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Birdlife, beaches, volcanoes… Nicaragua offers a wealth of riches for intrepid travellers

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Waving his wine glass on the Pacific surf thundering within the moonlight, Mike asks: ‘Why don’t more Brits find out about Nicaragua? It’s paradise!’

I used to be having dinner with Mike and Flo from Cambridgeshire on an impressive, wild, private beach. After three weeks within the Central American country, I used to be the primary British person they’d come across.

Mike, Flo and I were the only guests at Morgan’s Rock, an ecolodge set in a 4,000-acre jungle estate. Where else would three tourists have such a spot to themselves?

Glorious though it was, it felt almost overwhelming as I felt my way by torchlight back over the swaying hanging bridge to my luxurious hideaway, within the treetops, the ocean thundering below.

 Vibrant: On a tour of Nicaragua, Charlotte Metcalf explores Nicaragua Lake (above) and its 365 isletas, tiny islands formed from Mombacho Volcano’s eruption over 20,000 years ago

Charlotte stays at Morgan¿s Rock (above), a luxurious hideaway of an ecolodge that's set in a 4,000-acre jungle estate

Charlotte stays at Morgan’s Rock (above), an opulent hideaway of an ecolodge that is set in a 4,000-acre jungle estate

'To say few of us go to Nicaragua is an understatement,' writes Charlotte

‘To say few of us go to Nicaragua is an understatement,’ writes Charlotte 

To say few of us go to Nicaragua is an understatement. Most know virtually nothing concerning the country, apart from that Bianca Jagger hails from there, that it produces cigars and has a febrile, revolutionary past.

Yet Nicaragua is a revelation. Bordered by Honduras and Costa Rica, its beaches and natural habitat are greater than a match for Costa Rica’s, and Nicaragua also has old colonial cities, wealthy in culture and sweetness. Tourists had begun to trickle back some eight years ago following political unrest. But there have been more protests in 2018, after which along got here Covid.

For some time, the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel there, but on January 31, 2022, this was lifted and Nicaragua might be visited again.

The country’s history and Left-wing politics are complex but they’re value reading about, as landing within the capital Managua can feel like arriving in an ailing, experimental utopia, and I wasn’t sure I liked it at first.

The Santiago of Managua Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, a city that was almost entirely rebuilt in the aftermath of a devastating 1972 earthquake

The Santiago of Managua Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, a city that was almost entirely rebuilt within the aftermath of a devastating 1972 earthquake

'Landing in the capital Managua (above) can feel like arriving in an ailing, experimental utopia,' writes Charlotte

‘Landing within the capital Managua (above) can feel like arriving in an ailing, experimental utopia,’ writes Charlotte 

Folk dancers in Granada, Nicaragua¿s oldest European-founded city

Folk dancers in Granada, Nicaragua’s oldest European-founded city

After the devastating 1972 earthquake, Managua was almost entirely rebuilt, and the country feels young, hard-won and idealistic, with its political slogans and big posters of a smiling President Daniel Ortega.

High above the town looms a silhouette, like a large Sandeman sherry commercial, of the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino in his distinctive hat. It was he who led the successful riot against American occupation between 1927 and 1933.

I visited a synthetic peninsula, designed for family fun with brightly painted benches and food shacks under palms planted in regimented rows. At the doorway is a billboard bearing a stirring quote from Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende about striving for a greater society. But on a windswept Sunday morning, the shacks were shuttered and it was deserted — dismal as Disneyland within the rain

Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest European-founded city. I discovered it enchanting, stuffed with brightly painted colonial mansions, churches and a cathedral. On Sundays, joyous clapping and guitar playing drifts from evangelical services and families gather within the fundamental square to eat vigoron — pork crackling with cassava and spicy cabbage.

The town is popular with expats who might be found drinking coffee on the deep, shaded verandah of the elegant, historic Hotel Plaza Colon, where horsedrawn carriages wait for tourists under the dusty fig trees.

Lilian and Fred from Canada, who live in Granada half the 12 months, tell me: ‘We just like it here.’

The 'enchanting' city of Granada, above, is full of brightly painted colonial mansions, churches and a cathedral

The ‘enchanting’ city of Granada, above, is stuffed with brightly painted colonial mansions, churches and a cathedral

Charlotte spotted howler monkeys on a boat tour around Nicaragua Lake (file photo)

Charlotte spotted howler monkeys on a ship tour around Nicaragua Lake (file photo) 

Much of Granada’s allure lies in its proximity to Nicaragua Lake and its 365 isletas, tiny islands formed from Mombacho Volcano’s eruption over 20,000 years ago. I took a ship tour across the vast lake and spotted howler monkeys, cormorants, terns, ospreys, egrets, kingfishers and a rare great blue heron, then stayed at Jicaro ecolodge on an isleta.

Jicaro is ready in its own tiny jungle, with nine luxury cabins (or casitas) among the many trees and exquisite decks overlooking the lake where you possibly can do yoga or simply eat dinner because the sun sets.

Volcanoes are integral to Nicaragua and I used to be there when Nik Wallenda, the American highwire artist, walked 1,800 feet on a steel cable over the energetic Masaya crater. I watched it on television within the cloister by the gardens of Hotel El Convento in Leon. Cooks ran from the kitchen to photograph it on their phones, because the nation held its breath.

