Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017
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Breeze through Nicaragua

Central America's latest undiscovered hot spot sheds its turbulent past

Central America’s largest country probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you’re plotting a tropical getaway. After all, due to headline-grabbing events of the 1970s and ’80s, many still consider Nicaragua to be the wrong kind of hotspot. The Sandinista revolution that toppled Somoza’s dictatorship and the ensuing civil war cast a long shadow. However, those outdated images will finally fade now that the tourism buzz has begun to build: Nicaragua is on the cusp of becoming Latin America’s latest “it” destination.

A renewed emphasis on vacation value is partly responsible. Despite years of steady improvement, this remains a poor nation; hence hotels, tours and restaurants tend to be affordably priced. Even in top urban eateries, you can gorge on a multi-course dinner featuring fresh seafood or churrasco-style steak for under $25. Moreover, since cash infusions are genuinely appreciated, smiles from locals come free and fast.

Another reason behind its rising profile is that Nicaragua was propelled into prime time by the hit reality show **Survivor, back-to-back editions of which were filmed onsite.

But that’s only the beginning. Crammed into a country slightly smaller than the Maritime Provinces, you’ll find Central America’s signature features: rumbling volcanoes, rainforests, beaches, pre-Colombian sites and sublime colonial cities. Better still, the most accessible are concentrated on the Pacific side (roughly from the Costa Rican border north to León and east to Lago de Nicaragua), where the tourism infrastructure is most highly developed. So whether you want your trip amped up or over easy, this emerging destination delivers.

On a cloud

Given their topographical kinship, it’s hardly surprising that this section of Nicaragua would be muscling in on neighbouring Costa Rica as the preferred playground for adrenaline junkies. Being similarly poised on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Nicaragua has its own active volcanoes: 19 to be precise, the majority of them designated as federal parkland. While San Cristobal, towering 1745 metres above sea level, gets attention for being the tallest and Momotombo dominates postcard racks by virtue of its of its classic, perfectly symmetrical cone, it is Mombacho (20 minutes outside Granada) that gets adventurous hearts pounding.

Capped by a cloud forest, Volcán Mombacho contains a challenging pair of two- to four-hour hiking trails that are edged with Jurassic-like foliage dotted with wild orchids. Impressive from the ground, the flora looks even better from treetops and you can traverse these via 600-metres worth of zipline cable on the Cutirre Canopy Tour (canopytour.com; $33). This particular tour culminates in a 30-metre rappel down a supersized ceiba tree and the platforms leading to it afford up-close views of howler monkeys and exotic birds.

Ride the waves

The Cerro Negro volcano will satisfy your need for speed in another novel way. Like Mombacho, the “Black Hill” sits conveniently close to a tourist-friendly city (in this case León). Yet the two couldn’t be more different. The aptly-named peak last erupted in 1999 and the surrounding landscape bears witness to the devastation: completely devoid of vegetation it evokes the dark side of the moon. Scaling it without benefit of shade makes for a hot, hard 45-minute slog. The good news is that for about $20 you can sign on for a tour that allows you to rocket to the bottom of the cinder-coated slope on a sled (as Survivor contestants did) or surf it on a snowboard-like contraption.

Needless to say there are also plentiful opportunities for anyone who’d rather board the standard way — on the water. The premiere Pacific surfing breaks are clustered together in the far south, where persistent prevailing winds regularly generate high waves. The resort town of San Juan del Sur is action central and Arena Caliente (arenacaliente.com) is the local go-to company. In addition to running week-long surf camps, it offers full-day board rentals for $10 and a lesson-equipment combo for $32.

Fire and water

If slowing down has more appeal than playing hard, Nicaragua has plenty of options for you, too. On the 140-kilometre route from Granada to León, you can veer off at Volcán Masaya (Nicaragua’s oldest national park) driving right to the rim of its Santiago Crater. The smoking, sulfur-spewing hole measures over half-a-kilometre across, and once you peer in you’ll understand why Spanish conquistadors feared it was the mouth of hell. Today you can mount the stairs for optimal views; take a quick twirl around a park trail; or bone up on the volcano’s history and geology without breaking a sweat at the Visitor Centre.

Indulging in watery fun is equally easy when you opt for boating on bathtub-calm Lago de Nicaragua. Although the lake itself is dauntingly large (it’s the 10th biggest freshwater one in the world), there is nothing intimidating about Las Isletas: a leafy archipelago lying close to shore.

In fact, threading through its 350 tiny islands in a kayak or motorized launch (both bookable quayside) is a leisurely way to spend a morning. The bonus is that choosing this low-impact option lets you commune with egrets ands osprey, observe fishermen at work in their crayon-coloured rowboats, and still have sufficient time left to explore Nicaragua’s two time-warped urban treasures.

Spanish glory

Founded by Spaniards in the early 16th century, Granada and León have much in common. Each boasts a surplus of period architecture, Baroque churches being a special highlight. Iglesia de la Merced in the former and Basílica de la Asunción in the latter are prime examples. The cavernous interiors elicit “hallelujahs” and climbing their belfries to enjoy panoramic views is worth the marginal effort involved.

Each city too has a smattering of small museums where you might ogle contemporary art or pre-Columbian artifacts; plus each revolves around a lively square where vendors sell handmade trinkets for a few bucks a pop. Nevertheless, there is no mistaking one for the other.

Sultry, sophisticated Granada is the kind of place where you linger over fine Nica coffee or toss back a shot of Flor de Caña rum; then hop a horse-drawn carriage for a $10 drive down cobble streets trimmed with pastel colonial homes.

Conversely, León is an earthier more earnest university centre that’s fiercely proud of its revolutionary pedigree (note the Sandinista-themed murals or photos of fallen supporters in Galería de Héroes y Mártires). Getting tarted up for tourists, therefore, isn’t the city’s top priority. As a result, León feels like a fresh discovery. The grittiness means you may risk stumbling on a sidewalk crack. But it also means a simple shopping trip in its sprawling market qualifies as an adventure.

Because this region is compact, an A-type personality could actually tick off all of the activities listed here within a single week. So you should feel free to mix and match as you see fit. Just do it now, quick, before everyone else gets the same idea.

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Comments

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  1. On February 16, 2011, Geoff said:
    Any way we can work together? We have 2 miles of this Leon pristine beachfront and 200 acres that we have been improving since 2006. Over 50 lots sold and electricity is almost complete after 4 years of work n red tape. Just stringing lines is left. It is incredible beach just 20 minutes from Leon. www.nicaprojects.com

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