So you have heard about this great country just a short flight from Canada and the US where you can see volcanoes, exotic wildlife, unwind on white or black sand beaches and tour colourful colonial cities? It’s not Costa Rica, where years of development has led to higher prices. It’s Nicaragua, a country once thought too unstable politically to travel in but now considered one of the safest countries in the region.
Nicaragua is slowly emerging as a travel destination, making it very appealing for those looking to get off the beaten path and experience Central America authentically. In fact it is often described as how Costa Rica was before its mass development over the last few decades. Nicaragua is a place you want to get to soon, before tourism explodes. If you need convincing, check out these highlights of a visit to Nicaragua.
If you are headed to Costa Rica, check out this 1 Week Itinerary.
We spent a month in Nicaragua, including a week at a Spanish language school and home stay. But if you want to visit in less time, we want to share our 1 Week Nicaragua Itinerary, 2 Week Nicaragua Itinerary and 3-4 Week Nicaragua Itinerary to help you plan your trip. Continue reading to view itineraries, followed by our suggestions for what to do in each location and where to stay and eat.
- 1 Nicaragua Itinerary Map
- 2 1 Week Nicaragua Itinerary
- 3 2 Week Nicaragua Itinerary
- 4 3-4 Week Nicaragua Itinerary
- 5 Things to do in Granada
- 6 Things to do in Ometepe
- 7 Things to do on the Pacific Coast
- 8 Things to do in Leon
- 9 Getting Around Nicaragua
- 10 Get Planning!
Nicaragua Itinerary Map
1 Week Nicaragua Itinerary
- DAY 1 – Fly into the capital, Managua – it is generally accepted that Managua is not a place you need to allocate any time to. Hire a taxi to take you directly to the colonial city of Granada (1 hour away).
- DAY 2 – Explore Granada – the churches, squares, market. Read our full post on Granada here.
- DAY 3 – Day trip from Granada to Laguna de Apoyo
- DAY 4 – Day trip from Granada to Volcano Masaya and Canopy Tour
- DAY 5 – Transfer to the island of Ometepe. You can hire a taxi to take you to the boats or read this post for information on taking the chicken bus.
- DAY 6 – Explore Ometepe – relax and enjoy island life or hike to San Ramon Waterfall or go horseback riding along the beach.
- DAY 7 – Explore Ometepe – kayak trip and relax at Ojo de Agua
- DAY 8 – Travel day to get you back to Managua, to fly out later in the day.
2 Week Nicaragua Itinerary
- DAYS 1-7 as above
- DAY 8 – Travel from Ometepe to the west coast beaches. San Juan del Sur is the epi-centre of tourism, but quieter beaches like Playa Marsella and surf beach Playa Maderas are more authentically Nicaragua.
- DAY 9 – Beach Day – take a surf lesson or just relax on the beach
- DAY 10 – Beach Day – more surfing and relaxing
- DAY 11 – Travel from the west coast beaches to Leon (via Managua) – 3.5-5 hour journey.
- DAY 12 – Leon – wander this interesting city: churches, squares, markets, street food, hipster cafes
- DAY 13 – Leon – go sand boarding at Cerro Negro Volcano or visit old Leon or check out the active art scene.
- DAY 14 – travel back to Managua for your later flight out (1.5-2.5 hour drive)
3-4 Week Nicaragua Itinerary
With 3-4 weeks, you have time to see the major sites, but also spend some time at lesser visited locations. We have five suggestions for you depending upon your interests for a longer Nicaragua itinerary.
- DAYS 1-14 as above
- If you want to spend time at a Spanish school, check out La Mariposa Spanish School, which is a between Managua and Granada. We spent a week at the beginning of our time in Nicaragua there and it was a fantastic introduction to the country. In the mornings, we had one on one Spanish language classes and in the afternoon we participated in organized trips to the surrounding lakes and volcanoes. You can opt to stay in their eco-hotel or in a local home stay where you are immersed in the language and culture. You can read our full experience here.
- If you want to experience the highlands, visit Matagalpa, Esteli and Jinotega – home to Nicaragua’s coffee and chocolate farms.
- If you want to surf, head to Rise Up Surf & Yoga Retreat. My brother stayed here on his honeymoon and still raves about it. (1 hour from Leon)
- If you want pristine white sand beaches, take a flight to the Corn Islands on the Caribbean coast.
- If you want to get off the beaten path, consider heading to Jiquilillo and staying at the lovely Racho Esperanza, a social enterprise hostel. You can relax and experience a traditional fishing community, surf or volunteer in their community projects. You can read more about our week there.
Things to do in Granada
Granada is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and was one of our favourite places on a Nicaragua itinerary. Granada just oozes charm with its colourful buildings, cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. The old city is compact making it easy to explore on foot. Check out our full post on the 10 best things to do in Granada to fully plan your visit.
Granada is also a great base to explore some great sites nearby. Laguna de Apoyo is a freshwater crater lake just 30 minutes from Granada. You can visit on a day trip or choose to spend a night at the lake. The swimming and water sports are great and the views over this crater lake are impressive. You can visit on a tour or take a shuttle or taxi from your hotel. The resorts allow entry and use of their facilities for a modest cost.
