There are so many things to do in Nicaragua, that I will never be done with it!
28 June 2018 Update: I have always felt safe in Nicaragua, in the 3 times I have visited. Yes, I am aware of crime issues, especially in bigger cities such as Managua, and as I explain throughout the post, one of the most important things to do in Nicaragua is to keep your wits about, and follow the locals advice on areas to avoid in order to stay safe. Yet, in April 2018 civil unrest and protests against the government started, and as of today they are ongoing and getting worse.
This post by Indecisive Traveler gives an accurate account of what it is like to travel around Nicaragua at the moment, and of the things to do in Nicaragua to stay safe throughout the unrest.
While I do not believe that Nicaragua is unsafe for travelers, the situation on the ground is less than pleasant, with many a business in the tourism industry shutting down, at least temporarily. My hope is the peace returns as soon as possible to what is one of my favorite countries in the world. Should you decide to visit despite everything, and to show some much needed support for the local communities, my post highlights the top things to do in Nicaragua and the best places to visit in the country.
The Most Amazing Things To Do In Nicaragua
Those who have the pleasure to talk to me know that I am obsessed with Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes. I find it the most interesting, and beautiful country in Central America. I have been there three times, and each time I am fascinated at how many awesome things to do in Nicaragua I can find, and I am far from being done with it. My love for it is so sincere that when friends and acquaintances ask me advice for their future travels to Costa Rica or Panama, I tell them they should visit Nicaragua instead.
There are just many things to do in Nicaragua, something for just about any kind of traveller: beautiful colonial cities; interesting culture and art; a complicated yet fascinating history; very friendly people; lush nature; great wildlife and volcanoes. Besides, Nicaragua beaches are gorgeous and lakes have a magnetic beauty. Corn Island Nicaragua is a slice of untouched Caribbean paradise. Finally, add to this an exchange rate that is very convenient and prices that are very cheap, and Nicaragua becomes the perfect country to visit.
I have thus decided to put together a few tips on places to visit and things to do in Nicaragua and Nicaragua best beaches. But before digging into the fun activities, let me clarify a few facts and make sure I explain how to best prepare a trip to Nicaragua.
Visit Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
Awesome things to do in Nicaragua
Deciding when to visit Nicaragua
The good news is that the weather in Nicaragua is always hot – at times unbearably so, actually. There are a few places to visit in Nicaragua where the temperatures are a bit milder. I ended up going to some partially because this way I could get a break from the heat that was killing me. 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.
Things to do in Nicaragua: enjoy amazing sunsets
Arriving in Nicaragua
The only international airport is Managua. There is a $10 USD entry fee that all tourists who visit Nicaragua need to pay. Customs is really easy to clear, but some officers may ask a proof of onward travel to a different country. Nicaragua is part of the Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement, a treaty that also includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and that allows the free movement across borders between the four countries. In practice, this means that when entering one of the four countries visitors get a 90-days visa and in order to renew that it will be necessary to travel outside of them (ie in Costa Rica, Mexico or Belize).
Crossing the border to Nicaragua
It is possible to cross the border between Nicaragua and Honduras at Las Manos, El Espino or El Guasule. There is also a boat service crossing the Gulf of Fonseca and connecting Potosí in Nicaragua to La Union in El Salvador, and there is a $2 USD exit fee. Not many people actually use this crossing, and in fact I tend to discourage those wanting to do it. The tide changes dramatically within a few hours, the waves make the crossing a difficult one, and what is often described as a leisurely trip is in fact a bumpy crossing where all passengers get soaking wet.
The border with Costa Rica can be crossed at Peñas Blancas or by boat via Los Chiles. Costa Rican authorities require anybody entering the country to show proof of onward travel, in the form of either a bus or a plane ticket.
Things to do in Nicaragua: meeting the lovely locals – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
Currency in Nicaragua
The Nicaraguan currency is the Cordoba. The exchange rate is around 30 Cordobas for one US Dollar at the moment. Dollars are widely accepted, and in any case they can be exchanged at any bank. Furthermore, money can be exchanged even in the street. At any corner in the centre of cities and near a bank there are men, usually wearing a badge, who exchange money at the official rate. It is completely safe to do so – I usually count how much I need to change and calculate how much I expect beforehand.
People sometimes ask me if it is safe to visit Nicaragua. I can’t hide that I have heard stories of people being robbed, but I have always felt safe there even as a solo female traveller. In fact, it is one of the safest countries in Latin America. Sure, I always keep an eye on my belongings and I avoid walking alone and in the dark in areas that are not considered safe, but other than that, I never have any problems even when taking the bus. in any case, I always purchase a good travel insurance before traveling. Obviously, being able to effectively communicate in Spanish helps. Only the people who work in tourism really speak English!
Transportation in Nicaragua
One of the best things to do in Nicaragua is travelling by chicken bus. Chicken buses are old American school buses that have been driven all the way to Central America, their engine substituted, and they are now used for public transportation. They are very cheap, if only a bit uncomfortable: they only leave when full – and by full, I mean packed to the point that passengers may really feel like chickens in a cage. I still think they are fun: they are a great part of the culture of the country, locals widely use them, and I even saw the odd chicken a few times. And in the middle of all those people, the ticket man goes around to collect the fares, and street vendors get on board to sell whatever goods – from fruit to drinks, from pens to medicines.
Things to do in Nicaragua: ride a chicken bus – photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis
The buses follow a fixed route, but there aren’t real bus stops. So, as long as on the route, people can get on and off the bus continuously, which means that the bus stops every minute or so and that trips that would normally take 30 minutes may take even over one hour.
Stations are actually fun places to visit in Nicaragua: while the drivers wait for the buses to fill in, the ticket men go around the station calling the destination and looking for passengers. It makes the place very lively and noisy, as well as colourful. It is beautiful to look at the chicken buses. Some of them are actually beautifully restored: newly painted and decorated, the ones that cover longer distances even have flat screen tv and a good sound system (too bad for the choice of movies and music which is never to my liking!).
Taxis in Nicaragua are very cheap, and usually have a fixed price per area. I normally ask how much it will be to go to my destination before getting on board, and if I am travelling long distance I barter a bit, but drivers tend to be honest. Taxis are shared, which means that even if there already are persons on board, the taxi will stop to pick up other passengers, as long as they are going in the same direction. A good way to meet local people.
I even hitched-hiked a few times. I had not intended to really, but when I once missed the bus from León Vieja back to León, a passersby to whom I had asked questions and later on saw me waiting for the bus offered a ride, since he was going in the same direction.
Eating and drinking in Nicaragua
Nicaragua produces some amazing fruit and is actually one of the biggest producers of beef in Central America: in fact beef is delicious here. It is also common to find lamb (locally called pelibuey) and lots of fresh fish and seafood along the coast.
One of the best things to do in Nicaragua is having a fresh juice. Needless to say, fruit in Nicaragua is delicious, and fruit juice is always made from scratch: just lots of juice, purified water and ice, a hint of sugar and at most some yogurt. My favourite is limonada (lemonade). It is very common to find fresh fruit stalls in the streets and squares: vendors peel and cut the fruit and sell it for a very cheap price. It’s a really healthy snack! Other common snacks are fried yucca and plantain.
While the local cuisine is not internationally considered one of Nicaragua tourist attractions, I still find it interesting and tasty. Gallo pinto (rice and beans) is the national staple, much like bread in Italy I would say, and Nicaraguans accompany every meal with it. There have been times when I had gallo pinto at breakfast (with scrambled eggs, a corn tortilla and platano maduro, which is a ripe plantain slowly cooked in oil), lunch and dinner (along with some grilled chicken, a cabbage salad and a corn tortilla).
Eating gallo pinto for breakfast is one of the things to do in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of Christel Stol
Other local favourites include patacones (fried plantain croquettes, which can be accopanied by queso, a mild local cheese); vigoron, a dish made of a cabbage salad, yucca and chicarrones (pork scratchings) served on a banana leaf. Quesillos are delicious, filling and a real cholosterol bomb: a freshly baked corn tortilla is filled with two thin slices of a mild cheese, similar to mozzarella, then a salad made of onions and tomatoes and seasoned with vinegar is added, everything is wrapped together, salted and a lot of cream is poured on them. They are messy to eat, and thus served on plastic wraps. Not for the health conscious!
Local alcoholic drinks include rum – the most popular and best one is Flor de Caña – and light beers such as Toña and Victoria, which can be found also in bottles of 1 litre. There even is Nicaraguan wine, but I would dare say, as a wine drinker and wanna-be connoisseur, that drinking it is not among the things to do in Nicaragua! Coffee on the other hand is very good.
The cheapest places to eat in Nicaragua are fritangas which are street food stalls usually serving home cooked meals such as gallo pinto and also have a barbecue where they grill meat or chicken. Market stalls are also very cheap. Comedores or cafetínes are the Nicaraguan version of budget eateries. They pretty much serve the same food that fritangas offer, and in fact most of them used to be fritangas which then became popular and expanded their business. A meal in a comedor usually costs no more than $4 USD. There also are some lovely international and fusion restaurants in the country, especially in the most touristy destinations.
Water is supposedly safe to drink in some places, but I normally avoid tap water and opt for bottled one whenever I travel. Restaurants and bars use purified water for ice and to prepare food, so it usually is safe to eat and drink. I never had a problem but that may be just my luck!
What to pack for a trip to Nicaragua
One of the smartest things to do in Nicaragua is traveling with a backpack rather than a suitcase. The road conditions are such that it is hard to carry around a suitcase. I love the Osprey Ariel 65, because it fits well and carries just the right amount of stuff. Another good one is the Berghaus Wilderness 65+15, but keep in mind it is much larger.
This is what I recommend packing:
- Hiking boots – one of the most fun things to do in Nicaragua is hiking, and they will be needed.
- A pair of Hawaianas– perfect to go to the beach and walk around in the city.
- Walking shoes – I love Converse All Stars. Otherwise, take a pair of good sandals – it is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua to stay comfortable.
- One or two pair of shorts.
- Hiking pants, or leggings – if planning to hike.
- A pair of jeans if going to the mountains, where it is cooler.
- A sun dress and a skirt.
- A few t-shirtsand tops.
- A fleece sweater – it may get chilly in the mountains in the evening. I also carry a light scarf.
- A waterproof jacket, because it may rain. I love one by The North Face.
- A bikini, for those beach days.
- A toiletry bag– inside it I put shampoo and conditioner, a soap or shower gel, tootbrush and toothpaste, a good sunblock, deodorant, and mosquito repellent.
- Pharmaceuticals – prescriptions drugs as well as off the counter paracetamol, motion sickness pills and Imodium.
