Although Nicaraguans seem to not like their country being compared to Costa Rica, the potential for Nicaragua to level the playing field in Central American tourism is growing. Both destinations boast rich biodiversity, adventure excursions and stunning coastlines. But unlike its more popular neighbor to the south, Nicaragua is still developing after many years of political upheaval. What it lacks in infrastructure, however, it's making up for in possibility. Nicaragua is still very affordable for globetrotters and investors alike and it hasn't yet seen other major consequences of a tourism influx. More than half of the nation's visitors go on recommendation from friends and family and there's good reason that word-of-mouth is working. We highlight six of Nicaragua's Pacific region attractions to give you just a taste.
Dine in: Managua
At Intermezzo del Bosque (www.intermezzodelbosque.com), a spacious outdoor restaurant overlooking the capital, constellations illuminate both your table and the night sky. A cool breeze that carries with it the operatic hum of cicadas adds to the romantic ambiance. Take a Macuá — a cocktail of Flor de Caña rum, lemon and guava juice — with you along the observation path where stools meet the edge of the hillside for a panoramic view. Top off a sensational dining experience by getting your fingers sticky with hojuelas, a simple dessert of crisp fried corn tortillas drenched in honey.
Shop in: Masaya
Spend hours and cordobas, the national currency, perusing stalls for souvenirs at the Masaya market. Skilled craftsmen hock wares of all kinds: Leather goods, pottery, hammocks, tyke-sized xylophones called marimbas and carved masks of wild animals and pink-faced Spaniards that celebrate the nation's folkloric history. Trade haggling for a hike through dry tropical forests at nearby Masaya Volcano. At its summit, pungent gas billows from the crater stinging your nose and pumice gravel collects in your sandals.
Stay in: Granada
The doors are always open in this colonial city on the coast of Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest lake. Backpackers and bicyclists tread stone streets lined with lemonwood trees and cafe tables. Peer through the ornate metal gates of Moorish buildings painted every color imaginable for a slice of the slow-paced life inside. Outside at night, the older citizens socialize in wicker rocking chairs while young couples make out on a cathedral's steps. Wake up in the center of it all with a traditional Nica breakfast — rice and beans, eggs, cheese and tortillas — at the immaculately preserved Victorian Dario hotel (www.hoteldario.com).
Spend an afternoon in: Ometepe
On a ferry to the desert island at Lake Nicaragua’s center, snap
pictures of the perfectly conical and highly active Concepcion Volcano,
one of two that form this fertile biosphere reserve. Kick up the dust on
plantain farms and cattle ranches and kayak on the Charco Verde Lagoon
or at beaches with oceanlike waves. For only $2, dive into Ojo de Agua’s
natural spring swimming pools. At this low-key oasis shaded by a canopy
of trees, locals and tourists mingle and kids take turns belly flopping
into its crystal clear waters from a rope swing. (www.ojodeaguaometepe.com)
Party in: San Juan del Sur
A billboard advertising condos as you enter the laid-back surfing village declares: "Live your dream" and a growing number of expats living here are doing just that. Shuttle from Casa Oro (www.casaeloro.com) to nearby Playa Remanso, a quiet beach for beginners to get their feet wet surfing whitewash. Bikini-clad but hopefully not sunburned, brave the catcalls when you return to the city and indulge in a frozen chocolate banana or chill out with an iced coffee at Gato Negro, a library, cafe and all-around gringo outpost. Restore body and mind with Zen Yoga (www.zenyoganicaragua.com). Live guitar, a glass of wine and an unbelievable sunset accompany their monthly Vinyasa y Vino class. Keep the flow going at El Colibri, a charming Mediterranean restaurant that's always crowded but worth the wait. Or savor local seafood in an Adirondack chair on the beach at El Timón. Pop music blasts from a neighboring roof-deck, reeling you into San Juan del Sur's raucous nightlife. It's 4 a.m. — there's plenty of time to rest before the next high tide.
Retreat to: San Carlos
If you really want to get away, Montecristo River Lodge (www.montecristoriverlodge.com) is a four-hour drive from Managua along Lake Nicara-gua's east coast and an hour via speedboat on the San Juan River bordering Costa Rica. Far from accessible city life yet never completely silent, reptilian, bird and insect calls come in surround-sound in their pri-vate, rustic bungalows. The de-cor is eclectic: Plants sprout up from rusted boat propeller borders and sporting goods hang in the main cabana, an octagonal husk-capped hut with hammocks strung at nearly every side. Wooden placards in-scribed with visitors' names and where they hailed from mark the walkways, fading from harsh sunlight. There's no Wi-Fi, so unplug and simply enjoy this humid, verdant wildlife refuge. Since the ecolodge offers fishing day trips, it's no wonder that the catch of the day, grilled fresh at your request, is perfect. Wash it down with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed pineapple juice from Montecristo's own farm.