Nicaragua is known as “The country of Lakes and Volcanoes”. Although largely shunned by travellers in the past due to political instability and civil wars, it is now becoming a trendy destination among backpackers and is an adventurous (and cheaper) alternative to neighboring Costa Rica. With active volcanoes (13 extending down the spine of the country in a straight line) and two major lakes, it is a geographically spectacular country. It also has some of the most interesting colonial highlights in Central America. Visit Nicaragua now before everyone else discovers it!
Lodging: double room with private bathroom in a hotel can cost in the $20-$30 range. Staying in a family run hostel is even cheaper and can start around $10.
Food: Eating local food (corn, rice, beans, chicken, pork) is inexpensive; from $2 per meal at street stalls to about $5 per meal at a sit-down restaurant. Beer (Toña is the most popular) is $1/bottle while rum (Flor de Caña is the best) is excellent and inexpensive at about $5 a bottle.
Transportation: Inexpensive – an express minibus from Granada to Leon (for example) will cost as little as $2. Private transport (door to door service in an air-conditioned minivan), although comparatively more expensive, can cost as little as $20/person for a 2 hour trip. I was travelling in Nicaragua with my mother and we took private transport (using Oro Travel) between Managua-Granada-Isla Ometepe. No trip ever came out to more than $50 total.
Top Places to see
Granada. The oldest city in Central America, Granada is an interesting and colourful city filled with 17th-century churches, colonial buildings (containing many hidden courtyards and fountains) and monuments. Top highlights in the town center – the Cathedral of Granada at the main square; the tower at Iglesia de La Merced; Antiquo Convento San Francisco; and the streets themselves containing pretty, pastel coloured houses. Just outside central Granada, don’t miss the Fortaleza de la Polvora, a rather small medieval fort, and the nearby cemetery, containing picturesque mausoleums and scenic vistas.
Masaya and Masaya Volcano – Masaya has two markets , the Mercado Municipal and the Mercado de Artesanias, that are worth a visit. Every Thursday night at the Mercado de Artesanias is the “Night of Revelry” featuring folkloric dancing, local food and music. Nearby, you can drive up Masaya Volcano (which is active) and see the lava at the bottom of the crater. The lava flows are especially spectacular at night.
Laguna de Apoyo – Lake Apoyo is a 48-square km lake that lies within an old, dormant volcanic crater. There are beautiful views over the lake from the lookout near the town of Catarina. It is also a great place to swim, hike, or kayak.
León. After Granada, Leon has the best colonial architecture in Nicaragua. It is a friendly, laid-back university city that gets less tourists than Granada (but is popular with backpackers). Highlights: León Cathedral (the biggest cathedral in Central America), Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava (one of the oldest colonial churches in León), Fundacion Ortiz (museum with a great collection of Latin American art), Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián (another art museum – known to be the best in Nicaragua).Visit the Recoleccion Cathedral and take the rooftop tour, the baroque theater, and enjoy the street markets and sidewalk cafes. Visit nearby Cerro Negro volcano (described further below).
On the Cathedrals of Leon.
Isla Ometepe. A beautiful island containing two volcanoes (Concepcion and Maderas) in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Hiking (you can hike both volcanoes), kayaking, organic farming (many foreigners come here to volunteer). There are some small, rustic fincas for backpackers. A perfect place in nature to chill out and relax. See here for our post on this fabulous island.
San Juan del Sur. This spot, not far from the Costa Rican border, is a cool little spot that is very popular with surfers and backpackers. Nice beaches, sea-turtle nesting and some really good waterfront seafood restaurants make this a great spot for chilling out.
Corn Islands. Off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua (far from all the other attractions above), the Corn Islands are a gorgeous place for a vacation retreat. Most people come here to snorkel, scuba dive, to fish, and to relax. Small boats will take you between the different islands.
Activities for the adventurous:
Volcano Board Down Cerro Negro – After an hour-long climb of moderate difficulty, you arrive at the top where you can board down the other side on a stand-up board (similar to a snowboard) or sitting down like on a sled. It’s great, dirty, adrenaline-pumping fun.
Learn to surf – Nicaragua is a great place to learn how to surf due to year round waves and warm water. There are plenty of surf schools that offer tuition and equipment hire around the towns of Rivas and San Juan del Sur. Cost: around $10 per day for board rental and $25 per hour for lessons.
Kayaking - Either around Las Isletas (a chain of small islands on a lake near Granada) or in Lago de Apoyo. Kayaking tours give travelers a chance to experience some nature in a calm and relaxing setting. A two-hour trip costs $35 USD.
Hike Concepcion Volcano – Although you can hike both Maderas and Concepcion on Isla Ometepe, Concepcion is the one to hike for extreme adventure. Not an easy hike, this is for the fit. Shale makes for a slippery climb – but you will be rewarded with an unparalleled view of the island, the lake, and the volcano’s stony interior. Keep in mind Volcàn Concepción is an active volcano that nearly erupted in 1957.
Feel free to comment with recommendations, tips, or your stories on Nicaragua. I’m always looking to supplement/update the above and welcome all constructive feedback!
Planning a trip to Nicaragua? If so check out my favorite affiliated companies. I book all my hotel stays with Booking.com (because you don’t have to pay upfront). I’m also a big fan of Lonely Planet’s guides because they have lots of detailed information that I can’t possibly cover on this page. Book through the links below to get special discounts.