Nicaragua: A Land of Breathtaking and Unexplored Regions
Nicaragua, a nation of geographical superlatives, is the largest country in Central America. Its diverse landscape covers an area of 129,494 square kilometers with a broad range of climates, regions and topographies for visitors to discover. In a country that remains 80% undeveloped, travelers can enjoy an incredible array of experiences ranging from hiking through rain forests and jungles, discovering deserted beaches, diving untouched reefs, climbing active volcanoes, surfing the perfect wave or just simply exploring the unexplored.
The country known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes” is primarily divided into three regions: the North-Central Mountains, the Pacific Coast and the Atlantic Coast.
The Northern Mountains – A Natural Wonder
The cloud-covered forests of the Nicaraguan North provide a variety of opportunities for eco-tourism and jungle adventures. More than 3,000 ft. above sea level, these mountains offer forests of mahogany, cedar and pines that are covered with orchids and moss, providing an idyllic setting for hiking, bird-watching and horseback riding. Mountain lodges, scenic trails and protected areas are some of the wonders of this naturally rich area.
This regional capital is 72 miles north of Managua and a base point for many scenic expeditions. From this agricultural center filled with hundreds of banana, peanut, sorghum and sugar cane plantations, travelers can explore fascinating volcanoes, stunning sceneries and isolated beaches, and meet people strongly rooted in their indigenous past. The beautiful beach town of Jiquilillo Beach is a favorite for surfing, while 20 miles west is the vibrant coastal port town of Corinto. Also 7 miles from Chinandega is the old city of El Viejo, with its famous Basilica, a Mecca for catholic pilgrims.
Estelí and Segovias
As you travel north and up out of the sultry Pacific lowlands, your introduction to Nicaragua’s hilly interior begins with the Sébaco Valley, green with rice, carrot, and onion fields. From there, the pleasant city of Estelí, “Diamond of the Segovias,” then continues through mountains and valleys dotted with rural villages.Most folks here get along by subsistence farming and ranching, while cash crops like tobacco and coffee also define the land; a few communities boast talented artisans in pottery, leather, and stone.
Eighty-nine miles north of Managua, this charming city of merchants, artists, ranchers and cigar rollers enjoys cool climates and captivating mountain views. Estelí, a center of commerce in Nicaragua for over a century, has been cultivating some of the world’s most renowned tobacco since the 1950s, when Cuban cigar makers discovered Nicaragua’s rich soil. Travelers can visit local cigar factories and learn the traditions of this exceptional art. Spend a day at the Estanzuelas waterfall and the Tisey wildlife reserve, or head into the hills for a weekend in Miraflor, a precious habitat for some of Nicaragua’s rarest species of birds and orchids. Press farther northward to the small towns of the Segovias–Somoto and Ocotal–dry as dust but alive with history, legends, and lore.
SelvaNegra (Cloud Forest), Matagalpa, and Jinotega Highlands
The cloud forest of SelvaNegra is located 87 miles from Managua, near the city of Matagalpa, at more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Originally a coffee farm called Hammonia by its German settlers, the farm evolved into a protected forest, where today more than 200 species of birds dwell, including the Resplendent Quetzal and other brilliantly plumed Trogons. The SelvaNegra Hotel, part of a coffee plantation run by 5th generation German immigrants, has 24 wooden chalets and 11 additional rooms scattered throughout 120 hectares of forest. Fourteen forest trails allows visitors to observe birds, wildlife and a variety of orchids in their spectacular natural habitat. Jinotega is the gateway to the untrodden, as most of Nicaragua’s landmass lies farther afield to the east. A guide in Matagalpa can take you trekking to summits, waterfalls, and forgotten gold mines. Spend a weekend in a rural lodge, tour coffee plantations, or participate in a village guest program for a closer look at campesino life.
