An affable all-rounder, Nicaragua embraces travelers with diverse offerings of volcanic landscapes, colonial architecture, sensational beaches, remote, idyllic islands, wave-battered Pacific beaches and pristine forests.
Wedge-shaped Nicaragua may be the largest nation in Central America but, despite recent growth, it remains one of the least visited. Still, many travellers who spend any time here find that Nicaragua’s extraordinary landscape of volcanoes, lakes, mountains and vast swathes of rainforest helps make it their favourite country on the isthmus. Compared to the Maya ruins of Guatemala or Belize, Nicaragua offers few heavyweight tourist attractions – almost no ancient structures remain, and years of revolution, civil war and natural disasters have laid waste to museums, galleries and theatres. However the country's colonial architecture is gradually being restored, while its natural riches rival those of better-known Costa Rica.
Whether it's dipping your toes into the crystalline Caribbean or paddling out to the crashing waves of the pounding Pacific, Nicaragua's beaches always deliver the goods. The big barrels of the Pacific coast are revered in surfing circles while the clear waters of the Corn Islands are superb for snorkeling. More sedentary beach bums can choose between accessible slices of sand lined with fine restaurants and happening bars, and natural affairs backed by a wall of rainforest. Even the best beaches in the country are refreshingly free of development, so you can experience them just as nature intended.
Looking for the ultimate rush? Nicaragua's diverse geography, intense energy and anything-goes attitude is perfect for exhilarating outdoor adventures. Get ready to check off lots of new experiences from your list including surfing down an active volcano, diving into underwater caves, canoeing through alligator-infested wetlands, swimming across sea channels between tiny white-sand islands and landing a 90-plus-kilogram tarpon beneath a Spanish fortress in the middle of the jungle. Nicaragua's great outdoors are relatively untamed – at many key attractions, there are no signs and few crowds – making this so-called 'land of lakes and volcanoes' a fantastic place for an independent adventure.
Nicaragua's colonial architecture comes in two distinct flavors. The elegant streetscapes of Granada, Nicaragua's best-preserved colonial town, have been entrancing travelers for centuries with their architectural grace. The town boasts a meticulously restored cathedral, well-groomed plaza and perfectly maintained mansions that shelter lush internal courtyards. Far less polished, working-class León offers a different colonial experience where crumbling 300-year-old houses and churches are interspersed with revolutionary murals, and architectural masterpieces house corner stores. It's a vibrant city that displays its pride in its heritage without feeling like a museum.
Getting Off the Beaten Track
Few destinations have such beauty as Nicaragua, yet remain undeveloped. Before you know it, you've dropped off the tourist trail and into a world of majestic mountains, cooperative farms, wetlands thronged with wildlife and empty jungle-clad beaches. Rent a 4WD vehicle, if you're up for it – it's the best way to access some of the less-traveled corners of the country, or hop abroad an east-coast-bound boat – and forge onward to discover remote indigenous communities, overgrown pre-Columbian ruins and untouched rainforests. No matter how far you go, you'll always find friendly locals willing to share their culture with strangers.
Facts about Nicaragua
Population 6 million
Languages Spanish, Creole and indigenous
Currency Nicaraguan córdoba (C$)
Capital Managua (population: 1.8 million)
International phone code 505
Time zone GMT –6hr
Best Time to visit Nicaragua
The best time to visit Nicaragua is during its dry season, from November to March or April: the sunny days and dry weather, however, attract more people (but Nicaragua is never too crowded).
The rainy season starts at the end of March, and this is when the country is as green as it gets. I hardly recommend going between September and November: prices may be much cheaper, but it is the tail of the hurricane season and floods and rain may really ruin the trip.
Where to go in Nicaragua
Virtually every visitor passes through the capital, Managua, if only to catch a bus straight out. While the city has an intriguing atmosphere and a few sights, it’s hard work, and many quickly head for Granada, with its lakeside setting and wonderful colonial architecture. A smattering of beaches along the Pacific coast, notably cheery San Juan del Sur, continues to attract the surfing and backpacking crowds, while the beautiful Corn Islands, just off the coast of Bluefields, offer idyllic white-sand beaches framed by windswept palm trees and the azure Caribbean Sea. Culture and the arts are very much alive in Nicaragua, too; visit Masaya’s Mercado Nacional de Artesanía to find some fantastic-value high-quality crafts, or stay on the Solentiname archipelago and learn about the primitive painting traditions that have flourished there.
