How much do you know about Nicaragua? This little gem of a destination (well, it's actually the biggest central American country) is oft-overlooked as a holiday destination when placed next to the big boys of Latin America - Brazil, Argentina, Mexico. Nicaragua was my first venture outside Europe and, although I've travelled a lot since, still holds a special place in my heart. This incredible country is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes you could hope to find, not to mention some of the most welcoming people and a history that'll knock your socks off.
Granada was our first stop on a month-long expedition around the country and there is no better place to get a true sense of Nicaraguan culture. It is like stepping simultaneously back in time to a bygone colonial era, and a children's colouring book. The city is a veritable rabbit-warren of narrow streets flanked by bright pastel-coloured buildings and houses, which are perfect for getting lost amongst (without ever really feeling lost). This is never more evident than along the Calzeda - the city's main pedestrianised street which is bursting with shops, bars and restaurants. It's definitely worth spending some time exploring the city and soaking up the culture and tradition of the place.
We also used Granada as a base for some slightly more energetic activities. The nearby Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is a fantastic day out. We kayaked in the lagoon itself - a clear blue, warm water lake inside a volcanic crater. For flora and fauna enthusiasts, the lagoon is swathed by tropical forest which is home to over 500 species of plant and tree, over 230 species of bird, as well as a plethora of mammal life. If you're not so much of a David Attenborough as a lazy beach bum (it's okay to admit it, you're on holiday after all) then there's nothing better than simply relaxing on the lagoon's beach, cold beer in hand, soaking up the sun and enjoying the view.
No trip to Central America would be complete without a visit to a coffee plantation. We went to the Cutirre coffee plantation in the foothills of the Mombacho Volcano (which is also well worth a visit - we did a nature trail around the crater) where we first did a canopy tour through the surrounding forest (adrenaline fix - check), and then were given a guided tour of the manufacturing process, before rounding off with some coffee tasting. I have to say, I'm not a caffeine fan, but I did buy some coffee for my family (read: coffee junkies) and am assured it was some of the best they've ever had!
Granada also sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the biggest lake in Central America. It is home to some 365 tiny islets, one for each day of the year, which were formed when the nearby Mombacho Volcano erupted, many many moons ago, throwing huge rocks into the lake. My day spent exploring Lake Nicaragua was one of the most memorable and idyllic of the whole trip; it was like something you could only imagine in a movie montage. Cue cheesy music and slow-mo visuals: we spent the morning on a boat tour - think vast blue cloudless sky and a sparkling sun bouncing light off the clear waters as we weaved, wind in hair and spray on face, amongst the lush green vegetation of the islets. We spent lunch at an island restaurant with great food, cool drinks and its own diving board - cue fully grown adults reverting to childhood hooliganism and tom-foolery as we launched ourselves into the lake's freshwater. For the afternoon, we hired some kayaks and a guide and undertook some further exploration. I would highly recommend doing a kayak tour as the guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the lake's unique ecology and you get the chance to see some wonderful wildlife up close.
Lake Nicaragua's largest island, Ometepe, is formed of two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, and if you're a fan of trekking these are very climb-able. However, if you're after a leisurely stroll, this is not the activity for you! Although it takes no more than a day to climb either one of these, the heat, humidity and gradient mean these are not for the faint hearted. Travel tip - you need to be careful with the weather when climbing Concepción as the summit is very exposed so the wind can be incredibly strong and the visibility poor.
R&R on the Pacific Coast
Having spent the previous couple of weeks kayaking, zip-lining and trekking our way through Nicaragua, we headed for the coastal town of San Juan del Sur for a week of relaxation. And relax we did. The main beach in San Juan del Sur can get quite busy (and there are jellyfish in the sea too) so the best way to escape the crowds (and the jellyfish) is to take a short boat ride to one of the quieter bays dotted along the coast. You'll find undisturbed beaches, beautiful water and great beach-side bars and restaurants if you're partial to a lunchtime tipple. Another great thing to do is to hire a catamaran for the day and take a coastal tour of the beautiful coves and beaches. The water is so clear you can see fish from a mile away and we even managed to spot a couple of turtles.
Speaking of Turtles...
One of my (many) highlights of this trip (and, quite frankly, my life) was a night-time expedition to watch turtles laying their eggs. We took a 4x4 to La Flor Natural Reserve, 22km south of San Juan del Sur, to spend the night star-gazing on the beach and watching turtles come in to lay their eggs, before returning to the ocean. It was simply amazing.
So there you have it. Nicaragua - it may not be the most popular, but it certainly packs a punch. If it's not on your travel list, it absolutely should be.