Once off-limits due to its extreme politics, military control of society, and high crime rates, Nicaragua now enjoys a substantial tourism industry and stands as a much more welcoming state. While it certainly still has its share of problems, it was third on a recent New York Times list of the 46 places to visit in 2013, and with good reason. Nicaraguans enjoy an excellent quality of life, and trips to their homeland are always worthwhile.
Of course, that’s excluding Managua, the capital. Managua is a pretty awful place—there really is no center of the city, no downtown, no cultural hub. It is just a sprawling mess, poorly served by police and sanitation and other government offices, and not much to look at. Visitors arriving in Managua are encouraged to escape as soon as possible. However, this poor introduction to Nicaragua shouldn’t dissuade you. The rest of the country is great.
Many people take in Granada when they visit, and are very pleased with the decision. This pleasant town 50 kilometers from Managua has great colonial architecture, a vibrant restaurant and live music scene, and plenty of art galleries spread around. There are colorful and artistic old mansions, great bars, and plenty of shady spots to cool off on cobbled backstreets. Granada stands on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, and there are excellent opportunities for renting kayaks and canoes on the shore. Small groups with local guides paddle around the hundreds of tiny islands forming an archipelago in the lake, some only large enough for one modest house. One isle is home to hundreds of monkeys that live in mango trees and offer endlessly entertaining animal watching. When you finish with the lake, there is a magnificent cloud forest on the opposite side of the city. Scaling the slope of a dormant volcano, the Mombacho Forest is a great place for treks. Dense mist at times obscures the line of sight down the mountainside, but it occasionally parts and rewards persistence with fantastic views. You can even peer down into the crater of the volcano, now overgrown with jungle. There are also several companies offering canopy tours and zip-line courses, which are a generally safe but still very exhilarating diversion. This is great for children as well as adventurous adults—my mom was brave enough to do it with me on my last visit, and she loved it.
Another great place to visit is Ometepe, an island made up of two dormant volcanoes within Lake Nicaragua. Crowded but fun ferries take you to the island, and an uneven road circles its perimeter. Ometepe is known for coffee plantations, hiking trails of various intensity on the volcanoes, and a little bit of ancient history. Large rocks inscribed with petroglyphs stand overgrown with foliage and date back thousands of years. There are also smaller islands within swimmable distance from Ometepe’s shore. Be careful though—this is one of a few places in the world where freshwater sharks have evolved (though they have been hunted almost to extinction at this point).
If you are more adventurous or have more time, you may consider making the trip out to the Corn Islands, or taking a boat down the Rio San Juan. There are tons of options within this underdeveloped country, and at least for now you don’t have to share them with too many other travelers. Enjoy!