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.
Top image © Elizabeth Winterbourne/Shutterstock
Although Granada is a jumping-off point for trips to Ometepe and Solentiname, there are a couple of worthwhile day-trips closer to town.
About 20km south of Granada, scattered about Lago de Nicaragua, are more than three hundred and fifty islands all believed to have been formed from the exploded top of Volcán Mombacho. Many of the pre-Columbian artefacts and treasures you find in museums throughout the country came from this group, which must have been of religious significance for the Chorotega-descended people who flourished here before the Conquest. The smaller islands, Las Isletas, make for a varied boat tour. Some are home to monkeys, one has a small fortress built by the Spanish conquistadors; one or two have private mansions, and on others you will see women washing their clothes in the lake in front of their ramshackle houses.
At 52 square kilometres, Isla Zapatera is the largest of the islands, skirted by attractive bays and topped by a much-eroded extinct volcano. Guides should be able to show you El Muerto (The Dead), a site full of the remains of tombs, several petroglyphs and the scant remains – a few grassy mounds and stones – of Sozafe, a site sacred to the Chorotegas. These apart, there’s really very little to see, bar lovely views of the lake.
The slopes of the rather lovely RESERVA NACIONAL VOLCÁN MOMBACHO are home to one of only two cloudforests in Nicaragua’s Pacific region (the other is at Volcán Maderas on Isla de Ometepe). The reserve is run by the Fundación Cocibolca (mombacho.org), whose interesting research station and visitors’ centre at the volcano’s summit acts as the centre for the study and protection of the reserve’s flora and fauna – which includes three species of monkey, 22 species of reptile, 87 species of orchid, 175 species of bird and some fifty thousand species of insect. The air is noticeably cooler up here, the views of the lakes and volcanoes around are tremendous, and several trails skirt the four craters at the top of the volcano.
Attractions around Masaya include the town’s namesake volcano and a crater lake, Laguna de Apoyo, which can be explored on foot and with a guide. The nearby Pueblos Blancos, meanwhile, are famous for artisanal crafts, including pottery, which is made in small workshops throughout the villages, while the historical site of Coyotepe is a must for anyone interested in the nation’s political history.
Three kilometres out of town on the road to Managua is the old fort of COYOTEPE. Built on a hilltop by the Somoza regime to house political prisoners, the abandoned structure commands stunning views of Masaya and the volcanoes of Masaya and Mombacho, and also offers an eerie reminder of the atrocities carried out here by Somoza’s National Guard: when Sandinistas stormed the fort during the Revolution, the National Guard responded by slaughtering all those inside. It’s now administered by Nicaragua’s Boy Scouts, who will illuminate the tunnels on a torchlit tour and tell you grim tales about Nicaragua’s recent past.
The volcanic Laguna de Apoyo draws tourists with its mineral-rich waters, tropical rainforest and stunning views. Nature-lovers will be entranced by the rare flora and fauna, including howler monkeys, armadillos and toucans, and divers can check out the lake’s unique fish, but it’s a pleasant place just to relax and sip a few beers, too. Its popularity means stretches get a bit party-centric on busy days, and others are under threat from developers despite its natural reserve status, but it remains a stunning place.
Just outside Masaya, the PARQUE NACIONAL VOLCÁN MASAYA (2528 1444) offers you the chance to peer into the smoking cone of a volcano, as well as some stunning long-distance views. Gazing warily over the smoke-blackened rim into the crater’s sulphurous depths, you can well imagine why the Spaniards considered this to be the mouth of hell itself – the large white cross above the crater marks the spot where a Spanish friar placed a cross in the sixteenth century to exorcize the volcano’s demonic presence. This is still one of the most active volcanoes in the world; the last eruption occurred in 2001, but plumes have been spotted since then, and signs advise drivers to park their cars facing downhill in case a quick getaway is required.
