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Birdlife, beaches, volcanoes… Nicaragua offers a wealth of riches for intrepid travellers

Waving his wine glass at the Pacific surf thundering in the moonlight, Mike asks: ‘Why don’t more Brits know about Nicaragua? It’s paradise!’

I was having dinner with Mike and Flo from Cambridgeshire on a magnificent, wild, private beach. After three weeks in the Central American country, I was the first British person they’d come across.

Mike, Flo and I were the sole guests at Morgan’s Rock, an ecolodge set in a 4,000-acre jungle estate. Where else would three tourists have such a place to themselves?

Glorious though it was, it felt almost overwhelming as I felt my way by torchlight back over the swaying hanging bridge to my luxurious hideaway, in the treetops, the ocean thundering below.

 Vibrant: On a tour of Nicaragua, Charlotte Metcalf explores Nicaragua Lake (above) and its 365 isletas, tiny islands formed from Mombacho Volcano’s eruption over 20,000 years ago

Charlotte stays at Morgan¿s Rock (above), a luxurious hideaway of an ecolodge that's set in a 4,000-acre jungle estate

Charlotte stays at Morgan’s Rock (above), a luxurious hideaway of an ecolodge that’s set in a 4,000-acre jungle estate

'To say few of us go to Nicaragua is an understatement,' writes Charlotte

‘To say few of us go to Nicaragua is an understatement,’ writes Charlotte 

To say few of us go to Nicaragua is an understatement. Most know virtually nothing about the country, other than that Bianca Jagger hails from there, that it produces cigars and has a febrile, revolutionary past.

Yet Nicaragua is a revelation. Bordered by Honduras and Costa Rica, its beaches and natural habitat are more than a match for Costa Rica’s, and Nicaragua also has old colonial cities, rich in culture and beauty. Tourists had begun to trickle back some eight years ago following political unrest. But there were more protests in 2018, and then along came Covid.

For a while, the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel there, but on January 31, 2022, this was lifted and Nicaragua could be visited again.

The country’s history and Left-wing politics are complex but they’re worth reading about, as landing in the capital Managua can feel like arriving in an ailing, experimental utopia, and I wasn’t sure I liked it at first.

The Santiago of Managua Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, a city that was almost entirely rebuilt in the aftermath of a devastating 1972 earthquake

The Santiago of Managua Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, a city that was almost entirely rebuilt in the aftermath of a devastating 1972 earthquake

'Landing in the capital Managua (above) can feel like arriving in an ailing, experimental utopia,' writes Charlotte

‘Landing in the capital Managua (above) can feel like arriving in an ailing, experimental utopia,’ writes Charlotte 

Folk dancers in Granada, Nicaragua¿s oldest European-founded city

Folk dancers in Granada, Nicaragua’s oldest European-founded city

After the devastating 1972 earthquake, Managua was almost entirely rebuilt, and the country feels young, hard-won and idealistic, with its political slogans and huge posters of a smiling President Daniel Ortega.

High above the city looms a silhouette, like a giant Sandeman sherry advertisement, of the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino in his distinctive hat. It was he who led the successful rebellion against American occupation between 1927 and 1933.

I visited an artificial peninsula, designed for family fun with brightly painted benches and food shacks under palms planted in regimented rows. At the entrance is a billboard bearing a stirring quote from Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende about striving for a better society. But on a windswept Sunday morning, the shacks were shuttered and it was deserted — dismal as Disneyland in the rain

Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest European-founded city. I found it enchanting, full of brightly painted colonial mansions, churches and a cathedral. On Sundays, joyous clapping and guitar playing drifts from evangelical services and families gather in the main square to eat vigoron — pork crackling with cassava and spicy cabbage.

The city is popular with expats who can be found drinking coffee on the deep, shaded verandah of the elegant, historic Hotel Plaza Colon, where horsedrawn carriages wait for tourists under the dusty fig trees.

Lilian and Fred from Canada, who live in Granada half the year, tell me: ‘We just love it here.’

The 'enchanting' city of Granada, above, is full of brightly painted colonial mansions, churches and a cathedral

The ‘enchanting’ city of Granada, above, is full of brightly painted colonial mansions, churches and a cathedral

Charlotte spotted howler monkeys on a boat tour around Nicaragua Lake (file photo)

Charlotte spotted howler monkeys on a boat tour around Nicaragua Lake (file photo) 

Much of Granada’s allure lies in its proximity to Nicaragua Lake and its 365 isletas, tiny islands formed from Mombacho Volcano’s eruption over 20,000 years ago. I took a boat tour around the vast lake and spotted howler monkeys, cormorants, terns, ospreys, egrets, kingfishers and a rare great blue heron, then stayed at Jicaro ecolodge on an isleta.

Jicaro is set in its own tiny jungle, with nine luxury cabins (or casitas) among the trees and beautiful decks overlooking the lake where you can do yoga or just eat dinner as the sun sets.

Volcanoes are integral to Nicaragua and I was there when Nik Wallenda, the American highwire artist, walked 1,800 feet on a steel cable over the active Masaya crater. I watched it on television in the cloister by the gardens of Hotel El Convento in Leon. Cooks ran from the kitchen to photograph it on their phones, as the nation held its breath.