As you turn eastward from the Pan-American Highway and begin the gradual climb upwards, the character of the Matagalpan and Jinotegan highlands will attract your attention immediately. This rugged, determined region of blue-green hillsides, sometimes thickly forested mountains, and small, farming villages of adobe homes and clay-tile roofs is unlike anywhere else in the country. As highlands go, Nicaragua’s center is not that high, rising to barely 2,000 meters above sea level, but after visiting the torrid plains around Granada and Managua, the relatively cool air and the smell of pines will be a welcome surprise. The temperatures favor vegetable production, though many quiet valleys are still thick with corn and red beans. They also favor the production of coffee and east of Matagalpa, the rumpled landscape of hardwoods and coffee plants dominates. Coffee’s preference for shade has encouraged the preservation of much of this region’s forests, and the mornings resonate with birdcall and the bellow of the howler monkeys.
Matagalpa is the more elegant and historical of the region’s two big cities, with a gargantuan cathedral and several big, shady parks. A city draped over the curves of more than one hill, your legs will quickly notice the changes in altitude as you explore. Jinotega is farther north into the mountains, higher, and smaller. Emphasizing its sense of isolation are the green walls of the valley that cradles it; even the cathedral in the town’s center is dwarfed by the immensity of nature in its lush plaza. Jinotega remains somewhat of a cowboy town, the uncouth little brother of more cultured Matagalpa. Jinotega feels like the end of the road, the gateway to the thousands of remote kilometers that separate the Atlantic coast from the rest of Nicaragua.
Central Pacific Region – A Colonial Treasure
The central part of Nicaragua boasts a wealth of diverse beauty that ranges from the country’s tallest volcanoes and treasured archaeological ruins, to crafts and folklore and some of Latin America’s most authentic colonial cities. This close-knit region, while filled with contrasts, is easy to access. Most of the region is within just a few hours drive from the nation’s capital of Managua.
Chontales and the Nicaraguan Cattle Country
The golden hillsides beyond the east shore of Lake Cocibolca fold upward into the rocky precipices of the Amerrisquemountains, stomping grounds of the Chontal people during pre-Columbian times. Today, the area runs thick with cattle ranches that produce most of Nicaragua’s cheese and milk. To the north and east, the roads dwindle to rutted tracks and old, rural encampments. It was here that the Chontal people carved their totemlike statues, a few of which are on display in the museum in Juigalpa. Most travelers speed through on buses bound for El Rama and the Atlantic coast, but spending a night in Juigalpa or Boaco, where the wild west vibe hasn’t lost its edge, may lead you on to the area’s hot springs, petroglyphs, horseback treks, and burly hikes.
This entire regions is firmly off the beaten path, so expect to be the only tourist for miles in most of the towns and sights in this chapter. Overall, Boaco is less well-to-do and less enticing than relatively upscale Juigalpa, which dwarfs it in every sense. Boaco makes a reasonable base for treks or drives into the hills between Boaco and Matagalpa Departments. Juigalpa is a much bigger and much more important urban center that remains an overgrown cowboy village. Here you’ll rub shoulders with cowboys and campesinos sporting their cleanest boots on their twice-a-month trip to the city to pick up supplies, strike a few deals, and do their errands.
León and Volcanic Lowlands
In 1524, Spanish conquistadors founded this colonial university town at base of the Momotombo Volcano. Impressive views of the Momotombo and Momotombito volcanoes surround this unique city characterized by cobblestone streets, more than 18 churches, cafes, small shops and throngs of university students. León’s combination of universities and historic ruins creates a unique setting found nowhere else in Nicaragua. Some of its important sites include the house of Rubén Darío, one of Latin America’s leading literary figures, The Cathedral of León, the largest cathedral in Central America, and the various historic churches. Its museums are considered some of the most eclectic in the region, showcasing the many political, natural and cultural aspects of Nicaraguan history. Most travelers stroll León’s streets, walk up (and ride down) Cerro Negro, and then head back south or east. With a week or more, you can work your way farther northwest. In addition to beaches near León, there are a number of remote protected areas throughout the Cosigűina Peninsula.
Northwest of Managua are broad plains of peanuts, corn, beans, sorghum, and sugarcane. The fecund soils that make this the most agriculturally productive region in Nicaragua are a gift from the Maribio volcanoes, an uncommonly active and exposed chain of peaks and cones stretching from Lake Xolotlán to the Gulf of Fonseca.
Fire gives way to water, and the Pacific northwest coastline of Nicaragua includes some of the longest, most isolated stretches of sand in the country. There are coastal islands, endless estuaries, and virgin mangrove stands rich in marine life and waterfowl. Large tracts of this region are still difficult to access, but progress and paved roads are slowly creeping up on them.
