There’s something really special about Nicaragua. I had no idea that this country was already on so many people’s radars. You barely hear about it, but it truly is a gem. It has some of the best surfing beaches in the world in warm pacific oceans, steep lively volcanoes to climb or sneak up on in the night, and all kinds of lakes from crater lakes to ones the size of oceans. It’s a paradise!
Back in the 1980s during the Nicaraguan Revolution, this was not a destination for tourists. Now, the country claims the cake on being the safest country in Central America. Since 2010, tourism has added positively to the country’s economy. It may be 30 years behind its neighbor, Costa Rica, but that’s what gives it that more authentic charm now lacking there. It’s leagues behind in development, which makes it feel more like Central America than the United States. Panama City and Costa Rica feel overdeveloped. Nicaragua feels like a step back in time.
Unlike Costa Rica where everyone speaks English and you feel like you’re in a tropical colony of the US, Nicaraguans mostly speak only Spanish. There are those in the tourism industry speaking English though. On the streets you’ll see men still ride around in horse and carts and bicycle powered tuk tuks. Their bus service consists of brightly painted American school buses brought down during the contras war. These are the typical “chicken buses,” but hostels now offer mini shuttle buses between cities for a steeper price. They are aware of tourism, but not phased by it. They go on living their lives just the same. With the exception of San Juan del Sur, the rest of the country is not totally transformed by tourism.
We visited most of the major cities and beach towns in our three week visit except up north and the Caribbean Corn Islands, which are becoming a popular destination in recent years. Places listed in ordered that we visited them in.
San Juan del Sur
This beach town on the southern Pacific coast probably has the most tourism in all of Nicaragua. In the past 10 years, it has transformed significantly from a little beach town to a worldwide destination for surfers and expats.
About 50% of the businesses in San Juan are gringo-owned. Luckily, a lot of the gringo businesses employ locals. The four by four block radius of the town contains great restaurants like the local San Juan Brewery, The Surfing Buddha, Nacho Libre, and Casa Oro. There’s amazing little taco shops and a delicious Thai restaurant with only five tables. On the waterfront, you can watch the sunset with a happy hour cocktail at one of the many nice restaurants like El Timon.
The town just feels like you took a wrong turn and ended up in Southern Cali. Unfortunately, events like the infamous Sunday Funday, that attracts party- hungry backpackers each week to pay $30 for a t-shirt and transport between four bars/hostels, has become a disgrace to the local community. It’s the ugly face of party tourism. At least nine backpackers have died at this event in past years, and locals want nothing to do with it. So be careful if that’s you’re reason for visiting.
If you go to surf, just know that you must hop on the back of a truck to reach any of the surf beaches. Casa Oro provides shuttles every day though. Of all the towns in Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur is the least authentic.
On the other hand, take Ometepe for example, it’s a popular tourist destination on the circuit through Nicaragua and it’s not over developed by hotels and high rises. People are still going about their lives in Ometepe. There’s small resorts around the lake and guest houses in Moyagalpa, but it feels really low key.
You can climb two of Nicaragua’s 50 volcanos- Concepcion and Maderas. Concepcion is the harder of the two climbs, because it’s in direct sunlight, steep, and on hot crumbling lava rock. Maderas is still very difficult, but the complete opposite. It’s home to dense forests including cloud forest that is extremely humid. The climb is shaded by trees, but the terrain is super muddy and slippery. You must also climb over and duck under fallen trees constantly. The views from both volcanoes are totally worth the climbs. You can stare out at the hour glass shape of Ometepe Island and see the largest lake in Central America on either side.
The other attractions include swimming in the warm choppy lake, canoeing down the river, and going for a refreshing dip at the natural spring pools of Ojo de Agua. Also don’t forget to take a moment to watch the sunset at Punta Jesus Maria. You can rent motor bikes for $20/day and explore the whole island. Best restaurant on the island is Mar Dulce, named after the lake, in Moyagalpa for delicious fajitas! For an authentic guesthouse, stay at Casa Mauro, a sweet family owned place with great hospitality.
Granada, the colonial city, probably has the most touristic feel after San Juan, but it’s still very authentic. Men sit in wooden carts pulled by horses and trot down the cobblestone roads. There’s a lovely daily market by the main cathedral and square and prices are reasonable. At night the same street shuts down for restaurants to have outdoor seating and street performers entertain patrons with breakdancing and men dressed in large plaster costumes. The town is small though and not overtaken by hostels. It’s homey, quiet, and painted in bright cheerful colors on every block.
It doesn’t require a long visit for a understanding of the town. You can stroll the roads looking at ancient cathedrals left to rust and crumble. The main plaza hosts lively events like food shows, poetry festivals, concerts and more. You can stay at the hostel, Selina, right on the square or a few blocks away is De Boca En Boca (Word of Mouth) Hostel with a social atmosphere, but not party feel. One of the best restaurants was Pita Pita, a Mediterranean restaurant!
The main attractions in Granada are actually outside the city though. You can visit them on tours from your hostel or tour agencies in the city. They include Masaya Volcano, which you can take a tour to at night to see the red hot lava bubbling in the volcanoes active cauldron for around $30. There’s little islands to visit on the same lake shared with Ometepe and hiking at other volcanoes.