- A quick dry towel – this is one of the smartest things to do in Nicaragua, as some hostels don’t provide towels.
I also take a day pack where I carry my sunglasses, my camera, powerbank, wallet and travel documents, and even a travel guide book (one of the things to do in Nicaragua is not to rely on the internet).
Places to visit in Nicaragua
I have been to Nicaragua three times, I have been all over the country, and I can say there are so many places to visit in Nicaragua that it is easy to spend a couple of months there. Although I keep going to my favorite places, for which I feel a special connection, I have found that there are so many things to do in Nicaragua that it is easy to find something different to do every day. However, if one has limited time to visit Nicaragua, there are some attractions that should not be missed.
Granada and things to do in Granada
Most people who fly to Nicaragua go to Granada, which is at about 1 hour drive from Managua, as soon as they land. This is definitely one of the most famous Nicaragua tourist attractions, and for a good reason. The weather here is more pleasant than in other parts of the country because, while incredibly hot during the day, the breeze from Lake Nicaragua (known locally as Lake Cocibolca and through which the Nicaragua Canal should be built) cools it down a bit in the afternoon and evening.
Tourists fall in love with its architecture and splendor; with its bright colours and cobbled streets and with its slow paced life. There are many things to do in Granada, it just is such a beautiful colonial city that will make any photography lover go crazy with its elegance and colours. There also are many out of town adventures that are easily accessible.
Here’s some of the best tours to do in Granada:
Things to do in Granada: go for a walk! – photo courtesy of Elaine Faith
Among the things to do in Granada, I recommend visiting the Convento y Museo San Francisco. This is the oldest church in Central America: it was first built in 1585, then burnt to ground by pirates and later by William Walker, rebuilt in 1868 and finally restored in 1989. The blue facade is simply stunning. The museum, which is accessed through a small door on the right, exhibits a lot of indigenous art as well as a scale model of the city. I particularly like the murales in the entry patio, which portray the history of the city and the country – of course having a guide helps in understanding the significance. The view of the lake and the volcanoes from the back patio is also a plus.
Things to do in Granada: visit the Iglesia de San Francisco – photo courtesy of Tara Joyce
One of my favourite things to do in Granada is visiting the Iglesia de la Merced, which was also destroyed by pirates and later on by Walker and eventually restored. The church is beautiful, but the best part of it is climbing the tower and enjoying the incredible 360° view of Granada, the surrounding volcanoes and the lake. The best time to access the tower is around 11 am.
The Cathedral of Granada, located in the Parque Central, is what comes to mind when thinking about Nicaragua tourist attractions – not only for the church itself, but also because it makes for a perfect postcard picture. In fact, taking pictures of the cathedral from various angles and points of the city is one of the things to do in Granada. The main square is lined with several other beautiful buildings.
On the side of the Cathedral, Calle La Calzada is the main pedestrian street in the city, packed with trendy bars, restaurants, and the best hotel in town (Hotel Darío, which takes its name from the most famous Nicaraguan poet). La calzada is very lively at night, when street artists and artesania vendors populate it. Walking along it, it is possible to reach the lake, about 1 km away from the centre. When I wander about what to do in Granada when the heat is just about to kill me, I go to the lake and enjoy the refreshing breeze. Besides the view of the city on the way back is lovely, especially that of the Church of Guadalupe.
Strolling on La Calzada is one of the things to do in Granada – photo courtesy of Byron Howes
I generally say to people who are interested in seeing a bit of local action that one of the things to do in Granada is visiting the market. It is so lively, so full of colours and interesting smells. However, it also is very crowded, so my advice is not to carry any precious belongings there: as in any market in the world, pickpockets target tourists and they are very quick!
Taking a boat trip through Las Isletas is one of the things to do in Granada. These islands are really small. There are supposedly 365 islands, which were formed as a result of the eruption of volcano Mombacho, which can be seen from the lake. I recommend to take a boat that leaves around 3:45 pm. This is the perfect time to view as many birds as possible, including the weaving bird and king fisher, as well as the 3 different kinds of monkeys that live in the area, and on the way back the sunset view of the smoke capped volcano is simply spectacular. I am not a very keen birdwatcher, but I must admit that with the right captain who points at the various species of birds the trip becomes a whole more interesting.
It is possible to book boat tours of Las Isletas online.
Touring Las Isletas is one of the things to do in Granada – photo courtesy of ruben i (flickr)
When I look for what to do in Granada that is not in the drop centre of town, I head to the old train station, which is about 9 blocks from the centre, and where there are a few well preserved wagons on display. The station is right in front of Parque de los Poetas, which is dedicated to Nicaragua most important poets.
Day trips from Granada
These are some of the best day trips to do from Granada:
Nicaragua is packed with volcanoes, and one of the things to do in Nicaragua is hiking a volcano up to the crater. Granada is surrounded by volcanoes and I think that hiking up one of them and visiting their parks and reserves is among the things to do in Granada. Volcán Mombacho can be seen from the lake. Although it has not erupted recently, it is very much active. The natural reserve is home to 3 species of monkeys, over 160 species of birds and orchids.
Another really good day trip from Granada is that to Masaya – of all the things to do in Granada which are right outside the city, this trip is perhaps the most interesting. I actually recommend doing this on a guided tour as it makes the various connections easier in terms of transportation and a good guide can explain the facts of the region. A good trip to Masaya includes a visit to the Fortaleza de Coyotepe, built in 1893 on the Cerro de los Coyotes and where political prisoners were held during the Somoza dictatorship. The day tour usually follows with a visit to the lovely Mercado de Artesanías, a stop in a family run pottery farm in Santo Domingo (my favourite is that of Duilio, who shows the entire process of making pottery and has some beautiful pieces for sale) and then goes to the Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya.