From the entrance, it’s a 1.5km walk up the road to the Centro de Interpretación Ambiental, home to an exhibition outlining the area’s geology, agriculture and pre-Columbian history, along with an interesting 3D display of the country’s chain of volcanoes. From the centre you’re best off hitching or getting a spot in one of the regular minibuses going up to the crater, as it’s a fairly steep 5km hike up a paved road. Walking down is more pleasant, although in theory (and despite the lack of any kind of danger) you must be accompanied by a guide along this stretch – if you’re not, a ranger will probably follow you down, at a discreet distance, on a bike. The rangers at the crater can point out a few short walks around the area that you can take unaccompanied, and also offer guided tours of two trails, Sendero Los Coyotes and Sendero de Las Pencas, as well as highly recommended night hikes, including a visit to the subterranean Cueva Tzinancanostoc, where you’ll see bizarre lava formations and a bat colony and, if you’re lucky, a chance to see the lava glowing deep in the main crater. Look out for the stunted bromeliads common to high-altitude volcanic areas, and the famous chocoyos del cráter, small green parrots that have thrived in an atmosphere that should be poisonous.
Scattered within 15km of Masaya are the “Pueblos Blancos” or White Towns: Nindiri, Niquinohomo, Masatepe, Catarina, Diria and Diriomo. The name comes from the traditional whitewash used on the villages’ houses – called carburo, it is made from water, lime and salt – as well as a past tradition of practising white magic in the area. The white buildings are pretty, but there’s not much more to see: although each town has its own specific artisan traditions and fiestas, and local identity is fiercely asserted, they seem remarkably similar, sleepy towns with a few people hanging out around nearly identical central squares. CATARINA is the prettiest, the main draw being El Mirador, a lookout at the top of the village that stares right down into the blue waters of the collapsed crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo, with Volcán Masaya looming behind it. Restaurants, cafés and artesanía stalls have sprung up around the viewpoint.
Set on the western shore of Lago de Nicaragua, some 50km southeast of Managua, GRANADA was once the jewel of Central America. The oldest Spanish-built city in the isthmus, it was founded in 1524 by Francisco Fernández de Córdoba, who named it after his hometown in Spain. During the colonial period Granada became fabulously rich, its wealth built upon exploitation: sited just 20km from the Pacific, the city was a transit point for shipments of gold and other minerals mined throughout the Spanish empire. In the mid-nineteenth century Granada fell to American adventurer William Walker, who briefly gained control of the city – and, by default, the entire country. Granada paid dearly for the eventual overthrow of Walker; as he retreated in the face of international resistance, he burned the city practically to the ground.
Today Granada is central to the Nicaraguan government’s tourism ambitions. Its popularity with foreign visitors has led to a large-scale restoration of the stunning old colonial buildings, many of them repainted in pastel shades, and a burgeoning network of foreign-owned bars, restaurants and hostels has sprung up. This manageable, gringo-packed city also makes a good base from which to explore the lake, volcanoes, Zapatera archipelago and Isla de Ometepe, while more adventurous travellers might head from here to San Carlos, the Solentiname islands and beyond.
There are few “must see” attractions in Granada itself, but most of the pleasure is simply in strolling the streets and absorbing the colonial atmosphere – be sure to take a peek through open front doors along Calle La Calzada to see the magnificent interior courtyards that adorn some of the private houses.
Dating from the sixteenth century but rebuilt in 1867 after Walker’s attack, the historic Convento de San Francisco is two blocks northeast of the cathedral. The attached cultural centre has been converted into Nicaragua’s best pre-Columbian museum, housing various displays and many of the petroglyphs recovered from Isla Zapatera. Hewn from black volcanic basalt in about 1000 AD, these statues depict anthropomorphic creatures – half man, half lizard, turtle or jaguar – which probably had ritual significance for the indigenous peoples who inhabited the islands. It was also from the confines of this convent that in 1535 Frey Bartolomé de Las Casas, apostle of the indigenous peoples of Central America, wrote his historic letter to the Spanish Court, condemning the Indians’ mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish. The Convento also houses the city library; many of Walker’s filibusterers are buried in the catacombs in its basement.
