Nicaragua just might be the perfect place to defrost from winter. Not only can you climb colonial church towers and hike volcanos but you can also eat your weight in papaya. I kicked off 2016 with a trip to this gorgeous country—here are the top five must-see places.
If you want to wake up to the sound of howler monkeys and climb volcanos, then head straight to Isla de Ometepe (pictured at top)—a mystical island with twin volcano peaks in the middle of a fresh-water lake. Ths island is located in Lake Nicaragua and, while a good portion of the island is undeveloped with unpaved roads, the lake is the rumored site of a proposed (and recently postponed) Nicaragua canal funded by a Chinese businessman. Get there while you still can and book one of the handmade cottages at Finca Mystica, and be sure to stop for lunch at Café Campestre.
The colorful colonial streets of Granada are the most photogenic and best preserved in the country. Tour the city by foot or by carriage tour from Parque Central: Begin with the adjacent Cathedral de Granada, the main icon of the city skyline, and continue on to the oldest church in Central America, Iglesia San Francisco, which houses a museum. Next, stop by Soy Nica for locally made leather goods. For lunch, try the weekly rotating menu of delicious homemade dishes at El Garaje. In the late afternoon, climb the tower of Iglesia de La Merced for a great view of the city.
3. Laguna de Apoyo
Set aside an afternoon or weekend to relax at Laguna de Apoyo. The giant crater lake is a short drive from Granada and was formed 23,000 years ago. It is not only the clearest body of fresh water in the country, but it stays warm year round and was declared a nature reserve in 1991. There are a handful of accommodation options on the lake that offer kayaks and paddleboards if you’re feeling active.
For more stunning art and architecture, make León your next stop. The heavily decorated yellow façade of the 1786 Iglesia la Recolección is the most beautiful of León’s many churches. Another highlight of the city is the roof tour of León’s cathedral (Basílica de la Asunción), which is the largest cathedral in Central America. In addition to offering an amazing view of the city and surrounding volcanos, the maze-like rooftop itself is stunning. Shoes are not allowed because the roof was recently painted bright white.
Art lovers should not miss the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián, one of the finest contemporary art museums in Central America. Housed in two beautiful old homes, the museum is filled with the works of Latin American masters including Diego Rivera and Fernando Botero along with a few big names like Picasso and Chagall.
5. Cerro Negro
If you’re looking for a little adventure, try volcano-boarding at Cerro Negro. The 728-meter active volcano (the last eruption was in 1999) is named for the layer of volcanic rocks that cover its slopes, which has given rise to the extreme snowboarding-like sport. Many tour companies offer the day trip from León and provide boards (homemade sleds) and safety gear. It took a little less than an hour to hike to the top with my board strapped to my back and less than two minutes to come down! Go early to beat the crowds who arrive around 9:30 a.m.