During Charlotte's visit, American highwire artist Nik Wallenda walked 1,800 feet on a steel cable over the active Masaya crater (above)

During Charlotte’s visit, American highwire artist Nik Wallenda walked 1,800 feet on a steel cable over the energetic Masaya crater (above) 

Charlotte stayed at Jicaro (above), an ecolodge that's set in its own tiny jungle, with nine luxury cabins (or casitas) among the trees

Charlotte stayed at Jicaro (above), an ecolodge that is set in its own tiny jungle, with nine luxury cabins (or casitas) among the many trees 

They were still dismantling the highwire towers once I visited Nindiri a couple of days later. Local tourists, desperate to see where Wallenda had crossed, jostled one another good-naturedly to look over the sting, marvelling on the fiery ferocity of the mighty volcano.

Nicaragua’s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro, rises like a 728m heap of soot north of Nicaragua Lake. Daredevils cycle and motorbike down it. But its soft gravel can also be ideal for picket sledge-boarding, which I attempted for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Nearby are the San Jacinto mudpots, openings within the Earth’s crust that bubble with boiling clay and sulphurous gases. The eerie, ancient landscape was almost deserted, aside from a small girl scooping up the therapeutic clay, which she sold in plastic bags.

Charlotte tried wooden sledge-boarding down Nicaragua¿s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro (above), for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill

Charlotte tried picket sledge-boarding down Nicaragua’s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro (above), for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill

Ometepe is a giant twin-coned volcanic island in Nicaragua Lake and residential to Charco Verde Ecological Reserve, stuffed with birds and a butterfly sanctuary that plays classical music ‘to inspirate’ the Blue Prince butterflies shimmering among the many orchids and hibiscus. Afterwards I walked around the almost-deserted lagoon.

Nicaraguan beaches rival any on the earth, and people on the south Pacific, like Popoyo, Sardinas, Maderas and Colorado, are popular with American surfers. 

I arrived in San Juan del Sur, a crescent-shaped bay, ignored by an enormous statue of Christ, where I ate brunch in a restaurant playing Neil Young, before travelling on to Morgan’s Rock.

Waves roll in at eye-catching Popoyo beach (above) along the Pacific coast

Waves roll in at eye-catching Popoyo beach (above) along the Pacific coast 

Charlotte settled in for brunch in San Juan del Sur (above), a bay that's overlooked by a huge statue of Christ

Charlotte settled in for brunch in San Juan del Sur (above), a bay that is ignored by an enormous statue of Christ 

The Charco Verde Ecological Reserve is home to a butterfly sanctuary

The Charco Verde Ecological Reserve is home to a butterfly sanctuary 

A ranger and his driver took me searching for sloths in an open jeep. We didn’t see any but spotted many monkeys and squirrels.

A tiny propeller plane will take you to the Corn Islands, off the other Caribbean coast. I’d heard Little Corn was wonderful, so from Big Corn I hopped over on the ferry, a narrow, open panga with a motor.

Fellow passengers shrieked with glee as we thudded over the waves. Despite the jolly atmosphere, it was as close as I got to feeling scared on my trip.

There aren’t any cars or motorbikes on Little Corn, so I followed a boy with my luggage in a wheelbarrow to Beach And Bungalow, a Robinson Crusoe castaway fantasy.

Nicaraguan beaches rival any in the world, Charlotte reveals. Above is the beachfront Mandla hotel along the Pacific coast

Nicaraguan beaches rival any on the earth, Charlotte reveals. Above is the beachfront Mandla hotel along the Pacific coast 

The 'splendid, baroque wedding-cake cathedral' in the city of Leon

The ‘splendid, baroque wedding-cake cathedral’ in the town of Leon 

TRAVEL FACTS

Careli Tours offers a ten-day trip at £3,106 pp with twin or double rooms. Also includes private transport, domestic flights, guide, breakfast, all meals at Jicaro Lodge, accommodation within the hotels mentioned and native taxes (carelitours.com). American Airlines flies to Managua via Miami for £1,567 return (americanairlines.co.uk). More information at vianica.com and reallatinamerica.com

Nobody here did way more than lie in a hammock and stare upon the ocean. It harked back to days of a purer, simpler Caribbean but with delicious food and generous, inventive cocktails served from the Turned Turtle beach restaurant.

Perhaps most charming of all about Nicaragua is its poetic soul. Its national hero is Ruben Dario, the poet who died of alcoholism in 1916 aged 49. Statues of him abound and each citizen can quote the road from El Retorno, loosely translated as, ‘Though our homeland is small, we dream it big.’

These words are chalked up on cafe blackboards, painted on partitions and emblazoned above the portal of the cathedral in Managua.

I visited Dario’s house in his hometown of Leon, considered to be Nicaragua’s mental capital. Leon also boasts a splendid, baroque wedding-cake cathedral, a captivating Museum of the Revolution and the Oritz-Gurdian collection of Latin American art, housed in two high quality old mansions, which were the presidential residence before the capital moved to Managua.

The enjoyment of Nicaragua is that it feels undiscovered yet offers a very good infrastructure and lots of wonderful resorts and hotels. I travelled with Careli Tours, which supplied me with knowledgeable, friendly guides throughout.

Nicaragua still feels exotically ‘other’ without the sterile reference points of worldwide tourism. It may need felt lonely at times, but in today’s world a way of getting a largely uncharted country to yourself is an increasingly elusive luxury.

Already, McDonald’s and international hotel chains are within the capital, so visit before this exquisite country is trampled upon.

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