Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes

Our small group tour to Central America’s biggest and smallest countries shows a different side to this fascinating region. We travel to relaxed bohemian towns and archaeological marvels in El Salvador then take in Nicaragua’s charming colonial beauty and pristine jungles.

We start our journey in El Salvador with a visit to Joya de Ceren, a miraculously well-preserved archaeological site. We then move on to the town of Suchitoto, with its picturesque cobblestone streets and candy-coloured houses. Our last stop in little El Salvador is the rural community of Cinquera. Here we take a forest walk into the past with an ex-guerilla soldier for an insight into the Salvadoran Civil War based on personal experience.

Crossing the Gulf of Fonseca we enter Nicaragua and transfer to the attractive colonial city of Leon, known for its beautiful architecture. We climb a nearby volcano before continuing to the Juan Venado Wildlife Refuge. Here we help reforest the reserve and learn about the conservation projects involving turtles and green iguanas.

From here we move on to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, before continuing to Granada – the oldest colonial city of the Americas – stopping at Masaya Volcano en route. On the nearby island of Ometepe we try to spot monkeys and birds in the Charco Verde Reserve. We meet local communities on the Solentiname Islands next, before continuing to Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge and Indio Maiz for three days of wildlife utopia. We’ll meet a local biologist and may be lucky to spot a sloth or even a jaguar. Rounding off our journey, we travel through rural landscapes back to Managua.

Travelling through Central America’s most beautiful landscapes, we have many opportunities to meet local people and learn about life here in this little-visited corner of the continent. Often neglected by more ‘standard’ itineraries, both Nicaragua and El Salvador have much to offer the intrepid traveller.

Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes

Highlights

  • Visit the beautiful city of Suchitoto
  • Explore the vibrant streets of Leon
  • Learn about El Salvador’s recent history
  • See the lava lake of Masaya volcano
  • Look for wildlife at Los Guatuzos
  • The laid back communities of Ometepe

Day 1 - San Salvador

Arrive into San Salvador and transfer to your hotel. The rest of the day is free. Overnight Arbol de Fuego Hotel or similar.


Day 2 - Joya de Ceren – Suchitoto

Head to the archaeological site of Joya de Ceren, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and once home to a pre-Hispanic farming community, before it was buried during a volcanic eruption in 600AD. After exploring this site transfer to the colonial town of Suchitoto. Explore the town on foot to see its highlights including the central plaza, the Santa Lucia Church and others. Overnight El Tejado Hotel or similar. (B)

Joya de Ceren

Joya de Ceren is an archaeological site located in the department of La Libertad in El Salvador, and contains the remains of a pre-Hispanic farming village that was buried by a volcanic eruption in the seventh century AD. The site was discovered during the construction of grain-storage silos in 1976, when a bulldozer exposed a clay-built structure. The circumstances of the Loma Caldera eruption led to the remarkable preservation of ancient architecture and artefacts, with the latter remaining in their original positions of storage and use.

A pre-Hispanic village was uncovered from the volcanic ash, with its architectural remains grouped into compounds that include household, civic and religious buildings. A total of 18 structures have been identified, to date, and 10 of these have been either partially or completely excavated. The structures are made of earth and display important features such as thatched roofs. Excavated structures include a large community building on the side of a plaza, two houses of habitation, three storehouses, one kitchen and a sweat bath. There is a religious building located on the northeast side of the plaza, which was devoted to communal festivities and there is also one where a shaman practised.

Organic materials that were part of the subsistence and daily life of inhabitants have also been uncovered, such as garden tools, bean-filled pots, animal remains and religious items. These items would usually deteriorate in tropical conditions but have been preserved as carbonised materials or as casts in ash deposits. Cultivated fields and other vegetation have also been uncovered, including fields – containing both young and mature maize plants – a herb garden and various fruit trees including guava and cacao. A visit to this magnificent time-capsule provides an in-depth insight into the daily lives of ancient Mesoamerican farmers.

