Central America’s largest country certainly delivers. Nicaragua is beautiful and diverse, offering everything from strolling around colourful colonial cities, browsing markets and visiting cafés, to adrenaline-fuelled adventures in awe-inspiring landscapes, with equally memorable downtime in wow-factor hotels on postcard-perfect beaches and in serene lakeside settings.
Our travel expert Lucy was blown away by her recent visit, and here she gives us her highlights and top tips, from seeing cathedrals from new heights and sandboarding down a volcano to relaxing in a hammock by the Caribbean Sea.
Walk on top of a cathedral
Leon’s vast white cathedral dominates its central square, and after admiring its impressive interior, including an ornate altar, I climbed the narrow stone steps to its roof, to walk amongst its curved domes and turrets. Around the edge, there are lovely vistas over Leon and the surrounding volcanoes. Back down on the ground, I got up early the next morning to visit the sprawling food markets behind the cathedral (iguana for lunch, anyone?!).
Also worth a visit is Granada’s distinctive mustard-yellow cathedral, set on a bustling square with market stalls, lined with boutique hotels. Stroll along the Calle la Calzada alongside, and stop here for dinner or drinks – in the evening, it is strewn with lights, with restaurants playing music and enticing people in, and it’s a pleasant spot to linger for an hour or two. I also explored the colourful streets around the cathedral on a horse and carriage ride, with a guide telling local stories along the way.
Wake up to a view
Waking up to a panoramic view over the Pacific coastline and listening to the sound of the waves from my canopied bed is one of my Nicaragua highlights, and makes Morgan’s Rock one of my favourite hotels. Just up the coast from the surfing hotspot of San Juan del Sur, Morgan’s Rock has carefully positioned its eco-villas on the cliffside to make the most of the views, and the sea views are everywhere, including from the pool and the restaurant, so you never miss out.
After a swim or a surf, or relaxing on the sand, lucky guests can venture from the beach up the lantern-lit pathways and across the bridge to their secluded hideaway, where there’s a swing bed and deckchairs on the terrace. You can enjoy the views from inside too, as there are no windows, just netting - and you are not overlooked, so you just have to pull the screen up before you go to sleep to enjoy the morning vistas – a rather lovely awakening.
Hike up and sandboard down a volcano…
Cerro Negro, so named for its distinctive black rock, is one of Nicaragua’s 19 active volcanoes, and is the baby of the family, being less than 200 years old. A hike to the top takes around 1.5 hours, and rewarded me with stunning views across the ‘line of volcanoes’ that stretches across the landscape, as well as smouldering earth and chalk-coloured craters, with lush greenery stretching for miles beyond.
Around the summit and the craters, where the black rock feels hot to the touch, I got kitted out and grabbed a sandboard for an exhilarating ride down the slopes. It is so much fun and a really thrilling, unique and memorable way to experience the volcano.
…and hike around a cloud forest at a volcano’s summit
A winding uphill journey by 4x4 will bring you to the summit of Mombacho volcano, which is 4,000 feet high, where you are literally in the clouds, in the heart of the cloud forest that covers its fertile slopes, where crops such as coffee and cacao are grown.
As well as enjoying a welcome drop in temperature from the city heat, it was also raining while I was there, which was refreshing and really brought the forest to life. Very occasionally the clouds part and offer panoramic vistas over nearby Granada, Lake Nicaragua and the mountains – not this time, but it’s still a scenic, quite gentle and beautiful hike through towering trees and around smoking fumaroles, as well as a natural rock tunnel with sheer rock either side.
Expert guides were on hand to tell us about the flora and fauna along the way, and thanks to one of our eagle-eyed guides, we were lucky enough to spot an elusive salamander relaxing on a leaf - a very rare sight, especially during the day. Pumas prowl and howler monkeys leap through the trees - although you may not see them, you are likely to hear them, living up to their name.
Relax in a hammock by a lake…
In between all that exploring, you need some downtime – and Nicaragua does downtime just as well as everything else. A short, tranquil boat ride across Lake Nicaragua from Granada took us to Jicaro Island Lodge, a stylish retreat which sits on its very own island (formed by Mombacho volcano) – and we had it all to ourselves,for the ultimate Robinson Crusoe experience.
As well as chilling in your hammock looking out over the tranquil waters and the trees, you can swim in the pool or the lake, go kayaking to explore the lake’s islands, and enjoy some delicious food – I especially loved my breakfast bowl of tropical fruit.
…and by the Caribbean Sea
A short flight in a small plane from Managua to Big Corn Island, and an adventurous speedboat ride between the islands of Big Corn and Little Corn (be prepared to get wet!) brings you to Yemaya, a tranquil beachfront hideaway where I whiled away a sunny morning in a hammock strung between palm trees, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The ideal way to embrace la hora Nica (Nicaraguan time).
This is an idyllic hideaway, but if you can drag yourself away, go snorkelling to see colourful fish darting around the reef offshore, and enjoy a tasty barbecue and evening entertainment of traditional Nicaraguan dancing and drumming.
Have a stopover in Panama City
Due to last-minute flight changes, I ended up having a few hours to kill in Panama City on the way back, which turned out to be an unexpected bonus and a real highlight of my trip. The UNESCO-listed Casco Viejo, the historic part of the city, is simply beautiful, with grand houses, characterful cafés, stylish boutiques and centuries-old churches on pretty squares making it perfect to explore.
After a wander and some souvenir shopping (don’t forget to get a Panama hat – the ultimate souvenir of the city!), retreat to a rooftop bar to cool down from the heat with a mojito, drink in the views over the rooftops and watch ships entering the Panama Canal in the distance.
Feeling inspired? Find out more about Nicaragua here, call us on 020 7337 9010 or make an enquiry.