It pains me to see Nicaragua on so many “Must Travel Destination” lists. Like a band you’ve loved for a long time and then suddenly hear all over the radio, Nicaragua’s well-deserved growing popularity inflicts a subtle, selfish pain on me. However, those who are concerned that all the attention will drastically change Nicaragua’s charm need not worry. With sustainable eco-lodges and organic local restaurants favored over high rises and chains, Nicaragua is a conscientious traveler’s paradise. Whether you desire laid-back island living, or the hustle of a centuries-old city, this country has got you covered. So go ahead and tell your friends -- just don’t be surprised if you find yourself reminding them “I found it first.”
For the Nature Lover: Isla de Ometepe
Nicaragua is known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” so a visit to the island of Ometepe is a given. Rising dramatically out of Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is formed by the dormant volcano Maderas and the larger, active Concepción. Expect mornings here to be lively, then afternoons spent sleeping through the mid-day heat, and evenings reclining on front porches eating thick flour tortillas and drinking ice cold Toña beers. Needless to say, getting into la vida tranquila is easy here.
Eco-friendly travelers would be wise to book a room at La Via Verde Organic Farm and B&B. Owned by 2 American expats, this demure bed-and-breakfast has 2 private rooms, or a separate bungalow guests can rent.
Enjoy watching the sunset over Concepción from your balcony’s hammock, drinking locally roasted coffee on the second-floor terrace, and indulging in the included daily breakfast that features house-made granola, yogurt and preserves.
While farm-to-table dining in the States may be a fad, here in Nicaragua it is a way of life. For the freshest food around head to Cafe Campestre where the produce comes from their own organic farm. The go-to spot for many locals, the café’s front porch is the perfect place to enjoy a meal on a balmy evening, while their hi-speed Wi-Fi and locally grown coffee makes the café a popular afternoon retreat for backpackers.
For a more rousing dining experience, ascend a steep hill to El Zopilote. This eclectic organic farm and wayward hostel is renowned for their pizzas, which they cook up in a brick oven on Tuesday and Thursday nights. For a local taste, Caballito's Mar offers basic, yet delicious Nica cuisine. Get a whole fried fish, caught literally by the cook, and enjoy the best views of the lake from the property’s private beach.
While la vida tranquila is undeniably intoxicating, don’t get too comfortable in your hammock. After all, the island of Ometepe has much to explore. Topping most travelers’ lists is a hike up one of its volcanoes. For safety and ecological preservation reasons, these intense 9-hour hikes can only be undertaken with a local guide. However, the island is filled with many more eco-friendly adventures if your schedule, or body, isn’t so flexible.
To start, get your bearings at La Montaña Sagrada organic farm where Haris’ Horses is located. Horseback tours offered include a 3-hour jaunt through the coffee and rice plantations of the Madera foothills, or an extreme uphill ride up to the breathtaking San Ramon waterfall.
History buffs should not miss exploring the village of Las Cuchillas at Finca Magdalena coffee plantation. Run by a collective of 24 families, this working farm produces organic coffee, plantains, milk, corn and beans. A tour of the plantation also allows guests to see the numerous 2,000-year-old petroglyphs (rock art) created by the Nahuatl Indians. End the evening with a sunset kayaking tour of the Rio Istiam, an amazing estuary that’s home to an incredible array of birds and monkeys, as well the caiman alligator.
For the City Lovers: Granada
Established in 1524, this is the oldest European-founded city in Nicaragua. Rich in Spanish Colonial architecture, it’s easy to imagine how the city must have looked when pirates of the Caribbean, like Henry Morgan, called this place home. Expect leisurely strolls, endless photo-ops and evening cocktails on flower-filled verandas.
A 30-minute boat ride from downtown Granada, Jicaro Island Ecolodge provides a quiet oasis from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city. Guests stay in 2-story private casitas that overlook stunning Lake Nicaragua.
Built entirely from reclaimed timber from trees blown down by Hurricane Felix, the lodge’s dedication to sustainability is apparent. However, comfort hasn’t been sacrificed. Cross-ventilation design features keep things cool, while solar panels ensure the property’s pool is maintained at an inviting temperature.
When it comes to dining in Granada, it isn’t so much where you eat as what you eat that’s important.For a truly local experience, hit up one of the many fritangas (street-side food vendors) and try the vigorón -- boiled yuca topped with cabbage salad and fried pork skins all wrapped up in a plantain leaf -- or tostones, which are decadent bites of fried plantain topped with cubes of queso frito.
Later, take an evening stroll along the pedestrian drag of Calle La Calzada, where street performers and artists meander through the many bars and restaurants.
A trip to Granada is not complete without a horse-drawn carriage tour of the historic center. Most carriage tours are arranged on the spot at Parque Central, where you can set your own route, or let your driver be your guide.
Be sure not to miss La Pólvora Fortress, Las Mercedes Church and San Francisco Convent Cultural Center, which is worth exploring on its own. Built in 1529 by the Franciscan Order, this museum houses a splendid collection of pre-Columbian statues and colonial art work, as well as a gorgeous interior garden and courtyard.
After exploring the mainland, take a boat trip through the Islets of Granada. Lake Cocibolca is home to over 365 islands that were formed when Mombacho volcano erupted about 20,000 years ago. Today, many of the islands are inhabited with tiny shacks and a few mega-mansions.
Tours can be arranged at numerous businesses, including the Hotel Plaza Colon. Those looking to expel some energy can take a day tour to Mombacho Natural Reserve, where a 4-hour hike up to La Roca lookout provides the best views of the area's islets. End the day by zip lining through more than 2,200 feet of rainforest canopy over 17 lines with Cutirre Canopy Tour. Set entirely on a coffee plantation, the tour was created in the hopes of furthering environmental awareness and supporting reforestation and education efforts.