Oh Nicaragua, you dream-filled beautiful!
With mountains, lakes, rivers, beaches, surf, scuba, jungles and islands you’ve got it all – and you’ve got it all so close together!
Yes a small nation in the heart of the Central American isthmus, this country sure does pack a hefty travel punch thanks to its tropical location that spans both Pacific and Caribbean bodies of water.
Long-held as the more “off the beaten track” version of neighbouring Costa Rica, Nicaragua has nevertheless been making a huge splash on the travel circuit in the last 10 years and is an increasingly popular spot to head for, not least for budget travellers!
And rightly so!
When I first visited this country in 2011, I instantly fell in love with it… so much so that I ended up staying there for a year.
Yes it’s that good!
So if you’re heading to this dreamy and diverse nation soon, make sure you check out my list of the 15 best things to do in Nicaragua…
- 20 Amazing Things To Do in Little Corn Island
- 10 Important Things to Know Before Backpacking Central America
- Ideal Female Packing List for Central America
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#1 Explore the Political Street Art of León
One of Nicaragua’s great cities, León is the political and artistic capital of this country.
Home to one of the best universities here, the city life strums with a bohemian, leftist, student energy that few can resist.
A key player in Nicaragua’s revolution, the cityscape of León is strewn with testimonies to this bloody fight for justice and power.
During the day it’s perfectly safe to wander around and explore the various monuments, wall murals and street artworks that will help you learn more about the history and culture of this fascinating part of the world.
You should really set aside a morning to cruise the city centre’s few blocks and explore the historical and cultural offerings it has.
Start in the central square as you can get a great cheap breakfast here with a free view of the cathedral!
More than likely, as happened with me, some friendly local will then offer to show you around the city’s highlights.
I certainly found this is a great way to learn more about León from a local’s perspective, as well as brush up on my Spanish!
Visiting León is definitely one of the best things to do in Nicaragua and, if you only have time for one city here, I will tell you now that León is much better than Granada in my opinion!
León is easily reached by local bus from Managua and, once there, I recommend staying at Hostel El Albergue, which boasts a great kitchen and super-friendly staff.
#2 Surf at Playa Gigante
Each one of Nicaragua’s growing numbers of tourists will likely visit San Juan del Sur on the south Pacific Coast, but just down the road is a much more lowkey spot called Playa Gigante – literally translated as giant beach in English.
This authentic, Nicaraguan coastal town really is just a one-street town, with a few tiendas (little shops) and comedors (local cafes) offering typical Nicaraguan fare to eat.
It’s steamy, hot and humid here, but there are plenty of hammocks to relax in and the beach is long and inviting.
So too are the legendary waves which are the major draw for the few tourists that make it this far out of San Juan.
If you’re looking to surf and enjoy some beach time on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, I highly recommend checking Playa Gigante.
Easily reached by local bus from San Juan Del Sur (although you will need to change at Rivas) I recommend staying at Aussie Camp, in nearby Playa Marsella, if you want to spend a few nights in this area.
#3 Dive with Sharks on Little Corn Island
My love for this tiny pearl in the ocean is well documented after I landed there back in 2011, planning on staying a week, but ending up living there for a year!
It’s an absolute paradisiacal gem, but things are certainly changing here and I really recommend you visit before it does so for the worst!
Only 1sq km, Little Corn is without cars, roads, traffic, shops, banks and largely power!
What it does have however are picture-perfect white sand beaches, coconut-laden palm trees, the friendliest of people and incredible diving.
There are 2 dive shops on the island, both with excellent reviews.
I personally recommend Dolphin Dive, after I completed my PADI Open Water with them for a fraction of the price of what you might pay elsewhere in the world.
Not only that, but I was treated to some of the best diving I am yet to match – hammerhead sharks, reef sharks, nurse sharks, turtles, dolphins, the list goes …
That said, everything about Little Corn Island is magical – from the early morning yoga to the Bonfire Nights spent at Tranquilo Cafe making it a clear favourite on my list of best things to do in Nicaragua.
