Nicaragua offers vibrant history, dreamy beaches and adventure amidst tropical jungles

Despite being the largest country in Central America—and one of the safest, Nicaragua is often overlooked by visitors in favour of neighbouring Costa Rica. However, over the last decade, a growing number of intrepid travellers have discovered the allure of Nicaragua.

With its vibrant, centuries-old towns and churches, active volcanoes, lush jungles and endless white sand beaches, it’s no wonder the United Nations World Tourism Organization has ranked Nicaragua among the top 10 on the list of the world's fastest growing tourist destinations. Whether you want to channel your inner beach bum, hit the whitecaps or soak in some colonial architecture, this stunning tropical destination will not disappoint.

Here are eight reasons to travel to Nicaragua this year...

Blockbuster volcanoes

VolcanoVisit NicaraguaLocated in north central Nicaragua, Cerro Negro is home to one of the youngest and most active of the country’s 19 volcanoes (nine of which are active). Although it doesn’t rate high for beauty, Cerro Negro offers thrill seekers an irresistible pull: sledding or boarding down the gravely plumes of black ash that go on as far as the eye can see. Call them crazy, call them reckless, but hundreds of adrenaline-seekers trek to the top of the volcano each year. Many come by rickety, open air busses to admire its views out over San Cristobal and Telica volcanoes, before leaping onto a custom sandboard and whizzing down at speeds reaching 60 to 100 kilometres per hour.

Not far from the city of Leon, is Nicaragua’s iconic Momotombo volcano. Built up by many coatings of hardened lava, it is truly an impressive sight to behold. A perfectly shaped cone, it erupted in 2015 after laying dormant for 110 years. It proudly towers 1,258 metres above sea level on the northern shores of Lake Managua. The celebrated Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío even penned a poem about Momotombo.

White sand beaches beckon

SurfingInstituto Nicaragüense de TurismoWhether it's dipping your toes into the crystal blue waters of Playa Marsella—considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the area—or paddling out onto the crashing waves of the Pacific, Nicaragua's coastlines always deliver on promises. Surf beaches in the southwest coast's San Juan del Sur have gained legendary status among international surfers for fantastic year-round breaks. Boarders are especially drawn to the ever-popular Playa Maderas. Once a sleepy fishing village, it boasts waves that will give both beginners and pros a ride to remember.

Take a tour of Granada

GranadaInstituto Nicaragüense de TurismoGranada practically oozes photogenic sophistication, infused with colour, showcasing a fusion of Baroque and Moorish architectural influences and rich in ethos. As you meander the narrow streets of Granada, you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. This colonial city—with its brightly painted 17th-century houses, decaying courtyards and churches teeming with majesty—is Nicaragua's sixth largest city. Renowned for preserving some of the finest colonial architecture in the country, it will ignite all of your senses.

Stroll through Parque Colón, a central plaza buzzing with local artisans, merchants and food vendors vying for your cash. Drink in the lively ambience from a street café or picnic table on Calle La Calzada. While there, chow down on vigorón, a tasty pork and cabbage snack wrapped in banana leaf, while watching horse-drawn carriages carefully navigate the tight boulevards.

Don’t leave without a visit to the Convento San Francisco. Once a nunnery, it is one of the oldest churches in Central America. Highlights include Primitivist art, a scale model of the city, mysterious stone carvings and idols made by pre-Columbian people, as well as an impressive collection of ancient sculptures.

Take a peek at the cigar-manufacturing process, and even practice rolling a cigar at the Doña Elba Cigars factory. You will discover the history of tobacco, from the early forms used by pre-Columbian indigenous societies, through to the Spanish and British royalty, who demanded a more curated and sophisticated object to puff on.

San Juan del Sur is more than a surfing nirvana

San JuanVisita NicaraguaThe town of San Juan del Sur—with its clapboard Victorian houses, towering statue of Christ of Mercy, sandy coves and fabulous waterfront restaurants and bars—is hard to resist. Perched high on the hillside across from town, the white Christ of Mercy statue is the biggest in Central America and one of the 10 largest in the world. Hike up to the mammoth figurine by way of the steep road and set of stairs, following the signs that read Jesus de la Divina Misericordia. At the pinnacle, you will be rewarded with sweeping 360-degree vistas of the town and crystal clear waters of the bay below.

Monkeys and sloths and exotic birds! Oh my!

MonkeysInstituto Nicaragüense de TurismoNicaragua is a treat for animal enthusiasts, those who live for the chance to view exotic birds, monkeys and sloths up close and personal. You can bear witness to some indigenous birds—such as the great green macaw, the motmot and the toucan—on a rainforest tour, on a kayak or boat ride. Then, wind through more than 100 islets of Lake Nicaragua, which provide endless opportunities to catch monkeys at play. These friendly, little primates are happy to pose for pics and come aboard your vessel with the promise of a treat or two. Looking up into the trees, you might also spot the elusive sloth. Although highly unlikely that you will see the country’s wild felines—like ocelots and jaguars—Nicaragua’s untamed parts are home to many of these beautiful creatures.

The Cathedral of Leon

Cathedral LeonYou don’t have to be pious to marvel at the stunning monolithic masterpiece that is the Cathedral of Leon. Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción, this UNESCO World Heritage Centre is the largest cathedral in Central America. Built between 1747 and the early 19th century, it showcases a riveting evolution of Baroque to Neoclassical architecture, with rich embellishments to behold inside. The tomb of poet Rubén Darío, Leon’s favourite son, sits under the nave, guarded by the golden statue of a lion. On a clear day, don’t miss the roof tour. At less than $1 US, it provides spectacular panoramas of the city, with volcanoes looming just beyond.

Historical but laid-back-luxe stays

For a heavenly stay in Leon, locals recommend Hotel El Convento... and for good reason. A former convent built in 1639, this tranquil slice of paradise was reborn into a grand 32-room hotel built around a magnificent flowering and fountained courtyard.

Jicaro nighttimeJicaro Island LodgeOn Lake Nicaragua, a short boat ride transports you to Jicaro Island Lodge, a secluded, tranquil island eco-getaway with only nine chic, two-storey, lakefront treehouse-casitas. Jose Lopez, the executive chef at this blissful retreat, uses as many local ingredients as he can in his sublime reimagining of some of the country’s traditional dishes.

Nestled cross San Juan del Sur’s crescent-shaped bay, the historic Hotel Victoriano is a stately hotel with a rich, colourful past. Looking more like it jumped off the cover of a fairy-tale book, this wooden classic dates back to 1902. In 1886, it is reported that the owner at the time, British immigrant William Herbert George Cross, hosted the legendary Mark Twain. As if that isn’t reason enough to lay your head down in one of the cozy, refurbished suites!