NICARAGUA: Nicaragua is one of those best-kept travel secrets. The colonial towns, like Granada, religious and cultural history, unique volcano dominated environment and unique eco-lodges are part of a travel experience that is exhilarating. Nicaragua offers visitors Caribbean and Pacific Beachers on which to play, volcanoes to climb, and colonial cities little changed over the centuries. Managua has wonderful parks, theaters, and restaurants.
Despite being the poorest country in mainland Latin America (2012), Nicaragua is a safe destination for travelers and ex-pats. In 2015, Nicaragua welcomed 1.4 million tourists representing an influx of 450 million dollars. The country offers exciting adventures, unique eco-lodges, colonial cities, and environmental splendors. The Nicaraguan government is taking steps to develop quality city amenities for the tourism market.
Travel through Nicaragua begins in Managua.
It has been a long road back from the December 1972 earthquake that stopped time in Managua. The earthquake destroyed 90% of the city, killing more than 10,000 while leaving another 250,000 Managuans homeless.
The historic Old Cathedral of Managua or the Catedral de Santiago located in the Plaza de la Revolución stands much as it did following the earthquake. Attempts have been made to restore the Cathedral, but money continues to be an issue.
The church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France serves as the Catedral de Santiago’s design influence. The neoclassical architecture features two towers flanking the cathedral’s entrance. The clock at the top of the right tower stands still at the time of the quake.
A reminder that life can change in a second.
Viva la’ Revolution
The Plaza de la Revolución, inaugurated in 1899 by the anti-American General José Santos Zelaya, is where Managuans go to stage protests and plays.
Found at the plaza are the everpresent statues and images of national hero Sandino as well as the tomb of Carlos Fonesca, founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
Also on the plaza is the country’s national museum, Palacio de la Cultura.
Open corridors of the three-story neo-classical building lead to public and government spaces.
On the first and second floor are exhibits of the National Museum that showcase the history, culture, and the art of the country. Prehistoric artifacts and pre-Columbia ceramics to modern-day art and sculptures are also on display.
One room pays homage to Nicaragua’s national play. Originally written to mock Spanish conquerors, Macho Raton is a comedic expression of the people’s revolt against colonial imperialism. Today’s performances are about corrupt politicians that mask their true intent.
The room displays drawings and original manuscripts of the Macho Ratón.
The play can be seen during the Feast of San Sebastián every January.
Also located at the plaza is the Presidential Palace.
Managua’s Puerto Salvador Allende Park
The city has retained those things that highlight its history, culture, and heritage. They have incorporated their past into the present. One example of that effort is Puerto Salvador Allende Park. Allende Park is a perfect place for a fun afternoon of frolicking next to Lake Managua. Unfortunately, the lake is the most contaminated lake in Central America. Thus no fishing, swimming or boating is allowed.
The park has plenty of grass-lined walking paths, places for children to run and play and a decommissioned airplane to explore. At the park walk through “Mini Managua” a miniature scale replica of Managua’s Roosevelt Avenue before the earthquake.
The cityscape shows Managua’s Golden Age, the time before the earthquake. It is unique and oddly fun.
Buildings along the avenue include the Grand Hotel, the Golden Dragon and the Central Bank of Nicaragua, as well as the Old Managua Cathedral.
The reproduction buildings make for perspective photos of grandmother picking up a building as well as a fun place to channel some of Godzilla’s famous moves.
Nicaragua’s trees of life
All around the park are dozens of multi-colored, 17-meter-tall, metal “Trees of Life” designed by First Lady Rosario Murillo. Bright colors during the day, the trees are lit each evening.
Not everyone in Managua loves the trees that have cost, some say, $25,000 (US) each. For the people, the $3.3 million construction cost and annual million dollar plus electricity bills are difficult to swallow.
Managua offers plenty of Western-style hotel options for tourists and business travelers. Look into the IHG collection featuring the Crowne Plaza, Metrocentro Managua, and the Holiday Inn Convention Center and Holiday Inn Express.