You can take a day trip or stay overnight at one of the few beachfront hostels on Lago Apoyo and you’ll feel secluded. There’s only a few small beaches along the rim of the crater lake and each hostel that runs the private beaches makes you feel like you’re the only ones on the lake. The water is warm, but refreshing and the feeling of sitting within a volcanic crater is humbling. It’s worth the trip for $14 or to stay at a place like Paradiso for $12/night and enjoy the floating dock, free kayaks, and black tire tubes to float on the lake’s refreshing waters.
Everyone will tell you to skip dangerous Managua, the capital city, and they are probably right. It’s a quick stopover on your way to better destinations. You can check out museums, the lake front, and views of the volcano. Visit Malecón by the waterfront to see the brightly lit tree sculptures and for 5 Cordobas enter a lively area of restaurants, dance clubs, and children’s carnival games. We only spent one day here on our way to Honduras though.
The city of Leon, northwest of Managua, rivals with Granada for hippest city in Nicaragua. It’s definitely more authentic, less touristy, and grungy. It doesn’t feel as safe as Granada though.
The city is much larger than Granada and doesn’t have any of the touristy street performances. The main attraction in the city is the Cathedral of Leon, which you can climb to the top of between 10am-12pm and 2pm to 5pm each day for $3. It’s worth it to see the views of the volcanoes all around the city. It’s also beautiful standing barefoot (they make you remove your shoes) on top of the white mounds of the curved ceiling and next to the capped spires. It’s humbling.
The town is full of old cathedrals in bright gowns of flamingo pink and canary yellow. There’s more crime though and unsafe neighborhoods, so don’t go out at night alone. The best attractions are nearby Leon, like boarding down the famous volcano, Cerro Negro. They will suit you up in gear, give you a board, and a beer and send you careening at top speeds down the side of the volcano for $26-$30. You can also hike other volcanoes in the area.
If you’re not in the mood for endurance, visit the Flor de Caña Rum distillery for a tour costing only $18. Eat at ConcinArte for delicious Middle Eastern dishes and vegetarian food or Imbir for artesanal beers and Polish meets Sri Lankan food. For breakfast check out Desayunito for all day breakfast or Pan y Paz for a French bakery.
From Leon, you can take a chicken bus for only 50 cents back to the coast. The coast near Leon is tranquil and barely touched by tourism. A visit to Las Peñitas is totally worth it. The beach is only a few miles long and dotted by a handful of lively bars and hotels. The majority of beachfront property is occupied by vacation homes of rich Managuans and Leons, who rarely visit or upkeep their homes. The waves are perfect for surfers and a little rough for swimming. The prices are cheap and the sunsets are incredible.
This town has tons of potential for a beach town, but continues to remain underdeveloped and cheap. We ate at some of the best restaurants here from delicious pizza at Belgian owned Mama Pizza, to hearty American Southern food at German-owned Bomalu, or local seafood and Nica fair at Comedor Bertha. We also absolutely loved our accommodations at El Belga Loco, right on the beach, with a pool, and great affordable snacks and drinks.
The beaches between there and San Juan have that similar vibe of being quaint and underdeveloped like Playa Gigante that has about four hostels and some restaurants. It’s a small beach within a cove and really peaceful. These small towns don’t even have ATMs yet so bring cash. There are big fancy resorts building up near there though that the likes of Scarlet Johanson, Eva Longoria, and Morgan Freeman vacation at like Guacolito or the Aqua club.
One of the biggest resorts on the Nicaragua shores is Rancho Santana, that takes up five private beaches. You can rent or own one of their ranch houses with private pool for around $1,800/month or stay at the elegant and fancy Rancho Club House for $350/night. They have private beaches, pools, restaurants, and stables. They dominate a large portion of the Pacific coastline. If you want luxury look no further than Rancho. We had the luck of knowing someone who lives there, so we got to enjoy the amenities for a day.
If you want a completely different experience and the opportunity to do something positive during your visit, head northeast to the town of Jinotega. Here you can live in an eco lodge on a coffee farm and volunteer for Comunidad Connect.
They are a nonprofit started 10 years ago by two American guys visiting San Juan. They started recycling projects and beach cleanups in 2007. Then they developed youth sports programs. They then established a project in the Jinotega region doing community development projects with local villages.
Their work up north includes providing water filters, new cement floors, new ovens and stoves, and insecticide paint to poor families. Volunteers help provide the labor for these projects. You can come with a group from the US or eventually as an individual traveling from San Juan to lend a hand for a few days or weeks volunteering. In addition, they run health clinics for the people in need.
Visit Comunidad Connect for more info!!
You can also fly from Managua to the little and big Corn Islands on the Caribbean. There are many untouched areas in the East of Nicaragua only inhabited by native peoples. There are no good road systems to this part of the country.
North of Leon you can also visit Somoto Canyon and tube down the river or hike around the canyon. Nicaragua is such a unique country with so much beauty and adventure to offer travelers. Let’s just not turn it into Costa Rica. It’s better kept authentic and pristine.