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San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Nestled at the rim of a large crescent bay on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, San Juan del Sur was a favored rest stop for gold prospectors bound for California in the 1850s. The competitive railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt worked out a way to transport them by rail and steamship across the isthmus and huge Lake Nicaragua, saving a trip around the Horn. He tried and failed to get financing for a canal but made a fortune anyway. After a long somnolence as a fishing and agricultural depot, in 1992 an offshore earthquake caused a tsunami that washed away 60 percent of the town’s houses. Today the town’s numerous nearby beaches are a magnet for surfers and sun-lovers. On the highest point of the shoreline, the world’s tallest (134 m) statue of Christ has looked down in benediction on the bay since 2009. It’s a great place to get perspective. Many visitors opt for an excursion to the colonial city of Granada, whose cathedral dates from 1583, and cobblestone streets are lined with brightly colored homes and shops and plied by pretty horse-drawn carriages. Isla Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua is comprised of two volcanic peaks and is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The whole area is dotted with tall volcanic peaks like nearby Mount Mombacho and pretty crater lakes. Down the coast, at La Flor Nature Reserve, olive ridley sea turtles come ashore to nest in season.