Traveller's Guide: Nicaragua

Central America's largest country is more than just a land of lakes and volcanoes – it is also rich in culture.

A strange land?

The "Land of Lakes and Volcanoes" certainly is unusual. The largest nation in Central America (uncannily, the same size as England), Nicaragua has been scarred by war, shattered by seismic activity and largely shunned by tourists. Yet those who are prepared to put up with some rough edges when travelling will find a nation that is scenically spectacular and culturally vibrant – with a fascinating history and seductive shorelines. You can idle in fine colonial cities, hike in virgin terrain and explore fascinating offshore islands such as the Miskito Cays archipelago off the wild Caribbean coast.

The country is second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). A political history of dictatorship, treachery and revolution has left its mark. Former Marxist guerrilla and "Sandinista" revolutionary Daniel Ortega, who helped to overthrow and exile dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, made a political comeback in 2006 to become president for a second time.

Most visitors arrive in Managua, which became capital almost by default to diffuse the violent rivalries of the (much more attractive) colonial cities of Leó*and Granada. Few stay around for long: a combination of nature, conflict and sheer bad luck has made it the least likeable capital in Central America (quite an achievement in a field that includes Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa). Managua is built on a maze of geological faults. It was hit by two severe earthquakes in the 20th century, and now resembles 100 suburbs in search of escape. (Incidentally, the city has an extraordinary system of addresses. Forget street names and numbers: you're more likely to be given directions relative to a landmark that may no longer exist.)

Managua does offer some cultural attractions, plus bustling nightlife. Hotel Casa Naranja (00 505 2277 3403; hotelcasanaranja.com), although not in the old centre of town, is a stylish boutique hotel. A double room costs US$100 (£66), including breakfast. The capital boasts cutting-edge art galleries, an old (and new) cathedral and good restaurants: Los Ranchos for a good churrasco (flame-grilled fillet steak) or El Muelle for seafood.

Where next?

Go north-west to León, the home and burial place of Nicaragua's national poet, Rubé*Darío. Its colonial architecture may be crumbling in part, but the fabulous array of historic churches plus a lively university makes it a culturally rich city, with a politically active undercurrent and a vibrant nightlife. The imposing Basilica de la Asunción, re-built four times, is the largest cathedral in Central America. It is here that you will find Rubé*Darío's tomb, along with impressive works of art. Try also the Museo de Arte Fundació*Ortiz-Guardián (open 10am–6pm Monday to Saturday, C$12/40p; Sunday 11am-7pm, admission free).

A recently refurbished former convent, El Convento (505 00 2311 7053; hotelelconvento.com.ni), now houses a top-end hotel and restaurant with a lovely garden in the centre and impressive artwork. A double room costs US$128 (£85), breakfast included. The Hotel La Perla (00 505 2311 3125; laperlaleon.com), is set in a colonial mansion; US$81 (£54) double, including breakfast.

Go to the Mercado Central for delicious fresh street food. For people watching, head to Café El Sesteo on the Parque Central (main square; 00 505 2311 5327). The vegetarian should go to CocinArte (00 505 2315 4099).

Nearby attractions include climbing up and sand-boarding down some of the volcanoes in the Maribios chain which is the epicentre of one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, or making the 20km journey to nearby Pacific beaches of Poneloya or Las Penitas.

A slice of life?

Aim for Masaya – officially, by presidential decree, the "folkloric capital of Nicaragua". The town's main draw is the Mercado Viejo, the old market. It's aimed squarely at tourists but the crafts are genuine and the prices aren't bad: this is the place to pick up a hammock for about US$60 (£40).

Outside Masaya you can make a journey to the centre of the earth: just five miles as the lava flows from the middle of town. You don't often find an active volcano with its own car park, but Nicaragua is one of the most seismically active places on earth.

