Directly north of Costa Rica, Central America’s darling of tourism, sits Nicaragua. In the past four decades, this little nation has been rocked by tragedy after tragedy – earthquake, civil war, hurricane – which increased poverty and decreased tourism. However, Nicaragua is back on the rise for people looking for a real taste of Central America instead of the over-developed tourist industry (and over-developed prices) of Costa Rica. Rich culture, stunning sights, unique adventures, kind people – what’s not to love? Here are the top 5 things to do to Nicaragua:
1. Volcano Boarding How many people can say that they’ve tobogganed down an active volcano? Make your way to the colonial gem of León, and you can be one of them. Cerro Negro is Central America’s newest volcano and one of the most active in Nicaragua with its last explosion in 1999. Its black, basaltic ash gives it a stark contrast against the surrounding green hills and deep blue sky. More importantly, it also provides an excellent surface for volcano boarding. Hike up the volcano with a board, take in the clear views of the seven volcanoes in Nicaragua, and skate down the side of the volcano – quickly, before the volcano erupts again.
2. Isla de Ometepe Formed by two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is the world’s largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake. Challenge yourself by hiking up one of the volcanoes – Concepción is taller and still active while Maderas is a muddy hike with a forested crater lake at the top. Explore the petroglyphs scattered around the island, and stay on the lookout for monkeys and funny-looking birds. Take a dip in the inconceivably blue waters of Ojo de Agua. This island provides plenty to do in its natural splendor, but you can simply enjoy the slow pace of life, the kindness of the locals, and breath-taking views. In any direction you look, there will be a volcano peeking over lush green fauna and the lake sloshing nearby.
3. Cooking Class Food can capture the essence of a culture – history, agriculture, taste – in one bite. Learning to cook the dishes only provides a deeper insight into that while being interactive, informative and fun. Nicaraguan cooking is seemingly simple but subversively complex with all the flavors of the land incorporated into its unique flavor. Learn how to make a proper pot of gallo pinto (rice and beans) or just how many different things you can do with yucca and plantains. Buy your ingredients in sprawling and hectic markets along with handicrafts and knickknacks. Savor your own spoonful of indio viejo or, if you’re bold enough, sopa de garrobo – that is, iguana soup.
4. Somoto Canyon Tucked away in the tiny cowboy town of Somoto is a canyon – a pretty big canyon. It was only discovered and revealed the world outside of Somoto in 2004, and since then, it has been steadily growing as an attraction by all those who make their way to this remote town in northern Nicaragua. Depending on how long you want to hike – 2 hours or 2 days – you can explore the five-miles of canyon, either by taking the high road and peering into the canyon from cliff edges 150 meters above or by paddling, wading and swimming through the river running through the canyon.
5. Nicaraguan Cock Fight Is this morally questionable? Certainly. However, as something embedded and distinct in Nicaraguan culture, it is not to be missed if you are looking to engage with locals and experience something different. Cock fighting is one of the most popular sports in Nicaragua, and it brings different classes of society together every weekend to the cockfighting arenas scattered all across the country. Whether you watch the fight or bet on a rooster or do neither, it’s impossible not to soak in the excitement and enthusiasm of all the other Nicas at the arena, spurring on the roosters with cheers and jeers. However, it’s more fun to let your hair down, grab a liter of Toña beer, and get swept up in the madness for a day.