My final destination of the 2014 Central America trip was Nicaragua.
After moving quickly through Guatemala, rushing El Salvador and almost going broke on the island of Roatan in Honduras, I was left with three weeks to explore Nicaragua. It was the most time of any country on the trip.
I’d been hearing “Nicaragua is the next Costa Rica” for a while. Cheaper, with lots to do, good surfing, partying for those who want it, and less attention than its neighbor.
But, I would’ve gone regardless for one reason. It’s the only place in the world where you can go volcanoboarding.
Almost all of the hostels, restaurants and cafes I used had Wi-Fi, but the download speeds were better for checking email and Facebook on a smartphone than getting work done on a laptop.
Here are my Nicaragua travel tips, fresh from my three-week trip.
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Nicaragua is considered one of the safer Central American countries to visit, except for Managua, the country’s largest city and capital.
There’s nothing significant for tourists to see, and since the potential for street crime targeting foreigners is high, it’s best to limit your time here.
Unfortunately, it’s a major transportation hub, and home to the country’s largest airport, Augusto C. Sandino International Airport. The good news is the airport is modern, with excellent air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and plenty of places to eat both before and after security.
I wanted to fly from San Salvador direct to Leon, but it’s not an option. Travelers need to fly into Managua, and then take an express colectivo or private taxi from there.
If you arrive by plane, you’ll see several private tax company booths once you enter the baggage claim area. What you pay will depend heavily on your ability to negotiate.
They’ll start high, around $25, for taxis to the UCA bus station which is where you can pick up the express colectivo to Leon. I negotiated it down to $16. Hiring a taxi to take you from the airport to Leon costs about $80.
The UCA bus station is barely a station at all. Your taxi should drop you off in front of the colectivos heading to Leon. The colectivo costs $2, and takes one and a half hours on straight, flat highways. Make sure to secure and watch your belongings.
Granada, which is used as a base for travelers exploring Nicaragua, is less than an hour away. A private taxi from the airport should cost around $25 to $30. Express colectivos depart from UCA bus station.
My taxi driver gave me a full briefing on staying safe in Nicaragua, including a warning not to hail taxis off the street, and not to walk around Managua at night. Read the Managua Wikitravel guide for more safety tips.
Leon doesn’t receive as much tourism as Granada, but there’s still lots to see and do. Namely, it’s the place to go if you want to try volcanoboarding.
Where to Sleep
- Latina Hostel – Small, but super friendly hostel with a large courtyard and bar. A great alternative to the larger party hostels.
- Via Via Hostel – This is more like a hotel, as there are only one or two very cramped dorm rooms and they have no trouble filling them. There’s a bar that attracts locals in the very front, and a popular restaurant in the interior courtyard.
- Bigfoot Hostel – The original owner of this party hostel, an Australian, is credited with developing volcanoboarding as an activity. Located across the street from Via Via.
- Hotel Los Balcones – I needed to ensure a solid Wi-Fi signal for a Travel Blog Success webinar, so I switched to this hotel for my last night. Even though I didn’t have a balcony, I did have a direct view west toward the Leon Cathedral (and the sunset) from my second floor room.
Where to Eat and Drink
- Pan & Paz French Bakery – Popular with travelers and expats offering excellent sandwiches and desserts. Wi-Fi friendly, and a good spot to hang out if you need to get some work done. I ate here three times in five days.
- El Sesteo – Located across the street from Leon Cathedral, it’s a good spot to sample traditional Nicaraguan food.
- Via Via – Offers a mix of typical Nicaraguan and Western dishes. The tables are located in an interior courtyard. Wi-Fi available.
Things to Do
- Volcanoboarding at Cerro Negro – The only place in the world where you can ride a wooden sled down an active volcano. It’s easy to control your speed, so you can go as fast (70+ km/h) or as slow as you want. The cost is $25 for the tour plus $4 park entrance fee.
- Leon Cathedral – A UNESCO World Heritage Site. The roof is currently being renovated. You can still pay $2 to visit a cupola, but the view is limited.
- Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian – Art museum housed in neighboring 18th and 19th century buildings. Walking through the beautiful interiors and inner courtyards is worth the price of admission alone.
- Myths and Legends Museum – A former prison now houses displays depicting ancient Nicaraguan myths and legends. A free guided tour is included with admission ($2), and necessary if you want to understand anything. This is one of the strangest museums I’ve ever seen.
- Flor de Caña Factory Tour – 45 minutes north of Leon is the Flor de Caña rum distillery. Group tours can be booked from Leon, but may require a minimum number of people. I wish I’d made a greater effort to go.
