There exists an enchanting Central American nation of lakes, volcanoes, beaches, and rainforests. Costa Rica? No: the answer is Nicaragua. Add in colonial cities, rich food, and the strength of the dollar against the local currency, and it is remarkable that this place is still under the radar of most tourists.
The recent tourism boom of Costa Rica has led to an unfortunate Americanization of the land of the Ticos. Prices are at best the same as in the USA, and at worst sky-high. One is surrounded by Americans and workers that are strangely fluent in English; at times it feels like it is an ecotourism Disneyland. Being that Nicaragua is its direct neighbor, the fact that it is still mostly a destination for an open-minded traveler is amazing considering its plethora of sights.
There are nineteen volcanoes and several lakes, two wonderfully contrasting colonial cities, and relatively untouched beaches along with a chaotic capital. This land took my breath away in my initial visit in 2010, and during my return trip last month, I was equally enthralled as I witnessed the improvements that have been made in Managua. Though it is a chaotic, busy city, Managua itself is my choice for the place to stay. It is between the colonial rivals Granada and Leon, giving one the opportunity to make day trips to both. The lodging at the guest house known as the La Pyramide Hotel is unique and pleasing, run by a German ex-pat named Manfred Marotzke. Fresh breakfast and juice is prepared in the morning, and free transport is provided to anywhere in Managua. Besides that, airport transfers are arranged and any travel plans to nearby destinations can be arranged. To top it off, the price is very affordable, extraordinary by American standards.
In 2010, there was not much to see in Managua, besides the crumbling capital complex and the Mercado Huembes, where bargains abound (two fascinating ones: rocking chairs for $40, hammocks for $25). However, there have been two recent improvements. At the viewpoint of Lake Tiscapa, there is now a $15 zipline tour available. Compared to $90 in Costa Rica, this is quite inexpensive. There are three ziplines that glide beside and above the lake. At the end, transportation is provided back to the original point.
Just down the street, the newest and most popular destination is now open, the Malecon, or boardwalk in English. It has an array of restaurants and vendors of various cuisines, with walkways along Lake Managua. It is always full of locals, and is a lovely place to spend an evening. Considering this was one of the seediest areas of the city, the turnaround is astonishing and credit must be given to the government for opening this. Here I had freshly grilled fish, extremely succulent and flavorful. There are also vendors outside on the streets selling a variety of foods as well.
Outside of Managua, there are two main options: Leon, or Granada and its surrounding areas. They are historical rivals and totally different. For me, I prefer Leon, as it is gritty and more authentic. To get there is just a $2 ride in a van, which is an adventure in itself. The vans run frequently, and leave when full, which doesn’t take very long. The one hour ride ends a few blocks outside the city center. The center of Leon is wonderful, with a majestic cathedral that overlooks the city. Local students give tours to the top. Leon is known for a particular snack called quesillo, which is essentially a stick of fresh cheese in a tortilla lathered with sour cream. I have never seen this in any other country, it’s wonderful and cheap, at most $1. There are also several museums in Leon of note, some riddled with bullet holes from the civil war of the 1980’s. All are cheap and interesting. Most fascinating to me is a shop that offers massages by the blind. This gives them an opportunity to work and gives customers a very economical massage with the genuine satisfaction of knowing that one is helping the disabled earn an honest living. Also, there is a volcano outside town called Cerro Negro, where an activity called volcano surfing takes place. Essentially, you walk up to the top of the volcano, and ride down on a wooden board. It can only be described as unique and thrilling.
Granada is the opposite of Leon: it is immaculately clean and polished, unlike the charred and stained churches of Leon. For this reason, it attracts the bulk of foreign tourists. Still, there are bargains to be had, particularly in the central park, where one can feast on vigoron, the local specialty. Essentially, it is yucca stacked with meat and other things, simply delicious for only $1. There are horse-driven carriage rides offered, about 90% cheaper than ones in Central Park, and there is a lake nearby where boat tours of local islands are offered. This is a fascinating experience, entire islands are owned by families and sometimes hotels. Some are inhabited by monkeys, who sadly prefer chips over bananas. Be sure to agree on a price before hand, the running rate is about $1 per minute for 2 people. There are also museums and a cigar making factory worth seeing. As with Leon, all are bargain-basement.
On the way back from Granada are three required stops: Volcan Masaya, Volcan Mombacho, and Laguna De Apoyo. Volcan Masaya is an amazing sight to behold in the evening time. The viewpoint allows one to see molten lava flowing. This is simply incredible. When the volcano is not too active, night tours are held which give even closer views. For now, they are closed. Still, the normal view is magnificent and other-worldly. Volcan Mombacho is also near Granada, it has various companies offering zipline tours, 7 ziplines for $28 through coffee farms. Of course, coffee is also sold.
Laguna de Apoyo, or the Lake of Peace, is a viewpoint unlike any other I have ever seen. It is located in a town named Catarina; it is simply serene, one could sit here for hours and just stare at the beauty of the lake. Local vendors offer snacks and there are also restaurants that overlook the lake. Apparently there are scuba diving and horse riding tours available as well. The best way to see this and the aforementioned other sides in and around Granada is to arrange a car driver for the day, the price runs $70-$90 for the entire day. There are buses between Granada and Managua, but the other destinations need a vehicle to reach them.
All in all, considering the vast variety of sights (this doesn’t even include beaches), overall lack of foreign tourists, friendly locals, and very low prices, I think that it is only a matter of time until Nicaragua explodes into the next “it” destination. My advice: go now before this happens, it is worth a visit.