Getting back to nature comes easily in Nicaragua, and wherever you stay, you are almost guaranteed a jungle full of howler monkeys or a smoldering volcanic abyss nearby. There are almost 80 protected areas in the country, encompassing 2 million hectares (nearly 4.9 million acres). They come in the form of national parks, reserves, and privately owned wildlife refuges. Many are protected in name only, as the government's park-management body, MARENA (www.marena.gob.ni), is woefully underfunded. Below are some of the best and most interesting places.
Greenfields Nature Reserve -- A private wildlife refuge near the Caribbean port of Bluefields and tantalizingly close to the Pearl Lagoon and the enchanting desert islands known as the Pearl Cays. The reserve can be toured on a day trip from the city, or you can stay at the reserve's lodge.
Isla Juan Venado Wildlife Reserve -- A wetland park on the Pacific coast, west of León, where crocodiles and waterfowl occupy a strip of beach and the myriad waterways of mangrove swamp host turtle nesting sites. The reserve is accessible from Las Peñitas beach and is an excellent 1-day excursion from León.
Playa La Flor Nature Reserve -- A beautiful Pacific beach just south of San Juan del Sur, this is also where you should head for a great nighttime excursion to see spectacular turtle nesting.
Miraflor Nature Reserve -- This lush 6,000-hectare (14,826-acre) mountain retreat features abundant wildlife and small farms conducting sustainable agriculture. It is easily reached from the highland city of Estelí.
Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera -- A collection of islands famous for its pre-Columbian stone carvings, this park is 2 hours away from Granada on Lake Nicaragua.
Reserva Charco Verde -- A black volcanic beach and bay with a green lagoon that offer excellent opportunities for bird-watching. The tiny reserve is located on the twin volcano island Isla de Ometepe in the southwest of the country.
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Los Guatuzos -- This 440-sq.-km (170-sq.-mile) park of lush wetland is located on the southern shores of Lago Nicaragua, close to the grimy town of San Carlos. Lizards dash across the water on their hind legs while caimans, turtles, and iguanas bathe in the sun.
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Río Escalante Chacocente -- This reserve has a long stretch of sand bordered by a tropical dry forest that's teeming with wildlife that includes white-tailed deer, giant iguanas, and nesting turtles. Note, however, that facilities are very basic, and access is difficult at this destination, located north of San Juan del Sur.
Reserva Biológica Indo-Maíz -- Located along the banks of the broad Río San Juan that drains from Lago Nicaragua to the Atlantic, this mega park holds 300 species of reptiles and amphibians. It is the second-biggest reserve and one of the largest primary rainforests in Central America.
Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás -- The largest piece of pristine rainforest north of the Amazon, this is also the most remote and hardest to reach, located in the northeastern Atlantic region.
Reserva Tisey -- Situated in the northern highlands, the reserve offers one of the best views in Nicaragua, as well as an ecolodge and hiking trails. Nearby is the 15m-high (49-ft.) Salto Estanzuela. Both make a great day trip from Estelí.
Volcán Masaya National Park -- There's an access road that leads right up to the gaping crater hole here, and the surrounding 5,000-hectare (12,355-acre) park has lava fields, bat caves, and a variety of wildlife that includes sulfur-immune parakeets that live in the crater walls. It's possible to visit the park on a day trip from Masaya, Managua, or Granada. The visitor's center has an interesting museum and offers guided tours.
Volcán Mombacho Nature Reserve -- The reserve has some beautiful hiking trails and incredible biodiversity, including a cloud forest with orchids and abundant wildlife. There is a biological station that provides lodging, and the park is easily accessible from Granada.
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.