- Rum Tasting – Held regularly at Via Via Cafe. In addition to tasting a variety of rums, you’ll also learn some Nicaraguan history.
- Ruinas de Leon Viejo – The second of Nicaragua’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the ruins of the original city of Leon, located near the shores of Lake Managua. Visiting independently requires a few bus changes, but it’s not too complicated. Admission is $2. Give yourself 6 hours roundtrip if relying on public transport.
- Telica Volcano – Join a night hike to the top of Telica Volcano to peer into the crater and see red lava.
When it’s time to leave, it’s possible to book tourist shuttles through the hostels to the airport ($12), Granada ($12) and San Juan del Sur, or you can take the local transport to save money.
Granada is to Nicaragua as Antigua is to Guatemala. It’s here on the shores of Lake Nicaragua that most tourists choose to base themselves, and it’s not hard to see why. Colorful buildings, a large central park, horse-drawn carriages and old cobblestone streets evoke life in Spanish Colonial times.
Where to Sleep
- Hostal El Momento – Recommended by many, but it was booked when I arrived. Make reservations in advance.
- Hostal Entre Amigos – Small but friendly hostel where I stayed at in Granada. $12/night for private room. Dorm beds available.
Where to Eat and Drink
- The Garden Cafe – One of the most popular restaurants in the city. The tables are situated around a lush inner courtyard.
- ChocoMuseo – They have a good “all you can eat” breakfast buffet. The melted chocolate used for the pancakes is excellent.
- El Tercer Ojo – Great atmosphere at this open-air restaurant located along the main tourist street behind the Cathedral.
- Cafe de los Sueños – Currently ranked the #1 restaurant on Tripadvisor.
- Reilley’s Tavern – Irish pub with a good beer selection and typical bar food. I watched the Superbowl here.
- Japanese Dining Bar Kanpai – Sushi restaurant run by a Japanese chef. I thought the quality was average at best, but given the lack of options, it’s probably the best place in Granada to get your sushi fix.
- Kathy’s Waffle House – Killer chocolate waffles, and a good spot to try traditional Nicaraguan breakfasts.
Things to Do
- Granada Cathedral – The iconic yellow cathedral in the main square. Behind it is a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels.
- Iglesia de Merced – Climb to the bell tower for 360-degree views of the city.
- Islets de Granada – Take a relaxing boat ride tour of the 100 plus islands upon which some of Nicaragua’s wealthiest business owners have built vacation homes.
- Mombacho Volcano – Go for a relatively easy day hike on this nearby volcano.
- ChocoMuseo – Chocolate museum owned by the same folks as the one in Antigua. The chocolate tour is highly recommended.
- Hotel Spa Granada – A relaxing way to escape the city. Pay for pool access and you can hang out all day, use the Wi-Fi, order drinks and food from the bar, and arrange spa services like massages, manicures and pedicures.
- Lake Apoyo – Visit as a day trip or book ahead to spend a night or two at this gorgeous and relaxing crater lake a half hour from Granada. I recommend Hostel Paradiso with its lovely gardens, excellent food, great little bar, free use of kayaks, and decent Wi-Fi. They can also arrange transport to/from the airport as well as other places in Nicaragua.
When it’s time to leave, it’s possible to book tourist shuttles through the hostels to the airport, Leon, and San Juan del Sur. It might be possible for Ometepe too, but I’m not sure. I relied on public transport.
Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America, and the 19th largest in the world. Ometepe is the largest island in the lake, formed by two volcanoes, one of which is still active.
I don’t suggest taking the ferry direct from Granada as it takes longer, and deposits you on the north of the island, where you may need to spend the night at Altagracia before catching public transport in the morning. Private taxis may be available at night, but will be expensive.
Instead, take the bus/ferry approach:
- Take the chicken bus from Granada to Rivas ($1.15). If traveling with several people, it’ll be cheaper and half the time (45 to 60 minutes) if you hire a private taxi to San Jorge.
- Take a taxi from Rivas bus terminal to San Jorge ($2).
- Small ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa on Ometepe ($1.35). The large ferry is more comfortable, and on my return to San Jorge, cost me $2.75.
All my accommodation and restaurant suggestions are in Moyogalpa, unless otherwise noted.
Where to Sleep
- The Cornerhouse – Expat-owned B&B with several private rooms starting at $25/night. Located on the main road a few blocks up from the boat dock. You can’t miss it.
