Can’t decide between beach and city or volcanoes and rain forest?
Compare two very different destinations in Central America and make your choice.
SEPARATED only by a narrow land border and united by a single
language, the two Central American countries of Costa Rica and
Nicaragua couldn’t be more different. On one side Costa Rica, with
its well-developed, well-trodden tourist trail, offers unrivalled
wildlife-watching opportunities and some of the most luxurious
hotels in the region. On the other, Nicaragua, with its rich history and still growing tourism industry, supplies an abundance of volcanoes and striking Colonial cities made even more charming by the people that inhabit them.
The stark contrasts between the two countries are pretty obvious
when you make the short journey from one to the other and, since
crossing the border is easy, you would experience two very different vacations
so here are some of the highlights of each. For instance, it’s only really possible
to fully appreciate a deserted path leading up to the crater of an active volcano in Nicaragua a National Park in Costa Rica and follow a path teeming with as many tourists as tropical birds. And it’s only once you’ve eaten your third meal of “gallo pinto” (rice and beans) in one day in Costa Rica that you completely relish the prospect of fresh fish and fried potatoes back in Nicaragua.
Beginning in Costa Rica and avoiding the uninspiring and somewhat
depressing capital city of San Jose by heading straight to the aptly
named Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) in the south east of the country would
get your vacation itineary off to a good start. Although the short plane
journey from San Jose to the town of Golfito isn’t for the
faint-hearted (it involves two take-offs and landings in a tiny
plane), if you’re able to overcome a fear of heights and look down,
you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the peninsula on which
you’d be staying. There are plenty of places for lodging in that area
with a variety of pricings.
FEAST YOUR EYES, FEED YOUR SENSES
From there, it’s easy to explore nearby Piedras Blancas National
Park by hiking to waterfalls accompanied by a
knowledgeable guide.Or you can head back to the water’s edge, pick up a
kayak and paddle into the Esquinas River and Wildlife Refuge to see
just how the “Rich Coast” got her name while you float past
hummingbirds, iguanas, tree frogs, river turtles and even crocodiles
before returning to your lodging to feast on local
produce, chill out with a rum cocktail and attempt to sleep through
the unnerving nocturnal calls of the forest-dwelling Howler monkeys.
WHITE KNUCKLE ADVENTURES
A journey northwest towards the province of Guanacaste,
the fearless would enjoy a white water rafting adventure on
the fast-flowing Savegre river, where
hair-raising runs on the rapids are interspersed with swimming pit
stops that help lower your heart rate to somewhere near normal. Or
sign-up for a terrifying zip-wire canopy tour in the dizzying
heights of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, where those who can keep
their stomachs out of their mouths and eyes open will be privy to
astounding views over the biological reserve, which
boasts over 500 different species of orchids as well as countless
birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
Back on the ground, make Rincon de la Vieja National Park your next
stop for a last chance to get up close and personal with Costa
Rica’s astonishing wildlife,before crossing the border into Nicaragua.
It’s also an opportunity to encounter an active volcano and get
acquainted with(though probably not accustomed to) the sulphuric stench
that seeps out from the surrounding steam holes and mud pools before
visiting more impressive examples in neighbouring Nicaragua.
Driving the short distance from Costa Rica to Nicaragua feels less
like leaving one country for another and more like travelling back
in time. Gone are the spotless, homogenous hotels and neat,
standard nature trails and in their place are beautifully
restored facades housing restaurants, bars and rooms with
personalities as well as miles of empty and inviting countryside.
And you don’t have to journey far from the nondescript border towns
to discover why the Nicaraguan people (known as Nicas) are justly
proud of their rich cultural heritage and impressive volcanic
landscape. Even the tiniest towns have museums dedicated to the
poets, writers and scientists that have lived in them and you feel
as if you’re never more than a hike away from a majestic – and often
active – volcano.
What Nicaragua lacks in five-star hotels and European-standard spas
it more than makes up for in bewitching colonial architecture and
genuine warmth and hospitality, which is evident everywhere from
small villages to large cities, save perhaps for Managua, the
capital, which as well as being charmless, except for some great
mall shopping is also a bit edgy.
The Hotel Plaza Colon (www.hotelplazacolo n.com), in the ancient city
of Granada, is a brilliant example of a traditional building that
has been tastefully modernized and redeveloped into a first-class
hotel without sacrificing the unique characteristics of the original
Charming as the place is, the real Nicaragua is to be found outside,
on the streets and in the squares. Based on a grid system and with
lovingly painted buildings on nearly every corner to help orientate
you, the city is easily navigable, incredibly friendly and feels
safe at night, which is sadly atypical in this part of the world. By
day, it’s not only safe but also buzzing, full of Nicas and tourists
shuttling between churches, hotels, restaurants and shops, all
housed in buildings in various degrees of dilapidation, some of
which look dangerously close to falling down.
This theme continues in the neighbouring city of Leon, a colonial
masterpiece that once served as the country’s capital. It’s more
laid-back than Granada, has a distinctly hippy vibe, helped by a
high concentration of students and backpackers, and makes a terrific
base for exploring local volcanoes, including Telica, San Cristobal
and Momotombo. If you’ve got time, a two-day, overnight trek to the
crater of Vulcan Telica is an un-missable experience but one that
will challenge your fitness and stamina equally as it’s a long,
steep way to the top.
As well as her Cathedral, museums and churches, Leon’s local market
is worth a visit as it’s a great source of tasty local produce,
souvenirs and almost anything you’ve run out of and happily is far
less crowded than the sprawling handicraft market at the city of
Masaya, midway between Leon and Granada. If you’re staying
overnight, check in to the tranquil Grand Hotel El Convento
(www.elconventonica ragua.com) , an imposing building that sits on the
site of the former San Francisco Convent and has carefully furnished
rooms situated around a central, immaculately maintained garden. The
hotel also has a knock-out, gourmet restaurant on site but if you’re
feeling adventurous, it’s only a short walk to the street food
sellers on the main square where plates of delicious fried cheese,
plantain and vegetables come heaped for a few dollars.
From here, it would be easy to make your way further north, through
the remainder of Nicaragua and into Honduras, reaching Guatemala and
then Mexico. It’s also tempting but, with a limited amount of time
and a return ticket, you’ll instead retrace your journey through
Nicaragua’s volcano-littered landscape to Managua’s international
airport and from there back home, where the memories of two
countries geographically fused but poles apart will stay with you
long after your strange craving for rice and beans for breakfast has
subsided. Can’t decide between beach and city or volcanoes and rain forest?
Compare costs to these two very different destinations in Central America and once
you’ve discovered how you can have an extraordinary vacation in Nicaragua
for less than Half the price of the same vacation you would spend in Costa Rica
you won’t have to compromise!