Buzzing León is often considered the country’s cultural capital – look for the famous murals depicting Nicaragua’s turbulent political history. Ecotourism, volcano-viewing and hiking are the attractions of the Isla de Ometepe, with its thrilling twin peaks rising out of the freshwater lake, while further east, up the lush Río San Juan, sits El Castillo, a small town with a great fortress. In the central region, where much of the country’s export-grade coffee is grown, the climate is refreshingly cool; hiking and birdwatching are the main activities near the mountain town of Matagalpa.
Stepping off Nicaragua’s beaten track is appealingly easy – the peaceful waters of the Pearl Lagoon and lush highlands of Miraflor reserve are fine spots for exploration, but really are just the tip of the iceberg. More than anything, the pleasures and rewards of travelling in Nicaragua come from interacting with its inhabitants – who tend to be engagingly witty and very hospitable. This is a country where a bus journey can turn into a conversational epic and a light meal into a rum-soaked carnival, a stroll round the street can be interrupted by a costumed giant and a marching band, and a short boat ride can seem like a trip into another world.
Getting to Nicaragua
If arriving on an international flight, you’ll land at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (MGA) in Managua. As well as flights from neighbouring capitals such as San José and San Salvador (served mainly by COPA and TACA), Managua receives direct flights from major US hubs Atlanta, Miami and Houston through Spirit Airlines, Continental, American Airlines and Delta.
You can enter Nicaragua by land from Honduras and Costa Rica. International buses pull into Managua, often via Granada and Rivas (if coming from the south); it’s also possible to take local services to and from the border. There is a water crossing from the border at Los Chiles, Costa Rica, to San Carlos; from here it is a five- to seven-hour bus ride or an hour-long plane ride on to Managua. It is also possible to cross from La Unión in El Salvador to Potosí in Nicaragua, either by arranging to cross with local fishermen, or with the passenger service Cruce del Golfo.
Getting around Nicaragua
Public transport, especially buses, is geared toward the domestic population. It’s very cheap but quite uncomfortable.
The standard local buses in Nicaragua are the usual old North American school buses, though an increasing number of express minibuses and coaches also serve the more popular routes – only a few córdobas more, they are less crowded, stop less frequently and occasionally even have air conditioning. Most intercity buses begin running between 4am and 7am, departing about every thirty minutes, or when the bus is full, with last buses leaving by 5 or 6pm. Bus stops are usually at the local market – only Estelí and Managua have anything approximating a modern terminal – and fares are very cheap. You’ll pay US$1–4 for anything up to three or four hours, with longer journeys to the Atlantic coast costing up to US$20. There is often a list of fares displayed at the front of the bus. You can usually keep your luggage with you, although especially on busy services it may end up on the roof or in a pile at the back of the bus. It should be safe, but it’s worth keeping valuables on your person. Most buses have a conductor and a helper (ayudante) as well as a driver – in most instances, you’ll pay the conductor once the bus is moving. If you have a lot of luggage, you may be charged extra, but it should never be more than the price of a single fare to your destination.
Taxis – many on their last legs – are most often seen in cities, but they also make long-distance journeys; a good deal, especially if in a group. In Managua, most taxi fares are US$1–3 during the day and US$2–5 at night. Outside the capital, in-town fares vary, but are usually around US$0.50–1. Always agree on the fare before getting into the cab, and don’t be afraid to haggle if the rate seems high – at Managua’s bus terminals, overcharging foreigners is the norm.
Renting a car is probably the best way to explore the country’s many beaches. Rates average US$40 a day for the cheapest models. Outside Managua and the main west-coast highway, you’ll want something robust and preferably 4WD. Rental is most reliable in Managua – Alamo, Avis, Hertz and Thrifty all have offices at the airport. You need a valid licence, passport and a credit card. Make sure you take out full-cover insurance. Bear in mind when driving that road signage is quite poor, and you’ll need to ask directions frequently. And as with other Central American countries, don’t drive at night – it’s less a question of crime than the lack of lighting, which disguises potholes, sudden deviations in the road or even the road disappearing altogether, as well as cattle straying onto the highway.
Although it’s generally safe to hitch a ride with a pick-up truck (but not advisable otherwise), it’s only common among locals in the countryside where there is little or no other transport. Most pick-up trucks will happily stop and let you jump in the back – just bang on the roof when you want to get off. If you’re driving in the countryside yourself, it’s almost rude not to stop and pick up people walking in the same direction.
Boats provide vital links around Nicaragua’s numerous waterways and two large lakes. On the Atlantic coast, they are the main means of transport. For travellers the most useful routes are those between Bluefields and either Pearl Lagoon or El Rama (both of which are served by small boats called pangas), and the cargo boat which goes between Granada and San Carlos, stopping at Ometepe. San Carlos can also be accessed by boat from the border crossing at Los Chiles.
Nicaragua’s domestic airline, La Costeña, operates fairly reliable flights around the country, with Managua the inevitable hub. Routes run from the capital to locations including San Carlos, Bluefields, the Corn Islands and Puerto Cabezas (the latter two are hard to reach without flying), and also run from Bluefields to the Corn Islands and Puerto Cabezas. A return will set you back US$80–180, and can be bought by phone or online, as well as at the airport.
If the flight is full, there’s a chance you’ll be bumped – rare but not inconceivable, especially if you’re travelling to or from the Corn Islands around Christmas or Easter. To be safe, call the airport you’re departing from (numbers are given throughout the Guide) the day before you fly to confirm your booking. If you are bumped, your reservation will be valid for the next flight. Luggage occasionally gets left behind, especially on the smallest planes, but is almost always on the next scheduled arrival.
Where to Stay in Nicaragua
With coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, a giant freshwater lake with islands of its own, and active volcanos amid a jungle landscape, Nicaragua is an active adventure enthusiast's dream holiday destination, filled with resorts catering to this type of traveler. Nicaragua's top hotels also tend to care about the planet, making sustainability part of their platform and operating as eco-friendly properties.
Nicaragua's capital city of Managua has plenty of hotels and resorts for all budgets and types of traveler, from families to couples, mid-range to relatively luxe.
The Emerald Coast along the Pacific Ocean begins just north of the border and is home to the popular surf town of San Juan del Sur, where there are a number of boutique resorts and hotels.
From here, it is easy to get to other parts of Nicaragua, including Grenada and Lake Nicaragua for a freshwater lake and cultural experience and some unique ecolodges. Further afield off the Caribbean coast, Little Corn Island is another relaxing beach experience. The area around the active Masaya Volcano is also filled with lodging options and active excursions, from ziplining to horseback riding. Find the best place to stay for all your adventures with our list of the top resorts in Nicaragua.
1. Jicaro Island Lodge Granada
Jicaro Island Lodge on a private islet in the middle of Lake Nicaragua near the colonial city of Grenada is a truly special place. This boutique ecolodge has one-of-a-kind lodging in two-story casitas built into the jungle landscape. They don't have air-conditioning, but screens and fans keep the air moving, and you can fall asleep listening to the sounds of nature outside.
The food at this all-inclusive lodge is very good and focuses on locally sourced produce. There is an infinity pool fronting the lake and a yoga deck right at the edge of the water, and classes are free for guests. There are also stand up paddleboards and kayaks for guests to take out on the lake. If you're traveling with kids, Jicaro welcomes children aged 12 and up.
Address: Granada, Isletas de Granada 100, Nicaragua
2. Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge
Whether you are on a romantic holiday or family vacation, Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge allows guests to indulge. Set in a private jungle reserve next to a gorgeous, long, sandy beach near San Juan del Sur, this ecolodge features rustic luxe casita lodging. These come with lots of screened-in living space, so you can hear the sounds of the ocean and jungle from your bed. They also have high-tech air-conditioning systems that deliver cold air just over your bed.
Amenities include a swimming pool and an open-air restaurant that serves an included breakfast. There are also options to book full-board. Morgan's Rock can arrange a slew of activities for guests, from horseback riding on the beach to surf lessons.
Address: Playa Ocotal, 12 kilometers north of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
3. Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa
In the popular surf town of San Juan del Sur, Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa is just two kilometers from the sea. The resort is built into the hillside, so it looks down at the ocean. There are a mix of rooms and villas on offer here. The rooms have rustic luxe decor and tile beds. Some also come with kitchenettes, which is a perk for families traveling with kids. The villas are even larger, with two floors and multiple bedrooms.
There are two restaurant choices and three infinity-edged swimming pools on-site. If you need a massage or facial, there is an on-site spa. All sorts of activities can be arranged, including sailing excursions on the resort's 20-person boat.
Address: De la Parroquia 1 1/2 cuadras al este, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
4. Calala Island
Private Calala Island in the Pearl Cays, which are off the Caribbean coast, is only accessible by boat or helicopter charter. Once you reach this remote 10-acre isle, you'll be treated to a unique barefoot luxe hotel experience. There are just four suites, which can be rented individually, or you can book the entire island for a multigenerational family holiday or a tiny destination wedding.
