Granada is a color-saturated colonial town set on the shores of the massive Lake Nicaragua. This cultural capital is as authentic as it is non-touristy. Life happens half outside, which makes for some spectacular exploring and people watching along Parque Central and Calle La Calzada. The secret is slowly trickling out as Nicaragua climbs up the “must see” lists; cafes, restaurants, and hotels are being built as we speak. Go now, while the vibe is still independent and low-key.

Flight time: Daily direct flights to Managua come from Houston (3 hours), Miami/Ft. Lauderdale (2.5 hours) and Atlanta (4 hours), with easy connections for those further afield. Granada is a 45-minute taxi ride from the airport.

What gets you on the plane: Most Nicaraguan-grown coffee is exported, so appreciation for the flavorful local beans is relatively new – as is Granada’s café culture. The city’s cafes are community driven, grassroots hideaways instead of hipster hangouts. The Garden Café is a relaxing lunch spot with hammocks that doubles as a bookstore. Espressionista Café focuses on single-estate origin coffee prepared a number of ways, and serves locally sourced organic foods. Café des las Sonrisas, in the Tio Antonio Social Center, employs an all-deaf staff. The on-site hammock shop trains blind youths, who teach hammock weaving to curious travelers.

Happy surprise: It’s easy to tour Lake Nicaragua and Granada’s surrounding volcanoes in half-day trips. Book an excursion to Las Isletas, some of the 365 diverse islands in the lake that attract both fishermen and Nicaragua’s elite. A hike through the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve will bring you past coffee plantations and through an incredible cloud forest.   

Local tip: “A great night out starts with some good cocktails on the balcony of La Gran Francia. For daytime, the Mansion de Chocolate on Calle Atravesada holds chocolate lessons twice a day. Go to Elba Cigar and Mombacho Cigar for cigar demonstrations. Most people don’t know there’s a butterfly reserve on the way to the local cemetery of Granada.” – Byron Ortega, a bilingual tour guide with Gray Line and resident of Granada

Where to stay: Elaborate open-air courtyards hidden from street view are the norm in Granada. Hotel Colonial is a classic, with tiled fountains and two relaxing pools. While relatively new, the hip and upscale Tribal Hotel became an instant favorite with the jet set. Give back by booking a room at the award-winning Hotel Con Corazon, where all of the profits go towards education in Nicaragua.

Next>> Weekend Guide: Carve Park City

See our full list of Where to Go in 2016