Early Spanish conquistadors baptised the volcano as La Boca del Infierno or "The Mouth of Hell". It hasn't had a serious eruption for several centuries, yet it's still smoking – and in 2001 a minor burst of lava set fire to three tourist coaches. The park containing the volcano opens 9am-5pm daily, admission C$75 (£2.50) for foreigners (four times the rate for locals). To experience more, take an overnight trip to the adjoining National Park (which has two volcanoes and five craters). See the red-hot lava at the crater mouth and walk through bat caves. The tour costs as little as US$10 (£6.60) per person, in a group of six or more.

Indulge me

Head south the short distance to Granada, one of the oldest and most alluring cities in the Americas. It is overlooked by the Mombacho volcano, and has everything that Managua lacks: coherence, culture and tranquillity. The city gained prominence because of its location on the shores of Lake Nicaragua – navigable from the Caribbean Sea via Rio San Juan. Access to trade also gave a means of access for pirates including a plunderous visit from Henry Morgan in the 17th century.

The cathedral and Parque Central are the focuses of the city for tourists and locals. Families and friends meet under the shade of the trees, tradesmen ply their wares and tourists sip on cool drinks on the verandas of hotels.

The key attractions are the Convento de San Francisco and its museum (00 505 2552 5535), showing human-animal hybrid statues dating from 800-1200 AD. Admission is US$2 (£1.30).

Cimb the church tower of Iglesia de la Merced for panoramic views across the city – well worth the effort. From the top you will see that many of the brightly painted adobe buildings, along with their shady courtyards, have been renovated as cafés, restaurants and hotels.

Stay at the Hotel Gran Francia (00 505 2552 6002; lagranfrancia.com), just off the square, once the home of the American adventurer, William Walker. A double room costs US$115 (£76), including breakfast. On the square itself is the equally sumptuous Plaza Colón (00 505 2552 8489; hotelplazacolon.com). A double room costs US$119 (£79), including breakfast.

For a cheaper but no less charming option, the Casa San Francisco (00 505 552 8235; csf-hotel-granada.com) is a few minutes' walk from the centre, complete with attractive parrot-filled gardens and tasty food in the restaurant. A double room costs from US$75 (£50).

Eating out in Granada is a joy for the gourmet keen on local "Nica" dishes. The Garden Café is one of many offering midday shade and delicious fresh deli fare including homemade muffins and cakes. Kathy's Waffle house does a mean "gallo pinto" (the national dish of beans and rice). For the intrepid foodie, try the vigoron (pork scratchings with boiled yucca) from the vendors in Parque Central.

In the evenings, take a pre-dinner drink at Don Simón's (00 505 8884 1393) overlooking the square: rum-based drinks such as mojitos and caipirinhas abound but the official national drink (as sponsored by the local rum company Flor de Caña) is El Macua: think mojito but exchange the lime and mint for lemon and guava and go easy on the ice.

Dining options abound with the likes of El Zaguán (00 505 2552 2522) on the road behind the cathedral which does a mean churrasco and guapote (the local fish from the lake). El Tercer Ojo ("The Third Eye") (00 505 2552 6451) on Calle el Arsenal offers Asian cuisine, while Jardin d'Orion (00 505 2552 1220) on Parque Central has fantastic French food. Walk off your feast with a stroll down La Calzada to the shores of Lake Nicaragua where you can take a boat out to explore the 300 islands nearby formed by a volcanic eruption which were once uninhabited (save for a few monkeys or local fisherman) but some of which now have V Cbecome private idylls of the rich. For more strenuous activity you can book a tour to enjoy the hiking trails and canopy zip-lining at the top of Mombacho (00 505 552 4548; mombotour.com) or, less strenuous, visit Doña Elba cigar factory and have a go at rolling and smoking your own.

A change of pace?

Roll on to a ferry across Lake Nicaragua. You can sail across this sea of tranquillity to reach what was, by legend, the promised land for the indigenous people of Central America. This body of freshwater is so vast that it rivals some nearby countries for size. It's called "the eye of Central America". Reaching the large volcanic island of Ometepe is easy: at the scruffy port town of San Jorge, just find Ometepe Ferry number 1, and pay about US$5 (£3.30) for the one-hour ride to La Tierra de Mitos y Leyendas – "the land of myths and legends".

