Nicaragua – The Ultimate Guide

In November and December 2016 I have been exploring the beautiful country Nicaragua. For those of you who might not know this, it is a country in Central America, located North of Costa Rica. I started my trip in Managua, worked my way up to the North and then went down all the way to the South, where I stayed for 2.5 weeks. Yes, 2.5 weeks on the same spot because I loved it so so so – okay enough.. one more – so much! Having already ‘completed’ some other stops in the country I was asked a lot of questions by fellow travelers who were still on their way exploring Nica. This has actually been the case for the past few weeks, also traveling Costa Rica and Panama where I meet travellers that are moving in the opposite direction of me: North.

In total I spent about 4.5 weeks in Nicaragua, but have only been on the West coast, the Pacific side. Bearing in mind that I took 2.5 weeks in San Juan del Sur, my route lasted about 2 weeks. The stops that I made were: Managua, Leon, Granada, Ometepe, Playa Gigante and San Juan del Sur. I added all my tips for these stops in this posts – How long & where to stay, What to do, Where to eat – but made a separate post of San Juan del Sur, as I had too much to share :-).

Managua:

Many people start their travels in Nica in Managua. This is not only because of the airport, but also because it is often the final destinations for international buses coming from Costa Rica. I am going to be straightforward with you – I was not really ‘feeling’ Managua. It is one of the most dangerous cities in the country and there is just not that much to do. If you do feel like seeing the city I recommend doing a tour through the old city centre, but keep the location of your hostel in the new city centre. I stayed in  Bicycleta Hostel, which is a bit more expensive than average Nica prices, but definitely worth it. In the new city centre, all within walking distance from  Bicicleta Hostel, consider having a good coffee at Chureca Chic. This coffee place supports local women with a workplace for their art: jewelry from recycled material.

For the best chocolate and chocolate milk go to Momotombo! It is I think the best chocolate I had in Nicaragua.

If you do decide to spent more days in Managua, also consider taking the night tour to active Vulcano Masaya, to spot real lava (if you have less time and decide to skip Managua, you can also do this tour from Granada).

  • How long: Stay in Managua for 1, max 2 nights
  • Sleep: Locate your accommodation in the new city centre, like  Bicycleta Hostel.
  • Food & Drinks: Momotombo for Chocolate and Chureca Chic for Coffee, Dinner: Ola Verde (Vegan Pizza – yess),
  • Do: Night tour to Masaya Vulcano & tour through old town

 

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Climb the Cathedral in Leon

Léon:

After Managua I went up to Léon, which takes you about a few hours by bus. Take the microvan which is a bit more expensive (still cheap) but way more comfortable than the local ‘chicken buses’. Léon is a wonderful city to just have a walk through. It has beautiful churches and buildings and a good amount of cafés with live music at night – it is the main student city of Nica. Have some nice elote’s fresh from the grill (corn on a cob) on the main square, after climbing the cathedral and watching the amazing view over the city with volcanos in the background.

If you like ‘weird things’ visit the Museum of Revolution. An old man will ask you for a few dollars and will provide you with a passionate story (in Spanish) about Nica’s history. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, this is a great experience. Another museum that Léon is known for is the Centro de Arte Museum, which even hosts some work of Picasso.

However, maybe the main thing Léon is known for by the younger – often solo – travellers is volcano boarding. Now, you will directly notice when you meet other travellers and ask them about it what their opinion is: they either hate is – “I don’t do that type of touristy stuff” , or they are excited about it – “once in a lifetime, let’s gooooo”. I was the second type of traveller. Hiking a volcano and going down in the black lava stone – yeaaaaah.

And it was yeaaaaaaaah. I loved it. The view from hiking the volcano, the adrenaline going down: I’m so glad I did it! I recommend it to everybody.

Another thing people do while visiting Leon is going to the nearby beach. I would only add that in if you have the time. Otherwise: wait for the beaches in the south of the country.

  • How long: Stay in Léon for at least 2 or 3 nights
  • Sleep: Hostel Colibri, in the city centre. Quiet, well located and well equipped kitchen. Do you want a party hostel? Then go to Bigfoot.
  • Food & Drinks: Pan y Paz, a french bakery with also some local chocolate and amazing juices and smoothies.
  • Do: Vulcano boarding, the museums, climbing the cathedral.

Granada:

It took me about a day to come from Léon to Granada. There are some varying opinions in terms of ‘which city you prefer’. Some people think Granada is too touristy and ‘repainted’ and prefer the authentic look and feel of Léon. However, I have been told (don’t shoot the messenger) that Granada is actually more authentic in terms of architecture than Léon. This originates from the fact that the more wealthy citizens of Nica lived around Léon and thus had more money to restore/redesign/renovate the city. In Granada, money was a problem, so the only option they have in terms of renovation is: painting, thereby keeping the original architecture and vibe!