The property is all-inclusive, and meals can be served either at the house restaurant or on the terrace of your suite. Dinner is a four-course affair here. There are also beach barbecues and other rotating dining events. For activities, you can take out kayaks or SUP boards, go snorkeling, or just read a book relaxing on the white-sand beach. The island is also a hawksbill turtle nesting ground.
Address: Calala Island, Nicaragua
5. Hacienda Puerta del Cielo Ecolodge & Spa
Couples love the adults-only atmosphere at the Hacienda Puerta Del Cielo Eco Spa on the edge of a crater overlooking the Masaya Volcano with its lagoon and wildlife sanctuary. This all-inclusive resort is super relaxing with accommodation in suites and stand-alone casitas. The latter come with private decks and outdoors showers, and decor in the form of hand-painted murals.
This is a relaxing spot where you can chill in hammocks overlooking the lagoon or indulge in treatments at the luxe spa. If you want a more active experience, however, everything from jungle hikes to zipline tours and volcano rim excursions can be arranged.
Address: Camino de los Bueyes, Nimboja #2, Masaya, Masatepe 42600, Nicaragua
6. Marina Puesta del Sol
On Nicaragua's northern Pacific coastline, Marina Puesta del Sol is a boutique property that is popular with sport fishing enthusiasts. The resort is set on a full-service marina and there is boat and kayak access to a beautiful lagoon and its many mangrove lined canals. The beach here is also pristine.
Accommodation is in 19 spacious and new suites fronting the water. They are all quite luxe with lots of marble and tile, as well as pillow-top beds and soft linens. Each has a private furnished terrace with Pacific views-and the sunsets here are stunning. Best of all they have hydrotherapy whirlpool tubs in the bathrooms. There is also a restaurant and large swimming pool on-site.
Address: Playa Aposentillo, Aserradores, El Viejo, Aposentillo 26200, Nicaragua
7. Yemaya Island Hideaway
On the tip of Little Corn Island in the Caribbean Sea, Yemaya Island Hideaway is set on a gorgeous white-sand beach and can only be accessed by boat. This boutique property is the most upscale accommodation on the island and a perfect choice for couples looking for a romantic holiday.
Choose from spacious suites or oceanfront casitas, all with local crafted wood furnishings and stone bathrooms with rain showers. There are also five villas with private plunge pools. Amenities here include daily yoga classes in an open-air studio and a wonderful spa that focuses on reiki and aromatherapy, as well as traditional massage.
There is also a restaurant, and guests can take out kayaks, SUP boards, and snorkel gear for free. The Wi-Fi here is also good, which isn't the case for everything on Little Corn.
Address: Little Corn Island, Nicaragua
8. Aqua Wellness Resort
Just north of the Costa Rica border, Aqua Wellness Resort is on Nicaragua's Emerald Coast, which has a small airport with regular flights from Liberia in Costa Rica. This boutique ecolodge has a luxe wellness vibe and sits in a pretty tropical forest setting.
Accommodation is in tree houses, which is pretty awesome because you get some stunning Pacific sunset views from way up high in the trees. Building this way is also environmentally friendly. And you'll get to fall asleep listening to the squeals of the howler monkeys that live in the surrounding forest. Tree houses also come with private plunge pools on spacious terraces.
Address: 1 Redonda Bay, Playa Redonda, Nicaragua
9. Gran Pacifica Beach and Golf Resort
The Spanish-colonial-style Gran Pacifica Beach and Golf Resort is on a pretty stretch of Pacific coast beach less than an hour's drive from Managua. It is a good choice for families, as all accommodation is in one- or two-bedroom beachfront suites with kitchenettes or larger resort homes with full kitchens.
Amenities include a golf course, as well as opportunities for everything from surfing (there are two breaks within feet of the resort) to deep-sea fishing and horseback riding. There is also an infinity-edged swimming pool on-site. For meals, you can cook for yourself or check out their waterfront restaurant serving fresh-caught fish and other seafood.
Address: Villa el Carmen, Managua, Nicaragua
10. Hotel Victoriano
In a historic Victorian-style building dating back to 1902, Hotel Victoriano is a charming property in San Juan del Sur. This boutique hotel is located just across the road from the beach and within walking distance of numerous restaurants in the beach town.
Rooms have a unique vibe, with colorful bedspreads, checkered tile floors, and hand-crafted wood furnishings. The best rooms are on the second floor and have ocean views. Amenities include a restaurant and a small swimming pool with sea views.
