Nicaragua is Central America's best kept secret. It offers volcanoes, lakes, culture and beaches. It will appeal particularly to the independent traveller and to all budgets
“You can live like a king here”, said our guide Juan Jose, as we strolled through the dusty village of Boca de Sabalos, which sprawled on the banks of the Rio San Juan. Although we had no intention of becoming part of a modern day colonial power investing in property, where a house could be rented with all amenities and food for US$250 a month, we could see his point. Nicaragua at the moment is good value compared to its more celebrated neighbour Costa Rica, still revelling in historic Spanish towns, sandy beaches, volcanoes, lakes and forestsbut largely undiscovered.
" Well it's been nice knowing you," was usually the light -hearted comment when friends back home heard of our plan to spend three weeks here. For many people it is still synonymous with civil war, the Sandinistas, earthquakes and the Contras.The reality is that Nicaragua has been at peace since 1990 and many now claim it is the safest country in Central America.
Our trip was also in a way fulfilling a promise to Nicaragua. When we travelled to other countries in this region during the early 1990's we avoided it, but pledged to return at a later date, intent on dispelling a few myths.
Within an hour of landing at Managua airport you can be sitting in your first rocking chair in Granada. The splendid Hotel Plaza Colon, where doubles cost US$90, is an elegantly restored building with internal courtyards balconies and pool, giving views of Central Park and the Cathedral. To get an even more dramatic perspective, if you clamber up the bell tower of La Merced church at dusk, you get panoramic views of the city’s tiled rooftops and Andalusian influenced, cloistered gardens, flanked by Volcan Mombacho on one side and Lake Nicaragua on the other.
Granada is an ideal focal point of travel in the country and it is worth sampling family-owned accommodation on subsequent visits. Victor and Katya Chamorro extend a friendly welcome at Hotel Terrasol, a small guesthouse at US$40 for a double including a/c. As well as being a team that comprises an award- winning chef and baker, they are a fund of information and can arrange tours.
On their instigation, we travelled by public bus to Leon with its authentic colonial architecture, art galleries and atmospheric Hotel El Convento, where you can dine in style at affordable prices.
Local transport is also available to the nearby Mombacho volcano where we did a trek around the crater through the cloud forest with its profusion of orchids and colourful birds. For those thinking of buying souvenirs especially pottery, they can be bought from Masaya market or directly from workshops but only after experiencing the active craters of the volcano that looms over the village.
Dramatic geographical features are always vying for your attention and it was Lake Nicaragua, which covers nearly seven per cent of the country’s surface area that was to dominate our holiday. Flying over it in a small Cessna to the frontier village of San Carlos you get another perspective on smoking volcanoes and wooded islands. Soon we were speeding in a motor boat up the Rio San Juan towards El Castillo, a delightful village nestling below an imposing Spanish fortress.
This was our base for excursions and guided tours, which can be booked with the friendly Intur office. Canoe trips down shady creeks with iguanas basking on the banks and egrets on sentry duty can be complemented with kayak excursions, taking care to avoid the El Diablo Rapids which were the bane of pirates like Henry Morgan. It was a barrier that also contributed to the scrapping of plans to build a canal here from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The sixteenth century castle also has a fascinating history with the daring exploits of a young Nelson logged in the informative museum.
We also were taken by a guide, Miguel, through tropical woodland spotting toucans and parakeets on our way to the tiny village of El Gavilan. Here, a local woman in her simple home showed us how to make tortillas from first principles. Our versions were pale imitations but it was great fun trying. Lying in a hammock or slouched in a rocking chair on the balcony of the Albergue El Castillo, tremendous value at US$30 for a double room (try to get room nine as it has a private bathroom for two more dollars) it was easy to understand why the few tourists there rated this part of Nicaragua so highly.
Borders, at the quayside, is an attractive bolt hole serving scrumptious sandwiches and juices but for the speciality of the area, river prawns, you cannot beat Cefalitos. An item which does not appear on the menu is the opportunity to chat to the local restaurant owners and their families, but this became commonplace and added greatly to the enjoyment of the holiday.
From here, there is a scenic nine hour ferry voyage from the River San Juan at San Carlos to Ometepe, a romantic island with two volcanoes. Undoubtedly, the boat stops are the highlight of the week for the villages and you get a true sense of rural life as the people crowd the jetties. Beyond Ometepe, the adventure continues via Rivas, the Pacific coast beaches of San Juan del Sur and the Corn Islands on the Caribbean side.
The highlights of the trip were Granada and the Rio San Juan area; travelling independently , we found it very safe and it was a joy to meet so many friendly and hospitable people. Now that we have discovered the truth behind the myths we would recommend everyone to discover Nicaragua for themselves.
Relaxing in a rocking chair sipping the local rum Flora de Cana and overlooking the central square in Granada, thronging with Easter parades, it is easy to appreciate the attractions of Nicaragua. For now it is still largely undiscovered and having revealed the truth behind the myths, we are busy recommending the country to all our friends.