A pleasant fifteen-minute stroll west of La Merced takes you past a few smart churches to the old fort of La Pólvora, which has a grand gate and good views. On the way you’ll pass the small Doña Elba cigar factory, where you can have a go at rolling the product and take the result home – tip the worker who shows you around.
For panoramic views of Granada’s rooftops, as well as the lake and volcano, climb the tower at Iglesia La Merced (technically La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes – The Church of Our Lady of Mercy), which sits two blocks west of the Parque Central on Calle 14 de Septiembre. Yet to receive a lick of new paint, the sooty front and serene interior give it a shabby-chic charm. The tower is accessed at the front of the church on the left. If you suffer from vertigo, you may be put off by the tiny winding staircase with low railings that leads you upstairs. Once up top, there’s a wraparound balcony where you can take photos or simply soak up the view.
The shoreline of Lago de Nicaragua is about 1km east of the Parque Central. As you head down the wide boulevard of Calle La Calzada, past churches and baseball diamonds, the stretch gets more and more dilapidated until you arrive at the shore, which has a huge vista of the lake, but feels eerliy empty unless you happen to arrive as the boat from San Carlos or Ometepe is docking. To the south a small park lines the lake, a few hundred metres beyond which is the entrance to the Centro Turístico (C$10 entry occasionally imposed), a group of lakeside bars and cheap restaurants that’s ironically far more popular with locals than visitors. It’s deserted on weekdays but popular at weekends, especially in the evenings, when the nightlife gets going. If heading here after dark, get a taxi back into town.
Set in a fine converted colonial house one block northwest of the Parque Central on the Calle Atravesada, Mi Museo is a private collection of more than five thousand pieces of pre-Columbian ceramics, the oldest of which dates back to 500 BC. There’s not much labelling, but the jars, plates and urns of various sizes, mostly depicting birds, crocodiles and toads, are intriguing.
At the centre of town sits the attractive, palm-lined Parque Central, peopled by an engaging mix of tourists, stalls, itinerants and clumping horses. A few small kiosks sell snacks, and an ice-cream seller wanders around ringing his handbell in search of trade. On the east side of the Parque is the large, graceful cathedral, built in 1712 and damaged in the 1850s during William Walker’s violent reign.
As well as the cathedral, many of the city’s most captivating historic houses line the square. The palatial red house with white trim on the corner of Calle La Calzada, across from the cathedral, is the Bishop’s Residence, with a columned upstairs veranda typical of the former homes of wealthy Granadino burghers.
Guides hang around the larger hostels, and can be a reasonable bet as long as you ensure you know what you’re getting for the price. The established operators mentioned here offer greater experience and professionalism, though.
Nicaragua Adventures 2552 8461, nica-adventures.com. Long-standing, reliable company owned by European expats that offers trip-planning and shuttles and tours across Nicaragua, as well as Granada-specific activities like half-day kayak tours of Las Isletas, day-trips to Masaya and city tours.
Tierra Tour 2552 8723, tierratour.com. Professional, Nica-owned company (with offices in León too) offering shuttles, kayak tours of the Isletas, as well as city and volcano tours, diving in Laguna de Apoyo, and night tours of Masaya volcano.
UCA Tierra y Agua 2552 0238, firstname.lastname@example.org. This government-run co-operative can help organize homestays around Granada, notably around the Charco Muerto region, taking in crafts, horseriding and walking trails.
Set midway between Managua and Granada and shadowed by the hulking form of Volcán Masaya, MASAYA’s stirring geography and regular festivals would make it an enjoyable stop even if it weren’t also the centre of Nicaragua’s artesanía production. During the Sandinista years, Masaya developed its crafts tradition into a marketable commodity, and the city is now the best place in the country to buy hammocks, rocking chairs, traditional clothing, shoes and other souvenirs. Most visitors come here on day-trips from Managua or Granada, easily manageable on the bus, but Masaya is a pleasant place to overnight too.
Masaya is an attractive place to explore on foot: there’s not too much traffic in the streets and all the sights are within walking distance of each other.
You may see processions and hear music in festival-loving Masaya at any time of year, but the most exciting time to visit is on Sundays between mid-September and mid-December, when the town indulges in a ninety-day period of revelry known as the Fiesta de San Jerónimo. The beginning of the fiesta sees the Torovenado, a fascinating costumed procession of cross-dressing dancers, mythical creatures and grotesque caricatures. In late January, the Fiesta de San Sebastián features a large-scale mock battle followed by a peace ceremony. A more recent invention is the popular Jueves de Verbena, held every Thursday evening throughout the year in the renovated Mercado Nacional de Artesanía, which offers stalls, food and traditional music.
The ramshackle Iglesia de San Jerónimo, 600m north of the Parque Central, is the best example of colonial architecture in Masaya. The statue of San Jerónimo on the altar depicts an old man wearing a loincloth and a straw hat, with a rock in his hand and blood on his chest, evidence of self-mortification. The tower is officially closed to the public awaiting renovation, but it’s worth asking if they’ll let you up to see the panoramic views of the city and surrounding area, with volcanoes rearing grandly from the plains.
On the western side of town, seven blocks from the Parque Central, Laguna de Masaya beckons. Despite its crystalline appearance and appealing, forested slopes, the lake is heavily polluted with sewage effluent from the town. It’s still worth the walk, though, as the waterfront malecón has stunning views of the smoking cone of Volcán Masaya and most of the town’s late-night bars and clubs.
Two blocks east of the Parque Central sits the Mercado Viejo, which has been converted into the grandly named Centro Cultural (Antiguo Mercado de Masaya) – Mercado Nacional de Artesanía. Behind the large, fortress-style walls lies a complex network of stalls selling paintings, many in the naïf-art tradition of the Solentiname archipelago, as well as large, excellent-quality hammocks, carved wooden bowls, utensils and animals, simple wood-and-bead jewellery, cotton shirts, straw hats and leather bags and purses. It’s a fun place for a potter even if you’re not going to buy anything – safe, not too hustly and dotted with drinks stalls and restaurants. The weekly Jueves de Verbena party night takes place here too. Check out the giant wall map of the country, which shows the places in Nicaragua where crafts are produced. If your Spanish is up to it, ask about visiting artisans at work in their homes and workshops. Many of the crafts on sale come from designs that originated in the indigenous barrio of Monimbó, fifteen minutes’ walk south of the market, where you’ll find more produce on sale around Iglesia de San Sebastián.
Inside the Mercado Nacional de Artesanía, the Museo del Folclor is a modern building displaying a variety of national costumes and masks from around the country. Interesting information (in Spanish only, but there are plans to offer tours in English) explains the origin and meaning of many of the traditional dances and costumes you’ll doubtless come across on your travels.
What little action there is in downtown Masaya takes place in the local hangout, the Parque Central, where – with the help of Spanish finance – La Parroquia de La Asunción church has been renovated. Its cool interior boasts a lovely wooden ceiling and images of various Central American saints, swathed in coloured satin and wilting gold lamé.
Most travellers, experiencing RIVAS as a dusty bus stop on the way to or from Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur or Ometepe, are unaware of the pivotal role it played in Nicaraguan history. Founded in 1736, it became an important stop on the route of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company, which ferried goods and passengers between the Caribbean and the Pacific via Lago de Nicaragua – the town’s heyday came during the California Gold Rush, when its streets were full of prospectors travelling with the Transit Company on their way to the goldfields of the western US. Modern-day Rivas isn’t anything special, and can seem scarily deserted at night, but it’s not a bad place to get stuck, especially if you fancy a taste of the real Nicaragua between gringo-tastic Granada and San Juan del Sur.
The colonial church near the Parque Central, La Parroquia San Pedro, is worth a visit, primarily for a fresco featuring a maritime-themed depiction of Catholicism triumphing over the godless communists. The desperately underfunded Museo de Antropología e Historia de Rivas sits four blocks west and two north of the Parque, with fine views of the rest of the town. Inside you’ll find artefacts of the local Nahua Nicarao people dating from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, prehistoric bones (thought to be from a mammoth), some frightening stuffed animals and a few dusty 78rpm records from the early twentieth century.