Address: Paseo del Rey, San Juan del Sur 050-088-4, Nicaragua
11. Real InterContinental Managua at Metrocentro Mall
Managua's most luxe hotel, the InterContinental Managua at Metrocentro Mall recently underwent a renovation and is located downtown in the heart of the city's business and entertainment district. The rooms and suites are classy and modern, with polished wood headboards and, in some cases, accent ceiling beams. There are three on-site restaurants, including one doing steak and seafood and another focusing on sushi. There is also a spa and fitness center on-site.
Address: Costado Sur Centro Comercial, Metrocentro Carretera Masaya, Managua, Nicaragua
12. Villas de Palermo Hotel and Resort
In San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua's southern Pacific coast, Hotel & Resort Palermo is an upmarket resort set on a hillside overlooking the ocean but not on the beach itself-the main beach is three kilometers away.
Accommodation is in two-bedroom villas that all face the Pacific Ocean and are split-level affairs. Both bedrooms have ocean views, and the upstairs balconies offer great views. There is a full kitchen in each as well, should you wish to cook, making this a great pick if you are traveling with kids.
Amenities include an on-site restaurant, as well as a swimming pool and spa. All sorts of day excursion activities can also be arranged, from ziplining to ATV rentals and horseback riding on the beach at sunset.
Address: Carreterra San Juan del Sur, km 139, San Juan del Sur 48600, Nicaragua
13. Hotel Contempo
About a 10-minute drive from downtown Managua and 20 minutes from Managua International Airport, Hotel Contempo is a stylish boutique property with a modern vibe. The rooms here are spacious, and each is uniquely decorated with cool features-wood beam ceilings in one, plush red pillows and a red writing desk and closet in another. Some even come with Jacuzzi tubs.
Amenities include a lovely garden area and an outdoor swimming pool and hot tub. The on-site Azul Restaurant cooks up delicious French fare. There is also a spa should you need a massage or facial.
Address: Carretera a Masaya, Km 11, 400 metros al Oeste, Residencial Las Praderas, Managua 14293, Nicaragua
14. Elements Hotel Boutique
If you need to stay in Managua, Elements Hotel Boutique is just 10 minutes from the city center in a residential neighborhood within walking distance of a number of restaurants. The small hotel is a tranquil spot with contemporary decor throughout-take a look at the beautiful chandelier in the lobby.
Each room here is uniquely decorated and features striking modern art. All are also clean and comfortable. Amenities include a free a la carte breakfast, Wi-Fi, an outdoor swimming pool, restaurant, and a small fitness center.
Address: 32 Calle Sureste, Managua, 14308, Nicaragua
Culture in Nicaragua
Nicaraguans are generally courteous and appreciate this trait in visitors, and it is considered polite to address strangers with “Usted” rather than “Tú” (or its local form “Vos”). You will often hear the term Adiós (literally, “to God”) used as a greeting – hardly surprising in a country where ninety percent of the population is Christian. The older generations in particular are often religiously conservative in appearance and manner. Machista attitudes are still prevalent, and female travellers, especially those travelling solo, may be harassed by catcalls from local (usually young) men; this is best ignored.
With regard to tipping, posher restaurants, especially the tourist dens of Granada and León, will add a ten- to fifteen-percent service charge to the bill – you don’t have to pay it. If someone carries your bag, they’ll probably expect C$5–10 for their trouble. Outside of the tourist areas, most Nicaraguans don’t tip and taxi drivers don’t expect a tip.
Haggling is the norm in markets and with street vendors, but not in shops.
Adventure to do in Nicaragua
While many travellers love Nicaragua for its charming colonial towns and all-night fiestas, when it comes to adventuring outdoors nowhere in Central America rivals it for versatility and price. Whether you’re a diehard adrenaline junkie or you’re just looking to get up close with nature, you’re sure to find something in Nicaragua to quench your thirst for adventure. From trekking through pristine virgin jungle to jumping from a 20-metre perch, these are the best ways to have an outdoor adventure in Nicaragua.
The persistent offshore winds that blow along much of Nicaragua’s Pacific coastline make it an excellent spot to catch some waves. Whether you’re looking for a secluded beach to become the hippie surfer of your dreams or keen to combine days on the waves with all-night parties, Nicaragua really has it all. San Juan del Sur and its surrounding bays are where many choose to get their surfing fix, but travel further north and you’ll find a town to suit every beach bum or surfing fanatic. Popoyo, Playa Gigante and Asseradores are among the more laidback surf towns with excellent breaks. Hostels or surf camps in these areas generally rent out boards by the hour or week.
