the same name, situated at the famous siete esquinas (seven corners) intersection. The heart of Masaya is easily walkable, but several hundred taxis, buses, horse-drawn carriages, and more exotic forms of transport will help you get out to the malecón or the highway.
An old administrative city with a vibrant colonial history, Rivas may be worth a stop on your way to the beaches of San Juan del Sur or to Nicaragua’s crown jewel: La Isla de Ometepe. Rising out of Lake Nicaragua, the second-largest lake in Latin America, this unique island was formed by twin colossal volcanoes that encompass more than 276 square kilometers: “Concepción” and “Maderas.” A favorite with volcano climbers, Concepción is active, and has slopes covered by tropical dry forest, while Maderas is dormant, with a deep cloud forest and beautiful lagoon on top of the crater. Ometepe Island was once considered sacred ground by ancient cultures, and visitors can still find many ceremonial carvings and lingering legends. A visit to Ometepe has been described as a sensory experience filled with sounds of wildlife and views of nature permeated by a mystical presence. You can stick to the lakeshore, enjoying island-grown coffee, lagoons, waterfalls, and the call of howler monkeys. The slopes of Maderas are home to an array of rustic, farm-based hostels, surrounded by old-growth hardwoods, petroglyphs, barnyard animals, and memorable views.
These days, Rivas draws less attention than the coastal communities of San Juan del Sur and La Isla de Ometepe, but retains a colonial charm appreciated by many. But it’s hard to compete with La Isla de Ometepe for attention. The magnificent twin-peaked Ometepe rises like a crown from the center of Lake Cocibolca. An intensely volcanic island steeped in tradition and mystery, Ometepe was the ancestral home of the Nahuatl people and today is an alluring destination for travelers, with its sandy beaches, swimming holes, hiking trails, and of course, two breathtaking volcanoes: one hot, one cold (the former remains quite active).
Southwestern Nicaragua does not suffer the same intense, grinding poverty prevalent in the drier lands of the north and west. It rains more in the south, and the rivers flow nearly year-round. The volcanic soils on Lake Cocibolca’s western shore are rich and productive. Cattle graze lazily in immense, lucrative ranches and sugarcane fields drape the valleys south of the foot of Mombacho, one of Nicaragua’s most picturesque peaks.
Planning Your Time
You will probably visit Rivas on the way to and from San Juan del Sur; half a day is acceptable to walk around the historical sites, appreciate the cathedral, and perhaps take in a museum. Travelers with a more leisurely schedule can easily spend another half day enjoying the lakeshore in San Jorge before continuing to Ometepe.
La Isla de Ometepe should not be missed on any but the shortest trips to Nicaragua, offering in a nutshell, a little of everything Nicaragua has to offer, from history to waterfalls and from volcanic trekking to horseback riding, all in an environment travelers routinely rave about as relaxing and delightful. You could feasibly travel to and from the island in a single day, but such a short trip would be folly. Rather, allow at least two days and two nights (and an extra day and night if you’d like to hike a volcano, which is a full day activity in itself).
Note that travel in this region requires careful coordination of transport, as you can easily lose up to a half day waiting for boats and buses. Traveling around Ometepe is never easy; local transport is slow and erratic (especially on Sundays) and renting vehicles can be expensive.
On Nicaragua’s central Pacific coast near its border with Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur is the country’s primary surfing destination and Nicaragua’s favorite beach town, the most popular with foreign tourists. Described as a port town, fishing village, surfing and backpacker’s haven, San Juan del Sur has undeniably become a tourism hot spot that has lured not only travelers, but a good deal of foreign investment as well. In addition to a crescent bay lined with barefoot restaurants and sandy bars, San Juan del Sur offers a slow-paced, tranquil setting, fresh seafood, and charming guesthouses. Several high-end residential communities are springing up and San Juan del Sur is also a favorite weekend getaway for wealthy Nicaraguans. Visitors can choose from a variety of perfect beaches surrounded by towering cliffs and a nearby wildlife refuge with a turtle-nesting beach. Various new restaurants and hotels, such as the Morgan’s Rock Eco-Lodge, accommodate an increasing number of sophisticated visitors. San Juan del Sur is also becoming a port destination for many international cruise ships.
At the turn of the 21st century, San Juan del Sur again grew in international popularity to the steady drumbeat of high-profile international press coverage declaring the area a real estate hot spot. The area attracted a frenzy of property pimps, land sharks, and a flock of checkbook-toting prospectors scouring the coastline for a piece of the pie. Some of the investment led to progress, new establishments, and healthy relationships between foreign investors determined to make money and a positive impact for their Nicaraguan colleagues and beneficiaries. But the economic growth was not without scuffles.
Meanwhile, sunsets continue to paint the silhouettes of fishing vessels in crimson, and the mood in San Juan del Sur is low-key and fun. The noon sun is scorching, so life is langorous and measured, spent swinging in breezy hammocks, enjoying fresh fish and cold beer at seaside, or splashing about in the surf.
Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast is Nirvana for nature lovers. The largest and most unpopulated region of the country, it covers more than 46% of the Nicaragua’s territory and has more than 205 miles of beaches. Culturally, socially and linguistically, it is also worlds apart from the rest of the country. While most of the inhabitants are indigenous (Misquito, Sumo and Rama Indians), English is widely spoken in this once-British settlement. Nicaragua’s “jungle coast” possesses the largest expanse of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon. Rivers are the primary means of transportation. World-class fishing, scuba diving and eco-tourism are drawing a growing number of travelers to this very special region.
