When I think back to Nicaragua, I think of dusty roads shared by horse and wagon, cars, bikes, colorful ‘chicken buses’ and even cows and pigs plodding along beside the road. I think of clear blue seawater allowing you to cool down in the heat and its beautiful waves offering a perfect retreat for surfers from all over the world. I think of colonial cities full of colored houses where you can wander the streets for hours. Where beautiful cathedrals dominate the street scene. But above all, I remember the many volcanoes marking the landscape like perfect triangular shaped mountains. Nicaragua is the land of volcanoes and a country with an incredible laidback vibe. It’s literally and figuratively speaking a warm country that slowly captures your heart. Even though I was in Nicaragua for two months, it can easily be explored in three to four weeks. All in all, it’s an ideal holiday destination. We share a itinerary in four weeks.
Transport in Nicaragua
Most of the attractive cities and sights to see are in the western part of Nicaragua. Compared to the larger countries in South America, distances are relatively small. There’s a shuttle service between the main ‘tourist’ spots that’ll bring you from door to door, often at a very reasonable price. You can arrange these shuttles through your ho(s)tel. They are convenient when you want to get from A to B quickly. If you’re traveling on a budget, have a little more time to spend and want to immerse yourself in the local culture, then the chicken bus is a must (even if you’re not on a strict budget, it’s fun to do from time to time). The chicken bus is the public transport system of Nicaragua and is named so because of the many passengers and luggage they manage to cram onto it. It can become quite sweaty when temperatures are high. The chicken bus is an old American school bus painted in bright colors. No matter how full the bus, the atmosphere is usually fun and cheerful and- if you speak a bit of Spanish- you can easily end up in conversation with the locals. But even when you don’t speak any Spanish, it’s fun to watch all the passengers interact. Perhaps the best thing about the chicken bus is that it costs you next to nothing. On short distances, you can also use a collectivo. A taxi you share with others. This is also quite cheap.
When you fly to Nicaragua you arrive in Managua. A city most travelers can’t get very excited about. You’re better off traveling on to Granada straight away, for example, less than an hour drive away. You can take the taxi, but of course it’s a lot cheaper to go by chicken bus. Granada may be a city, but because of the low colonial architecture and cozy, colorful center it feels more like a large village. Spend a day wandering through the cheery streets with your camera, visiting all the different cathedrals. Spending $1 to climb Iglesia la Merced is recommended. This church’s tower offers beautiful views of the center of the city. Enjoy the many delicious eateries or get a massage at one of the many spas. I visited the Pure Spa and had the best massage ever! And it was only $25 for an hour. You can also visit the market or take a trip to Lago Nicaragua and explore the islands in this big lake by boat.
Staying in Granada
Like any big city, Granada has many ho(s)tel options. Hotel Glifoos is a relatively new hotel, situated at a great location in the center of town between the main square and Iglesia La Merced. It’s a small, affordable hotel, housed in a beautiful colonial building. The two courtyards provide an oasis of tranquility and the rooms are spacious, very clean and decorated in a colonial style. If you’re looking for a hostel, then hostel Oasis is one that’s recommended by many travelers.
Laguna de Apoyo
Half an hour from Granada you’ll find the crater lake Laguna de Apoyo. This 170m deep lake is a place where people come to bask in the sun and swim, usually just for the day. Many locals in the area, especially from Managua, spend the weekend here to escape from the city. Laguna de Apoyo is the perfect place to spend several days, rather than just one. You’ll understand why when you float around in a tube holding a beer in the crystal clear water that seems to always be the perfect temperature. Such a relaxing place!
Staying at Laguna de Apoyo
To further enjoy this beautiful crater lake I stayed at Paradiso hostel. Whether travelling as a couple, with friends or solo, this place is the ideal accommodation! Beautifully situated, with views across the lake and a restaurant with a varied menu for a good bite to eat. But the best thing about the hostel is the sociable atmosphere. There’s a big raft in the lake by the hostel’s beach, with plenty of tubes for chilling out on the water and kayaks for exploring the lake. You can even enjoy a game of petanque here! Paradiso also offers a free shuttle service to Granada and back.
Isla de Ometepe
On the south side of Lago Nicaragua, you’ll find the well-known island Ometepe. With an impressive 35.000 inhabitants, the island is nearly twice the size of the Dutch island Texel. It’s formed by two volcanoes, Concepción (1610 m) and Maderas (1394 m), which can be seen towering above the landscape from afar. From Granada, you travel to the town of Rivas where you take the collectivo to the neighboring San Jorge. From San Jorge, the ferry goes to Ometepe several times a day. Once you arrive at Ometepe you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time. If you aren’t relaxed yet, you will be after a stay on this gorgeous island. Whether you’re here for the peace and quiet of nature or want to spend a few activity packed days, anything’s possible. You can tour around on a scooter or mountain bike, get lost in a good book by the lake or climb one of the volcanoes. I climbed the Maderas. It’s a 7-9 hour hike, clambering to the top of the volcano and back, through a dense jungle. If the weather is clear, you can enjoy an amazing view of the island at the top. Once you make it to the top, you can look down into the crater lake surrounded by green jungle. If you’ve got energy left, you can make your way to the lake in about 45 min. and go for a refreshing swim (provided there is enough water). If this hike isn’t challenging enough for you, you can opt to venture up the Concepción. It’s an extremely challenging, sweltering hike up the steep, barren slope of the volcano.
