COUNTRY VISITED #31
NICARAGUA IS THRILLING. This is the place to head to for volcanoes, lakes, surfing and exploring. Discover the unknown and do the unheard of (boarding down a volcano to be exact) all the while sticking to a pretty slim budget. It's a beautiful country with cultural and colonial towns, untouched beaches with huge waves, green hidden nature in the Northern Highlands, plus, it has one of the most unique islands I've ever been to which is home to two volcanoes and beautiful jungle. There's a lot of different things to see and do here making it the perfect place to travel slowly, meet friends and leave with some epic stories and experiences. I found Nicaragua especially easy to travel around by public bus or 'chicken bus' as locals were friendly and helped you find your way.
CAPITAL CITY: MANAGUA
POPULATION: AROUND 6 MILLION
CURRENCY: NICARAGUAN CORDOBA (NIO) (US DOLLARS ARE ALSO USED) FOR EXCHANGE RATE CLICK HERE
BORDER COUNTRIES: HONDURAS - COSTA RICA
WHERE TO GO
PLACES TO VISIT: LEON - GRANADA - LAKE APOYO - POPOYO - OMETEPE ISLAND - SAN JUAN DEL SUR - MATAGALPA - ESTELI - MIRAFLOR NATURE RESERVE - CORN ISLANDS
THINGS TO DO:
CHILL OUT AT LAKE APOYO:
From the colourful town of Granada you can head to Lake Apoyo (Laguna de Apoyo) for a day trip or a few days of relaxation. The lake is formed within a volcanic crater and holds deep, clean, warm waters perfect for swimming in. The surroundings are so pretty and the landscape makes it such an inviting place to hang out with new friends. You'll want to spend time kayaking, swimming, reading on one of the floating decks or even scuba-diving. There's hiking trails around the lake as well as the opportunity to bird-watch, fish or sail. A pretty perfect place to unwind and rest wandering feet.
GO VOLCANO BOARDING:
Yes --- it's as crazy and scary as it sounds! While in Leon, choose from one of the many companies offering day trips volcano boarding from the summit of Cerro Negro. I recommend going with Volcano Day, they charge $30 for the guided tour which includes a free t-shirt and cold beer at the end. You'll be picked up, taken from town and driven to the volcano. Then with your board under your arm, led to the summit which is about a 45 minute hike. After checking out the views and catching your breath, you can jump on your board and make your way to the bottom. It's incredibly thrilling, builds up speed really easily and a lot steeper than it looks. But when will you ever get the chance to do it again? Remember to wear ALL of the protective gear they provide (it's there for a reason), take plenty of water and tie long hair back. Enjoy :)
If volcano boarding isn't for you, there's other volcanoes in the region better known for hiking and camping overnight. There's also volcanoes near Granada as well as Ometepe Island so the choices are endless!
EXPLORE OMETEPE ISLAND:
This island within the HUGE Lake Nicaragua is so special and unique. It's formed by the two volcanoes that reside there (Concepción & Maderas) which are visible all around the island meaning there is an abundance of nature and wonderful viewing waiting to be found. The island is one of the only places in Central America that lets you rent motorbikes which is highly recommended to do here to experience the activities and explore the outer villages. Choose from swimming in natural pools (heaven), catch the sunset fall behind a volcano, spot monkeys, find waterfalls, go horseback riding, hike the volcanoes, kayak and admire local life. It was one of my favourite parts of the country and where I recommend staying for at least a couple of days!
CATCH WAVES IN POPOYO:
There is a good few tourist spots in Nicaragua known for beaches and surfing but if you would prefer at least a few days with the water and sand to yourself then head to Popoyo. This is one of the hidden gems we found during our trip here and felt it was so hard to leave. Completely untouched golden beaches with huge waves waiting to be played in or ridden. The 'town' itself is basically a dirt road with some hostels, a supermarket and restaurants. Stay at Club Surf and you won't be disappointed. Hammocks, clean rooms, sounds of the ocean -- what more is there to want? It's ran by Italians so they serve the BEST food, honestly the pizza is the best I've ever had. To get to Popoyo, catch a bus or taxi from Rivas.
PARTY IN SAN JUAN DEL SUR:
San Juan Del Sur is the most popular tourist beach town and after a short time of arrival you will see for yourself why. Busy streets are filled with fun beach bars, cool surf shops and funky cafe's. People basically come here to surf and to get drunk! There's a famous 'Sunday Funday' pub crawl that takes place here which is basically a very wild, 24 hour pool party that circulates around 3 party hostels. You can spot the train of seshers from afar, all dressed in the customary free t-shirt and coloured wristbands. It looks like a lot of fun but we didn't want to pay $30 to attend the party (this doesn't include any drinks) and what we had heard from other travellers, we hadn't missed much. We had much more fun having our own pub tour and drinking on the beach spotting some pretty random characters. Make sure to look out for the second largest Jesus statue in the world, after Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.