Here it is possible to book a good guided trip to Masaya online.
Hiking Volcano Masaya is one of the things to do in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
Volcán Masaya is perhaps the most active volcano in the country, and visiting it is one of the things to do in Nicaragua. It actually is possible to walk along the Santiago crater, although smoke and steam come out of it and the sulfurous gases give a funny smell. Access to some of the view points has actually been closed as rumor has it that a few people jumped in the crater! There are various hiking trails and it is also possible to rent a horse.
Finally, one of the best things to do in Granada is hopping on a bus and go to Laguna de Apoyo. In this crater lake wildlife is very active as the area is strictly protected: the waters of the lake are pristine, and no motor boats are allowed, making it perhaps the best place to swim in the country.
Where to stay in Granada
As the most touristic destination in the country, Granada caters for any budget. It is packed with upper scale hotels and good hostels. The best hotel in town is right on the Calle Calzada, and is the Darío. The position has its advantages, although the fact that it is on the busiest street in town means getting quite a bit of noise. Hotel Colonial is very close to the main square and definitely gets less noise. Of the hostels, my favorite is Las Hamakas – not far from the centre, dorms are quite spacious, if only a bit lacking in amenities, but the place is very airy and safe, the personnel is kind and the prices are unbeatable.
Where to eat in Granada
There are many restaurants and budget eateries in Granada. The ones on the Calzada are the most expensive ones. Tercer Ojo is in a very trendy location: it comes highly recommended on trip advisor, food is truly delicious, although definitely not traditional. I also really like Café de las Sonrisas, which is run by a nonprofit organisation and where all the staff is hearing impaired. There also is a lovely hammock shop right next door, where all the profits go to the organisation in favour of disabled children. Finally, I really like the Garden Café: great salads, sandwiches and delicious smoothies are served in a beautiful patio, and there also is a book exchange which to me is always a bonus!
There are many companies that run tours of Granada and its surroundings. I have worked several times with ORO and I really enjoyed Rudy as a guide. He speaks really good English, keeps an excellent pace and knows a lot of interesting facts.
Visiting León is one of the things to do in Nicaragua, perhaps the best. There is an all Nicaraguan debate that tourists are often asked to join, in which one has to express a preference for either León or Granada. I do like Granada, but I am a León kind of girl: I am madly in love with it. I was meant to spend a few days there and ended up staying for over 3 weeks.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit Leon Cathedral – photo courtesy of callandresponse (flickr)
At little over one hour by bus from Managua, León is the most intensely political city of the country. It buzzes with energy, it is lively, full of young people (it is a university city and in fact Nicaragua’s first university was founded here in 1912), packed with interesting museums and murales, and gorgeous in a decadent kind of way. León served as the capital of Nicaragua during colonial times.
León is the hottest city in the country, and I don’t just mean politically. Temperatures stay well over 30° C throughout the year, so much so that when at around 6:00 pm the sun goes down I can still feel the heat coming off the walls. No wonder the day start so early here: an air raid alarm rings several times a day, the first one at 7 am, which is when the city comes to full life.
The Cathedral of León is one of the places to visit in Nicaragua. This is the largest cathedral in Central America, and it is said that the church was actually meant to be built in Lima, Peru. It is a massive building, that offers repair from the heat. The tomb of poet Ruben Darío is here. A fun thing to do inside the cathedral is trying to find the hidden eyes, which are triangles (representing trinity) containing an eye inside and which are well hidden with the rest of the artwork. In my many visits, I have only been able to spot 3 but there are 7, apparently. The roof of the cathedral has been recently restored and it can be visited for a small fee. The view from up there is spectacular, but I recommend to wear socks and sunglasses: everything has been painted white and visitors are asked to take their shoes off, and the white paint reflects the light in a blinding way.
Leon cathedral is one of the places to visit in Nicaragua
Among other churches to visit in León there is the Iglesia de la Recolección, which has a beautiful yellow baroque facade.
Some of the best Nicaragua tourist attractions are in León. I never tire of visiting the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián, perhaps the best museum of contemporary art in Central America. There are pieces of famous Cuban, Peruvian and other Latin American artists; there are several Picassos, Rubens, Chagalls, Boteros and Diego Riveras. The museum is located in two beautiful colonial buildings facing each other, with lovely patios and fountains. I can get lost in there for hours. The bonus? It is open even on Sundays.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit amazing museums
Right on the opposite side of the main square from the cathedral, the Museo de la Revolución is a great one, and visiting it is one of the things to do in Nicaragua. I got goosebumps my first time there. The museum is entirely run by veterans of the revolution, who for a small offer guide visitors through the exhibit, although they only speak Spanish. For each print, picture and document they have a story to tell, and they often proudly show the scars they got during battles. The building used to be the telecommunication company headquarters that the revolucion forces conquered in battle. It is run down yet charming and it is possible to get to the roof for a great view of León and its surroundings.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit the Museo de la Revolucion, Leon
Another interesting museum is the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones. I find this seemingly tacky museum very entertaining and it explains a lot about the culture of Nicaragua. It is located in what is known as La XXI (the 21st Garrison), a former prison, and along with the life size figures of people from Leónese history, there also are murals which depict the methods of torture used by the Guardia Nacional on the prisoners.
