The Nicaraguan capital of Managua is the perfect introduction to this Central American paradise. It is an ideal starting point for exploring the country, situated as it is on the banks of Lake Managua and midway between Leon and Granada.
With its name derived from the indigenous Nahuatl language, Managua means 'town surrounded by water'. In recent times, Managua carries a reputation as being the 'Venice of Central America' because of the makeshift canals snaking through the city.
Managua divides into pre- and post-earthquake areas. Two major earthquakes devastated the town in 1931 and 1972, forcing residents to build businesses and residential areas outside of Managua rather than in the centre of town, which still contains older buildings not structurally designed to withstand earthquakes.
The rebuilt Managua does not seem to follow a particular layout system, and shopping malls, residential areas, and parks are scattered throughout the city. Zona Rosa and Metrocentro are the main tourist areas.
The city is the cultural and political hub of Nicaragua. It is also central to trade and industry, evident in the frenetic activity and constant buzz. Visitors to Managua will be delighted by the city's combination of old and new, and its natural beauty, surrounded as it is by volcanoes, lakes, mountains, and lagoons.
Getting around in Managua can be tricky because of extensive earthquake damage. Years of major quakes and tremors have left many parts of central Managua without proper addresses or street names.
Using the lake as a point of reference is particularly useful whether you're using a hired car, taxis, or public buses. Managua boasts a number of tourist attractions, including the National Museum, National Palace, and the old and damaged Managua Cathedral.
The town has a selection of quaint markets where tourists can buy everything from ethnic mementos and souvenirs to colourful hammocks and paintings. The capital city charms visitors to Nicaragua, enthralled by its natural beauty and scenic surroundings.
No trip to Nicaragua is complete without a hike up at least one of the country's many volcanoes. Nicaragua is home to a remarkable string running from the southern mountains around Lake Nicaragua up to the impressive northern Cosiguina Volcano, towering over the Gulf of Fonseca.
Many of the Nicaraguan volcanoes are dormant. But since some remain active, it is advisable to hike the volcanoes with a guide or local tour group. Some of the more popular volcanoes include Maderas, Concepcion, Zapatera, Mombacho, Laguna de Apoyo, Masaya, Apoyeque, Momotombo, Cerro Negro, Telica, San Cristobal, and Consiguina.
Maderas, Concepcion, and Zapatera rise up out of Lake Nicaragua. Zapatera stands alone while Maderas and Concepcion are located on Ometepe Island, popular climbing choices for visitors. Concepcion is an active volcano, but Maderas is dormant.
Zapatera is not popular among tourists as it is difficult to reach and the volcano itself is both extinct and relatively small at 2,063 feet (629m). Mombacho Volcano lies on the banks of Lake Nicaragua and is thought to be the source of the lake's islands.
Mombacho is great for hiking and it's even possible to drive to the top. The beautiful Laguna de Apoyo is a tranquil crater lake popular with hikers and swimmers. The western shore of the lake has an active fumarole emitting steam and gas.
Masaya Volcano National Park is a short drive from Managua, with the smoking Masaya Volcano as its principal attraction. A paved road goes up to the crater where visitors can marvel at the white plume of smoke or try to spot the colony of green parakeets living in the crater itself.
Apoyeque Volcano is also a quick trip from Managua. This volcano is extinct and water fills the crater, with visitors able to take in the spectacular surrounding scenery or cool off with a swim in the crystal clear waters of the volcano.
Momotombo is the quintessential cone-shaped volcano. It is active and last erupted in 2015, after a century of inactivity. Momotombo is popular with experienced climbers and is visible from Managua, situated more than 60 miles (100km) from the Nicaraguan capital.
The Nicaraguan government uses Momotombo to produce geothermal energy and electricity. Telica Volcano also erupted in 2015, with those who brave the strenuous 8-12 hour hike to its summit will be able to see molten lava glowing at the bottom of the crater.
Cerro Negro Volcano last erupted in 1999 and is the youngest volcano in Central America. It has blackened slopes and is scattered with volcanic rocks. Climbing it can take about an hour and one of Cerro Negro's slopes is used for sand skiing.
The 5,725-foot (1,745m) San Cristobel Volcano is Nicaragua's tallest active volcano. San Cristobel last erupted in 2008 and the entire complex consists of five smaller volcanoes. With steep slopes, it is a challenging climb and spectacular views reward those who make it to the crater.
Lastly, Cosiguina Volcano offers hikers some of the most impressive views and mountain scenery. Travellers reach the crater via a forest hike or drive most of the way up. From the parking area, the hike to the crater is only three hours. The top offers panoramic views of the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Hiking in Nicaragua offers spectacular views and impressive landscapes, with awe-inspiring craters and splendid photographic opportunities. It's a rewarding experience for all those who make the effort on their trip to Nicaragua.
Montelimar Beach sits on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, offering tourists the perfect Nicaraguan beach resort experience. It is one of the most beautiful beaches in the country and is the closest to the capital city of Managua where many travellers begin their Nicaraguan visit.
The Barcelo Hotel and Resort on the old Somoza Estate is a great option for those wanting an all-inclusive beach resort getaway, featuring a huge pool, said to be the largest in the country, and even a casino overlooking the sea.
For those who prefer to avoid package deals and resorts, there are a few other options for accommodation near Montelimar Beach. The most popular activity in Montelimar is simply relaxing on the 1.5 mile (3km) stretch of beach made up of pristine white sand.
Visitors can also enjoy the animals at the nearby zoo, or go shopping at the popular curio stalls and shops dotted throughout the area. Other things to do in this Nicaraguan resort town include scuba diving, surfing, and snorkelling. Montelimar Beach is a must for visitors seeking a stress-free holiday filled with relaxation and sun.
The colourful city of Granada offers visitors plenty of historical sights and beautiful colonial architecture, some of which dates back to the 1600s. Granada was founded in 1524 and is said to be the oldest city in the New World, a Spanish showpiece that still retains a regal yet dilapidated charm.
Many of the historic buildings have been restored multiple times over the centuries, with residents making an effort to protect their heritage despite pirate invasions and civil wars. The city boasts some lively markets and interesting museums popular with tourists.
Granada is home to a vibrant nightlife scene and a number of popular festivals, including the colourful Granada Holy Week festivities. Popular places to visit in Granada include the town's six main churches, Parque Centrale (central park), Fuerte La Polvora (an 18th-century fort), Lake Nicaragua, and the Mi Museo (a private museum).
Other fun things to do in and around Granada include forest canopy tours, treks around the Massaya Volcano, shopping excursions at the town's local market, and trips to coffee. Granada is the best town for visitors to use as a base while exploring Lake Nicaragua, as well as many of the country's volcanos and beaches.
Sometimes referred to as Lake Cocibolca, Lake Nicaragua is Central America's largest lake and 10th largest body of fresh water in the world. A number of attractions apart from its size make Lake Nicaragua remarkable, spreading out beneath Mombacho Volcano.
It is one of the only few freshwater bodies in the world that contains sharks. Bull sharks inhabit the depths of the lake and are a rare sight for even the most devoted spotters. Despite the lake's importance in the region, tourist infrastructure isn't necessarily up to standard.
Known locally as Las Isletas, the collection of small islands scattered within the lake are believed to be the result of a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, which spewed massive rocks out into the water. The lake is also home to the volcanic Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.
Visitors to Lake Nicaragua can hire a boat and tour the islands while taking in the spectacular scenery and diverse bird and aquatic life. The cities of Granada, San Carlos, San Jorge, and San Miguelito are all located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, making it easily accessible for tourists.
The National Museum in Managua is one of Nicaragua's principal tourist attractions and the city's best museum. The museum building sits imposing and attractive on the Plaza de Revolucion, where the ruined cathedral and a number of other important buildings stand.
It houses a fascinating selection of artefacts and a number of displays about Central American history, ancient Central American civilisations, and the Columbus period. The museum's nine rooms contain a selection of modern art.
