There are incredible things to do in Nicaragua. This is my favorite country in Central America – so underrated, so low key, and breathtakingly beautiful. I have already been 3 times, and there will be more!
Known as the land of lakes and volcanoes, it’s a place that will wow you with its landscapes, the pretty colonial cities, the generosity of its people, and its unique history. You are bound to have many adventures while discovering.
Since I know the country quite well, I thought I’d put together a post to let you know about the places to visit and the things to do in Nicaragua, including the best beaches in Nicaragua. This post is guaranteed to have you packing in no time!
Make sure to also read my post What You Must Know Before You Travel To Nicaragua.
The Best Things To Do In Nicaragua
Marvel at the colonial Granada
Granada usually is the starting point of a trip across Nicaragua. The city, located just 1 hour from Managua, is one of the most popular places to visit in Nicaragua, and for a good reason. You will fall in love with its architecture and splendor; with its bright colors and cobbled streets and with its slow paced life.
The weather in Granada 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.
The main attraction in Granada is the Convento y Museo San Francisco. This is the oldest church in Central America, 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 annexed 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. The view of the lake and the volcanoes from the back patio is also a plus.
Another interesting place to discover is 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 360° view of Granada, the surrounding volcanoes and the lake.
The Cathedral of Granada, in the Parque Central, is the postcard picture of the city. On the side of the Cathedral, Calle La Calzada is the main pedestrian street, 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 vendors populate it.
Walking along La Calzada you can get to the lake, about 1 km (0.8 miles) from the center. The view of the city on the way back from the lake is lovely, especially that of the Church of Guadalupe.
9 blocks from the center, the Old Train Station is another nice place to visit. You will find a few well preserved wagons on display. The station is right in front of the Parque de los Poetas, dedicated to Nicaragua most important poets.
Finally, the market of Granada is a very lively place, so full of colors and interesting smells, and still very much local – however, it can get very crowded and there are pickpockets.
Make sure to check out my post 15 Cool Things To Do In Granada Nicaragua.
Take a boat trip around Las Isletas
Las Isletas islands are really small. There are supposedly 365 of them, formed as a result of the eruption of volcano Mombacho, which can be seen from Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua).
To make the most of them, you should join an afternoon boat tour leaving at 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.
Hike Mombacho Volcano
Volcán Mombacho, which can be seen from the lake in Granada, is a fun place for a hike. Although it has not erupted recently, it is very much active. I recommend going on a guided hike, as it is easy to get lost there. You can also try zip lining – there are 17 platforms from where you can fly.
This Mombacho hike and canopy tour may be a good option.
See the lava at Masaya Volcano
There is no doubt that a trip to Volcán Masaya is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua. This is perhaps the most active volcano in the country.
You can 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 is sometimes closed as there are rumors that people jump in the crater!
There are various hiking trails and it is also possible to rent a horse to go all the way to the crater to see the lava. The best time to do it is in the evening, when the sight of the lava will be even clearer.
You can book a guided tour here or enquire locally.
Go on a day trip to Masaya and Coyotepe
The entire Masaya area is actually very interesting to visit. One place you should not miss is the Fortaleza de Coyotepe, built in 1893 on the Cerro de los Coyotes and where political prisoners were held during the Somoza dictatorship.
The Mercado de Artesanías of Masaya is also fun to visit and a good place to buy souvenirs to bring home. Another place for that is Duilio, a family run pottery farm in Santo Domingo – he will show you the entire process of making pottery and has some beautiful pieces for sale.
There are buses that will take you to the various places, but as in the rest of Nicaragua, these travel when full so the entire trip may be a bit complicated. Opt for a guided tour for simplicity – besides a good guide can explain the facts of the region.
Spend a day (or more) at Laguna de Apoyo
The Laguna de Apoyo can be easily accessed from Granada and many will go on a day trip, but I really recommend spending a couple of days there, as it truly is idyllic.
This crater lake is 175 meters (574 feet) deep and since there still is a lot of volcanic activity the water is really warm, making it pleasant to swim. Add to this the fact that motor boats aren’t allowed on the lake and that the water is incredibly pristine, and you will definitely want to jump in! Another fun thing to do there is renting a kayak or a SUP to explore the lake.
For a day trip to the Laguna de Apoyo, click here.
Walk around León
There is an all Nicaraguan debate that tourists are often asked to join, where locals may ask you to express a preference for either León or Granada. To give you an idea of my preference, just know that I was meant to spend 3 days in Leon and ended up staying there for 3 weeks. This is my favorite city in Nicaragua.
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 murals, and gorgeous in a decadent kind of way.
León served as the capital of Nicaragua during colonial times.
It also the hottest city in the country, and I don’t just mean politically. Temperatures stay well over 30°C (86°F) throughout the year.
