Seven Reasons to go to Nicaragua
Easy-going and spectacular, Nicaragua is also ecologically rich. It boasts the; largest area of primary-growth rainforest north of the Amazon, six active volcanoes and more than 500 miles of carefree coastline, peppered with sunny surf tows and tranquil beaches. Tourist interest has grown in recent years as the country has begun to normalise after years of political unrest and some terrible natural disasters; and today, the largest country in Central America is also one of the safest. That said, it is still post-revolution recovery mode, so government bureaucracy and occasional petty crime (especially in the capital city of Managua) mean you should exercise caution when travelling around. Nicaragua doesn't shout about its beauty, adventurous spirit or affordability, but that's part of its charm; you need to discover it for yourself. Here are some tips to get you started.
1) YOU GET A LOT OF BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
Whether you're after an opulent beachfront retreat or a straw hut in the hills, Nicaragua can cater for every budget. Though if you're the kind of holidaymaker who likes to blow a lot of cash in a short space of time, you may be hard pushed - because, overall, it's hella cheap. The local currency is the Cordoba, but you should take US dollars too. Free-flowing Tona beer costs around $1.5 a bottle while a plush and private double room will barely set you back a tenner per night travel like a local on the jam-packed, colourful chicken buses and you'll get change from $4 for a three-hour journey across the country. You'll also learn to love gallo pinto ( rice and red or black beans) along with other street-food delights.
2) THERE'S ACRES OF GREEN STUFF
Awe-inspiring nature that doesn't cost the earth to explore is what sets Nicaragua apart from its flashier neighbours. Its lakes, lagoons and rivers teem with wildlife. A boat ride down the Rio San Juan offers tropical birds, lush rainforests and colourful cattle ranches, while a voyage around freshwater Lake Nicaragua gives you the chance to spot sharks and drool over fancy waterfront accommodation. On the largest island in the lake, Ometepe, you can hike up twin volcanic peaks ( Concepcion and Maderas), cycle to the serene San Ramon waterfall and watch an orange sun melt into the horizon on a dramatic black-sand beach. Oh, and when you're done with all that, there's a cloud forest to the north of the country, known as Miraflores, to explore.
3) IT DOES URBAN COOL TOO
Colourful colonial cities like Granada and Leon add a little edge to Nicaragua and are perfect for backpackers wanting to explore alone as well as groups of travellers after the perfect blend of culture and fun. Leon offers vibrant markets and restored-yet-rustic churches, plus the chance to go turtle-spotting at nearby Poneloya. Majestic Granada has an eclectic art scene and is home to a host of interesting museums, including one dedicated to Chocolate.
4) THERE ARE UNEXPLORED ISLANDS
Crystalline waters shimmering under a golden sun, ice-white sands lined with palm trees and a lifetime's supply of coconut bread: welcome to the Corn Islands. A short plane ride from the capital, Managua, there are two islands to explore called (perhaps inevitably) Big Corn and Little Corn. Both offer a stripped-back, barefoot slice of paradise, largely free of the colossal tourism that plagues their Caribbean neighbours. Big Corn is full of colourful houses and lobster-fishing locals, and attracts fewer visitors than its car-free, hippyish little sister. Both provide superb R&R with seas begging to be snorkelled in and wonderful Caribbean hospitality. Take a boat to the near-deserted, breathtaking Pearl Cays and bathe in the unbeatable feeling that you've stumbled across an entirely secret world.
5) THE BEACH TOWNS ARE BUZZING
Loose and eclectic is the easiest way to describe Nicaragua's nightlife, which is best explored in one of the country's buzzy beach-bum towns. Tourists and locals sip Tona beer or the sweet Flor de Cana rum while a variety of lively and sensual music-with origins in Spain, Africa, Mexico and beyond - pours from the speakers. San Juan del Sur is the country's most popular party haunt and offers great surf, but you should also checkout the chilled town of Las Penitas.
6) YOU GET TO PRACTISE YOUR SPANISH
Nicaraguan Spanish is painstakingly polite and relatively clear to the untrained ear, making it a popular choice for those wanting to learn. I embarked on a month-long homestay with the professionally run Metropolis Spanish School right in the centre of Leon and found I improved quickly thanks to its one-to-one lessons with a skilled local teacher. For $200 a week I received four hours of tutoring a day and all meals and board with a friendly Nicaraguan family.
7) YOU CAN GO ADVENTURE CRAZY
Ever shot down the side of an active volcano at 30mph on your stomach? Well, you can in Leon, the only place in the world that offers volcano-boarding. For around $20, a guide (yes, people are trained in this sort of thing) will take you 2,400 feet up the black-shale side of Cerro Negro and will allow you to board all the way to the bottom. Adrenaline addicts can also swing like Tarzan through the forest canopy on a zipline adventure in Granada, or hike into the habitat of howler monkeys and pumas at the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve.