Nicaragua is known as “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” due to the large number of lagoons, freshwater lakes, and volcanos in the country. Today, only 7 of the 50 volcanoes are considered active, yet Nicaragua is one of the ONLY places in the world where you can safely peak into the crater of an active volcano and see red lava flowing at Masaya or go volcano boarding on black sand at Cerro Negro outside Leon.
The chain of volcanoes that runs from north to south along the country’s Pacific Coast is part of the infamous “Ring of Fire” that skirts Asia, Alaska and the Pacific Coast of the Americas where most earthquakes and volcanos are concentrated nowadays.
Many of these volcanoes and lagoons offer great opportunities for tourists to hike, climb, paddle, and swim. In a week full of adventures I was not only able to improve my surfing with the help of Rapture’s superb instructors but I also went on a couple of day trips and saw 4 volcanos (Masaya, Mombacho, Concepcion, Maderas) 2 of which active (Masaya and Concepcion) and swam in a couple of crater lakes heated naturally from the magma underneath (freaky indeed!!!). Tour guide, transportation, and itinerary courtesy of the incredible team at Rapture Nicaragua! (I can’t recommend them high enough!)
Before we get lost down cobblestoned streets in old colonial towns, let’s explore Nicaragua’s incredible nature! The Nicaraguan jungles are considered the lungs of Central America and comprise the second largest rainforest in the Americas. There are currently 78 protected areas in Nicaragua or about 17% of its landmass. The bull shark (aka “Nicaragua shark”) is a species that can survive for an extended period of time in fresh water. It can be found in Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River. It it the ONLY shark that lives in fresh water where it stays for a max of 90 days to breed. While it breeds it doesn’t feed so you can swim at leisure in Lake Nicaragua and not worry. The other “friendly” animal in the water is the cayman – same breeding and behavioral habits apply so don’t worry about them either 🙂 DO worry about snakes, everywhere.
The Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve was created by the eruption of the Apoyo Volcano about 23,000 years ago, which left a huge crater that gradually filled with water. It is the largest volcanic lagoon in Nicaragua and swimming in the crater lake is a must, water is warm and crystal clear and full of minerals. (Yes, you can go in naked 🙂 For the more adventurous there is scuba diving taking you to great depths of the crater.
Masaya is an active volcano with a gaping crater where you can see red lava flowing at night 500m under the surface of the Earth. Mother Nature left me quite speechless there (yes, me 🙂 and I quietly enjoyed the random stories told by the local Park Ranger about the history of the volcano, the changes in the lava flow, and the creation of the National Park. Lava sounds like ocean waves, moves like water, bubbles up like a hot spring, and flows like a river… Do allow time before sunset to visit the Museum at the bottom of the hill so you can learn more about volcanic activity and the Ring of Fire.
On your way to Masaya ask your guide about Diriomo, known as the last city of witches in Nicaragua. Witchcraft is done only on Fridays and only by natives.
Granada was the first European “city” in mainland America preserving some of the finest colonial architecture in Nicaragua. Granada maintained a flourishing commerce with ports on the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River. It was a victim of many invasions from pirates sailing up the same route. The town is very romantic and stunningly beautiful and has so much history, museums, and hidden alleyways to explore. Allow for a couple of days in Granada to leisurely walk down cobblestoned streets, take pictures of colorful facades, enjoy lush inner courts and ride in horse-drawn carriages.
Many centuries ago Mombacho volcano blew most of its cone into the lake, forming the 365 Isletas de Granada (small volcanic rock islands spewed into the lake). Hiking up to the crater of Mombacho is an increasingly popular tourist activity as the volcano has fantastic views of Lake Nicaragua and the city of Granada. The hike is not difficult, just allow plenty of time, wear proper shoes, and carry enough water. The last eruption of Mombacho occurred in 1570 and somehow spared Granada.
Don’t miss lunch at The Garden Cafe! It received international recognition in the NYTimes as one of the must-visit restaurants in Central America. Afterwards visit the Museo de Cacao and peak into the Mansion behind it. Learn about cocoa production in Central America, do an elaborate tasting of their many goods, grab a drink by the pool or indulge in a chocolate spa treatment.
