Nicaragua isn't on most people's travel bucket list, but that's quickly changing. Go now while it's still raw and not yet tarnished by tourism. We left Mexico on a bit of a whim and landed in Managua without knowing what to expect and with a fair bit of trepidation - would it be safe, what could we eat other than rice and beans, would we manage with very limited Spanish, would we find somewhere comfortable to stay?? The civil war ended 20 years ago yet our mental image was of a troubled country ravaged by guerrillas and the CIA.
How wrong were we! From the get-go people were helpful and what we found (once we left Managua which is potentially risky) was an exotic country of immense natural beauty with plenty of small hotels and a mix of cuisines. We were amazed by the variety of interesting places in the west of the country - choose between volcanoes, lakes, Ometepe Island, beaches, colonial towns and the coffee-growing highlands, all are easy to explore on guided treks or horse rides. Most places are only a few hours apart and well connected by shuttle busses which are more comfortable and faster than the colourful chicken busses.
The country more than lives up to its reputation as the land of lakes and volcanoes. A line of 20 volcanoes runs down the west coast as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. For many people the fascination with volcanoes is primal! We skipped the challenging volcano climbs on Ometepe Island but we still wanted to get in amongst them and decided on El Hoyo, a dormant volcano located outside Leon in the northern part of the country.
On the trek up we first overlooked Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano which is popular for volcano boarding and later the vista was towards Momotombo, Nicaragua's national symbol which translates as Great Boiling Summit, with Lake Managua and 'little' Momotombito in the background. Hoyo means hole, referring to a large sinkhole near the crater and it was amazing getting up close to both. The scenery was stunning and as we looked around from the top we were rewarded with a money-cannot-buy view of Momotombo erupting. Seven volcanoes in Nicaragua are still active with lots of seismic activity in the past 12 months so the chances of seeing eruptions or lava are high.
Over the years fresh water crater lakes have formed in several extinct volcanos and these are now popular swimming spots. We stayed a couple of nights by the largest of these, Laguna Appoyo, in a small hotel called The Monkey Hut. The lake which was formed 23.000 years ago is 4km across and 200 metres deep. Even better in a country which rarely offers hot showers, it's thermally heated to 28 degrees as the explosion which formed the crater also interrupted the underground water table.
During the day The Monkey Hut attracts families and travellers from Granada who come to swim and canoe in the lake. In contrast evenings are quiet and sitting outside our room overlooking the lake with a cold beer and wood fired pizza we didn't think life could get much better! The area surrounding the lake is protected and true to its name we had our best monkey moment when we saw a group of 10 swinging in the trees by the hotel entrance.
Managua, the capital doesn't offer much instead everybody flocks to Granada and Leon, two beautiful colonial towns. Travellers seem divided into two camps - those who love the smaller and thoroughly restored Granada and those who prefer the less manicured Leon with its more local charm. Ideally you should visit both and decide for yourself. We had a brief stop in Granada which is indeed very pretty and we spent nearly a week in Leon which offers plenty to see and do - climbing to the roof of the cathedral is a must.
In between climbing volcanoes and traipsing around cobblestoned streets we needed some R&R and with two coast lines there are plenty of beaches. On the Pacific coast it's easy to access the black sand surfing-friendly beaches. The most popular is San Juan del Sur, close to the border with Costa Rica which has developed from a small fishing village into a slightly bigger tourist town with surf shops and restaurants galore. The nicest beaches are outside of town and our favourite was the long stretch of 3 connected bays starting at Maderas Beach. If, like us, you love the beach or are a keen surfer you can skip San Juan town and stay by the beach.
On the Caribbean side the most popular destination is Little Corn Island, a tropical paradise with white beaches and stylish boutique resorts. By all accounts the culture, food and music is completely different from the rest of the country because of the Caribbean influences and next time we'll plan a visit. Instead we ended our month in Nicaragua at Las Penitas, another black sand beach just 45 minutes from Leon from where we would continue our journey towards Guatemala.
For nature lovers and anybody with a sense of adventure Nicaragua pretty much ticks all the boxes; lots of activities, friendly locals, natural beauty and tasty food. Depending on how you feel on a particular day there is a choice of plenty of volcanoes to climb or plenty of hammocks to swing in.