Nicaragua is the region's largest country. It's also one of the most fascinating. In spite of their turbulent history and widespread poverty, Nicaraguans are incredibly friendly and love making visitors feel welcome and safe. They are discovering the possibilities of tourism as a way to earn foreign income and are determined not to make the same mistakes as Costa Rica.
Costa Rica, which borders the country to the south, has become one of the world's prime ecotourism destinations. The problem is that the large numbers of visitors are taking their toll on the environment. Moreover, the country has become quite expensive and in some areas you'll be hard pressed to find any kind of local character. Nicaragua, in contrast, is still very much unspoiled and is also one of the cheapest destinations in Central America.
Central America is located where a number of tectonic plates meet and sees a lot of seismic and volcanic activity. The Nicaraguan flag and coat of arms both feature a series of volcanoes. This isn't surprising, with volcanoes such an integral part of the landscape here. There are many to choose from if you want to take a closer look. Some are active, some feature crater lakes and some even offer the unique activity of volcano-boarding.
Mombacho and Masaya are the two most popular Nicaraguan volcanoes among visitors. This is partly because it's so easy to get to them. Mombacho lies near Granada while Masaya is about an hour's bus ride from this charming colonial city, which has everything a visitor may need, including a beautiful lakeside setting. Mombacho is dormant and Masaya is active.
After Granada, take a trip on Lake Nicaragua and spend a few days om the magical Ometepe Island. This island was formed by two volcanoes right next to each other, Madera and Concepcion. You can hike up either in a few hours and visit petroglyphs from ancient times. The views from the top are spectacular and afterwards you can relax on the beach or with a cup of locally grown coffee.
The best time to visit is during the winter months, which are the dry season in the tropical country. The weather is still hot but not as uncomfortable as in the rainy summer months. You'll need good hiking boots, insect repellent, plenty of water and sunscreen. Hikes can be arduous so it helps to be reasonably fit too.
When you plan a volcano hike, think about investing in the services of a local guide. This is not only for a more enriching experience but for safety as well. In Granada, simply ask at any of the local travel agencies. On Ometepe, many hotels will be able to provide a guide.
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