The majority of Nicaragua’s population lives in the fertile southwest of the country. Bordered by Lago de Nicaragua to the east and the Pacific to the west, and studded with volcanoes – Volcán Masaya, Volcán Mombacho and the twin cones of Ometepe’s Concepción and Maderas – the southwest is otherwise a flat, low, grassy plain, home to what is left of Nicaragua’s beef industry, while coffee plantations can be found at higher altitudes.
Masaya, 29km south of Managua, and Granada, 26km further south, are the region’s key cities; Masaya’s excellent crafts market attracts virtually everyone who comes to Nicaragua, while the nearby Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya offers the most accessible volcano-viewing in the country. The picturesque “Pueblos Blancos”, or White Towns, lie on the road connecting Managua, Masaya and Granada; the latter, with its fading classical-colonial architecture and lakeside setting, is Nicaragua’s most beautiful and touristy city, and makes a good base for exploring nearby attractions such as the Isletas de Granada and Volcán Mombacho. Some 75km south of Granada, Rivas, the gateway to Costa Rica, is of little interest in itself, though many travellers pass through on their way to Isla de Ometepe and the popular beach town of San Juan del Sur.