You can’t help but feel itinerant in León and Chinandega. Blame it on the heat–this is the driest, most scorching corner of the country. Volcanism seeps from the land in boiling mud pits, geothermal vents, and the occasional rumble. The ruins of León’s first incarnation are a testament to the area’s impermanence. This region suffered tremendously during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when more than two meters of rain fell in three days. Nowhere in Nicaragua was the destruction as intense, and the still-visible landslide at Las Casitas is a silent reminder of the worst of it. For this, Leóneses and Chinandeganos know that life can be short and even violent, and should thus be enjoyed.
León is the principal city of the northwest, a colonial town with the architecture and languid lifestyle of centuries past. This bastion of liberal thought in Central America has narrow streets lined with cathedrals, universities, and cafés. For five hundred years, León’s political history has consisted of long stretches of peace, punctuated by the staccato call of uprising, resistance, and war.
Steeped in a history of turmoil, Managua is today a city in transition. With a population of more than 1.5 million, Managua remains the nation’s economic, political, academic and transportation hub. It is also the entry and starting point for visitors discovering the rest of the country. Travelers can easily take day trips to a number of nearby attractions, including Masaya Volcanic National Park, which offers a breathtaking perspective of the still-active crater; the relaxing beach resort of Montelimar; the 162-hectare private nature reserve of Montibelli; the craft markets of Masaya; and the historic city of Granada. You can see Managua’s small cadre of attractions in half a day, but if you’re here on a weekend, consider staying to sample the vibrant nightlife. Managua offers several of its own attractions, including the restored Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) and some of the best restaurants in the country.
If Nicaragua’s capital were a vehicle, it would be a battered 1960s school bus, dented and dinged on all sides, paint chipping through multiple layers of color, four bald tires rolling slightly akilter, but sporting a brand new, $2,000 sound system blaring a merengue classic for its smiling passengers, both rich and poor. Managua rarely impresses; its labrynthine, unnamed streets are complicated to navigate, it is loud and architecturally uninspiring, and there’s no city center to speak of. Though it’s relatively safe, it doesn’tfeel that way, and its understated charms don’t exactly jump out at you.
Managua is also the best place in the country to get your gear repaired, see a doctor or dentist, see a movie or show, and party like a salsa star. It also has the nation’s most varied selection of restaurants and night spots. You likely won’t plan your trip around a visit to Managua, but neither should you necessarily avoid it, as Managua does have a charm of its own that will become apparent once you’ve spent a little time here. You may even discover you like the place.
Managua was not made for walking. Organize your day into trips to different regions of interest, and resign yourself to getting around by taxi, as the buses are slow and rather dangerous, and walkers are at risk not only to petty crime but general harassment (not to mention heat stroke). Negotiate a rate with a taxi driver to take you around the sights (one hour is enough and should cost you about $10). Finish the driving tour at the Malecón, where you can enjoy a boat trip on Lake Xolotlán (Tuesday-Sunday), then move on. Any middle or upper range hotel can organize a guide and/or taxi to help you tour Managua. A taxi will cost around $20 per half day and a guide a similar amount.
Granada is the oldest city in Central America to remain on its original site. The most colorful and comfortable of Nicaragua’s cities, Granada has been charming travelers with its red-tiled roofs, grand cathedrals, breezy lakeshore, and drowsy lifestyle since the days of the Spanish, who used the city as their first Atlantic port (via Lake Cocibolca and the Río San Juan). Just 27 miles from Managua on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, this fascinating and colorful city was founded in 1524 and is now considered a showcase of Nicaragua’s Spanish Colonial treasures. Seventeenth century churches, courtyards filled with flowers, impressive museums, European cuisine and historic buildings converted to boutique hotels distinguish Granada as one of the fastest-growing tourism centers in the country. Travelers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to kayak and explore the nearby “isletas,” a 365-island archipelago formed in Lake Nicaragua when the Mombacho Volcano erupted 20,000 years ago.
