When it comes to Central America, places like Costa Rica, Belize, and the Dominican Republic seem to get all the hype. But the most underrated gem on the CA block is Nicaragua. Here’s why you need to check it out now.
1. It’s as beautiful as Costa Rica but less touristy.
“Costa Rica was first on my list for years,” says yoga teacher, writer, and mom Kristen Kemp. “But now there are Starbucks everywhere there and it’s such a popular destination.” Not so with Nica. You get a very similar landscape to Cost Rica (it’s right next door) but Nicaragua is still just enough off the beaten path to feel adventurous. But hurry, the number of tourists from the U.S. during the first half of 2014 was up nearly 10 percent over the same period in 2013, so people are finding out!
Stay in a hacienda in Granada for $100 or less. (Photo: Delirante bestiole/Flickr)
Food and lodging in Nicaragua are from one-third to one-half the price of comparable accommodations in Costa Rica, according to the Nicaraguan Tourism Board. For example, in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua’s top tourist destination, you can find reasonably priced ($100 a night and less) lodging in hotels created from beautiful historic haciendas. Vacation real estate properties are also half the price of similar ones in Costa Rica or Belize.
3. They’re opening crazy-cool new hotels.
We know you’re dying to stay at the Jicaro Island Ecolodge. (Photo: Jicaro Island Ecolodge/Facebook)
Just because you can travel on a budget in Nicaragua doesn’t mean you have to. Two new luxe must-stays in the country are the Jicaro Island Ecolodge, on a tiny private island in Lake Nicaragua, and Mukul Luxury Resort and Spa on Manzanillo Beach up the Pacific coast from San Juan del Sur. Jicaro is a secluded (there’s nothing else on the island), peaceful place to get away from it all with healthy food, yoga, and personalized, authentic service, but still with plenty of activities (think kayaking, strolling through colonial towns) just minutes away. Prices range from $390 to $750, double occupancy, per night. Mukul is made up of individual beach villas and bohios, as well as the private residences of Nica magnate Don Carlos Pellas (he built the place), which have amazing ocean views. The spa has private spa suites and the treatments use local Nicaraguan ingredients. Rates start at about $500 a night, double occupancy.
4. It has all these amazing volcanoes.
One of the two volcanoes on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua (Nick Leonard/Flickr)
The country is known for its more than 50 volcanoes. One of the most famous and most tourist-friendly is Vulcan Mumbacho, 6 miles from Granada. You can catch a white-knuckle ride up the volcano (it’s supersteep) thanks to the Reserva Natural Volcan Mumbacho, and hike one of two trails. For an actively venting volcano where, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of red glowing lava, there is Volcan Masaya – the “gate to hell,” according to the Spaniards who discovered it. If it’s long, expert climbs you’re looking for, try Volcan Momotombo, near Leon on Lago de Managua, or Volcans San Cristobal and Maderas on Isla de Ometepe near San Jorge in Lago de Nicaragua. At Cerro Negro, one of the newest volcanoes in Nicaragua located in the Cordillera de los Maribios mountain range, you can hike up and surf down the volcano’s gravel-like ash.
Surf’s up in Nica. (Photo: ashabot/Flickr)
Surf culture is big on the beaches of Nica, and the epicenter of it all is a fishing village turned expat-pat beach town called San Juan del Sur. About 80 miles south of Managua, you’ll find killer breaks, fellow wave riders, and plenty of surf camps. Recommended surf beaches include Playa Remanso (great for beginners, with a sandy bottom and gentler waves), Playa Yankee, and Playa Maderas (better for experienced surfers). There are also yoga classes, hotels, and the closest thing to trendy restaurants and bars you’ll find in the area – all in a charming walkable downtown.
6. It’s a new hot spot for volun-tourism.
Help clean up the beaches so this doesn’t happen. (Photo: San Juan del Sur Day School/Facebook)
Just ask Julie Speier, who moved to the country in 2008 to start the San Juan del Sur Day School – now a full-service primary school educating Nicaraguan and ex-pat children from the ages of 18 months to 10 years, and employing staff from all over the world – and never looked back. The school partners with Comunidad Connect, where travelers can stay with Nicaraguan host families and volunteer to do everything from cleaning up neighborhoods and beaches to teaching English. Kemp also volunteered in Nica. “After vacationing there, I was so drawn to go back to the country and help that nothing could’ve stopped me,” Kemp says. “We volunteered with our kids instead of sending them to summer camp. Many people there live in 10-foot by 10-foot shacks. So there’s lots we can do. And there is also a lot we can learn from them.” Kemp and her family volunteered though La Esperanza Granada, an organization dedicated to helping local children receive an education.
7. You can see the amazing beaches where they filmed Survivor.
Fast and free down Playa Escamequita. (Photo: Rancho Chilamate/Facebook)
The current 29 th season of Survivor: San Juan del Sur, Blood vs. Water, airing now, is the third season to be filmed in Nicaragua. (Season 30 takes place there, too.) Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s worth taking a trip to the beaches – Playa Hermosa, Mixtocal, and Playa Escamequita. For the ultimate experience, head over to Rancho Chilamate and take its horseback riding adventure through the countryside, ending at Playa Escamequita, the main beach where the original Survivor: Nicaragua cast lived. There, you can ride your horse at a full canter down the long stretch of beach. It may be the most fun you can have in Nicaragua, or anywhere for that matter. It’s pure joy. Then hang out and have a drink before heading back.
8. There are amazing cloud forests and orchids.
A Nicaraguan orchid (Photo: tshantz/Flickr)
Cloud forests – basically high-altitude, cloud-covered rainforests – are as amazing as they sound. Two can be found in Nicaragua: one on Vulcan Mombacho and the other on Vulcan Maderas in Ometepe. And who knew? There are also hundreds of species of orchids, some rare, in the country. Mombacho has a natural orchid field that has to be seen to be believed.
9. Several drugs that are prescription-only here are cheaper and over-the-counter there.
We have the FDA and prescriptions for a reason. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Walk into a pharmacia in Granada or Managua and you’ll most likely be able to get some cheap diazepam (generic Valium) or knockoff Viagra over the counter, says one local. We’re talking $5-or-$8-for-many-pills cheap. (One or two Yahoo Travel editors may have also witnessed such transactions.) Caveats: Take them at your own risk (there’s a reason we have the FDA and prescriptions), and definitely don’t try to bring them back on the plane with you.
10. It’s pretty darn safe now.
The capital city of Managua (Photo: Thinkstock)
Many people still have visions of Sandanistas, Contras, and the political unrest that characterized the country in the 20 th century. But these days, Nicaragua is essentially at peace and stable. According to a recent Gallup poll, Nicaragua is actually now the safest country in Central America. In fact, it’s the second-safest country in Latin America, behind Peru.
Video: Treasures of the Rio San Juan
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