SEPARATED only by a narrow land border and united by a single language, the two Central American countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua couldn’t be more different. On one side Costa Rica, with its well-developed, well-trodden tourist trail, offers unrivalled wildlife-watching opportunities and some of the most luxurious hotels in the region. On the other, Nicaragua, with its rich history and comparatively juvenile tourism industry, supplies an abundance of volcanoes and striking Colonial cities made even more charming by the people that inhabit them.
The stark contrasts between the two countries are patently obvious when you make the short journey from one to the other and, since crossing the border is easy, visiting both enables you not only to combine two very different holidays in one break but also to better enjoy the highlights of each. For instance, it’s only really possible to fully appreciate a deserted path leading up to the crater of an active volcano in Nicaragua once you’ve queued to enter a National Park in Costa Rica and followed a path teeming with as many tourists as tropical birds. And it’s only once you’ve eaten your third meal of “gallo pinto” (rice and beans) in one day in Nicaragua that you completely relish the prospect of fresh fish and fried potatoes back in Costa Rica.
Beginning in Costa Rica and avoiding the uninspiring and slightly depressing capital city of San Jose by heading straight to the aptly named Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) in the south east of the country will get your holiday off to a magical start. Although the short plane journey from San Jose to the town of Golfito isn’t for the faint-hearted (it involves two take-offs and landings in a tiny plane), if you’re able to overcome a fear of heights and look down, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the peninsula on which you’ll be staying. From the airstrip, it’s a short journey to the dock where a speedboat whisks you out into the gulf, past miles of undulating green-covered slopes to the enchanting Playa Nicuesa Lodge (www. nicuesalodge.com), where you’ll be shown to your private log cabin tucked away deep in the jungle.
FEAST YOUR EYES, FEED YOUR SENSES
From there, it’s easy to explore nearby Piedras Blancas National Park by hiking to waterfalls accompanied by a friendly, knowledgeable guide who ceaselessly draws your attention to flora and fauna that are so abundant, they seem to be placed there just for your visit. Or you can head back to the water’s edge, pick up a kayak and paddle into the Esquinas River and Wildlife Refuge to see just how the “Rich Coast” got her name while you float past hummingbirds, iguanas, tree frogs, river turtles and even crocodiles before returning to the eco lodge to feast on excellent local produce, chill out with a rum cocktail and attempt to sleep through the unnerving nocturnal calls of the forest-dwelling Howler monkeys.
After such total immersion in nature, you may be in need of a little luxury and the Hotel Parador Resort & Spa (www.hotelparador.com), in Punta Quepos, on the country’s south coast, offers all the trappings of a top-end hotel with a Costa Rican twist. Relax in your private hot tub on your balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean while you work up the energy to embark on a horse riding tour to a local waterfall, a boat trip into a nearby mangrove swamp or a visit to Manuel Antonio National Park, the smallest but one of the most popular parks in the country, and count how many of its 109 species of mammals you can spot. Then, when you’ve had your fill of sloths, iguanas, squirrel monkeys and unending array of birds, you can cool off in the crashing waves of the Pacific before returning to a well earned drink in the hotel pool’s swim-up bar.
WHITE KNUCKLE ADVENTURES
Your senses restored, continue your journey northwest towards the sprawling province of Guanacaste, home to Costa Rica’s cowboys. En route, the fearless should stop off for an unforgettable white water rafting adventure on the fast-flowing Savegre river, where hair-raising runs on the rapids are interspersed with swimming pit stops that help lower your heart rate to somewhere near normal. Or sign-up for a terrifying zip-wire canopy tour in the dizzying heights of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, where those who can keep their stomachs out of their mouths and eyes open will be privy to astounding views over the biological reserve (www.cct.or.cr), which boasts over 500 different species of orchids as well as countless birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
Back on the ground, make Rincon de la Vieja National Park your next stop for a last chance to get up close and personal with Costa Rica’s astonishing wildlife, including unfailingly cute spider monkeys, industrious leaf-cutter ants and brightly coloured toucans before crossing the border into Nicaragua. It’s also an opportunity to encounter an active volcano and get acquainted with (though probably not accustomed to) the sulphuric stench that seeps out from the surrounding steam holes and mud pools before visiting more impressive examples in neighbouring Nicaragua.