Granada is pleasant to explore by foot or old-fashioned horse carriage. Nights, the sky fills with stars and the neighbors come out to chitchat on their front stoops; inside even the most nondescript colonial facade is an open, private courtyard designed to capture the evening breeze. Granada’s restaurants are varied and high quality, offering something for just about everybody. Granada lacks the five-star luxury or business hotels of the capital and coast but instead offers a wide selection of small, charming guesthouses, bed-and-breakfasts, and colonial lodges.
Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos
Less than an hour south of the capital, Masaya and the dozens of villages that comprise the Pueblos Blancos are known for their residents’ artistry. You will find artisans, metalworkers, leatherworkers, carpenters, painters, and musicians. In fact, no other region of Nicaragua is as blessed with a sense of artistry and creativity as Masaya and the surrounding villages, called the Pueblos Blancos. Many of the handicrafts found in markets throughout the country are Masayan: handwoven hammocks, terra cotta pottery, musical instruments, and more. “The City of Flowers,” as Rubén Darío christened the town a century ago (he was talking about the girls, not the flora), rarely garners more than a brief afternoon market visit for most travelers. It is a city relatively devoid of monuments, historical buildings, and traditional sights. As a marketplace however, it is unsurpassed, and wandering through the cool alleys of the crafts markets is a cultural tour through Nicaragua, a vivid expression of this people’s vitality, passion, and creativity. If you are eager to come home from your trip with something special, this is the place to find it.
Adjacent, and an inextricable part not only of the landscape but of the culture is Volcán Masaya. One of the world’s most accessible volcanoes, one of only two on earth where you can drive up to the crater lip and look inside, and Nicaragua’s most thoughtfully planned national park, Volcán Masaya is extremely active. You’ll smell the sulphur when the wind is right. As such it’s a rewarding and memorable experience well worth your time, and possibly one of the top three things to do in Nicaragua. Then visit the shaded stalls of Masaya’s craft markets. Spend a lazy afternoon driving through the Pueblos Blancos and take a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, the country’s nicest swimming hole. You could easily devote two full days to this region, either by staying in Masaya or the Laguna, or by traveling here each day from Granada. The Pueblos make a nice diversion for those spending a longer time in Managua, as the hills are markedly cooler.
A trip through the Pueblos Blancos can occupy a full day, even if driving. It’s fun to start at one end, work your way up to Catarina, have lunch, and then continue. You can visit the Pueblos Blancos by public transportation, as the buses run this route frequently throughout the day, but having the freedom of a vehicle will greatly facilitate your ability to pick and choose as you work your way through the villages. Lastly, though very few travelers stay the night in Masaya, consider doing so during one of the city’s colorful festivals, when the town really comes alive.
Masaya (population 90,000) sprawls over a tropical plain nestled against the slopes of the volcano by the same name; at its western edge, paths carved by the Chorotegas trace the steep hillside down to the Laguna de Masaya. Twenty indigenous villages of Darianes used to cluster at the water’s edge. Masaya was officially founded as a city in 1819 and has grown ever since. Several centuries of rebellion and uprising–first against the Spaniards in 1529 and later against William Walker’s forces in 1856, the U.S. Marines in 1912, and in a number of ferocious battles against the National Guard during the revolution, earned the Masayans a reputation as fierce fighters.
Travelers find Masaya less picturesque than Granada and it’s true the streets and building facades in Masaya are less cared for. But the Masayans are a creative people with many traditions found nowhere else in Nicaragua, such as their solemn, mysterious funeral processions. Perhaps Masayan creative energy goes into its delightful arts and crafts instead of the architecture. Your best introduction to these delights is Masaya’s Mercado Viejo (Old Market), which is so pleasant and compelling that many visitors choose not to stray beyond its stately stone walls. But it’s well worth the money to charter a horse-drawn carriage to carry you to the breezy malecón, to see the crater lake 100 meters below.
