Parque Nacional Archipielago Zapatera
A separate archipelago from Las Isletas, known as Archipiélago Zapatera, lies 2 hours away from Granada and is famous for its pre-Columbian stone carvings (a spectacular collection of which can be seen in the Convento San Francisco). There are 11 islands in total, the largest of which is Isla Zapatera, a dormant volcano covered in both tropical dry and wet forest. Rising to 625m (2,051 ft.), the island boasts lots of wildlife, a crater lake, and more than 20 archaeological sites that date back as far as 500 B.C. The vast range of zoomorphic statues, many of which have been shipped to the mainland and as far off as the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., reveal that the island was once an important religious site. There is still plenty left behind to see; indeed, there is much more suspected buried underneath, but the government cannot afford to dig. One of the most interesting places is Zonzapote, which seems to have been part of an amphitheater or a temple belonging to the Chorotega tribe. There are some great hiking opportunities on the island, including a trek to Banderas Hill and a more arduous climb to the island's highest point, Cerro Grande, also known as Zapatera Hill. Needless to say, the view is spectacular with Ometepe Island in the distance. There is a small settlement of people in Sonzapote, made up of ex-refugees from the Contra war, amongst whom you can find a guide to take you around.
Isla el Muerto is a small island to the north. Its moniker "Death Island" might deter you from visiting, but a little fearlessness will pay off, as it has some of the most spectacular rock drawings in the country. They are all laid out on a huge slab of stone measuring 100*25m (328*82 ft.) on the island's summit. The location is believed to be a burial site, thus the name.
It is wise to visit the islands with a reputable tour agency such as Oro Travel or Tours Nicaragua, the latter of which provides a National Museum archaeologist as a guide to explain the island's many wonders. Zapatera Tours (Calle Palmira and La Cancha; tel. 505/8842-2587; www.zapateratours.com) offers 1-day tours to the archipelago. Prices start at $40 per person per day, with an overnight option camping on the islands. Otherwise, the archipelago is 40km (25 miles) south of Granada, and reaching it can take an hour or more by panga. There is a public boat service from Puerto Asese (tel. 505/2552-2269), or you can hire a private boat for between C1,900 and C2,850 round-trip. If you do decide to visit independently, remember this is a national park, and a ranger may ask you for your permit from MARENA, which you can get only in San Salvador. Also, a guide is obligatory to hike the island, and there are no stores to buy supplies, though there are a few very rough, basic lodges and restaurants.
Reserva Natural Volcan Mombacho
Look south from your hotel balcony, and you'll see a mountain with a wide, blunted summit. Look closer, and you'll realize that the summit is in fact the jagged crater of a huge volcano that blew its top 10,000 years ago. Volcán Mombacho is still active, though it has been 500 years since its last significant eruption knocked its side wall out and drained its lake, sweeping away an Indian village called Nandaime in the process. Hidden in its high, dark cloud forest are red-eyed frogs, howler monkeys, orchids, a dazzling array of butterflies, and a species of salamander unique to the mountain. In all, there are 119 types of birds, 60 species of mammals, 10 varieties of amphibians, 28 species of reptiles, and an amazing 30,000 different insects, only 300 of which have been documented and identified. Its lower slopes have given way to coffee plantations and ranches, but its upper reaches are now a protected reserve, with some of the best-maintained nature trails in the country. One such trail is called Sendero el Crater, a 2-hour track around the volcano's 1,345m-high (4,413-ft.) rim, during which you'll have ample chances to take in the forest-lined interior and its numerous mammals, birds, and types of flora. During this hike, you will also pass fascinating fumaroles -- ground vents blasting hot, sulfurous air. More serious hikers should try Sendero la Puma, a more arduous trek, as it is twice as long and involves climbing to some lookout points with fantastic views. It takes 3 hours to complete. The volcano actually has five craters, three of which are covered in vegetation. The summits can be quite cloudy but are known to clear in the early afternoon, offering great views of Granada and Las Isletas. To see the most of the abundant wildlife, it is recommended that you stay overnight at the research center and trek in the early morning. Day trippers have to suffice with the abundant flora of the cloud forest, including ferns and bromeliads, as the animals disappear during the day.
The reserve is managed by an NGO called Fundación Cocibolca (tel. 505/2552-5858; www.mombacho.org) and is open from Tuesday to Sunday, though Tuesday and Wednesday are normally reserved for organized groups. Admission is C200. The most convenient way to visit the reserve is through the numerous travel operators in town that offer 1-day excursions. If you wish to go there independently, jump on a Rivas or Nandaime bus and alight at Empalme el Guanacaste. It is then a half-hour walk uphill to the park entrance. Once you pay the entrance fee, an old army truck leaves every 2 hours to take you up to the foundation's Biological Station 6km (3 3/4 miles) away. Here, they offer mountain lodge-style accommodations if you wish to spend the night on the side of an active volcano. There is also an interesting model of the volcano explaining its evolution. If you have your own transport (4WD only), there is an extra charge of C300 per vehicle to enter the reserve.
In addition to great hiking, the slopes of Mombacho offer some spectacular canopy runs. Canopy Tours Mombacho (tel. 261/8888-2566) is located close to the reserve entrance. This 16-platform course is 1,700m (5,577 ft.) long, and many tour operators include it in their 1-day tour of the reserve. Here, you sweep over coffee plantations and tall trees before enjoying a drink on a viewing platform at the end of the ride. The company is not part of the park management, but they pick you up in the same area as the park truck; therefore, you have to enter the park. There is also a spectacular 17-platform canopy system at Hacienda Cutirre on the eastern face of the volcano. This is a little more hardcore and challenging, but no less exhilarating. The fact that it was designed by the inventor of the sport means you're in for a heart-stopping ride, including a vertical descent on a rappel line at the end. The site is difficult to access independently and best arranged with travel operators and canopy specialists Nahual Tours (tel. 505/8988-2461; www.nahualtours.com). A day trip costs C800.
Reserva Silvestre Privada Domitila
Thirty-five kilometers (22 miles) south of Granada, on the lakeshore, there is a private reserve with one of the best examples of rare lowland tropical dry forest in the country. Wild cats and howler monkeys prowl this rustic property, and because it is so small, there is a good chance of catching sight of them. Also ready to pose for any amateur photographers are a vast array of birds, butterflies, and mammals. There is a basic lodge at hand, offering full board and accommodations for a somewhat pricey $65 per person, but it is worth it if you are a nature fanatic. The property can be explored on horseback, and the owners also organize sailing trips to the nearby Zapatera Archipelago, which is just offshore. Day-trippers are charged C110 admission, and it's an additional C220 to C330 for a guide to show you around. The foliage can get a little bare in the summer, so it is best to visit in the rainy season from November to January. The reserve can only be reached by 4WD, and the trip is best arranged with the reserve's agent Amigo Tours in the Hotel Colonial (tel. 261/2552-4080; www.amigotours.net), or contact the reserve owner María José Mejía directly at Casa Dr. Francisco Barbarena, in Granada (tel. 261/2552-4548; www.domitila.org).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.