With civil war in the past, this friendly Central American country welcomes visitors to enjoy its natural beauty and historic sights.
The country of Nicaragua has become known in recent times both for its volcanoes and its violence. The volcanoes are among its most popular tourist attractions. But the country’s violence and civil wars have at times eclipsed its natural attractions. For some older visitors, camouflage-clad guerillas and gunfire, Contras and the Sandinistas, remain the stereotype of Nicaragua, which is a shame because that’s all in the past. The whole issue of political unrest was settled more than 20 years ago. Nicaragua has been a democracy since and the country, in repeated studies, emerges as Central America’s safest.
In an ironic outcome, the war was eventually a positive development for the local tourism industry. While civil war was raging in Nicaragua, neighbors like Costa Rica were becoming popular tourist destinations. The far less visited Nicaragua preserved its native charm and avoided the type of sweeping commercial development found in nearby countries that prompt some visitors to complain that certain areas are too busy or too “touristy.”
Families find Nicaragua surprisingly inexpensive (more on that later) and most of its attractions un-crowded. Tell the children you are taking them to a place where they can see live volcanoes and sites where human sacrifices (not to mention some bizarre animals) used to be common, and you should get their immediate attention.
A special lure is for any families who want to learn Spanish. Many travelers spend at least part of their time studying the language here because there are a variety of Nicaraguan Spanish schools where you can get up to six hours of personal instruction, plus room and board in a Nicaraguan family’s home, for US $200 a week or less. Many schools also offer field trips to local sites in the afternoons and on weekends. In addition to the language training, a homestay provides an ideal way to interact with local residents.
An Emerging Eco-Destination
Nicaragua is named after the Nicaraos, the largest group of its indigenous peoples who first settled here 10,000 years ago from Mexico. Visitors find it has historical and agriculture highlights, as well as cultural, adventure and athletic activities. But eco-tourism is perhaps the top draw for tourists of all ages, who have become the country’s number one source of revenue in the past decade.
Nicaragua has robust physical assets, such as huge unspoiled rainforests, and is home to 7% of the planet’s biodiversity. The area’s appeal to eco-tourism operators is obvious: it has more than 8,000 types of plants, hundreds of species of fish and mollusks, over 50 types of coral, more than 200 species of mammals, nearly 350 species of reptiles and amphibians and some 300 species of birds.
The Nicaraguan government has apparently recognized the importance of preserving their natural treasures and has created 76 protected areas, including 23 private nature preserves that cover nearly 22% of the country. With two oceans, gigantic lakes, multiple rivers, and wide and unpolluted lagoons, it’s no surprise that sport fishing draws anglers from all over the world. Crowds of fishermen clustered together are not a problem in Nicaragua, however. Two popular fishing outfitters include Surfari Charters (505/880-4318) and Pelican Eyes Sailing Adventures (505/568-2110).
Touring Managua’s Cultural & Natural Sights
The two most popular cities in Nicaragua are probably Managua and Granada. Most tourists start in Managua where the National Museum (open to the public) has a variety of paintings and Pre-Columbian statuettes. The nearby Ruben Dario National Theatre is another impressive building that was one of the few to survive the disastrous 1972 earthquake.
Managua has no less than four lagoons within its city limits that are popular with visitors. One of these, the Laguna Tiscape, was formed 10,000 years ago. Today, restaurants and shops line the streets of the lagoon. A small historical park located in the area has a variety of eclectic objects such as a tank given by Benito Mussolini to Anastasio Somoza. The park also offers superb views of the city.
One of Managua’s most intriguing sights are the footprints of Acahualinca (505/266-5774), which are fossilized footprints of a dozen or so people and animals recording their flight from a volcanic eruption nearly 6,000 years ago. There’s also an on-site museum exhibiting human skulls.
A 30-minute drive from Managua is Montibelli (505/270-4287), a 450-acre private reserve known for its tropical dry forest land and many different types of animals and plants. You will also see a vast number of birds that include everything from woodpeckers to parrots and motmots (the national bird). The reserve is like a huge outdoor zoo with opossums, bats, deer and howler monkeys. During the rainy season, the damp air is thick with butterflies. Several paths take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours to complete. Serious hikers can take more than one path and easily spend the entire day there. Guides are provided by the reserve and visitors must walk with a guide.
