Adventures in Nicaragua, the Heart of Central America?
At the heart of Central America lies the splendid country of Nicaragua. Given what this country has to offer the traveller, there is no time like NOW to visit Nicaragua, before it becomes completely saturated with the tourist crowd. From authentic colonial cities that are still free from the mass tourist flow, to smoking hot volcanoes that you can climb or board down, to nights in the warm air on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, sipping the famous Flor De Caña rum, Nicaragua has the diversity to meet every traveller’s needs! Where does one begin to explore this new-found travellers’ paradise?
From the moment you get your passport stamped and are welcomed by Nicaraguan officials, you are also greeted by a steaming Volcano San Cristóbal that rises high above the sugar cane fields beside you. We start with a visit to the colonial city of Leon! In Leon, you could get lost for several days just exploring museums (Legends and Traditions, Revolution, and Ruben Dario, just to name a few), sipping on rum, or just roaming this truly authentic city. Your trip to Leon would, of course, include a visit to the Cathedral of Leon. The Baroque and Neoclassic inspired cathedral itself is a UNESCO protected site. This is where the legendary poet Ruben Dario, credited with initiating the Spanish-American movement known as “modernism” that flourished at the end of the 19th century, is buried, directly under an enormous sculptured, crying lion. Ruben was also known to the people as “The Prince of Castillian Letters” (Principe de las Letras Castellanas). But that is just the beginning of your visit. There are some fabulous opportunities just outside Leon that will get you up close and personal with volcanoes and some serious adventure. Volcano Boarding on Cerro Negro is always a favourite! A 30-minute drive out of Leon, a 45-minute steamy hike up to the crater, then 3-5 minutes of adrenaline straight down on a board, all the way to the bottom. Absolutely awesome! If it sounds too daunting, you can, of course, opt to hike back down! The Telica Twilight tour takes you by 4WD for a 90-minute drive through villages where you will take in all the sights and sounds of local life: local cowboys, pigs running loose or, if you are lucky, the national bird of Nicaragua, the Guardabarranco (Motmot).
Stepping out of the vehicle, you feel a tiny drop in the temperature, but it is by no means cold. There is no shade on the forty-five-minute hike to the crater, so a hat is always a good idea. It’s a rocky road up, but Wow!–once you are standing on the edge of her crater, taking in views to San Cristóbal and Cerro Negro and then finding your position for sunset, it was all worth it! The beverage at the end of the day is most definately well deserved! Let’s talk about a little competition: Granada versus Leon! We could be talking about politics: Leon is considered liberal and Granada conservative; or their respective baseballs teams: Orientales (Tiburones) de Granada and Leones de Leon, the competition is always fierce. There was so much dispute about which city would be the capital, that it was eventually given to Managua, almost midway between the two cities.
Granada is a gorgeous city! Being located on the shores of the gigantic Lake Nicaragua means you are treated to cooler temperatures (but never cold). The Calzada, the main street in the city center comes alive at night, with street performers aplenty! Children dressed as La Gigatona, El Enano Cabezon, El Coplero and El Tamborilero put on a lively performance! La Gigantona represents the tall white Spanish woman that came with the conquistadors. She is a big doll, up to three meters tall, constructed on a wood frame, who usually wears a brightly coloured dress. El Enano Cabezon is a small dwarfish figure with a big head symbolizing the intelligent mestizo. El Coplero is the person who recites the popular folk verses and El Tamborilero is the one who plays the drum. The La Gigantona and El Enano Cabezon both dance to the rhythm of the drums. You enjoy these performers while savouring local food such as Vigorón, Indio Viejo, Quesillo or a Nacatamal! BUT the food in Nicaragua is another whole article, so watch for that. From Granada there are more fabulous options! A morning kayak on Lake Nicaragua around the hundreds of islands is a great way to get both exercise and gorgeous scenery! Masaya volcano is perfect for an afternoon/twilight trip to see a huge lake of lava that is currently flowing. And if you are feeling really active there are more volcano options such as Mombacho, which can also include zip lining! If beach time is in your sights, then a visit to San Juan Del Sur would be worth your time! About 2 hours from Granada, it has lovely beaches, a relaxed vibe, excellent bars and simple but tasty restaurants! If you are feeling classy, there are also some very fancy hotels in there, to really relax and unwind. A ferry ride across to Ometepe Island is a highlight. You can, of course, take the “chicken boat” with the locals, but if you tend to get motion-sick, you’ll prefer the serene ferry. The ride itself takes about an hour, (to the Island, that is; coming back you are never sure whether you will be laden down with trucks transporting plantains from the island to the mainland, slowing down the boat.) Ometepe is beautiful, it’s like you have stepped back in time. If you thought the people in Nicaragua were already friendly, the locals on Ometepe will make you feel even more welcome. This is a true getaway; a nice activity to do in Ometepe is absolutely nothing. That’s not because there isn’t anything to do, but because the ambience is so relaxing and there are hammocks everywhere, you might just feel like getting lost in one. But if you still haven’t had enough adventure, there are two more volcanoes to conquer. Conception is an absolute giant that will take you 8-12 hours, while Maderas is a little less aggressive and will take 3-5 hours of your time.
Ometepe also offers sweet little spots such as Ojo de Agua, a lovely cold spring in the middle of a plantain farm and San Ramon waterfall, which includes a wee hike to keep your blood flowing. With all that the newly discovered Nicaragua offers, it’s best to get to Nicaragua right now! Don’t get us wrong: You will see other travellers. But that’s just it–travellers, not tourists. The kind of people who want to get stuck into the culture, try the food, sip Flor de Caña with the locals, or climb an active volcano! Those people – YOU!
Nicaragua is best experienced with like-minded travellers between November and May. The Heart of Central America tour with West Adventures takes you to all the highlights of Nicaragua. It also offers the best of Nicaraguan cuisine, the subject of the next article.