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No matter how much time you plan on giving to Nicaragua, it almost certainly won’t be enough. Don’t miss any of these:

Managua – the apocalypse came and went, and left behind a bunch of malls.

León – cultural heart of the nation.

Granada – pretty colonial town and expat-magnet.

Lake Nicaragua and Isla Omotepe – not many sharks left but plenty of bugs.

San Juan del Sur – best-looking people and beaches in the country (also turtles).

Bluefields and the Corn Islands – the Caribbean coast may be English-speaking, but travel here is no walk in the park.

Between Managua and Granada

It doesn’t take long to get between these cities, but even the quick jaunt down the highway can be enough to make you wish you had your own transport and a lot more time.

Masaya is a pretty average town, known for its handicrafts, but the main attractions here are outside of the town itself. One is Volcan Masaya, a spectacular complex of volcanic calderas and craters that is often belching smoke. Another is El Coyotepe, a fortress used by the Somoza regime to hold and torture political prisoners. It is now owned by the Boy Scouts of Nicaragua, who operate enthusiastic tours.

A number of other towns (Jinotepe is one) in the area are known for their authentic Nicaraguaness. This means they have the odd festival, serve up a lot of starchy food, and don’t see many visitors apart from the occasional volunteer.

The pueblos blancos are not all that blanco. They are pretty, peaceful places devoted to offloading handicrafts to tourists.

North East Nicaragua

The northish eastish of Nicaragua is occupied by ragged mountains. Temperatures are cooler and business is booming up this way. With the help of international NGOs and volunteers the area is recovering from the worst of the Contra war and of Hurricane Mitch.

Estelí is the place to go for cigars and leather products. This is Nicaraguan cowboy country, where belts and boots are big and the nightlife is rowdy.

Matagalpa is the place to go for orgasmic organic chocolate and coffee. Strewn about a misty valley, the city shuts down early, and is a better place for relaxing and admiring the vistas than for meeting shy locals.

Jinotega is located at the end of a winding mountain road. There isn’t much going on out here apart from admiration of the tranquillity.

Choose any city in the northish eastish and you will find countless hiking options. The region is big on lakes, rivers and canyons. Somoto is the place to go if you fancy floating through a gorge on an inner tube while drinking bad Nicaraguan beer.

Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson is an editor at Road Junky and more of his work can be read atHe keeps a his blog. You can also enjoy his bountiful wit via Twitter.