The largest country in Central America yet one of the least well-known, Nicaragua is often overshadowed by it’s Southern neighbour Costa Rica, who seems to have gotten first dibs for tourism in the area. Visitors are beginning to flock to Nicaragua, although it still remains somewhat a hidden treasure. But the nation, with its vibrant yet laid back and always friendly vibes, deserves more attention. I spent two and a half weeks in this jewel of a country, but I could have passed much more time here.
A trip to Managua isn’t highly recommended, and there’s not a great deal there to see. It’s considered a lot more dangerous than the rest of Nicaragua, but like most places in Central America if you exercise common precautions you should be fine. You will probably have to pass through here and depending on times may have to stay a night. We splashed out and stayed at the Best Western hotel, as we were landing late and it is very conveniently across the road from the airport. A bit of luxury (and a fancy buffet breakfast) is necessary sometimes!
In the morning, we got a taxi to the bus stop and got a minibus to Leon. Expect a battered old 15 seater van with about 20 people squeezed in! It cost around 40 córdobas for the one hour journey to Leon (around a pound).
At the bus stop in Leon, we got another taxi to our hostel – it’s just a little bit too far to walk with bags.
Leon is the main backpacker city in Nicaragua. Here, the drinks are cheap and there are travellers to meet everywhere. Take part in the renowned activity volcano boarding – the only place in the world you can do it! – or explore some of the city’s old buildings. It’s also only an hour away from the beach – although don’t expect golden sands, these black ash beaches are formed from volcano lava.
I’d recommend staying at Bigfoot, which is a very busy (and pretty loud) hostel and a great place to meet other travellers. Rooms are quite cost-efficient, although pretty basic and the bathrooms are over the other side of the building!
It’s got a good bar and adjoining restaurant with tasty breakfasts(although they only serve pizza and pasta for dinner, not great for us gluten freers!).
I will be eternally greatful to the staff at Bigfoot because two of them ended up taking me to hospital after I had an adverse reaction to my malaria tablets… more about that another time!
I heard that Via Via was quite a good, quieter alternative – which is just across the road from Bigfoot. All other hostels seemed pretty quiet out of season.
Hike up to the top of Cerro Negro… and board down it again!
It’s a must-do when in Leon. The only place in the world where you can slide down a volcano at up to 90 kmph, Cerro Negro offers an exhilarating experience that you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. You can book it through Bigfoot (even if you’re not staying there) or Quetzaltrekkers, who let you board down twice. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and more fun than I ever imagined! Check out my write up of it on TNT here.
Visit the Cathedral and Climb to the Top
One thing that Nicaragua does fantastically is beautiful cathedrals, and the ex-colonial city of Leon is no exception. Here you can climb the steps to the top of the building and walk over the white roof. The views of Nicaragua’s second largest city from here are unmatchable.
Tour the Churches
As well as the majestic cathedral, there’s a lot of churches and ex-colonial buildings in the city, and an afternoon can be passed pleasantly just walking around and looking up!
Visit the Black Sand Beaches
An hour’s drive away from Leon are awesome black sand beaches. We went to the Bigfoot beach house, which backs out onto the spilling sands. Be careful sunbathing though – the lava sand absorbs all the heat!
Two words – street food! We found delicious cheap street eats in Nicaragua with plantain, beans, chicken, tortillas… all the food the nation is famous for. It came to about a pound for a huge meal and was one of the best meals I ate in Central America.
As with all Central American cities, don’t forget to visit the delicious fruit markets too!
Now, while I met some great people in Leon and loved doing all the things mentioned above, I did find the city somewhat overrated. It’s definitely a necessary visit in Nicaragua, but you don’t need a huge amount of time there. Although, the reason we were there for six days was because of my unfortunate visit to hospital… but again, that’s a story for another time!
Check out this post for even more cool things to do in Leon.
Granada has mixed reviews, but myself and my fellow travellers loved it. Despite Leon being known as the ‘backpacker’ city, I found that there were lots more restaurants, cafés and bars in this city. Plus, the architecture is absolutely stunning – some of the doors in Granada were unlike any I’ve ever seen!. I definitely recommend including this in your Nicaraguan itinerary, even though a lot of people seem to advise against it.
We stayed in Hostel Oasis – a large-ish hostel (which was very empty when we were there) with free breakfasts and good WiFi. It has communal areas with hammocks but no bar, and there’s quiet time from 10pm. I would recommend it to somebody just looking for a place to rest though!
Explore the City
The city is awash with cafes, ice cream bars, music shops, outdoor restaurants.. there’s a great vibe and culture in Granada. Like Leon, it’s fun to stroll around and look up at all the grand architecture. Don’t the night time parades – full of eerie figures, explosive music and creepy dancing…. It’s all very bizarre, but pretty spectacular!
A chicken bus ride away from Granada is Nicaragua’s most famous market, Masaya. It’s essentially a huge warehouse type building absolutely bursting with traditional souvenirs. If you dig deep and haggle well (make sure you know basic Spanish for this!), there are some great bargains to be found here.
