THE GIANT LEAP
Nicaragua Family Vacation
YOUR GUIDE TO NICARAGUA
While the bridges of Paris might be weighing down each day due to the heavy latches hung on them to reveal to the world the heavier hearts of newlyweds, the bridges of Omotepe have no such locks, are seldom visited, and aren’t even metallic. Yet, these wooden structures creaked anyway as our family’s SUV passed over them, perhaps alerting us to what real adventure should sound like.
Family Vacation In Nicaragua:
Why Now Is The Best Time To Go
Like us, if you decide to look into a Nicaragua family vacation, you’re going to find active volcanoes, strange lakes, white sand beaches, and colonial towns filled with radiant people who want to please you at any opportunity. And yes, there’ll also the nonexistent crime, in case you’re a little uneasy about bringing your family and kids along with you. It seems that westerners have been hugely misled not only about the revolutionary philosophies of the erstwhile Sandinista rebels, but also about all such places around the world that do not conform to their exact definition safety. The truth is that Nicaragua is far safer for traveling families than most metropolises of America; unless, of course, you do stupid things such as walk into shady neighborhoods late at night, toting your camera gear and heavy backpack all the way while appearing to be lost.
"In Nicaragua, you’ll find active volcanoes, strange lakes, white sand beaches, and colonial towns filled with radiant people."
"A family vacation to Nicaragua will be as much fun as visiting Costa Rica and Belize, but will also be done for a fraction of the cost."
It’s really a pity then that the country gets nowhere near the level of tourists that its neighbors Costa Rica and Belize enjoy. Even the die-hard vacationers who come here choose not to bring their families and kids for safety reasons. The fact is that a family vacation to Nicaragua will be as much fun as visiting those other countries, but also done for a fraction of the cost. On the flip side, this presents a great opportunity for the few family vacationers who’d like to explore a place without the maddening congregation of tourists that most of us are tired to see these days. And as in most Latin American countries we’ve visited over the years, Nicaragua, too, presents a strong sense of family values, and even strangers appear to be quite kid-friendly and loquacious. You might think this could be a problem for folks who’re not bilingual, but we’ve found that English is widely spoken here. You can even save up on those pesky ATM and currency conversion fees, since US dollars get widely accepted here. What say you? Are you ready for an epic Nicaragua family vacation?
Where To Begin:
The Cities And Beaches Of Nicaragua
On your Nicaragua family vacation, the must-sees are far too many, so let’s just begin with the cities and the beaches. Which brings us to Granada, the city renowned for its elegant architecture and hip culinary scene. Needless to say, family-friendly activities abound here. But its real charm goes far deeper.
"Granada is renowned for its elegant architecture and hip culinary scene."
Set against the backdrop of volcanoes, lakes, and cloud forests, Granada is a particularly pleasing city that’s attractive to most families traveling with kids. But looks can be deceiving, and if you gently dive into its distant past, you’ll note that the place has gone through some very tumultuous times indeed. Yet, it’s a model of peace and tranquility these days, with cobblestone streets and fruit sellers lining up the corners, where apart from the juicy edibles, you can lay your hands on some very interesting trinkets. The Spanish-styled buildings are all brightly colored, with flashing shades of red, blue, and yellow making up most of the color gamut. The city boasts to be the oldest city in the New World, and although that claim isn’t without some level of controversy, knowing this could give a new dimension to your family vacation.
"The city of Granada boasts to be the oldest city in the New World."
For those in the family having photographic inclinations, just about any place in Nicaragua would make for a superb photo op for capturing the raw vibrancy of the outdoors. But in Granada I wanted something more, and so I placed myself strategically at a colorful street corner in the hopes of finding a fleeting composition. After a while, just as I was about to pick up my camera gear, my patience finally paid off. As I was composing a shot with interesting subjects in the foreground, a jovial guy rode past me in his lone mule carriage. That’s when I knew it was time for a well-timed shutter release action. Over the years, I have indulged in all kinds of photography, but I must say that the colorful walls proved to be an excellent backdrop for all kinds of family pictures. It’s not every day that I get to have an outdoor studio of my own with the colorful background against which to prop up my favorite subjects. Try it, the pictures will turn out to be awesome – every time – no matter what your skill level might be.
"It’s not every day that I get to have an outdoor studio of my own with the colorful background against which to prop up my favorite subjects."