During Charlotte's visit, American highwire artist Nik Wallenda walked 1,800 feet on a steel cable over the active Masaya crater (above)

During Charlotte’s visit, American highwire artist Nik Wallenda walked 1,800 feet on a steel cable over the active Masaya crater (above) 

Charlotte stayed at Jicaro (above), an ecolodge that's set in its own tiny jungle, with nine luxury cabins (or casitas) among the trees

Charlotte stayed at Jicaro (above), an ecolodge that’s set in its own tiny jungle, with nine luxury cabins (or casitas) among the trees 

They were still dismantling the highwire towers when I visited Nindiri a few days later. Local tourists, eager to see where Wallenda had crossed, jostled each other good-naturedly to look over the edge, marvelling at the fiery ferocity of the mighty volcano.

Nicaragua’s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro, rises like a 728m heap of soot north of Nicaragua Lake. Daredevils cycle and motorbike down it. But its soft gravel is also ideal for wooden sledge-boarding, which I tried for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Nearby are the San Jacinto mudpots, openings in the Earth’s crust that bubble with boiling clay and sulphurous gases. The eerie, ancient landscape was almost deserted, except for a small girl scooping up the therapeutic clay, which she sold in plastic bags.

Charlotte tried wooden sledge-boarding down Nicaragua¿s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro (above), for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill

Charlotte tried wooden sledge-boarding down Nicaragua’s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro (above), for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill

Ometepe is a big twin-coned volcanic island in Nicaragua Lake and home to Charco Verde Ecological Reserve, full of birds and a butterfly sanctuary that plays classical music ‘to inspirate’ the Blue Prince butterflies shimmering among the orchids and hibiscus. Afterwards I walked round the almost-deserted lagoon.

Nicaraguan beaches rival any in the world, and those on the south Pacific, like Popoyo, Sardinas, Maderas and Colorado, are popular with American surfers. 

I arrived in San Juan del Sur, a crescent-shaped bay, overlooked by a huge statue of Christ, where I ate brunch in a cafe playing Neil Young, before travelling on to Morgan’s Rock.

Waves roll in at eye-catching Popoyo beach (above) along the Pacific coast

Waves roll in at eye-catching Popoyo beach (above) along the Pacific coast 

Charlotte settled in for brunch in San Juan del Sur (above), a bay that's overlooked by a huge statue of Christ

Charlotte settled in for brunch in San Juan del Sur (above), a bay that’s overlooked by a huge statue of Christ 

The Charco Verde Ecological Reserve is home to a butterfly sanctuary

The Charco Verde Ecological Reserve is home to a butterfly sanctuary 

A ranger and his driver took me looking for sloths in an open jeep. We did not see any but spotted many monkeys and squirrels.

A tiny propeller plane will take you to the Corn Islands, off the opposite Caribbean coast. I’d heard Little Corn was wonderful, so from Big Corn I hopped over on the ferry, a narrow, open panga with a motor.

Fellow passengers shrieked with glee as we thudded over the waves. Despite the jolly atmosphere, it was as close as I got to feeling scared on my trip.

There are no cars or motorbikes on Little Corn, so I followed a boy with my luggage in a wheelbarrow to Beach And Bungalow, a Robinson Crusoe castaway fantasy.

Nicaraguan beaches rival any in the world, Charlotte reveals. Above is the beachfront Mandla hotel along the Pacific coast

Nicaraguan beaches rival any in the world, Charlotte reveals. Above is the beachfront Mandla hotel along the Pacific coast 

The 'splendid, baroque wedding-cake cathedral' in the city of Leon

The ‘splendid, baroque wedding-cake cathedral’ in the city of Leon 

TRAVEL FACTS

Careli Tours offers a ten-day trip at £3,106 pp with twin or double rooms. Also includes private transport, domestic flights, guide, breakfast, all meals at Jicaro Lodge, accommodation in the hotels mentioned and local taxes (carelitours.com). American Airlines flies to Managua via Miami for £1,567 return (americanairlines.co.uk). More information at vianica.com and reallatinamerica.com. 

No one here did much more than lie in a hammock and gaze at the sea. It harked back to days of a purer, simpler Caribbean but with delicious food and generous, inventive cocktails served from the Turned Turtle beach restaurant.

Perhaps most charming of all about Nicaragua is its poetic soul. Its national hero is Ruben Dario, the poet who died of alcoholism in 1916 aged 49. Statues of him abound and every citizen can quote the line from El Retorno, loosely translated as, ‘Though our homeland is small, we dream it big.’

These words are chalked up on cafe blackboards, painted on walls and emblazoned above the portal of the cathedral in Managua.

I visited Dario’s house in his hometown of Leon, considered to be Nicaragua’s intellectual capital. Leon also boasts a splendid, baroque wedding-cake cathedral, a fascinating Museum of the Revolution and the Oritz-Gurdian collection of Latin American art, housed in two fine old mansions, which were the presidential residence before the capital moved to Managua.

The joy of Nicaragua is that it feels undiscovered yet offers a good infrastructure and plenty of excellent resorts and hotels. I travelled with Careli Tours, which supplied me with knowledgeable, friendly guides throughout.

Nicaragua still feels exotically ‘other’ without the sterile reference points of global tourism. It might have felt lonely at times, but in today’s world a sense of having a largely uncharted country to yourself is an increasingly elusive luxury.

Already, McDonald’s and international hotel chains are in the capital, so visit before this exquisite country is trampled upon.

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