Hey you! Yes, you. Come here and let me tell you something. Come in close because it’s a secret. Okay. Have you ever heard of a little place called Nicaragua? Yes? No? Maybe you don’t know anything about it and Nicaragua is just a big blank space in your mind. Or maybe you are picturing armed men and violent civil war. Well, it’s time to start letting people know the truth. Although Nicaragua has been a safe place to visit many years, it has been largely passed over for regional darling Costa Rica, right now door. Although, Nicaragua offers many of the same natural attractions and is considerably cheaper, it has only received a fraction of the visitors of its more prosperous neighbor.
Sound good? I knew it would! Here are the top 10 things to do while in Nicaragua to make the most of this amazing country.
10. Visit Laguna de Apoyo
Lakes abound in Nicaragua, but this beautiful crater lake is a gem. Claiming to have the cleanest waters in the country, you can safely swim here without worry. In addition to swimming, kayaking, hiking, bird-watching, boating and scuba diving are popular activities. Located close to both Granada and Managua, it is a popular weekend getaway from tourists and Nicaraguans alike.
9. Visit Leon
The second largest city in Nicaragua, Leon was the capital of Nicaragua until 1857, when the modern capital of Managua was established to end the fighting between Leon and its fierce rival, Granada. Home to the National University, it has a grittier, younger feel than Granada. The intellectual capital of the country, it is home to a few really good museums and being a Catholic country, there are a ton of churches. Highlights include the Cathedral of Leon, one of the most beautiful churches in the country and the Galeria de Heroes y Martires (Heroes and Martyrs Museum), a museum dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting against the Somoza dictatorship in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
8. Volcano Boarding on Cerro Negro
A short trip from nearby Leon, this active volcano is known for its black volcanic rocks and the fact that foreigners like to sit on pieces on wood and hurdle down the its slope. After making a one hour hike up, you can sit or stand while you slide down the hill. Reaching speeds of around 30 miles per hour, it is a thrilling (but short) trip. Not without its dangers, injuries are not uncommon, however many people think it’s worth the risk to say that you’ve gone down the side of a volcano on a sled.
7. Surfing in San Juan del Sur and Surrounding Beaches
Disclaimer: I don’t surf myself. Although I am naturally buoyant, getting from laying on my stomach to upright takes too much time for me to be a successful surfer. San Juan del Sur is where I call home, however, and I have seen first-hand how many people come from all over the world in enjoy the consistent surf and weather conditions. While you can surf at San Juan del Sur’s main beach, better opportunities are to be found elsewhere (check out Maderas or Hermosa). Boards can be rented for about $10 and lessons run around $30/hour.
6. Visit a Volcano
Nicaragua is the land of volcanoes and it’s not surprise that they have already featured on this list. But since there are nineteen different volcanoes in Nicaragua, offering a variety of experiences, I think they deserve to be mentioned twice. For those travelers who are looking for a more active vacation, a hike up a volcano could be just what you are looking for. These range in difficulty from the groomed nature walk on Mombacho to the grueling ascent of Conception (just make sure you use a guide!). If the idea of having to walk uphill on rough terrain for hours at a time isn’t appealing, never fear. Masaya Volcano is active, often with flowing visible at the bottom of the crater, and you can drive right to the rim. No effort needed.
5. See the Sea Turtles at La Flor Wildlife Refuge
From July until December, four of the seven species of sea turtles come to the beaches of Nicaragua to lay their eggs. The turtles heave themselves onto the beach before using their back flippers to dig a hole. They lay their eggs and depart, leaving their eggs to the mercy of nature. Conservationists collect the eggs and protect them until they hatch. Once hatched, the baby turtles are released in the ocean, something I got to help with when I visited. La Flor Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 45 minutes south of San Juan del Sur, is the best place to see the circle of life up close and personal.
The pace of life in Nicaragua is a lot slower than what a lot of foreigners are used to and it doesn’t take long to start slowing down. Swim in the ocean, spend the day by the pool, read in a hammock, enjoy happy hour, or just sit and take everything in.
3. Visit Isla de Ometepe
Located in Lago de Nicaragua, Ometepe is an island made up of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Hiking the two volcanoes is one of the main draws of the island, but people also go for the general sleepy vibe and natural beauty. In addition to the volcanoes, other draws include the nature reserve Charco Verde, with its unusual green lake, and Ojo de Agua, a natural mineral spring. But my favorite thing to do there is to rent a scooter ($25/day) and motor around the island, which can easily be seen in a day.
The biggest tourist draw in the country, Granada has been enchanting visitors with its Spanish colonial architecture for years. Painted in bright, vibrant colors, picture opportunities are around every corner. Founded in 1524, Granada is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. A great place just to wander around and experience history firsthand. You can find the expected churches and museums, the Chocolate Museum being a favorite of mine.
1. Corn Islands
Quite simply paradise on earth. Often overlooked by visitors because its remote location on the Atlantic coast, the Corn Islands make the ideal place to relax. Crystal clear water and private beaches, visitors spend their days relaxing or enjoying the ocean. Snorkeling, swimming, scuba diving and fishing are all popular activities. You can fly into Big Corn from Managua ($150/return) before taking a small boat to Little Corn (30 minutes). Big Corn is better equipped with more accommodations and eating options. Little Corn is very small and is a car free island. Wander through the paths to find hidden beaches or listen to the surf from a hammock.
Quite the list, right? Here’s the thing: a secret this good doesn’t stay secret for long. Word is starting to get out and it won’t be long until it’s filled with tourists. Authentic experiences can still be found, so make sure you visit Nicaragua as soon as you can!