Eating, drinking and trekking her way through the diverse landscape, Ashley Harrell breaks down what to see and where to stay in this Central American jewel.
While neighboring countries (e.g., Mexico and Costa Rica) tend to hog the spotlight, Nicaragua tempts plenty of discerning travelers with its volcanoes, rain forests, crystalline lakes and miles of unspoiled coastline. Other draws include the Spanish Colonial architecture of historic Grenada, San Juan del Sur's thriving surf scene, some of the finest rum you'll ever taste and category-defining luxury eco-lodges of the highest order.
Best for thrill seekers: León
Where in the world can you coast down a volcano in a sled or a snowboard? Only at Cerro Negro, located an hour outside the former Nicaraguan capital of León. Clocking in at 2,388 feet high, this cinder stone volcano is long overdue for an eruption (the last time it blew was in 1999), so hiking up is almost as much of an adrenaline rush as flying down (at 50 kilometers an hour). Serious daredevils will also love the off-roading motorcycle tours offered at Bike Nicaragua while intrepid hikers will dig Quetzaltrekkers León, a nonprofit that leads moderately challenging hikes and tours of a few other nearby volcanoes. After tempting fate to such nail-biting extremes, you can recover in the lap of luxury (a.k.a. Hotel La Perla, an upscale, restored mansion, plus a steady supply of mojitos).
Best for romance: Emerald Coast
Nicaragua is getting sexier by the minute, and this idyllic 30-mile stretch of shoreline is largely responsible. The area is famous for its romantic cruises, as many of the secluded jungle beaches can only be reached by boat. The suites—and scene—at Mukul Resort are a favorite among honeymooners and couples hoping hole up in très refined, tropical-chic accommodations... amid some of the most gorgeous cliff-and-ocean scenery on the planet. These oceanfront casitas and villas are designed with features that tend to fan the flame of romance: private plunge pools, palapas and wraparound decks, floor-to-celing windows, outdoor showers and indoor soaking tubs big enough for two. A state of the art spa and a restaurant that serves up Mesoamerican dishes (with plenty of Flor de Caña rum) round out your stay at this haute hideaway; should you get a case of cabin fever, rainforest hiking, biking and other activities are easily accessible.
Best for a party crowd: San Juan del Sur
In their cut-off jeans, sun-bleached hair and ubiquitous tattoos, worldly backpackers come to this Pacific beach town for the killer surfing—and always stay for Sunday Funday. Despite its cheesy name, this debauched midday “pool crawl” is Central America’s craziest weekly throw-down (buy tickets in advance). The bacchanal begins at Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa and takes truckloads of rum-soaked revelers into the hills to frolic in the pools at two hostels--Naked Tiger and Pachamama (nicer than they sound). Not quite your scene? Catch the more low-key happy hours at Bambu Beach Club or Henry's Iguana Beach Bar, which features prime sunset views, cold Toñas and The Jungle Room, where travelers dance to salsa, hip hop and reggae late into the night.
Best for foodies: Corn Islands
A rum-tasting at the Flor de Caña factory is a must on the mainland, but make sure you leave some time to grab a puddle-jumper out to the Corn Islands. Why? To enjoy the most incredible seafood you’ve ever had in your life. In August, there’s a giant festival dedicated to crab soup on both islands. Anytime of year, head to Rosa’s Restaurant on Little Corn or Seva’s on Big Corn for rondón soup, a seafood stew prepared in coconut milk – but you need to order it 24 hours in advance. (The soup takes all day to make and is served with giant, succulent chunks of lobster.) For delicious fish tacos, hit the Tranquilo Café on Little Corn. For gourmet meals served family style, try Casa Iguana, which has its own organic vegetable garden.
Best for athletic adventure lovers: Ometepe
This majestic island formed by two conjoined volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua offers a solid mix of outdoor adventures for the fit and fearless. You can rent a scooter and zip around the island, horseback ride to the towering San Ramón Waterfall, kayak the Istián River, or hike the 4,500-foot Maderas Volcano. There’s great swimming on the beaches near the Ecological Reserve Charco Verde, a lagoon whose name means green puddle. (Warning: howler monkeys regularly swing through here—not as cute as they look.) After all this action, wind down at the posh Totoco Eco-Lodge or the swank Soma Surf Resort just across the lake in Rivas,
Best for escape artists: Laguna Apoyo
About a 20-minute drive from Granada, Laguna Apoyo is a serene, vivid blue volcanic lake (the water is blissfully warm, not frigid). It’s the kind of place where people go to relax, take a swim and maybe spend the day drinking beer. Around the lake, upscale accommodations like Apoyo Resort & Spa and San Simian Eco Lodge provide hillside cabinas, delicious restaurants, lake access and water toys (think kayaks and inner tubes). For a relaxing stroll, head to the cliffside village of Catarina, which is lined with adorable restaurants and shops and features a lookout point with an incredible view of the lake. Just a short drive from the lake, the romantic, boutique eco-resort Hacienda Puerta del Cielo and the swank Jicaro Island Ecolodge are a couple of tranquil high-end scores.
Best for history and culture buffs: Granada
Granada is one of the oldest cities in all of Central America. To do it right, stay at the Colonial Condo Hotel, which can arrange a variety of tours and activities that show you the best of city. Hop in a horse-drawn carriage and ride around town admiring the ubiquitous hand-painted tiles and Spanish colonial buildings, including the candy-colored Plaza De La Independencia. In Parque Central, visit the mustard-yellow Catedral de Granada presiding over the square. Refuel at El Zaguan if you love steak, El Tercer Ojo if you’re into Asian fusion and Euro Café for delicious coffee and health food.
Best for souvenir hounds: Masaya
If shopping is everything to you, you'll melt with pleasure when you hit Masaya, an enticing panoply of embroidery, woodwork crafts, ceramic animals, leather goods, traditional wall hangings and pretty much everything else imaginably Nicaraguan. Home to several vibrant markets, we like the Mercado de Artesanías, which is housed in a Spanish-style fortress and hosts a must-see folklore festival with dance performances, indigenous food and traditional music on Thursday nights. For the best hammocks, check out Tapices de Luis. One of the most famous guitar makers in the country also has his shop, Guitarras Zepeda, in Masaya.
Best for nature lovers: Jinotega
A perfect day trip from Granada, this coffee-producing region contains a number of cloud and rain forests, including the enormous Bosawás Biosphere Reserve (the second largest in the entire western hemisphere—only the Amazon is bigger). Declared a UNESCO world heritage site 1997, the flourishing reserve is a habitat for jaguars, pumas and ocelots that have been driven out of surrounding areas. Although tourism is new to the area and requires government permission and a guide, the spectacular waterfalls and dramatic cliff formations of the biosphere’s Peñas Blancas Massif have developed a following. El Jaguar, another reserve in southern Jinotega (which is only a couple of hours' drive from Granada), is well-regarded for bird-watching.