I recommend joining a walking tour of Leon to see all the city highlights before going into a more detailed visit of what the city has to offer. The best one is this Leon guided walking tour including entrance fees.
Try to also make it to Barrio Subtiava, a lovely neighborhood around 12 blocks from the city center, pleasant to walk and where you’ll find a market too. This is where the buses to the nearest beaches leave from.
You should also read my post A Complete Guide To Leon Nicaragua.
Visit the largest Cathedral of Central America
The Cathedral of León is one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua. This is the largest cathedral in Central America. Legend has it that the church was actually meant to be built in Lima, Peru. It is a massive building: walk inside to get a break from the heat.
Inside, you’ll find the tomb of poet Ruben Darío and the hidden eyes, which are triangles (representing the holy 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 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 you will be asked to take your shoes off, and the white paint reflects the light in a blinding way.
Another cool church in León is the Iglesia de la Recolección, which has a beautiful yellow baroque facade.
Pay respect to the revolution fighters
Right on the opposite side of the main square from the Cathedral of Leon you’ll find the Museo de la Revolución. Write it down as one of the unmissable things to do in Nicaragua.
The museum is entirely run by veterans of the revolution, who will take you around the exhibit for a small fee, but keep in mind 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 revolution forces conquered in battle.
It is run down yet charming. You can even get to the roof for a great view of León and its surroundings.
Marvel at art at Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián
Some of the best museums in Nicaragua are in León. One you shouldn’t miss is 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. It is open even on Sundays.
Learn about Nicaragua traditions at the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones
Another interesting museum in León is the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones. It may appear tacky at first but it is 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 lifesize figures of people from Leónese history, there also are murals which depict the methods of torture used by the Guardia Nacional on the prisoners.
To make sense of it, you really need a guide – you can get one directly at the museum for a really small fee.
Go volcano boarding on Cerro Negro
Since this is the land of lakes and volcanoes, one of the best things to do in Nicaragua is going on a volcano hike. But Volcán Cerro Negro will give you a whole different experience, because after the hike you can go volcano boarding.
The hike itself would not be hard, were it not for the incessant wind and for the fact that you have to carry the wooden sled all the way to the top. As it is a difficult place to reach, and you need boards, the only way to do it is on guided tours.
You can join this guided hike of Cerro Negro with volcano boarding that is very well rated and inclusive of admission to the park, snacks and hotel pick up.
Check out my post What To Expect When Volcano Boarding Cerro Negro.
Spend the night on an active volcano
If you aren’t tired of volcanoes yet, one of the coolest things to do in Nicaragua is spending the night on top of an active volcano. Telica is by far the best, as it offers the most incredible views that span all the way to the Pacific and to the nearby volcanoes.
As this is an active volcano, you will be able to see smoke coming out from it all the time, but there isn’t as much lava as in Masaya.
The hike is a bit of a technical one, and since it is easy to get lost in the area, you really should opt for a guided tour such as this Telica Volcano at twilight.
Go to Léon Vieja
León Vieja can be visited on a day trip from León, and this is definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Nicaragua. It takes about one hour to get there on public transportation. The ruins of the old capital of the country lie at the foot of Volcán Momotombo.
The city was founded in 1524 and abandoned a century later after it was destroyed by a series of earthquakes. The site isn’t certainly the most amazing one you will see, but the place is quiet and breezy. Admission includes a guide, so the visit is actually interesting.
Swim through Somoto Canyon
Somoto Canyon is one of the lesser known places to visit in Nicaragua. Here you will find a series of natural pools with clear waters, all surrounded by beautiful limestone cliffs from where you can jump.
You can visit independently, but it’s much better and easier to go there on a guided tour departing from Leon. Ask your hotel to organize the trip for you!
Spend a day at the beach
There are many beautiful beaches in Nicaragua, and it goes without saying that you should factor in some time to simply relax while catching the sun or riding waves (more about that in a bit) during your trips. Some of the best Nicaragua beaches are near León. You can reach Poneloya and Las Peñitas in about 30 minutes by bus by Subtiava.
While Poneloya is a local beach where you won’t find much in terms of services, Las Peñitas is a surfers’ hub so you will find more in terms of services as well as restaurants and kiosks where you can rent all sort of equipment and have a bite or a drink.
Make sure to stay long enough to admire a beautiful sunset on the Pacific Ocean.
Visit Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado
There are many places to visit in Nicaragua that are perfect for bird watching. If you are staying in León, you could go to the Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado. Depending on the season, turtles lay their eggs on the beach so you could even join a tour for that.
The best time to see them is between September and February, the peak nesting and hatching season. There are three different kind of turtles you can spot: olive ridley, leatherback, and hawksbill turtle.
Make sure to enquire locally and only go on a turtle watching expedition if you are certain it will run in a responsible way. Things to consider are for example how close you would be allowed to get to the turtles while they lay their eggs or they hatch, the kind of light used, etc.