Each property provides healthy breakfasts with plenty of fruit and local dishes as well as restaurants for evening dining.
Nicaragua Ecological Diversity
From its Caribbean coastline to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Nicaragua offers environmental diversity. The country harbors an exceptional array of flora (plants) and fauna (animals).
Seek them out, and you will find dry forest and rainforest, sometimes on the same mountain.
Plan tours to El Castillo’s Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. The Reserve is Nicaragua’s best-preserved lowland rainforest. Here howler monkeys and poison dart frog’s bright colors’ are easy to see.
Travel by canoe to Indio-Maiz on the San Juan River, which spills out to the Caribbean Sea.
Located near the old colonial town of Granada, visit the stratovolcano Mombacho. Due to its lush vegetation, the Mombacho Volcano is one of the most visited sites on the South Pacific side of Nicaragua.
From Mombacho, views to the west are of the Pacific Ocean, the east, Lake Nicaragua and Granada.
Mombacho is one of Nicaragua’s most protected areas and a perfect example of the countries natural diversity. Home to the protected cloud forest at its peak, Mombacho is also home to a dwarf forest.
A day at Mombacho
Start your day by visiting the Hacienda El Progreso, the coffee farm located at the bottom of the mountain. Take the tour, talk to the growers, and learn about this Nicaraguan staple product.
Journey up the mountain stopping by the Palazio family’s Café Las Flores, a three-generation coffee grower in business since 1926. Cafe Las Flores offers lunch and coffee to Mombacho explorers.
Here you can view the coffee drying planes or large concrete slabs. Here the coffee is spread out beneath the sun’s rays to naturally dry. Ask to see the composting sheds from which methane gas is farmed to power the compound.
The coffee on Mombacho is Rainforest Alliance Certified found to drink, and buy, throughout Nicaragua.
Mombacho’s lush vegetation and pleasant climate mean the volcano is home to many species of plants and animals. The very lucky will see the Mombacho (Bolitoglossa mombachoensis) salamander, the orchid (Maxillaria mombachoensis) and more than ten species of endemic insects.
Nicaragua’s Undiscovered Paradise
Hard to spy, the Mombacho Butterfly is a leaf green butterfly that sleeps high in the tree canopy during the day. The Mombacho Butterfly only lives in the forests of the volcano.
Get up close and personal with a tree canopy adventure that includes a walking tour through the clouds on the El Crater Trail Tour.
After walking the trail, exhilarate on the hour-long progressive zip-lining adventure with Mombotour Nicaragua Canopy Tours.
Zipping between eleven different tree platforms, one to the next, the adventurous will fly through the tree canopy and over the coffee fields. After playing in the trees, there is an exciting rappelling trip down to the ground at the end.
Lucky zippers may spy one of the three species of monkey, the spider monkey, capuchin, and howler, that inhabit the forests.
Also visible to the eagle-eyed will be the rainbow-hued motmot, the national bird of Nicaragua. The bird is magnificent with its blue-crown, green, lime, black, yellow and red colors and distinct paddle-like tales.
Mombacho is one of 19 volcanoes in Nicaragua.
Masaya Volcano National Park is a popular nighttime destination.
The park includes two volcanoes and five craters.
At night, the crater glows an otherworld red-orange, as if the gate to hell, making it a popular after-dark destination. Visits have time-limits due to the noxious gases emitting from the crater.
Posada Ecológica La Abuela – a world-class swimming hole in a volcano crater
This friendly lodge is located on the shores of Laguna de Apoyo Natural Reserve, a volcano lake that is, without a doubt, the best swimming hole in the world. At more than 23,000 years of age, the lake forming in the crater of the volcano is within the reserve.
It is one of the seventy-eight natural areas Nicaragua.
Local lore is that locals staked a giant snake to the ground. In her frustration, she slithered round and round, carving out the lake. Her tears slowly filling the crater.
The water, due to the volcanic minerals, is soft, and thick. It can only be described as being like seawater but without the eye-stinging salt.
A day or two at the Posada means eating regional foods and sitting on your private balcony looking for the more than 230 species of birds and 220 species of butterflies native to the forest.