The isolated Atlantic coast may as well be a country unto itself. Nicaragua’s Caribbean is tough, muddy, and quite unlike any Cancún-tainted visions you may harbor. Reachable either by land or sea, Bluefields is located on the Caribbean shores of Nicaragua, 178 miles from Managua. This unique town is dominated not only by wide rivers and small jungle canals, but also by a unique island culture evidenced in its plentiful seafood, dancing and reggae bars. Bluefields is a rare melting pot of indigenous, African, English, Dutch and Spanish influences. A mixture of white sand, coral reefs, coconut palms, mangroves, jungles and rainforests make this area a favorite for those who appreciate an exotic combination of attractions.
Located in the Caribbean Sea, 53 miles from Bluefields, these islands encompass 10 square kilometers (3.86 square miles) of forested hills, mangrove swamps, stretches of white coral beaches and incredible crystal blue waters. Most tourists fly straight from Managua to Big Corn, but a few hardy souls still visit Bluefields to experience Creole culture and crab soup. When you tire of Bluefields’s grittiness, board a boat for Pearl Lagoon, the coastal fishing communities, Pearl Cays, or Greenfields reserve. Both Corn Island and Little Corn Island are Caribbean gems as gorgeous below the waterline as above. For centuries, the Corn Islands were under British domination and served as a refuge for pirates. Although largely mestizo (people of mixed European and Indian ancestry), direct descendents of pirates, English royalty and plantation owners still comprise a significant percentage of the population. This forgotten, tropical paradise offers great snorkeling, diving and sun bathing. A wilder and more pristine version of Big Corn Island is Little Corn Island. This delicate paradise measures three square kilometers and is
surrounded by more than four miles of coral reef teeming with sea life. There are kilometers of coral reef, a handful of hotels, and only one dive shop on each island. Little Corn has no roads so the only sound you hear should be the wind in the trees
Puerto Cabezas and the Río Coco
The northeast Miskitus communities of Puerto Cabezas (Bilwi), Waspám, and the Río Coco are a far removed, embattled corner of the country, where resources go more toward fighting the drug trade and recovering from natural disasters than developing tourism. Still, there are basic services in Puerto Cabezas, including decent oceanfront accommodations and low-budget tour guides to take you to nearby rivers, beaches, and Miskitus communities. Even farther north, Waspám is the commercial center for villages up the Río Coco, mostly indigenous communities where Miskito is still the first language and where foreign visitors may arouse more suspicion than hospitality.
Life moves slowly along the broad river that drains Lake Cocibolca to the Caribbean. This gorgeous, verdant lowland is Nicaragua’s wettest, and its remoteness means you’ll spend more time and more money getting around. The San Juan region is an area of natural wonders, pristine nature reserves and historical importance. During the 1849 Gold Rush in California, the river served as a passageway for American travelers due to its natural inter-oceanic waterway. The river and its surrounding areas are true tropical rainforest with some of the richest biodiversity in the region. The river starts at the southwest corner of Lake Nicaragua and flows for 119 miles to the Caribbean Sea. Along this spectacular river, one can see hundreds of different bird species, including Chestnut Mandibled Toucans, Harpy Eagles, Boat Billed Herons, Great Egrets, Jacanas and Cormorants, as well as various types of caimans, turtles, and monkeys.
The principal settlement in the area, San Carlos, is transforming from edgy port town to quaint destination and you’ll inevitably pass through it on the way to various adventures. The town is thick with itinerants, rowdies, farmers, fishers, swindlers, and you. Offshore, the Solentiname Archipelago is a quiet group of islets as pertinent to the revolution years as to Nicaragua’s prehistoric past, and a center of production for some of the country’s most gorgeous paintings.
Or, take a wooden boat down the river towards the Atlantic, a sun-baked ride back through time. El Castillo, one of Spain’s most permanent colonial legacies, remains little changed from the 17th century and the days of marauding pirates. From there, downstream fishing village follows pasture follows rapids until you reach San Juan de Nicaragua, the little town where it all began and where it all ends, remote and untamed.
It’s not easy to get to the Río San Juan, and tougher still to get around, but everyone agrees that things are rapidly changing for the better, due in large part to a $14 million tourism development plan called La Ruta del Agua, the effects of which you’ll see as soon as you step onto the refurbished dock or recently paved airstrip at San Carlos. This region isn’t part of the casual traveler’s itinerary, but if you can invest a little more time than usual, the dramatic landscapes and remoteness of this region will impress you, and the tourism potential here is enormous.
The Solentiname archipelago isn’t easy to get to, but you’ll be rewarded with an up-close look at the birthplace of liberation theology and a thriving colony of artists. Explore the wilds of Los Guatuzos, habitat for monkeys, birds, and amphibians, then set sail downstream for San Juan de Nicaragua, home to the bones of English pirates and more ghosts than residents.
Planning Your Time
It’s wise to allow a full week for exploration of this region. Make your plane reservation from Managua to San Carlos early, as seats fill up fast. In general, expect about 25 percent higher costs for most goods in this isolated region (35 percent more on Solentiname). Make use of your time in San Carlos to find updated boat schedules, make contact with downstream river lodges, and stock up on snacks and supplies. Public transportation is both slow and capricious, but inexpensive. You are better off hiring a boat and driver or making arrangements with a tour company, which will affect your budget by an order of magnitude (organizing a group of like-minded travelers to share costs is one way to offset the price).
You could make it to Solentiname and back in two days if the stars align, but boat schedules will make it more likely three or four. It’s only a day more to see El Castillo, which you should not miss. Don’t head farther downstream than El Castillo with fewer than four days including flights to and from the region.