Visit a rum factory
Drinking rum is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua!
Not far from León, in Chicagalpa (on the way to Chinandega) Flor de Caña distillery is where the most well known rum in the country is made. Rum is entirely produced in a sustainable way (ie renewable energy), only with natural ingredients, and it is fair trade.
Getting there is easy – it’s a quick bus ride or taxi ride from the center of town – just make sure you tell the taxi to either wait for you or pick you up after the tour. During your visit, you can learn how rum is made and then try samples of various kinds of rum on sale, and of course buy rum to bring home. This is where you’ll get the best rate.
And a coffee farm
Not many know, but Nicaragua actually produces coffee and it’s really good. The most interesting coffee plantation tours are in the Isla de Ometepe (more about it below), but the highlands of Matagalpa are also good places for that. A place I recommend is Selva Negra, where there usually are two daily tours.
To get to Selva Negra from Matagalpa, take a chicken bus towards Jinotega and just get off at Selva Negra. It’s just 12 km (7.5 miles) but keep in mind that chicken buses are slow, so you may want to factor the entire day for the trip.
Most people who visit Nicaragua skip the capital Managua altogether and you don’t normally hear that visiting Managua is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua. Sure, you 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 center of town is lined with some huge yellow metal trees, following a project of the once first lady of Nicaragua. 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 $20,000 USD, certainly causing concern in a country plagued by poverty.
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 badly damaged by the 1972 earthquake that destroyed much of the city. 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 has an interesting exhibit with lots of artifacts from the pre-colonial times. You should also visit 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 there is stunning.
Another place you may want to check out is the Huellas de Acahualinca, a small archeological site where you can see the footprints of men and animals that date back to an ancient volcanic eruption.
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. These ancient footprints used to be buried under compacted volcanic material and the tracks have been discovered by some workers in 1874. It is thought there are many more prints still to be found.
Conclude your visit of Managua at the Nueva Catedral – not exactly the most beautiful church you will ever see, but interesting. It is a very big building, colorful inside and very airy thanks to the many windows and 63 domes that provide structural support in case of earthquakes.
Spend some time in Isla de Ometepe
Visiting Isla the Ometepe is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua. This is an 8 shaped island home to 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 on 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.
Balgüe is perhaps the smallest village on the island, yet the most charming, no more than a few houses along the main road, hardly any internet access, no ATM and only a few local shops. Life is slow paced, people are welcoming.
As I have already said, 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. Get a guide if you intend to hike, as it’s easy to get lost! 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. You can also hike to the 35 meters (almost 115 feet) tall waterfall of San Ramón – the trail is not far from Balgüe.
Ometepe can be reached by ferry from Granada, San Jorge (near Rivas) and San Carlos (on the border with Costa Rica). I don’t recommend doing so, but if you are tight on time you can go on a full day trip to Ometepe Island departing from Granada.
Catch the waves in San Juan del Sur
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 accommodation options and restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.
San Juan del Sur is a favorite of surfers and backpackers and is also a great place to catch a wonderful Pacific sunset.
South of San Juan del Sur, Playa El Coco is one of the best beaches in Nicaragua, a great stretch of beautiful sand and cliffs.
Not far from San Juan del Sur, you could go on a guided tour to the wildlife refuge Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor. It’s a place where turtles lay their eggs – between 9:00 pm and 2:00 am, between July and January.
Discover Tola Beaches and Maderas Beaches
For more incredible Nicaragua beaches, but with a more rustic feel, check out Tola Beach, a real lost paradise, and Playa Maderas, which is North of San Juan del Sur. It is a lovely sandy beach perfect for sunbathing and has rocky expanses that create nice tide pools perfect for swimming.
Relax in the Corn Islands
Caribbean paradise couldn’t get much better than this. Visiting the Corn Islands is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua. These two small islands that have little bays, coves and underwater caves are located 70 km (43.5 miles) from the east coast of Nicaragua.
Great Corn is the biggest of the two islands and is populated by Creoles living in colorful wooden huts. Little Corn is tiny, only 500 people live on this small island where there are no cars and which is a perfect destination for diving enthusiasts.
Life is slow in the Corn Islands: spend time relaxing, snorkeling, diving, laying at the beach, eating some amazing seafood and feeling in paradise. Most people opt for the quieter Little Corn but during the high season you may find that there are more tourists than locals.
To get to Great Corn Island, catch a flight from Managua via Bluefields or a boat ride from Bluefields. You will then need to hop on another boat (locally called panga) 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 carry some large plastic bags to cover your luggage.
Get lost in Río San Juan
Visiting Río San Juan is one of the unmissable things to do in Nicaragua if you love nature, wildlife (including caymans) and bird watching. The river that signals the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica runs for almost 200 km (124.2 miles) from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean sea. Río San Juan has often been a cause of tension between the two countries.
