My current home, America, has quite an odd attitude to risk – and never more so than when residents or visitors set out to have fun. Its national parks, though billed as vast tracts of wilderness, are policed by rangers of startling bossiness. The simplest children’s birthday outing involves signing sheaves of legal waivers. In happy contrast, Nicaragua is a country that treats visitors like grown-ups able to take decisions for themselves. This is just as well, for the Central American nation is built around nine active volcanoes, and in living memory has been battered by earthquakes, revolution and civil war. It is one of many reasons to like Nicaragua – and to hasten there for a holiday before the world discovers its lush jungles, near empty beaches and mansion-filled colonial towns.
Taking a late summer break from the American election trail, my family of four – two adults and two children aged 13 and 12 – spent a magical fortnight touring the country’s south-east. An early stop took in the Volcán de Masaya, a volcano so seethingly active that, as locals proudly bragged: “National Geographic just sent a film crew.” A feebler country might close such a volcano to the public. Instead, park bosses pondered probabilities and decreed that visitors can still drive to its top, but may only stay five minutes. The rule is enforced. A park guard chides tourists who spend too long posing by the lip of the main crater, though he must shout to be heard above the molten lava roaring far below, and the chatter of green parakeets that live on the crater’s slopes. Some tourists pretend to ignore him, but few tarry long – and it is noticeable that every car is parked with its nose pointing downhill.
The cathedral in León, a raffish, student-filled city near the Pacific coast, is not just the largest church in Central America, and the burial place of the modernist poet Rubén Darío. It also stands out for letting visitors buy tickets to walk all over its vast, whitewashed roof, on condition that shoes are removed first and that they do not walk onto any domes (a sign shows a rule-breaking tourist falling through a fragile cupola to his doom). The experience is worth the climb and any vertigo suffered. Exploring the roof’s white expanse, gazing at a horizon filled with volcanoes, feels like being in an avant-garde film about the afterlife.
The region’s youngest volcano, a black cone called the Cerro Negro, has regularly menaced nearby León with showers of ash since its formation in 1850. More recently, tour guides have built a thriving business allowing visitors, should they be so foolhardy, to rent wood-and-metal boards and “surf” down its flanks. Teenagers being precisely that foolhardy, we hiked up the volcano for two hours, wide ash-boards strapped across our backs so that we each resembled Buzz Lightyear, as our guide kindly pointed out. Guides supply ample water, protective jumpsuits, gloves and goggles. Seismic sensors keep an eye on volcanic activity, and fumaroles venting hot, sulphurous gases are pointed out. But at a certain point, if people wish to imperil life and limb, that is their lookout. While my children donned green and yellow safety-suits, a gaggle of foreigners could be seen at the top of the same slope. One was putting on skis he had carried to the summit, while another carefully dressed himself as Spiderman.
Nicaragua is a poor country. Its government, controlled by the once leftist now popularist Sandinista National Liberation Front, bans opposition politicians and rigs elections, but is more bossy and corrupt than bloodily tyrannical. At least outside the capital, Managua, Nicaragua is safer than such troubled neighbours as Honduras or Guatemala. Villages boast schools, to which children walk or bicycle in white shirts and blue trousers. In affluent areas especially, children are much doted-upon: we watched as a father wearily cycled around the baseball stadium in Masaya, towing a portly boy on roller skates at the end of a rope. Behind them the stadium bore Sandinista slogans in pastel blues and pinks: “Live Cleanly, Live Healthily, Live Well!”
Many activities are cheaper than in long-established destinations, such as Costa Rica. We rode horses along the shore of Lake Nicaragua, took surfing lessons on the Pacific coast and went zip-lining through the canopies of vast cedars and fig trees at the Hacienda El Progreso, a handsome old coffee estate (the equipment was high-quality and safety rules strict). In the rainy season, when we went, bookings are rarely needed for activities. That makes it possible to drive on a whim to such stunning spots as the Laguna de Apoyo, a lake-filled crater in a forested bowl, and swim or rent kayaks for a few dollars from a waterside café.
There are colonial cities to rival those of Mexico or Cuba. The finest, Granada and León, offer hotels converted from old Spanish mansions, often with a swimming pool and garden squeezed into a central courtyard. Many offer large rooms and outstanding breakfasts of local coffee, fresh fruit, eggs and bread. After dark, the tree-shaded central squares of Granada and León fill with locals taking the evening air and tourists heading to restaurants which, while rarely outstanding, offer solid Italian, Spanish or Mexican standards. They offer history, too: tales of 17th-century pirate attacks in Granada, and leftist revolutionary murals in León.
