The Ultimate Nicaragua Backpacking Guide
One of the most intriguing countries in Central America, Nicaragua offers chilled out surf towns, fiery volcanoes and lush forests that are sure to captivate those looking to explore. Backpacking Nicaragua was once a firm traveller favourite, now slightly off the radar, it’s as captivating but with less travellers to share it with.
Imagine a land alive with luscious rainforest where volcanoes protrude from the horizon piercing the sky. Freshwater lakes lay still and silent, yet the treetops surrounding them destroy the serenity with deep, long, Jurassic calls of howler monkeys and the cacophonous chatter of tropical birds.
On the coast, a surfer rides the perfect wave while pelicans watch. On a mountain side far away, ancient petroglyphs tell stories of civilisations long lost, while under the Earth’s delicate skin, molten rock bubbles echo eruptions from days gone by. Nicaragua holds so much more than meets the eye. To scratch beneath the surface here will reveal a fiery, undiscovered world to those willing to search for it.
Jump straight to:
- Best time to visit Nicaragua
- Visas for Nicaragua
- Getting around Nicaragua
- Accommodation in Nicaragua
- Nicaragua itinerary
- Nicaragua budget
- Where to go in Nicaragua
- Things to do in Nicaragua
- Nicaraguan food
- Nicaragua culture
- How safe is Nicaragua?
- Nicaragua travel advice
Best time to visit Nicaragua
Nicaragua is small (about the size of New York), so the weather doesn’t vary much throughout the country, but you will feel a difference in humidity. During dry season the West Coast’s jungles are hot and dusty, while the East Coast’s rain forests, where you can expect it to be a little damper and stickier, under a canopy of trees.
High season runs from December through to April, so during this period you will find hot and sunny conditions and little to no rainfall. This is the time you can really appreciate the luscious green forests before they start to dry out again in the dryer seasons. Temperatures will reach the mid-thirties (Celsius) during the hottest part of the day (12-3pm) and brings a very dry heat, even on the coast with a refreshing sea breeze. Even at night there isn’t much relief to be found with temperatures only dropping between mid to low twenties. You may want to think about air-conditioned accommodation or at the very least, a well-ventilated room.
The low season comes with rain, beginning in April and lasting through to November, with September and October generally being the wettest months. If you are looking for surf Nicaragua is a great choice anytime of year, but the waves really pick-up in-between April and September. Since most tourists avoid the rainy season, it may be slower on the coast in terms of business and partying, but this can provide a community of surfers searching for waves and an emptier line up.
If you are exploring the vibrant colonial cities of Managua, Granada, and Leon, temperatures can soar in the peak of summer. The lively streets can become uncomfortably hot, with the heat reflecting off the colourfully painted walls. If you are looking to explore during this time of year it is best to rise early in the morning before temperatures peak, or around dusk when temperatures start to ease off a little. Plan to take it easy and find some shade, a cafe with friendly locals, and maybe a refreshing coconut, or a Tona (the local cerveza) during midday to find some relief from the Nica sun.
Visas for Nicaragua
Most nationalities worldwide can enter Nicaragua without getting a visa beforehand. Do be aware that you will need to pay $10USD for a Tourist Card upon your entry at airports and any other entry point. It is best to have this in cash prepared beforehand. If entering or leaving by land you will also be required to pay a $2USD migration fee at the border, again, cash is best.
NOTE: Nicaragua does fall under what is formally known as ‘Central America 4 Free Mobility Agreement’, or CA-4 as it is more commonly known. It is a treaty between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which permits travellers to move within these countries without border checks if travelling by land. It allows only 90 days in all countries COMBINED. Meaning you only have 90 days in total before you need to exit this zone. Moving between countries within the agreement does not refresh the 90-day count, so be sure to plan your trip accordingly.
Getting around Nicaragua
There are plenty of options for your trip around Nicaragua, depending on your travel style and budget. There are bountiful green rainforests and beautiful coastlines to explore. Being a relatively small country to visit and plenty to see throughout, you won’t need to travel for days at a time to reach your next amazing location.
It can be a little tricky and frustrating at times to navigate the often very bumpy, dirt track roads, inconsistent bus timetables and language barriers, but with a little planning and local know-how you’ll soon be on your way.
Public transport in Nicaragua
There is an abundance of public transport in Nicaragua and it is an option favoured by locals and travellers alike. Known commonly as the ‘chicken bus’ you will recognise them as school buses from North America (sometimes with a seriously cool new colour scheme!). Schedules are a little unreliable and often buses will only leave once the bus is reasonably full, stopping frequently along the way to pickup and drop off passengers. It is an experience I would strongly recommend you try in Nicaragua. You will instantly feel a part of the community once on board, with a wide variety of people hopping on and off with an even wider array of luggage. Huge bunches of bananas bigger than a child and wider than the isle on the bus? No problem! New roof for your house? No sweat! They’ll be put on top or stored in any free space in the back of the bus.
If travelling with your backpack, try your best to enter from the rear of the bus and leave it at the back with the bags or rice and vegetables. If the bus is full, luggage will be stored on top of the bus, but it’s always best to try to keep your bag with you at all times. No one wants to see their backpack bouncing down the highway behind them!
Destinations are often written on the bus’s front windscreen, but in large terminals or small towns, friendly locals will point you in the right direction if you are ever unsure. Do be aware that on occasion a cheeky taxi driver may try to inform you that the last bus has left, or that there are no buses today so as to convince you to hire their services. Just be sure to ask around and see if this information is correct before shelling out for a more expensive taxi ride. As you wait to depart you can purchase a variety of snacks, drinks, toothbrushes, fake watches and many other often-miscellaneous items for your journey. Vendors often hop aboard and walk the isles offering their goods before hopping off in search of the next bus. Buses can be hot, and the ride long and bumpy, but breathe it all in as part of experiencing local life in Nicaragua.
There is no need to buy a ticket beforehand. Simply tell the conductor where your destination is, and you’ll be charged accordingly. I took the same journey from Rivas to SJDS three times and got charged three different prices each time, so if possible check the prices before you travel. But it should be roughly no more than 35/40 Cordoba for an hour-long journey. Some buses are direct (or expreso) buses and may cost a little more.
There two larger transport companies, Nicabus and Ticabus, that can transfer you to your next country within Central America and it’s a great way to soak in the volcanic landscapes around you. Both use large coaches with two floors and room underneath for your bags. Be sure to reserve a seat online as they often fill up with travellers and locals. Expect to pay an affordable $26 USD for a trip from Managua to San Juan to Costa Rica. Buses go twice a day and will have a long stop at the border to make sure everyone gets through (be sure to apply for a visa if necessary). It is much cheaper than flying and just as convenient, so I would recommend either of these companies to get you from one place to another. They specialise in longer journeys, so I wouldn’t recommended using them to travel within Nicaragua, as the only places they generally stop are Managua and Rivas. They add nice touches with Air Conditioning and Wi-Fi, so you can travel in comfort. The Nicabus runs between Managua and San Jose (not to be confused with San Juan Del Sur) but the Ticabus travels further afield to most countries in Central America, just be prepared to switch buses at major destinations.
Shuttle buses are also a great option. Sometimes known as ‘collectivos’ they will ferry groups of passengers between major destinations faster and in more comfort than a chicken bus, and with more room for your baggage. There are usually a few departure times per day to choose from. Check schedules locally and book in advance with travel agents or hostels to ensure you get a seat.
Taxis are generally widely available from all towns and cities, and for a negotiable rate will take you to nearby destinations – just be sure to agree on a price beforehand. For long journeys it will largely depend on whether the driver is willing to drive that far and how much you are prepared to pay, as many ‘taxi’ drivers are unofficial in smaller towns and may just display a sign in their front window. I didn’t have any issues using these unofficial taxis but always operate caution if travelling alone.
Don’t expect to travel Nicaragua by train, as at the time of writing in 2019 there are no passenger railway networks running. In around 2001 the rail networks closed due to years of unprofitable business.
Private transport in Nicaragua
If you would rather get a private transfer this will offer you more flexibility, speed and comfort but be prepared to shell out a lot more money for the service. These can be booked through most transport companies and hostels. If travelling in a group, you can usually book a minibus that will seat up to 12 people, making a private hire more affordable.
Renting a car is another good option as it opens up many opportunities to find the more off-the-beaten-path destinations. Hiring your own car will be pricier than using public transport and although a quick search will show VERY cheap rates in many places, this price does not include the mandatory insurance that must be purchased through the rental agency. The lowest possible insurance fee comes in at US$12.99/day at the time of writing, so while you can find cars advertised for as little as US$ 2 this will not be the final price! Car rental companies (many of which are internationally known and trusted) can be found in many major towns and airports across the country. Be sure to check your car over thoroughly for dents and scratches and inform the company while doing the pre-departure check. Roads here are uneven and very rough at times and the cars I ended up with had all seen better days!
TOP TIP: Check your route before you start your journey and where possible stick to major roads and highways. You may think you’ve found a nice shortcut on a map, but once you turn off the major roads, these smaller tracks are either unpaved and very bumpy, or made up of interlocking brick, which will slow down your journey a considerable amount. Take it from me… It took a full day to recover after one particularly long and bumpy drive. Drive carefully as you’ll be sharing the road with roaming cows, horses, pigs, dogs, and of course, locals traveling by motorbike and pickup truck.
Always carry your license with you and obey traffic laws. Police have been known to be quite strict on foreign drivers and can pull them over at traffic stops for very minor infractions. You may be asked to surrender your license and pay a fine on the spot, which may well be a scam, but I recommend accepting the ‘fine’ and moving on your way. It happened to us, and I got my license back after he scribbled my details down on a scrap of paper.
Accommodation in Nicaragua
Choosing where to stay during your time in Nicaragua is a lot of fun! You can stay at a local family run bed and breakfast in the city; a cool and funky surf hostel two steps from the beach; or a lush treehouse surrounded by a family of howler monkeys, who’ll make you feel like you have woken up in a scene from the jungle book!
Hostels in Nicaragua are easily the best way to meet people and socialise. One of the things I love most about hostels are discussions with other travellers, trading secrets and stories that can lead you to great little-known adventures! Nicaragua is an ever-changing country with new roads being built and destroyed, prices fluctuating and new experiences to try. So immerse yourself in the hostel experience and speak to people who may have up-to-date tips and info during your trip.
Hostels in Managua
Casa Lucia is my top pick when either departing or arriving in Managua. Perfectly located near local bus stops and close to a great park to relax in these guys have a passion for coffee! Perfect for refuelling before or after your flight.
For a bit more of a backpacker’s experience you have to check out Managua Backpackers Inn. Voted Nicaragua’s Top Hostel four times, it boasts free breakfast with hands on and friendly staff and owners.
Hostels in Granada
For an unusual stay outside the city a perfect place to relax and unwind is The Treehouse. Located on the side of a volcano, this amazing accommodation has rope bridges connecting the tree houses to the hammock area where you can catch breath-taking Nicaraguan sunsets every night. Explore the jungle with free walking tours and jump into local swimming spots to cool off in the midday sun.
To fully immerse yourself in the heart of Granada (which I highly recommend) look no further than Selina Granada to stay in one of the many famous colonial buildings that Granada is known for. Located directly opposite the picturesque Cathedral Of Granada, this hostel (with both dorms and private rooms) offers yoga classes, great coffee, communal spaces, and options for tips and tours to fully experience the city. I recommend finding a cafe in the square outside overlooking the park and watching the world go by.
