People wanting more from a vacation than sunshine and beaches is a growing trend that bodes well for Nicaragua, the Central American country sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica. Late last year, together with five companions, I participated in a week-long tour of this Spanish-speaking nation beset during the 1980s by political upheaval and civil war, a period in the country’s history that‘s a page from the past.

Today, Nicaragua is a vacation frontier that offers travellers an engaging alternative to “been there done that” destinations.

Nicknamed “the land of lakes and volcanoes, “the country measures 127,849 sq. km making it comparable in size to New York State. Biggest of its many lakes is Lake Cocibolca (about the size of Puerto Rico) where the island of Ometepe and its twin volcanoes make it the world’s largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake.

Following our arrival in Managua, the nation’s capital, Ometepe and its volcanoes were the start point of our travel plan that began with a ferry ride to the island from the colonial town of Rivas, a community in the southwest corner of the country. Among tourists who have already been drawn to Nicaragua, hiking one or both of Ometepe’s volcanic mountains is a big attraction.

This tropical forested island punctuated by day with the chatter of parakeets and the holler of howler monkeys at night, is dominated by its two volcanic peaks, Maderas and Concepcion.

To be truthful, I was not in top physical condition for serious hiking but the climbs I undertook were well worth the strain. Maderas is an extinct volcano whose forested slopes rise to a mountain-top crater filled with a turquoise-coloured lake. Concepcion, on the other hand, is an active volcano that last erupted in 1957 and is the tougher of the two hikes. Together, the two trail climbs embody spectacular waterfalls, monkey-inhabited forest, rock faces and a variety of tropical vegetation.

North of Lake Cocibolca, the city of Leon is also a base for hikers where the Cerro Negro volcano is one of the most popular destinations in the country for people seeking extreme sport. This lava mountain–one of many volcano-hiking venues throughout the country–is entirely without vegetation and is one of the most active in Central America having last erupted in 1999.

The crater regularly emits steam and gases that can offend the senses yet the views are worth the climb where hikers can see as far north as Honduras. Another reason for Cerro Negro’s popularity can be credited to two unique ways of descending: skimming down the mountain‘s slope on a lava board or stainless steel sled.

While hiking Nicaragua’s volcanoes can be physically demanding, it is not an activity exclusively for the young since there were a couple of members in our group over the age of 50 who completed exhilarating climbs and would not, in retrospect, have missed the chance to hike one or more of the country’s “mountains of fire.”

Beyond volcanoes

At the base of Cerro Negro, the Spanish colonial city of Leon is one of the country’s three principal centres along with Granada and Managua. It’s also home to the largest cathedral in Central America. The Spanish planned two cathedrals in the New World, one large one for Lima, Peru, and a smaller one for Leon but plans were switched and Leon got the larger which took 113 years to build before it was completed in 1860. Beyond its remarkable cathedral, Leon is a city whose narrow streets are filled with an abundance of museums, murals, churches and cafes.

Considerably more beautiful than Leon, Granada is known for its spectacular colonial architecture tinted in bright and colourful shades of yellow.

In fact, it was the first Spanish settlement in Nicaragua and is presently the most popular and most developed tourist destination in the country. Located on the edge of Lake Cocibolca southeast of Managua, and lying in the shadow of the Mombacho volcano, the heart of town is a pretty central square where a beautiful cathedral is its centrepiece and several classic Spanish mansions are now hotels.

One of the most photogenic cities in the country, this is a picturesque town where its network of streets is punctuated by parks, ancient buildings, museums, statuary and markets. The old is balanced by the new with bars, restaurants, discos, internet cafes and shopping.

Among the high points of our Granada visit was a forest canopy tour on the slopes of Mombacho. As our group glided through treetops on zip lines, it was reassuring to know the high wire system was constructed by Canadians who are experts in the business.

Culture and Infrastructure

The population of Nicaragua is about six million people who trace their ancestry to a blend of Spanish, Native American, African and various European ethnicities. In general, Nicaraguans are friendly, outgoing and love to be photographed. As far as climate is concerned, visitors need only be reminded this is a tropical country (just a mere 12 degrees north of the equator) where tourists can take their cue from locals who have the good sense to stay out of direct sunshine between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. To cool off, nowhere in the country are visitors far from a cool domestic beer yet the alcohol drink of choice in Nicaragua is rum which has the undisputed reputation of being the best in Central America. Nicaragua’s roads, on the other hand, are less praiseworthy. With tropical rainfall and washouts they can change overnight, particularly those off the main routes which can deteriorate to little more than a mule trail.

Overall, this is an emerging tourist destination that has much more to offer than volcano climbing and enchanting colonial cities. There is everything from sport fishing to awesome bird watching, kayaking on inland rivers, cultural festivals and a host of eco-tourism pursuits. In fact, the country has so many interesting facets; a week-long tour barely scratches the surface.

For two members of our group this was their second visit to Nicaragua and when asked what inspired them to return both agreed on a two-word answer. “It‘s magic.”

TRAVEL PLANNER

Info: In the next few months an official Nicaragua Tourism website is promised in English but at present the site is entirely in Spanish. In the meantime, Nicaragua travel information can be obtained by emailing cit@intur.gob.ni. There are also a number of unofficial websites that can be accessed by simply Googling “Nicaragua travel.”

Getting there: American Airlines offers one flight daily from Montreal and Toronto connecting through Miami to Managua, Nicaragua.
Travel guide: An excellent travel companion is Moon Handbooks’ Nicaragua guide, second edition, authored by Randy Woods and Joshua Berman. See www.moon.com

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