If the last news you heard from Nicaragua was during its years of upheaval, it’s time to update your perceptions of this Central American nation, which has traded its revolutionary reputation for modern eco-tourism. With new resorts, vibrant colonial cities, powdery Pacific beaches, the world’s largest freshwater volcanic island and plenty of opportunities to shop for traditional crafts, sip locally grown coffee and indulge in a chocolate massage (with Nicaraguan-produced organic cacao, of course), there are numerous reasons to consider a Nicaraguan holiday. We’ve got the scoop on what to do and where to go in “the new Costa Rica.”
Colonial Sights, Contemporary Sleeps
Dating back to the 1500s, Granada is Central America’s oldest city as well as Nicaragua’s most colorful. Less than an hour’s drive from the country’s international airport, the city is known for its vibrantly hued colonial buildings, many of which now house galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels. The city’s centerpiece is its sunshine-yellow Cathedral, a landmark facing the street stalls and bustling cafés in the Parque Central, the main square.
A short walk from the Cathedral, visit Mi Museo, a contemporary gallery that’s home to several thousand pieces of pre-Columbian ceramics from a private collection assembled by a Danish philanthropist that’s now open to the public. Next door, stop into the ChocoMuseo to learn about chocolate production in Nicaragua and, more importantly, sample its unique chocolate tea and other treats. True chocoholics should consider a chocolate-making class (you’ll leave with your own handmade bar) or head for the Choco Spa, where many of the facials, manicures and massages incorporate aromatic chocolate ingredients.
Granada is the center of Nicaragua’s boutique hotel revolution, with several stylish lodgings around the city center. The eclectically furnished, seven-room Tribal Hotel, which New York restaurateur Jean-Marc Houmard (of Indochine and Acme fame) and his business partner Yvan Cussigh opened in 2014, feels like an urban oasis, where you can linger around a palm-fringed pool and sip drinks in the private courtyard.
Another top boutique choice, Los Patios Hotel mixes colonial charm with Scandinavian style. Relax in five separate patios, or challenge your travel companion to a game on the larger-than-life chess set. The best of the lodging’s five rooms is the second-floor Balcony Suite, where the private terrace offers views across the city’s rooftops.
On the same block as Los Patios, you’ll find one of Granada’s best restaurants, El Garaje, where the Canadian owners serve fresh contemporary fare with lots of vibrant vegetables in the front rooms of their restored colonial home. For a traditional Nicaraguan steakhouse experience, complete with white tablecloths, gracious waiters and prime grilled meat, look for El Zaguán on a narrow side street behind the Cathedral; try the chimichurri-style steak with a garlicky-herb sauce. You can get excellent coffee all around town, but Granada’s top café is the modern Espressonista Coffeebar, west of the center on Calle Real Xalteva, a place where you can enjoy your brew in the peaceful shaded courtyard.
Lakes, Volcanoes and Traditional Crafts
When you’ve had your fill of urban sights, head for Granada’s lakeshore, less than 20 minutes from the city center. Just off shore are numerous inlets and islands, which are best explored on a stand-up paddleboard. Scott Schmid and Gea McAnear, the young California-born owners of Livit Water, the region’s first SUP tour company, provide laid-back guided paddles around Granada’s Las Isletas.
Granada is also a convenient base for day trips around the region. Top stops includes excursions to the Masaya Volcano, where you can drive to the edge of the steaming crater, and to the Pueblos Blancos, villages known for their traditional artisans. Also nearby is Laguna de Apoyo, an atmospheric crater lake where the fresh, cool water is perfect for an afternoon swim or kayak excursion. Your Granada hotel can arrange a car and driver for any of these expeditions, and you’ll be back in the city in time for cocktail hour.
For more eco-friendly adventures, hop on the ferry (or take a quick flight) to Ometepe Island, where the peaks of two volcanoes tower over Lake Nicaragua. Here, on the world’s largest freshwater volcanic island, paddle along the sleepy Istian River, where you’ll spot howler monkeys, dozens of tropical birds and even a caiman or two. Tour a cooperatively run coffee plantation and sample its fresh brews, or walk through the forest to view well-preserved pre-Columbian petroglyphs more than 3,000 years old. And if you’re feeling really daring, hike up the Maderas or Concepción volcanoes; either climb is an all-day expedition.
Ometepe doesn’t yet have any true luxury lodgings, but Xalli Hotel, a serene collection of modern air-conditioned cottages just above a black sand beach, is a fine choice. Xalli’s helpful bilingual staff can arrange excursions and transportation, while the restaurant uses island ingredients in its straightforward, well-prepared local and international dishes. In the nearby village of Balgüe, Café Campestre is another excellent farm-to-table eatery that grows its own produce and bakes fresh breads in a wood-fired clay oven.
Yoga, Golf and Spa on the Pacific
When you’re ready to relax, head for Nicaragua’s strikingly beautiful Pacific coast, where contemporary resorts are ramping up the region’s luxury quotient.
Nicaragua’s most deluxe Pacific escape is Mukul, opened in early 2013, with the country’s first beachfront golf course. We also love Aqua Wellness Resort, where the treehouse-style villas — all crafted from local woods — overlook the dramatic Pie de Gigante (Giant’s Foot) rock formation on serene Redonda Bay. At Aqua, start your day with yoga overlooking the sea, then refuel with a fresh fruit smoothie or a hearty Nicaraguan breakfast (eggs, rice, beans and local cheese) before exploring the bay by kayak.
Both of these resorts offer extensive spa treatment menus and soft sandy beaches that are great for lounging. Pull up a chaise and sip a macuá, Nicaragua’s national cocktail blending rum and tropical juices, while you consider your good fortune in experiencing Central America’s latest tourism revolution.