Top 10 Things To Do In Nicaragua

Monday, June 11, 2012

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Nicaragua is beginning to appear on the radar of travelers, with its natural beauty and old-fashioned charm that neither tourism nor internal strife has ruined. It’s a low-key, slow-moving Latin American culture, inexpensive to travel and live in, and is often referred to as “Costa Rica 30 years ago.”

Nicaragua is easy to travel within and home to rich festivals and exciting outdoor adventures. From “ash boarding” down the side of one of the youngest (and active!) volcanoes in the world, to scuba diving in the Little Corn Island — known for its remote, pristine beaches — along with the excitement of colonial towns such as Leon and Granada, in Nicaragua you can still travel under the radar and have great adventures.

1) Explore Colonial Leon

Leon is smaller, more liberal, and less traveled than Granada. Here you will find an easy-going, family-friendly atmosphere that is popular with backpackers and independent travelers. Spend the first day simply walking around the city square, exploring Recoleccion Cathedral (sign up for a tour to the rooftop), as well as the baroque theater, street markets and sidewalk cafes. Enjoy a mojito made with the local, and fantastic, Flor de Cana rum at Bigfoot Hostel or Via Via across the street, then stick around for some live music.

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2) Volcano Board Down Cerro Negro

If volcano boarding doesn’t sound like some seriously crazy fun, I don’t know what does. I went out on this adventure with my boyfriend, two other American guys visiting Leon and our guide Frankie with Va Pues Tours. Cerro Negro is a very young volcano (only 161 years old) and is very much one of the active ones. In its young life it has erupted 23 times — the last one occurring in 1999 — so this baby is overdue for a hot lava and steam explosion.

After an hour-long climb of moderate difficulty, you arrive at the top where you can board down the other side on a stand-up board (similar to a snowboard), or sit down like a sled, which is what I did. You don’t really go as fast as you might think, as the boards get bogged down in the volcanic gravel rather easily. But it’s great, dirty, adrenaline-pumping, unusual fun.

3) Explore Granada’s Architecture

As the oldest city in Central America at its original site, Granada is a fascinating and colorful city that is filled with interesting colonial-era treasures. Much of it has been built and rebuilt throughout the centuries, as various marauders and colonists have sacked the city. From 17th-century churches and museums to hidden courtyards and historic buildings converted to boutique hotels, Granada demands exploration.

Among the top highlights in the town center are the grand cathedral at the main square; the tower at Iglesia de La Merced, from which many iconic skyline photos of Granada have been snapped; Antiquo Convento San Francisco, now a museum with a remarkable pre-Colombian collection; and the colorful streets themselves, with an architectural surprise in every block. Just outside central Granada, don’t miss the Fortaleza de la Polvora, a rather small medieval fort, and the nearby cemetery, which is fascinating to wander and explore, providing nearly limitless photo-ops.

4) Eat a Fritanga or Nacatamal

Nica food is more than just gallo pinto, the constant dish of rice and beans that is popular in most Latin countries and seemingly on every plate. My favorite dish is the Nacatamal, a moist tamale filled with pork, chicken, veggies or other fillings and wrapped in a banana leaf to cook. And for a cheap but yummy meal, try a “fritanga” or local food served from a sidewalk vendor. Everything is on display and you choose the dishes you want. Gallo pinto along with fried and soft-sauteed plaintains are always there, as well as several meat or fish dishes. It usually comes all wrapped up in a banana leaf and stuffed into a plastic bag, and you can typically get a complete three- or four-dish meal for about $1.50.

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5) Shop at the Nica Markets

As in many Latin American countries, the markets are the center of everyday life here. In the main squares that are the heart of cities like Leon and Granada, food and handicraft stalls are active. In Granada spend a morning walking the Mercado Municipal, mostly a food market that is lively and colorful, with a few vendors selling crafts or jewelry.

In Masaya, about an hour away, there are two markets that are very worthwhile: a newer tourist market that sells generally high-quality artisan crafts; and the old, sprawling market where mostly locals go. While you can get lost in the winding, seemingly endless food, clothing and housewares sections, there is a large artisan area with handmade goods at very reasonable prices. If you go to this market, be sure to stress to any taxi driver that you want the Mercado Viejo with food, not the tourist market.

