If one might try to categorize adventure travelers, two kinds crystallize – the ones who look for extreme physical stimulation and the others who yearn after exhilarating mental stimulation. While you could find the ones in the first league hiking up an extinct volcano, the second breed of travelers love even more danger; the second will be out there excitedly filming from the rim of an active volcano. The second league could find themselves in a traveler's heaven at places where history is vivid and fresh, and excitement is still unfolding.
Both travelers would find themselves at home in Nicaragua, a place that has both active volcanoes, with eight out of its 19 volcanoes still fuming, as well as active physical stimulants smoldering through across its revolutionary face. Being part of an elemental country in an evolving radical phase is an experience in itself.
Three Reasons to go to Nicaragua
Not an iffy place anymore
Although most tourists have not really updated their mental databases in regard to Central America since the 80’s, and a certain amount of bafflement or alarm upon sharing your tour plans to the region is to be expected, it no longer remains an iffy place to vacation. The Nicaraguans one encounters are unfailingly friendly; the country’s natural beauty is stunning, and its steaks incredibly tasty and cheap.
This Central American country offers few heavyweight tourist attractions – almost no ancient structures remain, and years of revolution, civil war and natural disasters have laid waste to museums, galleries and theatres – however, with travel still feasible on $20 a day, Nicaragua is one of the world’s finest budget destinations and its natural riches rival those of better-known Costa Rica.
Smoking Volcán Concepción with its almost perfect cinder cone rises from the silvery, pure Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua) to pierce the cloudy sky. 'Land of Lakes and Volcanoes' indeed, you think, as the rolling waves of Lake Cocibolca (an ancient indigenous name for Lake Nicaragua that translates to 'Sweet Water') rocks your suddenly tiny ferry into unspeakable admiration. These symbols of the nation - wind over water, fire from the earth - convey the elemental significance of Nicaragua's most powerful passions, poetry and revolution.
Managua: The conscience of the nation, capital Managua, is an admittedly bland urban expanse of unsigned, tree-lined boulevards and uninspired modern monoliths that almost never seduce visitors into spending more time here than is absolutely necessary. Yet this sultry and seismic 'Daughter of War' and 'City of Peace' is beloved of inhabitants, and its volcanic skyline and cosmopolitan charms have inspired a library's worth of poems. Start by ascending Loma de Tiscapa to Sandino's famous massive iron silhouette, with views from the ancient crater-lake to monumental red-and-black Volcán Momotombo. The city pulses, with great nightlife, excellent restaurants and, most importantly, thousands of families rebuilding their nation, poco a poco (little by little), into all that their poets and revolutionaries, campesinos and visionaries, once promised.
Leon: The buzzing cultural capital of the country, Leon, with its famous murals, depicts Nicaragua’s turbulent political history. The city continues to wear its FSLN heart on its sleeve: the street signs read “León: ciudad heroica – primera capital de la revolución”. If you value your hearing, avoid the Parque Central square at 7am and noon, when a ludicrously loud siren wails across the city – a throwback to the days when workers flocked in to León’s booming cotton factories. Many people fall in love with Granada but most leave their heart in Leon.
Granada: If you climb Concepción you will look out over gorgeous colonial Granada and her hundreds of tiny tropical isletas (islets), across the slender isthmus pockmarked with crater lakes to where the Pacific breaks hollow on sandy cove beaches. Nicknamed 'the Great Sultan', in honor of its Moorish namesake across the Atlantic, peopled by an engaging mix of tourists, stalls, itinerants and clumping horses, the palm-lined Parque Central at the center of town sits attractively. Climb the tower at Iglesia La Merced, the sooty front of which has yet to receive a lick of new paint, and enter its serene interior to absorb the shabby-chic charm of the place.
Matagalpa: ‘La Perla del Septentrión’ – Pearl of the North also considered tierra fría – cold ground perhaps because of its relatively cool climate, Matagalpa's small, quiet town is a gateway to the blue-green mountains and coffee plantations that surround it; whether you fancy a short hike into the hills or a longer trip to fincas (farms) like the famous Selva Negra to the north. The Museo del Café houses some old photos of Matagalpa life and explanations of the coffee-growing process. The museum sells quality coffee and is also behind Matagalpa’s new Feria Nacional del Café (held in November), a festival celebrating the town’s coffee expertise with talks and traditional music and dance. This is where the Río Coco is born, flowing from the cloud forest to the steaming Caribbean, past campesino coffee cooperatives and indigenous villages, and into the mighty Bosawás.
The Corn Islands: White beaches, warm clear water and a Caribbean vibe of the Corn Islands is the kind of place you come to intending to stay for a couple of days and end up hanging around for a week or more. Backpackers head straight to idyllic Little Corn though one might want to try Big Corn too. Reach the extremely quiet ‘La Islita’ with rustic tourist amenities by a quick but bouncy panga from the bigger island (Big Corn). Make way for great snorkeling and diving, swimming and, above all, plenty of peace and quiet – with no cars on the island, traffic consists of bikes, dogs and wheelbarrows.
Isla de Ometepe: Ecotourism, volcano-viewing and hiking are the attractions here with its thrilling twin peaks - Volcán Concepción, the higher and more symmetrical of the two peaks and the smaller and extinct Volcan Maderas - rising out of the freshwater lake. Spot such wildlife as white-faced carablanca and 'howler' mono congo monkeys, green parrots loro verde and blue-tailed birds called urracas on the Volcán Maderas clothed with its precious cloud-forest. You can also step out to the great outdoors: walking, hiking, volcano viewing, volunteering and horse-riding are among the most popular activities to explore on Isla de Ometepe.
For visitors of a certain age, just the name Nicaragua - taken from a tribal chief of such wisdom and power that he may never fade from this nation's collective memory - evokes grainy footage of camouflage-clad guerrillas, punctuated by gunfire and a 1980s soundtrack. Despite having ended more than 15 years ago, leaving Nicaragua one of the safest countries in the Americas, the Contra War is too often a collective memory of the land of Nicarao. Yet, this is a country where a bus journey can turn into a conversational epic and a light meal into a rum-soaked carnival, a stroll round the street can be interrupted by a costumed giant and a marching band, and a short boat ride can seem like a trip into another world.