In the ancient language of the original Aztec inhabitants, Ome meant two and Tepe meant hills. The volcanoes of Concepció*and Maderas were joined two centuries ago by the lava flow. In the mornings, both peaks are often hidden beneath a blanket of cloud – but by afternoon the view should be clear.

In addition to trekking up the two volcanoes and swimming in Lake Nicaragua (perhaps from Playa Santo Domingo, where local horses come for their daily bathe and afternoon drink), the island has numerous activities: kayak up the small channels of the Rio Istian to spot a menagerie of birdlife; horse trek to the San Ramó*waterfall; stumble across petroglyphs; rejuvenate in the mineral-rich freshwater rock pool at Ojo de Agua; or cycle around the island on its rough roads.

At Totoco (00 505 8425 2027; totoco.com.ni) you can stay in a luxury bamboo lodge from US$80 (£53). The more intimate Finca del Sol (Cristiano & Sheri 00 505 8364 6394; hotelfincadelsol.blinkweb.com), is a working farm with three huts all of which have stunning views of Volcá*Concepció*and are walking distance from Santa Cruz and the beach. A double room costs US$37 (£24). Alternatively, Finca Magdalena (00 505 8498 1683; fincamagdalena.com), a workers' cooperative and one of the last remnants of the revolution – a land of milk, honey and organic coffee – where they welcome anyone willing to lend a hand, or spend some cash. The main hacienda was built in 1888, but during the Sandinista revolution it was handed over to the workers. If you fancy doing your bit for ethical tourism in Nicaragua, US$10 (£6) will get you a double room for the night.

Sun, sea and surf?

Make your way even further south to close to the border with Costa Rica. If the Pan-American Highway is the spine of Nicaragua, the country has plenty of ribs – and one of them leads down to Nicaragua's leading Pacific resort. San Juan del Sur has become so popular among both Nicaraguans and foreigners that the town now has an admission fee of three dollars per car.

Americans have been coming to San Juan del Sur for a couple of centuries – first because, believe it or not, this was the fastest route between New York and the US West Coast. In 1849, anyone in a hurry to reach California for the Gold Rush took a boat to the shore of Lake Nicaragua, crossed the narrow strip of land to the Pacific, barely 10 miles across, and boarded a ship right here, destination San Francisco.

In the 21st century tourists are converging on one of the finest beach resorts on the Pacific coast – and rushing to buy up land to build luxury homes and hotels. San Juan del Sur has even made it on to the cruise ship circuit.

The upmarket Pelican Eyes (00 505 2563 7000; piedrasyolas.com) has individual villas, a great restaurant and commanding views from halfway up the hillside. Prices start at about US$207 (£138) for a deluxe one bedroom "habitación" with kitchen, bathroom and garden. Breakfast in the restaurant is included.

The attractively converted private house La Posada Azul (00 505 2568 2524; laposadaazul.com) has a swimming pool in the garden for guests. A double room costs US$90 (£60), breakfast included.

Alternatively, there is the backpacker's favourite Casa Oro (00 505 2568 2415; casaeloro. com). Private double rooms start at US$17 (£11) per night, though only reservations exceeding US$36 (£24) in value can be taken in advance. The hostel is also a great source of local information.

If you wanting to stay outside San Juan del Sur, but within walking distance of its surf beach, Playa Maderas, book a tree hut at the upmarket Buena Vista Surf Club (00 505 8863 4180; buenavistasurfclub.com). This property has fantastic ocean views. Dutch couple Marc and Marielle provide charming company and delicious food (and even sunrise yoga for the early riser). A double room costs US$120 (£78), half board.

If further proof were needed that there's more to this country than hostels and hammocks, a short way out of San Juan del Sur you'll find the most exclusive hotel on Nicaragua's Pacific coast. This is Morgan's Rock (00 505 8670 7676; morgansrock. com) – a British-designed, French-owned honeymoon hideaway – where a double room costs $219 (£146) per person, per night all-inclusive.