Suchitoto

50km northeast of hectic capital San Salvador sits the cultural capital of the country, Suchitoto. ‘Suchi’ – as the name is abbreviated – is a laidback town with a languid pace of life. Overlooking the enormous Lake Suchitlán that flourishes with migratory birds, Suchi’s cobblestone streets are lined with a mix of white, pastel and brightly coloured houses with red tiled roofs and these streets come alive at the weekends. The Parque Central is graced by the mid-1800s Santa Lucia Church taking pride of place in the town and standing out with its bright white façade, and rotund local ladies wearing aprons, sell fried plantain chips and ‘pupusas’.

In the early 1500s, the Spanish settled in Suchitoto, using it as a base to extend their land grab across the region. Subsequently, waves of wealthy Salvadorans added traditional, elegant structures to the town and it flourished through agriculture and the indigo trade.  Earthquakes, a massive dam project and a civil war all followed but against all odds the beautiful buildings and historical charm of Suchitoto survived.

With all of the villages around Suchitoto being targeted during the war, as they were and still are home to supporters of the FMLN (the left wing anti-government guerrilla organization), Suchitoto was spared due to its lack of FMLN targets and the presence of an imposing military garrison. Villages just a few miles away were obliterated, whilst not a single bomb was dropped on Suchitoto.

Day 3 - Cinquera – Jiquilisco

We visit the picturesque community of Cinquera for an insight into rural life. Here we hike through the rainforest with an ex-guerilla soldier as our guide, and have a chance to learn about the history of the country before moving on to the bay of Jiquilisco, surrounded by mangrove forest. Overnight Puerto Barillas Hotel or similar. (B)

Cinquera

Formerly the stronghold of the FMLN, Cinquera has been transformed into a successful example of grassroots tourism. The initial aim of the ex-guerrillas when creating the ecological park here wasn’t to care for the environment but simply to protect the forest that protected them during the war. As the end of the war approached, wounded soldiers were sent to safety to recover and to take care of other jobs such as training more infantry and coordinating supply shipments from San Salvador to the areas around Cinquera.

Repopulation efforts began in 1991 and people started to return to Cinquera to try and rebuild their lives, but those who fought in the war found that large tracts of land had been cleared for agriculture. This upset them greatly as the forest was their hideout for some time and it saved many lives. All of the guides in the park are ex-guerrilla soldiers and will share the stories of their past as you explore sites such as the make-shift hospital, Vietnamese kitchen and the tail-end of a helicopter shot down by the guerrillas.

Whilst also appreciating the natural beauty of the area, you will notice the guides’ knowledge of the species in the park and their importance. As the reserve is still not protected by El Salvador’s government as a national park, the guides often patrol different sections of this massive 10,000-acre reserve to check that no one is destroying the forest. What started as a plan to save the forest that served them so well, is continuing to grow into a project of greater concern for environmentalism and eco-tourism.

Day 4 - La Union – Potosi (Nicaragua) – Leon

Transfer to La Union, where we will take a boat across the Gulf of Fonseca, to Potosi in Nicaragua.  From here drive to the city of Leon. Awash with colonial beauty, eye-catching street art and revolutionary history, we explore the city’s best attractions, including the main plaza and the colourful church of El Calvario. Overnight Austria Hotel or similar. (B)

Leon

León is a city of crumbling colonial beauty, fantastic art collections, awe-inspiring churches and vibrant streetscapes. With vibrant nightlife and cosmopolitan eateries, the city is buzzing with energy. León has long been noted as a liberal political centre of Nicaragua, and an intellectual one too, even having educated one of the greatest Spanish-American poets, Rubén Dario, who once called León home. Furthermore, the city is the centre of an important agricultural and commercial region, with sugarcane, cotton and rice being the principal crops, whilst cattle are raised for export and manufactures include processed cotton, shoes, saddlery and cigars.

The city was founded in 1524 on the edge of Lake Managua, but due to an earthquake was moved to the old Indian capital of Subtiaba in 1610. León was the capital of the Spanish province and of the Republic of Nicaragua until 1855 although Granada, its political and commercial rival, long disputed the honour.

