Nicaragua is an up and coming tourist destination in Central America with plenty to do but not yet corrupted by the over development of more popular destinations. Here you can still get a good mix of adequate level services, authentic culture and inexpensive activities. Although still one of the poorest countries in Central America, 20 years of peace have left a stable and fairly safe destination for tourists.
Nicaragua is still mostly a rural agricultural country that sits along the Ring of Fire, so named for the active volcanoes that dot its landscape. Sporting some of the oldest colonial cities in Central America, Nicaragua has long been a crossroads for travelers in Central America. As such, it has a little of everything to offer today’s traveler.
No place in Nicaragua is more visited than the colonial capital of Granada. Sitting on the shores of the massive Lake Nicaragua, Granada was founded in in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. The city became a backwater town after being burnt down by American William Walker in 1857 during a failed attempt to take over Nicaragua1. This neglect however allowed Granada to remain the small city with the colonial charm it is today.
Any visit to Granada should start at the main square, (Parque Central in Spanish). Dominating this square is the Cathedral built in 15832. The Cathedral is the most famous landmark of Granada and is visible from throughout the city providing a excellent navigation landmark and making a it very hard to get lost in Granada. A block away in the Plaza Independencia is the Casa de los Tres Mundos (the house of three worlds) a cultural center set in a magnificent colonial mansion, the Casa de Leones (House of Lions). A few blocks to the south is the church and Monastery of San Francisco, built in 15293. The monastery houses an excellent collection of archaelogical artifacts including large precolumbian statutes from the nearby island of Zapatera.
A great way to escape the tropical heat of the city is to wander down lake side and take a kayak tour of the isletas. This string of hundreds of small islands has long served as a get away for the cities rich and also as a refugee for poor squatters. For the tourist the area is a birder’s paradise. Also for those more active Granada’s manageable size and light traffic make it a great destination to rent a bike and explore its back streets and the country roads just a few miles away.
Halfway in between Granada and the capital city, Managua, is Masaya Volcano National Park. This is Nicaragua’s oldest National Park and also one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes. Although explosive events are rare, the volcano emits a constant flow of steam and sulfur dioxide making it visible from dozen of miles away.
When viewed at night it is often possible to see the glow of lava flows beneath the heavy steam cloud coming from the Caldera.
The park also serves as a nature preserve for many local species, including thousands of bats that inhabit the lava tube caves that dot the landscape.
Big Corn Island
For a completely different side of Nicaragua, head out to the Caribbean coast to get some surf in Big Corn Island. The traditional culture out here is Caribbean not Hispanic.
The two big draws on Corn Island are the offshore snorkeling and the island’s main export, lobster. Numerous beaches offer snorkeling opportunities with the best being the beach on Brig Bay right across from the Hotel Paraiso. Here a shipwreck about 30 yards offshore creates a man made reef that is an easy swim from the beach. Also in the city of North End by the ruins of a restaurant sitting out over ocean are a series of easily accessible reefs.
Lobster being the main export makes it cheap and readily abundant in restaurants throughout the island. You can easily eat 2 lobster meals a day for 2 days for what a single lobster might cost in the states.
The island is small and the best way to get around is by renting a bike from one of the many local rental shops. One of the charms of the island is that other than swimming and eating there is not much else to do on the island, making it a great place to do nothing.
The Bottom Line
Nicaragua is not as well known a tourist destination as other Central American countries like Costa Rica, but has as much to offer as them without the crowds and higher prices that that popularity brings. It’s still a place where the local eateries are common and the international chains are few and far between (or non-existent on the islands).
For a perfect combo of colonial architecture, jungles and beaches without the crowds, you could do no better than a trip south for some Surf and Turf in Nicaragua.