Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve: This nature reserve is located between the departments of Masaya and Granada. The reserve includes Lake Apoyo, an ancient lake formed some 23,000 years ago. The endorheic lake occupies the caldera of an extinct volcano. The reserve encompasses a tropical dry forest ecosystem with flora that contains more than 500 species of plants and tropical dry trees. The reserve is home to more than 220 species of butterflies; and 230 species of birds including falcons, hummingbirds and 65 species of migratory birds. A palette of activities includes swimming, kayaking, scuba diving, birdwatching, paragliding, boating and nature hikes. Artifacts and petroglyphs from indigenous peoples have been found in the reserve.
Emerald Coast: The Emerald Coast is a long stretch of unspoiled Pacific coastline and dry tropical forest, south of Granada and just north of the Costa Rican border. The area supports abundant wildlife such as monkeys, sea turtles, colorful birds, anteaters, sloths, iguanas and dolphins. It can be explored by kayak, vehicle, bicycle, horse and on foot. Excellent surfing, gliding through the jungle canopy, exploring preserved colonial architecture and riding horses on a private beach are a few of the attractions.
Granada: Established in 1524, Granada is the oldest city founded by Europeans in Nicaragua. It is also the second oldest in Central America, and the third oldest in the Americas. It grew up on the shores of the great Lake Nicaragua. Named after Spanish Granada, the city reveals its history in its colonial churches, narrow streets and large homes built around beautiful indoor patios. It is known for preserving some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country. Sites include La Merced Church, the museum within Casa de los Tres Mundos, the colonial house of the Zamora family, with family members who have lived here for generations and the San Francisco Convent. The convent and the church were first erected in 1525, but pirates burned down the convent 1665. Today the convent-cum-museum is noted for its ancient catacombs beneath the convent and church, where priests and others have been buried since 1546. An estimated 75,000 people are buried in the catacombs’ walls. In Lake Nicaragua just southeast of the city, a group of 365 small islands are scattered about the Asese Peninsula. The islets are volcanic and formed when the Mombacho Volcano erupted thousands of years ago and tossed much of its cone into the lake, creating this archipelago. Most of the islets are covered with vegetation and rich with bird life. Many are occupied, and some privately owned. Hotels and shops have been opened on some of the islets. The 18th-century San Pablo Fort in the lake was built to protect Granada from pirates.
Leon: Leon has long been the political and intellectual center of the nation and its National Autonomous University of Nicaragua was founded in 1813, making it the second oldest university in Central America. Leon is also an important industrial, agricultural, and commercial center for Nicaragua, exporting sugar cane, cattle, peanut, plantain and sorghum. The city has been home to many of Nicaragua’s most noteworthy poets including Ruben Darío. The massive Leon Cathedral combines baroque and neoclassical architecture. Nearby, the Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián, in two colonial-era houses, is notable for its collection of Latin American and European contemporary art. East, near the base of Momotombo Volcano, are the ruins of the medieval city of Leon Viejo. Other volcanoes in the area include Cerro Negro.
Masaya Volcano: This is Nicaragua’s first and largest national park, one of 78 protected areas in Nicaragua. The complex volcano is composed of a set of nested calderas and craters, the largest of which is Las Sierras shield volcano and caldera. The park was established in 1979, and encompasses cloud forest and a beautiful volcanic lake, Masaya Lagoon. It also features an environmental interpretation center, with a model of the park and paintings by Nicaraguan artists showing the geological history of the volcano. The park’s wildlife includes coyotes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, deer, iguanas, and monkeys. A short distance away is the Masaya Arts and Crafts Market, considered by many to be the best craft hub in Central America. Best known for its 19th-century artisan market, common crafts include hammocks, leather, fabric and wood items as well as local ceramics.
Matagalpa: Matagalpa is Nicaragua’s sixth largest city but the second most important city in Nicaragua. It sports nicknames such as the “Pearl of the North” and “Land of Eternal Spring.” It was originally an indigenous village of the Matagalpa Indians, who had their own language, which became extinct in the late 1800s. The Matagalpa were known for creating ceramics in a style known as “Ceramica Negra” and “Naranja Segovia.” They also created stone statues representing their chieftain and warriors. The Spanish feared their bravery and skill with bows. Indeed, Spain tried to subdue them for 300 years, but were never fully successful. Matagalpa is located on the continental divide between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Gold was discovered around Matagalpa by 1840, attracting many Spanish, German, American and British immigrants, including Ludwig Elster and his wife Katharina Braun, who were the first to successfully plant coffee trees in the area. Coffee agriculture attracted more than 120 European immigrants, many of whom married Matagalpan women. Many of their descendants still live in the area. Today, coffee producers such the Selva Negra Sustainable Farm are recognized for pioneering innovative and sustainable farming methods.