This rivalry brought on civil wars, and in 1853, León invited US mercenary William Walker to the fight, who after declaring himself as president and Nicaragua as a US slave state, was executed in 1857. The nation’s capital was then moved to Managua and run by Granada’s conservatives for the next thirty years. In 1956, the original dictator Anastasio Somoza García, was assassinated at a social event in León by poet Rigoberto López. The ruling family never forgot this and when the revolution came, they unleashed a hail of bullets and bombs onto the city. Further destruction followed in 1978-79, when the city was a scene of heavy fighting between Sandinista guerrillas and government troops, leaving much of the city in ruins.

Day 5 - Cerro Negro – Lechecuagos

Travel to Cerro Negro volcano. We climb to the summit of the volcano, 726 metres above sea level, for spectacular views including the chain of volcanoes stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. For the descent, we slide on our feet down the ash. After our climb, we have a typical Nicaraguan lunch in Lechecuagos with the local community and then return to Leon. Overnight Austria Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 6 - Juan Venado

Juan Venado Island Wildlife Refuge is our destination for today. This is home to a local eco-tourism project and we spend the day assisting with and learning about their activities, including forestation in the reserve, visiting the turtle hatchery and the conservation and release of the green iguanas. Overnight Austria Hotel or similar.  (B)

Juan Venado and Palo de Oro

The ecotourism project Palo de Oro operates on Juan Venado Island, with the objective of maintaining conservation of the environment and promoting community development and participation. There are hiking and walking trails and the island is home to 163 species of migratory and resident birds, raccoons, reptiles such as iguanas and other species. From August to October, you can go on a night walk to see turtles nesting on the beach and from October to February, you can see babies in the project’s nursery.

Day 7 - Managua – Masaya volcano - Granada

We drive to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and explore the city, stopping en route at Masaya Volcano National Park. We continue to the oldest colonial city of the Americas – Granada – and explore the city with its plazas, cobblestone streets and colourful colonial architecture. Overnight Patio del Malinche Hotel or similar.  (B)

Masaya Volcano

Masaya is the most active volcano in Nicaragua and one of only seven volcanoes in the world that has an active lava lake. Large volumes of molten lava are contained within its crater and the entrance to the volcano can be visited. There are two volcanoes and five craters in Masaya Volcano National Park (54km²) and Masaya, having erupted several times throughout history, was feared by indigenous people and the Spanish conquerors, the latter of which baptized the volcano ‘La Boca del Infierno’ or ‘The Mouth of Hell’. In the 16th century they planted a cross on the crater lip in order to exorcise the devil.

Granada

Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest and most beguiling city. Founded in 1524 by Francisco de Córdoba and nicknamed ‘the Great Sultan’ in honour of its Moorish namesake across the Atlantic, Granada is one of the oldest cities in the New World. The city’s beautiful cathedrals and cobblestone streets were first constructed as a showcase by the Spanish, as a way of proving they had more to offer than advanced military technology and religion.

The city has been through many trials and tribulations but every architectural masterpiece that has suffered, has been resurrected to original specifications, allowing the city to retain its regal charm. Granada’s position on Lake Nicaragua and the fact that the Río San Juan was navigable from lake to sea, meant it became a trade centre early on, and the Spanish made the city both rich and vulnerable. Between 1665-1670 the city was ransacked by pirates several times. Granada was rebuilt, growing richer and more powerful, and after independence from Spain, the city contested the colonial capital León for leadership.

Civil war broke out in the 1850s when León brought in American mercenary William Walker and he defeated Granada, declaring himself as president. He launched a conquest of Central America but failed, and after many defeats he set Granada alight, leaving nothing but ashes and a placard that read ‘Here was Granada’. The city was rebuilt, again, and although less powerful, it’s alluring beauty keeps curious travellers coming and the city continues to thrive.