Barrio Subtiava is a lovely neighbourhood, around 12 blocks from the city centre, pleasant to walk around and very pretty. There is a market too, and this is where the buses to the nearest beaches leave from.
It is possible to book guided walking tours of Leon online: the best one is Leon guided walking tour including entrance fees.
Day trips from León
These are some of the best day trips to take from Leon:
Nicaragua is the land of lakes and volcanoes, so one of the best things to do in Nicaragua is going on a volcano hike. I opted for Volcán Cerro Negro, where I went on a guided afternoon hike that offered incredible views of the surroundings, a great sunset and where I could also try volcano boarding. The hike itself would not be hard, were it not for the incessant wind and for the fact that those wanting to try volcano boarding have to carry the wooden sled all the way to the top. I have heard all sorts of horror stories from people who tried it – some fell and got injured, some went down too fast. In my case, it was the opposite: I am so light that I could not really slide down fast enough. But all the same, I got covered in dust!
It is possible to book guided hikes of Cerro Negro which include volcano boarding.
Hiking a volcano is one of the things to do in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of Blue Sonicboy (flickr)
León Vieja can be visited on a half day trip from León. It takes about one hour to get there on public transportation. The ruins of the old capital lie at the foot of Volcán Momotombo. The city was founded in 1524 and abandoned a century later after being destroyed by a series of earthquakes. The site isn’t certainly the most amazing one I have seen, but the place is quiet and breezy, a guide is included in the entry fee making the visit more interesting and I think it overall is worth the effort of going.
Leon Vieja is one of the places to visit in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of Diana Facile
Some of the best Nicaragua beaches are near León. At about 30 minutes by bus it is possible to reach Poneloya and Las Peñitas. One of the best things to do in Nicaragua is catching an amazing sunset on the Pacific Ocean and these beaches are just perfect for that. I really enjoy toasting under the sun, swimming a bit and looking at people catching the waves. The beach is long and sandy, and very clean too. There are various local restaurants. It just is perfect to relax. The Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado is a also a lovely place to visit, especially for bird watchers. Depending on the season, turtles lay their eggs on the beach so it may be possible to participate in a tour to observe them.
Poneloya is one of the best beaches in Nicaragua
From León it is also possible to visit the Flor de Caña distillery: this is where the most well known rum in the country is made and visiting it is one of the things to do in Nicaragua for rum lovers, as they also offer samples! Here it is possible to book a tour to Flor de Caña distillery.
Where to stay in León
There is an entire street in town that is packed with hostels and backpackers bars. I decided to stay away from it, as I prefer to stay in quiet places. I found Posada La Gordita, not far from the La Colonia upscale grocery store, a great place and a very good budget option. Rooms are plain and simple, the place is kept spotless and very safe, and the host, Monica, is welcoming and kind. The Posada used to be in Del Salman, but it has recently moved to a new, more spacious location. I am curious to visit it next time I will be in town.
Hotel El Convento, on the other hand, is the most expensive one in town. The spacious rooms are lined around a gorgeous garden. The hotel is actually located in what really used to be a convent, so there is much of a museum feeling to it.
Where to eat in León
My favourite place in town is Asados Pelibuey, a comedor that is a favourite of the locals. It serves Nicaraguan staples in a friendly and relaxed environment. The average price of a full meal is an unbeatable $3 USD! On the more expensive side there is Al Carbón. The house specialty is meat. The food is good, but service is so so, especially with larger groups.
Most people who visit Nicaragua skip the capital Managua altogether. I say that visiting Managua is one of the things to do in Nicaragua. Sure, I may not want to spend a week there, but I think that it is worth going for at least half a day, maybe making a stop when going from Granada to León.
The centre of town is lined with some huge yellow metal trees, following a project of Nicaragua first lady. There are 100 of these trees in Managua. They are an adaptation of a famous drawing of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Each tree has costed $20000 USD, certainly causing concern in a country plagued by poverty. Yet, they are interesting to see.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit Managua
Plaza de la Revolución, not far from Lake Managua, is a huge square where the Sandinista commander Carlos Fonseca tomb is located. This is also where the old cathedral is – it is now close to public, as it was shattered by the 1972 earthquake that destroyed much of the city (where in fact there are no buildings which are over two storeys high). The clock on the tower has stopped at the exact time of the earthquake. The Palacio de la Cultura is right next to the old cathedral, and exhibits lots of artifacts from the pre-colonial times.
One of the landmarks of Managua and among the interesting places to visit in Nicaragua is the Parque Historico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa. Right on top of the hill there is a huge statue of the national hero Sandino. The view from the Loma de Tiscapa is stunning.
The view of the old cathedral of Managua, one of the places to visit in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
Huellas de Acahualinca is a small archeological site in Managua, and perhaps its most interesting attraction. So including a visit during the trip is one of the things to do in Nicaragua. These ancient footprints used to be buried under compacted volcanic material and the tracks have been discovered by some workers in 1874. There are 10 sets of prints, all dated back to around 6000 years ago, and all pace towards the lake – showing that people were leaving the area following a volcanic eruption. It is thought there are many more prints still to be found. The site is closed on Sundays.
