Nicaragua is no newcomer to revolution. From Banana Wars, to Sandinistas, and Contras, the country has long been associated with upheaval. But a new kind of transformation is taking place in Nicaragua, as an adventuresome cadre of native and expat pioneers are fostering Nicaragua’s fledgling tourist industry. Intrepid travelers who venture to Nicaragua now will discover a wildly divergent destination at a penny-pinching price.
So is the Nicaragua travel experience for you? Well, that depends. Can you find joy in the arresting beauty of a starlit jungle sky during yet another power outage? Can you appreciate the earnest crowing of a rooster, even if the boisterous bird trumps your efforts to sleep in your otherwise sophisticated guest quarters? Can you welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with a diverse gathering of your fellow nomads at a communal meal table? Can you find a way to bridge language and cultural barriers to foster positive personal connections with the residents of one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries?
Let there be no doubt. As a travel destination, Nicaragua is a work in progress. For some, the rough edges are deterrents, but for many, Nicaragua’s evolutionary state is the draw.
Nicaragua Travel Planner: When You Go
Most visitors shun Nicaragua’s capitol city, Managua, in favor of the colonial charms of Granada, less than an hour’s drive away. Cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages, colorful building facades, and a lively central plaza lend Granada a timeless quality.
Granada is home to several small, stylish inns, the best of which is a relative newcomer. The seven-room Tribal Hotel is an unexpected den of designer whimsy tucked away on a traditional street near Granada’s central square. Centered on a lushly landscaped courtyard featuring a seductive plunge pool and languorous loungers, the Tribal Hotel is reminiscent of the swank riads of Marrakech. The hotel’s affable proprietor, Ivan Cussigh, directs a talented team that takes delight in your indulgence. The Tribal Hotel strikes the perfect balance between elegant and playful. You will certainly feel you are being teased when you settle your astoundingly reasonable bill.
The relaxed ambiance of Café Espressonista in Granada belies the seriously talented gastronomic inventiveness of the kitchen helmed by Chef Zoltàn Kaman from Hungary. The epicurean exploration begins with a white gazpacho based in almond milk, with watermelon, garlic and sherry wine vinegar, transcends to a pasta-less lentil and roasted vegetable lasagna and ends with a delightfully light passionfruit cheesecake. Café Espressonista’s enlightened culinary creativity rivals the best of cutting edge San Francisco eateries for less than half the cost.
The prime diversion for visitors to Granada is a boat excursion through Las Isletas, the small inhabited islands which dot nearby Lake Nicaragua. An outing through the islands is a fascinating glimpse into an isolated, water-centered culture that seems lost in time. You will see fisherman harvesting their catch by net and by hand, and five-year-old children rowing boats to the remote island school house. The cost of a one hour private boat tour through Las Isletas is a bargain at about $20 per person.
A Granada stay is best complimented with a visit to Nicaragua’s coast. On the Pacific side, surfer-centric Playa Madera offers a cluster of Zen hipster havens given to a gregarious communal lifestyle, with yoga classes and family style dining. Hulakai Hotel, the brainchild of Canadian expats, successfully preserves the chummy camaraderie of a hostel within the contemporary trappings of a boutique hotel. Poised on a hilltop, five-minute’s walk from one of Nicaragua’s best surfing beaches, the Hulakai Hotel delivers laid-back luxury with sunset ocean views.
You will be hard-pressed to tear yourself away from the chill Hulakai Hotel sanctuary, but it is worth putting on your flip flops for a quick trip into nearby San Juan de Sur, if only to hang at the surprisingly sophisticated San Juan del Sur Cerveceria. Cerveceria is a purveyor of $4/pint fresh-brewed craft beer and supremely tasty tapas for little more than pocket change.
Whether you are new to surfing or a seasoned dude, Playa Madera is the place to test your talent. Daily board rentals and hourly lessons cost about $10 each, a small gambit for going gnarly. Other watery diversions in and around Playa Madera include fishing, catamaran cruising, turtle tours and beach horseback rides.