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Best Places to Visit in Nicaragua, Top Attractions
Nicaragua has quietly become one of the top travel destinations in the world and a hot spot for surfers and backpackers on the Central America circuit. With the country realizing its potential as a destination for tourism, Nicaragua is finally catching up to its more developed and highly visited neighbor to the south: Costa Rica. Being Central America’s largest country, Nicaragua is also home to some incredible gems you can’t find elsewhere in the world. Nicaragua is my favorite country in Central America. For one, the country is super easy to travel to. With a clear and fun backpacking route of amazing places to visit, it’s an easy and stress-free place to explore. Chicken buses and cheap shuttles are available in every city, so, you’re never far from your next destination, which I loved. Nicaragua’s also cheap, like really cheap. In fact, it’s one of Central America’s cheapest countries to travel to. Food is dirt cheap and beers, well, let’s just say you won’t need to worry about what’s on your tab! Hostels and hotels also come at decent rates and there are plenty of options for every budget. But unlike other countries in Central America, Nicaragua is actually much safer. The locals are friendly and crime rates are lower, especially in tourist destinations. These three major travel components make Nicaragua an attractive place to visit and after visiting myself, I totally understand why. I traveled much of the country and loved it. I explored many of the top places to visit in Nicaragua and loved every one of them for their own reasons. And in this blog, I’ll share the best places I visited in Nicaragua that should be part of your Nicaragua itinerary.
#1- Selva Negra
A landmark organic coffee hacienda and private cloud forest reserve, Selva Negra, or the Black Forest, is a pioneer in the burgeoning practice of setting aside economically productive land for private nature reserves. Its critical watershed of 30 creeks has been rescued by the reforestation of its higher elevations that were once used for coffee production, while simultaneously restoring flora and fauna and making it a key site for ecotourism. Birding is excellent around the property, with more than 200 species documented thus far, howler monkeys are present while other mammal populations are on the rise. What makes Selva Negra notable worldwide is the way the hacienda's organic coffee, vegetable, flower and animal farming is organised and operated. The hacienda is a model for sustainability, recycling everything from coffee husks to chicken blood. Coffee processing wastewater (a serious pollutant in coffee-growing regions) is run into two-step pressurising tanks that create methane biogas, which is then used on the farm and lodge for cooking and other chores.
#2- Ometepe Island
Ometepe’s two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua seem improbable, prehistoric and almost otherworldly. The two cones are nature reserves and they are connected by a 5-km wide lava-flow isthmus. Travel on the island is always in the shadow of one of its two Olympian volcanic cones. Ometepe also has much to offer culture lovers, with unique traditions and pre-Columbian remains found on the island, and stands as a paradise for hikers, climbers, bikers and nature lovers; a must-see for anyone with a strong interest in culture and archaeology.
#3- San Juan River
A historic waterway that is now best known for ecotourism, the 190km-long Río San Juan is the only river that drains Lake Nicaragua into the Caribbean Sea. For the visitor, it is an opportunity to experience rainforest flora and fauna and journey from Central America’s biggest lake, all the way to the thundering surf of Nicaragua’s eastern seaboard, while following in the wake of Spanish explorers, Dutch and French pirates and the British Navy. The river was seen for centuries as the natural canal between the two great oceans, and today it provides access to Nicaragua’s finest lowland rainforest - the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve, which runs from El Castillo all the way to the scenic coastal estuaries of the Caribbean Sea.
#4- Morgan’s Rock
Morgan’s Rock is one of the finest coastal tropical dry forests in Central America, with a gorgeous sweeping private beach and an estuary shared by less than 20 precious wooden bungalows that are perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. Along with kayaking and paddleboarding, visitors can mountain bike, nature hike and fish or surf on a nearby beach, but most find the thatched huts along the pristine beach attraction enough to pass a day or two. It's one of our favourite places to visit in Nicaragua to unwind and relax.
#5- Masaya Volcano National Park
The smoking Santiago crater of the Masaya volcanic complex is one of the most unusual volcanoes in the Americas, maintaining a constant pool of lava (neither receding nor discharging) in its open crater. If smoke and lava levels permit, the inner churnings of an active volcano can be witnessed by peering inside the active crater. It is a place of eerie beauty with rugged lunar landscapes punctuated by delicate plant life, remarkably resilient animal life and a panoramic view of Nicaragua’s great lake valley. Due to intense volcanic activity in recent years hiking is limited in the park, and most visits are restricted to 15 minutes.
#6- Mombacho Volcano
The summit trail of Mombacho Volcano offers views of craters, and if clear, Granada, Lake Nicaragua and Las Isletas, whereas the more difficult trails Tigrillo and Puma reveal an even more extensive list of wildlife. As well as enjoying the forest reserve, where you can even zip-line above the stunning forest canopy, the 1,344-metre-tall volcano is home to an abundance of additional activities, from visiting the local coffee plantations and ranches along the western slopes to learning more about the old indigo and current cacao production found at the eastern base.
A dramatic setting by any measure, Managua sprawls along the southern shores of Lake Managua and being covered mostly by trees, it’s almost invisible from the air. It is a capital without a city, pockmarked by six crater lakes within city limits. Beneath its improbable surface is dozens of fault lines, one of which destroyed the old centre in 1972. Never rebuilt under seismologists’ orders, Managua grew out and around the lake valley with no centre or high-rise in sight. Visitors can tour the ruins of the old centre, enjoying revolutionary sites, the cultural palace, new and old Cathedral as well as one of the crater lakes that overlooks the entire invisible city.
#8- Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge
One of the top wildlife viewing experiences available in Nicaragua, the 43,750-ha Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge occupies the southern shores of Lake Nicaragua. With more than a dozen rivers running through the reserve, the Río Papaturro is the most popular for wildlife viewing, but a visit to Rio Zapote and Isla Zapote offers up a major nesting site for waterbirds which is also not to be missed. The ecosystems could not be more diverse in this area, with a mixture of tropical dry forest, tropical wet forest, rainforest and extensive wetlands. Best of all are the many narrow rivers lined with gallery forest, the ideal situation for viewing wildlife.
León is the artistic and intellectual heart of Nicaragua, the colonial capital for three centuries and the former home of its three greatest poets, including the undisputed national hero Ruben Darío. Nicaragua’s second-largest city is normally full to the brim with students from around the country that come to study in its fine secondary schools and universities.
#10- Las Isletas
The islands can be visited by motorboat, electric boat or kayaks, an excellent way to appreciate the birdlife. The age of the islands is unknown, but it is believed they were created by a massive eruption by the Mombacho Volcano that watches over the lake and islands to the west. Some islands have simple lodging, but one, in particular, has a very fine ecolodge that we feature in our tour Lakes and Volcanoes.
#11- El Castillo
El Castillo (despite its name) is built around a fortress, not a castle. When built-in 1675 it was one of the biggest fortresses in the Americas and very effective at repelling both pirates and the British Navy, until a young Lord Nelson, then a captain, attacked it from the rear flank (now called Lomas de Nelson). The fortress provides a classic view of the San Juan River and there is good lodging near the riverfront rapids, a feature that also helped to protect the town. Today it is a pleasant and friendly base to use for exploring the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve by boat and on foot, with several traditional river restaurants and a butterfly farm in town. El Castillo is also the last town on the southside of the San Juan in Nicaragua, going downriver to the Caribbean Sea.
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