1) The restored Cathedral on
Granada’s main square. 2) A
street draws Granada’s tourists
each evening. 3) Daniel Ortega
and Hugo Chavez embrace on a
billboard. 4) A street in central
Leon, which was recently named
a Unesco World Heritage Site.
sky is enlivened by volcanic
mist. A very short drive (it’ll
be dark at this point) brings you
to a small platform where you can
lean forward and see the lava glowing on
the floor of Santiago crater — not only see
the glow, but hear the convulsions of lava
bubbling up to the surface.
From there, it’s possible to take a flashlight tour of a long, underground lava tube,
formed centuries ago during a period of
high volcanic activity. After 10 minutes
of walking into the tube, if you turn your
flashlight off, you’ll be standing in pure,
The rich volcanic soil on the slopes of
some of the volcanoes is ideal for growing
coffee, and a visit to Mombacho, a volcano
near Granada, offers the opportunity to
visit El Progreso Farm, a working coffee plantation. (It was there I learned that
I have erred for decades when ordering a
rich, dark roast coffee if I was feeling particularly in need of a morning lift. It turns
out that the roasting process actually removes some caffeine from the beans, and
dark roasted coffee provides less buzz than
a lightly roasted blend.)
A short walk from the coffee plantation
is a canopy tour, with a course of ziplines,
tightropes and belay drops. As far as these
experiences go, I’d rate it somewhere in the
middle range: not as good as can be found
in Costa Rica but better than some Caribbean courses I’ve been on.
At the very top of Mombacho is a wonderful hiking trail through the jungle, just
below the rim of the cone. It traverses a
landscape reminiscent of Tarzan movies,
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but with sloths rather
than chimps in the
branches above and
with occasional fumaroles releasing some of the
volcano’s steaming pressure.
Restored colonial centers and isletas
Two cities, Leon and Granada, feature
an opportunity to mix among Nicaraguans
along streets lined with fine examples of
Spanish colonial architecture.
(The capital, Managua, is somewhat
characterless and offers little for
Leon has a classic Central
American colonial cathedral,
market and square. It is about
to undergo a significant upgrade: Its center has recently
been proclaimed a Unesco
World Heritage Site, and funding
has been provided to restore its historical area.
We stayed at El Convento Hotel, a former
convent associated with a church that was
built in 1639. The family that owns it also
collects art, and the property is filled with
regional paintings and sculptures. A few
blocks away, the family also opened Fun-dacion Ortiz-Gurdian, a museum featuring
classic and modern pieces as well as an impressive collection of important contemporary Central American artists.
Though other tourists can be seen walking the streets of Leon, it is Granada that attracts the most foreign visitors. The exterior
of its cathedral is in better shape than Leon’s, and horse-drawn carriages queue up
around its large square to offer city tours.
One side of the square is lined with
wonderfully restored hotels. We stayed in a
high-ceilinged room in Hotel
Plaza Colon, a beautiful prop-
erty with a courtyard swimming
pool and excellent service. (If you’re
there on a weekend night, however,
avoid the rooms to the right as
you walk into the courtyard;
In the 45 minutes we were
motoring about the isletas,
we saw 21 species of birds.
and not much larger than the vacation
homes that are built upon them (our guide
said most were owned by Americans).
In the 45 minutes we were motoring
about, we saw 21 different species of birds,
ranging from a hunting osprey to several
waders and even a small woodpecker. Additionally, one island has been populated
with three types of monkeys. On the outermost island are the ruins of San Pablo Fort,
built in 1783.
History and current events
Driving up and down the national highway that runs parallel to the Pacific coast,
President Daniel Ortega’s smiling face can
be seen against a bright pink or red background (chosen by his wife, we were told),
with slogans meant to inspire. In one, Orte-
The strong sense that one is in a destination on the cusp of significant growth is reflected in a nascent 42-room wellness spa,
Aqua Wellness Resort, near San Juan del Sur.
It was about a third full when I checked in.
A conversation with its enthusiastic
management team suggests it is evolving in
an organic and backbeat fashion. Though
the resort has been garnering rave reviews
since it opened last year, it’s described by its
CEO, Canadian Trevor Barran, as a “work