In terms of cost and value—especially when you consider other nearby Central American spots like Costa Rica, Guatemala and trendy Panama—there is no better place right now than Nicaragua for adventurous spirits seeking a tropical climate. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take care and be mindful of your surroundings in Nicaragua (or anywhere you travel), as a volatile political situation and civil unrest over the past couple years have had their effects, but Nicaragua’s tourism is bouncing back in a big way with hotels reopening and the resumption of new hotel development and other tourism infrastructure. Our crystal ball is telling us the under-the-radar Central American spot is going to be an up-and-coming destination in 2020 and beyond. Here’s how Nicaragua will delight you.
What to do
Volcano boarding (sometimes referred to as volcano surfing) is a popular activity in Nicaragua, and for good reason. The opportunity to glide down an active volcano slope is pretty unique, and one of the best opportunities to do so in the entire country can be found at Cerro Negro, near León. Here, custom boards made for volcanic ash, plus all the gear you’ll need, can be rented through a touring company that also offers transportation to the volcano, a guide, entrance fees and even drinks for roughly $30 per person.
Other activities in Nicaragua, where the average temperature hovers around 82°F, include surf camps in Popoyo and San Juan del Sur; sand boarding; horseback riding; hiking or biking the Mombacho Volcano National Preserve; and stand-up paddle boarding—emphasis on the stand-up part not necessary, especially if it’s your first time.
The country, which is wedged between Honduras and Costa Rica, also offers wonderful wildlife-peeping opportunities. One highlight is the chance to spot several species of monkeys. Also epic for your Instagram Stories is the stunning, multisensory Apoyo Lagoon, a natural hot spring on an island made by two volcanoes, with the Mombacho Volcano to the south and the Masaya Volcano to the north.
What to eat
Tasty eats can be found in pretty much every corner of the country, with one staple dish, gallo pinto, often on the menu. This traditional grub is a mix of fried rice, onions, peppers and red beans that is boiled with garlic—do not leave without trying it (and then bartering with a chef for their version of the recipe).
Generally affordable no matter where you go, restaurants in Nicaragua offer well-portioned dishes of authentic local cuisine and lots of farm-to-table fare, plus even some breads and pizzas. If you’re stationed in Granada, look into the light, bright, healthy, vegetarian and vegan-friendly Restaurante El Garaje, Café de las Sonrisas (staffed completely by employees who are deaf or have hearing loss) and Pan de Vida, which offers fresh artisanal breads and an outdoor courtyard seating area.
Meanwhile, in the capital city of Managua, Harvest is setting up as a new 5,000-square-foot market and restaurant featuring food sourced from Santana Farms, the farm located at Rancho Santana—but more on that in a minute. Harvest will have fresh, organic produce, pre-made deli foods and charcuterie, vino, pastries and coffee, and alfresco dining areas.
Where to stay
The new 6,000-square-foot spa at Rancho Santana, The Spa in El Bosque, should be reason enough to book your trip. Complete with treetop treatment cabanas, nature paths, a plunge pool, outdoor rain showers and a stunning breezeway made of local materials, your self-care moment can be blasted into the next stratosphere.
The secluded resort, located on one of the finest stretches of the Emerald Coast, has opportunities for you to stay in larger, villa-like properties. Called The Ocean View Homes, they’re ideal for sharing with family or friends; there are also boutique hotel accommodations at The Inn and casita-style lodging tucked into a lush garden. All are located just steps from the beaches of Playa Santana, which is just one of—count ’em—five beaches available for guest use on the property. Rancho’s pool is also paradise: Appearing to be connected to the sea itself, it has a water fountain at its center and large cabana-style chairs surrounding it so you can listen to the waves crash after you’ve taken a dip.
In Granada, a colonial Spanish city filled with architecture in varying bright yellow, green and blue hues, a New York City restaurateur has opened shop to offer its guests a city-by-the-sea experience. The trendy Tribal Hotel is a design lover’s dream where large palm trees and other plant life, patterns, warm textures and woodwork by local artisans seem to surround you at each turn. The pool? Sickening—with tiles that are noticeably referential to Copacabana Beach in Rio.
The boutique property is also host to many communal spaces and relaxation nooks, and when you finally need some alone time, you can head into the large, light-filled guest rooms and villas. Each sanctuary is unique, but many are filled with crisp white linens juxtaposed by wild geometric patterns, bull horns and pendant lights.