The crystal clear waters here, along with the wealth of their wildlife and the diving opportunities simply provide the icing on the cake!
The Corn Islands can be reached by flight with the airline La Costeña from Managua’s airport.
Alternatively and more cheaply, you can get there by various boats from either El Rama or Bluefields – 2 towns on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.
Boat times change a lot, so the best thing to do is call the captain – don’t worry they speak English!
You can get to El Rama by bus from Managua and some of the large cargo boats to the Corn Islands run from there, otherwise you can get a panga down the river from El Rama to Bluefields, where other boats depart from.
Please note however, that the boats normally only leave 3 times a week, if at all, and that they are slow cargo boats which can take up to 18 hours.
This is no ride of luxury, but it’s cheap and one hell of an adventure!
After reaching Big Corn via air or sea, you then need to catch a boat across to Little Corn – which is another fun adventure in and of itself!
Once you reach Little Corn Island (which I do recommend over Big Corn FYI) stay at Green House Hostel – incredible owner, relaxed vibe, excellent prices and very safe.
#4 Volunteer on Isla de Ometepe
In the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America, sits the volcanic island of Ometepe – a wonderful place to visit in Nicaragua and explore for a few days.
There are some great volunteer projects here too, which work with local communities promoting sustainable agricultural practices and opportunities for local women.
I volunteered at Project Bona Fide, an incredible permaculture farm that also supports a local community centre.
Volunteering alongside Nicaraguans here was one of the best experiences of my whole travels, especially as I got to learn so much too.
If you volunteer, then staying here only costs you a few USD per day.
With that you get some great, local food and simple lodgings, plus an experience you’ll never forget.
This is grassroots, overseas volunteer work at its finest, certainly making it one of the best thins to do in Nicaragua.
Ometepe can be reached by boat from the port of San Jorge near Rivas.
Most boats dock on the island at Moyogalpa and from here you can get local buses to just about anywhere on Ometepe – although you have to be earl, as many stop running by the early afternoon.
#5 Sip Coffee In Estelí
Oh, the other thing I forget to mention about Nicaragua is that it’s the land of coffee and chocolate!
Forget milk and honey, give me cacao and café any day!
Up in the northern city of Estelí, the farming of coffee is a major source of income for many people.
A lot of the area surrounding the city is dedicated to the organic growing of this much lusted-after bean and you can easily take a guided day trip out to visit these farms, learn about the process and taste the beautiful product.
In the city of Estelí itself, there is a famous market every Saturday where farmers come to sell their produce.
Make sure you don’t miss this, or the evening entertainment after the market is done for the day, the city puts on quite a party!
The city boasts a super all year-round climate too due to its position in the mountains and has a relaxed vibe, making it a great place to acclimatise to Nicaraguan heat and culture.
It’s also famous for its cigar production, so you can get a factory tour and certainly pick up a bargain smoke here too if you wish!
You can easily get local buses to Estelí from Managua and once there, I recommend staying at Sonati Hostel who have a kitchen and FREE coffee!
#6 Marvel at the Cathedral in Granada
The country’s most impressive Cathedral, and one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the whole of Central America, Granada’s flagship cathedral – Iglesia de la Merced – is a must-see attraction in Nicaragua.
Giving amazing skyline views over this colonial city all the way to Lake Nicaragua on a clear day, head up the Belltower just before sunset for the best snaps.
Even though I personally didn’t enjoy Granada as a city that much, spending a couple of days here to admire the colourful buildings and the Cathedral is a great idea.
Plus, Granda is so close to Managua, that it makes a great place to head when you arrive into Nicaragua if you don’t fancy too long in the capital.
#7 Brace Yourself of Volcano Boarding
And now we move north to Nicaragua’s second city, Leon.
Although we already covered the fun things you can do in this historic centre at the start of this post, there’s a great activity that lies just beyond the city’s border too that we didn’t talk about yet.
Not for the faint-hearted, but certainly worth pulling your adrenaline boots up for, volcano boarding is an amazing day trip you can enjoy from Leon as part of a tour.
