"Don't worry, those aren't gunshots," said Jairo Robles, our guide in Nicaragua, no doubt noticing me jump at each pop.
Good to know. In fact, despite being the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua is one of the safest in Latin America.
Robles explained that the explosive sounds were fireworks in honor of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which runs the entire first week of December.
But while the festival lent an air of gaiety to our visit, our group quickly came to realize that the destination, which we explored at the invitation of Visit Nicaragua North America, offers a diversity and range of experiences designed to appeal to travelers year-round.
Although the 156-room Holiday Inn in Managua became our jumping-off point several times during our travels, the city is so outshone by some of the country's other destinations that it's unlikely to be the focus of a leisure visit.
Instead we started our marathon exploration of the country in San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast, where we braved a canopy tour at Parque de Aventura Las Nubes. Half the fun of the tour is getting there via a safari vehicle on a bumpy, hand-dug road through a rain forest where we spotted monkeys lounging in the trees, the first of many we would see during our travels.
We overnighted at the Villas de Palermo Hotel and Resort, which features 50 villas overlooking the Pacific, poolside dining and proximity to the San Juan del Sur beaches.
The pool area at the Villas de Palermo Hotel and Resort. The resort has 50 villas overlooking the Pacific Ocean and is close to the San Juan del Sur beaches. Photo Credit: Dave Osborne/From The Hammock Productions
The next day found us bumping along another steep, scenic road up to the Natural Reserve Mombacho Volcano, where we enjoyed a relatively easy trek, eye-popping views of the volcano, the countryside and, yes, more monkeys.
We quickly learned that volcanoes are an integral part of the geography of Nicaragua. There are 25 in all in the country, eight of which are still active. Lake Nicaragua boasts some 365 volcanic islands, some of which we saw via a relaxing boat tour with Arrebatadora Tours.
From here we traveled to Granada, Central America's oldest city, which we explored on foot by night and by horse-drawn carriage the next day. With its chocolate museum, a historical train station that has been transformed into a school and pre-Columbian statuary, there's enough to keep visitors busy for several days. We overnighted at the 22-room Hotel Dario, an elegant boutique property in the heart of Granada city.
Masaya Volcano National Park became Nicaragua’s first national park in 1979. Photo Credit: Felicity long
Nicaragua is known for its beautiful, folkloric ceramics, and we saw them being created at a pottery workshop at Taller Escuela de Ceramica in San Juan de Oriente, where even those of us who rarely buy souvenirs left with ceramics to take home.
After a traditional mixed-grill lunch at Mi Viejo Ranchito restaurant nearby, we shopped for more pottery at the Masaya handicraft market before heading to a key highlight of our trip: an evening visit to the Masaya Volcano National Park, where we had a spectacular view of the bubbling, fiery lava lake below.
After dinner at Pacaya Lodge and Spa, a five-star resort at Apoyo Lake, we overnighted at the Apoyo Resort Hotel, located right on the lake within a nature park. Watersports, yoga, lakeside dining and bird-watching are among the features of the 140-room property, which offers villas, guestrooms and — you guessed it — monkeys in the trees.
It took a predawn departure the next morning to get us all the way to the Cerro Negro Natural Reserve, but the sandboarding experience there was worth the trek. The way it works is that boarders are outfitted with a backpack and sandboard on arrival, then a guide leads them on a challenging, hourlong walk up the side of the 2,400-foot-high volcano, often navigating over loose volcanic rock. The twin pay-offs are the views en route and at the top, and even more exhilarating, the ride down. The experience involves donning protective eyewear and a zip-up suit and sitting on a simple sled equipped with just a rope to hold on to. You control your speed with your feet a la Fred Flintstone, and as for steering … well, you don't. You just go.
The volcano is located only about an hour away from Leon, another beautiful colonial city that proved to be a group favorite. Leon was a key player during the revolution by the Sandinista National Liberation Front to oust dictator Anastasio Somoza in the late 1970s. Remnants of the bloody uprising still exist in the city, especially in the political murals that adorn the city walls and in the tiny Museum of the Revolution.
We packed in another early morning departure to catch a 45-minute flight to the Corn Islands, 50 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast in the Caribbean. Unlike the rest of the country, locals are as likely to speak English and Creole here as Spanish. Big Corn Island has about 8,000 residents; most restaurants are attached to beach hotels, and shipwreck snorkeling and boogie boarding are popular activities.
We started our visit with breakfast at Casa Canada, a waterfront hotel, where we were served milk right out of the coconut, followed by a very wet boat ride to Little Corn Island. Here we enjoyed a wine-pairing lunch at the posh, 16-suite Yemaya Resort and Spa, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, then snorkeled on the way back to the main island where we dined, watched a dance performance and spent the night at the beach-casual Arenas Beach Hotel.
We spent our last day back on the mainland, learning to make cheese tortillas at Quesillos Gourmet in Nagarote, exploring the seemingly endless artisanal market at Parque Nacional de Ferias in Managua and dining at Los Ranchos in Salvador Allende Port with Shantanny Anasha Campbell, Nicaragua's minister of tourism.
"Nicaragua tourism has grown just in the last four or five years," Campbell said, adding that initially visitors focused on the Pacific coast region. "Now we are showcasing our diversity and our people, and our goal is to protect our culture while growing our tourism."