Affordable, safe (believe it) and undiscovered (though not for long), Nicaragua is the next great eco-travel destination. F&W's Jen Murphy checks out its wildlife and nightlife.

April 27, 2012

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"Do you know why Nicaragua is like Justin Timberlake?" my driver asks as he changes the radio from JT’s "SexyBack" to baseball. I rack my brain (boy bands? Britney Spears? The Social Network?), then give up with a shrug. "We are a country that is able to reinvent itself over and over again," he says.

Nicaragua has reinvented itself even more often than Timberlake has. The Somoza dictatorship that began in the 1930s led to almost five decades of revolutions and counterrevolutions, interrupted by a devastating earthquake in 1972. The ’80s brought violent conflict between the leftist Sandinista government and American-backed Contra rebels. All of which explains why my friends were baffled when I told them I would be going, by myself, to Nicaragua for a vacation. Wasn’t it dangerous? Where would I stay? And more importantly, what would I eat? Why not just visit Costa Rica?

What my friends didn’t know is that Nicaragua has reinvented itself as the next great eco-destination. Not only has it become the second-safest country in Central America, after Costa Rica (according to a recent Global Peace Index study), but it’s a bargain. As a friend put it, "You can live like a king for less than $100 a day." If Nicaragua had Justin Timberlake’s PR team, it would be touting these reasons to visit.

There Are Wonderful New Eco-Hotels

Eco-Travel Guide: Nicaragua Black Book

From Spanish colonial cities like Granada and León (left) to fishing villages-turned-surfing spots, Jen Murphy traveled all over. Highlights from her trip:

Getting There

Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua is the main hub. American Airlines (aa.com) has a two-and-a-half-hour direct flight from Miami, and Continental Airlines (continental.com) has an eight-hour flight from Newark, New Jersey, that connects through Houston. It’s about a one-hour drive from Managua to Granada.

When to Go

Nicaragua has two seasons: Winter (May through October) is the rainy season; summer (November through April) is the dry season.

Where to Stay

Jicaro Island Ecolodge A 15-minute boat ride from Granada, this sustainable new resort is on a tiny island in Lake Nicaragua. Its nine casitas have decks with hammocks. For a view of Mombacho volcano, request casita nine.

Aqua Wellness Resort This almost year-old retreat is an hour-and-a-half from Granada, near the fishing village of Gigante. Many of the treehouse villas have private plunge pools; activities include yoga, surfing and cooking classes.

Where To Eat

El Zaguán A Granada restaurant that turns out fantastic grilled meats, particularly local beef. There’s live marimba on the patio.

El Garaje A no-frills lunch spot in Granada where the daily changing menu might include tandoori-chicken sandwiches or black bean soup.

Fritangas Vendors set up around Calle La Calzada and Parque Central in Granada to sell dishes like carne asada and all things fried, from plantains to cheese.

Casa Campestre and Café Campestre Aqua chef Ben Slow runs this agriturismo on the island of Ometepe, about an hour’s ferry ride from San Jorge. There are basic guest accommodations and a restaurant featuring ingredients grown and raised on the farm.

Eco-Travel, Yoga Retreats & More:

Artisan Workshops at a Costa Rica Eco-Resort

Yoga Retreats for Foodies

Winter Travel Destinations