This city was Nicaragua’s capital until 1857. To this day it remains the country’s intellectual capital and is home to the National University. Remnants of the political war between the Somozas and Sandinistas can be seen in the graffiti and murals around the city. There are a lot of churches here, many art museums, and a burgeoning food movement.Make sure you visit the Museum of the Revolution, a fascinating museum about the Sandinista movement. The $2 entrance fee includes a guide. León is also where people base themselves for trips to the nearby volcanoes.
- Jungle Trek in The Indio Maiz Nature Reserve
While the west coast of Nicaragua is a well-trodden part of the Gringo Trail through Central America, the remote east is a place that is rarely visited. From San Carlos on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, the Rio San Juan leads you past laidback river villages such as Boca de Sabalos and El Castillo, to the fringes of the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve on the Caribbean.
Teeming with wildlife and home to indigenous Rama communities, trekking through the reserve’s wild and untouched jungle will give you a completely different perspective on the country. The slow 16-hour boat trip down the waterway is reserved for more intrepid travellers, but a fast boat or plane ride will allow you to arrive in comfort for a slightly higher price.
With 19 volcanoes spread throughout western Nicaragua, many of which are active, summiting a volcano is an obligatory part of the Nicaraguan outdoor experience and there’s one to suit every adventurer.
Choose between a challenging 10-hour slog up Volcan Concepción on Isla de Ometepe, howler monkeys echoing through the lush forest on Volcan Mombacho, gazing down at the eerily dark crater lake of Volcan Cosigüina or watching the smoke and ash spluttering from Volcan Masaya.
Though next-door Costa Rica receives all the accolades for being a biodiversity hotspot, Nicaragua does pretty well in the environment stakes as well. Exploring one of its many waterways by kayak is an excellent way to experience its diverse wildlife without being intrusive.
Paddle between two volcanoes up the serene Rio Istián on Ometepe, explore one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in Central America in Padre Ramos or sidle up to some very cheeky monkeys in the Islas Solentiname.
Unlike the coast, which is often starved for rainfall, the highlands receive an almost daily dose, and with that comes a lush network of primary cloud forests and thriving coffee plantations. Lace up those hiking boots, enjoy the cooler climate and experience the greener side of Nicaragua.
You’ll likely get wet and covered in mud, but the rewards of exploring a pristine pocket of nature where few people go is easily worth it. Shrouded in mist and edged by dramatic cliffs, Peñas Blancas Natural Reserve is accessible from Matagalpa and Jinotega and is a perfect place to start.
- Canyoning in Somoto Canyon
Join Somoto Canyon Tours on their 6-hour adventure experience that takes you along the Rios Tapacali and Coco between the soaring canyon walls, through caves and if you choose, off 20-metre high cliff jumps.
If you’re more water baby than adrenaline junkie, you can also enjoy the scenery from the still pools in the lower half of the canyon.
- Scuba dive or snorkel the Corn Islands
Hugged by idyllic white sand beaches and palm trees, the Corn Islands, in particular Little Corn, are Nicaragua’s little slice of Caribbean paradise.
Though lounging on the beach with a coconut would be a perfectly blissful way to spend your time here, the diverse marine life awaits those looking for a more active island experience. Not too far offshore, expect to find sites alive with colourful fish and coral, or head out for a full day on the ocean to the island’s most impressive dive site: Blowing Rock is a steep pinnacle that pierces the ocean’s surface. Larger beasts lurk out here so be prepared to lock eyes with plenty of reef sharks, turtles and rays.
- Volcano Board Down Cerro Negro
Considering this is the activity that puts Nicaragua on many traveller's bucket list, this roundup just wouldn’t be complete without what is arguably the most iconic of Nicaraguan adrenaline-inducing activities – volcano boarding down the face of an active volcano.
Just outside of Leon sits the black hulking mass of Cerro Negro. The appeal of hurtling down its face at lightning speeds needs no explanation.
The constant search for ever more authentic flavours in recent years has fuelled a foodie revolution based on farmers markets, food trucks, and an eat-like-a-local philosophy that has also changed the way we travel. As a tourism destination, Nicaragua is not only booming with Birdwatchers, surfers, volcan- borders and culture vultures, but also ticks all the boxes for culinary travellers seeking gastro adventures. Self-confessed foodies are being enticed here by a smorgasboard of delicious traditional dishes to feast on and a host of exotic fruits and vegetables to try. Made from home-grown ingredients and the kind of love you only get in places where the locals are passionate about the food they cook, traditional Nicaraguan dishes can be found at high-end restaurants, hole-in-the-wall eateries, local markets, and street corner grills.
