Author: 
BRYAN DEMCHINSKY
Date: 
3 Dec 2011

Enjoying a peace dividend after years of turmoil, this Central American nation offers empty beaches, exotic wildlife, tropical forests and recreational activities - and prices have yet to catch up with neighbouring Costa Rica.

While driving a back road in Nicaragua last winter, threading through the usual chaos of livestock, ox carts, bicycles and other variable-speed vehicles, I did a double take when I saw a young man riding a big, tawny cow that was saddled up like a horse. He was herding a bunch of cattle that was asserting its right to the roadway as surely as a monster truck.

We were on island of Ometepe, in Lake Nicaragua, and it felt like the land that time forgot.

That sensation that could apply to all of Nicaragua.

After decades of revolution and counter-revolution in the 1990s, the country has returned to the somnolence we expect of a Central American backwater - but it has also been enjoying a peace dividend, and one of the payouts is the interest it is attracting as a memorable place to visit.

Nicaragua has much to offer: empty beaches, exotic wildlife, tropical forests, recreational activities, hotels and restaurants up to the standards of, say, Mexico or Costa Rica. And it's considerably cheaper than Costa Rica. In fact, Nicaragua is a lot like its next-door neighbour was 30 years ago before it was overrun by norteamericanos.

So now is the time to go, before the charter-flight hordes descend.

Here are a few highlights and a couple of cautions gleaned from a three-week family vacation:

Granada is a good place to start. Founded in 1524 on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, it was already more than a century old when Sieur de Maisonneuve set foot on the island of Montreal - in fact it's reputed to be the oldest European-created city in the Americas.

Certainly, it is one of the loveliest. After years of neglect, Granada has been masterfully restored into a jewel box of colonial architecture.

It's a place to explore narrow streets and ancient churches and to hang out in the shady main square. There, a lively crafts market operates daily, offering items better than the usual tourist schlock. Hand-crafted guitars are an example.

Granada also has many of the country's best restaurants and hotels. In terms of cuisine, that's not a major achievement. Nicaragua is a rice and beans, beef and fried plantains kind of place, saved by good, fresh seafood at the beach.

But Granada's hotels are a great deal. Most are of the boutique variety - small, in keeping with the intimate scale of the town, and often organized around an interior courtyard planted with a lush garden. We stayed at the Hotel Casa San Francisco, run by two American women who fell in love with Granada and stayed after an NGO stint. Their place offers doubles for $100 U.S., as does Hotel Dario, one of the swankest in town.

Granada is a place from which to make day trips to nearby attractions. The nearest is Las Isletas, an island-studded patch of Lake Nicaragua rich in wildlife. Guided boat and kayak tours are arranged at Granada hotels.

Also easy to reach is Mombacho, a volcano 10 kilometres from the city. You can drive to the summit or hike a path through a cloud forest to get there.

Another nearby volcano, Apoyo, offers a different experience. Approaching the lip of its crater, you gaze upon a spectacular 48-square-kilometre lake below. Then you can descend a winding, bumpy road to spend a few hours sunbathing, eating and swimming at a resort along its shores.

San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific coast near the Costa Rica border, offers a saltier shoreline. By day, it is a sleepy beach town sweltering under a fierce sun. At night, it livens into the place where Nicaraguans and tourists party to the beat of salsa and cumbia pouring from the seaside clubs.

Nearby are other less developed beaches. A few kilometres to the north is Maduro, a surfing beach. The waves are not large, which makes it an ideal place to learn the sport. There are instructors on hand to teach the basics.

About 40 kilometres south of San Juan, following more of a donkey trail than a road, you find Coco Beach. The tiny village on a tranquil bay lies in a nature preserve where turtles come ashore to lay eggs November through January and howler monkeys patrol the forest canopy.

Coco is ultra sedate, but during Christmas the demand for accommodation spikes and it should be booked well in advance.

You can rent a house here and do your own cooking, ideal if you are travelling as a family or group. We stayed at a place called Parque Maritimo el Coco. The threebedroom house with a large private garden leading to the beach rented for $1,200 U.S. for four nights during Christmas, the most expensive time of the year.

Fishermen at Coco will sell you their catch, and take you to neighbouring islands. Hiking along the coast leads to other empty beaches.

Then there's Ometepe. ?This large island in Lake Nicaragua is dominated by two magnificent volcanoes, which add to its primordial ambience.

Ferries to the island depart every few hours from the tiny port near the town of Rivas, taking people to the village of Mayogalpa. Its hotels are a bit grotty, so better to start out as soon as possible to one of the other lakeside villages where small resorts cater to tourists.

We fetched up at a place called Finca Santo Domingo, near Santa Cruz. All sorts of activities are on offer, among them: hiking the volcanoes, horseback riding and kayaking.

About the volcanoes, it must be said that if you climb them, you had better be in good shape and start early in the day so as not to spend too much time on their slopes in the midday sun.

But you needn't go all the way to the top. Starting from the Finca Magdalena, a nature preserve on the slope of Maderas, the smaller of Ometepe's volcanoes, we climbed as far as a magnificent waterfall, about half way up.

What about the capital, Managua? It's a disaster, best avoided. The city has never fully recovered from an earthquake that levelled it in 1972, and is largely a crowded, featureless slum with no street signs, which makes finding places a nightmare.

There's really no need to go to Managua, either. The international airport is almost as close to Granada as it is to the capital, so it makes sense to head directly to the smaller city.

Finally, about getting around, or, more specifically, whether or not to rent a vehicle: Renting offers obvious convenience and gets you more easily to remote locales. But if you rent, consider a four-wheel drive with good clearance. We rented a sedan, and ended up on several occasions having everyone but the driver bail out and walk over rough patches or wade through shallow streams where there were no bridges.

Also, take care driving near Managua, especially on the road between the airport and Granada. The traffic police look for any excuse to ding motorists for a bribe, and they especially target tourists who can pay more. If you do get stopped, bargain, or if you're feeling courageous, ask for names and badge numbers. They might let you go, but prepare for a long discussion.

Intercity buses and local taxis are an alternative. But they take longer and will make getting to places like Ometepe and Coco Beach more of a planning challenge. That said, local transport for short hops is easily arranged at hotels.

? IF YOU GO

There are no direct flights from Montreal to Nicaragua, but several U.S. airlines and Air Canada offer the route with one or two transfers.

Mid-January fares with two en route stops were listed in November at $833 Canadian, return, taxes in, and, with one transfer - Miami or Dallas - at $1032. Cheaper fares may be had in the summer, but that's the rainy season when it is stiflingly hot and humid. The best time to visit is November through March.