There is little surf on the Caribbean/Atlantic coasts but the diving, snorkelling and sea fishing on the Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) should definitely be explored if you have the time. The peacefulness of the turquoise waters and white sandy beaches teamed with a relaxed Caribbean lifestyle will have you chilled out in no time.

Any wildlife?

You are more likely to see monkeys than any other wild mammal in Nicaragua, particularly the howler monkey. Sloths are likely to be easier to spot than the elusive jaguar. If you go at the right time you might be able to see turtle eggs hatching on the beach. However, in the main Nicaragua really is twitcher heaven. The most common bird is the Blue Jay (akin to our magpie but much more magnificent), but there are also a lot of vultures, ospreys, herons, storks, kingfishers and the exquisite hummingbird.

Additional research by Simon Calder and Richard Partington

Give something back: Volunteering

Volunteering has a long and proud history in Nicaragua, thanks to the "Sandalistas" – young Westerners who gave support to the Sandinista regime in the Eighties by, for example, picking coffee. In the 21st century, if you want to offer more than support to the tourist industry you will not be short of options. There are schools for the disabled such as La Escuela Especial de Artesanias Populares (eeapnicaragua.org) which assists deaf children or those with Down's Syndrome, helping to build a sense of self-esteem and belonging.

If you have more than a month to spare and your Spanish is up to it, you could try Building New Hope (buildingnewhope.org) – a Pittsburgh-based organisation attempting to reduce poverty through education and community development.

All the volunteers you speak to will stress that the best thing tourists could do is not give to begging children. This just encourages "Faganism": parents are known to rent out children and even beat them if they refuse to beg. The loss of return is immense since children can earn in an hour what their parents earn in a full day. This type of behaviour is certainly what charities such as caritafeliz.org and mifamilia.gob.ni are trying to counter with their free meals and lessons.

Travel survival: kit Nicaragua

When to go

* The rainy season from June to October is the time to go if you want to avoid the crowds – and peak-season rates. Expect a daily deluge of hard rain for an hour or two, combined with a high level of humidity; the upside is that the vegetation is lush but the significant downside is that many of the poor quality unpaved roads are rendered impassable. For easy travel, the best time to travel is from November to mid-March, before the intense heat that precedes the rainy season (end of March to May).

Getting there

* Reckon on paying £700 return on the most direct route via Miami on American Airlines (sometimes using British Airways on the Heathrow-Miami hop); lower fares may be available via Houston on Continental Airlines. It is tricky (and expensive) to avoid the difficult and stressful business of clearing immigration in the US; Mexicana from Gatwick via Mexico City is one option. Taxis from the national airport to what passes for Managua city centre cost about $20 (£13.30).

Getting around

* When yellow Bluebird buses reach the end of their natural life ferrying US children to and from school, they go south to Nicaragua to become the mainstays of the public transport system. Fares are very low, loads are very high (Q: "How many people can you get on a Nicaraguan bus?" A: "Two more"). Car hire is available but due to the road network, the standard of driving and security, this option doesn't make for a very relaxing holiday; also the police are likely to stop you and demand a payment for one "infringement" or another.

Domestic flights are centred on Managua, and are operated by La Costeña; they are most useful for links to the Caribbean coast.

Language

* Spanish is the official language. (American) English is spoken in tourist areas. On the Caribbean coast the English spoken might have a slight Creole flavour and the Spanish itself could take the form of Miskito – which is likely to be the only indigenous language tourists will hear.

Currency

* The official currency is cordobas (written C$), although US dollars are accepted throughout the country at varying exchange rates from 19 to 23 cordobas per $1.

Red tape

* On arrival, you need at least six months left on your British passport; a return plane ticket; and a credit card.

Health

* Malaria and dengue fever are present throughout the country, as is Chagas disease which is spread by nocturnally feeding bugs that live in cracks in sub-standard housing in rural housing.

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