Nicaragua is gaining a reputation as Central America’s most intriguing new travel destination. And why not, as travelers discover a welcoming, safe and affordable country with spectacular lakes, a chain of 13 volcanoes, forests full of wildlife, sun-swept beaches fringing two seas, and vibrant towns rich in cultural heritage. All corners are easily accessible from Managua, about which many visitors say: beyond its importance as the country’s capital and business center, the best part of Managua is the nightlife. Further they recommend getting to the heart of Nicaraguan culture by a taking a seat at La Casa de los Mejia Godoy, the city’s most famous live music venue, located in front of the also recommended Crowne Plaza Hotel. But before night falls, the city sights to see include the fine pre-Columbian collection at the Museo Nacional and the New Cathedral, a mosque-like Catholic church with 63 beehive domes. Additionally, Managua has an exciting arts scene, with galleries exhibiting colorful primitivist paintings, while the Mercado Roberto Huembes has a large section devoted to crafts. Also plan to shop at the Mercado Artesanias in Masaya, close to the Masaya Volcano National Park, when en-route south to Granada.
One of the best preserved colonial cities in all of the Americas, pretty Granada is home to many of the oldest churches in Central America, a museum with pre-Columbian artifacts, and even a chocolate factory where you can make your own chocolate. Outside town, ride a zipline over a coffee farm on the slopes of Mombacho Volcano and enjoy a boat ride on gigantic Lake Nicaragua. Drive north from the capital to the university town of Leon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the largest cathedral in the Americas, as well as excellent museums. Nearby is Cerro Negro Volcano, where thrill seekers can try their hand at Nicaragua’s unique sport, ash boarding down the black slopes of the volcano. And plan some time in San Juan del Sur, a popular beach town that offers an array of lively waterfront cafes and bars where everyone gathers for fresh-caught shrimp and lobster, along with an icy Tona beer or a cocktail made with Nicaragua’s famous Flor de Cana rum. Here, arrange to take a surfing lesson, go rappelling down an ocean cliff, and go horseback riding on the beach where CBS filmed “Survivor.” The newest beach beauty here in the south is the boutique Mukul Resort & Spa, whose 37 elegant villas overlook the sea and its 18-hole golf course is set along the Emerald Coast.
BEST TIME TO GO: November to April: primetime December, just after the rainy season
FUN-FACT: The Panama Canal might have been in Nicaragua if the late 19th century commissions surveying to build a passage between two oceans, had had their way: their first choice was Nicaragua
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta to Managua
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport
MUST-TRY FOOD: Classic “Nica” dishes range from guiso de chilote (cheese soup with baby corn) to fajitas (marinated and grilled strips of meat served with tortillas and savory fillings). But high on the list should be randon, a slow-cooked seafood-and-coconut stew from the Caribbean coast
BEST BUYS: Masaya market is the place to go for fine hammocks, leatherwork and primitive paintings—the finest are from the Solentiname Islands
INFORMATION PLEASE: Nicaragua Tourism Board—visit-nicaragua.com