Nicaragua: a country of wonders
Nicaragua is an incredible country, a country of wonders, of landscapes that leave you speechless, of warmth and smiles. It is the soul of Central America, it is the Sandinista revolution. It is a small country, narrow by two oceans and extremely varied: volcanoes, lakes, mountains, forests, great beaches on the Pacific Ocean and dreamy places on the Caribbean Sea, colonial cities, rural communities and much more. During my stay I was able to discover the most hidden corners, exploring the country during the short or long weekends, although transport is not really easy. If you can spend at least a month, you can fully enjoy its diversity.
In this tour I focused on two routes; the first focused to the colonial cities, the pacific coast and the volcanoes because it is the most classic and known route of Nicaragua. The second route focused to Lake Nicaragua and Rio San Juan because I definitely love lakes and rivers.
It is an ancient colonial city, very decadent and for this reason it is charming, young and famous for its university, all aspects which capture any traveler. The streets of the center are rich of colonial houses, often colored, all with a cool patio on the back where you can rest on the hammock in the shade of a banana tree. The cathedral, an imposing building dating back to the 18th century, is the mother of a dozen or so colonial churches, all different and for all tastes, which often serve as a reference point to give addresses, in a country in whose streets have no name!
Visit at least one of the two museums on the Sandinista revolution or even both: you normally find nice old men who have lived and made the revolution and are happy to tell their story and show pictures and newspaper articles about it.
If you go in August or December, do not miss the famous Griteria held on August 14th and December 7th. Surely I can say the same for the traditional Gigantona y el Enano Cabezon in November.
Considered the most beautiful and best preserved city, it overlooks the great Lake Nicaragua. Apart from the colonial churches, the Parque Central and the Museo de San Francisco, I recommend getting lost among the markets and inquiring about the numerous evening cultural activities.
Smaller but very pretty, it is a must for shopping: here you can find handicrafts of all kinds and from every area, both in Mercado Viejo, with an ancient structure which is very interesting and even in Mercado Nuevo, less touristy where you can do more business.
The volcanoes in Nicaragua are many: 19 active and I do not know how many sleepers. I have visited 3, and they are so different that I do not know what to suggest. However, starting from Leon, you can organize a half-day excursion to Cerro Negro. It is the most active volcano in the area. It is a huge mountain of black sand surrounded by a green forest that the volcano is burning rapidly. Walking on the top is impressive, there are two huge craters and the stone beneath your shoes is very hot. If you are foolhardy, you can launch yourself sitting on a wooden table on the most sandy side of the volcano.
The Volcan Mombacho, which dominates Granada, in my opinion is the most interesting to visit. It is a dormant volcano, characterized by a crater as large as a valley, in which a humid wood has grown with a diversity of plants higher than that of the whole of Europe.
Finally, the Volcan Masaya deserves a quick stop in the road between Managua and Granada: from the panoramic balcony overlooking its enormous crater, it is possible to see the incandescent lava almost always.
Aerial View of San Juan del Sur
Let’s move now on the peaceful, wild coast, from the big beaches and surfers paradise, which in recent years have seen tourism grow rapidly. San Juan del Sur is the best known place. A magnificent place to relax and enjoy life for a couple or more days while admiring the incredible sunsets on the sea sitting in a hammock and with a good glass of Nicaraguan rum, strictly Flor de Caña. In San Juan del Sur you will find all kinds of accommodation, beach restaurants, bars, Spanish and surf courses. The most famous beaches are outside of San Juan del Sur: playa Maderas and Majagual to the north (frequented by surfers) and La Flor beach, to the south, for those who want to swim in tranquility and be amazed by sea turtles that often walk on the beach to lay their eggs. In the restaurants, very modest and frequented more by locals, you can eat fresh fish just caught in front of you.
Where to Stay
Located 10 minutes from the San Juan Del Sur, hidden in the quiet jungle, TreeCasa offers ecological experiences combined with unparalleled services and delightful accommodation, completely in harmony with the landscape. Its location is perfect for those who want an authentic experience in Nicaragua, a perfect location to escape from everyday life and allow you to fully enjoy the atmosphere surrounded by nature. Each of the 36 rooms is elegantly furnished with artisan tables, sofas and chairs and includes large terraces with hammock. La Cocina de TreeCasa is the resort’s exclusive restaurant and its menu offers delights with local ingredients which reflect the day’s crop from the vegetable garden of TreeCasa. The TreeCasa offer is complete with natural pools and waterfalls and tree house services, such as bars, meditation tables and yoga areas built right on the heights of nature.
Lake Nicaragua is one of the largest lakes in the world and is a real sea of fresh water. To cross it there are many boats, more or less slow, and the journey from north to south (from Granada to San Carlos) can also last a whole night. Normally it is better to bring a hammock bought for a few dollars to the Masaya market to tie to the poles of the boat and thus have a comfortable place to sleep on.
The most important island of the Lake and also the best known is Ometepe. It has the shape of an 8, and it is formed by the embrace in water of two volcanoes that seem to float in the middle of the lake. The island is covered by lush vegetation, flowers and coffee plants. There are lagoons to swim in, quiet beaches, small communities and fincas that also host tourists.
Sailing south, there are the Solentiname Islands (picture on top). To get there you must first disembark in San Carlos and then take a small boat. It is a magical place. The archipelago is made up of small islands where the peace which reigns there, is rarely found elsewhere: a place to meditate among mangroves, colorful parrots and monkeys. These tiny islands are famous for the nobel prize Ernesto Carneval (in the largest island still exists the colorful Iglesia de Campesina of one of his poems), primitivist painting and the colorful balsa wood carvings (the light wood with which they are made the boats). The bright and vivid colors used in these two forms of art seem to capture the incredible colors that nature has given to these islands.
Before leaving the lake, I cannot forget to also mention the isla Zapatera. It is an island reachable within half an hour of navigation from Granada, which was considered sacred for the Naya culture. On the island there are huge stone statues and two small communities. In the first community, thanks to a responsible tourism project, a small reception house was created where to sleep. The inhabitants cook for the guests and organize walks in the mountains of the island. In short, an unforgettable experience of community life.
Returning to the south of the lake, at the city of San Carlos, next destination was Rio San Juan. I have taken one of those long and narrow boats (lanchas) that depart from San Carlos and reach El Castillo, a community of stilt houses erected on the banks of the river around an ancient Spanish fortress. As you move away from San Carlos you enter the heart of the Reserva Indio-Mais, the largest unspoiled reserve in Central America, a real green lung in the region. El Castillo is located in the middle of the indio-maize reserve, and is truly a place out of time. It is possible to sleep in one of the stilt houses used as hospedaje and contact a local guide to go hiking and walking in the Reserve, where you can observe hundreds of types of tropical plants and unique animals of the area. I also took a small boat to take a night ride on the river and observe the behavior of the crocodiles, which are really numerous.
Tips for a great vacation
Flying on Managua is not cheap. On the contrary, there are often very cheap flights to San Jose (Costa Rica). Keep them in mind, because with about 30 dollars of Ticabus (convenient international line) you will be at the border.
The internal transport of the country is a disaster. There are only the legendary United States School Bus of the ’60s that certainly have their charm, but that do not follow precise timetables and start the ride when they are full. Moreover, their starting point are the markets (sometimes quite chaotic places) and often they are break. If you have to take a plane, plan your departure in advance! In some cases (for example for Granada and Leon) there are the most frequent and fast microbuses. In Managua, crime has increased in recent years in a worrying way: to organize travel, prudence and organization are necessary.