With tourists flocking to its famous neighbour, previous political unrest has kept Nicaragua well off the tourist trail. Times have changed and now is the moment to discover this fascinating country, one of the few remaining destinations for the truly intrepid traveller. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Nicaragua offers a surprising diversity of experiences from majestic colonial cities with a vibrant cultural heritage, unrivalled natural beauty of volcanoes, rivers and lakes, and some of the most pristine coastlines and beaches in the world. The only thing missing are the hordes of tourists making this one of the few remaining authentic destinations yet to be discovered.
Founded in 1524, Leon is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. It is located in the west of the country, just two hours drive from the capital, Managua. Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua and is arguably it's intellectual and cultural capital. This unpretentious city with stunning colonial streetscapes, was once the site of political uprisings, but today's Leon has a vibrant, artistic feel. Highlights include Leon's colourful street art and murals, the faded beauty of centuries-old architecture, an awe-inspiring cathedral (the burial place of Nicaragua's famous literary son, Ruben Darío), art galleries, a prison-turned-museum, and several ancient churches. The city also boasts a cosmopolitan edge with a generous mix of restaurants and an active nightlife. Outside the city, Leon's region borders the Pacific Ocean, where you can hike or kayak in the Juan Venado Island Natural Reserve, a mangrove sanctuary with a myriad birds, crocodiles, and other wildlife. The Greater Leon area is also home to more than a half-dozen active volcanoes. Adventure travelers will enjoy exploring the region's nature reserves, volcanoes (one can be hiked up and then “sandboarded” down), volcanic lagoons, and charming small villages.
Mountains and coffee plantations surround Matagalpa, the gateway to Nicaragua's Northern Highlands. This laid back mountain town is the ideal base for exploring Nicaragua’s northern mountains, valleys, and cloud forests. From town, you can walk to the Cerro Apante nature reserve. Its scenic walking trails lead to a massive cave behind cascading waterfalls, and boasting stunning panoramic views. Try a guided night hike to glimpse nocturnal wildlife. In the surrounding region, visit nature reserves like the Cloud Forests of Cerro Arenal and Peñas Blancas and their many stunning hiking trails. This breathtaking region is home to crashing waterfalls; monkeys, armadillos, tapirs, and even big cats like jaguars and pumas, not to mention parakeets, flycatchers, tanagers, and even the elusive resplendent quetzal. Those seeking more adventure can try rock climbing on Cerro Cusmacayan. The region is also famous for its coffee production. Explore local coffee plantations and enjoy tasting some of the world's best coffee.
On the shores of Lake Nicaragua lies the picturesque colonial city of Granada. With its cobblestone streets, lovingly restored colonial-era churches and buildings. galleries, museums, and cafes, Granada is Nicaragua's most cosmopolitan city. If Leon is faded grandeur, then Nicaragua is a finely polished jewel. The vibrant restaurant scene is impressive for its variety of offerings, from gourmet international fare to authentic local delicacies. In the busy central plaza is Granada's stunning catedral with its commanding dome, where a climb up the bell tower offers panoramic views of the surrounding volcanoes and lake.
Granada is the perfect base for discovering Nicaragua’s natural beauty and culture. Peer into the Masaya Volcano’s smoky active crater, or gaze into its glowing lava lake on a night tour. Visit villages where artisans carve wood, create furniture, or make pottery. Hike the Mombacho Volcano for magnificent views or zipline above the canopy. Hop on a bike for a morning ride to the lakeside beaches of the Peninsula de Asese. And don’t miss kayaking or boating around ‘Las Isletas’ tiny, vegetation-rich lake islands to spot birds, monkeys, and other wildlife.
Revel in the majestic setting of two volcanoes, linked together by a thin strip of land, rising dramatically from the surface of the massive Lake Nicaragua. The one active volcano often emits clouds of smoke and steam while it's dormant sibling remains serenely by its side. Admire their other-worldly beauty from the Devil's Lookout where you can also marvel at the enormity of the largest freshwater lake in Central America. Explore the Charco Verde nature reserve to see families of howler monkeys and the impressive variety of bird life, such as cormorants and egrets, all thriving in this emerald water habitat. Finally, uncover the secrets of this mysterious island where over 2000 ancient petroglyphs and stone statues are found scattered around the island, remnants of a lost civilization over 3000 years old.
With stunning white-sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs, clear turquoise waters, awe-inspiring sunsets, and endless palms, both Little Corn and Big Corn Islands are the epitome of an island paradise. Once a pirate refuge just 70 km off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coastline, these two laid-back Caribbean islands make for the perfect unplugged getaway. Big Corn is more developed, with an airport, roads, restaurants, and colorful wooden houses. Just a short water-taxi ride away is tiny Little Corn, truly barefoot luxury, with no cars or roads.
More than 40 species of corals can be found along the nearby barrier reefs attracting an array exotic marine life. You can snorkel right off the beach in some spots, and scuba enthusiasts can enjoy reef, pinnacle, and cave diving. Apart from underwater excursions, the islands are also a great spot for kayaking, deep-sea fishing or just the perfect relaxing end to your exploration of this fascinating country.
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