Day 8 - Catarina – San Juan de Oriente – Islets of Granada

Today we visit the ‘white villages’ of Catarina and San Juan de Oriente, dotted with beautiful gardens and lined with colourful streets where handicrafts are produced by local artisans. In the afternoon, we return to Granada and finish the day with a relaxing tour around nearby islets on the lake, which were formed by a volcanic eruption. Overnight Patio del Malinche Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 9 - Mombacho Volcano – Ometepe

Visit Mombacho volcano, trekking on its slopes to see magnificent views over Lake Nicaragua and Granada city. Continuing on to Rivas and San Jorge port, we travel to Ometepe Island, the largest island in Lake Nicaragua and home to two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas. We visit the El Ceibo museum, for a glimpse into the lives of the indigenous people of Ometepe and the natural reserve, Charco Verde, with a great chance of spotting monkeys and a variety of birds. Overnight Villa Paraiso or similar. (B)


Day 10 - Ometepe

Relaxing into island life, we explore the foothills of the Maderas Volcano cloud forest and make a visit to Finca Magdalena, a farm where coffee and organic vegetables are grown. After spending time among local communities, we stop at ‘Ojo de Agua’, a natural spring where we can have a dip and a rest. Overnight Villa Paraiso or similar. (B)

Ometepe

Ometepe is an island on Lake Nicaragua that is composed of two volcanoes, joined in the middle by a thin, flat isthmus. The northern half of the island is dominated by the cone-shaped, active volcano Concepción, whilst looming over the southern half is the extinct volcano Maderas, swathed in cloud forest with a lagoon sitting in its crater.

Isolated from the rest of Nicaragua, Ometepe is a paradisiacal and peaceful island, rich in wildlife, entrenched in history and adorned with wide beaches. Past Indian inhabitants regarded Ometepe as their promised land and a sacred island. Spread all over the island are pre-Columbian artefacts left by the Chorotega, Nahuatl and Mayans and due to the many petroglyphs and stone idols on the island, Ometepe is considered as one of the great rock art areas of the world.

The Conquistadores converted the Indians to Catholicism but many old customs and beliefs were kept. Ometepe sees more religious and folk festivals than anywhere else in Nicaragua. The volcanic ash on the island makes the soil extremely fertile, meaning the crop yield is abundant. Sustainable farming practices are commonplace on the island these days and many of the hotels grow and serve their own fruit and vegetables.

Day 11 - Solentiname

We travel to the Solentiname Islands by boat. These picture-perfect, luxuriantly forested islands – only four out of twenty-six of which are inhabited – are home to rich wildlife and a community of established painters and artisans. Upon arrival, we have time to explore and relax. Overnight Hotel Mancarrón or similar. (B)


Day 12 - Solentiname

This morning we hike up one of the hills on the island to see 2000-year-old petroglyphs – the views of the archipelago during the hike are spectacular. Afterwards, we visit a community of local artisans on the island of Mancarrón and take a boat around the main islands.  Overnight Hotel Mancarrón or similar. (B)

Solentiname

The Solentiname archipelago is a cluster of 26 islands situated in the southern corner of Lake Nicaragua. Only four of the islands are inhabited and the total population of the islands is just 750. The islands were unknown until the mid-1960s when Father Cardenal from Granada arrived on Mancarrón, the largest of the islands, and established a parish church.

Before Cardenal came, the island had no schools, no boats and the locals were mostly struggling farmers. He then financed art materials and encouraged the locals into painting, helping the community to establish themselves as naïve style artists. With mind-blowing sunsets and spectacular starry skies, these impossibly lush islands teem with wildlife and are the subject of the vibrant art created by the locals that live on them.

