Why visit Nicaragua?
Simple answer: Because it has everything. The list of things to do and where to go in Nicaragua is endless; “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” doesn’t begin to describe what the country has to offer. Unfortunately, ‘The Land of Lakes, Volcanoes, Beaches, Islands, Colonial Cities, Rainforests and Smiling Faces” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
In the last couple of years, Nicaragua has gone from touristic obscurity to a favorite on destination top ten lists. As the world realizes that the country’s political instability is long over and Nicaragua is now one of the safest country in Central America, people are ditching Costa Rica and Panama for the newest kid on the tourism block. And, learning from their neighbor, ecotourism pioneer Costa Rica, Nicaragua is pushing responsible tourism to the front of their tourism strategy.
Here are just a few ideas of where to go in Nicaragua:
Nicaragua boasts some of the most well-preserved colonial cities in Central America. Stroll along streets lined with brightly colored houses while horse-drawn carriages battle for road space with 4×4 SUVs; the juxtaposition of past and present and the seamless mingling of the modern and the traditional are what make a visit to one of Nicaragua’s colonial towns so special.
Perched on the edge of Lake Cocibolca (aka Lake Nicaragua), Granada is home to the most well-preserved colonial architecture in the country. Though the door fronts are brightly painted, the plainness of the exteriors do little justice to their full splendor. Push open the large wooden door of one of these houses and you’ll find open living rooms covered by high-ceilings facing extravagant internal gardens, some even featuring a swimming pool.
With inspiring homes and churches and delicious restaurants boasting everything from local dishes to ‘western’ food, it is easy to spend a few days meandering through this city full of colors and sounds. Granada’s central location also makes it a great base for exploring some of the top sites of Nicaragua: kayaking across the lake and visiting the nearby islets, hiking up Mombacho Volcano, visiting the famed market of nearby Masaya or catching the ferry to Ometepe Island.
Check out Cafe Las Flores for tours of Granada and the surrounding area.
Image: Anthony JOhn Coletti
Becoming more and more popular with tourists and expats alike, Leon is living up to its name as Nicaragua’s hottest city. Along with having the warmest climate in the country, this lively university town also has an energy and vibrance that make it a favorite among visitors. Leon’s slightly worn down colonial chic is quickly being upgraded as more and more buildings sport fresh coats of multicolored paint. Even the Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral, Central America’s Largest Cathedral, is undergoing a face lift. But where Granada may offer a pretty paint job, Leon has the soul of a lion.
Leon was an integral center for the struggle between the Sandinistas and the Somozas, and this revolutionary past is literally painted on the walls of the city as well as being forever etched in the hearts of its inhabitants. Leon boasts a lively market, music blasting from every corner, some of the country’s best museums (like the Museum of the Revolution), great food, galleries and art museums, Volcano boarding down Cerro Negro and breathtaking beaches like Las Penitas y Poneloya only a 10 to 15-minute drive(45-minute chicken bus) away.
For tours and volcano boarding, check out Quetzaltrekkers.
With kilometers and kilometers of coastline, there are too many beaches to name. But here are some of the most popular:
San Juan del Sur
This fisherman village turned surfer’s paradise is the best place to base your exploration of the south coast beaches of Nicaragua. Nestled in a gorgeous bay with a long crescent beach and lush green hills on either side, this beer-charged blend of expats, backpackers and surfers, is quickly becoming the party capitol of Nicaragua. But don’t let this deter you. As long as you avoid the Christmas holidays and Easter week, the town’s laid-back vibe, great restaurants, fresh seafood, horseback riding, fishing and stunning beachfront sunsets make it a great stop for anyone traveling through the country.
The town’s beach is a great place for a sun-downer or relaxing day on the sand, but it’s the nearby beaches that attract surfers, both novice and expert, from around the world. Playa Hermosa, Playa Maderas, Playa Majagual and Playa Marsella are just a couple great spots easily reached by shuttle from San Juan del Sur.
Check out my posts on San Juan del Sur:
Image: Kuba Okon
For a bit more peace and quiet, visit the beaches near the small town of Tola just 35km west of Rivas. This area is home to the beach towns of Popoyo and Playa Gigante, as well as scores of undeveloped beaches and coves, like Playa Colorado pictured above.
Here are some great eco-friendly places to stay on the beach:
A short ride outside of Leon, you will find Las Peñitas and Poneloya beaches. Both are home to a small community of expats and surfers, but much less touristy than San Juan del Sur. A few hotels and hostels sprinkle the small beach towns, but they attract more local tourists than international. However, these beaches are frequented for both home-grown and foreign hailing surfers.