In the mid-1800s the sleepy fishing village of SAN JUAN DEL SUR was a crucial transit point on Cornelius Vanderbilt’s trans-isthmian steamboat line, on which people and goods were transported to Gold Rush-era California. The town is enjoying a second wave of prosperity, thanks to its popularity with wave-hunting Westerners, and you’ll find few places in Nicaragua more geared up to backpackers.
Located in a lush valley with a river running down to the town’s beach, the setting is beautiful; the beach itself is a long wide stretch of fine dark sand running between two cliffs. With excellent seafood restaurants, gringo-packed bars and an increasing number of good places to stay, San Juan is the kind of place where a two-day stay can turn into a two-week reverie. The locals are mostly happy with the attention, but there are occasional reports of muggings on the quieter beaches – get local advice before heading off on your own.
The lack of conventional sights in San Juan del Sur means that most people are engaged either in sunning themselves on the beach or undertaking something more energetic in the surrounding azure seas. While the waters around town aren’t the cleanest, the stunning cliffs, reserves and beaches just along the coast are easily accessible.
For frisbee golf, Marsella Valley Nature Center (8805 6951, marsellavalleynaturecenter.com) has a twelve-“hole” course surrounded by nature trails, and offers accommodation. ATV rental can be arranged through a few hostels, including Casa 28.
The Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor, 19km south of San Juan del Sur, is a guarded reserve dedicated to protecting the sea turtles, primarily the Olive Ridley species, that nest here in large numbers between July and February. The night-time nestings themselves are an amazing spectacle, and the reserve also has good surf, a beautiful white sandy beach and a stand of shady trees, plus more great empty beaches within walking distance. Most hostels and operators can organize a trip here from San Juan – getting here independently (either via one of the water-taxis opposite Hostel Estrella, or by bus from the main stop) can be tricky and you’re best asking in town for frequencies. Mosquitoes and sandflies are abundant – take repellent. Camping overnight (there are a few tents here to rent) is an expensive C$500 per tent.
There’s plenty of competition in San Juan del Sur, and most operators offer similar deals at similar prices. It’s easy to organize trips via accommodation – if in doubt, try Casa Oro, Hostel PachaMama, Casa 28 or La Casa Feliz – but several other tour and rental companies are worth considering.
Arena Caliente 8815 3247, arenacaliente.com. Friendly place offering surf lessons, rental and transport, plus fishing trips. Lodging and packages can also be arranged.
Neptune Watersports 2568 2752, neptunenicadiving.com. San Juan’s diving specialists can take you below the waves (US$85 for a two-tank dive) and also run fishing trips.
San Juan del Sur Surf and Sport 2568 2022, sanjuandelsursurf.com. This long-standing local operator offers fishing trips, tours to Refugio La Flor (US$30), ATV rentals and a nearby canopy tour plus – of course – surf rental and lessons.
Surfing is the most popular sport in town, and you can easily rent boards and arrange transport – the town beach is surfable but not spectacular, and the good beaches are too far to walk to. Head for Remanso (to the south, and good for beginners), Maderas (to the north, popular with experienced surfers) or a number of further-flung options. Almost anywhere in town can arrange this – transport should set you back around US$5 and board hire about US$10. Water-taxis to playas Maderas and Majagual (12km to the north) leave from the area in front of Hotel Estrella at 10am or 11am daily, returning at 4pm or 5pm (40min; US$10 return) – a taxi will cost about the same.
The beaches, inlets and bays of the coast are ripe for exploration, and sailing and fishing trips are almost as popular as surfing – Casa Oro arrange backpacker-oriented fishing tours, and local tour companies all have trips of their own. San Juan isn’t quite the Corn Islands, but there’s still plenty of diving here: try Neptune Watersports.