Granada, Nicaragua’s town center, is known as Parque Central. // © 2016 Dave Digregorio
Feature image (above): Clients visiting Nicaragua can see the Mombacho and Masaya volcanoes. // © 2016 iStock
If you're looking for a destination in Central America with something for everyone, you may be surprised to find it in Nicaragua. Although Costa Rica has done a far better job attracting American tourists, Nicaragua has a diverse product offering that often feels more authentic and less-developed — in a good way.
Founded in 1524 and perched on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the city of Granada still retains a strong colonial feel. Suggest clients book a room at Hotel Xalteva and use Granada as their base to explore the surrounding regions.
Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve towers above Granada and is just a 20-minute drive from the center of town. From the visitor center, it’s another 30 minutes uphill to reach the top of the volcano. Although Mombacho is technically an active volcano, the last recorded eruption was in 1570, so the environment has since grown into an extremely lush (and wet) cloud forest.
Adventurous travelers can explore the volcano on their own if they stick to the moderate trail circling the main crater. This pathway offers spectacular views of Granada and Lake Nicaragua and can easily be enjoyed in a couple hours. The national park is home to flora and fauna endemic to the volcano, including 700 species of plants, such as the stunning Mombacho orchid. Be sure to look out for “shy” plants that close their leaves when something brushes against them, as well as thermal vents that allow travelers to feel the heat of the volcano up close.
For a more challenging hike, clients should hire a guide and take on the El Puma trail. This trail is significantly more difficult, but it promises an opportunity to experience the dwarf forest in addition to the cloud forest. On the way back down, Cafe Las Flores is the perfect spot to stop and enjoy a local coffee.
Although Mombacho Volcano is best enjoyed in the morning, Masaya Volcano is best experienced at night. Located about a 35-minute drive from Granada, Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya is Nicaragua’s oldest and largest national park and home to a very active volcano.
Unlike many active volcanoes set far away from civilization, this is the only volcano in the Western Hemisphere where visitors can drive right up to the rim of the caldera. Clients should arrive before sunset to see the caldera in the light and have time to hike the surrounding peaks before dark. Masaya may look scary during the day, but in the dark, it’s terrifying. The red glow and churning sound of flowing magma create the impression of hell itself.
Any tour to Masaya will also include a visit to the Bat Caves. Outfitted with a hard hat and a flashlight, visitors can wind their way down a narrow path away from the caldera and into a series of subterranean tunnels that are home to thousands of bats. If visiting at dusk, the bats will be very active, often flying within inches of a guest’s head. The entire excursion — including travel time — is roughly four hours.
Operator Danny’s Tour can arrange trips to both Mombacho and Masaya volcanoes, as well as boat trips on Lake Nicaragua. To round out the trip after a few days of adventure in and around Granada, have clients consider adding on a few days of luxury at Mukul Resort on Nicaragua’s stunning Emerald Coast.