100 Hours of Felicidad in Central America’s New Hotspot


photo: Paul Biondi

One of my favorite books is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. The novel’s fictional town of Macondo, where the illogical is viewed as normal, is as central to the book as the main characters. Although the story is supposed to be set in Marquez’s home country of Colombia, I felt as close to visiting Macondo as I ever have in Nicaragua, this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

Nicaragua is on my mind because a friend of mine just came to me asking for Central America trip ideas. She knows that I have lived and traveled throughout Latin America, so trusted me for some guidance on her next vacation. My advice to her (and to anybody that reads this blog post) is to book a flight to the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. A perfect spot for a four-day – roughly 100 hours – visit.

Nicaragua offers a bit of everything for adventurous travelers – the country possesses jungles teeming with monkeys, parrots, and other exotic animals; pristine, empty beaches; charming colonial towns; vast lakes studded with volcanoes; and even Caribbean islands.

Most Americans know Nicaragua only from the headlines created during the Sandinista Revolution in late 70s and early 80s. Over the last twenty years however, the country has transformed into a peaceful and safe vacation destination. Discovered and frequented by backpackers in the last decade, the country is now developing a burgeoning sector of stylish boutique resorts as well. If you wonder what Costa Rica might have been like 20 years ago, then book a flight to Managua, Nicaragua to find out. Here are two don’t miss areas:

Founded in 1524, Granada offers a surreal mixture of the old and new about an hour southeast of Managua — horse-drawn carriages share the road with ox-carts and motorcycles while centuries-old buildings bear advertisements for cellular phone companies. Parque Colón, the town’s main plaza, comes right out of central casting. A yellow cathedral anchors one end of the tree-covered park and brightly painted facades grace the buildings surround its exterior. To the south looms giant Volcano Mombacho and to the east lays Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.

A parade of humanity uses the plaza as its living room. Old men play cards at rickety tables, women sit gossiping on benches, kids snap old-fashioned clappers, and birds chatter in the trees. The tropical heat slows all movement down to a dreamlike pace.

Hopping in a horse-drawn carriage for a tour of the centro will only heighten your sense of the unreal. Although Granada is in the process of a revival, some of the town’s buildings have yet to be restored after one of the many earthquakes that have shaken the area. You can almost imagine the ghosts wandering through the crumbling buildings whose empty window frames are pierced by flowering tree branches. Your driver will nonchalantly point to a Spanish fort and gun powder storage facility, La Polvora, which was built to protect the town from marauding pirates who would attack the city by sailing in across Lake Nicaragua via de San Juan River from the Caribbean.

A boat ride on the same lake does nothing to dispel the sense of being in a Garcia Marquez novel. Las Isletas, a 365-island archipelago, lies just off the banks of town. Most of the islands are only large enough for a single home. Motoring slowly through the slalom course of islets, you’ll see cows grazing in water up to their shoulders, small children rowing their even smaller siblings in canoes, and bicycles stored in trees. Graceful white egrets skim the waters while oro pendula birds flutter around adding twigs to their sack-like nests.

San Juan del Sur
Located about two and half hours from Managua, San Juan del Sur is the most popular destination on the Pacific Coast. The town itself is a quaint fishing village with as many horse-carts and bicycles as cars. The half-moon bay on which it sits is dotted with fishing and sailboats, while the beachfront along the bay offers thatched-roofed bars and restaurants. Evening is the perfect time to make your way to the bay to drink a cold beer or local Flor de Caña rum and watch the sunset.

This section of coast has seen growth in the more up-scale segment of the market. Two outstanding resorts, Aqua Wellness Resort and Morgan’s Rock Ecolodge, offer the kind of indigenous boutique experiences that will draw more and more travelers to the area. Both are integrated into the surrounding forest and offer delectable fresh cuisine, pristine beaches, and abundant opportunities for wildlife spotting.

Numerous bays create a coastline of un-crowded stretches of sand, each with its own personality. Most are backed by impressive cliffs and thick jungle foliage. Some beaches, like Maderas, are excellent for surfing. Others are the perfect for collecting seashells or watching scuttling hermit crabs. Options in the tropical forest away from the beach include zip-lining, canopy tours, and horseback rides to petroglyphs.

While you can be as active as you choose, one of the beautiful things about visiting Nicaragua is the slow pace of life. Nobody is in a hurry for anything and you shouldn’t be either. It’s the place to turn off your phone, put on your flip-flops, and relax under a palm tree. Be sure to keep an eye out for falling coconuts. Just #tuneit!

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