Nicaragua has long been overlooked by travelers due to years of internal conflict, dictatorships and political problems. Nowadays, the country is quite stable and seems to be the up and coming destination for adventure seekers, and a new alternative to some of its more expensive neighbors. And even though the infrastructure, development and readiness for tourism isn’t quite as good as other countries in the area, it seems to be catching up quickly with the surrounding cost trends, so if you’re interested in visiting, now is the time!
The remarkable thing about Nicaragua is that even though it’s the largest country in Central America, the majority of the country (The East or Caribbean side) is still undeveloped, and the common backpacker/traveler trail is limited to the western smaller side.
Most of the accessible locations in Nicaragua are not quite as lush as that of Costa Rica, yet it still has plenty of diverse landscapes and something for everyone. The area is dotted with volcanoes, beaches and lakes, and has its fair share of colonial city culture.
The trail and what to explore
Managua: The capital of Nicaragua and home of the only international airport. Unfortunately this city which had a lot of potential back in the day was completely totaled by the last devastating earthquake that hit the area a few year back, so it lost most of its cultural sites and colonial buildings and is now quite modern, badly planned, chaotic and not without its fair share of petty crime. Most visitors (including yours truly) usually skip it altogether or if needed just spend a night there before moving on to other locations, but if you’re feeling a little adventurous and want to explore “the real” local culture, nightlife and lifestyle, then you might want to give it a go.
Leon: Located about 4 hours north of the capital, it’s an interesting and lively colonial city (the largest in the country), and home to some of the oldest universities in the area, which means it’s full of students, culture and of course… plenty of bars! It’s famous for a particular activity called “volcano boarding” which is a somewhat unique experience where you hike up the sandy surface of the active “Cerro Negro” volcano and then slide down using a sand board (Be careful and get ready to get really dirty).
Granada: Located about 2 hours south of the capital, it’s the smaller, more colorful and significantly more Americanized of the two colonial cities. It’s a place to check out some colonial buildings, hang out at a restaurant in the town square and spend a night or two relaxing. Other activities involve exploring the nearby active volcano, or taking a boat trip to the lake islets, which are a group of several small volcanic islands (Most of which are for sale btw!), as well as hopping to the neighboring small town of Masaya to check out its artisan Mercado.
Laguna de Apoyo: A serene volcano crater lake with clear waters, located within a small distance from Granada. A great place to go for a swim or do some kayaking.
Ometepe Island: Located further south, within Lake Nicaragua, this distinct serene island is shaped as a figure 8 formed by two adjacent volcanoes called “Conception” and “Madera”, the latter being the bigger of the two. This is the place to be if you’re looking to hike up a volcano which is the most popular activity here. Other activities involve kayaking and mountain biking. Another small place worth visiting is the bat caves, formed by lava and the “San Ramon” cascade which is a tiny waterfall that can be reached in a two hour hike. The island is also a good place to relax and spend a couple of days. To get to Ometepe you can easily take a two hour bus ride from Granada, or hop on a four hour ferry which leaves Granada twice a week.
San Juan Del Sur: Located next to the border with Costa Rica you’ll find what used to be a small sleepy fishing village which is now the surf capital of Nicaragua, and a great place to learn surfing. This party/surf town is the place to be if you’re looking for some rough waves and wild nights. San Juan is an extremely popular destination for Canadians which appear to be owning most of the bars and surf shops there.
Corn Islands: Probably the only touristic spot on Nicaragua’s Caribbean side. These two gorgeous islands, big Corn and little Corn (the latter having no cars) have amazing landscapes, crystal clear waters which makes them perfect for fishing, snorkeling and diving… They are an amazing relaxing gateway from the mainland. The best way to reach the islands is by flying from Managua. Ticket prices are around165 US (2015).
Tips and what to expect
Street vendors: Everyone in Nicaragua (as with all other neighboring countries) will try to sell you something, whether it’s a tour, a ride or some other types of “service”, and incidentally they’re possibly the only people you’ll encounter that actually speak English! This can be a little frustrating. So be prepared to keep an open mind, and politely respond with a simple “No gracias” (even though that might not be enough for the first couple of times)
Bargaining: Any price you might be offered on the street is most likely to be super inflated and “gringo taxed”, so if there’s something you find that you actually need or if you’re interested in buying something, my advice is to always start by asking for half the price they’re initially offering, and take it from there.
Airport transportation: As soon as you step out of that airport you’ll instantly be bombarded with taxi ride offers with prices that can range anywhere from 30 to 40 US dollars. These prices of course are ridiculous if you’re comparing them to bus prices located two blocks away which can be between 2 to 5 US dollars. So if you’re not willing to take a short walk outside the airport, make sure you negotiate well before getting into the cab!
The Chicken Bus: Contrary to what the name suggests, it’s unlikely that you’re going to encounter any barnyard animals on the bus (even though it’s certainly possible). Still there must be a reason why they call it that, right? Well the fact of the matter is that these buses are useful if you’re on an extremely tight budget. The average cost of taking one of these contraptions from city to city is about 2 US dollars. However be prepared for an exceptionally cramped and uncomfortable ride with regular stops every four minutes or so.
Cash: US dollars are widely accepted everywhere even in cabs, in fact most touristic establishment will quote you in US dollars. Of course it’s always recommended to carry local pesos with you, which would probably give you a better exchange rate. Also be sure to carry small bills as it is very unlikely that they’re able to break a hundred peso bill for you.
Essentials: Make sure to pack an extra strong mosquito repellent and a high protection sun screen.