I would lie if I said I was looking forward to visiting Nicaragua, before I traveled through it during my trip to Central America.
I was way more concentrated on countries such as Guatemala and even Panama, for which I had prepared a lot by reading guide books, blogs and what not. I just could not be bothered to find out any facts about Nicaragua. All I meant to do there was chill out in a place that was cheap enough for me to save some bucks before I moved to the more expensive, attractive and known Costa Rica and then finally cross to my dream destination, Panama.
Interestingly, Nicaragua turned to be the highlight of my trip to Central America, as opposed to Panama which to me was an almost complete disappointment. It did not take me long to realize that Nicaragua is special and that there are many more things to do in Nicaragua than one would expect.
This country I knew so little about completely charmed me, so much so that I keep going back to explore more of it.
Yes, Nicaragua is the most underrated country in Central America and here are some facts to prove it:
1. Nicaragua has some gorgeous colonial cities
Not many people know it, but Nicaragua has some of the most beautiful and better preserved colonial cities in Central America.
I arrived in León after an 18 hours bus ride from Copan Ruinas, Honduras. It was quite late at night, but the city was still buzzing with life. Students crowded the bars, older people sat outside their homes to breathe in the cool evening breeze, fritangas grilled meat at every corner. I had a full meal, consisting of grilled chicken, a side cabbage salad, gallo pinto (rice and beans), a corn tortilla and drinks for less than $3,00 USD.
Not a bad start.
The day after, I set for a walk around the city. I was melting in the heat (the temperature that day was 36° Celsius, and it was December, one of the coolest months of the year!), but the more I walked around the city, the more I realized that the 3 days I had planned to spend there would turn into 3 weeks. I was immediately captured by the many murals representing the heroes of the revolution. In fact, León is the most politically intense city in the country. This is where Nicaragua’s first university was founded in 1902, where the revolution saw its fiercest battles, where the local culture is kept alive.
I was intrigued by the many churches of León. The cathedral, where Nicaragua’s most famous poet, Ruben Darío, is buried, is the largest cathedral in Central America and it was actually meant to be built in Lima – but the plan for its construction ended up in Nicaragua and so it was built there. I spent a good amount of time looking for the hidden eyes in the church: according to legend, there are up to 7 eyes painted in triangles that are hidden among the rest of the artwork in the cathedral. I only found 3 – the legend does also say that only the very holy manage to find all of them. Too bad I am an atheist. Next to the cathedral, there is a little door from which it is possible to access the blindingly white roof. I took my shoes off, wore my sunglasses and took in the beautiful view of the surroundings.
I am not a huge fan of museums, but I found León to have some of the best art collections in Central America: Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián is a museum of contemporary art, located on two gorgeous colonial buildings that have inside patios, fountains and gardens through which it is pleasant to walk. Not to mention, the collection has pieces of artists such as Picasso, Rubens, Chagall, Botero and Diego Rivera.
I even enjoyed the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones. This seemingly tacky collection of puppets actually provides some great insights on some of the traditions of León and it is hosted in the 21st Garrison, a former prison – there even are murals which portray the tortures inflicted on prisoners. In fact, I think it is a great place to learn more about the local culture and history.
However, to me the best museum in town is the Museo de la Revolución.
This is located in the former headquarters of the telecommunications company, which were taken over by the revolutionary forces during the civil war. It is run by veterans of the revolution who now guide visitors through the collection of documents and pictures, and all give a personal touch into the history of the revolution, making the visit a very intense and emotional experience.
Overall, I fell in love with León. It is decadent yet gorgeous and it has proudly retained all its character.
Granada, on the other hand, is simply picture perfect – perhaps too perfect for someone who is far from perfect like me. Yet, each narrow cobbled alley, each colonial building, each corner is so elegant that I could not help but take pictures of it. It is little wonder it is the most touristic destination in the country:
It just is so beautiful!
Granada has fallen under the fire of William Walker and of pirates, which took turns in sacking the city and burning it to ground. But from the ashes, an even more beautiful, even more charming Granada sprouted.
The Convento y Museo San Francisco is the oldest church in Central America: it was first built in 1585, but it soon fell under the fire of the invaders only to be regularly re-built to its current splendor. Iglesia de la Merced faced a similar destiny, and while it has not been restored to its old splendor, the tower is perhaps the top attraction in the city for it is from there that it is possible to get the best view.