Hostels in San Juan Del Sur
A trip to San Juan isn’t complete without at least a visit to the famous Naked Tiger. Soak up the best view in SJDS while chilling in the pool with a cocktail. This backpacker friendly hostel is famous within the Central American backpacking community. It is a stop on the popular weekly pool party known as ‘Sunday Funday’, so if visiting at the end of the week prepare for some intense partying! They offer free shuttle buses to and from town multiple times a day and cheap family dinners on Saturdays.
Casa Oro is a sweet spot in town just a stone’s throw from the beach. This multi-level accommodation has a welcoming feel and makes smoothies, provides free water refills and different room styles. The staff can also help arrange surf transportation and board rentals.
No matter how long you’ve got to explore Nicaragua, there are some amazing things you can see and do. Nicaragua has a slow moving chilled out feel to it, and I recommend travelling in the same way. Take the time to stop and breathe, soaking in as much as you possibly can, getting a feel for the place and the local life. Rushing around and packing in a much as possible can lead to missing out on the moments that make Nicaragua truly great! You can use my guide below as a good way to gauge how long to spend in each place.
1 week in Nicaragua
Day 1 – Managua. Arrive and explore the city, probably the most hectic and busiest place you will visit in Nicaragua.
Day 2- Granada. Wander the beautiful city streets, visiting all the cathedrals the city has to offer and enjoy a chilled afternoon at the lake.
Days 3/4-Ometepe Island. Rent yourself some transport and spend a full day exploring this island made up of volcanoes. Bumpy roads make for adventurous travel and with plenty to explore and loads of local food to try its worth slowing down here for a while and catching your breath with a sunset over the lake.
Days 5/6 – San Juan Del Sur. Surf, fish, relax, shop, beach-hop or dance the night away! There is an abundance of things to do in SJDS to fill up two days or more.
Day 7 – Make your way back north to Managua or down south into Costa Rica from San Juan, perhaps stopping off at one of the many beaches or smaller local towns such as Gigante, on the way.
10 days in Nicaragua
Day 1- Managua (as above)
Day 2/3 – Granada. Be sure to add in an extra day here if you have time to explore the Islets de Granada by boat (book via your hostel).
Day4/5- Ometepe Island (as above)
Day6/7- San Juan Del Sur (as above)
Day8/9 – Leon. This city has a different flavour to Granada, with a more arty, liberal scene. Head here to get your fix of street murals and if you fancy a bit of an adrenaline rush, make sure to reserve a whole day to slide down the volcano. These tours usually last at least 8 hours.
Day 10 – Managua
2 weeks in Nicaragua
Day 1- Managua
Day 2/3 – Granada
Day 4/5 – Ometepe Island
Day 6/7 – San Juan Del Sur
Day 8/9 – Spend your time beach hopping on your way to up Leon visiting a selection of local towns and surf breaks. My favourites were Playa Gigante, Playa Amarillo and Popoyo. Popoyo is an up-and-coming surf town with few a shops and a few western restaurants. I expect to see this turn into a big destination for visitors soon so stop by while it still has a small, undiscovered vibe! Amarillo is a long beach, well deserving of a sunset stroll with a beer and friends.
Day 10/11- Leon
Day 12/13 – Estelí OR East Coast Rainforest.
Estelí – A little off the usual trail, Estelí is located up in the highlands of Nicaragua and is surrounded by rural farmlands and wonderful people. Cool off under a cascada (waterfall) or learn how to roll cigars from the local women.
East Coast offers many tiny towns near or in rainforests that are often left untouched by the passing backpacker, as it can prove difficult to navigate. The Reserva Biologia Indio Maiz should be on your list if jungle experiences and wildlife are a priority.
Day 14- Managua.
San Juan Del Sur Juana Mairena
Nicaragua is a favourite country among penny-pinching travellers, as it is known as being one of the cheapest countries in Central America. Travellers coming north to Nicaragua from Costa Rica are often audibly relieved to discover the lower prices of accommodation and food here. But travellers heading down south after Nicaragua can be in for a bit of a surprise at the increasing prices. So it may well pay off to spend a little more time here if you are on a multi-country trip.
Your style of travel will largely determine your budget here. Choosing private rooms with air conditioning over dorm beds, or direct transport over local buses can make a big difference on your spending. Foods in supermarkets are reasonably cheap at big chains but in isolated towns, prices can rise even for essentials. Sometimes it is just as cost effective to eat out at local spots, plus it will save you doing the washing up.
Nicaragua currency is called Cordoba. Which takes its name from the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, who is recognised as being the original founder of the country in 1517. It is possible to use US Dollars when travelling in Nicaragua and prices are sometimes written in Dollars next to Cordoba, but I would try to avoid this where possible as you may lose out depending on the exchange rate at the time. Smaller businesses also appreciate you paying in local currency.
The Nicaraguan Cordoba is displayed as NIO or C$ and it comes in a variety of notes and coins. 100 Centavos makes up one Cordoba. C$10, C$20. C$50, C$100, C$200 and C$500 make up the notes and coins are in denominations of C$0.10, C$0.25, C$0.50, C$1 and C$5.
EXCHANGE RATE: (At the time of writing)
1GBP = 42 NIO
1USD = 33 NIO
1EUO = 27 NIO
How much do things cost in Nicaragua?
The prices in Nicaragua are low compared to the rest of Central America. Here are a list of basis items and the prices you should roughly expect to pay.
Dorm bed – 252C+ / £6+ (approx.)
Private room – 630C+ / £15+ (approx.)
Large Tona (beer) – 45C / £1.10
Local breakfast – 65C / £1.55
Water – 15C / £0.35
Entry to Masaya Volcano – 331C / £7.89
Scooter Rental (one day) – 824C / £19.81
Where to go in Nicaragua
Depending on what you want to get out of your trip, there is so much you can do during your time here. Nicaragua is a small yet diverse country that can satisfy all kinds of travellers from the epic adventure seeker to the history buff, and everyone in-between. When I booked my ticket, I didn’t know much about this small country. I was drawn by the whispers and rumours I’d heard about wonderful, un-crowded surf breaks and beaches. The allure of volcanic landscapes and beautiful green rainforests echoing with the calls of howler monkeys. The bustling streets and vibrant colours of Granada and Leon.
Here are some of the best places I found to visit while in this gem of Latin America.
The best beaches in Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast has a wide array of beaches to visit, offering you unspoilt stretches of golden sand paired with some world-class surf breaks. You may find that you have a friendly dog or a little piglet for company as you take a casual stroll watching unparalleled sunsets night after night.
Playa Gigante – This beach is in a very small town, approximately an hour north of SJDS. This tranquil surfer hub was really starting to cultivate a backpacker community, but it’s experienced a bit of a slowdown due to the recent unrest in Nicaragua. Here you will a find a picturesque beach with a small hill, which is an ideal spot to watch the sunset from. Take advantage of the few local shacks offering happy hours and chat with the locals. You can access Gigante by catching a chicken bus from the central bus station in Rivas. It’s worth planning a couple of days here to relax and unwind. It’s a chilled little surf town with a small grocery store, a few homestays, bars, and sunsets that deliver a great show every night. You may well fall in love.
Playa Amarillo – This beach is a short walk from Gigante, just head up and over the hill to find a stretch of coastline equally as beautiful and quiet. Here you can find surf breaks at either end, and if you rent a board from Gigante or even Casa Amarillo on the hilltop you can enjoy a great afternoon of surf.
Redonda Bay – A private beach next to the Aqua Wellness Retreat, but it’s very well maintained with a few hammocks and beach chairs to use. We found that the staff here had no problem with outsiders hanging out and enjoying the views and tiny bay. There is even a beach bar and paddleboards for rent but beware of the high resort prices here.
Playa Popoyo – This beach is an absolute gem! Located approximately an hour and a half’s drive from SJDS you will come to dusty, deserted and unpaved roads that lead to the super laidback, surf town of Popoyo. Featuring a few restaurants with a western touch, a shop, a couple of local bars and what looks like a skate-bowl in the making, this is a town worth keeping an eye on. Once the ‘Instagram boom’ here takes off it will be on everyone’s list of places to visit in Nicaragua. It has great surf breaks for beginners and seasoned pros alike. Be on the look out for the stunning Magnific Rock, which reaches out into the ocean and proves to be a great place for learning to surf. It overlooks what is known as Beginners Bay; home to long smooth breaks that seem to go on and on inviting surfers of all levels. Surfboard rentals a-plenty can be found at Magnific Rock Hotel (US$14 for the day) and be sure to take advantage of the hotel’s panoramic views. This town’s laid-back vibe, breath-taking scenery, and endless waves make it hard to leave.
Playa Maderas – A popular learn-to-surf spot, featuring a few little restaurants, places to stay and a long walk back up the hill to get out! Perfect for a day trip from SJDS and easy to jump on a shuttle bus here and back from hostels in town.
The best cities to visit in Nicaragua
The three main cities in Nicaragua all have distinct identities and are well worth a visit if you have the time. It can be a nice break from the smaller rural towns and a good time to grab a great coffee and explore a little more of the hustle and bustle of the country.
The country’s capital and largest city hosts a little over 1 million people and is set on the stunning southern shore of Lake Managua, making for beautiful views as you fly in. Dispute over where the capital city of Nicaragua should be saw it move between Leon and Granada before finally being awarded to Managua, a pre-Columbian fishing town. Nowadays, it is much more than that and after defying a huge earthquake in 1972 that left a lot of the city in ruins, it has grown substantially. Ruins from the earthquake are still present and it’s worth visiting Managua’s old cathedral as a sombre reminder of darker days. You cannot enter the cathedral but you can admire its architecture that’s slowly being restored. Managua is a truly urban city and not one that’s adapted for tourists. The city’s sights are distributed throughout and can be a pain to get around and access. Most travellers tend to use Managua as a place to stop over and lay their head for the night, seeing the sights and moving quickly on to more picturesque locations. But don’t skip Managua completely as it still offers urban delights and an authentic taste of Nicaraguan city life. The name Managua is said to derive from the term ‘Mana-ahuac’ which is from the native tongue – Nahuatl, and is roughly translated as ‘adjacent to the water’.
Granada was one of the first founded cities of Nicaragua and its rich with architecture and history and boasts a beautiful view of Lake Nicaragua. It is enough to simply wander the streets with a Gelato or coffee, camera in hand and observe people’s comings and goings. There are colourful colonial buildings wherever you go, which makes each new street interesting. You will spot smiley elderly men, smoking pipes in their rocking chairs hiding from the midday sun in the alcove of their homes. The children laugh as they wander home from school, playfully splashing each other with cold water to cool down.
Take the time to climb the Iglesia de la Merced for the bargain price of a dollar and enjoy panoramic views of the city and the Mombacho Volcano to the south. Watch the energy of the city carry into the evening as the sun sets. Be sure to spend time exploring the markets and pick out some local fruits, perhaps grabbing a freshly squeezed juice from the corner stand or some shaved ice with condensed milk for a tasty treat.
Northwest of Managua stands the gorgeous city of León. Only 11 miles from the Pacific, León has an important thriving agricultural industry that exports a lot of cane sugar, peanuts and cattle. It is also widely recognised as being the more liberal and political city compared to Granada, also offering a great art scene.
Head to the World Heritage Site and icon of Nicaragua, Cathedral of Leon, for some impressive architecture and a wonderful view from the top. This vast structure is hugely impressive and is in fact the largest cathedral in Central America.
Walking around you can’t miss the street art that is influenced from the revolution in days gone by.
The best islands in Nicaragua
Nicaragua has a few islands to offer those who wish to escape the mainland. Take your pick between paradise and a hippie haven. Palm trees or chocolate. You won’t be disappointed in making the trip to either of these.
Known as Big Corn and Little Corn, these two islands are located off Nicaragua’s east coast, approximately 70km off shore. The easiest way to explore them is to grab a flight from Managua. You should expect to pay around £70 each way, with the option of leaving the return flight open, in case you decide to stay on paradise longer. Life moves a lot slower on Corn Island than the rest of Nicaragua. It’s paradise and the locals know it. Great cheap lobster, perfect snorkelling, diving and fresh coconuts make this place a haven. Little Corn is a 30-minute boat ride from Big Corn ($6) and no motorised vehicles are allowed.
Two volcanoes, one island. Ometepe is a place like no other. It was created when twin volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas forced their way through the crust of the earth in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It has now become a place of adventure and a haven for those hippies who never wish to return to ‘normal’ life. With one main road running all the way around the island (part of which being the airstrip) and the majority of other roads being dirt tracks, prepare to bring out the adventurer in you. You can organise tours to hike to the top of either volcano for wildlife spotting and great views. Expect an 8-10 hour return trip for Concepcion and 6-8 hours for Maderas.
If you are there on Saturday I definitely recommend checking out the local farmers’ market in Santa Cruz. Here you can find cheap delicious, local foods and some AMAZING chocolate products from the guys at El Pital. This cacao-based hostel offers great accommodation, and many community events, including a cacao ceremony once a week. ()
There are also multiple sites all over the island that you can see, including Petroglyphs said to date back to around 1000 BC.
To get to Ometepe Island you can catch one of the multiple boats or ferries departing from San Jorge (a short transfer by bus or tuk-tuk from Rivas) daily. Once you have arrived on the island you can take a local bus or collectivo to transport you to your accommodation, or arrange a pickup with your host beforehand. Another option is to rent a scooter from the dock if you are an experienced driver (remembering that roads on Ometepe are often atrocious) and dropping it back once you wish to leave.
Watching the sunset behind either volcano after a day of exploring and swimming in the fresh water lake is a wonderful way to spend your time here. It is easy to see why some barefoot backpackers have decided to call it home for months at a time. It’s a simpler way of life on Ometepe, one unique to anywhere else I have encountered and one I think you should experience.
The east coast is the destination to head to in Nicaragua for rainforests. It boasts some of the most beautiful and undiscovered forests in Central America, for those willing to venture into slightly more unchartered waters. Be aware that not many make the trip out to Nicaragua’s rainforests, preferring the far more accessible forests of Costa Rica, so information and English-speaking guides are often few and far between.
The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO protected site that is located in the state of Jintoga in northern Nicaragua. A visit here will reveal incredible flora and fauna, so be sure to keep your camera charged! It is estimated that there are over 1,000 different types of plant life here. It’s also home to some very rare animals that are often unseen in this region, such as pumas and the elusive jaguar. To visit Bosawas you will need to hire a local guide who is experienced in the region.
The Indio Maiz Biological Reserve in the south plays host to over 400 species of bird, 180 reptiles and many mammals such as armadillos, sloths, raccoons and boars. Closer to the ocean you may well find the odd manatee. So, this is a nature lover’s paradise! This reserve spans 4,500 square km and runs across the border of Costa Rica. A visit to the ‘gem of Central America’s nature reserves’ is a trip of a lifetime, as it is currently still quite unexplored. Lagoons and estuaries weave in and out of the mangroves here, so the best and only place to access this paradise is via the Bortola River close to the town of El Castillo. Here you can hire a guide locally to take you into the reserve for the day via boat. Is has been rumoured that you may need to keep your passport handy as the river is shared with Costa Rica and stops may be made along the way. Bear in mind this is far from the tourist route so be prepared for hiccups along the way.
Either park is best accessed by renting a vehicle, as public transport can be very difficult to navigate here and can often take a long time.
If you’re searching for Nicaragua’s waterfalls, cascadas, then you’ll find the most famous one in San Ramon Waterfall on Ometepe Island. Just be sure to go during rainy season (May – October) or you might end up finding a slightly damp rock as opposed to a waterfall. To get there, it is a long drive on a very bumpy road, passing mango trees (look out for fresh ones on the floor for a refreshing snack!) and small towns. This waterfall has cool refreshing water that’s very welcome after a 3km hike from the entrance. Not suitable for scooters but 4×4 or Quads should make it no problem. Entry is around $3 USD.
Things to do in Nicaragua
So today you fancy chilling on a beach and reading a book, or renting a board and catching some surf? No problem! Maybe you are in the mood to slide down a volcano on a sandboard… Nica has you covered! Here is a list of some of my favourite things to do and top highlights you should check out while exploring Nicaragua.
Go and see bubbling lava inside an active volcano!
Yep! You read that right. You can hike (or drive) to the top of a volcanic crater just outside of Managua and peer into a volcano. This is your chance to look deep down into the fiery crust of the earth. I can’t quite describe just how awe-inspiring and how (as ironic as it sounds) cool it is! I felt like a child again as I marvelled at the planet we live on, watching the sunset behind the crater. The orange glow of molten rock grows brighter and brighter against the darkening sky as the light of day fades.
The park’s daytime hours are 9:30am to 4:30pm. The entrance fee comes in at around $3 US and provides many options to spend the day exploring one of Nicaragua’s most important protected parks. This volcanic caldera is made up of 2 volcanoes, 5 craters, and 1 lagoon so there’s plenty to see.
As soon as you enter the park, I recommend stopping at the Masaya Museum. This building may be small, but it contains loads of info. You can learn about tectonic plates, how the volcano was formed, different animals and vegetation. You’ll also hear stories and learn historical facts about the indigenous people, Spanish conquistadors and their relationship with the volcano. Here, you’ll get an idea of the layout of the park and know what to look for during your expedition.
There are various hikes circumnavigating the different craters or heading into the volcanic forest. These trails range from 1.5 km to 6 km, where you can hire a guide to take you around by foot, by horseback, or you can simply park at a trailhead and follow one of the marked paths. There’s a nice picnic area opposite the museum where you can take a break and grab some lunch. Finally, I’d recommend ending your day by heading to the park’s main active hotspot and main attraction, Santiago crater. Here, you can take in a gorgeous panoramic view, see the smoke rising and try to get a glimpse of an active lava lake. Remember daytime hours end at 4:30pm so the lava won’t exactly be “glowing” during the day, but it is still a MUST SEE!
As the sun starts to set, the park reopens at night, from 5:30pm -7:30pm. The entrance is a bit pricier at $10 US per person, but seeing the lava boil and bubble under a dark sky is where, in my opinion, you can really appreciate the true magnitude of this place. Try to get here early and take in the killer views as the sun goes down. After the sun sets (around 6pm), it’s easy to understand why this crater was known as “La boca del Inferno” or “The Mouth of hell”. Fumes rise, the rest of the world grows dark and quiet, while the orange glow of the magma below grows more intense. You can actually HEAR the tumultuous lava crashing against the volcanic walls. Looking up to the crater’s peak, you can see the glowing recreation of “La Cruz de Bobadilla”, a cross first erected in 1529 by the friar to provide protection to human souls. This cross (or versions of the original) have stood in this place for nearly 500 years. It’s easy to be transfixed on this natural wonder, but keep an eye on the clock! Time spent at the crater’s edge is limited to 15-20 minutes as the gases being released can be unsafe if inhaled for prolonged periods. During busy times a park ranger often enforces this guideline as a way of moving people on as there is only limited viewing space. I found that by going a little later in the evening it was very quiet and we were allowed a little more time to enjoy the view.
Chill out at Apoyo Lagoon
Although located close to Granada and Masaya you will feel like you’re in a different world at Apoyo. This fresh water lake sits in the middle of a HUGE crater that was created naturally after a monstrous volcanic eruption left this gaping hole in the earth nearly 23,000 years ago. The crater is a whopping 6 kilometres in diameter. There are some small villages that are located around the edge of the lagoon, and if you want a taste of this very relaxed local way of life, why not treat yourself to a night or two here. Hostel Paradiso is a great option located directly on the shores of the lagoon. Unrivalled sunrises and swims in the water make this a great place to visit. There are many things you can do at Apoyo Lagoon such as diving, paragliding, boating and hiking to viewpoints. I spent a good hour here talking to locals and soaking in the views, eventually dragging myself back to the car to keep driving on.
Slide down an active volcano
Cerro Negro, meaning black hill, is a volcano best accessed from Leon. It has become famous within the travel community for the unusual activity of throwing on a pair of overalls and sliding down the side of it at speeds up to 95km an hour!
Invented by a crazy Australian backpacker back in 2004, thrill-seekers from all over the world now come and try their hand (or butt) at sliding down volcanic rock. The best way to access this is to book a tour/ transport from Leon with all the gear you need included. Prices are generally between $20-$30USD and include transportation, a sexy one-piece suit to wear for protection, a sand-board and some refreshments.
Prepare for a 45-minute/ 1-hour hike to the top of the volcano before you start your much faster decent. Get sandboarding ticked off your travel bucket list at the place it was invented!
Catch some waves, man!
Grab a board and head out into the ocean for some killer surf. Nicaragua is a perfect spot for beginners and seasoned surfers alike. Be sure to check the local tides before you go but almost all beaches on the East Coast offer up some decent surf spots. A strong wind blown over from Lake Nicaragua offers up some famous long waves. The most popular places to surf are San Juan Del Sur, Panga Drops, Popoyo and Playgrounds.
Hiking in Nicaragua
Dubbed Nicaragua’s Grand Canyon, this limestone covered beauty offers crystal clear waters to bathe in and some cool cliff jumps for those a little more adventurous. Located near Estelí it is well worth a trip here if you can afford the time to get some more hiking in.
San Juan Del Sur
A bit of a newbie to hiking? Why not start small and try out the local slopes in SJDS? Take a trip up to the lighthouse or the towering statue of Jesus that looks out over the bay to work up an appetite and take in the views.
The volcanic island is home to two volcanoes worth a hike! Concepcion and Maderas are both stunning hikes and offer unobstructed views of the island itself and Lake Nicaragua. Hire a guide to take you to the start of the trek and transport you safely up to the summit. They are also handy at pointing out some of the amazing flora and fauna you are likely to miss if you go alone. Howler and white faces monkeys are abundant here and may well join you on your hike!
Things to do in Granada
Being one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua, Granada dates back to around 1524 and is full of history and a fantastic energy. Buildings with colour-washed walls will keep reminding you just how far away from home you are and the different sounds and smells will keep you walking ‘just one more street’ over and over again.
Stray from the tourist centre, cathedrals and ice-cream sellers and get lost in the maze of city streets. This is the heartbeat of the city unseen and unheard by many but is always beating. Markets here are buzzing with weird and wonderful fruits and women selling nuts and cocoa beans to market-goers. This is the local Nicaraguan life you came to experience. Grab cheap food and groceries here and take in the day-to-day life of this city.
Hangout at the park outside Granada Cathedral
Watch life pass you by and take a break from the midday heat. Grab an iced coffee, Gelato, or shaved ice and find some shade in this beautiful park. There’s a fountain running in the centre, plenty of benches amongst local vendors, and usually a breeze. Grab a seat, enjoy a refreshing treat, and people-watch in a park with the cathedral, of one the Nicaragua’s most iconic landmarks, as your backdrop.
Islets of Granada
Located in Lake Nicaragua, you can easily do a tour of these beautiful islands which can be accessed via a short drive from the city centre. Las Islets are a group of 365 islands just off the shores of Granada, many of which were formed when Mombacho Volcano erupted, throwing huge pieces of earth into the lake. Nowadays, they play host to a number of animals and local families. A boat tour of the islets can easily be arranged from Asese Port and if you are lucky you will spot many of the local birds and wildlife surrounding the islands.
Just 10kms outside of Granada city, lies the dormant volcano of Mombacho. It is arguably one of the most famous due to its convenient location and accessibility. With plenty of information about the local flora and fauna at its visitor centre it is well worth visiting to learn about the surrounding area. There are plenty of trails to walk, ranging from short strolls to hikes that can last 4+ hours. Closed toe shoes are required for any long walks and you can hire a guide if you wish to learn more about your surroundings. It is not recommended to visit without a 4×4 and experienced driver. If you plan to ascend to the top, be sure to take a coat and rain jacket as temperatures can be vastly different from ground level. The summit of Mombacho is often covered by cloud and lava moisture, due to its altitude – so expect to see lush forests and a lot of green. Be on the lookout for iguanas, exotic birds and monkeys on your hike!
Things to do in San Juan Del Sur
SDJS is a favourite among travellers and the odd cruise ship to spend time on the Pacific Coast. It’s small town offering up some great but pricey restaurants along the beachfront, with more affordable eateries a bit further back from the beach.
Claiming to give birth to the well-used phrase ‘Sunday Funday’ this is a legendary pool-hopping party that visits some of the best bars and hostels in and around San Juan every (you guessed it) Sunday. Tickets can be purchased from almost all participating hostels for around $30 USD. This rather pricey ticket includes transport, welcome shots and a super cool Sunday Funday tank top so you can let your fellow backpackers know that you have been engaging in all kinds of debaucherous fun. It’s one of the most famous backpacker things to do in Nicaragua and really the only decent place to let your hair down and party HARD until silly-o’clock in the morning. Copious amounts of drinking and dancing draw pretty much every backpacker in SJDS (and an unusual number of Canadians) here. Starting officially at midday, tickets go on sale at Pachamama around 10am. You will find most people pre-party before the pre-party. You have been warned! Bring your party hat but expect to go home without it (and without a lot of other clothes too!).
Why no try to catch your own dinner in San Juan by going for a fishing trip from the beach. The waters surrounding the Pacific Coast are often teeming with delicious trevally and tuna. Bring your own beers and kick back waiting for a bite as you soak up the sun and watch pelicans play, perhaps stop off for a snorkel after. Most trips allow you to keep and cook what you catch, so be sure not to stink out the hostel kitchen with fish if you bring it back with you! Tours start at around $30+ the price will vary depending on how long they are chartered for.
Why not take this time to stop, unwind and chill out at a yoga retreat. Offering unbelievable Shalas (that’s a yoga studio to those unfamiliar with the yogi terminology) on the coast or in the rainforest’s canopies. Nicaragua’s affordability makes this one of the cheapest and finest places in the Americas to do a yoga retreat. Paired with Nicaragua’s very chilled, slow pace of life I found it a very serene place to strip away all the stresses of modern life, get lost in the nature and reconnect with myself.
Practice your Spanish
You’ll find Nicaraguans help you practice your Spanish if you are willing to give it a try. They are very forgiving if you aren’t fluent (trust me, I know) and will appreciate the effort either way. Listen out for ‘hablas Español?’ which is ‘do you speak Spanish?’ to which you can reply “Si or No”. To improve your language skills, you could take a Spanish lesson at one of the many schools around Nicaragua. If you are staying in Central America for a while I definitely recommend to at least learn the basics, and it’s a good chance to immerse yourself in a new language. There’s no better way to learn, than to be surrounded by people who speak it on a day-to-day basis.
Horseback riding on the beach
As you travel around Nicaragua, you will notice that there are some real-life, Nicaraguan cowboys trotting around on horseback herding cattle across the roads. You’ll often encounter horses while traveling any road in this country. In fact, this is the only real ‘traffic’ I encountered while driving on the roads, along with the occasional pig or two. Now is your time to take to the saddle and go fulfil your dreams of riding off into the sunset! Tours last for around 5 hours and can be at the pricier end of your travel budget for Nicaragua at around $60. But there are many locals renting their horses and I found you can usually find some that rent for as little as $9. If you fancy a break from the norm and want to try something a little different I recommend giving it a go.
Food in Nicaragua takes inspiration from pre and post Colonial times, using a wide variety of spices and home-grown ingredients. It’s time to self-indulge and try every food that crosses your path. It is certainly the most affordable place to eat in Central America so make the most of the different dishes here; no doubt you’ll be hiking off the calories tomorrow anyway!
The most popular and common dish is easily Gallo Pinto. At first it may seem like a simple dish of rice and beans, but it contains a surprising amount of flavour that will keep you coming back for more, breakfast, lunch or dinner! Paired well with barbequed chicken the white rice and red beans are cooked with onions and spices.
Gallo Pinto also makes up the majority of the meal known as ‘Desayuno tipico’ that is eaten for breakfast but has the extras of eggs, cheese and a tortilla. Paired with juice and strong coffee this is the breakfast that will keep you going all day!
Traditionally more of a Mexican dish, it has been adopted by Nicaraguan culture and adapted slightly. This consists of corn dough stuffed generously with pork, pepper, onion, tomatoes and potato.
Looking for something a little sweet? These treats are similar to donuts but with local cheese added. Locals can often be seen dunking them in their coffee.
Nicaraguan street food
Quesillo can be found when out and about and cooked up easily on the street. Often sold from carts this delight is made up of a tortilla base, a generous dollop of homemade cheese, chopped pickled onions and cheese. To spice up your snack add a little chilli sauce to your meal. Vigoron is made up of Yucca plant and pork (similar to Mum’s Sunday roast pork crackling) and topped off with a salad. You may be served it on a plate made from the leaf of a plantain tree. Hamburguesa, is… okay you got me, it’s pretty much just a hamburger, but with a small Nicaraguan twist. Grab one from the street for a little taste of home at a fraction of the cost.
Nicaragua has a fascinating culture with influences from Spain and Britain, as well as holding strongly onto its own vibrant and passionate Central American roots. Spanish is widely spoken as the first language, often referred to as Nicanol (Nicaraguan Spanish), followed by a large population speaking a traditional language known as Miskito from the north-eastern part of Nicaragua. You might find some people in the hospitality industry speaking English, but outside of that it’s not common. So brush-up on common phrases in Spanish if you plan on straying off the tourist trails!
There are slightly different customs in Nicaragua that you will get a handle on quickly enough. For instance, saying hello is often said as simply ‘buenas’ or ‘buenos’ as opposed to the more traditional Spanish ‘Hola’. Close friends and families will often greet each other will a friendly hug and a kiss on the cheek. At big celebrations such as weddings or birthdays, a big meal may be prepared with special grilled steak known as ‘bistec a la parrilla’, as chicken is usually eaten on a day-to-day basis this is considered a delicious treat.
Nicaragua is a very religious country. In fact, the weekend I arrived it was Easter, Or Semana Santa and I didn’t realise just how much it would be celebrated. During this holy week, Nica locals flock to coastal beach towns and take advantage of vacation time with family and friends. Stages are built, music plays, and you can see locals dancing and singing late into the night. Drinks flow and you can see many people enjoying local brews Tona and Victoria, or mixing drinks with the local rum, “Flor de Cana” in the early evening as the sun begins to set.
Most Nicaragua’s population is a denomination of the Christian faith, with just over 90% of the country being followers. Yet it is not recognised as the ‘official’ religion as religious freedom is considered important in Nicaragua.
Interesting facts about Nicaragua
Time to brush up on your local knowledge and impress your fellow travellers with mind-blowing and cool facts about Nicaragua.
- Nicaragua takes its name from two things. ‘Nicar’ from Nicaro, which was the name of the tribe who inhabited the shores of Lake Nicaragua when the Spanish first invaded, and ‘agua’ which is the Spanish word for water. This is added to the country’s name thanks to the two large lakes: Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua.
- Nicaragua’s main exports are meats, cheeses, sugar cane, textiles and coffee.
- Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America, and it also acts as a water supply to some parts of the country.
- Baseball is a very popular sport played in Nica. Crowds can often be seen attending local games.
- Mayans and Aztecs are credited as being the first inhabitants of Nicaragua.
The history of Nicaragua is fascinating, with an influx of Mexicans and Colombians invading in the Pre-Colombian period. It was first ‘discovered’ by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in 1502, but it was the Spanish who disembarked boats and came ashore in 1522. The region remained stable until the 1650’s when attempted conquests by British and Dutch pirates were ultimately thwarted by Spanish forces.
In the 1820’s it became a part of the Mexican Empire and soon after became a part of the United Provinces of Central America. In 1850 it was recognised as an independent country after driving out British forces that had been residing on the Mosquito Coast.
How safe is Nicaragua?
There’s no way to sugar-coat it. Nicaragua had a bit of a rough year politically last year, attracting negative media due to protests that started back in April 2018. There were strong disagreements from a party of students that campaigned against the current President Ortega who has been in power since 2006. The protests soon turned violent and many lives were lost. This has had a noticeable effect on tourism as many travellers choose to bypass Nicaragua for more stable counties close by. Fearing instability in the area, many businesses have suffered, but in my many weeks of travelling throughout Nicaragua I was shown nothing but acceptance and great hospitality by the people there, with absolutely no signs of unrest. I didn’t see anything that gave me reason to think Nicaragua is any less safe than other countries in Central America. It may be important, now more than ever, to travel to Nicaragua to support the loving, local people who rely on tourism to make their living. Cities like Managua and Granada are both considered very safe for travellers to visit. You may see an increased police presence in tourist places in order to keep the peace.
To be safe, always be sure to check any local or international news when travelling and take heed of any serious travel restrictions imposed when away.
Nicaragua travel advice
When travelling to Central America there are various recommended vaccinations depending on the regions you are visiting. For Nicaragua you should consider getting jabs for Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid and Cholera. Perhaps a Rabies jab if you can’t keep yourself away from all those cute dogs that are running around. Be sure to consult your doctor at least 6 weeks before departure for any vaccinations you may require. (Disclosure: as cute as they are, I do not recommend petting stray dogs!)
What to wear in Nicaragua? IT. IS. HOT!
Even at night it can be uncomfortably warm, so be sure to pack light, comfortable clothing for the day and closed toe shoes to hike in if that’s your thing. Long sleeves, shirts and trousers are a good idea if you are heading into the rainforest or anywhere where there are mosquitos (which is most places!). Bug spray is a good idea, especially at night, to keep the little buggers away. It is not necessary to dress any particular way when travelling around but if you are entering a sacred place, or place of worship observe any local dress codes. Swimwear is common on the beaches with travellers and locals alike, but older and more traditional Nicaraguans, often those with a closer connection with tribes or from Mayan descent, may often opt to cover up a bit more to protect themselves from the sun.
I hope Nicaragua will captivate you as much as it did me. A challenging country to navigate at times, but one well worth your time and attention. You will find it unique and charming, wild and rugged, calm and peaceful yet so very alive.
About the author
Mark is an independent travel writer, videographer and tour guide specialising in South East Asia. He is usually found near the ocean, surfing on top of it or scuba diving underneath it. He likes the countries he visits to be hot and the food even hotter. Keep up with his adventures on Instagram