Much like Granada, the smaller town of León could be an exciting addition to your family vacation. This town also happens to be one of the oldest in Central America, and the colorful streets are in many ways comparable to its big sister Granada. And if your kids are fond of beaches, you could pay a visit to the upscale town of San Juan del Sur, some 100 miles south of capital Managua. And if you’re here, it goes without saying that the family should take part in activities such as surfing, horseback riding, and checking out the delightful local food scene.
Breaching Nicaragua's Underworld:
The Magnetic Pull Of The Lava Lakes
Watching lava deep inside the fiery guts of a volcano isn’t just an extraordinary event of your life, it also injects an incredible amount of cool factor to it. I’ve seen belching volcanoes before, but this was the first time I saw the red, bubbling lava lake inside the depths of its caldera. Not only did everyone in the family feel the excitement, things became quite real for us when we could actually smell the sulfur. If you’ve nurtured a lifelong desire to experience something approaching lava from up close – and don’t deny, you certainly did – then the crater of Masaya Volcano is one place to fulfill those dreams.
"This was the first time I saw the red, bubbling lava lake inside the depths of its caldera."
"You’re not allowed to stay at the summit for long, so make use of the time to capture the best photographs."
For what’s at stake at the summit, I must say that the initiation process starts rather haphazardly. Even before the sun sets in the west, there’s a growing line of cars, their occupants – some happily, while the rest begrudgingly – waiting out their turns to be summoned by the angry gods of the underworld. It’s also worth noting that the road leading up to the summit is remains quite jam-packed. Since we visited in the midst of a peak vacation season, it’s possible that the crowd thins out substantially during the shoulder months or during off-season. You’re not allowed to stay at the summit for long, so make judicious use of the time among the family members so you’re able to capture the best photographs.
There's also the iconic Mombacho Volcano nearby, its cloud-shrouded peak visible from all around the city, and even though it’s active it hasn’t erupted in over four centuries, and so considered safe to be explored. But if you’re serious about hiking this challenging terrain with your family, you’ll need an experienced guide. With kids, however, it’s probably a far better idea to catch the zipline tour, which will enable them (and you!) to zip across this volcano from the absolute safety and comfort of a suspended wire.
Before you leave the Masaya region, check out its namesake town, where one of the most stunning artisan markets of Central America would greet you with its dandy masks and creative mementos. Nearby, another town worth visiting is Catarina, where the family will get to absorb the stupendous beauty of a blue lagoon formed inside the caldera of the dormant Apoyo Volcano.
Nicaragua's Water World:
How To Navigate With Your Family
"Lake Nicaragua is the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and there are literally a few hundred volcanic islands strewn around it."
Lake Nicaragua should normally be on your radar at this point. However, definitely take the time to visit the absolutely stunning Apoyo Lagoon (Laguna de Apoyo) on the way. The surrounding region is as picturesque as the lagoon itself, situated in a leafy greenery that covers the slopes of the crater that gives rise to it. The volcano that this crater represents is considered dormant, although there are probably a few hot springs in its interior that manifests its violent history. Apoyo Lagoon can be considered to be one of the lesser known – albeit extremely popular – destinations that has the potential to shine as a major ecotourism hotspot in the near future. What’s also striking is that although the lagoon, with its intensely blue, calm waters is situated very close to the populated cities of Granada as well as numerous other small villages, it has preserved its natural ambience all along.
"The surrounding region is as picturesque as the lagoon itself, situated in a leafy greenery that covers the slopes of the crater that gives rise to it."
However, the star of the region is Lake Nicaragua, which happens to be the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and inside this lake are strewn literally a few hundred volcanic islands for your family to explore. Amazingly, these islands, or Las Isletas as they’re called, were formed from the same family of spewing rocks and lava from the last eruption of the Mombacho Volcano. These islands are a mere couple of miles from Granada’s city center, so the family should be beyond ecstatic exploring these on a boat cruise. Getting to meet flocks of birds and adorable spider monkeys is another unavoidable consequence while you go about your tour.
Playa Maderas is another of those awesome places that has remained largely an under-the-radar destination for families that are keen to spend a more relaxing vacation in Nicaragua. The shark-fin-shaped rocks in this region are quite distinctive, and during low tide, the beach gives the appearance of clear reflection where it’s hard to tell where the land meets the sky. In other words, all this should satisfy not only kids who’ll find countless activities in the shallow coves, but also the family members interested to take photogenic landscapes.