The Nueva Catedral is not exactly the most beautiful church I have ever seen, and while one may not include a visit among the things to do in Nicaragua, I admit I kind of like it. It is a very big building, colourful inside and very airy thanks to the many windows and 63 domes that supposedly provide structural support in case of earthquakes.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit the brand new cathedral of Managua
Isla de Ometepe
There is no way one can visit Nicaragua without planning to go to Isla the Ometepe. Visiting this impressive island is among the things to do in Nicaragua. Located in Lake Nicaragua it can be reached by ferry from Granada, San Jorge (near Rivas) and San Carlos (on the border with Costa Rica).
Ometepe is an 8 shaped island which hosts two active volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas). Vegetation is lush, there are nice small beaches, a lagoon, archeological sites, and incredible wildlife. And most of all, it just is so relaxing. The two biggest settlements in the island are Altagracia and Moyogalpa, both located at the bottom of Volcán Concepción. They are more geared to tourism than the rest of the villages. However, I think the best part of the island is that around Volcán Maderas.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit Isla de Ometepe
Balgüe is perhaps the smallest village on the island, yet the most charming, no more than a few houses along the main road, no internet access, no ATM and only a few local shops. Life is slow paced, people are welcoming.
One of the best things to do in Nicaragua is going on a volcano hike, and Isla de Ometepe is perfect for that! Both volcanoes can be hiked. Maderas is less challenging, but still a tough 8 hours hike due to the muddy terrain and the thick vegetation of the cloud forest. It is always recommended to get a guide. Hiking trips usually leave from Finca Magdalena, in Balgüe. Volcán Concepción is even harder to hike (10 to 12 hours) on trails that start either in Altagracia or Moyagalpa. I also hiked to the 35 meters high waterfall of San Ramón, leaving on a bike from Balgüe.
Where to stay and where to eat in Ometepe
On my last visit of Ometepe, I stayed in Balgüe, at Finca Magdalena. This is off the main road, at about 1.5 km which I had to hike, backpack and all, because no cars or buses get there. It is a good idea to carry a torch as it is pitch dark at night. The Finca is a huge wooden hut with a lovely relaxed atmosphere. All around there are coffee plantations and it is possible to take a guided tour of them. The accommodation is very basic, but the location makes it perfect. Just chilling in one of the hammocks on the porch I was able to spot monkeys, and the view of the volcanoes is really nice. Meals are available too.
A better place to stay in Balgüe is Totoco Ecolodge, which has spectacular views and a fantastic swimming pool to hang out and relax.
The best restaurant in the area is Café Campestre. The English owner is a really great host, who has brought some variety in what is otherwise available on the island. I was delighted to find falafel and curry dishes there.
San Juan del Sur and the best Nicaragua beaches
As far as Nicaragua beaches, San Juan del Sur is hard to beat. What used to be a fishing village has developed into a bigger place that is well geared to tourism, with lots of accommodations and restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. San Juan del Sur is a favourite of surfers and backpackers and is also a great place to catch a wonderful Pacific sunset – definitely one of the things to do in Nicaragua.
Unmissable: Nicaragua beaches near San Juan del Sur – photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis
Tola beaches are among the best Nicaragua beaches, and they retain that feeling of a lost paradise. Playa Maderas, which is North of San Juan del Sur, is one of the most stunning Nicaragua beaches. It is a lovely sandy beach perfect for sunbathing and has rocky expanses that offer great tide pooling.
Nicaragua beaches are stunning – photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis
South of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua beaches can’t really get much better than Playa El Coco, a great stretch of beautiful sand and cliffs.
One of the best things to do in Nicaragua is experiencing its great wildlife. About 20 km south of San Juan del Sur the wildlife refuge Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor is where turtles lay their eggs – between 9 pm and 2 am, between July and January. It can be visited on a guided tour leaving from San Juan del Sur.
One of the best places to stay in San Juan del Sur is the Rancho Chilamate Horse Ranch. The surroundings are just amazing!
Caribbean paradise couldn’t get much better than this. Visiting the Corn Islands is one of the things to do in Nicaragua. The very best of Nicaragua beaches is actually 70 km away from the east coast, on two small islands that have little bays, coves and underwater caves. Great Corn is the biggest of the two and is populated by Creoles living in colorful wooden houses. Little Corn is tiny, only 500 people live on this small island where there are no cars and which is a real jewel for diving enthusiasts.
Things to do in Nicaragua: visit Corn Island – photo courtesy of Brian Johnson and Dane Kantner
Life is slow in the Corn Islands: these are the places to visit in Nicaragua to relax, snorkel, dive (including with dolphins!), lay at the beach, eat some amazing seafood and feel in paradise. Most people tend to opt for the quieter Little Corn but during the high season it may well be the case that there are more tourists than locals. There are some guesthouses, hotels and bungalows on the island – my favorite is Yemaya Island Hideway & Spa – and restaurants (the most popular one is Habana Libre) offer great fresh seafood and fish as well as some of the Nicaraguan staples. Tranquilo café has great burgers!
In order to get to Great Corn Island, it is possible to catch a flight from Managua via Bluefields or a boat from Bluefields. Another boat (locally called panga) is then needed to get from Great Corn to Little Corn: it may get really rough on the way there, and often passengers get soaking wet so it is a good precaution to carry garbage bags to cover the luggage.
Río San Juan
The river that signals the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica runs for almost 200 km from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean sea. Río San Juan has often been a cause of tension between the two countries. Visiting Río San Juan is one of the things to do in Nicaragua for anybody that loves nature, wildlife (including caymans) and bird watching.
