The sprawling markets and maze of uninspired architecture that make up Managua do little justice its charms, but the chaotic Nicaraguan capital is still ideally situated for exploring the country’s highlights. Set on the banks of the vast Lake Managua and flanked by towering volcanoes, lush nature reserves and sweeping lagoons, there’s simply no excuse for staying put in the city.
The colonial city of Granada is one of the most popular day trips from Managua, where highlights include the cultural center of Casa de los Tres Mundos, the Convent and Museum of San Francisco and the Parque Central. Founded by the Spanish in 1524, Granada is one of the oldest cities in the New World and remains an important center of Nicaraguan culture and heritage. Combine your trip with a stop at the nearby town of Masaya, home to the breathtaking Masaya Volcano National Park and renowned for its traditional handicrafts, or enjoy a scenic cruise around the islands of Lake Nicaragua, where you might even catch sight of freshwater sharks and sawfish.
Looming over the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve offers abundant options for hikers, including expansive views from the 4,265-foot volcanic peak. The most thrilling way to take in the views is by zipline, flying between the treetops on over 4,900 feet of zipline cables. Alternatively, the nearby Apoyo Lagoon is a haven for native wildlife, including colorful toucans, hummingbirds, howler monkeys and rare butterflies. The 656-foot deep pool lies in an ancient volcanic crater and makes a scenic spot for kayaking or swimming.
Another easy trip, this time northwest of Managua, Nicaragua’s second-largest city Leon is also one of its most picturesque, encompassing two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Leon Viejo and the Cathedral of Leon and some of the country’s most impressive colonial architecture. And once you’ve tired of exploring the town, you can always swap sightseeing for sandboarding, scrambling to the 1,640-foot summit of the nearby Cerro Negro Volcano and zooming down the black gravel slopes on a sandboard.