On any given day in the Nicaraguan city of Leon, you can count on being surprised by random, usually unannounced fireworks. The festive yet slightly alarming pop-pop-pop-crack causes tourists to jump, but the locals who comprise most of the street traffic just look up and grin before going about their business. Ask them to explain and they’ll say…”Here, people are always finding reasons to celebrate.”
The vestiges of civil war still linger in Nicaraguan churches and monuments, while horribly potholed roads are bordered with picturesque yet impoverished shacks. The working class toils in factories and fields. There’s a long way to go before this country reaches middle class. Nonetheless, its citizens know the importance of enjoying the little things.
As Costa Rica gets steadily overrun by tourism, some people are planning travel to Nicaragua for the kind of authentic local charm, colorful culture, unspoiled nature and rock-bottom prices people have come to expect from Central America vacations. And the country definitely delivers. A bottled beer in one of Managua’s better nightclubs might cost 75 cents. Sit at a sidewalk café for dinner, and bear witness to a loud costumed procession winding its way down the street, with an 8-foot-tall dancing stilt character leading the charge. Friendly, curious and direct, Nicaraguans are engaging conversationalists even when neither party understands a word the other is saying.
Poetry & History
Speaking of words, here’s a little-known fact: Nicaragua’s most famous son was the poet Ruben Dario. Born in 1867, he had all the characteristics one would expect from a great poet: he was volatile, drunken, changeable, charismatic, prone to major womanizing and constant wanderlust. Before his genius caught the attention of a rich aunt who brought him to Leon to live with her and go to school, Dario lived in the village of Metapa. The village has since been renamed Ciudad Dario in his honor. Though it’s no more an intellectual hot spot than anywhere in Nicaragua, it is steadfastly dedicated to Dario’s legacy, with his birth home turned into a museum and a tiny amphitheater where local performance troupes dance on special days.
Little-known fact: Though Costa Rica is globally praised for its green, sustainable, eco-conscious practices, a lot of Costa Rican farmers and builders learned their best practices in Nicaragua. The coffee plantations and even the rum distillery are as close to self-sustaining as they can be; the goal always being to let nothing go to waste. This is not necessarily because of some high-minded ethos on the part of the owners—it’s just that, in a country with such limited resources, no one wants to squander materials.
One of the most picturesque, idyllic and visitor-friendly of the sustainable farms is Selva Negra, a coffee plantation in the mountains above Matagalpa. The owners are of German extraction, have resided in Nicaragua for decades, and travel around the world in search of ever-greener methods. In addition to coffee (which is the main cash crop), the farm grows vegetables and flowers, raises livestock, and makes its own cheese and meat. Most of the products are used to feed the workers that live onsite or the people staying in the “eco-resort” guest accommodations. Selva Negra generates its own power, makes its own fertilizer, and provides bicycles for employee use — as well as free education for the employees’ children. Tours provide a closer glimpse into any of these systems, of which the owners are justifiably proud.
Nicaragua is known as “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes,” but definitely the latter make the most dramatic impact upon incoming tourists. There’s smoldering San Cristobal, the tallest active volcano; landmark Momotombo, which probably appears in the most photo snapshots of all; and Ometepe, an island formed of the volcanoes Maderas and Concepcion. Dare-devils should plan to travel to Cerro Negro, an active volcano with natural features that make it perfect for “surfing” (i.e. riding a modified knee-board down the side). Thick ash acts similar to snow. A Swiss expat started this activity — it’s the closest thing to skiing that Nicaragua has. Only you do it in bright orange flame-retardant suits.
Without fail, surfers always have the inside track on the best undiscovered beaches. Nicaragua’s been a favorite of theirs for years because of its lack of infrastructure — most of the best surf spots remain accessible by boat only. However, roads lead to most of the famous beaches including Puerto Sandino, Maderas and Popoyo (arguably the best break in the country). The southern Pacific side, where Popoyo is located, has the best surfing conditions because of the weather pattern known as the Papagayo Wind.
Sweeping off the vast surface of Lake Nicaragua, the wind also stirs up the ocean waters, stimulating algae growth and attracting all kinds of marine life, from marlin and other giant sport fish to baby sea turtles. La Flor Wildlife Reserve just south of San Juan del Sur welcomes the highest annual number of baby sea turtles.
A vast array of other wildlife can be found in Rio San Juan, which connects Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea. Nicknamed The Golden Route, this river harbors two wildlife reserves, and is bordered by rainforests and historic villages.
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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.