Day 13 - Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge

Travelling by boat via Lake Nicaragua, we reach Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge. We then make our way along a small river, observing the abundance of flora and fauna that this rainforest has to offer. When we reach the middle of the reserve, we meet a local biologist for a guided tour to observe reptiles, birds and various types of flora. In the afternoon, we are invited to plant a tree to contribute to conservation of the environment. Overnight Hotel Mancarrón or similar. (B)

Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge

Los Guatuzos covers 437 square kilometres and is located in San Carlos, in the department of Río San Juan. Occupied by tropical rainforest and wetlands and with an extensive network of rivers, creeks and lagoons in its interior, the reserve is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including 110 species of orchids, poponjoche and oak trees, jaguars, panthers and families of white-faced and howler monkeys. The wildlife here also stretches to include 400 species of birds, including herons, ducks, parrots and hawks and many species of reptile, not to mention breeding grounds for caiman and freshwater turtles. The reserve was named after an indigenous tribe that lived here but disappeared, and was the first national wetland to become a Ramsar site in 1997.

Day 14 - San Carlos – El Castillo

We depart for San Carlos town and then continue along the river to El Castillo. In the afternoon, we explore the town and its 17th-century Spanish fortress. Overnight Hotel Victoria or similar. (B)


Day 15 - Indio Maiz

Travelling downriver in the morning, we reach the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. We can choose between two relatively easy hiking trails or a boat trip on the river, to try and spot the spectacular tropical wildlife that inhabits the reserve, including hummingbirds, sloths, pumas, jaguars, manatees and howler monkeys. Overnight Hotel Victoria or similar.  (B)


Day 16 - San Carlos – Managua

We travel back to San Carlos by boat and by road to Managua. Travelling through rural landscapes on the way to the city, we stop to see how ‘quesillo’ – the local cheese – is made. Overnight Best Western Las Mercedes or similar (B)


Day 17 - Managua

Transfer to the airport for your flight home. (B)


Please note: in 2021 this itinerary will be two days longer. Please contact us for details.

Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes
Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes
Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers. Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.

  • Guides

    You will be accompanied by an English-speaking guide.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again. Please note that when meals are included, sometimes these will be in hotels, as often these are the most appropriate option, and will sometimes be set menus. Local restaurants are often lacking in variety, as well as the capacity to cater for groups. Drinks are not included and are at your own expense.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively, a visa agency such as Travcour can assist.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If, however, you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves, we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

British passport holders can enter El Salvador for up to 90 days without a visa and your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into El Salvador. EU, USA, Canadian, and Australian citizens can also stay for up to 90 days, but nationals of Australia must buy a 30-day tourist card on entry for US$10. Other nationalities should check with their nearest embassy.

British nationals can visit Nicaragua for up to 3 months without a visa, obtaining a tourist card for $10 upon entry. However, you may be refused entry if you don’t have an onward ticket out of Nicaragua. Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Nicaragua. The same applies to EU, Australian, Canadian and USA nationals. Other nationalities should check with their nearest embassy.

Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations, you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover, which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.

Arrival and departure taxes

There is a US$32 departure tax for El Salvador, which is usually included in the price of your air ticket. Check with your airline if unsure.

There is a US$10 arrival tax for all tourists entering Nicaragua, which should be paid in cash. There is also a US$35 departure tax, but this is usually included in the price of your air ticket. If unsure check with your airline.

Money

El Salvador’s official currency is the US dollar. ATM’s are plentiful and credit cards are widely accepted.

The currency in Nicaragua is the Córdoba (C$). ATM’s are widespread in most midsize towns and credit cards are widely accepted in the larger towns but are rarely accepted in rural areas. We advise stocking up on cash before heading to rural areas. US dollars are also widely accepted in Nicaragua, but it is easier to use córdobas when paying for smaller items.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO does not advise against travel to any of the areas we visit in El Salvador or Nicaragua.

We work very closely with our local team and are fully confident that we can operate tours safely in both El Salvador and Nicaragua. Should you have any concerns over safety please do not hesitate to contact us and we can address your concerns.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Updated May 2019

Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes
Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes
Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes
Date(s)
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
Trip Status
Date -
28 November 2020
Price (PP) -
£2,699
Single Supplement -
£450
Trip Status -
Contact us
Date -
27 November 2021
Price (PP) -
£2,999
Single Supplement -
£525
Trip Status -
Available
Date -
26 November 2022
Price (PP) -
£2,999
Single Supplement -
£450
Trip Status -
Available