Slowly but surely, Nicaragua is poised to become one of the hottest travel destinations for eco-tourism, but as PAX learned last night through representatives of the Nicaraguan Tourism Board in Toronto, there's so much more to this little slice of paradise in Central America, and it deserves more recognition than being affiliated as the 'cheaper version of Costa Rica.'
Located right between Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua straddles the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and is home to more than six million people. Its capital city, Managua, contains just over one million of Nicaragua's citizens, and is also one of the most-visited destinations in the country.
Marlon Moreno, representative in Toronto for the Nicaraguan Tourism Board.
Long hailed as an eco-friendly traveller's paradise, Costa Rica is seemingly the first country that comes to mind when the term "eco-tourism" is announced, thanks to the government's ongoing conservation efforts and commitment to sustainable projects like solar energy, sustainable hotels, and the protection of nature and wildlife reserves and national parks.
But, Costa Rica's neighbour to the north is quickly stepping in to show international visitors that eco-tourism aside, there's so much to offer in terms of local gastronomy, arts and culture, history, colonial architecture, beaches, and even the capuchin monkeys and sloths found in the rainforests.
Granada Cathedral, photo by: Christine Hogg
"We love Costa Rica, because they have been the propellers of eco-tourism, and they've been focusing on that for a long time, but now, people say 'well, Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica, but the answer is no!" said Marlon Moreno, representative for the Nicaraguan Tourism Board in Toronto. "We have more than just eco-tourism in Nicaragua. "A few years ago, if we got 100,000 visitors to Nicaragua, it was like winning the [Lotto] 649. I'm happy to report that last year, we welcomed almost two-million visitors through Nicaragua, and that represented a double-digit increase of 18 per cent, and last year alone, the government injected almost $848M into tourism investments."
Nicaragua might share two ocean coastlines, but it's also earned the nickname, the 'Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.' Lake Nicaragua, in particular, is the only lake in the world that's home to freshwater sharks. With 50 volcanoes, seven of them being active, including the Masaya Volcano, which remains a popular place to peek over the side of the crater and see the lava churning, Nicaragua is an adventure traveller's dream, and quickly heating up as the 'it-spot' for travellers to Central America.
The streets of Granada, Nicaragua. Photo: Christine Hogg
Prior to the tourism boom Nicaragua has experienced in the last few years, the main contributions to GDP were beef, grains, and coffee.
Now, tourism is the main provider for Nicaragua's economy.
The diverse array of tourism options makes Nicaragua an ideal vacation spot for travellers who don't necessarily want to do another trip to the Caribbean, but still crave those turquoise waters, white sands, hot sunny days, and the all-inclusive experience. Flying to Nicaragua is easy from North America, with a great majority of airlines offering direct flights out of Canada's major cities, or quick stops in Miami, Panama, or El Salvador before continuing on.
"We have flights from Avianca that offer a quick stop in El Salvador, and then we have flights with Aeromexico which provides a quick stop in Mexico City and then down to Managua, and there's a lot of connectivity straight out of Canada as well," Moreno explained.
Currently, the majority of travellers to Nicaragua are from Central America, followed by North America, Europe, and South America, though the Nicaraguan Tourism Board is working to increase visitor statistics from South America.
Nicaragua: Home to Hospitality
Despite the country's mix of big cities and small towns, no matter where you go in Nicaragua, you'll be greeted with a smile.
"At the heart of the destination, the people are what make Nicaragua special, and Nicaraguans are a very hospitable people," said Moreno, who himself, was born in Nicaragua. "If you don't know them and you need an address, they're the type of people to say 'wait a minute, let me put the milk away, let me walk with you' and they will literally take you where you need to go, and it's that phenomenal hospitality that makes Nicaragua so special."
The people are a part of what makes Nicaragua so special. Photo: Christine Hogg
The Nicaraguan Tourism Board shared five key attributes that make Nicaragua an ideal place to vacation. The following are reasons to book that trip:
- Nature and adventure
- Sun and beaches
- Colonial cities
- Culture and architecture
"If you're thinking of flying to the Caribbean because you have sun and beaches, we have them; if you love adventure, we have it; if you want authentic, rustic food, we have that too - Nicaragua is a no-frills destination, and you get what you get," Moreno explained. "This is where the authenticity of the destination lies."
Our Lady of Grace Cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua, where you can walk on the roof. Photo: Christine Hogg
A casual stroll through the city of Granada, the oldest colonial city in Central America, puts you face-to-face with violet, coral, turquoise, and orange colonial buildings, some dating back to the 1500's. A day spent in Managua's markets will keep your nose happy all day long, as hundreds of street vendors cook up everything from slow-cooked nacatamales, a traditional Nicaraguan dish steamed in a banana leaf, to rosquillas, a sweet cookie not to be missed.
Looking for history? A day-trip to León's striking Our Lady of the Grace Cathedral is a must. A recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral was built in 1860 and is undergoing white-washing treatments to preserve its appearance. Visitors can actually climb onto the roof of the cathedral, and, after removing their shoes, walk along the pillars and domes, looking down on the city below.
Need a dose of nature? A boat ride through Nicaragua's Las Isletas will give travellers the chance to see beautiful scenery, including ospreys, cormorans and white herons.
For travellers in search of a beach day, San Juan del Sur provides the waves, beach bars, and sandy shores for the ultimate relaxation - not to mention, it's also home to Nicaragua's Christ of the Mercy statue, a 134-foot statue of Jesus Christ which overlooks the city from above, and is also a must-see attraction.
San Juan del Sur remains a popular beachtown in Nicaragua. Photo: Christine Hogg
Of course, no trip through Nicaragua is complete without seeing a live volcano first-hand. The Masaya Volcano in Masaya, Nicaragua, is currently active, and for a small fee, visitors can actually gaze into the crater, and if the weather and state of activity is right, see lava spewing down below. Due to the poisonous gases that volcanoes emit, however, there are time restrictions on being that close, so make sure you've got your hand on the shutter!
Last year, CNN called Nicaragua the new eco-travel darling of Central America, but it's also the kind of destination that caters to all traveller types. From local homestays, to glamping in tents in the rainforest, to an all-inclusive on the beach, and boutique-style hotels, there's truly something for everybody.
For more information, visit www.visitnicaragua.us.