Nicaragua is once again on travelers’ radars, beckoning all with its natural beauty and old-fashioned charm. This slow-paced Latin American paradise is inexpensive to travel or move to, and is often referred to as “Costa Rica 30 years ago.”
Nicaragua is the perfect place for active travelers to explore. Activities range from ash boarding down a volcano, to scuba diving in the remote and pristine Little Corn Island. Along with the excitement of colonial towns such as Leon and Granada, travel to Nicaragua can still be under the radar and adventurous.
- Explore Colonial Leon
Leon is smaller, more liberal, and less traveled than Granada. With an easy-going, family-friendly atmosphere, this city is popular with backpackers and independent travelers. Spend a day walking around the city square, exploring Recoleccion Cathedral (sign up for a tour to the rooftop), as well as the baroque theater, street markets and sidewalk cafes.
Enjoy a mojito made with the local, and fantastic, Flor de Caña rum at Bigfoot Hostel or Via Via across the street, then stick around for some live music. Speaking of Flor de Caña, take the distillery tour and taste the rum in the place where it is made. The tour will entail the rum-making processes, its history, and of course, a tasting session.
- Volcano Boarding down Cerro Negro
Jump right into the action with crazy fun volcano boarding. Cerro Negro is a very young volcano (only 161 years old) and one of the active ones. An hour-long moderately difficult climb takes you to the top. Once there, adventurers can board down the other side on a stand-up board (similar to a snowboard), or sit down like a sled. The board doesn’t really go as fast as one might think, as the boards get bogged down in the volcanic gravel rather easily. But it is great, adrenaline-pumping, unusual fun, with a little extra dirt thrown in the mix.
- Enjoy Granada’s Architecture
As the oldest city in Central America at its original site, Granada is a fascinating and colorful city that is filled with interesting colonial-era treasures. From 17th-century churches and museums to hidden courtyards and historic buildings converted to boutique hotels, Granada demands exploration.
Among the top highlights in the town center are the grand cathedral at the main square, with its distinctive yellow and white bell towers and dome. Then there is the tower at Iglesia de La Merced, from which many iconic skyline photos of Granada have been snapped. Antiguo Convento San Francisco is now a museum with a remarkable pre-Colombian collection. The colorful streets are a joy themselves, with an architectural surprise in every block. Don’t miss the Fortaleza de la Polvora, a rather small medieval fort located just outside central Granada. It’s, and the nearby cemetery, which is fascinating to wander and explore, providing nearly limitless photo-ops.
- Eat Nica Food
There is truly nothing quite so exciting as discovering the local cuisine and indulging in new flavors. In Nicaragua, food is more than just Gallo Pinto, that rice and beans dish that is popular in most Latin countries and seemingly on every plate. One piece of advice to any traveler is to follow the local crowd for a meal. That’s how you can discover favorites like the Nacatamal, a moist tamale filled with pork, chicken, veggies or other fillings and wrapped in a banana leaf to cook. For a truly cheap but yummy meal, try a “fritanga” or local food served from a sidewalk vendor. Everything is on display and you choose the dishes you want. Gallo pinto along with fried and soft-sautéed plantains are always there, as well as several meat or fish dishes. It usually comes all wrapped up in a banana leaf and stuffed into a plastic bag, and is so loaded one can typically get three to four meals for about $1.50.
- Visit an Authentic Nica Market
As in many Latin American countries, markets are the center of everyday life. In the main squares that are the heart of cities like Leon and Granada, food and handicraft stalls are active. In Granada, spend a morning walking the Mercado Municipal, a mostly food market that is lively and colorful, with a few vendors selling crafts or jewelry.
In Masaya, about an hour away, there are two markets that are absolutely worthwhile: a newer tourist market that sells generally high-quality artisan crafts; and the old, sprawling market where mostly locals go. While you can get lost in the winding, seemingly endless food, clothing and housewares sections, there is a large artisan area with handmade goods at super reasonable prices. If you opt to go to this market, be sure to stress to any taxi driver that you want the Mercado Viejo with food, not the tourist market.
- Hike a Volcano at Night
There are 25 volcanoes in Nicaragua, nine of which are active (or at least erupted in the last 2,000 years). Two are nearby Masaya and Granada. Hiking Masaya is highly recommended, as you have incredible views of both it and Mombacho, as well as Granada and the serene Laguna de Apoyo crater lake.
The best way to see the active Masaya is by night, where parking lot curbs are painted “Park Facing Exit”. If you arrive in the late afternoon (no later than 4 p.m.), you can sign up for a night tour led by park guides. This gives you time to browse the informative visitors center and hike (or catch a ride) to the top of the Masaya crater, where its sulfur and steam pour out. The night tour starts at about 5:30 p.m., with a hike up the crest of the volcano. At the top, after donning hardhats, you make your way down into the lava tubes where hundreds of bats live.
- Go Rustic on La Isla Ometepe
From Granada you can take a 90-minute bus ride followed by a 90-minute ferry to visit the completely low-key La Isla Ometepe, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. This island is made up of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas, around which everything revolves.
Only about half of the islands (or less) have paved roads; once you get around to the far side of each volcano, the going is extremely bumpy, slow and difficult. Transportation is also a challenge. Be prepared to pay a lot in hired car fees and to get stuck in places without rides. Try to rely on the bus system (which is slow and unreliable – you can wait for hours) or rent a motorcycle for around $35 per day.
However, all that is worth it, as Ometepe will charm you with its hiking, kayaking along the bird-filled Rio Istan, coffee co-op plantations and howler monkeys right above your head at the Charco Verde reserve. Most accommodations are at fincas such as San Juan de la Isla — working farms — that range from very basic to quite comfortable.
- Get in the Water on Little Corn Island
You have to really want to get to this tiny island off the Caribbean coast, only 10 square kilometers of palm trees and sand, fringed by a fantastic coral reef. It can’t be considered easy to get to by any stretch of the imagination. Flying from Managua to Big Corn Island (yes, there is a Big Corn and Little Corn island), you board a boat to take you across to Little Corn; they generally leave after the morning and afternoon, and can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours depending on the boat.
Once on Little Corn, it’s all about the slow island life - dig your toes in the sand, eat, drink, snorkel or dive. If you’re not already a scuba diver, this is a terrific place to learn. First-time divers can do an “Intro to Diving” class and be in the water the same day. Several dive shops are on the island, including on the main boardwalk.
- Surf or Chill in San Juan del Sur
This southernmost spot, not far from the Costa Rican border, is a hippie-dude haven. It’s a cool little spot that is a major draw for surfers, as the area and surrounding beaches are known for their top surfing conditions.
Town life is incredibly laidback, with sun-browned people throwing back beers and enjoying being away from reality for a spell. Even if some may find it a little overly developed, it is a very pleasant place for even non-surfers to chill for a couple of days. Great beaches, sea-turtle nesting and some really good waterfront seafood restaurants complete the picture.
- Party at a Festival
Nicas love a good party, and there are plenty of festivals to keep the beat going. The biggest celebration takes place in March, when Carnival’s infectious drumbeats and costumed dancers in the streets. The capital of Managua hosts the biggest celebration.
During the third week of January, Jinotepe hosts the San Sebastian festival - one of the most unique festivals anywhere. Combining religious themes with folklore and theatrics, this odd Catholic/Pagan celebration has continued without interruption since colonial times.
Easter and Christmas also present occasions for lengthy parties. Semana Santa, the week before Easter, is a beloved holiday that sees its liveliest celebrations at the beaches and Nica vacation spots. La Navidad, or the Christmas season, lasts from the third week of December until the second week of January and consists of many parades and parties.