Central America’s great inland sea is over twice as large as Rhode Island, yet it encompasses some of the most pristine and peaceful parts of Nicaragua, a safe, inexpensive, and increasingly popular alternative to neighboring Costa Rica.
You’ll find everything that makes the country a great place to travel in or around the “Mar Dulce,” or “Sweet Sea,” from restored colonial cities and quiet island getaways to waterfalls, virgin rainforests and friendly residents. Even better, you won’t have to share it with thousands of like-minded fellow travelers -- for now.
5… Amble through a colonial capital.
Founded by the Spanish in 1524 at the west end of the lake, Granada is one of the oldest cities in the New World. The lovingly restored historic heart of the “Grand Sultan of the Lake” is almost painfully photogenic, with cobblestone streets, Colonial-era churches, and courtyards full of fountains and flowers. Two architectural standouts are the baroque Iglesia (church) de La Merced (Calle Real Xalteva and Calle 14 de Septiembre) and the baby-blue Iglesia de San Francisco (Avenida Saavedra and Calle El Arsenal), with an excellent attached museum on the city’s turbulent history.
To see the sights in style, head to the Parque Central (Central Park) to find horse-drawn carriages for hire ($15 per hour). Most drivers are excellent guides, although not many speak English; Spanish is the national language. Have a phrase book handy and make it known to your driver that you want to swing by Granada’s cemetery, a miniature city of remarkable stonework, and the lovely park on the lakeshore.
For the quintessential Colonial lunch spot, try the Garden Café (Av Saavedra and Calle La Libertad, entrees $5-6), offering excellent sandwiches and salads in a shady spot a block from the Parque Central. You’ll have to take a taxi to the restaurant Las Colinas del Sur (Calle Nueva, entrees $8-12), but you’ll be glad you did - the lake fish doesn’t get any fresher here, and the comfortably rustic place comes alive in the evening as the local Flor de Caña rum starts flowing.
4… Explore a volcanic wonderland
This end of the lake has been shaped by the Mombacho Volcano (4,400 ft), whose jagged silhouette is impossible to miss on Granada’s southern skyline. Most of the mountain is protected as a nature reserve (www.mombacho.org). Well-maintained trails wind through the cloud forest, where you may see monkeys and you’ll definitely spot exotic birds and orchids. Unless you have use of a car, it’s easiest to visit with a tour company who can also take you into the canopy on a zipline course and transport you to local organic coffee farms.
Mombacho is quiet for now, but 10,000 years ago it spit out the giant boulders that formed Granada’s other must-see attraction: Las Isletas, a cluster of 365 or so miniature tropical islands just offshore. Some hold private mansions, others fishing shacks or restaurants, and a few are even for sale. Boat tours from Granada’s lakeside dock wind through the archipelago, past the Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) and an 18th-century Spanish fort. Enchanted enough to spend the night? The Jicaro Islands Ecolodge has nine two-story luxury casitas with outdoor decks overlooking the water. The restaurant uses fresh local ingredients, and there’s a yoga deck and wellness center with open-air treatment rooms for hot stone massages.
3… Set out for Ometepe Island
Smack in the middle of the lake, Ometepe Island is as idyllic a place as you’ll find in Central America, if not the entire continent. The hourglass-shaped island, formed by the Concepción and Maderas volcanoes, is home to some 35,000 people, but you’d never know it. Isolation has protected Ometepe from overdevelopment and pollution, leaving it a gorgeous yet low-key tropical escape for jungle hikers, kayakers, beach-walkers, and anyone else who wants to leave the din of the modern world behind.
A number of public ferries ($5, 1 hr) run to Ometepe daily from Granada and San Carlos, near Rivas on the lake’s southern shore. Two excellent museums on Concepción trace the island’s surprisingly rich prehistory. Just south of Moyogalpa, the Museos El Ceibo (8874-8706, $3, www.elceibomuseos.com) includes a coin museum and an archaeological section stocked with ancient jewelry and ceramics. On the central park in Altagracia, the Museo de Ometepe ($1) includes some of the island’s famous carved stone sculptures and a scale model of the volcano.
Head to the isthmus that joins the peaks to reach the dark volcanic sand of Santo Domingo beach - perhaps the prettiest on the island - and see La Presa Ojo de Agua ($2), a spring-fed swimming hole nearby. On Maderas Volcano, rent a kayak at the hotel Caballito’s Mar to paddle up the Río Istiam in search of howler monkeys and caimans.
2… Experience an artistic archipelago
The Solentiname Islands at the southeastern end of the lake are very different from the ones near Granada. They’re famous for the artistic skills of their inhabitants, first revealed to the outside world in the 1960s by the Nicaraguan priest and now-famous poet Ernesto Cardenal. Balsa-wood carvings and intricate, brightly colored paintings of rural life in a “primitivist” style are widely available, often directly from the artists.
Only four of the 36 islands are inhabited and just two have tourist facilities. Isla Mancarrón, the largest, is home to some 200 people and an artistic cooperative where you browse local works. It also has the nicest hotel on the islands, the Hotel Mancarrón booked through Solentiname Tours. The company can arrange day visits to the islands, which is a good thing, since public boats only run to and from the mainland every few days.
The Isla San Fernando, also known as the Isla Elvis Chavarría, has an archaeological museum ($2) and a gallery displaying work by members of the local painters’ and artisans’ union. You can stay in a cabañas at the pleasant Albergue. Besides the art and the tranquility, the archipelago also offers great opportunities for kayaking and hiking.
1… Trace history down the San Juan River
Starting at the lakeside city of San Carlos, the San Juan River snakes for 120 miles through Nicaragua’s southeastern jungles before reaching the Caribbean Sea at the town of San Juan del Norte. This is the Amazon of Central America, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where boats serves as buses and the forest teems with life. Since it connects Lake Nicaragua with the Atlantic, the river was a key part of the pre-Panama Canal route between the oceans - as well as a watery highway for invading foreign armies and pirates on their way to plunder the rich city of Granada.
At the town of Boca de Sábalos, a few hours downriver from San Carlos, a riverside cabin at the Sábalos Lodge makes a great starting point for jungle treks and river excursions. A little farther downriver is El Castillo, where a restored 17th-century Spanish fort still watches over a set of rapids and a small but charming town of the same name. Grab a latte or a filling plate of pasta at Borders Coffee on the main plaza, and ask at the tourist kiosk about local guides to lead you into the nearby Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve, a 1,400-square-mile expanse of untouched rainforest.