I liked Granada. The city is absolutely stunning (but keep away from the plastic chairs and beer marketing parasol street 😉 ). There are some lovely cafe’s and restaurants for working/reading/relaxing and the food is great. A bit more variety then what the cities listed above offer.

Granada is a nice ‘base’ city to explore some surrounding areas. Like from Managua, you can do a night tour to Masaya Vulcano. You can also choose to do a day trip to Laguna the Apoyo. Unfortunately, I missed that, but I heared it is absolutely stunning and relaxing.

Also, Granada is attached to the Cocibolca lake. In the area of Granada their is a group of islands in the lake called the “isletas”. Some of them are the home of ‘normal’ locals, some are owned by the richest families of Nica or by expats. Nature there is also beautiful so it is worthwhile exploring it. You can either do a tour with a motorboat or you can go canoying. I did the last option and it was great! Very easy canoying, but it takes you about 3 hours.

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View from Iglesia de la Merced

Another nice thing to do is to go up the Iglesia de la Merced at sunset. You have the most amazing view from up there. End your days at one of the nice restaurants and bars the city has to offer!

  • How long: Only Granada: 2 full days, Granada as a base to visit surrounding areas: 4/5 days.
  • Sleep: Hostel De Boca en Boca or hostel Oasis
  • Food & Drinks:
  • Do: Vulcano Masaya, Laguna de Apoyo, Sunset at the top of Iglesia de la Merced, visit the Isletas in the lake. Feeling sporty? Take a gym or yoga session at PURE yoga school.

Isla de Ometepe:

If you feel like escaping the hectic cities or touristy coastlines: go to Isla de Ometepe. This island is located within the big Cocibolca Lake and is accessible by ferry from the mainland. It brings you to the biggest city called Moyogalpa. It has the most hostels, hotels and restaurants at least ;). But actually, we cannot call this a big city. Ometepe has a population of approximately 30.000.

Arriving in Ometepe will feel like you travel back in time. The island is made up by two volcano craters and there is just one main road that cover the whole island with the shape of the number ‘8’, and the constantly changing views going around them are just amazing. Going into the villages, off the main road, you will see horses, chicken and dogs just casually walking around and farmers doing their day to day tasks. Because of the volcanos the soil of Ometepe is very fertile so there is a lot of healthy farming of fruit and veg on the island. Luckily, the island attracts a lot of eco-low impact tourism so nature is maintained.

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Ojo de Agua

So what to do on the island? If you have two full days on the island I recommend to reserve one day for a volcano hike and on the other day rent a scooter or quad to go around. If you take the latter option there are some stops along the way worth a visit: Go to Ojo de Agua – wonderful natural pools that are worst a visit. Take a nice and refreshing dip in the middle of the day and you’re good to go. Another thing I can recommend is to hike up to the waterfall San Ramon. The hike of about an hour through stunning nature will have the waterfall as a true reward at the end. On your second full day – if you are into hiking – hike one of the volcanos. I did not have time to do so, unfortunately, but the people I met who did it absolutely loved it!

Lastly, for food lovers, Ometepe has some amazing local chocolate. You can buy it in some stores, but try to get in touch with locals. We got a lady to make a kilo (a KILO!) of chocolate for us, which we could pick up one day after ordering. I don’t fully remember the price, but is was cheap & delicious!!

  • How long: At least 2 full days
  • Sleep: I stayed in Life is Good hostel: Awesome owners, conveniently located and the BEST food in the world. Seriously. (vegan options too J)
  • Food & Drinks:
    • Life is Good Hostel (if you stay there 😉 ),
    • Natural Restaurante Vegetariana: Go here for lunch/a snack after Ojo de Agua. Food is amazing, also liked by non-veggies, just be prepared to wait a little bit. But no rush, you’re on Ometepe.
    • The Cornerhouse B&B: Good coffee/Breakfast/Lunch in Moyogalpa
  • Do: Rent scooters/quads and visit: Ojo de Agua, Waterfall San Ramon, go off-road into the villages. And hike one(or both??) of the volcanos.

Playa Gigante:

This is the place to be if you don’t want to be disturbed by anything and just surf and chill. That’s all there is to do. Surf.. and chill. Enjoy food at your hostel or the Monday burger nights. I stayed in Gigante Bay and I liked the place a lot. They’ve got good food, they are right at the beach and the staff is great. Also, the offer morning yoga – Yay! Imagine waking up, doing yoga with the sound of the waves in the background and then have breakfast with your feet in the sand. It was lush!

  • How long: If you are a surfer – long, if not.. maybe two days.
  • Sleep: Gigante Bay
  • Food & Drinks: Gigante Bay, Party Wave & Hotel Brio.
  • Do: Surf, Yoga & Chill
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View from Gigante Bay
Hostel
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