Slightly further north, still only a 20-minute drive from Leon, you come to Salinas Grandes. This long stretch of light grey sand has some of Nicaragua’s best waves and very little tourism. Great for surfers and sun-bathers alike, this is the perfect place to relax after a trip to Leon with the waves crashing in the background and a much-welcomed breeze blowing through the palm trees.
Nicaragua is known for both its inland and coastal islands. Offering something for everyone, you can enjoy a private island minutes away from the city or one of the last underdeveloped jewels of the Caribbean.
Isletas of Granada
original image: David F. Barrero
Sprinkled near the shores of Lake Nicaragua at the edge of Granada are 365 small islands. Formed by large rocks spewed from the mouth of Mombacho Volcano thousands of years ago, these islands, with a combined 1,200 inhabitants, range in size from 100 square meters to one hundred hectares. You can enjoy a retreat on your own private island outside Granada swinging in a hammock while watching the sun disappear in an orange and pink glow behind Mombacho or take a kayak or stand up paddle tour around the various islets known for world-class bird watching and mischievous monkeys.
Visit Livit Water to book your stand up paddle tour of the isletas.
A world within itself, this island formed by the Concepcion and Maderas volcanoes is an ecotourism dream come true. Hike, bike, swim, climb, kayak or just kick back and relax. You can spend your day walking shaded pathways with giggling monkeys as your companions and come back to a delicious meal at one of the many organic farms turned homestays spread throughout the island. Complete with jungles and waterfalls, sandy beaches and coffee plantations, this island deserves more than a couple days’ visit.
Here are some lovely fincas, organic farms and eco lodges to stay at:
image: QuellaQueen 11
This is the Caribbean like it was meant to be, like you thought it would be: white sands, clear blue water, smiling faced islanders serving delicious seafood dishes and days spent in a hammock with only the sounds of the waves and the slurping of the last drop of your dangerously tasty cocktail.
The Corn Islands are made up of Big Corn and Little Corn that lie 70 kilometers off the east coast of Nicaragua. As the name suggests, Big Corn is the larger and more developed of the two islands, while Little Corn has minimum infrastructure, cheaper accommodation and a more backpackery vibe. Big Corn would count as one of the lesser developed islands in the Caribbean, but Little Corn goes a step further giving the sense that you stumbled onto a well-kept secret island utopia (think ‘The Beach’ with more space and less drama). Excellent scuba diving and snorkeling and the cheapest lobster dishes on earth (lobster is the Corn Islands main exports) make the Corn Islands worthy of a stop-over during your Nicaragua trip or even as relaxing getaway in themselves.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a person that has visited Nicaragua without making a stop in Granada and San Juan del Sur. But, all too many travelers never make it north of Leon, completely missing some of the most stunning scenery Nicaragua has to offer. Nicaragua is home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity, almost 80 nature reserves and the two largest rainforest reserves in Central America.
Only two hours north of Leon, Matagalpa’s blend of stunning mountains, rainforests with refreshing waterfalls, coffee plantations and a sense of urbanity make it the perfect base for exploring northern Nicaragua. Surrounded by mountainous nature reserves, this city of 150,000 people is the gateway to Nicaragua’s northern region. Wealthy coffee plantation owners, indigenous artisans and a growing number of ecotourism enthusiasts share the streets of this bustling mountain town. You can hike to a waterfall, visit a local artisan village or tour a coffee plantation and be back in time to enjoy a meal at any one of the growing number of inventive restaurants or hipster-inspired cafes. The nearby reserves of Arenal, Selva Negra and Apante make for scenic hikes full a short bus or taxi ride outside the city center. This region is the birthplace of famed poet Ruben Dario and the country’s main producer of coffee and chocolate. And, if you’re not sold already, its cool climate will be a welcome relief from the at times oppressive heat found in the rest of the country.
Explore the region with Matagalpa Tours.
Stay in a private nature reserve at Selva Negra.
Image: Newland Blog by Nexus
Estelí is to tobacco what Matagalpa is to coffee. About an hour and a half drive from Matagalpa, Estelí is used mostly as a stopover for those that want to explore Miraflor and Somoto Canyon. Nonetheless, the city has a rural vibe to it and features some nice restaurants and a decent nightlife. A Sandinista stronghold, this town is home to a university which lends a young and energetic edge to a city full of cigar smoking rancheros.
Tour the town, the nearby communities and Somoto Canyon with Treehuggers.
Unlike most nature reserves, Miraflor is home to sustainability-focused agricultural communities. Just 30 kilometers outside of Estelí, Miraflor is one of the richest sources of biodiversity in the country with over 200 kinds of orchids alone. Exploring Miraflor you will find farming villages bordered by virgin forest. This means that you can not only explore the rich natural diversity of the area, but its rich cultural heritage as well. The landscape is dotted with collective-farming communities that happily open their doors to tourists allowing you to experience the local way of life by helping harvest crops, sow seeds, milk a cow or make fresh tortillas along-side real Nicaraguan caballeros.