HIKE IN THE HIGHLANDS:
If you head north into the highlands, you will find the towns of Esteli and Matagalpa. These are the country's gateways to the natural wonders of the Miraflor Nature Reserve and the Somoto Canyon. Perfect for hiking, exploring and getting off the beaten track.
OVERALL COSTS: FAIRLY CHEAP
DAILY BUDGET: US$40 (£30)
ACCOMMODATION COST: HOSTEL DORMITORY (START FROM $7 £5 PER PERSON) HOSTEL PRIVATE ROOM (START FROM $15 £11.50 PER ROOM) BUDGET HOTEL (START FROM $20 £15) AIRBNB (STARTS FROM AROUND $10 £7.50 FOR PRIVATE ROOM) (STARTS FROM AROUND $15 £12.50 FOR ENTIRE PLACE)
For us as a couple, we found private rooms in hostels generally the most cost-effective way to sleep in Nicaragua and worth any extra dollars spent. Mostly all of these rooms were incredibly spacious and comfortable and surprised us how much we got for our money.
We found some special places to stay while in Nicaragua and some of the best hostels during our whole Central American trip. Like Oasis Hostel in Granada which included a swimming pool and roof top terrace or Club Surf in Popoyo or the Volcano Hostel in Leon where we got a HUGE private room for cheap.
Most of the hostels we stayed in had decent free breakfasts with a night stay, great on-site kitchens, excellent common areas and some had organised group activities like trivia nights or free transfer to 'tree-house' parties.
TRANSPORT COST: PUBLIC BUS (AROUND $0.25-$8 £0.20-£6 PER JOURNEY) SHUTTLE BUS (START FROM AROUND $15 £11.50) TAXI (FROM $2-$20 £1.50-£15)
The best and cheapest way to get around the country is by public bus or 'chicken bus' as they're known throughout the region. Even though they can be extremely packed, hot and uncomfortable (especially if you have to stand) but they are actually really reliable.
If you split the costs, private taxi's can work out quite cheap for some parts of a journey and easier to get to certain 'off the beaten path' places especially when you would normally have to change multiple times by bus or hitchhike. You can haggle with the taxi drivers before your journey starts but beware, most are very dishonest when it comes to other modes of transport. They'll insist the bus you are looking for doesn't arrive/leave for hours if at all meaning they will try and offer an extreme price as an alternative to begin with.
FOOD & ALCOHOL COST: WEEKLY SHOP (AROUND $25 £20) LOCAL FOOD (START FROM $2 £1.50 PER MEAL) WESTERN FOOD (START FROM AROUND $5 £3.50 PER MEAL) BEER (START $1 £0.75)
A night stay in a hostel usually comes with free breakfast which may consist of eggs, rice + beans, fried cheese or fruit, cereal and bread/toast.
Most day tours or activities came with basic snacks and we mostly found ourselves cooking at night in the shared kitchens.
When we weren't cooking we would normally eat in restaurants selling Western food which we found really good but a lot more expensive than eating local. We seemed to find ourselves indulging in the trendy cafes and ice creams shops in the tourist towns. Maybe due to one too many nights on the booze.
Some of the hostels we stayed at had happy hours, ladies nights or even Free drinking hours!
VISA REQUIREMENTS: MANY COUNTRIES RECEIVE A 90 DAY VISA EXEMPTION WHEN THEY ARRIVE CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS
ONWARD TRAVEL: ONWARD TRAVEL ISN'T REQUIRED OR USUALLY ASKED ABOUT
The main transfer hubs are the capital of Managua and Rivas. From here you will either have to change for a connecting bus or find buses to most desired locations.
Travelling from Leon to Granada you must change terminals in Managua. To head north to the highlands, you must also change at Managua. If you're going to Popoyo, catch a taxi from Rivas or hop on a bus to Las Salinas and ask to be dropped off at Popoyo and either walk or hitchhike the rest of the way. For Ometepe Island, catch a bus from Rivas to San Jorge then get the ferry from there. To get to the Costa Rican border, catch a bus from Rivas to Penas Blancas.
The public buses are easy to navigate when you get the hang of it and I found you didn't have to speak as much Spanish to get around as in other places in Central America.