Also about a half-hour’s drive from the city is the Masaya Volcano National Park (505/522-5415). This is the most active volcano in the region and has erupted at least 19 times. Visitors actually explore two volcanoes, Masaya and Nindiri, and five craters where indigenous people used to throw human sacrifices into the mouth of the volcano to keep the “devil” from opening his mouth. Visitors can drive here or take a taxi or even hike uphill, though it takes a while and the road is steep. Visitors peek over the edge at the volcano, which continuously emits smoke and sulfurous gases. Even better, perhaps, is to take a night tour offered daily by the national park staff. Also away from the city of Managua, canopy tours (a good vendor can be found at www.mombotour.com) are a popular way to see abundant flora and fauna in the rainforest as you traverse between platforms up to 100-feet high.
Managua’s Hotels, Restaurants & Shops
The Real Intercontinental Metrocentro (505/278-4545) lives up to its fancy name by being perhaps the poshest hotel in town. The hotel has great views, various buffet restaurants and 24-hour Internet service. If you’re in search of a good pool, try the upscale Hotel Princess (505/270-5045) which also has an excellent lunch buffet.
In the mid-range, El Camino Real (505/263-13181) is next to the airport but perhaps even more convenient — the Las-Vegas style Pharaoh’s casino is next door. For the budget-minded and hammock-lovers, there’s the Casa Vanegas (505/222-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org), which is family-run and family-friendly. Clean and comfortable but also cheap rooms can also be found at the Hotel Los Robles de San Juan (505/270-2114), as low as US $40 doubles.
An inexpensive place to sample Nicaraguan food is the well-known Cocina de DoÃ±a HaydÃ©e, which has three locations in central Managua. Many dishes are under $10. The Hotel y Restaurante Cesar (505/265-2728) consistently wins awards for its cuisine. You can dine inside, or outside in the gardens surrounding the swimming pool. One of the finest offerings of French food can be found at the art-bedecked La Marseilles (505/278-3267). Offering food of the same quality in a more informal setting is CafÃ© de Paris (505/278-3267), known for its lobster with mushrooms.
Managua’s best-known national products include clothing, shoes, handicrafts and souvenirs. Foreign goods are also available but are likely to be more expensive. There’s great demand for Nicaraguan gold and silver that can be found in the major jewelry stores. Some of the largest and best stores are the Centro Comercial, Metrocentro, Supermercados, Diplotiendas and Supermercados Internacionales. Nicaragua has two major craft markets, Managua’s Roberto Huembes Market and Masaya. These craft markets sell everything imaginable from clothes, leather products, hemp products, wood goods, shoes, ceramics, to all sorts of souvenirs and gifts.
The Metrocenter has 50 glittering shops and department stores, as well as intimate cafes. By contrast, Plaza Inter offers several US dollar shops, movie theatres and a good food court.
Touring Granada’s Cultural & Natural Sights
Photo lovers will fall in love with the city of Granada. Named after its Spanish counterpart across the Atlantic, Granada was founded in 1524 by a Spaniard and is generally believed to be the oldest city in the New World. It is a delight to the eye with its graceful abodes and elegantly proportioned porticoes hued in rich tropical colors. It’s a city of less than 100,000 people but offers a small taste of luxury in its hotels, restaurants and general way of life.
For example, you can start your stay by taking the whole family for a horse-drawn carriage ride at Amigo Tours (505/552-4080). Carrying up to five people, it’s about the same price as a taxi. Nicaragua’s nascent tourist industry has descended on this picturesque colonial town and from this location you can arrange trips all over Nicaragua. The Nicaragua Butterfly Preserve (505/895-3012) offers English language tours.
For decent coffee and some English language books and magazines, head to Mavericks (505/552-4120), then set out for the Convento Y Museo San Francisco (505/552-5535), a strikingly restored yellow-and-white 17th century complex that survived the massive earthquake of 1746. The building’s faÃ§ade, made up of ridges, is a favorite pigeon-nesting place. The church also houses what is usually described as the best museum in the region. A museum highlight is a tribe of paper-mache Indians portrayed while making a meal.
Mi Museo (505/552-7614) has an amazing collection of ceramics dating from at least 2000 BC to the present. Hundreds of carefully crafted pieces were chosen for their artistic merit and archeological significance. Valuable antiques, some of them hundreds of years old, are jammed tightly together at Harold Antiques (505/881-4975) and Nica Chic offers an unusual choice of cool clothes, handmade furniture and affordable art. If you want a cigar, they’re hand-rolled at Sultan Cigars.
Many pictures, mausoleums and tombs — including the graves of six Nicaraguan presidents — draw visitors to the Granada Cemetery. Here, visitors can also view the Capilla de Animas (Chapel of Spirits), a scale replica of the French chapel of the same name. There’s also a mysterious and unexplained replica of Notre Dame Cathedral (builder unknown).