After chocolate come cigars. The Cigar Museum is housed in an imposing building where you can discover why Nicaraguan cigars are on par with Cuban (if not better) and significantly cheaper! At 330pm climb to the top of the bell tower of the oldest church in Granada (Iglesia de Merced) for the daily ring of the bells and fantastic views of the city and peek into the barber shop on the opposite corner for a very authentic experience.
Rapture Surfcamps Nicaragua is located at Playa Maderas a few kilometers outside of San Juan del Sur. Known as Nicaragua’s “sin city” San Juan is the place you go to party should you have any strength left after surfing. Drinks are cheap and the rum is strong!
One of the landmarks to visit in San Juan del Sur is the statue of Jesus de la Misericordia. It is a steep 30-min walk up to the statue but you are rewarded with the best views. Get there between 5-6pm to catch both the daylight over the bay and the sunset to the West. The statue is a “Thank You note” for the restored health of an elderly gentleman. The funny story behind the statue is that Jesus’s hands are turned up as if he is shrugging his shoulders and giving up on the sinners below him (Sin City remember ;-).
If you’d like to add turtle watching to your itinerary, a good place is Playa del Coco where you can go swimming, fishing, and see the turtles at La Flor Wildlife Refuge. Horseback riding at sunset can be arranged at Playa Maderas, the animals are well fed and cared for and the guide will come pick you up straight from Rapture.
Last but not least on my Nicaragua itinerary was La Isla de Ometepe – a tribute trip to my late Grandma who would always ask me for the name of the largest lake in Nicaragua when solving crosswords.
Ometepe Island consists of 2 volcanos in the middle of Lake Nicaragua connected by a narrow black sand beach. You can visit the main attractions on the island in 2 days, but stay an extra night if you are planning to hike a volcano, you’ll need a full day just for that (and a local guide!!!). Concepcion is active and last erupted in 2009, Maderas is dormant and its crater is a forested lake now. If you decide to climb Maderas, allow yourself 8-10 hrs and hire a local guide. It is easy to get lost, trails are not well marked and you wouldn’t know how to avoid dangers in the jungle.
Ometepe Island has very fertile soil thanks to the ash spewn by the volcanos. You will notice men walking around carrying machetes everywhere…you never know when you’ll have to cut a banana or a coconut. Plantains and mangos are Ometepe’s main export not only to Nicaragua but to the whole Central America.
Ojo de Agua was my first stop after getting off the 1hr ferry ride across Lake Nicaragua. It is a natural spring resort in the middle of the jungle famous for its healing waters and the lush nature that surrounds it.
Next we went for “lunch” to El Pital – an organic cocoa farm and chocolate paradise – where you MUST try the Magic Ball special. El Pital also offers aerial yoga in their temple in the middle of the jungle, cacao ceremonies, amazing super foods and smoothies, paddle board rentals and a private beach to swim in Lake Nicaragua.
“Life is too short, eat dessert first.”
For the afternoon I recommend kayaking in Lake Nicaragua and up the Rio Istian which connects the west to the east coast of the island. Book a guided trip from Caballitos Mar to observe wildlife and watch the sunset on your paddle back (for the girls reading this, ask for the boat to tow the kayaks to the river, otherwise your arms will fall off).
Before you head to dinner and find your lodging for the night, book a horseback ride with Harris Horses for next morning to take you up to Cascada de San Ramon waterfall. I recommend spending the night at Casa del Bosque for an authentic but super comfortable and luxurious “finca” experience. Grab dinner and “ron” at Cafe Campestre in Balgue beforehand (same owners).
Cascada de San Ramon is a 180m waterfall where you should be ready to walk deep into the jungle and hop over boulders up a dry river bed to get to your final destination. If you are lucky enough you’ll be rewarded with an empty site where you can bathe naked under a freezing cold waterfall in the steaming hot jungle.
During your horseback ride you will also see the nahuatl statues and petroglyphs on the north west side of Volcano Maderas dating back to 300 AD. You can even swim in Lake Nicaragua with the horses which is a once in a lifetime experience.
Last but not least, before you board the ferry back to the mainland, stop by Punta Jesus Maria for sunset. It is the westernmost point of Ometepe Island and depending on the season and the water level in the lake, the slick of sand can go on for miles.