Ometepe Island and Rivas
An old administrative city with a vibrant colonial history, Rivas may be worth a stop on your way to the beaches of San Juan del Sur or to Nicaragua’s crown jewel: La Isla de Ometepe. Rising out of Lake Nicaragua, the second-largest lake in Latin America, this unique island was formed by twin colossal volcanoes that encompass more than 276 square kilometers: “Concepción” and “Maderas.” A favorite with volcano climbers, Concepción is active, and has slopes covered by tropical dry forest, while Maderas is dormant, with a deep cloud forest and beautiful lagoon on top of the crater. Ometepe Island was once considered sacred ground by ancient cultures, and visitors can still find many ceremonial carvings and lingering legends. A visit to Ometepe has been described as a sensory experience filled with sounds of wildlife and views of nature permeated by a mystical presence. You can stick to the lakeshore, enjoying island-grown coffee, lagoons, waterfalls, and the call of howler monkeys. The slopes of Maderas are home to an array of rustic, farm-based hostels, surrounded by old-growth hardwoods, petroglyphs, barnyard animals, and memorable views.
These days, Rivas draws less attention than the coastal communities of San Juan del Sur and La Isla de Ometepe, but retains a colonial charm appreciated by many. But it’s hard to compete with La Isla de Ometepe for attention. The magnificent twin-peaked Ometepe rises like a crown from the center of Lake Cocibolca. An intensely volcanic island steeped in tradition and mystery, Ometepe was the ancestral home of the Nahuatl people and today is an alluring destination for travelers, with its sandy beaches, swimming holes, hiking trails, and of course, two breathtaking volcanoes: one hot, one cold (the former remains quite active).
Southwestern Nicaragua does not suffer the same intense, grinding poverty prevalent in the drier lands of the north and west. It rains more in the south, and the rivers flow nearly year-round. The volcanic soils on Lake Cocibolca’s western shore are rich and productive. Cattle graze lazily in immense, lucrative ranches and sugarcane fields drape the valleys south of the foot of Mombacho, one of Nicaragua’s most picturesque peaks.
San Juan del Sur and Southwest Coast
On Nicaragua’s central Pacific coast near its border with Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur is the country’s primary surfing destination and Nicaragua’s favorite beach town, the most popular with foreign tourists. Described as a port town, fishing village, surfing and backpacker’s haven, San Juan del Sur has undeniably become a tourism hot spot that has lured not only travelers, but a good deal of foreign investment as well. In addition to a crescent bay lined with barefoot restaurants and sandy bars, San Juan del Sur offers a slow-paced, tranquil setting, fresh seafood, and charming guesthouses. Several high-end residential communities are springing up and San Juan del Sur is also a favorite weekend getaway for wealthy Nicaraguans. Visitors can choose from a variety of perfect beaches surrounded by towering cliffs and a nearby wildlife refuge with a turtle-nesting beach. Various new restaurants and hotels, such as the Morgan’s Rock Eco-Lodge, accommodate an increasing number of sophisticated visitors. San Juan del Sur is also becoming a port destination for many international cruise ships.
At the turn of the 21st century, San Juan del Sur again grew in international popularity to the steady drumbeat of high-profile international press coverage declaring the area a real estate hot spot. The area attracted a frenzy of property pimps, land sharks, and a flock of checkbook-toting prospectors scouring the coastline for a piece of the pie. Some of the investment led to progress, new establishments, and healthy relationships between foreign investors determined to make money and a positive impact for their Nicaraguan colleagues and beneficiaries. But the economic growth was not without scuffles.
Meanwhile, sunsets continue to paint the silhouettes of fishing vessels in crimson, and the mood in San Juan del Sur is low-key and fun. The noon sun is scorching, so life is langorous and measured, spent swinging in breezy hammocks, enjoying fresh fish and cold beer at seaside, or splashing about in the surf.
Atlantic Coast – A Region Untouched
Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast is Nirvana for nature lovers. The largest and most unpopulated region of the country, it covers more than 46% of the Nicaragua’s territory and has more than 205 miles of beaches. Culturally, socially and linguistically, it is also worlds apart from the rest of the country. While most of the inhabitants are indigenous (Misquito, Sumo and Rama Indians), English is widely spoken in this once-British settlement. Nicaragua’s “jungle coast” possesses the largest expanse of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon. Rivers are the primary means of transportation. World-class fishing, scuba diving and eco-tourism are drawing a growing number of travelers to this very special region.