Driving the short distance from Costa Rica to Nicaragua feels less like leaving one country for another and more like travelling back in time. Gone are the spotless, homogenous hotels and neat, standardised nature trails and in their place are beautifully restored facades housing restaurants, bars and rooms with personalities as well as miles of empty and inviting countryside.
And you don’t have to journey far from the nondescript border towns to discover why the Nicaraguan people (known as Nicas) are justly proud of their rich cultural heritage and impressive volcanic landscape. Even the tiniest towns have museums dedicated to the poets, writers and scientists that have lived in them and you feel as if you’re never more than a hike away from a majestic – and often active – volcano.
What Nicaragua lacks in five-star hotels and European-standard spas it more than makes up for in bewitching colonial architecture and genuine warmth and hospitality, which is evident everywhere from small villages to large cities, save perhaps for Managua, the capital, which as well as being charmless, is also rather dangerous. The Hotel Plaza Colon (www.hotelplazacolon.com), in the ancient city of Granada, is a brilliant example of a traditional building that has been tastefully modernized and redeveloped into a first-class hotel without sacrificing the unique characteristics of the original structure.
Charming as the place is, the real Nicaragua is to be found outside, on the streets and in the squares. Based on a grid system and with lovingly painted buildings on nearly every corner to help orientate you, the city is easily navigable, incredibly friendly and feels safe at night, which is sadly atypical in this part of the world. By day, it’s not only safe but also buzzing, full of Nicas and tourists shuttling between churches, hotels, restaurants and shops, all housed in buildings in various degrees of dilapidation, some of which look dangerously close to falling down.
This theme continues in the neighbouring city of Leon, a colonial masterpiece that once served as the country’s capital. It’s more laid-back than Granada, has a distinctly hippy vibe, helped by a high concentration of students and backpackers, and makes a terrific base for exploring local volcanoes, including Telica, San Cristobal and Momotombo. If you’ve got time, a two-day, overnight trek to the crater of Vulcan Telica is an un-missable experience but one that will challenge your fitness and stamina equally as it’s a long, steep way to the top.
As well as her Cathedral, museums and churches, Leon’s local market is worth a visit as it’s a great source of tasty local produce, souvenirs and almost anything you’ve run out of and happily is far less crowded than the sprawling handicraft market at the city of Masaya, midway between Leon and Granada. If you’re staying overnight, check in to the tranquil Grand Hotel El Convento (www.elconventonicaragua.com), an imposing building that sits on the site of the former San Francisco Convent and has carefully furnished rooms situated around a central, immaculately maintained garden. The hotel also has a knock-out, gourmet restaurant on site but if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s only a short walk to the street food sellers on the main square where plates of delicious fried cheese, plantain and vegetables come heaped for a few dollars.
From here, it would be easy to make your way further north, through the remainder of Nicaragua and into Honduras, reaching Guatemala and then Mexico. It’s also tempting but, with a limited amount of time and a return ticket, you’ll instead retrace your journey through Nicaragua’s volcano-littered landscape to Managua’s international airport and from there back home, where the memories of two countries geographically fused but poles apart will stay with you long after your strange craving for rice and beans for breakfast has subsided.
NEED TO KNOW | GETTING THERE
Black Tomato can arrange a two-week trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua from £2,750pp based on two people sharing. Price includes flights, transfers, private guides and accommodation. Prices change regularly so check www.blacktomato.co.uk for the latest.
For more information on Central America, check out www.visitcentroamerica.com
Getting there: Iberia flies daily from London to San Jose in Costa Rica via Madrid. For more details or to book, log on to www.iberia.com or call 0870 609 0500.