Nicaragua is a nation of rebuilding, where people and cultures constantly reinvent and re-imagine themselves to overcome the hardships and disasters that shaped this country. No one I have ever met says “Hey honey, its vacation time, lets go to Nicaragua!” but the facts are just this: They should. Nicaragua is called “the land of lakes and volcanoes” for its stunning geography, but the people and the food are what I love most, and on the Caribbean side of the country are some of the most beautiful islands you will ever see, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg to see them. Fly into Bluefields and then on to Corn Island and you will be amazed. While I was there I also took in a pro baseball game in Managua between Managua and Grenada. I also attended a night time Ortega rally but I digress … here are some other fun things to do while you are in Nicaragua.
In Managua, the Laguna Tiscapa canopy tour sends you rocketing over the crater on three cable-connected platforms (tel. 505/888-2566, 9-5:30 Tues.-Sun., $15 for foreigners, $10 for Nicas). The broad panoramas are some of the best in the capital. On the northeast side of Laguna Tiscapa is the site of the old U.S. Embassy, leveled during the earthquake that wiped out Managua 3 decades ago.
Head out to Masaya (about a 30-minute drive from Managua) and check out the Tiangue, a unique food collective outside the ancient Cathedral in the center of the town. About 3 dozen stands line the square, there’s live music and the food offerings are all prepared by Nica grandmas who are happy to let you taste their fare which ranges from Mocilla to grilled fish, from roasted chicken to roasted iguana.
Get up and have a quick start in the Mayoreo Market (which is about ten minutes from the airport) where there are idling buses that sell popular street foods in greasy plastic baggies. Grab a bus north on the Pan-American Highway, rising with the landscape and get a local bus, preferably one that goes to Matagalpa. At every stop on the 3 hour trip vendors swarm the bus vending common foods with uncommon twists, like cabbage salad with fried pork skin, chilies and lime. Stop at Don Juan Papaya’s for soup or Antojitos, a roadside café that serves grilled chicken, pork, armadillo, beef and boa constrictor.
While in the highlands of Matagalpa, tour Selva Negra coffee plantation and have dinner in the ancient dining room. The homemade German sausages and cheeses are top notch. I stayed in the rooms there as well, and it’s beautiful. All the rooms are small stone and wood cabins with fireplaces. In the morning I toured Sol Café where the cupping lab is located to see firsthand the buyers and tasters in action. The cupping is often described as a type of wine-tasting experience.
In Granada, you can head to the Gran Francia Arcangel, a colonial boutique hotel, where its restoration is a metaphor for Nicaraguan reinvention as a whole. This is Nicaragua’s most storied hotel and one of the oldest European buildings in the Americas. Sit on the veranda and watch the action go down each night in the town square. Granada is a perfectly preserved colonial Spanish city and one of the most beautiful towns in the Americas. You can also visit Casa San Francisco which has a killer bar and restaurant, right out of a movie set. Los Chocoyos and Café Lucas are pretty cool as well. I ate a nice meal at Casa San Francisco that included:
• Mixed local fruits: nispero, pera de agua, green mango, icacos and star fruit from Masaya.
• Chontales cheese … aged and soft, but the twist is it is served in the Caribbean style, where they allow the cheese to age in the heat for long enough to produce large juicy cheese worms, which are eaten as a delicacy.
• sapote fruit milkshake
• Roasted wild Iguana, marinated in sour orange, cumin, achiote and other local flavors, and then eaten served whole, surrounded with locally grown vegetables in season. The crispy skin on the outside like a duck a lórange.
In Granada I also think you should check out Volcan Mombacho Cutirre Farm (coffee and canopy tour; best views, hardest to get to). Book through Mombotours in Granada (Calle Atravesada, next to BDF, tel. 505/552-4548, www.mombotours.com). The 15-kilometer ride to the Cutirre Farm takes longer than you’d expect (up to 90 minutes each way). The canopy tour, suspended from 14 of the giant shade trees on the coffee farm, is a professional, safe system of 17 platforms, a hanging bridge, and 13 horizontal zip lines, ending with a 23-meter rappel from a massive ceiba tree.