The isolated Atlantic coast may as well be a country unto itself. Nicaragua’s Caribbean is tough, muddy, and quite unlike any Cancún-tainted visions you may harbor. Reachable either by land or sea, Bluefields is located on the Caribbean shores of Nicaragua, 178 miles from Managua. This unique town is dominated not only by wide rivers and small jungle canals, but also by a unique island culture evidenced in its plentiful seafood, dancing and reggae bars. Bluefields is a rare melting pot of indigenous, African, English, Dutch and Spanish influences. A mixture of white sand, coral reefs, coconut palms, mangroves, jungles and rainforests make this area a favorite for those who appreciate an exotic combination of attractions.
Corn Islands (Big and Little)
Located in the Caribbean Sea, 53 miles from Bluefields, these islands encompass 10 square kilometers (3.86 square miles) of forested hills, mangrove swamps, stretches of white coral beaches and incredible crystal blue waters. Most tourists fly straight from Managua to Big Corn, but a few hardy souls still visit Bluefields to experience Creole culture and crab soup. When you tire of Bluefields’s grittiness, board a boat for Pearl Lagoon, the coastal fishing communities, Pearl Cays, or Greenfields reserve. Both Corn Island and Little Corn Island are Caribbean gems as gorgeous below the waterline as above. For centuries, the Corn Islands were under British domination and served as a refuge for pirates. Although largely mestizo (people of mixed European and Indian ancestry), direct descendents of pirates, English royalty and plantation owners still comprise a significant percentage of the population. This forgotten, tropical paradise offers great snorkeling, diving and sun bathing. A wilder and more pristine version of Big Corn Island is Little Corn Island. This delicate paradise measures three square kilometers and is surrounded by more than four miles of coral reef teeming with sea life. There are kilometers of coral reef, a handful of hotels, and only one dive shop on each island. Little Corn has no roads so the only sound you hear should be the wind in the trees
San Juan Region, the River, and Solentiname
Life moves slowly along the broad river that drains Lake Cocibolca to the Caribbean. This gorgeous, verdant lowland is Nicaragua’s wettest, and its remoteness means you’ll spend more time and more money getting around. The San Juan region is an area of natural wonders, pristine nature reserves and historical importance. During the 1849 Gold Rush in California, the river served as a passageway for American travelers due to its natural inter-oceanic waterway. The river and its surrounding areas are true tropical rainforest with some of the richest biodiversity in the region. The river starts at the southwest corner of Lake Nicaragua and flows for 119 miles to the Caribbean Sea. Along this spectacular river, one can see hundreds of different bird species, including Chestnut Mandibled Toucans, Harpy Eagles, Boat Billed Herons, Great Egrets, Jacanas and Cormorants, as well as various types of caimans, turtles, and monkeys.
The principal settlement in the area, San Carlos, is transforming from edgy port town to quaint destination and you’ll inevitably pass through it on the way to various adventures. The town is thick with itinerants, rowdies, farmers, fishers, swindlers, and you. Offshore, the Solentiname Archipelago is a quiet group of islets as pertinent to the revolution years as to Nicaragua’s prehistoric past, and a center of production for some of the country’s most gorgeous paintings.
Or, take a wooden boat down the river towards the Atlantic, a sun-baked ride back through time. El Castillo, one of Spain’s most permanent colonial legacies, remains little changed from the 17th century and the days of marauding pirates. From there, downstream fishing village follows pasture follows rapids until you reach San Juan de Nicaragua, the little town where it all began and where it all ends, remote and untamed.
It’s not easy to get to the Río San Juan, and tougher still to get around, but everyone agrees that things are rapidly changing for the better, due in large part to a $14 million tourism development plan called La Ruta del Agua, the effects of which you’ll see as soon as you step onto the refurbished dock or recently paved airstrip at San Carlos. This region isn’t part of the casual traveler’s itinerary, but if you can invest a little more time than usual, the dramatic landscapes and remoteness of this region will impress you, and the tourism potential here is enormous.
The Solentiname archipelago isn’t easy to get to, but you’ll be rewarded with an up-close look at the birthplace of liberation theology and a thriving colony of artists. Explore the wilds of Los Guatuzos, habitat for monkeys, birds, and amphibians, then set sail downstream for San Juan de Nicaragua, home to the bones of English pirates and more ghosts than residents.