I’ve lived in Nicaragua for seven years, and I can tell you that this is one of the most beautiful, affordable, and exciting countries in Central America. You can leave your stressful life behind and relax in the tranquility of a liquid gold touched sunset, listen to a gentle forest rain, or watch from your patio as thousands of fireflies make it look as though the stars have descended from the sky. And if you like excitement and adventure, Nicaragua will not disappoint.
Here are just some of the once-in-a-lifetime activities Nicaragua has to offer, whether you’re stopping over for vacation or staying full-time.
Even if you’re not a surfer, you may be intrigued by “volcano surfing” in Nicaragua. It’s the only place in the world you can do this on an active volcano. Cerro Negro, some 2,388 feet high, lies just outside León. As its name implies, it is indeed a black hill, formed from the volcanic ash of past eruptions. The youngest of all the volcanoes in Central America, Cerro Negro is only 163 years old and last erupted in 1999.
It’s hard to tell which is more exciting: surfing down its side or walking through the crater itself. Lava spits out of small fumaroles, while big gusts of wind take their shot at you as you hike up. On a board on the way down, you can reach speeds of 65 miles per hour. Both experiences are thrilling, that’s for sure. Even if you are not a boarder, skier, or surfer, you can still get a rush of adrenaline by running or walking down the black-ash side of the mountain (as I did). This extreme adventure costs around $30 per person, including a souvenir T-shirt, plus $5 for park entry, depending on the agency and the equipment furnished.
Explore a Secret Canyon
For hundreds of years, Somoto Canyon (pictured above) didn’t even exist to the outside world. Just 10 years ago, a group of intrepid Czechs discovered it while taking a trip up Central America’s longest river, the Coco, to find its source. They weren’t disappointed with what they found.
It’s a mystery why no one knew about the canyon before. After all, there are communities living on the other side. One theory is that the indigenous people living at the west entrance, where the river starts to run through the canyon, were superstitious about what “might be beyond,” and never bothered to look.
That’s great for adventurers, as this budding tourist attraction is not overcrowded yet. Tours are six, three, or two hours long. On the tour you wear a life jacket and hike through the gorgeous canyon until the river gets in the way. At that point you jump in and “float” down the crystal-clear river until you reach land again.
There are some rapids you can navigate—or not. A jumping-off place into a deep pool will also entice you. The two-hour tour takes you in a boat down the river to a swimming spot; it’s also included in the longer tours. A word of caution: Much of the hike involves walking on large rocks, choosing which one to step on. Anyone with leg injuries or fear of falling should steer clear. Bring your own snacks and water. The trip costs around $20 per person.
Soar Through the Jungle
There are canopy tours… and then there is the ultimate in zip-lining experiences. Mombocho’s is the latter. For about $35, you can be picked up at your hotel in Granada and enjoy this thrilling adventure.
The ride to the site is half the fun, as your vehicle bumps and jumps and tips precariously along a long dirt road just to get there. On the way, you may see bamboo groves and areas where cacao trees grow. The zip-lining is situated in the famous Mombacho coffee-producing region, so you can get a tour of the coffee business on your way back, if you wish.
If you’ve never experienced zip-lining, it’s a thrill-seeker’s dream. You’re helmeted, geared up, then strapped onto a cable from a platform halfway or more up a tree. When the guide gives the signal, you jump off the platform and literally “fly” from one platform to the next, up in the jungle canopy, where you get a bird’s-eye view of the countryside, lakes, and fauna of the canopy, including monkeys and exotic birds. You do this 14 times until you arrive at the final platform, 60 feet high on a huge tree. And then you jump off the tree to the ground.
You are suspended with ropes and choose whether to go at slow, medium, fast, or rocket speed. The man manipulating the ropes below gives you the drop of your choice and you land softly, but with a rush so intense that you’ll leave with a huge smile on your face. And don’t worry if you’re older…this exciting activity is safe and suitable for people of all ages. (I’m a retiree and did it, and it’s up there as one of the best things I’ve ever done.) As you fly, you watch the world go by, passing all sorts of trees, sometimes hearing monkeys howl at you, and viewing the beautiful lakes below. I marveled at seeing the world from the sky the way a bird would. Not to be missed.
Horseback-Ride to Natural Swim Holes
For about $25 per person for a guide and the horse (plus your transportation getting there and back), enjoy an entire day exploring the dense, subtropical forests of Nicaragua on horseback. Go to Cangrejo, a tiny village about 45 minutes southeast of San Juan del Sur. Indigenous families will be waiting there to take you on an enchanting journey.
The hour-and-a-half (each way) ride and the village itself provide a real look at Nicaraguan country life. You’ll cross rivers and see blue morpho butterflies and exotic birds fly by. Perhaps you’ll spot some howler monkeys or two-toed sloths. You’ll be rewarded when you arrive at your destination: five natural, clear-turquoise swimming holes in the middle of the forest.
Remember to wear your bathing suit so you can jump into these refreshing pools. And if you are a bit more adventurous and the rainy season was kind, you can slide from one pool to another down the connecting waterfalls. Live the experience as you like. At the very least, it’s a photographer’s paradise.
When you return to Cangrejo tired and thirsty, not to worry; the wonderful people will have typical Nicaraguan dishes available for around $5. Grilled chicken, gallo pinto (rice and beans), cabbage salad, and fried plantains. Ask for calala (passion fruit) or tamarindo (tamarind) juice to cap your authentic meal.
Swim in a Medicinal Volcanic Lake
Laguna Apoyo offers several enchanting experiences. First, you’ll swim in an ancient volcanic crater lake that may be the most beautiful body of water you’ll ever see. The water is warm year-round, so make sure you bring your bathing suit.
If swimming isn’t your thing…just stand in these medicinal waters for a while and you’ll feel its mysterious, healing powers. People with arthritis claim their pain goes away in the water, and the effect lasts for a day or two. The water can also help clear up your skin and improve overall well-being.
Second, go to the public beach of Narome and order the sumptuous, grilled guapote—a fish indigenous to this lake that looks like a piranha. People from around the world have claimed that this is the best fish they’d ever had, brought to you on your own personal grill plate.
Third, experience the traveling marimba bands that meander through the area, playing traditional Nicaraguan music for a dollar or two a song. Children wander here, as well, selling fresh cashews, ceviche, fried plantains, home-made caramel candies, and fruit unknown to us gringos, such as nancites (a small, yellow fruit) and jojotes (another small fruit—very tasty). If you prefer a more upscale experience, there are several resorts around the lake where you pay $10 for day use. Rent kayaks and have lunch. And experience another beautiful day in Nicaragua.