Staying on Isla de Ometepe
It’s a good idea to reserve a ho(s)tel ahead of time, as they are spread out across the island. Quickly stopping by the different accommodations isn’t an option. To give you an idea, it takes over an hour to get from the ferry to the centrally located town of Santa Cruz in a taxi. I stayed at the beautiful Finca Mystica at the foot of the Maderas volcano, in the even more remote and quiet town of Mérida. If you’re craving quiet, space and nature and want to climb the Maderas volcano, then this finca is by far the best choice. The finca’s attractive bungalows are located in a beautiful garden where you’ll find an abundance of monkeys in the cooler hours of the day. There are a few private bungalows and one spacious dorm-bungalow (very nice!). In the evening you can join in a communal dinner with other guests and enjoy delicious, healthy meals prepared with homegrown vegetables. If you prefer to stay closer to the center of the island, then a ho(s)tel in Santa Cruz is recommended. There are various options, depending on your preferences.
San Juan del Sur & Pacific coast
Do you fancy some sun, sea, surf and party after the peace and quiet of Ometepe? Then San Juan del Sur is the place to be. This beach town on the Pacific coast is an hour’s drive from Rivas and is Nicaragua’s surfing Mecca. Around San Juan, you’ll find tons of places to surf to your heart’s content. The village itself is cozy and full of bars, restaurants and surf shops. Every Sunday you can enjoy the famous Sunday Funday, but you can party until the wee hours on other days too. If you want to further explore the Pacific coast, you can travel north via a variety of more quiet beach towns and discover the coast of Nicaragua this way.
Staying at San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur has many hardcore party hostels. But even if you’d rather not be in the thick of it, there are many options. I stayed in Hola ola hostel. A nice hostel with a sociable vibe, a 5-10 minute walk from the center. You’ll enjoy good times with fellow travelers in this hostel, without being in the middle of the party scene, which you can still seek out if you want of course.
Léon is located to the North-West of Managua, close to the pacific coast and can be seen as Granada’s little brother. You’ll find colonial styled colored houses here too, only slightly less well maintained than those in Granada. People strongly disagree on which of the two cities is more pleasant. Both are worth a visit, so you can decide for yourself. Most people visit Léon to climb the Cerro Negro volcano and then go volcano boarding off of it. A popular activity! Another highlight in Léon is climbing the Cathedral Léon. It’s a dazzling white cathedral with a beautiful white domed roof from where you can enjoy views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes.
Staying in Léon
Léon has tons of options for places to stay too. We recommend this Airbnb, housed in a large colonial building at the edge of the center. Some nice things about this accommodation are the large garden, spacious kitchen and rustic shared spaces full of typical Nicaraguan rocking chairs. If you’re travelling with Airbnb for the first time, this link offers you a €18 discount with your first booking.
Little Corn island
Little Corn island is Nicaragua’s paradise. The corn islands (big and little corn) are situated in the Caribbean Sea giving it a completely different atmosphere to the rest of Nicaragua. They speak English (or actually Creole), for one, and you’ll find white sandy beaches and snorkeling in clear water full of colorful fishes, coral, nurse sharks and dolphins. As you may have guessed, this place is perfect for diving and it’s affordable too! It’s absolutely worth spending the last week of your holiday in this little paradise. You’ll pay a little extra, but it may well become the highlight of your Nicaragua trip. A great way to end things! If you start your journey on Little Corn Island, be warned, you might end up staying much longer than you planned for!
Staying on Little Corn island
A nice accommodation just outside the village is The Lighthouse. This guesthouse has only 8 beautiful wooden cabins overlooking the island. You can book private as well as small dorm cabins (3-4 beds). The atmosphere is pleasant and sociable and the village is within walking distance, as are the beautiful beaches on the north side of the island.
About this Nicaragua itinerary
As I mentioned earlier, the distances in Nicaragua aren’t that large. You can easily switch around some of the places mentioned or even hop back and forth. If you’re coming from Costa Rica, you can travel straight to Rivas and continue on to San Juan del Sur or Ometepe from there. From Guatemala, you could choose to go straight to Léon or even explore a bit of northern Nicaragua. In short, this Nicaragua itinerary can be adjusted according to your own wishes, ideas and available time!