The best starting point to visit Río San Juan is Boca de Sábalos, a town set at the confluence between Río San Juan and Río Sábalos, where there are various accommodation options. This can be reached by boat from San Carlos, on Lake Nicaragua. The duration of the trip depends on the kind of boat available.
Places to visit in Nicaragua: Rio San Juan – photo courtesy of Chiara
From Boca de Sábalos it is possible to visit the Reserva Biológica Río Indio-Maíz, one of the most impressive rainforests in Central America. It is also possible to reach El Castillo, a fortress built by the Spaniards in 1675 to stop the pirates going to Granada. The reserve is hardly penetrable until the village of San Juan del Norte, a small town that is surrounded by lagoons, dense rainforest and some great Nicaragua beaches on the Caribbean coast. This is a great starting point to visit the indigenous communities or to explore the ruins of Greytown, a British outpost across the bay that has been abandoned and has been swallowed by the jungle. Definitely one of the places to visit in Nicaragua.
Have you ever been to Nicaragua? What did you like the most about it? Let us know in the comments below.
If you need assistance in creating a personalised itinerary in Nicaragua, you can contact me in private through my contact form.
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Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, second only to Brazil. The quality of the coffee beans is excellent – after all, the climate and altitude are perfect for growing coffee. I thus expected coffee boutiques everywhere, millions of ways to prepare coffee, coffee shops and tastings. But this was not necessarily the case: more often than not, I had to make do with Juan Valdez, which is pretty much like the Starbucks of Colombia, or with the “taza sucia” (literally, dirty cup) that I could have at the many stands in the street.
The best coffee beans are exported and what is left to the locals is a lower quality coffee, which incredibly is imported from Ecuador. Thus, interestingly, when I travelled to Colombia I wasn’t be able to really have anything more than just decent coffee and often had to make do with tinto (a small cup of weak black coffee) or other coffee based drinks. I am a coffee puritan, I like my coffee with no milk and most importantly with no sugar, so to me the most horrifying coffee I tried was the one made with agua de panela, unrefined sugar melted in hot water – which gives coffee a tremendously sweet taste. One may like it if having a seriously sweet tooth though.
Things to do in Colombia
Having this in mind, one of the things to do in Colombia is visiting the Eje Cafetero. This is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia and will allow visitors to see at least one of the many coffee fincas in the country, where they will be able to experience the full process of coffee production, from picking to toasting and sipping.
Places to visit in Colombia: Eje Cafetero, or else the Colombian version of Switzerland
The best starting point for a visit of the Eje Cafetero is Salento, located at 1800 meters above sea level and one of Colombia tourist attractions in itself. This is a picturesque village, where colonial architecture meets the paisà style. It is a lovely, small and colourful colonial town surrounded by hills and forest, with a main street full of artesania shops, many relaxing bars, a chilled atmosphere, making it one of the places to visit in Colombia. From here, it is possible to visit a number of fincas.
Salento is also very close to the gorgeous Valle de Cocora, perhaps the very best of Colombia attractions. One of the top things to do in Colombia is hiking the Valle de Cocora. This is a lush, tropical valley surrounded by high peaks and cloud forest. Jeeps leave several times a day from the main square of Salento to take intrepid travelers to the valley. Arriving well early before departure, may ensure getting a seat. I leave things last minute so my I had to stand: getting to the valley thus turned into yet another adventure.
Things to do in Colombia: ride on the back of a jeep
Once in Cocora, most people rent wellies. I surely did and I highly recommend it, along with carrying a good rain jacket as it does rain a lot there! Visitors then embark on a difficult, muddy hike that offers gorgeous views of the spectacular palma de cera (wax palms), some of which are as tall as 70 meters.
Things to do in Colombia: renting wellies to go on a hike in Valle de Cocora
What I loved the most about it was that it really looked like a tropical kind of Switzerland – weird and amazing at the same time. Everything is green – many different shades of green. There are cows happily chewing grass everywhere. And there is a thick fog that covers the palm trees and the mountains, giving it a mysterious aura. It just is magical. A tiring hike (imagine getting deep in the mud!), but definitely one of the most amazing things to do in Colombia.
Valle de Cocora is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia
There is one main path that takes hikers to the beautiful hummingbird reserve (there is an admission fee of about 2 dollars which includes a drink), where it is possible to spot thousands of hummingbirds zipping by. On the way back, it is possible to also take an alternative path that takes visitors closer to the palm trees and to the Finca de la Montaña, where Don Luis Alberto and his family will give them a warm welcome and a good cup of coffee and from where the entire valley can be admired.
How to get to Salento
From Bogota, it is possible to take a bus to Pereira or Armenia. It takes about 9 hours to drive the 350 km, as the road cuts through the mountains and thus it is curvy; there is also lot of traffic. However the views are spectacular. It is best to carry some motion sickness tablets. I definitely needed them. Once in Armenia or Pereira, a local bus will take about an hour to reach Salento.
Where to sleep, eat and drink
There are many hostels in town, some better than others. I enjoyed my stay at Hotel Las Palmas, a family run guesthouse whose owner is a lovely, caring lady. Breakfast is included in the price and all rooms have a private bathroom with good hot showers. There are also two lovely cats in the house, which to me is always a bonus.
During the weekend, I ate in one of the many stalls in the main square. Otherwise, a good option is La Funda de los Arreiros. The local specialty is trout, which can be prepared in many ways and is usually served with a huge patacon (fried plantain, which here is pressed to make it thin and crispy). The local trout gave me a good break from the otherwise slightly monotonous food I ended up having while traveling.