6) Hike a Volcano at Night

There are 25 volcanoes in Nicaragua, nine of which are active (or at least erupted in the last 2,000 years). Two are nearby Masaya and Granada. I highly recommend hiking Masaya, as you have incredible views of both it and Mombacho, as well as the Granada and the serene Laguna de Apoyo crater lake.

And the best way to see the active Masaya is by night (parking lot curbs are painted “Park Facing Exit”). If you arrive in the late afternoon (no later than 4 p.m.), you can sign up for a night tour led by park guides. This gives you time to browse the informative visitors center and hike (or catch a ride) to the top of the Masaya crater, with its sulfur and steam pouring out. This is where the night tour starts, about 5:30 p.m. You start with a hike up the crest of the volcano then, while donning hardhats, you make your way down into the lava tubes where hundreds of bats live.

7) Go Rustic on La Isla Ometepe

From Granada you can take a 90-minute bus ride and then a 90-minute ferry to visit the rustic, completely low-key La Isla Ometepe, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. This island is made up of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas, around which everything revolves.

Only about half of the islands (or less) have paved roads; once you get around to the far side of each volcano, the going is extremely bumpy, slow and difficult. Transportation is also a challenge. Be prepared to pay a lot in hired car fees and to get stuck in places without rides. Try to rely on the bus system (which is slow and unreliable – you can wait for hours), or do as we did and rent a motorcycle for around $35 per day. Ometepe will charm you with its hiking, kayaking along the bird-filled Rio Istan, coffee co-op plantations and howler monkeys right above your head at the Charco Verde reserve. Most accommodations are at fincas such as San Juan de la Isla — working farms — that range from very basic to quite comfortable.

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8) Get in the Water on Little Corn Island

You have to really want to get to this tiny island off the Caribbean coast, only 10 square kilometers of palm trees and sand, fringed by a fantastic coral reef. It can’t be considered easy to get to by any stretch of the imagination. Flying from Managua to Big Corn Island (yes, there is a Big Corn and Little Corn island), you board a boat to take you across to Little Corn; they generally leave after the morning and afternoon flights, and can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours depending on the boat.

Once on Little Corn, there isn’t much to do besides dig your toes in the sand, eat, drink, snorkel or dive — and that’s pretty much its draw. If you’re not already a scuba diver, this is a terrific place to learn. First-time divers like myself can do an “Intro to Diving” class, and be in the water the same day. Several dive shops are on the island, including on the main boardwalk. I did my course at Derek’s Little Dive Shack by the Sea, which is located on the more remote north side of Little Corn.

9) Surf or Chill in San Juan del Sur

This southernmost spot, not far from the Costa Rican border, is a hippie-dude haven. It’s a cool little spot, although admittedly surfers will get the most out of it by far. The area and surrounding beaches are known for their top surfing conditions, and plenty of people throwing back beers in town have clearly been in the sun and checked out of real life for perhaps a little too long. Some people find it a little overly developed and gringo-ed, but it is a very pleasant place for even non-surfers to chill for a couple of days. Nice beaches, sea-turtle nesting and some really good waterfront seafood restaurants complete the picture.

10) Party at a Festival

Nicas love a good party, and plenty of festivals keep the beat going. The biggest is Carnival in March, with its infectious drumbeats and costumed dancers in the streets. The biggest celebration of Carnival occurs in the capital of Managua. During the third week of January the San Sebastian festival occurs in Jinotepe, one of the most unique festivals anywhere. Combining religious themes with folklore and theatrics, this odd Catholic/Pagan celebration has continued without interruption since colonial times.

Easter and Christmas also present occasions for lengthy parties. Semana Santa, the week before Easter, is a beloved holiday that sees its liveliest celebrations at the beaches and Nica vacation spots. La Navidad, or the Christmas season, lasts from the third week of December until the second week of January and consists of many parades and parties.

By Shelley Seale

[Granada Cathedral via Shutterstock; Cerro Negro by Andrew White via/Flickr; Nicaraguan woven chairs at market by Katie Laird/Flickr; Little Corn Island via Shutterstock]


About the Author

shelleysealebioShelley Seale is an Austin-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business and nonprofit issues. She writes about her adventures around the world at her blog, Trading PlacesShe has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman and many others.

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