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When families think about a vacation in Central America, spots like Costa Rica and Belize have a knack for jumping to the top of the possibility list. Nicaragua, not so much. History has handed it a cryptic reputation, leading many to rule it out — often without really understanding why.
There’s no denying that Nicaragua is a little rough around the edges when compared to its popular Central American counterparts. But do your research and you’ll find that its attractions aren’t exactly in need of polish. Glowing lava lakes, crystalline water, white sand beaches and volcanoes you can hike up and sandboard down are just the beginning of what this underdog destination has to offer. Although school-age kids and older are better suited to the country’s adventure activities, a family with little ones will discover plenty to love in Nicaragua. From activities to accommodations, there are bargains to be found, English is widely spoken, and U.S. dollars are accepted practically everywhere.
Granada, Central America’s oldest city, was founded in 1524 during the Spanish conquest. Throughout the years it has served as the nation’s capital, been attacked by mercenaries and even besieged by pirates. But today it is a colorful city loaded with colonial architecture and cathedral domes.
Wandering is easy here, but a horse-drawn carriage tour is a good way to get a feel for the city and arrange your priority list. Carriages are plentiful and most drivers seem to do double duty as tour guides, sharing tidbits along the way, so be sure to select a driver who speaks English.
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Leave time for a stop at Granada Cathedral (sometimes referred to as the Immaculate Conception Cathedral), located right on Parque Central (Central Park). As soon as you step inside, look up at the painted ceilings. When you can peel yourself away, pay the $1 to climb the less than 100 steps to the top of the bell tower and take in the views.
Granada is also minutes away from Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake with more than 300 tiny islands called Las Isletas, created when Mombacho Volcano erupted thousands of years ago. Boat rides are a fun way to explore the islands, home to an assortment of wildlife, high-end resorts and homes. If you can go at sunset, the views won’t disappoint.
Even if you don’t spend the night in Granada, it’s a relatively easy spot for a day trip from many coastal resorts.
While the view of Mombacho from the water makes a lasting impression, it’s just a tease of what’s waiting at the Natural Reserve Mombacho Volcano. About an hour’s drive from Granada, it’s a steep ride up, but when the road ends, the hiking through a rain cloud forest can begin. The El Cráter Trail travels around one of Mombacho’s four craters and should take about an hour and a half. Once you spot the first howler monkey, though, all bets are off when it comes to sticking to a schedule.
You’ll get sweaty and dirty — very dirty — but sandboarding down the side of an active volcano qualifies as one of those once-in-a-lifetime activities. About an hour from León, Cerro Negro last erupted in 1999. The hard part happens first: Getting to the top, a bit shy of 2,400 feet, means hiking up a steep and rocky path with a sandboard strapped across your back. There are plenty of places to stop and take in amazing views along the way, but the trek to the top will take a good hour and then some to complete. Plan on bringing plenty of water and maybe a snack.
When you reach the top, the payoff kicks in. After donning a protective jumpsuit and goggles, you learn a few tricks to control your speed, and down the volcano you go. The terrain you slide through is more like gravel than fine sand, though the effect is the same. I’ll admit I was seriously questioning my judgment as I prepared to launch, but a few seconds on the move and I figured it out — and you will too. Admittedly, I wasn’t a speed demon. It took me more than two minutes to cruise to the bottom.
Even if you’re not sure about the sandboarding, don’t rule out Cerro Negro. Hiking down, on a different path than the one that leads up, is also a popular option.
Although cruising down the side of an active volcano is hard to beat, peeking over the edge of a smoking crater, with a bubbling lava lake below, just might do it. Masaya Volcano National Park is open to visitors day and night. Mother Nature can change things without much notice, but as of this writing, Masaya is one of the most active volcanoes in Latin America, constantly spewing smoke and sulfur gases. Time in the crater area is limited to 5 minutes, so have the camera charged and ready. If your schedule allows, it’s worth making one trip up during the day and a second one after the sun has set. That said, if you can only squeeze in one look, save it for a glowing nighttime view.
Much like Granada, León offers endless streets lined with colorful architecture and a must-see cathedral. Although touring the interior of the largest cathedral in Central America is highly recommended, a visit to the rooftop of León Cathedral is arguably more memorable. Along with city and volcano views, the bell ringer sometimes recruits willing volunteers.
Chasing volcanoes is exhausting no matter how old you are. But it makes playing catch-up in rustic, seaside San Juan del Sur even more enjoyable. It’s a major port (San Juan del Sur has the largest bay on Nicaragua’s South Pacific Coast), so while cruise ship days can be busy, there’s always room to play in the sand and splash in the waves.
There’s no denying that the road to get to nearby Maderas Beach could be smoother, but it’s the chosen spot for surfers in the know and visitors hoping to learn. Surfboard rentals cost as little as $10 a day; lessons run around $30 an hour. Even if you have no interest in catching waves, the landmark shark fin-shaped rock makes it a scenic spot to simply spend some time.
It’ll take a little more than an hour to fly to Big Corn Island from Managua, but go for a window seat and you’ll be rewarded with a comprehensive tour of Nicaragua from above. Once you land, driving the entire island without stops takes about 20 minutes. Many cab drivers serve as tour guides, and less than $10 will cover an hour-long island tour that, among other things, might include a stop at a colorful park and playground. But the star attractions here are the surf and sand. The generally calm waters make snorkeling enjoyable even for a novice; numerous shallow shipwrecks entertain more advanced swimmers as well.
You can hop the ferry or hire a private ride to Little Corn Island, or “Little Island,” as the locals call it. With no roads and thus no cars, rush hour is all about bikes and boats here. Take it all in with a view from the beach, lined with locally run cafes, bars and small hotels and hostels.
Managua is home to Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, and there’s a good chance your trip will start and end here. Don’t plan on hanging around for long, but if the scheduling works, Parque Nacional de Ferias, or the National Park of Fairs, is home to an artisan craft and food market. Frequented by more locals than tourists, it’s a great spot to pick up handmade goods and taste Nicaraguan cuisine.
If trying local foods is high on your family’s agenda, plan a stop, preferably around mealtime, to Quesillos Gourmet in nearby Nagarote. Quesillos are essentially Nicaragua’s version of a quesadilla, with soft cheese, cooked onions and sour cream served warm in a tortilla. Everything is done from scratch, from roasting the corn to making the cheese, and if you ask nicely, the cooks are typically happy to show visitors what goes on behind the scenes. Depending on your flight time, it’s a casual, flavorful final meal before you start the trek home.
Editor’s Note: Dana’s trip was sponsored by Visit Nicaragua. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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