Where to Visit in Nicaragua
A Seriously Underrated Central American Beauty
Where you can surf down a volcano or on some wicked waves.
A true all-around-er -- Nicaragua marries sandy beaches, charmingly colonial cities, bubbling volcanoes and a good balance of party and sleepy getaways. The largest Central American country (without being the most populated) is bound to have something for every type of traveler. Costa Rica might get all the glory, but Nica is not to be passed up on - and it’s a much cheaper alternative.
What’s up with Nicaragua?
Nicaragua hasn’t had the easiest time these past couple of years. Renewed political issues hit the country in 2018. Protests and corrupt governments aren’t exactly postcard friendly.
So is Nica a safe travel option? If you play it smart, yes, absolutely. There might be some turbulence along the way like taking a detour to get to your next stop, but tourists are not targeted here. Visitors are actually encouraged to by locals to come to the country. Tourism is one of the largest industries in Nicaragua and many businesses have close since tourism slowed down. It is picking back up though, and every single traveler is welcomed with open arms. Isn’t it a nice thought to know that every dollar spent will (at least in part) go into the pockets of local business owners in need?
The progress with this whole situation is slow, but progress is progress. As long as you stay out of politics, avoid protests, and conflict zones, you’ll be fine. Just keep your travelers wits about you.
Where to go?
While this isn’t an all encompassing itinerary, it hits most of the must-sees along the way. There’s a bit of everything in Nica! You can pick and choose each spot depending on the kind of trip you crave, but no matter your vibe, the below destinations are a great place to start.
How to get there?
Unless you’re driving up from Costa Rica… you’ll most likely fly into the capital: Managua. The city isn’t on most people’s bucket list as it’s still a bit rough around the edges. It was also the host of protests. Flying into the city is no problem at all however! It’s perfectly located to take a taxi or a shuttle to either León or Granada (or anywhere in the country if you’re patient enough).
If you really feel like visiting the city, do take a look at Managua’s Antigua Cathedral or head on over to Puerto Salvador Allende.
Once you’re there, driving in Nica can be a bit daunting - road laws are followed, albeit loosely. Shared shuttles, chicken buses (boosted school buses), taxis and private shuttles ride all over the country and can easily take you to any of the stops on your itinerary.
First stop - Granada
Cobble-stoned streets, boisterous markets, pastel colored colonial buildings and an amazing foodie scene. The Cathedral is a must stop -- pay a dollar or two and go up to the top to see some of the best vistas of the city. Walk along (and off of) La Calzada, the main street to grab a bite, do some shopping, and the best thing of all: people watch. The Garden Cafe, just a block or two away, has a lovely oasis of a terrace. A huge part of the city is also a labyrinth of a market. Everything from souvenirs to chicken heads can be found here and getting lost is supremely easy, but that’s part of the fun isn’t it?
Granada is also a one-stop-shop kind of spot. Use it to visit Las Isletas: boat around the Nicaragua Lake archipelago and learn more about pirates and rescue monkeys. Drive up to Masaya and see the bubbling lava from way closer than you ever thought was possible! Head to Apoyo Lake to chill, kayak, swim or even paraglide in the volcano crater. It might be a lake, but the wind here is mighty.
Second stop - San Juan Del Sur
Back in the day, San Juan Del Sur was a sleepy fishing village. But boy, have times changed! A backpacker-surfer-partier’s dream has emerged! For the party-lover’s, you can stay right smack in the city. If nightlife is where your heart’s at, you have got to be in San Juan for Sunday Funday. Every Sunday, the city hosts a wild and legendary party with the added bonus of some amazing sunsets.
For the beaches however, you’re better off taking a cab, a boat, a shuttle, a bike or a quad to some spots a bit further off north and south of San Juan Del Sur. North, you’ll find Playa Maderas. If you’re hitching for a good wave or have been planning on learning, this is a good place to hang ten. To the south, head to Playa Hermosa which, if you’re Spanish isn’t too rusty, you’ll know is simply beautiful. Marsella and Tamarindo are also worth a visit if you just can’t get enough!
Sometimes, after some particularly colorful evenings, you might feel like you’ve got to be forgiven for a thing or two, making it the perfect time to hike up over to the Christ of Mercy, standing on a pretty steep hill. Bring plenty of water and enjoy the amazing views of San Juan while nursing your hangover.
Third Stop - Ometepe
From San Juan Del Sur, you’ll have to double back to Ometepe Island a little. Picture this, two volcanoes, Concepción (active) and Maderas (not-so-active), once got married, and together they formed an island! To get here, you’ll have to hop on a ferry at San Jorge’s port.
You can still hike or mountain bike or quad the volcanoes today. If water sports are more your thing though, you can kayak or SUP around Lago de Nicaragua. A swim in the island’s hot springs is also recommended after a day of adventure.
Fourth Stop - Popoyo Beach
This place is mostly for hardcore surfers or hardcore relaxers. Much calmer of a town than San Juan Del Sur, but with amazing waves nonetheless, Popoyo is the perfect place to chill and catch some waves. Don’t expect to find a bustling city but quite the opposite, the epitome of a sleepy surfer town. This is what we commonly call an off-the-beaten-path destination.
Fifth Stop - León
Granada and León are both vestiges of Spanish colonization in Nicaragua and the latter is a great way to experience to the Central American nation. León is the grittier of the two. It’s a diamond in the rough whereas Granada has been a bit more polished, less rough around the edges.
Although it’s not quite as packed with architectural wonders as Granada, León isn’t to be passed up on. The largest cathedral in Central America can be found here, and what a sight it is to behold. The León Cathedral is bleached white and magnificent. Do take the time to go up on its roof (and take your shoes off!)
León is also a great home base for adventurers: there’s the Pacific not too far and a plethora of volcanoes (active or not) just a stone’s throw away begging to be sand boarded down.
Last Stop - Corn Islands
It’s almost the end of our trip and you’ve got to head back to Managua to catch a flight to wherever home (or your next destination) may be. Why not take the opportunity to first head to some of the most picturesque beaches in all of Nica? Admittedly, you can put the islands at the very top of your itinerary, or at the end, or skip them entirely. It’s up to you. But why would you skip such an amazing adventure?
The Corn Islands are more Caribbean than Central American. The best way to get there is to catch a plane. There aren’t that many flights heading over everyday, so this might be something you plan ahead a little. Two main destinations: Little or Big Corn Island. Don’t be fooled by the name, both islands are pretty small. Both islands are a big draw for divers. Whether you’re a pro or looking to learn, this is the place to be. The Caribbean cuisine here doesn’t hurt either.
When to go to Nicaragua?
As is the case with most Central American countries, Nica has two seasons: wet and dry. The tourist season is mostly during the dry season (December to April). It rains daily during the wet season (May to November), if only for a short period of time. It does make for a lush-er vista, but could also cut your surfing short.
Where to next?
With a small tweak to your itinerary, you can easily make Costa Rica your next stop. Make sure to squeeze in the Corn Islands at the beginning of your trip since you can easily just drive on over from San Juan Del Sur. Buses and transfers leave everyday from the surfer hotspot to Nicaragua’s more popular cousin: Costa Rica. Hop on!
Nica might not be on many a bucket list, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. Intrepid travelers have been taking the plunge for years and the complicated politics shouldn’t alienate the country’s economy. Take all the precautions you feel might be necessary and dip your toes into the waters of Nicaragua, whether it’s at a lake where pirates used to roam, another made from a volcanic crater, at a sleepy beach in a remote location, or right after a bar crawl - the water’s good and it’s worth the dip.
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