Nicaragua offers an unbeatable combination of colonial towns, volcanoes, cloud forests, lakes, mountains, rainforests and gorgeous beaches on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The Pacific Ocean beaches have some world-class surfing (and also some very good beginner spots too). There’s also volcano boarding, kayaking, zip lining, fishing, sailing and some amazingly diverse wildlife. Not to mention the warm hospitality of Nicas, the ease of traveling around and the relaxed Latin vibe. And all this comes with a budget price tag.
Because of all that’s on offer and the fact that it’s so inexpensive, it’s easy to plan a Nicaragua itinerary that includes a mix of culture, sports, nature and relaxation without breaking the bank. Tourism in Nicaragua is growing at a rate of about 10% to 12% annually, and it is number four of Lonely Planet’s top 10 Best in Travel 2015 countries. Despite the growing numbers of visitors, Nicaragua is still a tiny little bit off the beaten path – but probably not for too much longer.
We ended up traveling to Nicaragua by a bit of a chance. We were looking for a cheap flight out of Miami at the end of our three-month stint in the US. The initial plan was to fly straight from the US to South America, but we quickly discovered flights to South America weren’t, well, cheap. So we started looking further afield and found a cheap flight from Miami to Managua, Nicaragua ($277/person with Copa Air) and thought – why not? The plan was to make our way south from Central America (as it turns out we didn’t and instead spent more time in Central America- more about that in a future post).
We ended up loving Nicaragua and stayed for a month. Nicaragua was our first month of ‘slow travel’ and despite spending four weeks there, we only saw a fraction of what this beautiful country has to offer. But what we saw we absolutely loved! We bypassed Managua altogether (beyond the airport) as we were a little spooked after reading some scary crime statistics and horror traveller stories. In hindsight – we probably should have been a bit braver and had a look.
- Arrival & 1st night: Augusto C. Mandigo (Managua) International Airport. We arrived in the evening and stayed overnight at the Camino Real Hotel, a couple minutes’ drive (complimentary pick-up) from the airport.
- Transport to Granada the next day. Taxi organized by our Granada hotel, $45. Local (very cheap) buses available too, with more hassle of course (we were lazy).
- Granada (and Mombacho Volcano): 3 nights
- Laguna de Apoyo: 3 nights. Taxi from Granada to Apoyo $10.
- San Juan del Sur: 3 weeks. Private driver from Apoyo to San Juan del Sur $75.
- Things we missed: we didn’t go to Ometepe Island this time, however it would have been easy to add to the itinerary between Apoyo and San Juan del Sur as it is on the way. It’s meant to be amazing. Leon is further up north, but not too far, and it could have been a good starting point. Lastly – Corn Island on the Caribbean side is harder to get to, but again, we heard many good things. These three are probably the most ‘obvious’ first-timer destinations our itinerary did not include this time. Many more amazing places to see in Nicaragua of course!
The beautiful colonial city of Granada is compact and easy to walk around. It only has a population of some 120,000 so it has more of a town- than city-vibe. The beautiful colonial-era architecture and colorful houses are extremely photogenic, and anyone who loves wandering around looking at architecture will definitely love Granada. There are also many Spanish language schools if you’re keen to brush up on your language skills.
Granada is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater lake. I have to say we were a bit let down by the shoreline of the lake right outside of Granada; we thought it looked dirty and just underwhelming. But once you get a bit outside of the busier area and actually onto the lake you see the true beauty of it. Not to be missed! The lake is home to ‘Las Isletas‘, the islets of Granada. There are some 365 small volcanic islands in the group, many of which are inhabited. We did a boat tour around (some of) the islands and it was fascinating. The islands are still populated by local fishermen, but increasingly they are starting to have luxury vacation homes, restaurants and other facilities for tourists. You can hire a boat for about $20/boat/hour (which fits up to eight people) to tour the islands. Go at least for two hours for the opportunity to see more than just the closest islets.
We spent three nights in Granada and that was just about right for us – but you could stay much longer too. It’s got a rustic and relaxing charm about it and there are many easy day trips to be made if you want to explore further afield.
Only 10km (about 6 miles) from Granada, Mombacho Volcano makes a great half-day trip. It’s super-accessible due to the fact that a road runs almost all the way to the top. A bumpy and rather exiting ride on the back of a truck takes you to the top in about 20-30 minutes and costs $20/person (including admission to the nature reserve). You can also opt to walk up (admission $5) but be prepared for a very steep climb! Once at the top, you can walk around one of the four craters on your own, or hire a guide (compulsory) to go on the much more demanding 4-hour ‘El Puma’ trail.
The views towards Granada and Lake Nicaragua are absolutely stunning and the temperature is much cooler at the top (bring a long-sleeved shirt if you get chilly easily, like I do). The clouds and mist swirling around the craters add a mysterious and dreamlike feel to everything. We also managed to ‘spot’ a sloth – or at least we were told that the tuft of grey-ish hair sticking out through some branches was a sloth. I love sloths so the idea that we saw one, or even some of its hair, was exciting! Mombacho is a great activity to do if you’re looking for an easy trip from Granada and some easy walking, you know, in a cloud forest on a volcano. Pretty cool.
There are many other volcanoes in Nicaragua with some serious hikes as well as some volcano boarding available so there’s bound to be some sort of a volcano-related activity to suite every taste.
Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve
If hiking up volcanoes isn’t your thing, how would it sound to completely relax for a few days on the shores of a bluest-of-blue, thermally vented and clean crater lagoon? There’s still that volcanic theme: Laguna de Apoyo is considered a sleeping volcano with some volcanic activity still present through a few hot springs in its interior.
The Apoyo Lagoon is a stunning nature reserve less than half an hour from Granada, and a bit longer from Managua. Whilst Apoyo is a nature reserve, there are still many hotels on the shores of the lake – but no big resorts or loud bars. The gorgeous lagoon is surrounded by tropical dry rainforest and the sounds of tropical birds and howler monkeys (and the occasional farm animal including some incredibly loud roosters who apparently have no clue that they’re meant to wake you up at dawn, not at all hours of the day and night). You can swim in or kayak on the lake, take a walk, or do what most visitors do – just relax on its shores slowly swaying the days away in a hammock.
We stayed for three blissful nights in the wonderful Casa Aromansse, a BnB-style hotel right on the lake. We absolutely adored this small hotel, and found the food superb, the atmosphere soothing and relaxing (apart from the aforementioned bloody roosters. Bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper). Serge, the owner, is a yoga instructor and we were treated to yoga in the mornings, which was wonderful. We also have an amazing memory of just the two of us floating about in the warm waters of Apoyo on inner tubes, in the dark, watching the full moon rise over the lagoon. One of those small but simply unforgettable travel moments.
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is the most popular travel destination on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. Easygoing and laid-back, with oodles of rustic small town charm, what once was a sleepy fishing town is now a popular holiday spot for foreign and local tourists alike. We stayed for three weeks and loved San Juan, although things seemed to be picking up considerably before Christmas holidays and it was getting too busy for our liking, just as we moved on at the end of November. Great for lazing about, surfing (on nearby beaches), learning Spanish at one of the many language schools and meeting other travelers, San Juan is sure to charm you. See my post on San Juan del Sur – Things to Do and Sample Prices for more details on this fun town!
Nicaragua as a holiday destination: Our verdict
For a relatively small country Nicaragua is an incredibly diverse travel destination. Turn every which way and it is just stunning, with either a volcano, lake (or crater lagoon), the ocean or a stunning colonial building in your line of vision. People we encountered were warm, friendly and helpful. And traveling there is cheap! We’re glad we got there before it booms big time.
Some helpful links: