Many backpackers seem to pass through Nicaragua quickly. A few days are spent at San Juan del Sur surfing by day and inhaling Flor de Caña by night, followed by a few days recovering by taking in the colours of Leon and Granada and possibly a pass over Ometepe to climb one of its two magnificent volcanoes. But if you give it time there is so much more to stoke your curiosity, particularly for the more outdoor-inclined traveller.
Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America and certainly one of the cheapest. We spent 3 months bouncing around and hope we went a little further than just the normal gringo trail. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss when you visit.
Ok, so if you’ve been travelling through Central America you may be a little over volcanoes; those flattened peaks may not invoke that same twang of excitement they once did. But for first timers there are enough to keep you busy for days.
Swim or kayak in the luscious water of the crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo, get muddy in the cloud forests spotting howler monkeys and birdlife on Mombacho, or board at lightening speed through rubble and ash down Cerro Negro, one of the MUST DO activities in the country.
Most backpackers flock to San Juan del Sur to enjoy the nighttime shenanigans and the all out debauchery that is Sunday Funday with a side of surfing to nurse their incurable hangovers, but there are so many great spots along the coast line for any taste.
Playa Marsella and Majagual near to San Juan are both beautiful stretches of beach with just a few buildings and few people to interrupt the peace. The central coast where the best surf spots can be found have reliable off-shore winds and consistent swell all year round. The growing number of hostels and surf camps on this stretch give competitive rates on board hire, around $10 – $15. Further north the waves may be a little sloppy but the rustic fishing village charm alongside charcoal strips of sand is worth the journey.
An island that is definitely one of a kind, Ometepe should be on every itinerary to Nicaragua. Crossing the lake to the twin volcanoes, the rickety boat creaking loudly with the ebb and flow of the waves, the adolescent-looking driver steering absentmindedly with his legs and the sunset lighting up the clouds above the island in shades of pink, purple and orange, is a moment we will never forget.
The fertile volcanic soils make farming a huge part of island life with coffee plantations and banana trees creeping up the slopes and some truly delicious honey. You’ll also find piglets and chickens running along the roadsides, take a dip in the cleansing water of Ojos de Agua or get your blood boiling on a hike up Maderas or Concepción volcanoes or to San Ramon waterfall. But come sunset, the only place you’ll want to be is at the pier in Moyogalpa watching the world turn golden.
These tiny islands, dotted across the far reaches of Lake Nicaragua are from another time. They give the term ‘taking it slow’ a whole new meaning.
Fragrant hibiscus bloom alongside the small village paths and plump avocados ripen overhead, butterflies and hummingbirds flitter between the bushes and kids skip in pairs to the lone village shop.
There are hiking trails to explore and wetlands to navigate but, as it so often seems in such a tranquil hideaway, we found the best thing to do was nothing at all. Do like the locals and find a hammock from which to watch the world pass you by.
We went to the jungle expecting to see exotic wildlife amongst primary jungle in one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, but what really touched us were the stories of the families that live in these remote corners of the jungle. They are cut off from any form of technology and they can only be reached by hours of paddling a canoe between fallen trees in the upper reaches of the river.
Children here grow up in a world so foreign from our own. Coming from a world where toddlers are already hooked on smart phones and twelve year olds strut the streets with ‘Bitch, Please’ emblazoned across their chests, seeing these kids fishing in the river and climbing trees to collect fruit was something that left us pondering life in western society a whole lot more than we had anticipated.
Go for the jungle experience but don’t miss out on the chance to live with the indigenous families in the depths of the jungle.
Granada and León are some of the best examples of colonial cities in Central America. Leon, with its faded pastel streetscapes and edgy student community is a little rough around the edges and has a distinct lived-in feel. Granada on the other hand is a little more polished, a little more colourful and in a slightly more picturesque setting, but has a little more ‘made-over-for-the-tourists’ vibe about it.
Both are beautiful and we loved exploring them on foot, soaking up life on the streets and plazas of Nicaragua.
Brimming with coffee plantations, primary cloud forests and a cooler climate than, well, anywhere else in the country, the northern highlands are the perfect place to don your boots and hit the trails.
Between Matagalpa and Jinotega there some seriously lush landscapes that you just don’t expect to see in such a drought stricken country. These hiking regions are little explored and definitely worth the effort to get there.
For those of you that have been to Nicaragua you may by this point be rapping your fingers on the keyboard and raising your eyebrows in skepticism thinking, ‘How can the Caribbean be at the bottom of this list?’ Yes we know… Little Corn is amazing. We know.
Unfortunately, in our 3 months here we just didn’t make it to that part of the country. We meant to, we really did, but the weather forecast just seemed perennially bad, plagued by strong winds and storms, there was the widely publicised boat accident and, well, we just had so many other awesome places to see.
Having visited Little Corn several years ago, those palm lined shores and men wheelbarrowing goods along the sandy paths is still etched into my brain, but this time it just didn’t happen. If the weather is good… don’t neglect to put this on your list.