Explore the Miraflor Nature Reserve with Sonati.
Image: Batahola Volunteers
Covering an area of almost 20,000 square kilometers, the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is the second largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere after the Amazon. Filled with rolling hills covered with lush tropical vegetation, Bosawas is home to Nicaragua’s two indigenous tribes, the Miskito and the Sumo. These tribes live off the rich resources provided by the reserve, the large majority work with conservation authorities and practice subsistence farming, growing just enough to support them and their families. Bosawas still remains very much off the tourism trail, but it is worth a visit to explore this lush rainforest filled with hundreds of plant and insect species along with animals such as harpy eagles, jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and macaws.
And off course the Lakes and Volcanoes
With 19 volcanoes and countless lakes and rivers, Nicaragua has earned its title as “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.” While you can’t miss the various volcanoes cutting rectangular intrusions into the horizons only a few are readily accessible to tourists.
Just 10 kilometers from Granada, this famous volcano has 4 craters rimmed with cloud forests. It is tourist-friendly, as you can access it by vehicle (or better yet hike!) and be greeted by a tourist center with free information of the history, flora and fauna of the volcano and a well-marked hiking trail. There is even an eco-lodge halfway up and a zip lining course. The cloud forest here is one of only two in Nicaragua, the other found on top of the Maderas Volcano.
Hike Mombacho day or night with Cafe las Flores
image: The Plaid Zebra
Located just outside Leon, the Cerro Negro Volcano is one of the youngest and most active volcanoes in Central America. Deriving its name, “Black Hill”, from the black sand-like ash that covers part of the volcano, the extreme sport of Volcano Boarding was created here. Sliding down the tar colored sands on what looks like a toboggan/snowboard hybrid has become a must-do for adventure seeking tourists. Some say this unique, adrenaline pumping activity helped put Nicaragua on the Central American backpacker trail.
Feel the rush of volcano boarding with Quetzal Trekkers.
Concepción and Maderas
Image: Ordinary Abroad
The lava flow from these two volcanoes created the twin-peaked island of Ometepe. Both offer amazing views of the island and the surrounding Lake Nicaragua. Concepción, with a height of 1610 meters, is Nicaragua’s second tallest volcano and one of the most perfectly shapes volcanoes in the Americas. This symmetrical, conical shape makes for a challenging 10-hour hike in the Nicaraguan sun, but the 360-degree views make it all worth it. Maderas is a slightly shorter 8-hour hike ending in a breathtaking cloud forest and a much needed dip in the crater lagoon.
El Zopilote offers tours to both volcanoes for a price of $8 for Maderas and $10 for Concepción.
Lake Nicaragua, or Lake Cocibolca, was also called La Mar Dulce (The Sweet Sea) by Spanish conquistadors. With a surface of 8,264 square kilometers – making it the largest freshwater lake in Latin America – from first glance, you can see why this gigantic body of water seems more like a sea than a lake. It even has a native species of freshwater shark! The lake is easily accessible from Granada or San Jorge in the Rivas region, and is perfect for kayaking and exploring its many islets full of exotic birds and friendly monkeys. Sadly this pristine body of water may be invaded by tankers and polluted by salt water if plans for the Nicaragua canal – to cut through the country connecting the pacific and Caribbean oceans – are carried out. The damage done to this fragile ecosystem will be devastating and likely irreversible.
Read more here about the implications the Nicaragua Canal here.
Laguna de Apoyo
On the other side of Granada, about 20 minutes from town, is the nature reserve Laguna de Apoyo. This 48 square kilometer lake is cradled inside the crater of the Apoyo Volcano and features one of the best places to swim in Nicaragua. Stay a couple nights in one of several eco-lodges offering cabin style accommodation ranging from budget to luxury, and spend a couple days relaxing one of the beaches, gliding in a kayak along the lake’s glass-like surface or cooling off with a swim in its cool blue water.
With so little established tourism, there are new exiting destinations being discovered in Nicaragua all the time. But as the industry develops, it’s important to make sure that you show your support of responsible tourism activities and providers to ensure that tourism in Nicaragua develops with a clear mission of sustainability at its center.
I hope this guide, Where to Go in Nicaragua, has helped you understand that there are so many things to do and see in Nicaragua, so many different places to visit and a thriving cultural and historical heritage that make it a destination unlike any other. Stay tuned and subscribe to get more detailed information in the future on each of these destinations and the exciting responsible tourism options that let you explore them.
And, please comment and let me know your favorite Nica destination!