Nicaragua is fast becoming the must-visit Central American nation. Sarah Gilbert tells us why you need to explore this fascinating country before the crowds and canals move in.

The land of lakes and volcanoes is also the land of lively colonial cities, wildlife-rich forests and deserted beaches. It’s a nature lover’s paradise: Costa Rica without the crowds – for now.

After years of civil war and natural disasters, the largest country in Central America has been peaceful for almost thirty years now, but still wages a battle against a lingering negative image of a dangerous country for travel. Today, while Nicaragua may be poor – only Haiti is worse off in the Western Hemisphere – it’s actually one of the safest countries in the region.

“An ever-increasing number of visitors are drawn by its natural beauty and adrenaline-fuelled adventure”

Hammock on Terrace at Finca Esperanza Verde Ecolodge

An ever-increasing number of visitors are drawn by its natural beauty and adrenaline-fuelled adventure. Nicaragua is a biodiversity hotspot, with 17 percent of its landmass devoted to nature reserves, where you can explore steamy rainforest and mist-shrouded cloud forest, home to howler monkeys, jaguars and sloths, as well as a multitude of tropical birds. Need more action? Hike up still-rumbling volcanoes, speed along zip lines, dive pristine reefs and surf the Pacific breakers.

And while it has retained its off-the-beaten-track feel, it’s still good value. No longer the preserve of budget-conscious backpackers, there are luxurious eco-friendly lodges sprouting up around the country, conserving forests and beaches and protecting endangered wildlife.

“For now, herons and ibis wade in the shallows, and cormorants and kingfishers still nosedive for breakfast”

The only potential blot on the landscape is the controversial transoceanic canal project. The Nicaragua Grand Canal would be three times the length and twice as deep as its Panamanian rival, spanning the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic and turning it into a hub for global trade.

It’s predicted the canal could create more than 250,000 jobs and bring in much-needed investment, but it would have a potentially devastating impact on the environment, with the destruction of a massive swathe of pristine rainforest and wetlands, and the displacement of indigenous communities and wildlife.

There remain a lot of questions hanging over the canal, especially its impact on Lago de Nicaragua, but for now herons and ibis wade in the shallows, and cormorants and kingfishers still nosedive for breakfast.

“Wander colonial streets, drink award-winning rum and salsa the tropical night away”

Dome of the church Iglesia de la Merced above the red roofs of Granada, Granada province, Nicaragua, North America

Aside from wildlife, Nicaragua’s highlights are many. Postcard-pretty Granada, founded by buccaneers and conquistadors, is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Its cobbled colonial streets are lined with a growing number of sophisticated eateries where you can feast on local produce, drink award-winning rum, salsa the tropical night away and wake up and taste the organic coffee.

It makes the ideal base to explore Masaya’s volcanic park and meet the skilled artisans at its colourful handicraft market, zip-line over Mombacho’s cloud forest and cool off with a swim in the crystalline crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo.

León has the livelier, lived-in feel of a university city, a hotbed of revolution and poetry where bullet holes still scar the buildings. It’s the starting point for climbing the Maribios volcanic chain, where you can snowboard down the black ash slopes of Cerro Negro.

“Search for petroglyphs and lounge on lakeshore beaches”

Nicaragua, Rivas department, Ometepe island, the shore of lake Nicaragua (lake Cocibolca), volcano Concepcion

If you want to get to know the locals, try your hand at picking coffee in the temperate northern highlands around Matagalpa and Jinotego. Or help bring home the catch-of-the-day on twin-coned Ometepe Island, rising out of Lago de Nicaragua, populated by farmers and fishermen. You can also stay in one of the island’s family-run eco-lodges, climb steep Concepción or the easier Maderas, search for petroglyphs, or just lounge on the lakeshore beaches.

In Solentiname, a remote archipelago in the southeast corner of Lago de Nicaragua, you can buy vibrant primitivist paintings of the islands’ flora and fauna direct from the artists, and explore Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, a maze of forest and waterways that teems with wildlife.

For beach lovers, there’s plenty on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Laidback San Juan del Sur has long been a haunt of surfers-in-the-know, a place to chill by day and party after dark, while the Corn Islands, two isolated atolls, tick all the Caribbean boxes without the price tag. Little Corn in particular is a pocket-sized paradise where you can explore the reefs, dine on lobster, then flop into a hammock with only the rustle of palm fronds to disturb you.

“For all its natural riches, the welcoming Nicas are the country’s finest asset”

Nicaragua, Rio San Juan Department, the little village of El Castillo along the Rio San Juan, view from the fortress

For the ultimate jungle adventure, catch a boat along the watery border with Costa Rica, the San Juan River. Explore the fortress town of El Castillo or go all the way to the Caribbean coast, and into the heart of the Indío Maiz Biological Reserve with a guide.

But for all its natural riches, the welcoming Nicas are the country’s finest asset. Revolution, civil war and natural disasters may have taken their toll on the country’s infrastructure, but its resilient people remain warm and welcoming, and intensely proud of their culture and traditions.

Explore more of Nicaragua with the Rough Guides Snapshot NicaraguaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.