FOR passport stamp collectors (those epic vacationers who want more time in Costa Rica), or for those looking for a change of scenery from Guanacaste, two travel agencies will escort you to the islands and history-packed cities of Nicaragua.
The largest country in Central America with the lowest population density, Nicaragua is chock-full of surfy beaches, Spanish colonial cities, churches and cathedrals, rainforest trails, villages hidden among coffee and pineapple plantations, islands, enclaves of artists on those islands, handmade rums, leather, ceramic and wood crafts and open ranges still traversed by horses and oxcarts.
TAM Travel Corporation (667-0710, firstname.lastname@example.org) takes visitors on a tour billed as a look at the “heart and soul” of Nicaragua. Leaving from various pick-up points in Guanacaste, vans cart tourists across the border (an “interesting experience,” their promotional material notes) and into the hands of a professional TAM guide.
The tour begins w ith the Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca) and the Masaya Crafts Market, where colorful handicrafts are displayed in the artisans’ imaginatively arrayed stands. Next on the menu are the 365 small islands just off the shore of the city of Granada – Las Isletas.
Granada itself, called the highlight of the trip, is the oldest colonial city in mainland America, founded by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524. There, guests lunch at the Mediterraneo Restaurant, which specializes in Nicaraguan and Spanish, cuisine in a large, restored adobe house. The afternoon is spent walking among the city’s attractions, such as baroque churches, in the historical center.
Pick-ups are Thursdays at hotels in Tamarindo, Brasilito and Papagayo from 5 to 6 a.m., arriving at the office in Guardia de Liberia, near the city of Liberia, at 6:30 a.m. Tours cost $130 per person.
SWISS Travel (282-4869, e-mail email@example.com) and Careli Tours (505-278-6919, e-mail info@carelitours. com, www.carelitours.com) operate 10-12 hour day trips from Guanacaste to Nicaragua that cost around $130 per person and include transportation, lunch, park entrance fees and border-crossing fees.
They leave Tuesdays and Thursdays. (Multi-day packages are available on request).
In the Managua City Tour, visitors can traipse around the historic center of the capital of Nicaragua. The tour visits the NationalPalace; the footprints of Acahualinca, which are 6,000-year-old proof that humans did not drive back then, they walked; and finally it takes tourists to the new cathedral and the commercial district.
The MasayaVolcanoNational Park tour visits a twin volcano with five volcanic cones and the crater Santiago, which has been steaming non-stop since 1946.
At the Masaya Market, where people still pay attention to folklore, visitors can shop for handicrafts, huge hammocks, embroidered dresses, woven tapestries, leather items, wood carvings, sculptured masks and ceramics.
In Granada, visitors will have a peek some of its more than 20 churches and buildings that are more than 200 years old.
The tour visits the convent of San Francisco, founded in 1529, which houses an impressive collection of pre-Columbian idols. Then it stops by the “Casa de los tres mundos,” and its exhibits of local and foreign artists. It concludes with a motor boat ride around Las Isletas.
LEÓN and Hervideros is a tour of León, the former capital of Nicaragua. It held that title for 300 years and is home to many colonial buildings and churches.
There, guests will learn about some of the country’s first settlers and the Spanish Conquistadors who invaded the area. Then the tour visits the steaming craters of San Jacinto.
The White Towns is an educational excursion through the countryside culture of Nicaragua, seeing how people there make a living and learning about the products they sell. The tour visits the town of Niquinohomo, where national Nicaraguan hero Augusto César Sandino was born, and pays a visit to a family that makes bamboo baskets. Then guests are off to the town of Catarina to check out the ornamental plants.
THE Mombacho Volcano tour, of the nature reserve, heads up a volcano covered by a dense cloud forest from the bottom to the top, at more than 850 meters above sea level. It is an educational hike that highlights the forest’s incredible biodiversity.
The Canopy Tour is the old Costa Rican favorite, this time in Nicaragua. It is 17 platforms linked together by three ladders and other suspended structures in the heights of century-old trees in the coffee plantation of Cutirre Farm.
Swiss Travel and Careli offer multi-day package tours of Granada, León, Selva Negra, Ometepe, CornIsland and other places. They arrange hotel accommodation and car rental.
Other ways that Careli makes the trip painless are the inclusion of all fees in the ticket price, which means immigration and departure fees to and from Nicaragua, departure tax from Nicaragua, air-conditioned transport, two bilingual guides and meals.
TOURS last approximately 14 hours, unless other arrangements are made. Operators recommend that travelers bring their passports, comfortable shoes, camera, film, light clothing and suntan lotion.