Granada’s Hotels & Restaurants
A vine-draped Spanish colonial mansion, Casa San Francisco (505/552 7581) offers luxurious bathrooms and hand-carved beds. Another luxury Spanish Colonial home converted to a first-rate hotel is Hotel Colonial (505/552-7299), which offers second floor suites with kitchenettes and small balconies.
Mid-range hotels, priced around US $50/night, include El Club (505/552-4245), which puts out cheerful fresh flowers daily, and El Maltese (505/552-7641), which has clean rooms and air conditioning and is located right on the lake. Casa Capricho (505/552-8422) offers two-floor suites and a small pool.
The El Zaguan (505/552-2522) is arguably where you can find the best steaks in town and other well-prepared entrÃ©es for less than US $15. Las Colinas del Sur (505/552-3492) specializes in fresh fish from the nearby lake; entrees are only US $7 to $14. If you have a hankering for home, the Alabama Rib Shack Bar and Grill (505/552-8115) serves first-rate American food for under US $10, while Kathy’s Waffle House has seven different versions and good coffee with great views of the city. This may be Granada’s best western breakfast.
Spanish is the official language but English is also spoken by many Nicaraguans. The perennial question is, “when is the best time to go?” The answer: it depends. Nicaragua has distinct dry and rainy seasons, the timing of which varies from coast to coast. With the possible exception of the last month of the dry season (usually mid-April to mid-May) when the land is parched and the air full of dust, there really is no bad time to visit. However, the most pleasant time to visit the Pacific or central regions is early in the dry season (December and January), when temperatures are cooler and the foliage is lush.
Nicaragua is generally not crowded except during special events. Visitors should be aware that most Nicaraguans spend the holy week of Semana Santa (around Easter) at the beach; hotel rooms are virtually impossible to get since they are sold out weeks or even months in advance.
The country’s currency is Cordobas. Most places will accept US dollars, however. There is a US $5 charge for tourist cards on arrival and a US $32 departure tax payable in US dollars or Cordobas. Checks and credit cards are not accepted for paying arrival or departure taxes. The country’s sales tax is 15%.
Visitors may be surprised to find prices are very low. So low, in fact, that they often find they can sometimes stay at the best hotels for US $100 or less. Meals at first-class restaurants can be found for not much more than US $10-$15. At these rates, service is generally good and the people are extremely friendly. Say “hola” and you will invariably get a “hello” in return.
Colonial cities such as Granada are more pedestrian-friendly than bigger cities such as Managua but you shouldn’t have trouble finding your way around. There are some quirks, though. If you ask for directions, you’re likely to be told something like “turn left at the red light, then right at the bright yellow house.” This is often the case because only major roads are named in Nicaragua. Large buildings and traffic lights are often points of reference.
How best to get around? Taxis are plentiful but visitors should use officially registered vehicles identified by their red license plates (the numbers should be legible). Taxi scams (sometimes involving muddying license plates so the numbers can’t be read) are not unusual. Major rental car companies are located at the airport and many hotels. Visitors can use their own country’s driver’s license for 30 days after entering the country.
Tap water in Managua is considered generally safe to drink but outside the capital, bottled water is advised. Nicaraguan food lacks the sophisticated complexity of French cooking but it is usually good, cheap and healthy. Children might be disappointed that hamburgers are not common. But popular and kid-friendly dishes include Nicaragua’s version of tortillas, guirilas, which are rich pancakes made with fresh corn and griddle fried, and rosquillas, which are simple corn bread rings served with cheese or cinnamon as desserts. Incidentally, if you order coffee here in a country that sells some of the best in the world, don’t expect to find the finest. Many tourist areas serve Presto instant.
Getting to Nicaragua is easier than ever. Both Spirit Airlines and Aeromexico recently announced new service to Managua. Spirit, which in the past provided non-stop flights from Fort Lauderdale three times a week, has increased that number to daily service. Aeromexico provides service to Managua from Houston, Los Angeles and Miami.
The Nicaraguan Tourism Institute has offices in several cities in Nicaragua, including Managua and Granada. Its Web site lists several tour operators. Another site to check out is the official INTUR government tourism site (888-SEE-NICA or www.visit-nicaragua.com). Granada information service (505/552-4120) is also helpful. The tourist office has up-to-date transportation schedules and a good city map.
David Wilkening, a Florida-based journalist, has contributed to Florida Trend, New York Times, Newsweek, Orlando Sentinel, Detroit Free Press, Palm Beach Post-Times, Toronto Sun, AAA magazines and the Wall St. Journal, and to travel trade publications such as Birnbaum’s, Travel Agent, Travel Weekly, and Zagat’s.
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