Affectionately named ‘the land of lakes and volcanoes’, Nicaragua attracts visitors with its natural splendour, adventure pursuits and tropical heat. A visit will undoubtedly include a spot of trekking, a dip in a lagoon and possibly a saunter through a canyon. Throw in a few volcanoes and smattering of sandy, Pacific beaches and you have the measure of Nicaragua. Tourists have flocked to the country in recent years, particularly down the country’s western corridor, where the major cities and attractions are found.
Managua, Nicaragua’s bustling, dirty capital lies between the country’s two most visited cities. Leon, to the north, is a hub of volcanic activity, hiking and trekking. The city feels busy, and shops and restaurants spread out onto the streets in crowded excitement. Granada, meanwhile, is a colonial example of serene tranquility. Tree-lined boulevards and an abundance of pedestrianised areas draw in the crowds, while fancy restaurants and a convivial atmosphere compel people to stay longer than planned. Only the uncontrollable force of a busy market disturbs the calm.
It is undoubtedly Nicaragua’s natural beauty that lives longest in the memory. Near the northern city of Estelí and right on the border with Honduras, the Somoto Canyon slices through the rugged, hilly landscape. Just outside Leon, a major attraction at Cerro Negro is volcano boarding, which is perhaps better described as perilous rock tobogganing. In fairness, hurtling down a volcano on a thin plank of wood is a very fun and novel experience. Near Granada, another active volcano, Masaya, is also a popular spot.
In Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe Island is home to two more volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Visitors spend their days racing round the island on motorbikes, hiking one of the two volcanoes, or perhaps evading the freshwater sharks that reside in the lake. The island is heavily geared towards tourism, where insistent salesmen continually offer deals on food, treks and motorbike rentals. The well-paved roads are a positive sign that investment has gone into building up the island’s infrastructure.
Of course, it is not all volcanoes. Nicaragua is blessed with some gorgeous beaches, although reaching them can be a challenge. The Corn Islands, are an expensive flight or a 24-hour bus journey away from Managua, off the east coast. Despite being difficult to reach, very few visitors return with anything but glowing recommendations and enviable photographs. On the west coast, beaches are easier to get to, but travellers must wrench themselves away from the ‘gringo trail’ to do so. San Juan del Sur is ravaged by backpackers, partly for the surfing, but mainly for the ‘Sunday Funday’ all day party experience. Picture large numbers of sunburnt gringos splashing around in a swimming pool and consuming slightly too much alcohol.
Nicaragua is deservedly popular. It has successfully harnessed its most enticing features to become a great tourist destination. Cheap prices are a blessing for the backpacker, but any traveller has to be wary of exploitation by those locals after a quick buck. Many travellers race through the country, pausing in three or four places, but the real beauty of Nicaragua is in its hidden gems, where backpackers rarely venture. Find these and you won’t be disappointed.