Ometepe Island: Ometepe Island is formed by two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua. Concepcion Volcano is still active, and Maderas is dormant. In the 16th century, pirates roamed the island but its first inhabitants date back some 2000 to 500 BCE. The island’s highlights include pre-Columbian relics. Around Finca Magdalena, a community farm, are several petroglyphs sites. A small, interesting museum houses pre-Columbian artifacts and some well-preserved indigenous statues and ceramics. Charco Verde Nature Reserve is a protected area that encompasses a lagoon, a forest and a beach.
Rivas: On an isthmus between the Pacific Coast and Emerald Coast, Rivas has a unique location with two coasts across from one another. Indigenous tribes settled in the area around 606, with the first Europeans, the Spanish, arriving in 1522. Most travelers come to the area to explore San Juan del Sur, Tola and Ometepe Island. Other activities include snorkeling, diving, sailing, canopy tours and whale watching. The Tola region, commonly referred to as the Nicaraguan Riviera, is a tranquil getaway with dramatic coastlines and long stretches of isolated beaches.
San Juan del Sur: San Juan del Sur is a municipality and coastal town on the Pacific Ocean in southwest Nicaragua. Once a quiet fishing village, it has emerged into one of the country´s major beach and surfing destinations while maintaining its charm and easy-going atmosphere. It is located 140 km/87 mi. south of Managua. San Juan del Sur is the port that has been the focus of many historic and modern-day Nicaragua Canal proposals because of its location on the narrow isthmus of Rivas between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua. Surfing, wind and kite surfing, fishing, ziplining, motorcycle excursions, horseback riding and, of course, wildlife viewing, especially nesting sea turtles, are adventures possible in this area.
Best Time to Go
Nicaragua is considered to have two main travel seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. The most popular travel season is typically between January and April as the weather is driest. The wettest parts of the year occur between May and October for sport fishing enthusiasts, April to July is the favored time of year to visit.
Day 1: Leon, Nicaragua
Leon has long been the political and intellectual center of the nation and hosts the second oldest university in Central America.
Day 2: Leon / Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve
The reserve encompasses a tropical dry forest ecosystem with flora that contains more than 500 species of plants and tropical dry trees as well as some 220 species of butterflies and 230 species of birds.
Day 3: Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve – Granada & Las Isletas
In Lake Nicaragua just southeast of the city of Granada, Las Isletas is a collection of some 365 small islands.
Day 4: Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve – Mombacho Volcano
Activities in the area include hikes up the Mombacho Volcano, night trips to see the lava burning at Masaya Volcano, ziplining and visits to small villages and local markets.
Day 5: Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve / San Juan del Sur
On the Pacific Coast, a small hideaway on a mile-long picturesque sandy beach is frequented year-round by nesting sea turtles.
Days 6/7: San Juan del Sur
This area is the perfect escape to do a lot or nothing at all. Fishing, ziplining, turtle watching during season, surfing, wildlife viewing and more are close at hand.
Day 8: San Juan del Sur / Depart
Emerald Cost (3-4 nights)
Take time on the Emerald Coast to enjoy the beach, surfing, fishing, a sunset cruise, horseback riding and more.
Matagalpa (2 days)
This land was an indigenous village of the Matagalpa Indians, who were known for creating ceramics in a style known as “Ceramica Negra” and “Naranja Segovia.” The 1840s saw the first successfully planted coffee trees in the area.
Ometepe Island (2-3 days)
This island in a fresh water lake has two volcanoes, one active and one dormant. Among the most popular things to do here are hiking to the volcanoes or to San Ramon waterfall as well as cultural and historical visits to the museum and seeing petroglyphs.
Rivas (3 days)
Located on an isthmus between the Pacific Coast and the Emerald Coast, Rivas has a unique location with two coasts across from one another.
$700-$900 per person, per day. Land only, double occupancy.