Explore Nicaragua’s quaint colonial (albeit bullet-holed) towns, riotous folkloric fiestas and enchantingly undeveloped Caribbean islands.
Population: 6.1 million .
Foreign visitors per year: 1 million
Language: Spanish (and English on Atlantic Coast/Islands)
Major industries: agriculture, tourism
Unit of currency: cordoba (C$)
Cost index: hotel double/dorm from C$1000/260 (US$40/10), short taxi ride C$80 (US$3), bottle of Tofia beer C$25 (US$1), street-vendor nacatamal (savoury, steamed corn meal snack) C$20 (US$0.80)
Why go ASAP?
Nica neophytes have long been touting Nicaragua as ‘the new Costa Rica’. And in the sense that it’s cheaper, safer and less developed than its Central American neighbour, we can see why. But ask any local, and they’ll tell you that far from any imitation, Nicaragua is a unique natural playground with a history, culture and cuisine all of its own. Nothing attracts backpackers like a bargain, and intrepid adventure-seekers have secretly been flocking to mainland Latin America’s poorest country to surf San Juan del Sur’s blissfully uncrowded breaks, ‘board’ down an active volcano near Leon, and hike through the cloud forests of Isla de Ometepe, for years. But despite the added draws of Nicaragua’s quaint colonial (albeit bullet-holed) towns, riotous folkloric fiestas and enchantingly undeveloped Caribbean islands, the stigma of its war-torn past has traditionally kept the wider travel community at bay.
Then came Mukul. The nation’s first fully fledged five-star resort threw open its doors to international applause in 2013, closely followed by laid-back-luxe Yemaya Island Hideaway and Spa over on Little Corn Island. As if on cue, the UN then declared Nicaragua the second-safest Latin country, and suddenly a romantic jaunt down to this exotic little corner of the world started to sound like a pretty good idea to everyone.
It has now garnered a name for itself as one of the world’s top emerging luxury ecotourism destinations, and foodies have been raving about the new crop of stylish restaurants that have morphed Managua, a former no-go zone, into a fledgling culinary capital.
But while Nicaragua has, for the most part, been busy painting itself a bright green future, a controversial new plan designed to boost its still-flagging economy threatens to put it back in the red. With a giant shipping canal – to rival neighbouring Panama’s – set to be cut through the bowels of the country, there’s no better time to enjoy Nicaragua in its natural (and cheap!) splendour than at this very moment.
Festivals & Events:
Granada’s International Poetry Festival (February) attracts rhymsters from all corners of the globe. There are also concerts by some of Nicaragua’s best musicians.
On Nicaragua’s Day of the Revolution (19 July), you’ll understand just how much the people love President Daniel Ortega when you see the master work a crowd of 100,000 red-and-black-flag-waving faithful in the capital.
The Emerald Coast, Little Corn Island, eco-lodges,the quesillos (streetsnack)-per-cordoba ratio, sunset macuas (the national cocktail) mixed with gold-label Flor de Calla(the national rum)
Referring to the United States as ‘America’ Nicaraguans consider themselves Americans, too), divulging the nation’s still-secret surf spots, the Nicaragua Canal project, catching taxis in Managua.
Its status as the birthplace of volcano boarding is the first hint that Nicaragua is an adventurist’s dream. Try your luck at beating the km/hr record flying down steaming Cerro Negro on a custom built sled near Leon, Central America’s oldest city, or strap on your hiking boots and attempt the summit of Isla de Ometepe’s majestic Volcan Maderas.
A largely untapped surfing destination, Nicaragua also boasts one of the world’s few remaining coastlines where you can routinely get the lineups all to yourself – if you’re willing to sniff them out. As for the diving, the barrier reef system fringing the Corn Islands is one of the Caribbean’s most pristine.
Officially it’s eight days of festivities starting in late September, but the usually sleepy town of Masaya stretches out the feast of San JerOnimo, Nicaragua’s most famous fiesta, to three months. Fireworks, marimbas, parades, drag queens and more make it one to remember.
Celebrity golfers have been clamouring to tee off at the David McLay Kidd-designed course at luxury Emerald Coast resort Mukul since Forbes named it one of the world’s ‘top five great new golf resorts you need to know’.
Clearing an estimated 400,000 hectares of rainforest and wetland to build Nicaragua’s answer to the Panama Canal has enraged environmentalists, who argue the project will threaten fresh water supplies, cut off wildlife migration routes and further endanger the country’s rare species.
Most bizarre sight:
Rolling into Leon, it’s difficult to miss the hordes of elated, ash-covered travellers enjoying post-volcano-boarding mojitos at Bigfoot Hostel. Its former Australian owner is credited with founding the sport a decade ago and you’d be mad to leave town without trying it.