There are also informative exhibitions about the country's turbulent natural history, including information about the numerous Nicaraguan volcanoes and earthquakes that have devastated the country over the years.
The museum staff are helpful, informative, and friendly, making it an ideal attraction for any visitor wanting to learn more about Nicaragua. If you don't read or speak Spanish, it is best to take a guided tour as there is not much information in English.
In fact, the tours are the best way to get to grips with all the information and bring it all to life, even if you do speak the language. Although the exhibits are not quite world class and there is certainly room for improvement, the National Museum is a fascinating place to spend a few hours.
The twin volcanoes on Lake Nicaragua are highlights for visitors to the scenic country. They are situated midway between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Visitors to the islands explore volcanoes by hiking through rainforests, while one can also pay a trip to a local coffee farm which is dependent on the fertile slopes to grow fragrant beans.
Birds and wildlife delight nature lovers, while sports enthusiasts enjoy kayaking and fishing tours around the island. For those who brave hiking the 3,300 foot (1,500m) summit of one of the volcanoes, the views are unsurpassed. Visitors could easily spend a few days exploring the numerous natural attractions the islands have to offer.
Boats from San Jorge, just outside Rivas, to the islands cost around NIO 50. Ferries also depart from San Carlos and Granada, costing between NIO 50 and NIO 70. They don't leave every day and are sometimes inactive due to low water levels. Ferry rides take 6 to 12 hours, depending on the point of departure, and are perfect to take in lake scenery.
Managua enjoys a tropical climate with temperatures all year round averaging between 80°F (27°C) and 90°F (32°C). There is little seasonal variation in temperature, but the hottest months, March and April, are best avoided as it can get uncomfortably humid.
The year loosely divides into a wet and dry season. Between November and April, the city tends to be dry, with little rainfall. Between May and September, it is rainy and wet. May, June, and October are the wettest months and best avoided, but tropical downpours tend to be brief and bring relief from the heat so some travellers don't mind visiting at this time.
Ideally, visitors to Managua should plan their trip for some time between November and February when the weather is pleasantly warm but not scorching. There isn't too much rainfall but the best time to visit Managua is in November and December.
Some travellers may also want to time their visits to witness the city's best festivals and biggest events, in which case Easter and early August are probably the best bets despite the oppressive heat in April and the possibility of rain in August.
The public transport system in Managua consists of buses, taxis, and cycle taxis. Urban buses tend to be old and poorly maintained, although the city's network is fairly extensive. Buses display their route number, and a list of routes is posted on signs for the bus stops.
Despite this, transport information can be scarce and asking locals for assistance is recommended. Interurban buses operate at terminals in the city. There are two main kinds of buses: ordinarios are larger buses with lower fares and longer travel times, while espresos are smaller, more comfortable buses that travel faster but charge more.
Taxis are usually the most convenient means of transport in the city and are widely available. They generally do not have meters and negotiating a fare before setting off is important, especially since they tend to try overcharge tourists.
Managua is an interesting and attractive city, a chaotic mishmash of old and new. While the main challenge is not getting lost, the Plaza de Revolucion is a good starting point for tourists keen on doing some sightseeing because a number of historic buildings ring the square.
The city's damaged cathedral and the National Museum of Nicaragua are musts for those wanting to learn of the country's tumultuous history. Another establishment worth visiting is the Museum of Acahualinca, housing the remarkable fossilised human footprints left 6,000 years ago in the volcanic mud along the shores of Lake Managua.
For something a little more fun and outdoorsy, tourists should head to the Tiscapa Lagoon Natural Reserve, a watery playground with ziplines, canopy tours, bars, restaurants, and shops. Although Managua has some cultural and historical attractions, the city is a favourite with travellers mainly because of the natural beauty on its doorstep.
Excursions are possible to the picturesque colonial city of Granada and the huge Lake Nicaragua, with its volcanic islands begging to be explored. The glorious Montelimar Beach, Nicaragua's most popular beach resort, allows visitors the chance to enjoy the Pacific coastline of this beautiful country.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination