Ometepe Island in Nicaragua has twin volcanoes named Maderas and Concepcion. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Granada Cathedral // © 2017 iStock
When my husband and I began traveling to Nicaragua with our children 10 years ago, our loved ones’ reactions were a horrified variation of “Why would you take your kids there?”
A decade later, my response remains unchanged: “Why wouldn’t I?”
After all, the country’s civil war ended nearly 30 years ago. And Central America’s largest country is considered by the United Nations to be among the safest in the Americas, even though it’s the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
But what the country lacks in economic fortitude it more than makes up for with welcoming people and a stockpile of earthy treasures: 24 volcanoes along the Pacific Coast — many of them active — and Central America’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Nicaragua, which is roughly the size of Puerto Rico and the original site for a canal before Panama claimed the prize.
Add in charming colonial cities, world-class surfing and nonstop opportunities for outdoor adventures, and it’s no wonder that tourism in the “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” saw an 81 percent increase from 2005 to 2015.
For a family-friendly Nicaraguan journey, here are three trip ideas based on young travelers’ ages.
Babies/Toddlers: Bum at the Beach in San Juan del Sur
Traveling with tiny ones requires an excess of gear that can be hard to transport. So our goal when we vacationed with babies was to stay in one spot near a beach or pool. In Nicaragua, that’s San Juan del Sur, located about 80 miles south of the country’s capital, Managua, on the central Pacific coast near the Costa Rica border.
Once a quiet fishing village known mostly to locals and backpackers, San Juan del Sur is now a trendy beach town filled with "turistas," from die-hard surfers to cruise-ship passengers and more. Those traveling with kids can designate the town as the base of operations for beachside fun, perhaps sneaking away for some body surfing or snorkeling. Or, head to the hills for ziplining that includes some of the best views of San Juan del Sur.
Want a little more privacy and luxury? Venture north away from the crowds to stay in one of the area’s endless coastal communities or eco-lodges.
School-Age Kids: City Meets Nature in Granada
Craving culture combined with outdoor adventure? You’ll find both around the country’s colorful Spanish colonial centerpiece, Granada, about 50 minutes southeast of Managua along the vast shores of Lake Nicaragua.
Established in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, the country’s monetary namesake, Granada is the oldest city in Central America remaining on its original site. The destination is resplendent with vibrant Spanish-style architecture — including the city’s emblematic Granada Cathedral — boutique hotels, hip restaurants and Parque Central, a lively square. Families will enjoy viewing it all via a traditional horse carriage.
Nature awaits just outside Granada at Lake Nicaragua’s Las Isletas, a cluster of 365 islands formed from ancient lava belches of Mombacho Volcano. Visitors can cruise the area via kayak or boat and view homes, hotels and wildlife as Mombacho looms on the horizon, while Maderas and Concepcion, the twin volcanoes of Ometepe Island, recede in the distance.
Granada is also a great jumping-off point for up-close volcano adventures. For starters, nearby Mombacho Volcano Nature Preserve offers several hiking trails that lead to fumaroles and sweeping views of Granada and Las Isletas. Various wildlife can be spotted along the way.
Take time to stop in Catarina, a town known for its inimitable view of Apoyo Lagoon, a magnificent crater lake. Stay for a while in one of the lagoon’s many hotels or head to the town of Masaya to check out its artisan market offering local textiles, pottery and paintings. Then, it’s on to Masaya Volcano National Park to see one of the country’s most admired volcanoes.
Here, you can also view the Santiago pit crater, an intermittent lava lake that emerged in late 2015. Wait until dark to see the volcano’s crimson light show.
Teens: Barely Off the Beaten Path in Leon
Families with children in their teens or older will appreciate the cultural offerings in Leon, the country’s intellectual nerve center set at the base of Momotombo Volcano (about 60 miles northwest of Managua). A colonial university town that rivals Granada in culture and Spanish architecture, its cobblestone streets are filled with cafes, shops and souvenir vendors.
The city also boasts more than 15 churches, including the Cathedral of Leon, the largest cathedral in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Climb to its stark-white rooftop for a bird’s-eye view of the city, then go inside to see the tomb of Nicaragua’s most famous poet, Ruben Dario, adorned by a stone lion.
But the main attraction here for teens will undoubtedly be Cerro Negro Volcano, the youngest volcano in Central America, where they can launch themselves down a giant pile of volcanic rock and ash via sandboard. It may sound like you’re encouraging treacherous teen behavior, but trust me: It’s not nearly as daunting going down the hill as up, which is about 1 mile of near-constant climbing.
As I hiked the steep, gravelly trail on the sun-exposed ridge of the active volcano, with a sandboard strapped to my back, I remember thinking, “What am I doing here?”
It took about 45 minutes to find the answer: The unobstructed, 360-degree view that includes Telica and San Cristobal volcanoes. Then, travelers don goggles and full-body suits and catch a view of the volcano’s steaming crater before sledding down the hill of volcanic debris for yet another reward — cool-parent points from their teens.