Nicaragua is littered with volcanoes, so you definitely want to make sure a volcano visit is on your list of things to do in Nicaragua. Masaya Volcano is only 30 km from Granada and you will know when you get close from the strong smell. There is an informative Visitor’s Centre and you can walk along the ridge.
If you are looking for some adventure, we recommend the zip line and canopy tour at Miravalle Canopy Tour. You can book online or at the travel agencies along Calle la Calzada. You visit the Mombacho Volcano Reserve and get to experience the canopy from above. We were really impressed with the service and quality of equipment.
Where to Stay in Granada
We found a great budget gem in Casa del Agua, where for under $50 we had a family room with a pool in a heritage building. Click here to check their latest prices and book.
Click on over to our Granada page to see more recommended hotels.
Things to do in Ometepe
The twin volcano island of Ometepe sitting in Lake Nicaragua is a must on any Nicaragua itinerary. You have to do a little bit of work to get there and take a local ferry over to the island. But, it is well worth the effort. On the island you will be rewarded with sleepy rural village life, interesting wildlife and of course the spectacular sight of Volcan Merida and Volcan Concepcion.
There are numerous eco-hotels, farmstays and hotels to relax and enjoy this peaceful island. There are also lots of great active ways to explore the island. We did a kayak tour up the Rio Istian and hiked to the San Ramon waterfall. We also visited some of the island’s famous petroglyphs and relaxed in Ojo de Agua, a beautiful natural swimming pool. If you really are up for an adventure, you can hike to the top of Volcan Concepcion, a 9 hour trip (serious hikers only, guide needed).
Read our full post on Ometepe to see what we got up to.
Where to Stay Ometepe
We actually stayed in 3 places on Ometepe, but by far our favourite was Finca Mystica, a working farm on Merida. The Tripadvisor reviews don’t lie – the owners are super helpful and friendly and devoted to eco-construction and the local community.
Things to do on the Pacific Coast
San Juan del Sur is a love it or hate it kind of place. While it does have some large resorts, it is best known for its backpacker scene, partying and surfing. Since we were travelling with kids, we knew it wasn’t going to be a good fit for us.
Instead we opted to stay slightly north on Playa Marsella, which is a sleepy beach with just a couple of accommodation options. If you are a surfer, you can stay one beach north at Playa Maderas. Both of these beaches are great get-away-from-everything type of places.
The Pacific beaches are black sand beaches with significant waves, which is the reason Nicaragua is so well known to surfers. You can spend your days relaxing at the beach, playing in the waves, surfing and getting a taste of rural Nicaragua. If you are looking for white sand beaches, you will need to head to the Caribbean coast. The Corn Islands require a flight from Managua, but are renowned for their calm waters and chilled out vibe.
If you are looking for something more up-market on the Pacific coast, there are some good resorts nearby in Tola.
Things to do in Leon
While we loved the polished look of Granada, Leon is the colonial town people fall in love with. It’s crumbling architecture, artsy and edgy culture, rich history and proximity to volcanoes and great beaches, make it a not-to-miss destination.
The best way to see Leon is by wandering the streets and taking in the many beautiful churches, markets, street food and street art. The highlight for us was ascending to the roof of the Leon Cathedral where we got to walk amongst the many white domes and take in the city from above. To really dig into the history of Leon, take the Revolution Tour.
We ate some great traditional asado meals at Asados de Pelibuey, where they load your plate with grilled meats, rice and plantains. We also welcomed a break from rice and beans at the delightful French Bakery, Pan e Paz. You also don’t want to forget to try the home made ice cream at Kiss Me!
One of the most popular things to do in Leon is sand boarding down the nearby Cerro Negro Volcano. Any hotel can organize your tour, which will see you shoot down the lava sand on a board.
Alternatively, you can take a day trip to Ciudad Vieja Leon, the first capital of Nicaragua or Old Leon.
If you are craving one last day at the beach, Las Penitas is just a short trip away.
Where to Stay Leon
We stayed at Lazybones Hostel, which was a cute and lively hostel in a good location WITH a pool! Leon gets very hot and sticky and a pool is a lovely luxury to have. Click here to check their latest prices.
Check Agoda for a great deal on Leon hotels:
Getting Around Nicaragua
Getting around Nicaragua will depend on your style of travel and budget. You can organize private transfers between destinations at your hotel. The advantage of this is air-conditioning and quicker travel.
However, I don’t think any trip to Central America is complete without riding on the ubiquitous and colourful chicken buses. These old American school buses are the backbone of travel around the region. They are ultra-efficient and inexpensive and a great way to interact with local people. Our Lonely Planet Nicaragua guide book was a great resource for researching bus stations and routes.
Nicaragua truly is a magical destination. What we loved the most about the country was how unassuming it is and the focus on developing sustainable and eco tourism. We hope this post has made you excited to start planning your trip. Plan your trip before the word really spreads about this gem of a destination.
Do you have any questions about Nicaragua that we can help you with? Leave them in the comments below.
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