Nicaragua - Unexpected Highlights

03/05/2017 13:18 BST | Updated 03/05/2017 13:18 BST

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Flying over Managua (Nicaragua's capital city), I'm not sure what I expected but it certainly wasn't a sea of neon reminiscent of Las Vegas or Dubai. This was to be the first of many surprises on a recent visit to this unassuming neighbour of Costa Rica, in my mind more known for its revolution and as the birthplace of Bianca Jagger. Arriving into Managua at night was like entering straight into one of the classic Dr Seus books with the 17 metre tall spirally "Trees of Life" completely dominating the city's landscape, like left over Christmas decorations. However, I'm partial to a piece of kitsch and absolutely love anything colourful.

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There were apricot coloured churches.

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With vividly painted murals, no darkly Gothic religious paintings here. One I spotted had a somewhat different take on Noah's ark with giant giraffes and angry polar bears.

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Even Jesus seems happy with a new set of dentures !

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On my whistle stop visit, two cities stood out, Granada and Leon. Both are walk everywhere cities with drop dead beautiful examples of colonial architecture and fascinating histories. Leon's most popular attraction is its 18th century cathedral, the largest in Central America whilst Granada, founded by the Spanish in 1523, also has a number or ornate churches and Spanish-style buildings. I can also vouch for the rooftop bar scene, whilst chocoholics will enjoy the chocolate museum and can even make their own creation in a bean to bar workshop.

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Granada is located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua where the focal point is Ometepe, an island dominated by two volcanoes. With 24 volcanoes and countless lakes, rivers and lagoons, Nicaragua is known as the "Land of Lakes and Volcanoes". Only in Nicaragua can you navigate through rivers and lakes from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Deciding to leave the latter to the Levinson Woods of this world I opted for a more gentle walk around the crater of Mombacho Volcano where surprisingly an elusive sloth was spotted.

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Perhaps not quite so unusual, as sloths sleep for around 10 hours a day, he really wasn't going to be going anywhere. Having been sighted in the morning, the news was regaled to our guide who promptly found the slow moving mammal within minutes into our walk. Sloths always seem to be smiling (something to do with the way their mouths are shaped) and our new found friend couldn't help but also raise a grin amongst our group. Central America's largest, safest but least densely populated country overflows with natural beauty with the largest tropical rain forest north of the Amazon and the biggest biosphere reserve in Central America (Bosawas Reserve).

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However, give me a waterfall any day and I couldn't be happier, especially one that allows for a refreshing dip. Santa Emilia's Waterfalll or Cascada Blanca (white waterfall) is 70 km from Matagalpa in the north of the country.

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Throughout my travels, I've come across different forms of local transport, the sort you nip around cities in and quite often take your life in your own hands. They are all more or less the same thing but with distinctive names, tuk tuks, bemos, becaks, pedicabs, auto-rickshaws and cycle rickshaw but never have I come across one named after a Cinderella style soap opera.

Nicaragua's local transport are commonly known as Caponeras, named after a beautiful woman in a popular soap who rode around in a bicycle-powered vehicle. Don't quote me on this as the story might have got lost in translation, but the motorbikes with a seat for two in front and even space for the family pet and a bar preventing you from tipping out should the driver have to break suddenly, are everywhere and a convenient way to get around. My visit was short but as Nicaragua seems to be grabbing the "go here now" mantle of Cuba, I wanted to get an initial taste of this unique country, even this year's hit movie La La Land has a group of yuppies dining out, name dropping Nicaragua as the place to go and the coffee is pretty good too.

All photos taken by Petra Shepherd

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