Granada is lively in a different kind of way: it is packed with tourists who as soon as the sun goes down crowd the many trendy bars and restaurants in La Calzada or head to one of the many clubs on the shores of the lake.
2. Nicaragua is packed with lakes and volcanoes
I did not know that Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanoes before going there. Yes – this is one of the most seismic countries on earth. There are as many as 19 volcanoes and pretty much anywhere I looked I could spot one. I could see them from the roof of the cathedral in León; I could see them on the bus from Managua to León; I could see one (Momotombo) from León Vieja and I could even see one from the boat that took me on a tour of Las Isletas on Lake Nicaragua – incidentally thought to have been formed through an eruption of volcano Mombacho. Even the island of Ometepe, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, has its own two volcanoes - Concepción and Maderas.
Sure enough, with all these volcanoes available, I could not avoid hiking one. So I headed to Masaya, just a short drive from Granada, to get to the top of the most active volcano in Nicaragua. I arrived to the Santiago crater, which smokes on a regular basis. I even hiked volcano Concepción, in Ometepe, and was glad to be on a guided tour, as the vegetation was so thick, the terrain so muddy, that I would have been easily lost without a guide.
Finally, I learned that Nicaragua is where a new sport was invented:
I had no idea what this was, but it sounded intriguing enough for me to want to try it. So, on a hot afternoon in León, a guide picked me up to drive all the way to the feet of Cerro Negro, where we embarked on a short hike where we had to carry our wooden sleds which, when the wind started blowing, acted very much like a sail. Once at the top, we toted an orange jumpsuit and goggles and started sliding down, gathering dust along the way but luckily without breaking our necks.
3. Nicaragua has incredible beaches
I am from Sardinia. I am spoiled when it comes to beaches and transparent waters. I have very high standards and nevertheless I did find some beautiful beaches in Nicaragua.
Poneloya, not far from León, is a long sandy beach lined with palm trees. Surfers crowd the nearby Las Peñitas, one of the best spot together with San Juan del Sur. I did not try to ride the waves, but I appreciated walking on the lovely soft sand and taking some beautiful sunset pictures.
Since surfing is not my thing (yet) I opted to visit the Corn Islands – Nicaragua’s Caribbean hideout. It took me a whole day of traveling to get there, as I had to take a flight from Managua to Bluefields, then another one to Great Corn Island and finally go on a bumpy ride on a panga to reach Little Corn Island. It was worth it. I found myself in a community of no more than 500 people, where there are no cars (well, the island is so tiny that there is no need!), where I could snorkel in the clear waters, eat incredible seafood and relax as much as I wanted.
4. Nicaragua has some fantastic nature and wildlife
One thing I had no idea of is that Nicaragua is covered in jungle. Before crossing into Costa Rica, I decided to explore it. So I set off to visit Río San Juan, Central America most fought over river (it’s been disputed between Costa Rica and Nicaragua) that runs for 200 km from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean sea. In order to explore Río San Juan I had to reach San Carlos, at the bottom the lake, from which I hopped on a boat to Sábalos, a small town at the junction of the Río San Juan and Río Sábalos.
The ride through the jungle, wetlands and green hills was smooth. I loved visiting El Castillo, a fortress built by the Spaniards in 1675 in an attempt to stop the pirates from reaching Granada. Further down the river, I visited the local indigenous communities as well as Greytown, a former British outpost and currently abandoned which has been swallowed by the jungle.
Needless to say (or perhaps it should be stressed, as most people have no idea about it), Nicaragua has some fantastic wildlife. It is populated with various species of monkeys, sloths, marine turtles, birds and caymans.
5. Nicaraguans are truly fantastic
I guess it is a bit of a cliché to say that the people of a particular country are really nice. But what if they really, seriously are?
I found Nicaraguans to be genuinely friendly.
They helped me out when I needed, offered me a ride when I was lost, never shied away but were always up for a chat. They did not even mind me bumping in their home on Christmas day, when they were busy celebrating and I was looking for some shelter from the rain. All it took for befriending them was saying “Feliz Navidad” in the most convincing possible way, and I was immediately offered a chair and invited to join in the fun. This does not exactly happen everywhere, does it?
All in all, Nicaragua has not been built for tourists, it hasn’t been polished up to attract visitors, but it is beautiful in a very honest way. It is rough around the edges, but it is full of character and perhaps the fact that it is so real, so honest, make it less attractive to tourist.
But the word is starting to spread:
Nicaragua is the most amazing country in Central America
Travel tip shared by Claudia Tavani