Outdoor markets, warmly lit downtowns, cozy restaurants, cheerful locals... there is something special about American…
With Nicaragua I felt something I have never experienced in any destination I traveled to before or since — and that was a sense of being home. I’ve always heard that from expats who moved away from their own country to settle in a foreign land and have to say I never understood what they were talking about. Until I got to Nicaragua. I spent most of my time in Granada where we focused our four day shoot for Passport to Latin America.
Granada is a lovely city and feels more like a small town and after having just left the Brazilian behemoths of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. Being in Granada was like being a part of a Latin version of a Norman Rockwell painting. Instantly I felt comfortable. Walking around I just had this sense of being made to feel a part of things. People would pass me on the street, smile and say “hola” as if they had known me my entire life.
Founded by the Spanish in the 1500’s, its main square is everything you’d want for a center of a colonial town. Lined with beautifully preserved buildings painted in bright saffron yellows and salmon reds with the highlight being the Baroque Cathedral. The square is filled morning, noon and night with families, musicians and vendors selling their homemade crafts. Nicaragua doesn’t have the regal beauty of European cities, the exalted architecture and limitless museums and palaces and that’s exactly what I loved about it. For me Nicaragua was a turning point on how I would go on to approach travel and taught me how to sincerely enjoy a place. If Europe with all it’s museums and palaces kept me firmly in the past I found Nicaragua taught me how important it was to be in the moment and enjoy the present.
Here are my top picks for living in the moment in Nicaragua
Volcano surfing, yes you heard me Volcano surfing. For the adrenaline junkies or those who just like to trump their friends and colleagues with better stories you can strap on a specially made plywood board, put on protective gear and fly up to 50 mph down Cerro Negro a, get this, still active volcano. Cerro Negro is located outside of the city of Leon. You can rent sledding boards at Bigfoot Nicaragua or take a stand-up boarding tour at Vapues or Tierra Tour.
Mombacho is a gentle giant of volcano that seems to keep watch over Nicaragua. It rises over four thousan feet and is protected as a nature preserve. Aside from just a really fun word to say, Mombacho is a great destination for hiking. The well maintained trails focus around the volcano’s four craters and guides are available should you need one.
The Easy Breezy: Try the Sendero el Crater trail that follows the rim of the volcano and is heavily forested although there are beautiful lookout spots. This takes about an hour.
The Show off: Sendero La Puma trail is considered much more challenging and takes a minimum of three hours but the views and beautiful terrain make the effort worth it.
A Canopy Tour on the side of a volcano offers a perfect setting with 17 platforms from 10 to 100 feet above ground. Travel from platform to platform involves ziplines as well as a hanging bridge and Tarzan swing! The big finale is rappelling 70 feet down a 250 year old Ceiba tree.
Mombotours offers a number of well put together and guided half-day trips where you can take advantage of a canopy tour, horseback ride, bird-watching hike, and coffee-farm tour as well as kayaking.
A Home-Cooked Meal
Nacatamales are steamed corncakes sort of like a Tamale from Mexico but can be filled with meat and vegetables and then steamed in banana leaves. Traditionally they are eaten on special occasions and washed down with a cup of coffee. You can get these in restaurants but there not as good as the ones made and sold right out of peoples homes. Just ask someone at your hotel which home makes good Nacatamales and take a cab there. Make sure to buy one for your cabbie.
Humidor Hunting for High-End Cigars
Because of a similar climate and rich dark soil, people often compare Nicaragua’s cigars to Cuba’s (and we all know what happens when you try to bring Cuban cigars back into the States). Nicaragua is known for their great tasting “puros” these are high end cigars using only tobacco from that country. The wrapper, binder and filler all come from Nicaragua and no other country.
Riding the Chicken Bus
It’s a simple adventure that makes you apart of everyday life that pays off big. This is local transportation in former school buses from the United States. It gets its name because yes, you can bring chickens on board as well as other small livestock bought or to be sold at the market. And I must say the chickens were more well behaved than a lot of my airplane seat mates. Try to get a window seat as the view of life going by is a wonderful treat and where ever the bus stops children and other vendor’s will sell you food through the window. Best Drive-thru!
A Jewel on the Pacific
A lot of travelers end their trip to Nicaragua in the beautiful town of San Juan del Sur a once quaint fishing village now a Pacific retreat for blond curly head surfers, hikers and obsessively texting business people looking for true rest and relaxation. There’s sailing, kayaking, scuba and well poured drinks as well as horseback riding on the beach. This area of Nicaragua is also one of the few destinations in the world that offer an opportunity to see what is a beautiful and humbling natural spectacle: Each year around 30,000 Olive Ridley turtles return home and come up on the beach to hatch their eggs.
La Flor Wildlife Refuge
About 45 minutes from San Juan del Sur. Managed by Fundacion Cocibolca, an NGO that is instrumental in bringing together the community and travelers alike in the protection of the turtles. The nesting season begins in July through January, but the season peaks during October and November.
Your Own Private Tree House Overlooking a Secluded Beach
Aqua Wellness resort takes this eco concept to a luxury level. With stunning tree top villas that literally put you in the center of the action of a tropical rainforest (nothing like a resident Sloth to teach you how to kick back) each has an outdoor patio and plunge pool. With lava rock paths that lead down to a private white sand crescent shaped beach.
What are some of the wilder things you’ve tried on vacation that you never thought you’d do? Add your adventures to the comments below…