Best of all are the landscapes unique to the country, notably on the Isla de Ometepe, an island formed by two tall, forest-clad volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, linked by a narrow isthmus. Mark Twain saw the island in 1867; in the days before railways had crossed America, travellers sailing from San Francisco to New York would often pass through Nicaragua. Marvelling at Ometepe’s beauty, Twain noted an effect visible a century and a half later: the thick mist that often shrouds its twin peaks, even when “not a cloud is visible elsewhere in the heavens”.
Islanders are justly proud of their home, whether guiding tourists by kayak along rivers filled with herons and fish-eating caimans or leading hikers up the Volcán de Concepción. We stayed in an eco-lodge near the summit of Maderas, the island’s second, inactive volcano. The lodge’s gardens and open-sided restaurant boasted views worthy of a Bond villain’s lair. Dawn brought the eerie, dragon-like roaring of howler monkeys. The children were less impressed by the lodge’s other residents – scorpions and hairy spiders which lurked in dark corners, enlivening bedtimes. Still we found Ometepe a wonderful, languid place, down to the Sunday baseball games played between villages. Is your village good at baseball, I asked a spectator at a game in the hamlet of Balgüe? “More or less,” was his reply. The crew of our ferry off the island had a dark sense of humour: the dvd player in the passengers’ cabin was showing “Titanic”.
Driving in Nicaragua is not relaxing. Though highways are paved, long-distance lorries do battle with the old American school buses that provide public transport, as well as horses, cows and bicycles. A novel car game involved asking the children to spot police speed traps in advance, after I was twice pulled over. The traps are unsubtle but effective: traffic officers ask for a driving licence which they place in a clipboard, announcing that it will be held to await proof that a fine has been paid at a particular bank in Managua, a process that will take some days. Alternatively, and this suggestion is made with some delicacy, the situation can be resolved on the spot, with cash. Keeping to the speed limit is no protection: I was stopped on a rural highway for exceeding an unmarked special limit of 25kph (15mph), a speed only slightly above a brisk jog. Once you get the hang of the system, however, it is satisfying to spot a police check and trundle through at 25kph, as officers gaze in mute frustration.
Some areas, such as the Pacific Coast, are so pretty that they will need luck to escape over-development. That said, the pristine, almost deserted beach on which we stayed, Playa Marsella, does boast a natural defence: a lagoon at one end filled with wildlife that might alarm some. This being Nicaragua, visitors are allowed to weigh the dangers for themselves, thanks to signs reading: “It is forbidden to feed the alligator”. As for Lake Nicaragua, a Chinese tycoon is supposedly planning to dredge a giant shipping canal through it, though the project has been long delayed.
Nicaragua is a country on the brink of becoming much better-known. The greatest risk might be waiting to visit.
How to get there Fly to Managua via Miami, Atlanta, Houston or Mexico City – don’t be surprised to be sharing a plane with American missionary tourists, sporting matching T-shirts and toting crates of donated clothes or baby supplies. Many hotels will organise shuttle vans for those who would rather not drive. If renting a car consider a four-wheel drive: minor roads can be rough. Several ferries serve the Isla de Ometepe: book a couple of days ahead if taking a car on the boat.
Where to stay Nicaragua is good value. Granada is home to boutique hotels in restored mansions, costing $100 a night or less. Fine choices include the Hotel Colonial, the Hotel Los Patios, the Casa del Consulado and the Gran Francia. In León good spots include the well-placed Hotel Azul (from $50 a night) and La Perla. On the Isla de Ometepe nothing beats the Totoco Eco-Lodge for stunning views, laid-back chic and friendly staff, but be willing to shoo spiders from your composting lavatory (from $100). The Pacific coast offers comfort at the Pelican Eyes Resort (from $180), perched above San Juan Del Sur and, half an hour north, beachside luxury at the Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, which boasts its own private jungle reserve ($300 a night and up). We stayed at the plain but excellent-value Casa Bahia above quiet Playa Marsella (from $100).
What to eat There is a reason Central American restaurants do not ring the globe. Do try such local staples as quesillo, a corn tortilla with soft cheese and pickled onions; those wanting a break from stodge will find grilled chicken and steaks in the main towns. Breakfasts are a highlight, with excellent coffee and local fruit. León is home to a startlingly good bakery, Pan y Paz.
What to do Nicaragua packs a lot into a small area, often with an eco-conscious, family-friendly vibe. In addition to volcano-surfing, try turtle-watching on the Pacific coast, touring coffee plantations, kayaking down jungle rivers. The Caribbean coast offers perfect white sands and snorkelling in turquoise waters but is not for the timid: infrastructure can be basic and security sketchy. Rainy season, from May to November, brings lower prices and fewer tourists; lucky travellers will still enjoy frequent sunny spells.