The largest of the Central American republics, Nicaragua is located at the junction of three continental plates. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions frequently shake the country - at times, to its foundations. The people and most of the economic activity are concentrated in the western highlands, around the two great lakes of Managua and Nicaragua, and to the west of the volcanic chain that runs parallel to the Pacific shore. Stretching inland from the Caribbean coast, the largely unpopulated lowlands are challenging country for travelling and a nature paradise for those with the energy and time to spare.

Dramatic evidence of tectonic power can be seen in the capital,
, where the centre was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. The old cathedral stands open to the skies, a crumbling testament to what the city could have been. Other sites in the old colonial centre, close to the shores of
Lago de Managua
, reflect Nicaragua's recent civil war. Within easy reach of the capital are the Pacific beaches of

Southeast of Managua is the colonial city of
, a major centre for handicrafts in the region and a base for visits to the smoking crater of the
volcano. The road
continues to
, one of Nicaragua's major colonial cities, passing close to the crystal- clear waters of the beautiful Apoyo crater lake. Founded on the shores of
Lago de Nicaragua
in 1524, Granada is the oldest continually inhabited city on the mainland of the Americas. It promises a stunning setting, gorgeously restored Spanish buildings, hordes of camera-
toting tourists and some of the best restaurants in the country. The lake also has an archipelago of 354 islands that are great for boat trips and nature watching.
Isla Zapatera
, an extinct volcano and pre-Columbian site, is accessible from Granada.
, easily reached from Granada and the lakeside town of
San Jorge
, near
, is the largest island and a peaceful, popular destination with welcoming residents, indigenous petroglyphs and two forest-covered volcanoes ideal for climbing.

San Carlos
marks the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua at the outlet of the
Río San Juan
, which flows along the Costa Rican border to
San Juan del Norte
, and passes through some of Central America's most unspoilt forest; the potential for nature tourism is enormous. A short trip from San Carlos is the
Solentiname archipelago
, a group of forested islands and home to a community of artists. On the south Pacific coast, heading towards Costa Rica, the burgeoning resort town-cum-surfers' hang-out of
San Juan del Sur
provides beach life and fabulous sunsets. Close by is the country's most important turtle nesting ground at
La Flor

Two routes head round Lago de Managua from the capital, heading north to
. The main route runs south of the lake shore arriving at the former capital of
, a feisty city of colonial houses, beautiful churches, students and captivating festivals. As the birthplace of Rubén Darío, one of Latin America's greatest poets, the city is rightly proud of its cultural heritage. Nearby are the Pacific beaches of
Las Peñitas
. Heading north is sweltering
and the national park of
volcano, overlooking the Gulf of Fonseca. A second route goes east of Lake Managua through the refreshing highland towns of
, ideal country for walking and hiking.

On the Caribbean coast,
are port towns with an entirely different cultural flavour. Bluefields is a bumpy bus and boat journey from Managua, Bilwi makes for a long journey on a couple of buses. Out to sea, the
Corn Islands
, fringed with coral, are popular for bathing, snorkelling and diving. All can be reached by plane from Managua.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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