Central America: Roads Less Traveled

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La Campa, a rural mountain village famous for its handmade, earthenware pottery and its 17th century San Matias Church, is one stop en-route to Gracias, today a sleepy town of 25,000 people, but once (in the 16th century) the capital of the Spanish empire in Central America and an important administrative center for Honduras. In recent years it has reinvented itself as a tourist destination, with the accents on its rich history and beautiful natural environment, which includes the cloud forests of Montaña la Celaque National Park and several jungly hot springs. Of primary interest in town is the beautiful La Merced church with an ornate sculpted facade and built in the early-17th century. Additionally, there is Fort Cristobal whose hilltop location once provided defense and now offers grand mountain vistas, and a new museum that shines a light on some of the puzzles of the Lenca culture. Near town one may relax body and soul at the Arcilaca hot springs.

The village of San Juan outside Gracias is the perfect pick for a country-style breakfast, accompanied by the local delicacy, allspice brewed coffee, possibly the first meal of the day before hiking the beautiful trails around San Juan. Other visitors will want to explore the valley of Azacualpa where Lenca womenfolk farm the land, weave cloth and embroider. Officially, la Ruta Lenca ends at La Esperanza, with the road continuing to El Salvador. While traveling in Honduras, make your final stop an overnight or two on beautiful Lago de Yojoa, the country’s largest lake and a favorite area for birdwatching. Activities here also include boat rides on the lake, a walk to the impressive Pulhapanzak Falls and a hike to Los Naranjos Archaeological Park, whose small museum documents that the Lenca people lived here a long time ago: around 700 B.C.

One example of a Lenca itinerary is Roatan Charter’s (roatan.com) 3-night Lenca Trail, by private car and with accommodations in Santa Rosa de Copan at the Hotel Elvir (hotelelvir.com), in Gracias at Hotel Guancascos (guancascos.com), and on Lake Yojoa at Hotel Las Glorias (hotellasglorias.com); this tour ends with a transfer to San Pedro Sula.

nicaragua Catch Island Fever

Many of the most special travel experiences in Nicaragua happen on islands, both those afloat in Lake Nicaragua—a.k.a. Lago Cocibolca—and those off the Caribbean coast.

Ometepe Island is the ecological crown jewel of Lake Nicaragua, which, incidentally, is roughly the size of Puerto Rico in area and the largest lake in Central America. Formed by two volcanoes—Conception still active and Maderas now dormant—and joined by a narrow strip of land, this gem of an island will appeal to nature lovers, archaeology buffs and adventurers. They can go hiking through dense tropical forests, mountain biking, horseback riding, guided climbing of both volcanoes, fishing and kayaking in Reserva Charco Verde; enjoy amazing birding, pre-Columbian petroglyph discovery (concentrated on the Maderaas side of the island) and coffee plantation touring; and relax on the island’s beaches. Playa Santo Domingo is considered the best of the beaches, located southeast of Altagracia on the east side of Ometepe, where you also find the island’s best accommodation, Hotel Villa Paraiso (villaparaiso.com). The most common access to the island is by ferry, making the 1-hour crossing from San Jorge on the mainland to Moyogalpa on the western side of the island; ferries run almost hourly, less frequently Sundays and not in bad weather. Less frequent service is available from Granada to Altagracia, home to the Ometepe Museum housing a small collection of ceramics found on the island.

Zapatera Island, northwest of Ometepe, but most accessible from Granada, is a national park where visitors view vestiges of ancient tribes such as royal tombs, zoomorphic statues and a stone sacrificial altar connected to the now-resident Chorotega people. The 20 archaeological sites on the island date as far back as 500 B.C.

Another lake-bound attraction is the Solentiname Archipelago, accessed by scheduled boat from San Carlos (twice weekly) to the dock at Mancarron Island or via private boat hire. The islands are known as the home of an artists’ colony established by the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal in 1967. Today, local painters are producing sought-after Primitivist paintings. Islands with artists at work in studios one can visit (and with visitor accommodations) are Mancarron, with its colorfully quirky local church (designed by Cardenal), and Elvis Chavarria (a.k.a. San Fernando), with a little museum and art gallery. Among the renowned art groups, the Pineda family lives on Chavarria and the Arellano family on La Venada Island, while Zapote Island provides sanctuary for a 20,000-bird colony. Visiting this fascinating corner of the lake is best arranged through a local tour company.