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Nicaragua is just emerging as one of the hottest destinations in Central America. Word is now out on the country that is coined the land of volcanoes and lakes. Just a short flight from Canada and the USA, Nicaragua is one of the cheapest and safest destinations in the region. And unlike its neighbour Costa Rica where development has exploded, it is still easy to get off the beaten path in Nicaragua.
Not sure where to go? Read this great post comparing Nicaragua vs Costa Rica.
We spent a month exploring Nicaragua and we want to share with you our favourite things to do in Nicaragua. From beautiful beaches to picturesque colonial cities to simmering volcanoes, there is something for every one. Read on to see what to do in Nicaragua and plan your trip with our Nicaragua itinerary article.
- 1 See and Smell a Volcano
- 2 Be Charmed by Granada
- 3 Swim in Laguna de Apoyo
- 4 Unwind on Ometepe
- 5 Learn Spanish at a Language School
- 6 Surf the Pacific Coast
- 7 Fall in Love with Leon
- 8 Chill on the Corn Islands
- 9 Taste the Coffee and Chocolate in the Highlands
- 10 Ride the Chicken Buses
- 11 Hunt for the Best Gallo Pinto
- 12 Stay in a Home Stay
See and Smell a Volcano
You have lots of choice in Nicaragua for volcano viewing, so don’t just visit one! A convenient one to visit is Masaya Volcano, which you can visit in a day trip from Granada. This active volcano is everything you would expect a volcano to be: it’s smoke emits smelly sulfur and the rocky landscape looks like the moon. This is Nicaragua’s largest National Park and there is an informative Visitor’s Centre.
We visited at sunset for beautiful views, but you can also do a night tour where you actually get to see the lava. There are also tours of the caves where you will see a ton of bats.
Adventure junkies will want to make sure they visit Cerro Negro where you can volcano-board down Nicaragua’s youngest volcano. It is one of the most popular things to do in Nicaragua and you will need to book a tour to partake. You can organize your tour from Leon.
Be Charmed by Granada
Granada is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and its well-kept compact old town is a favourite of tourists. In fact, I would make this your first stop when visiting Nicaragua. It is a great introduction to the country and it is an easy city to wander and explore on foot. It’s beautiful churches, colourful buildings and quaint streets make it a photographer’s dream.
Read our full post on the best 10 things to do in Granada to help plan your visit.
Swim in Laguna de Apoyo
Nicaragua is famous for its lakes and Laguna de Apoyo is a must visit. This fresh water crater lake is located 30 minutes from Granada. You can choose to stay at the resorts/hostels along the lake or visit the resorts on a day trip or tour from Granada.
In addition to swimming, there are lots of water sports on offer at the resorts from SUP to sailing and kayaking. We had a grand day relaxing by the lake and enjoying fancy drinks at bargain prices.
Unwind on Ometepe
The twin volcanic island of Ometepe is set right in Nicaragua’s largest lake, Lake Nicaragua. Approaching the island is surreal as you see the green twin volcanoes emerging from the lake. On the island, you can enjoy the sleepy villages, great hiking and wildlife opportunities and stay on a “finca” – a working farm.
While we didn’t hike to the top of Conception Volcano, we did do a great hike to San Ramon waterfall. We also enjoyed kayaking up the Rio Istian, even when we had to drag our kayaks through the shallow mud! The natural Ojo de Agua pool was a great way to spend a few hours cooling off. We could have spent weeks relaxing in our peaceful eco-hotel on the quieter part of the island, Merida. Finca Mystica is worth making the extra effort to stay at – amazing place with great hosts and delicious food.
Learn Spanish at a Language School
Before you arrive in Nicaragua, you should know that Spanish is not widely spoken outside tourist areas. We have been all over the world and found Nicaragua to be more challenging language wise than many other countries we have visited. But, don’t despair! Come prepared with some basic phrases and you will be able to get by with some patience.
If you are wanting to improve your Spanish skills, spending some time at a language school in Nicaragua can be a great way to spend some time. We spent a week at La Mariposa Spanish School, between Managua and Granada and it was a fantastic experience. Read our full experience in this post.
We all know the best way to learn a language is through immersion and with 4 hours of daily 1 on 1 instruction, our language skills definitely improved.
Surf the Pacific Coast
Nicaragua is world renowned for its surfing and there are lots of great surf camps all along the Pacific Coast. But even if you are a novice, taking a lesson is a fun thing to do in Nicaragua.
If you are looking for a great surf camp, check out Rise Up Surf & Yoga Camp. My brother went there for his honeymoon and raved about it.
Another great place to surf and participate in the hostel’s community projects is Rancho Esperanza, up north in Jiquilillo.
San Juan del Sur is the centre of Pacific Coast tourism, but I would opt for the quieter beaches of Playa Marsella (for relaxing) or Playa Maderas (for surfing).
Fall in Love with Leon
Granada often gets all the attention, but it is Leon that people really fall in love with. Its crumbling facades, revolutionary past and vibrant street art are easy to fall for and the city feels very alive.
One of the things we loved the most about visiting Leon was the Cathedral de Leon where for a small price, you can climb to the roof of its majestic white domes. You would almost think you are in Santorini with the bright white domes standing out from the city’s beige and browns.
Chill on the Corn Islands
The wild Pacific coast features black sand beaches, but if you are looking for calm waters and white sand beaches, head to the Corn Islands on the Caribbean Coast. You will need to catch a flight from Managua to access these pristine islands. A week will quickly slip by as you relax and unwind and explore its underwater pleasures.
Taste the Coffee and Chocolate in the Highlands
Nicaragua produces excellent chocolate and coffee, both grown in the highland region around Matagalpa. The fresh air is a welcome respite from the humidity in the rest of the country. Here you can learn about the production of coffee and chocolate and how it relates to the politics and economy of the country. Learn how Nicaragua is paving the way forward with shade-grown coffee and fair-trade chocolate. Of course you will want to sample some too!
Ride the Chicken Buses
This is a definitely one of the most popular things to do in Nicaragua that you want to make sure you check off your bucket list. The colourful old American school buses form the public transportation network in Central America and work efficiently to get around the country. While we didn’t encounter any chickens on the buses, we were able to travel for a couple of dollars and they were always an interesting experience. It was always fascinating to see all the business that happened on these buses – vendors selling everything from home-baked food to magical elixirs.
Hunt for the Best Gallo Pinto
The staple diet of Nicaragua is gallo pinto, rice and beans. Often served with fried plantains, sometimes asado (grilled meat) and salad, the food if filling and cheap. After a few weeks you might yearn for something different, but it is a comfort food that is actually pretty tasty.
Stay in a Home Stay
Staying with a local family in a traditional Nicaraguan town is a wonderful way to be immersed in the culture and language of Nicaragua. Most Nicaraguans live in simple homes with limited access to running water. We spent a week staying with a family while taking Spanish lessons and it was a really special experience. We ate lots of gallo pinto, suffered through many meals with our limited language skills and were kept awake at night by the fighting dogs in the alleys. But, it allowed us to see the real Nicaragua and allowed us to contribute our tourism dollars directly to a family.
For a small country, Nicaragua has so much to offer: wildlife, rain forest, volcanoes, lakes, beautiful cities, great beaches. Now is definitely the time to visit Nicaragua before tourism really starts to explode. It was our first visit to Central America and it has definitely left us eager to explore more of the region.
More on Nicaragua:
- Nicaragua Itinerary Ideas – 1, 2 and 3 Week Options
- Studying Spanish in Nicaragua
- The Best of Granada
Have any tips or recommendation for Nicaragua? Looking for answers to help you plan your trip? Leave us a message in the comments!
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