Rosquillas are traditional Spanish deep-fried donuts, characterized by their fluffy texture and a hole in the middle. They are typically prepared during the Holy Week festivities. Although there are many varieties of rosquillas, the classic ones are prepared with a combination of eggs, sugar, milk, oil, lemon zest, flour, baking powder, and anisette, which imparts a unique flavor to these tasty donuts.
Another classic variety of rosquillas is made with sweet muscat wine (moscatel), and those donuts are known as rosquillas de vino. After they have been deep-fried, rosquillas are typically served as a sweet snack, topped with cinnamon sugar.
Indio viejo is a Nicaraguan dish made with vegetables such as garlic, onions, sweet peppers, and tomatoes. Water-drenched tortillas are first ground into a dough; then the beef is shredded and fried with vegetables, tortilla dough, and achiote paste. When all of these components are combined, it results in a creation of this hearty stew with a name that can be translated as old Indian. The dish dates back to pre-Columbian Nicaragua, when it was originally made with Central American animals, although beef is the preferred option these days.
It is typically served with fried plantains, rice, tortillas, and coleslaw.
Nacatamal is a type of traditional Nicaraguan tamale made with corn dough which is stuffed with chicken or pork, then wrapped in plantain leaves and steamed. This savory dish usually also contains ingredients such as bell peppers, garlic, potatoes, rice, bitter orange, onions, mint, and chile peppers. On special occasions, nacatamal is often enriched by the addition of prunes, raisins, capers, and olives. It is typically prepared on weekends and served for breakfast, paired with bread and a cup of coffee on the side. The name of the dish is derived from the Nahuatl words nacatl, which means meat, and tamalli, which means tamale. Originally, the dish was prepared with turkey, iguana, tomatoes, annatto, and deer meat wrapped in corn leaves, but during the colonial time, the meat changed to pork and chicken, while plantain leaves substituted corn leaves.
Arroz a la plancha is a traditional rice specialty hailing from Nicaragua. The rice is cooked a la plancha, referring to the unique cooking method that involves grilling food on a round, flat metal plate. To prepare this dish, rice is first boiled in water or stock until tender, then portions of it are cooked on a hot plancha or a non-stick pan until the exterior becomes slightly crispy and caramelized. The rice portions are often shaped while they’re being cooked on the plancha or pan using a round or square mold. There are numerous variations on this dish, and the grilled rice may come with a variety of accompaniments. One version calls for boiling the rice in fish fumet and then combining arroz a la plancha with sautéed shrimps, calamari, or chipirones (baby squid or small cuttlefish).
The texture of this rice delicacy reminds of paella’s signature crispy, caramelized bottom.
Sopa de cola is a traditional Nicaraguan soup made with oxtail. Typically, the soup is prepared in a large metal pot over an open fire. The pieces of oxtail are cooked long and slow in water to which a great variety of vegetables, herbs, spices, and seasonings are added at staggered intervals throughout the cooking process. Typical ingredients used in the preparation of this rich soup include onions, scallions, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, chayote squashes, pipián squashes, chilote (baby corn), quequisque (a starchy root), ripe plantains, ears of corn, cilantro, and lemon juice.
The slow-cooking process results in a flavorful broth filled with tender pieces of bone-in meat and vegetables. Sopa de cola is usually enjoyed piping hot, and it is typically accompanied by a side of rice or chili peppers.
Vigorón is a popular Nicaraguan dish that is often served to unexpected guests and visitors, since it is quickly and easily prepared. It consists of boiled yucca, chopped cabbage, onions, tomatoes, chile peppers, and fried pork rinds known as chicharrones.
Some Nicaraguans claim that there is no true vigoron without the addition of mimbro, a tangy fruit from the cucumber tree. The combination of these ingredients comes served in banana leaves when sold by street vendors. It is believed that vigorón was invented in Granada in 1914 by María Luisa Cisneros Lacayo, who had an interesting nickname – La Loca. According to Dr. Alejandro Barberena Pérez, she named the dish after seeing an advertisement for the eponymous medicinal tonic.
Vaho or baho is one of the most popular Nicaraguan dishes and a great hangover cure. It is made by wrapping a combination of beef, yuca, and plantains in banana leaves, then steaming the concoction. The word vaho means steam or mist, referring to the method of preparation. Onions and peppers are sometimes added to vaho in order to enhance the flavor and texture. This dish is traditionally prepared on weekends and consumed on Sunday afternoon, when it's typically accompanied by curtido (cabbage relish).