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. You can get there by boat from San Carlos, on Lake Nicaragua.
From Boca de Sábalos you can visit the Reserva Biológica Río Indio-Maíz, one of the most impressive rainforests in Central America. 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.
Go to El Castillo
Easily reached from Boca de Sábalos or San Carlos, and on the way to Reserva Biológica Río Indio-Maíz, El Castillo makes for a nice stop. It is a fortress built by the Spaniards in 1675 to stop the pirates going to Granada. It was sacked many times, including once by Horatio Nelson.
Discover Solentiname Archipelago
Solentiname Archipelago is made of 36 small islands and located on the southern shores of Lake Nicaragua. It became famous as the place where the priest Ernesto Cardenal founded a rural community in the 1960s. It is a great place for bird-watching, hiking, and just meeting the interesting local community.
The main island is Mancarron, where you will be able to visit Cardenal chapel, decorated with paintings by Roger Perez de la Rocha.
You can get to Solentiname by boat from San Carlos.
Try all the local specialties
One of the best things to do in Nicaragua is trying local food. The country produces some amazing fruit and is actually one of the biggest producers of beef in Central America. It is also common to find lamb (locally called pelibuey) and lots of fresh fish and seafood along the coast.
Needless to say, fruit in Nicaragua is delicious. You will easily find fresh fruit stalls in the streets and squares: vendors peel and cut the fruit and sell it for a very cheap price. They also prepare fruit juice from scratch: just lots of juice, purified water and ice, a hint of sugar and at most some yogurt.
While the local cuisine is not internationally famous, you won’t have troubles finding good eats. Gallo pinto (rice and beans) is the national staple, and chances are you’ll have it for every meal.
Other local favorites include patacones (fried plantain croquettes, which can be accompanied by queso, a mild local cheese); vigoron, a dish made of a cabbage salad, yucca and chicharrones (pork scratchings) served on a banana leaf.
Quesillos are delicious, filling and a real cholesterol bomb: a freshly baked corn tortilla is filled with two thin slices of a mild cheese, similar to mozzarella, topped with a salad made of onions and tomatoes and seasoned with vinegar, wrapped, salted and served with a spoonful of cream.
Local beers are Toña and Victoria, which can be found also in bottles of 1 liter.
The cheapest places to eat in Nicaragua are fritangas, 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. Most of them used to be fritangas that became popular and expanded their business.
Check out my post All The Nicaraguan Food You Should Try.
Go to Estelì
If you are exhausted from the heat of Nicaragua, pack your bags and head straight to Estelì for a change. I bet you will enjoy having to cover with a blanket to sleep!
To be fair, the city is nothing special. But the surroundings are packed with beautiful places and it is worth making the effort to go. The best thing to do in the area is visiting the waterfalls. The most famous one is Tisey Estanzuela, which you can reach on a cheap taxi ride.
Other further away waterfalls are Colocondo and Quiabuc Las Brisas, but these require a bit more of an effort to go – and possible a guided day trip.
Visit a tobacco plantation
Chances are that if you think of tobacco and cigars, the first country that comes to your mind is Cuba. But Nicaragua actually has its very own tobacco plantations, and the know-how to grow tobacco was actually brought to the country by Cubans who fled the revolution.
Not far from Estelì, you will find several cigar factories that you can visit for a few dollars. You will obviously be able to buy cigars (but keep in mind they need humidity and to be refrigerated in order to last) and you can even have a go at rolling one yourself.
Visit Reserva Natural Miraflor
Close to Estelì, this nature reserve is a paradise for bird-watching, hiking, horse riding and more waterfalls. You will be able to spot orchids, various species of birds, and even howler monkeys.
As the reserve is run by the local community, you will also have the chance to experience a stay with a local family – it’s one of the best things to do in Nicaragua.
Marvel at the Cliff Carvings of El Tisey
North of Estelì you will find El Tisey, a place where Alberto Gutiérrez Jirón spent 30 years carving all sorts of figures on the side of a cliff located in his family coffee plantation.
The place is overall very pleasant to visit – and the experience definitely enhanced by the presence of Alberto, who will take you around his open air gallery. You can visit on your way back from Estanzuela waterfall.
Enjoy nature at Bosawas Biosphere Reserve
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is a massive rainforest home to an incredible variety of wildlife. Though spotting the jaguar is practically mission impossible, you can still admire several species of birds and monkeys.
You need a guide and a permit to visit the reserve, as it really is a remote place and easy to get lost. Expeditions need to be properly arranged as you’ll have to plan for food, drinks, and the right equipment, and be prepared for a high level of discomfort.
The reserve is about 350 km (217.5 miles) north of Managua, and best accessed from Siuna, where you will find a Bosawas Office.
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