For a drink, I went to Billar Danubio Hall. It really can’t be missed: located on the main shopping street, this is a huge bar with many pool tables, and is packed with locals playing pool, sipping beer or aguardiente and singing famous Colombian traditional songs. At some point while there I was the only woman in the entire bar. But everybody was so friendly that it never was a problem.
Colombia tourist attractions: Salento
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Colombia is a huge country, and it is much more than the old cliches of narco-trafficking and kidnapping. As the Lonely Planet describes it, it is a great cocktail consisting of caribbean atmosphere, the great mountains and glaciars of the Andes, the Amazon, the unique Tatacoa desert, cloud forest, colonial cities, indigenous, Afro-descendants and European cultures, and colourful and friendly people. Top all of this with a great, relaxed atmosphere and here is the perfect place. One could spend months travelling around the country, and still feel unfinished and wanting to explore more. Furthermore, some of the places to visit in Colombia are so isolated that no roads get there. Leticia – the main starting point for a visit of the Amazon basin – can only be reached by plane.
Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia
By all means, I know I am an adventure seeker, and I know I have a choice of about a million places to visit in Colombia. But, since I was looking for some of the great Colombia tourist attractions combined with fun sports, I headed to San Gil. This is definitely THE place for extreme sports and I could easily fill up my days there with all sorts of activities, from rafting to rappelling, torrentismo (rappelling down a waterfall), horse riding, paragliding, caving, mountain biking, and so much more.
The best thing to do for me, since I didn’t want to burn all my energies was to alternate any of these extreme activities with quieter ones such as swimming in natural pools (such as the Pozo Azul), visiting the nearby waterfalls (Cascadas de Juan Curi) and going on easy, nearby hikes. Although San Gill is small city, it gave me a pleasant and authentic Colombian feel and it is not crowded with travelers. I could enjoy its atmosphere fully during the day, at the local market, or after sunset, when the locals meet for evening drinks in the main square, children happily run around, and everybody is up for a chat.
Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies
Among the things to do in Colombia, there is some great rafting. Many companies in San Gil organise whitewater rafting excursions. Unexperienced rafters may prefer opting for the easier Rio Fonce – with rafts of grades 1 to 3.
I was in the mood for something more challenging, so I opted for the Rio Suarez: around 30 dollars for a full day (about 6 hours in total and snacks included, consisting of fresh fruit, local cheese, crisps and drinks). Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town. I was picked up from my hostel and driven (about one hour drive) to the starting point.
The English speaking guides are very experienced, and did everything to make my day memorable. After a briefing on safety measures, we started rafting down the river. We all got soaking wet, we got the chance to swim in the river carried away by the current, and we even had to get to shore to hike up for a while, and even jumping off cliffs. The only low point is that there is nobody taking pictures for the rafters, so I would advise to carry a waterproof camera.
Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions
Another one of the things to do in Colombia is mountain biking. Mountain bike tours near San Gil go through the Chicamocha Canyon and they allowed me to visit the beautiful Barichara, an immaculately renovated city of white-washed buildings and stone streets, with a beautiful cathedral and a gorgeous and airy main plaza, which is definitely one of the places to visit in Colombia.
Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara
The best company running the tour is Colombian Bike Junkies. It is based out of the restaurant Gringo Mike’s, which is also the meeting point. The trip lasts all day (by which I mean ALL day – do not expect to be back before dark!), it costs around 60 dollars. Ok, that is not cheap but it possibly is the best and most fun among the things to do in Colombia and it is worth saving on other things to embark on this adventure.
Colombia Bike Junkies is reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and it is organised to the point that when I booked the tour, I was even asked where I wanted to have the front and back breaks, and even a meal preference (yes: a delicious lunch, snacks such as fresh fruit and home baked cookies and water are all included, as well as a “well done” beer after finishing) and my size, as at the end of the day I was given a t-shirt that will always remind me of this great adventure.
There was a very good guide at the front, ready to help with any problems and to give instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; as well as a guide at the back, driving a jeep and carrying any equipment that may needed to fix bikes on the road, including flat tires. And, to top things off, I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures as the two guides took plenty of shots in key points and moments and shared them with participants. Look at me in full motion:
Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!
The 50 km trip will be tiring: going downhill is challenging for non-expert mountain bikers, yet it is a lot of fun. After the lunch break, the path is an easier (in technical terms!), slightly uphill 16 km road.
By the time I got to the finishing point, I was dusty, sweaty, dirty and, most importantly, happy and accomplished and that beer tasted oh so good!
What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie
Where to sleep and eat in San Gil:
Open House Hostel in San Gil is an excellent option for backpackers. It is very close to the main plaza: it is clean, quiet, and it has nice, comfortable beds, an airy common area and very well equipped kitchen and a nice backyard. My humble advice is to cook at the hostel, as, other than Gringo Mike’s, there aren’t many good options to eat in town and the market sells lovely fresh vegetables and fruit.
How to get to San Gil:
San Gil can be reached by bus from pretty much anywhere in Colombia. There are night buses from Cartagena (the trip lasts 17 hours and goes through Barranquilla); there are regular buses to and from Bogotà (8 hours, around 17 dollars), Medellin (11 hours, around 30 dollars) and Bucaramanga (2 hours), which is the closest airport.
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