Berenjenas rellenas or stuffed eggplants is a traditional savory specialty from Nicaragua. There are many versions of this dish regarding its preparation and the ingredients used for the filling. The eggplants are typically cut along the middle and baked until tender before they have their pulp removed, although they’re occasionally left raw and cooked with the filling. A variety of vegetables, vegetables and rice, or a combination of ground meat (usually pork and beef) and vegetables are most commonly used for stuffing the hollowed eggplants. Typical vegetables contained in the filling include tomatoes, zucchinis, onions, peppers, chili peppers, and mashed potatoes, while the mixture is usually flavored with garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, rosemary, or parsley. Other common additions to this specialty include sweet corn, slices of bacon, mushrooms, beans, béchamel sauce, or grated cheese such as Manchego or parmesan.
Gallo pinto, sometimes referred to only as pinto, is the traditional national dish of Costa Rica. Although many variations of the dish exist, at its most basic it is a blend of cooked and fried rice and beans, combined with herbs and vegetables such as cilantro, peppers, celery, and onions. The name of the dish means spotted rooster, referring to the fact that the combination of beans and rice results in a spotted, speckled visual appearance. It is typically served as a side dish, either for breakfast (alongside eggs or meat), lunch or dinner, and sometimes with all three meals of the day. The origins of the dish are probably Nicaraguan, with the name dating back to the 1900s, inspiring a rivalry between the two countries, so it is not just Costa Rican national dish, but Nicaraguan as well. The obvious difference is that the Costa Rican version uses black beans, while the Nicaraguan version uses red beans. Regardless of its origins, the rivalry still continues, and gallo pinto remains a staple of both cuisines, with a small bottle of Salsa Lizano on the side in Costa Rica, a spicy condiment acting as a reminder of which country's version of the dish one is consuming.
Tres leches cake is a dense, moist dessert consisting of a sponge cake covered with three types of milk: evaporated, condensed, and whole milk. Although its origins are quite murky, most sources claim it was invented in Nicaragua, but the cake is popular throughout Central America, the United States, and Europe, where it is a staple at numerous celebrations and festivities. It is believed that the original recipe was first printed on milk cans in Latin America, to promote the use of the product, and as a result, the milk companies boosted their milk sales.
WHAT TO BUY IN NICARAGUA
Wherever you go on holiday it’s good to take home a few souvenirs. Here are some of the best gifts you can get in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua’s most famous alcohol is this delicious rum. Pick up a bottle or two before you leave to remember those sundowners that you enjoyed during your time in the country.
The artisan market in Masaya is the best place to pick up lots of different souvenirs, and ceramics is one of the top choices. You might not be able to take some of the bigger pieces home with you, but there are lots of small ones to choose from.
If you’ve got a bit of space or you want a guitar for your adventure, Masaya is home to several guitar sellers. You can get great quality for an affordable price here, whether you want a portable guitar for your trip or a full size model for use at home.
Nicaraguan cigars might not have the global fame of their Cuban cousins, but they are a great souvenir. The best place to buy some is the city of Esteli, the centre of the cigar trade.
Who doesn’t love a hammock? There is nothing better than relaxing in a gently swinging cocoon and watching the sun set. Take one home as a gift or use it to sleep in hostels on your trip.
Nicaragua is a major coffee producer and a bag of beans is a good present for the caffeine lovers in your life. Look out for coffee from the Jinotega and Matagalpa departments.
This artistic movement sprang up in the 1970s in Nicaragua, and remains popular today. Pick up a piece for your walls and you’ll have a colourful reminder of your time in the country whenever you see it.
SAFETY IN NICARAGUA
Despite the fact that Nicaragua has one of the lowest crime rates in Central America, as a ‘wealthy’ foreigner you will at least be considered a potential target by scam artists and thieves.
- Pay extra attention to personal safety in Managua, the Caribbean region, around remote southern beaches and in undeveloped nature reserves.
- In larger cities, ask your hotel to call a trusted taxi.
- Backcountry hikers should note there may be unexploded ordnance in very remote areas, especially around the Honduran border. If in doubt, take a local guide.
The biggest problems that many solo female travelers encounter in Nicaragua are the pirópos (catcalls) and general unwanted attention. Nicaragua is not particularly dangerous for women, but, like always, stay alert. Dress conservatively when not on beaches (knees should be covered, though shoulders are OK), especially when in transit; avoid drinking alone at night; and – this is the hard one – reconsider telling off the catcalling guy so the situation does not escalate. Sigh.
- Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months
- Check latest visa requirements online
- Arrange travel insurance with medical evacuation cover
- Inform your debit/credit-card issuer that you are traveling to Central America
- Organize vaccinations against hepatitis A and typhoid, and consult your doctor about malaria prophylactics