Wedge-shaped Nicaragua may be the largest nation in Central America but, despite recent growth, it remains one of the least visited. Still, many travellers who spend any time here find that Nicaragua’s extraordinary landscape of volcanoes, lakes, mountains and vast swathes of rainforest helps make it their favourite country on the isthmus. Compared to the Maya ruins of Guatemala or Belize, Nicaragua offers few heavyweight tourist attractions – almost no ancient structures remain, and years of revolution, civil war and natural disasters have laid waste to museums, galleries and theatres. However the country's colonial architecture is gradually being restored, while its natural riches rival those of better-known Costa Rica. And with travel still feasible on $20 a day, Nicaragua is one of the world's finest budget destinations.
Virtually every visitor passes through the capital, Managua, if only to catch a bus straight out. While the city has an intriguing atmosphere and a few sights, it’s hard work, and many quickly head for Granada, with its lakeside setting and wonderful colonial architecture. A smattering of beaches along the Pacific coast, notably cheery San Juan del Sur, continues to attract the surfing and backpacking crowds, while the beautiful Corn Islands, just off the coast of Bluefields, offer idyllic white-sand beaches framed by windswept palm trees and the azure Caribbean Sea. Culture and the arts are very much alive in Nicaragua, too; visit Masaya’s Mercado Nacional de Artesanía to find some fantastic-value high-quality crafts, or stay on the Solentiname archipelago and learn about the primitive painting traditions that have flourished there.
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Buzzing León is often considered the country’s cultural capital – look for the famous murals depicting Nicaragua’s turbulent political history. Ecotourism, volcano-viewing and hiking are the attractions of the Isla de Ometepe, with its thrilling twin peaks rising out of the freshwater lake, while further east, up the lush Río San Juan, sits El Castillo, a small town with a great fortress. In the central region, where much of the country’s export-grade coffee is grown, the climate is refreshingly cool; hiking and birdwatching are the main activities near the mountain town of Matagalpa.
Stepping off Nicaragua’s beaten track is appealingly easy – the peaceful waters of the Pearl Lagoon and lush highlands of Miraflor reserve are fine spots for exploration, but really are just the tip of the iceberg. More than anything, the pleasures and rewards of travelling in Nicaragua come from interacting with its inhabitants – who tend to be engagingly witty and very hospitable. This is a country where a bus journey can turn into a conversational epic and a light meal into a rum-soaked carnival, a stroll round the street can be interrupted by a costumed giant and a marching band, and a short boat ride can seem like a trip into another world.