Laguna de Apoyo
We took a taxi here from Granada for twenty dollars. It’s a gorgeous volcanic lake where you can do watersports, swim or just laze on the beach. You can also choose to stay there and take part in yoga classes and communal breakfasts with gorgeous backdrops.
The Garden Café
One of the most inviting restaurants we stumbled upon in Central America, The Garden Café offers fresh and tasty food directed mainly at the tourist market. The food is quite westernised and not the cheapest, but it is absolutely delicious and the setting – around a lush courtyard with hammocks and an abundance of greenery – is so relaxing and gorgeous.
Nicaragua is known as ‘the land of lakes and volcanoes’ – a tagline that is perfectly represented with Ometepe Island. It is located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and is made from two volcanoes rising out of the lake ( Its name derives from the Nahuatl words Ome (two) and Tepetl (mountains) ). It’s a haven for hiking, climbing and swimming.
Little Morgan’s is the place to be. With dorms and private rooms scattered around the grounds, communal meals served for breakfast and dinner, delightful views of Volcano Concepcion and a hostel pig, Little Morgan doesn’t have WiFi and throws back to old school travelling; enjoying a drink with backpackers from all over the world, with a stunning backdrop.
Activities on the island are a tad weather dependant, but if you’re lucky there’s lots of outdoor adventures that can be enjoyed.
A hike to the top of Volcán Concepción – although very strenuous, is strongly recommended. You can do this independently or take a tour through hostels and other tour groups. I didn’t personally do this, but the views are meant to be absolutely spectacular.
With the beautiful green forests and glorious scenery, it’s no surprise that Ometepe is a great destination for horseriding! Hostels can normally organise tours in the morning or afternoon.
Hike to a Waterfall
TLC once sang ‘Don’t go chasing waterfalls’… well it turns out the one on Ometepe’s not difficult one, at all. A couple of hour’s hike along a forest path and you discover a somewhat underwhelming waterfall – but it’s a pleasant walk regardless.
Man-made Hot Springs
Hot springs are dotted all over Central America, but I’m not sure why they decided to make man-made springs in Ometepe – basically a heated swimming pool. It is ,however, located in lush surroundings and makes for a refreshing dip after the waterfall hike.
Amble Around the Roads
Ometepe’s still quite underdeveloped; while there’s lots of tourists, there’s also lots of locals living off the land, tiendas with handpainted sands and cattle in the roads. If you turn off the tourist trail for a bit, you’ll discover some great charismatic Nicaraguan rural life.
San Juan Del Sur
A surfer’s paradise, a beach resort destination, the party capital of Nicaragua… San Juan Del Sur is the place every Nicaraguan traveller goes to. Whether they like it or not is a different story…
We stayed at Naked Tiger, an extremely western hostel with pretty disgusting food. Situated on a hill a couple of miles from the town centre, it was an alright place to meet people and had a pool with a beautiful view of the town below, but it was overpriced and the staff weren’t the friendliest bunch! I’d really recommend staying at neighbouring Casa de Oras, where the dorms are cleaner, there’s a free authentic breakfast and the staff are much more helpful!
But, to get into any of the main hostels in San Juan Del Sur (Casa de Olas, Naked Tiger or Pacha Mama in the town centre), you need to be checking in no later than Thursday. This is because…
As soon as you get to Central America, you’ll see people all over the place wearing ‘Sunday Funday’ t shirts. It’s a massive ‘pool crawl’ in San Juan Del Sur, that takes place every Sunday. It’s quite fun. I won’t say I had the best day of my life; it won’t go down on my top ten cultural life experiences for sure. But it was a good way to meet other travellers and we even met up with a few people we knew from earlier countries too!
I’d say Sunday Funday is the kind of thing that’s fun to do once… but never again!
When the Sunday Funday crowd go, the surfing fanatics stay… there’s lots of opportunities to ride the wave in San Juan Del Sur. Or if, like me, you can’t get on a board without very ungracefully falling straight into the sea and thus swallowing two litres of salty sea water, you can just grab a mojito (much tastier than sea water) and gaze out over the Pacific horizon…
San Juan Del Sur is a very touristy town, and any search for authentic Nicaraguan food proved fruitless here. There is however, a few great taco restaurants – I guess Mexico is only 700 miles away…
We didn’t visit these due to time and money constraints, but I’ve heard they’re pretty special. Big Corn and Little Corn are completely isolated from the rest of Nicaragua – you either fly or take a bus and boat from Manuagua – but they represent an unspoiled, utopian Carribean corner of Central America that is still not frequented by tourists.
Whether it’s the stunning volcanoes, delicious food, friendly people or crazy chicken bus rides that lure you to Nicaragua, there will be plenty that will make you stay. I only really brushed the surface in my two and a half weeks there and there’s lots more opportunities to stay whether that be Spanish teaching or hostel volunteering. Just make sure you get there quick, before the secret gets out!
Check out Eternal Arrival’s blog for some more awesome things to do in Nicaragua.
Where to next? Check out my guide to Monteverde, Costa Rica for all the information you need about Costa Rica’s best jungle destination!