- Hostel Ibesa – Small, family run hostel that was recommended to me. They’re friendly, but the private rooms ($10/night) don’t have walls that go to the ceiling. I woke up at one point to the couple next door having sex, and the birds outside were extremely loud at sunrise.
- The Landing Hostel – Located a block or two from the boat dock, I didn’t stay here but wish I’d chosen it.
- Hotel Ometepetl – I spent a night here after having trouble sleeping at the hostel. The room was much quieter, which was all I cared about.
- Hacienda Merida – Located on the southeast side of the island, near Maderas Volcano, this hostel was highly recommended by other travelers. It takes longer to get to as the roads are not fully paved the whole way.
- El Zopilote – Another eco-hostel on the eastern side of the island that’s well recommended.
- Hotel Villa Paraiso – The best hotel on Ometepe, situated along Santo Domingo Beach.
Where to Eat and Drink
- The Cornerhouse – Expat-owned B&B, restaurant and cafe serving breakfast and lunch. If they were open for dinners, I’d have eaten there for those too. All the food is excellent. My favorites were the cookies, and the homemade peanut butter and jelly served with toast. The coffee is locally sourced from the island. The owners are super friendly.
- Restaurante La Galeria – The power in the city went off while I was eating my lemon fish filet at this small, artsy restaurant. Located on the main road a few blocks up from The Cornerhouse.
- Pizzeria Buen Appetito – Decent thin-crust pizza.
- Hotel Villa Paraiso – The restaurant features beach views and terrific food. I had a charcoal grilled whole fish caught from the lake. To save money, eat elsewhere and grab a drink here.
Things to Do
- Climb Concepcion Volcano (1,610m, more difficult)
- Climb Maderas Volcano (1,394m, easier)
- Island Tour – I hired a private taxi for $50 to visit the most popular tourist spots (listed below). Be sure to confirm where you want to go ahead of time, as adding extra stops to the itinerary may result in a higher cost.
- Punta de Jesus Maria – A sandy strip that extends out into the lake. Not much to see here.
- Charco Verde Ecological Reserve – A pleasant park with a one-hour self-guided walk. Good place to spot Blue Jays. Admission is $1.50.
- El Ojo de Agua – Sparkling natural springs under a canopy of trees. Get there as early as possible so you can avoid the crowds (both Nicaraguan and foreign). Beer and cocktails are available, and there’s a large restaurant on site, a hundred meters from the pools. This was a highlight of Ometepe for me. Admission is $3.
- Santo Domingo Beach – Nice views of Maderas Volcano, and a good place to go for a swim if you want.
To get off the island, catch a ferry back to San Jorge. From here, taxis compete for your business. I negotiated a $16 ride to San Juan del Sur.
San Juan del Sur
An essential stop on the backpacker trail through Central America, San Juan del Sur has made a name for itself thanks to gorgeous sunsets, access to excellent surfing in nearby beaches and a big party scene at some of the hostels.
Where to Sleep
- Hotel Estrella – Located in the middle of town, this historic building still rents rooms cheaply. Stay here if you can get an ocean view room with balcony (like I did). Cost is $10/night per person, or $20 if you’re alone, but worth it.
- Yajure Surf Hostel – Recommended for its relaxed vibe, and nice garden with small pool. The downside is the location, which seems like it could be sketchy at night.
- Naked Tiger Hostel – One of Central America’s top party hostels. Known for its pool parties, don’t stay here unless you are in a party mood, and don’t mind putting up with everyone else feeling the same way. Requires a shuttle to reach town.
- Casa de Olas – Located adjacent the Naked Tiger, it’s suppose to be a more relaxed vibe. Requires a shuttle to reach town.
Where to Eat and Drink
- Resturante El Timon – Foreigner favorite with good happy hour deals on drinks and snacks.
- Nacho Libre – Expat-owned gourmet burger joint in the center of town. Wi-Fi available.
- El Gato Negro – Large cafe and bookstore with very opinionated owner who adds many pages to the menu explaining the challenges of running a business in Nicaragua.
- Simon Says – Tiny little cafe with friendly service, a fun atmosphere and good (vegetarian-friendly) food and smoothies.
- Italian Gelato Shop – Located in the same building as Hotel Estrella.
Things to Do
- Hang out, watch the sunsets
- Swimming/sunbathing on the main beach
- Scenic outlook from Cristo de la Misericordia
- Visit nearby beaches via boat, shuttle or taxi
- Surf lessons
- Spanish lessons
- Yoga retreats
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