Looking for an affordable vacation out of the ordinary? There is an enchanting natural wonder still in its developmental stage, free of the pollution of overcrowded tourist traps. Just a short flight out of Miami, or even out of our local Tampa airport, is a land of mountains where volcanoes are kings, some sleeping giants and others with their mighty power still visible in fuming craters. This is a land rich in water destinations for the adventurous tourist, the fishing fans or those just looking to relax—a land of beautiful secluded beaches, giant pristine lakes, turquoise lagoons and abundant river formations offering thrills to any visitor. This magical destination is called the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes, and it is our vacation spotlight: Nicaragua.
According to historical accounts, Nicaragua gets its name from the powerful tribal king Nicarau, who was encountered by the first Spaniards arriving at his shores. The largest country of Central America, Nicaragua boasts the two largest lakes in this part of the continent: Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, which is also the second-largest lake in the Americas, after Peru’s Lake Titicaca.
Nicaragua has survived several troublesome wars and insurrections through the years, and it is still plagued by poverty, a problem evident in cities and rural areas alike. On the positive side, it offers the opportunity for an inexpensive and safe vacation, as crime rates are very low and tourists can move about and enjoy the country as part of an organized trip or as individuals. Tourism has been a growing industry in the past few years, and both government and private business sectors have injected funds and effort into the travel industry to attract tourists from all over the world. American tourists in Nicaragua have always been the adventurous surfing fans, due to the country’s renowned high-wave beaches that are famous in the sports circuit. Further, the number of U.S. visitors is growing, as are the amenities catering to all types of budgets and vacationing styles. Getting around is fairly simple, as there is a broad array of services including car rentals, taxis, tour operators, and buses, and the majority of the employees of such agencies speak fluent English.
For our group, this trip to Nicaragua was aimed at relaxation, so the beach was at the top of our list. Beaches here remain largely in an undeveloped state, resulting in a lack of hotels or neighboring businesses such as you would normally see at other vacation spots. Natural beauty is undisturbed along the Pacific coast, where you can find endless stretches of dark volcanic sand beaches like Pochomil and Masachapa flaunting the picturesque thatched roofs of restaurants, huts complete with colorful hammocks, friendly staff and the freshest fried fish and other delicacies from the sea. The beaches are an ideal place to spend a day, and since public access is limited and large tourist transport is never present, one is sure to find relaxation away from the crowds and the stress. Enjoy the sound of the waves, cold drinks, good food, the opportunity to take a stroll on a horse or a ride on an all terrain-vehicle—or simply relax and watch the most amazing sunsets.
Farther south from the capital Managua is another pastoral beach developed around a beautiful crescent bay called San Juan del Sur, where one finds a greater presence of national and international tourism. The waterfront is lined with restaurants and other businesses, and the bay is filled with small fishing boats. The brightly colored houses and breathtaking views from the higher surroundings are a must-capture for any tourist’s camera.
We visited San Juan and enjoyed an amazing day of adventure at the hands of Javier Baldovinos and Aracne Rapelling, in addition to Da’ Flying Frog Canopy combination tour. This tour was not for the faint of heart, but it was an amazing experience in lush green surroundings with even better views of the ocean and San Juan. Our tour started with a drive up the mountain to the rappelling area, which centers around a 150-foot waterfall. It was dry rock for us as it was not the rainy season, but still an adrenaline-packed challenge.
After conquering our fears and surviving the descent, we hiked through steep terrain to end up at the next part of our adventure: sixteen platforms and zip line rides covering more than 8,200 feet—the longest line was 1,076 feet! Exhilarating and fun, these rides take you high above the forest and down into the valley, surrounded by the high-pitched screams of monkeys and songs from hundreds of tropical birds. In the area of San Juan, there are also dozens of remote, spectacular virgin beach locations, where dramatic dark rock formations break the waves and provide a good surfing environment. These areas are hard to reach unless you have four-wheel drive transportation, but if you are make it to one, you will not be disappointed.
Aside from the beaches, Nicaragua offers the opportunity to tour its colonial cities. Granada and Léon were founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524 and clashed throughout history, battling to be Nicaragua’s capital city until Managua became the permanent capital in 1858.
We visited Granada, or the “Colonial Jewel,” and found it to be charming and clean, with well-kept buildings that made us forget we were walking in one of the oldest colonial cities on the American continent. Cobblestone streets surround its central park, which faces a massive gold and white cathedral. A boulevard leads to the edge of Cocibolca, or Lake Nicaragua, which is home to more than 400 islands—300 of which are within five miles of Granada. We were able to see some of these small islands up close during a delightful boat journey offered by Vapues Tours. The trip starts in the center of town and the guides are well educated in all historical accounts of the birth of the city and its development through history. We learned that Granada was a key point for exploration of the San Juan River and crucial in the transportation of merchandise between Central America and Spain.
The boat ride to the Isletas, Spanish for “small islands,” was pleasant and we were able to see the everyday life on the islands that are inhabited. The majorities of the large islands are owned by influential nationals or foreigners, and boast large homes amidst luscious tropical gardens that drape down to the edge of the dark rocks and splashing lake. We witnessed some real mansions with large pools, docks for boats, and other amenities of the wealthy. In a country where there are still many rural areas that do not enjoy running water and electricity, the lake islands provide a stark contrast—they are completely wired for electrical service and pipe in fresh water from the city of Granada. Although the lake water is not potable, we learned that it could serve as a water source to a city or neighboring country if needed.
Our boat trip stopped briefly to visit an ancient fort, built to fend off pirate attacks and to protect the city at all times. We stopped again to enjoy the view and take photos of monkeys at their island and then, after a final stop for refreshment at an island restaurant, we headed back to the city. We highly recommend this two-hour tour to all visitors to Granada, or a more lengthy version that includes a visit to Zopango Island with the opportunity for swimming, hiking and a lunch of local fresh fish cooked right in front of you.
Nicaragua is also world famous for its volcanoes. There are 19 in all, and eight that are still active. Mombacho, one of the extinct volcanoes, possesses amazing size and incredible beauty. This volcano, situated near the city of Granada, hosts a tropical forest which grew over thousands of years until it covered the interior of the crater. It offers the opportunity for a superb hike all the way around the crater in the shade of the jungle and encounters with a great variety of flora and fauna, as well as incredible panoramic views of Lake Cocibolca.
Another volcano-related adventure offered to us by Vapues was a visit to Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America, which is still active. The volcano is unique due to its small stature and steep slopes lacking any vegetation. On this tour, tourists have the chance to climb the 1,650-foot mountain via a rough trail in the steamy weather. Once at the top, the fun begins with a rapid descent down the façade of ash, sand and rock—on a snowboard if you have experience and previous training, or seated on a board. Either way, you receive protective gear and instructions. This is an unforgettable experience not to be missed by any adventure-hungry tourist, and safe enough to be enjoyed by the entire family.
Next, we visited Nicaragua’s biggest national park, home to the Masaya volcano. The park includes two volcanoes and five craters. These volcanoes have erupted several times throughout history, and were feared by both the indigenous people and the Spanish conquerors. Masaya is the only volcano in the Western Hemisphere whose smoking crater is accessible by vehicle. Visitors can peek over the edge and look into the impressive crater, which continuously emits smoke and sulfur gases. Tourists may also take advantage of a museum explaining the history and evolution of the volcano, and hiking trails that allow for wonderful views and photo opportunities.
In conclusion, Nicaragua offers fun-filled vacations and variety to any visitor. Come for the diversity of its natural environments, from beaches to volcanoes. Come to learn from fascinating cities full of history and culture. Come to participate in activities ranging from relaxation to extreme adventures. Enjoy your choice of lodgings, from world-class luxury resorts to eco-friendly cabins by the sea. Nicaragua offers a wonderful climate year-round, friendly people, colorful folkloric traditions, and varied, delicious gastronomical delights. It is the perfect place for an affordable vacation packed with fun, satisfying experiences and memorable moments.
Our most sincere thanks to those who made our visit to Nicaragua even more special:
Gloria Ordóñez, Instituto Nicaraguense de Turismo (INTUR) • www.visitanicaragua.com
Maylin Yagela and Katherine Torres Rubí, Vapues Tours S.A. • www.vapues.com
Javier Baldovinos, Aracne Rappelling Tours & Da’ Flying Frog Canopy Tour • www.daflyingfrog.com