Nicaragua: Land of lakes and volcanoes

Rupert Parker discovers why Nicaragua has shaken off its turbulent past to become a tempting escape


Mombacho Volcano and boat (Photo: Rupert Parker)

Looming above me is the distinctly cone-shaped Telica Volcano and there’s a strong smell of sulphur in the air as I warily avoid the small stones thrown up from the boiling mud pools all around me. This is an infernal landscape of super-heated mud, steam and noxious fumes. In the midst of it all a horse grazes nonchalantly.

I’m in Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America, a land of lakes and volcanoes. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is characterised by intense volcanic and seismic activity, shifting tectonic plates lie just below its surface. There are 19 volcanoes, with seven classified as active, and the country’s history is just as tumultuous.

First there was the brutal Spanish conquest, then the long struggle for independence, only to be followed by civil war between the two cities of León and Granada in the 19th century.

In the 20th, the long Somoza dictatorship was finally overturned by the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, with the consequent Contra civil war running through the 1980s.

But now, all is calm and peaceful and some of the best roads in Central America make it an easy country to get around. Like most visitors, I start in Managua, founded back in 1819 as a tiny fishing village on the southern shores of Lake Managua.

In 1852 it became the country’s capital in order to defuse the violent rivalry between León and Granada — but located in a region of high seismic activity, a devastating earthquake in 1931 levelled much of the city, killing thousands.

Then 40 years later, on December 23, 1972, another quake with a magnitude of 6.2 devastated the city once again and more than 10,000 people lost their lives. As a result, the city was redesigned and rebuilt to be seismic-resistant and it’s now one of the greenest cities in Central America.

For one of the best overviews of the city, I climb the hill of Loma de Tiscapa, crowned by a huge steel silhouette of Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto C Sandino.

He was assassinated here and his men were tortured and executed in the basement prisons of what was once the presidential palace, itself completely destroyed in the 1972 earthquake.

Laid out below me are the remains of the city’s historic centre, dominated by the ruined cathedral. It was severely damaged by both earthquakes and stands as a poignant reminder of the city’s devastation.

It sits on the edge of the Plaza de la Revolución, along with the magnificent parliament building, another rare survivor, which now houses the National Museum of Nicaragua.

A modern park, containing revolutionary leader Carlos Fonseca’s tomb, leads to Puerto Salvador Allende, on the lakefront. This is where Managua’s locals come to relax and it’s crammed with restaurants, small kiosks and stands offering everything from local food to sophisticated international dining.

From the capital, Granada is only around an hour away to the south-east. Founded in 1524 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas.

Now celebrating its 500th anniversary, its colonial pastel-coloured buildings line cobblestone streets, making it an attractive place to explore, and sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.

The main square, the vibrant Parque Central, all lush greenery and sparkling fountains, is dominated by the iconic Cathedral of Granada.

Its striking yellow facade and imposing bell towers make an excellent backdrop for daily life. Food stands, market stalls, even karaoke on a big stage, are some of the evening attractions for Granada’s residents and tourists alike.

From here, the pedestrianised Calle La Calzada, leads down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua. The street is lined with the city’s grandest colonial mansions whose ornate facades now house some of the best restaurants and bars. Even better, it’s perfectly safe at night and you dine under the stars in the middle of the street.

From the waterfront Malecón, small boats set out to visit Las Isletas, more than 350 small islands formed thousands of years ago by volcanic eruptions. Some are densely forested and teeming with wildlife, while others boast luxurious private residences and boutique eco-lodges.

It’s best to go in late afternoon when the light shows the lush vegetation, trees and water at their best. Howler monkeys swing from the treetops, exotic birds soar overhead, and the imposing Mombacho Volcano looms in the distance.

Spectacular sunsets paint the sky in hues of orange and pink, casting a magical glow over the tranquil waters of the lake.

The distinctive cone of Mombacho, at 1,345m, dominates Granada’s skyline but is classified dormant, with the last eruption in 1570. Its slopes are covered with lush cloud forest teeming with biodiversity, providing a habitat for rare orchids, colourful butterflies, and unique wildlife.

Hiking paths lead to each of its four craters and I set out on the Puma Trail which winds past fumaroles, steam vents, and hot springs.

Nearby sits the active Masaya Volcano, which last erupted in 2012. Unlike Mombacho, there’s no scenic conical peak, just multiple chambers and vents churning out gas fumes and smoke.

Usually, you can drive right up to the rim of the Santiago crater to peer into billowing plumes of smoke and glowing embers but my visit coincides with seismic landslips, which make access too dangerous.

There’s more to discover in Nicaragua than cities and volcanoes though. In the mountains of the north, Matagalpa is the capital of coffee production.

There’s even a museum where you can learn about the history of the brew, from its origins in Ethiopia to its introduction here by German immigrants in the mid-19th century.

The town witnessed many violent struggles of its own throughout the 20th century and another museum, dedicated to the revolution, details this bloody history.

Outside in the hills above, the Selva Negra eco-resort is an organic coffee plantation which also produces its own fruit and vegetables. Guides take you through all stages of coffee production and also lead you through the surrounding cloud forest. It makes a relaxing place to overnight with its own organic produce served in its restaurant.

The second-largest city in Nicaragua lies around 90 miles to the west — and León is also the second to bear the name.

The first was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba but was abandoned in 1610 after being buried by an eruption of the Momotombo volcano. It was only rediscovered in 1960, with the low walls and foundations giving an idea of the original layout, and León Viejo now has Unesco status.

Present-day León has its own rich colonial heritage, similar to Granada but twice the size. The city is the focus for Nicaragua’s political, intellectual and artistic life, making it a major cultural hub in Central America. The country’s most celebrated poet, Rubén Darío, spent his youth here and his house is now a museum.

At the heart of the city, lies the Unesco-listed León Cathedral, the largest in Central America. Built in the 18th century, this impressive structure features a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical architectural styles, with stunning views out over the city from its rooftops.

And just over that horizon, around 30 minutes from Leon, I finish my own journey at Las Peñitas on the Pacific coast.

The soft golden sands stretch for miles and are lined with a variety of beachfront restaurants and hotels. The sea is perfectly safe for swimming, making this is the ideal place to relax after time exploring the country.

And as I watch the sun sinking into the waves of the Pacific Ocean, sipping a cocktail of Nicaragua’s own Flor de Caña rum, it’s easy to forget the turmoil of the past hundred years.​

Getting There

​There are no direct flights from the UK to Nicaragua, but flights from Heathrow to Managua with Iberia cost from around £1,000 via Miami, or from around £600 with United via Houston. You can also fly via Mexico City with Aeromexico from around £1,800.

Rooms at Selva Negra eco-resort cost from around £60 per night.

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