Cabins on the property include a private bathroom, air conditioning, fridge, cable television and each has a balcony with rockers to sit and enjoy watching the sunset over the lagoon. The tropical dry forest makes for wonderful hiking while the lake offers opportunities for kayaking and fishing.
Step back in time and visit Granada. This former trading port was a target for pirates in the 17th-18th centuries. Today Granada offers travelers historic colonial architecture, brilliant colors, regional foods, and beautiful old boutique hotels.
Many properties are available for as little as $25 US per night. There are more luxurious accommodations to be found. However, most still to be had for under $100 US per night. Ask plenty of questions, seek photos, travel websites that feature personal reviews before booking.
Granada is the sixth most populous city in Nicaragua, and it is quickly becoming a tourist destination. This walking town is also a point of departure for much of what Nicaragua has to offer.
At the center of the town is Central Park, where visitors will find native food, arts, and souvenirs. Plan some time to sit down beneath the mature trees, have a soda, and enjoy the parade of people and horse-drawn carriages.
The park features a kiosk in its center, with a magnificent center fountain. To the side is an obelisk in memory of Rubén Darío.
Granada’s Alhambra: Home of Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Moors
At each of the square’s corners are food kiosks serving local foods. Leave time for a plate of vigorón, a fresh dish of cooked yucca, cabbage salad, and chicharrón (pork rind).
Also around the park are sellers of Nicaraguan handicrafts and small food stands.
During the day, the park is quite familial and refreshing thanks to the fountain and shade trees. In the afternoon, a lot of retirees come to enjoy the air and the musicians playing. At night tourists are wise to avoid the park as it becomes the habitat of the seedier side of humanity.
From the park, walk over to the Calzada, a pedestrian-friendly street.
In the evening locals and tourists alike are found enjoying local food, beverages, and entertainment. In addition to local foods like gallo pinto or tostones (rice and beans and fried plantains) Granada’s restaurants feature world foods from fresh pizza to Indian food.
Not yet known for its chocolate, Chocolate from Granada competes with the best. The ChocoMuseo takes visitors through the process, from bean to bar. ChocoMuseo also offers a chocolate making workshop where you can learn to make a variety of chocolate treats.
Lake Nicaragua is the 19th largest freshwater lake in the world. The water from the lake drains to the Western Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River. Making this lake unique is the appearance of sawfish, tarpon and bull sharks that have adapted to freshwater life.
Unique to Lake Nicaragua is the Mombacho Islets. The Islets are an archipelago of 365 islands that formed when Mombacho blew its cone some thousand years ago. The resulting lava and rocks flew miles into the air to land around the Asese Peninsula.
After so many years, today the islets, which seem to range from an acre to as many as 10 acres in size, are covered with lush vegetation and homes ranging from modest dwellings to large, luxury compounds. Take a boat tour of the islets and stop by Monkey Island where Geoffroy’s spider monkey, currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species, frolic.
The majority of the island’s inhabitants are capuchin monkeys, omnivores that enjoy a varied diet, eating anything from fruit and nuts, to spiders and bird eggs.
The monkeys are not afraid of the tourist boats. They become quite vocal if food is brought out to them. Favorites include fruit, like oranges, or bananas. Do not take foods they would not naturally eat, like potato chips, sugar cookies. No high sugar or salted people’s food.
Wellness found at Jicaro Island Lodge
Jicaro Island Lodge billing as a “private island getaway” is very accurate. Accessible only by boat, Jicaro is one of those places you don’t want to miss. And you won’t want to leave.
Guests enjoy casita’s that are not only private but luxurious with expansive bedrooms, living areas, and decks that offer views of the Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua.
One of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, each casita is built to be in harmony with the environment. Jicaro was built with sustainability in mind using certified reclaimed woods and local materials. The retreat, staffed by residents, offers a complete meal program, spa, yoga classes and watercraft.
Jicaro will also work with guests who wish to explore the island, the lake, the culture, history and day-to-day living.