Visiting An Undiscovered Terrain:
Nicaragua's Freshwater Island
One place we very highly recommend visiting might add an extra couple of days to your Nicaragua family vacation, but it will be absolutely worth it. Isla de Ometepe is an island featuring twin volcanoes, one of which, Concepcion Volcano, is still active, while the other, Maderas Volcano, considered dormant. Omatepe boasts to be one of the largest islands to be situated inside a lake anywhere in the world – a so-called freshwater island – and so if your family is already renting a car in Nicaragua, it’s definitely advisable to bring it along as a reliable means of transportation when touring the island. For this, you’ll need to take your car on one of the larger ferries; and yes, normally the kids can choose to be seated inside the car while the ferry sets sail to the island. The hike here was moderately challenging, and even the youngest one in the family did just fine.
"Omatepe boasts to be one of the largest islands to be situated inside a lake anywhere in the world."
The geography of the island is quite interesting in that the two majestic volcanoes sit almost like conjoined twins on the opposite sides of the island with just a narrow strip of land connecting the two. Being disconnected from the land mass by a large expanse of water, the island itself is rich in biodiversity, and has thick forests and reserves, quite attractive for families such as ours that are always trying to find something off-the-beaten-track. The people inhabiting the island are a unique mix of different tribes and cultures, linked by their shared hospitality and friendliness. Recently, the place has begun to cater to traveling families, and now have a number of excellent lodging and amenities available in this remote island paradise.
A Childhood Dream Come True
There’s no denying that one of the most exciting stories in Nicaragua for anyone would be about catching sight of the breathtaking lava lake inside the volcano crater. I mean, how can anyone top that experience? But fortunately, there was one other activity that to us was so memorable that the volcano experience, for all its cracking sound and smell of burning sulfur, had to be a runner-up to the hands-down winner activity – arribada! But what’s that all about?
Well, a mere 10 miles south of San Juan del Sur is Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor – or simply ‘Playa La Flor’ – a wildlife refuge that serves as the egg-laying ground for the endangered Olive Ridley as well as Leatherback turtles. Between the months of July and February, these undeveloped barren beaches become the site of mass turtle hatchings. The nighttime spectacle in no less astounding, given that upwards of twenty thousand turtles nest here each year. Eventually, when the eggs hatch, the offspring crawl towards the ocean, and it’s truly a sight to behold. But keep in mind that there’s more than just turtles here, so make sure to spot some of the abundant bird species in the mangrove, as well as the hundreds of hermit crabs racing around just before sunset.
Getting here can be tricky though if you you’re not self-driving, which we fortunately were. If you’re planning to get here independently but haven’t rented a vehicle, your options are to catch a water-taxi from one of the nearby hotels or take the local bus from the main station. Of course, hotel operators and travel agencies will be willing to bring you on an organized tour but be prepared to pay premium price in this case.
"A small donation would let you participate in this once-in-a-lifetime project and you can choose to carry the baskets with a few hundred baby turtles to the water’s edge."
Oftentimes, when the eggs are abandoned or in trying times, the refuge steps in to store and incubate the eggs, and most evenings release the baby turtles on the beaches not far from the water. A small donation would let you participate in this once-in-a-lifetime project and you can choose to carry the baskets with a few hundred baby turtles to the water’s edge. There, in the fading light of the setting sun, you can observe the magnificent creatures crawl towards the breaking waves.
Since the process is only loosely monitored, you are given a short lecture by the park rangers during which the etiquette is explained to you. Remember never to use a flashlight or even the flash on your camera since the baby turtles might get disoriented which might have them abandon their ocean journey.
All three of our daughters are avid animal lovers, and over the years have spent countless hours reading, watching, and interacting with various wild species. Now being able to take part in something like this, they were ecstatic beyond belief, and to this day fondly remember this one act over everything else. So, make this adventure a compulsory part of your trip – an activity such as this is highly enlightening and is bound to be etched in the family’s collective memory forever.
"Ecstatic beyond belief, to this day they fondly remember this one act over everything else."
It goes without saying that Nicaragua is quite out of the ordinary. And although not an iota less mesmerizing that its neighbors, it has long been an underappreciated destination. Family travel to the country can be extremely gratifying, economical, and easy-going. Just go there – you won’t regret your journey.