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Guided getaway: Explore old colonial towns or remote islands in Nicaragua

Guided getaway: Explore old colonial towns or remote islands in Nicaragua

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The central cathedral of Granada, from La Merced. Photo by Shelley Seale
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Maderas Volcano, on La Isla Ometepe. Photo by Shelley Seale
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Volcano Boarding down Cerro Negro. Photo by Shelley Seale
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Street musicians play at the market in Masaya. Photo by Shelley Seale
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The north side of Little Corn Island. Photo by Shelley Seale
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Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Nicaragua_march 2012_volcano
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Nicaragua_march 2012_sand surfing
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Nicaragua_march 2012_street music
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Nicaragua_march 2012_beach

Nicaragua is beginning to appear on the radar of travelers, with its natural beauty and old-fashioned charm that neither tourism nor internal strife has ruined. It’s an easy and inexpensive place in which to travel, and is often referred to as “Costa Rica 30 years ago.” Nicaragua has a low-key, slow-moving Latin American culture and is home to colonial towns steeped in history and exciting outdoor adventures.

From “ash boarding” down the side of one of the youngest (and active!) volcanoes in the world, to scuba diving in the Little Corn Island — known for its remote, pristine beaches — along with the excitement of colonial towns such as Leon and Granada, in Nicaragua you can still travel under the radar and have great adventures.

Here are my picks for the top five things not to miss in Nicaragua:

Explore Colonial Towns

As the oldest city in Central America at its original site, Granada is a fascinating and colorful city that is filled with interesting Spanish Empire treasures. Among the top highlights in the town center are the grand cathedral at the main square; the tower at Iglesia de La Merced, from which many iconic skyline photos of Granada have been snapped; Antiquo Convento San Francisco, now a museum with a remarkable pre-Colombian collection; and the colorful streets themselves, with a architectural surprise in every block.

Just outside central Granada, don’t miss the Fortaleza de la Polvora, a rather small medieval fort, and the nearby cemetery which is fascinating to wander and explore, providing nearly limitless photo ops.

Leon is smaller, more liberal, and less traveled than Granada. Here you will find an easy-going, family-friendly atmosphere that is popular with backpackers and independent travelers. Spend the first day simply walking around the city square, exploring Recoleccion Cathedral (sign up for a tour to the rooftop) as well as the baroque theater, street markets and sidewalk cafes. Enjoy a mojito made with the local, and fantastic, Flor de Cana rum at Bigfoot Hostel or Via Via across the street, and then stick around for some live music.

Get Lost on Rustic Islands

Whether it's off the coast in the Caribbean islands of Big Corn and Little Corn, or in the middle of Lake Nicaragua on La Isla Ometepe, it's easy to get away from crowds, and in fact anyone at all, on these very under-developed islands. You can fly to Big Corn Island from Managua. Once there, if you really want to get away take a longboat to Little Corn Island — so small you can walk the whole thing in an hour or so.

Once on Little Corn, there isn’t much to do besides dig your toes in the sand, eat, drink, snorkel or dive — and that’s pretty much its draw. It's 10 square kilometers of palm trees and sand, fringed by a fantastic coral reef that invites some pretty fantastic snorkeling and diving. 

Charming Ometepe, is made up of two volcanoes and most of the accommodations are on fincas, or working farm homestays, which range from pretty basic to very comfortable with all the amenities. Less than half of the island is paved and transportation is slow and difficult; but on Ometepe you can hike up to petroglyphs and waterfalls, visit a co-op coffee farm, kayak through a river estuary and watch howler monkeys do their thing in the trees right above your head. You can get to Ometepe via a 90-minute ferry ride (although an airport is coming soon — get there before it does!)

Hike Some Volcanoes

Ometepe's two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas, both offer fairly rigorous hiking opportunities —with the amazing views from the top as rewards, of course. But Nicaragua is made up of 25 volcanoes, nine of which are active (or at least erupted in the last two thousand years). I highly recommend doing a night tour of Masaya, an active volcano near Granada (the parking lot curbs are painted “Park Facing Exit”).

If you arrive in the late afternoon (no later than 4 p.m.), you can sign up for a night tour led by park guides. This gives you time to browse the informative Visitors Center and hike (or catch a ride) to the top of the Masaya crater, with its sulfur and steam pouring out. This is where the night tour starts, about 5:30 p.m. You start with a hike up the crest of the volcano, and then donning hardhats, you make your way down into the lava tubes, where hundreds of bats live. Really spectacular way to see an active volcano.

And Nicaragua is one of the few places in the world to try a new extreme sport: volcano boarding. Yes, people actually climb an active volcano and then board down it; my boyfriend and I did this on Cerro Negro, a small and very young volcano just outside Leon. After an hour-long climb of moderate difficulty, you arrive at the top where you can board down the other side a stand-up board (similar to a snowboard), or sit down like a sled, which is what I did. You don’t really go as fast as you might think, as the boards get bogged down in the volcanic gravel rather easily. But it’s great, dirty, adrenaline-pumping, unusual fun!

Chill Out in Hippie San Juan del Sur

This southernmost spot, not far from the Costa Rican border, is a hippie-dude haven. It’s a cool little spot, although admittedly surfers will get the most out of it by far. The area and surrounding beaches are known for their top surfing conditions, and plenty of people throwing back beers in town have clearly been in the sun and checked out of real life for perhaps a little too long. Some people find it a little overly developed and gringo-ed, but it is a very pleasant place for even non-surfers to chill for a couple of days. Nice beaches, sea-turtle nesting and some really good waterfront seafood restaurants complete the picture.

Eat and Shop

Nica food is more than just gallo pinto, the constant dish of rice and beans that is popular in most Latin countries and seemingly on every plate. My favorite dish is the Nacatamal, a moist tamale filled with pork, chicken, veggies or other fillings and wrapped in a banana leaf to cook. And for a cheap but yummy meal, try a “fritanga” or local food served from a sidewalk vendor. Everything is on display and you choose the dishes you want. Gallo pinto along with fried and soft-sauteed plaintains are always there, as well as several meat or fish dishes. It usually comes all wrapped up in a banana leaf and stuffed into a plastic bag, and you can typically get a complete three or four dish meal for about $1.50. 

As in many Latin American countries, the markets are the center of everyday life here. In the main squares that are the heart of cities like Leon and Granada, food and handicraft stalls are active. In Granada spend a morning walking the Mercado Municipal, mostly a food market that is lively and colorful, with a few vendors selling crafts or jewelry. In Masaya, about an hour away, there are two markets that are very worthwhile: a newer tourist market that sells generally high-quality artisan crafts; and the old, sprawling market where mostly locals go.

While you can get lost in the winding, seemingly endless food, clothing and housewares sections there is a large artisan area with handmade goods at very reasonable prices. If you go to this market, be sure to stress to any taxi driver that you want the Mercado Viejo with food, not the tourist market.

Practical Info for Traveling to Nicaragua:

  • Check out the Nicaragua Tourism website for more details to help plan your trip.
  • In Leon, Hotel El Convento is built on the site of an old, historic convent and is both gorgeous and peaceful.
  • Granada’s Hotel La Bocona is full of history and colonial charm.
  • The islands are both home to organic farmstays in charmingly rustic settings – try Finca San Juan de la Isla on Ometepe and Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.
  • In San Juan del Sur, Rebecca’s Inn is a friendly, comfortable hospedaje run by Martha, who grew up in the house; Casa Oro is also popular there.