BOOKING ACTIVITIES: THIS IS VERY EASY TO DO THROUGH YOUR HOSTEL, TRAVEL TOUR SHOP IN TOWN OR IN PERSON. HEAD TO THE TRAVEL HOT-SPOTS OF LEON, GRANADA, OMETEPE & SAN JUAN DEL SUR TO BOOK SOME OF THE BEST ACTIVITIES THE COUNTRY HAS TO OFFER
BEST TIME TO GO:
DRY SEASON - HIGH SEASON: DECEMBER - APRIL (HOT WEATHER - CLEARER WATERS - LESS MOSQUITOES - BIGGER CROWDS)
WET SEASON - LOW SEASON: MAY - NOVEMBER (LESS BUSY - CHEAPER PRICES - BIGGER WAVES - LUSH NATURE)
DO'S & DON'TS:
DO: BE CAREFUL OF YOUR BELONGINGS ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT - USE SPANISH AS MUCH AS YOU CAN - WEAR ALL EQUIPMENT REQUIRED WHILE VOLCANO BOARDING - TURN UP & WANDER AROUND TO FIND CHEAP ACCOMMODATION
DON'T: LISTEN TO TAXI DRIVERS WHEN THEY TELL YOU THE BUS YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS NON-EXISTENT, NOT DUE TODAY OR NOT DUE FOR HOURS - SPEND MUCH TIME IN MANAGUA - STAND OUTSIDE ON THE FERRY TO OMETEPE ISLAND (THERE'S A GOOD CHANCE YOU WILL GET WET)
POLITE PHRASES: Hola (Hello) Cómo estás? (How Are You?) Mucho Gusto (Nice to Meet you) Cuánto? (How Much?) Perdona / Lo Siento Señor (Excuse Me/Sorry Sir) Perdona / Lo Siento Señorita (Excuse Me/Sorry Miss)
MEMORABLE TO ME
DON'T MISS: VOLCANO BOARDING - KAYAKING - HIDDEN, EMPTY BEACHES - FINDING NATURE IN THE HIGHLANDS - NATURAL POOLS ON OMETEPE ISLAND - CARIBBEAN BLISS ON THE CORN ISLANDS
MY HIGHLIGHTS: SURF & WAY OF LIFE IN POPOYO - OMETEPE ISLAND - GRANADA - DRINKING IN SAN JUAN DEL SUR - LAKE APOYO
MY POSTS ABOUT NICARAGUA
DAY 1-3: LEON: Spend the first day walking around town, taking in the country, finding beautiful buildings & street art. Book a volcano experience for the following morning. Spend your early evening at El Mirador rooftop bar for drinks and watch the sunset. Have dinner in town and relax at your hostel. The following day head out on your volcano trip! Either hiking/camping or volcano boarding! After you have crossed a big chunk from your bucket list, enjoy cold beers with new friends in town. Spend your last day in Leon at the nearby beach Las Peñitas. Relax and unwind after your adventurous day before!
DAY 4-6: GRANADA: Jump on a public bus to the capital Managua then change buses for Granada. Spend the rest of the day exploring the colourful buildings and enjoying the town - it's beautiful! The next day hike the Mombacho Volcano. It's a less challenging than others and offers amazing views of Granada and The Granada Islets (hundreds of tiny islands on Lake Nicaragua that were created by a previous violent eruption). If you would rather see the Islets of Granada up close instead, there are guides that can be hired out for a private boat tour. The next day, take the public bus or share a taxi to Lake Apoyo. Spend the day relaxing, swimming and kayaking. When you return, take part in hostel games, happy hours or group activities.
DAY 7-9: POPOYO: Jump on a bus to Rivas and then either get a taxi straight to Popoyo or catch a bus heading for Las Salinas (ask to get off at Popoyo) you will have to walk several KM from the top of the road or hitchhike. Stay at Club Surf and lay on the empty beach seconds away from your room. When it gets too hot, jump through the waves or read on a hammock in-front of your door. Rent a surf board and then enjoy having the waves to yourself. Make sure to eat at your hotel, they serve the best Italian food at Club Surf!
DAY 10 & 11: SAN JUAN DEL SUR: Catch a shuttle bus for easiness and arrive in sunny San Juan Del Sur! Party in town and enjoy the bars and cafes. They have some cool surf shops here so I would try and fit in some shopping!
DAY 12-14: OMETEPE ISLAND: To get to your final destination in Nicaragua, first catch a bus to Rivas. From there catch another bus going to San Jorge where you will be able to get the ferry to Ometepe Island (try and sit inside on the boat, we had to stand outside and got soaked!). Rent a motorbike while there and explore the island. Make sure to catch a sunset at Punta Jesus Maria! Enjoy kayaking, swimming at the Ojo de Agua (Natural Pools), hiking, seeing wildlife and finding waterfalls! This island is really unique, beautiful and filled with friendly locals - enjoy it!
Follow the itinerary above but after Granada head back to Managua and catch a bus heading north to Matagalpa or Esteli and explore the wonderful nature of Nicaragua. Swimming in the Somoto Canyon and hiking through the Miraflor Nature Reserve are both must do's while in the Highlands!
If you would prefer Caribbean beach bliss, from Managua take a flight over to the Corn Islands (Big Corn & Little Corn) or catch a lengthy bus to El Rama to ride the ferry over. The choice is yours!