Taking you out of the city to the nearby Cerro Negro volcano, tours then allow you to hike to the top of this black giant, from where you can essentially slide down the gravel, ashy surface on a board in a way similar to sandboarding.
The maddest people reach 100km doing this on small slides made of wood and metal, but do be careful as accidents do occur! We recommend taking it easy if you feel nervous, as well as coming properly prepared!
Hiking boots and buffs, in particular, are key items to take on this dusty, high speed and windy volcanic sliding affair.
Read reviews from previous participants and book your volcano boarding trip in advance here.
#8 Shop for Crafts & Spot Lava at Masaya
Not far from the capital of Nicaragua, or the city of Granada, the town of Masaya is famous for 2 things – its traditional craft market and its amazing volcano where you can spot lava!
Both of these certainly make it one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua.
I have to be honest, I did think the craft market was a bit underwhelming, but I know loads of people love it, which is why it’s on this list of the best things to do in Nicaragua.
The volcano, however, is undoubtedly amazing!
Visiting the active crater of this towering pinnacle is normally experienced as part of an organised day trip from Granada, (or night trip should I say) because its best to see the lava after dark when its vibrancy is even more potent.
Time at the top of this active volcano are limited to 10 minutes, for safety reasons, but it’s still well worth the trip for this totally unique experience.
Book a private volcano tour from Granada, here, if you prefer to go it alone!
#9 Learn Some Spanish
There’s no question, a key part of any Central American trip is meeting with and speaking with local people, who have a wealth of experience, information and insight travellers can find fascinating and refreshing.
The great thing about Central America (indeed about most of Latin America) is that there’s one language that unites many of the people here, and that is Spanish.
This means that, with just a few phrases, you can begin to converse with people across this continent.
The harder news however, is that Spanish isn’t easy to learn, so I do suggest taking a few classes to open up this world to you a little more.
Almost all the major tourist destinations in Nicaragua boast Spanish schools and taking some classes in one of them is not only way more affordable than your home country, but also a great experience that supports local employment too.
#10 Hit Up Some Hikes
And from the classroom, we now move to a rather more active adventure, because one of the must-do things in Nicaragua is strap on your hiking boots!
From treks in Nature Reserves, such as Miraflores near the city Esteli, to volcano overnight scrambles that take you to the roof of this country, there’s plenty of hikes to choose, so the key thing is that you just get out there and experience it.
Telica is often thought to be the best volcano to climb in this country, but whichever you choose, a local guide is highly recommended for their knowledge about the trails, as well as the safety!
Check out this day trip which combines the markets and volcano in Masaya, if you’re hoping to tick both off your list.
#11 Get Off the Beaten Track at the Somoto Canyon
And from volcanoes to canyons, if you’re looking to get even further away from the tourist crowds than an active summit, I suggest heading to the Somoto Canyon!
Absolutely one of the best attractions in Nicaragua and accessible from both Leon and Esteli, I highly recommend taking a tour to visit this almost undiscovered natural beauty as the journey there is somewhat confusing and you don’t want to get lost.
That’s because when you do get there you’ll be rewarded with the most amazing turquoise water and limestone cliffs you can both swim in and jump off.
Not to be missed!
#12 Swim at Laguna Apoyo
And talking of swimming, another natural wonder in Nicaragua where you can enjoy this activity is Laguna Apoyo – one of the top places to visit in this country.
Again this makes a good day trip from Granda, or else you can stay the night in one of the cute lakeside cabins or guesthouses there.
The lake (aka laguna in Spanish) sits in the crater of a former volcano (now extinct) so technically you’re swimming in a volcano when you take a dip here… pretty cool hey!
Or rather, it’s actually pretty warm here thanks to the geothermal activity!
If swimming isn’t your thing, you an also kayak and SUP on this former volcano lake too.
#13 Chill at Las Penitas
Moving north again, another of the can’t miss things to do in Nicaragua is to head to the coastal town of Las Penitas, which is near the city of Leon.
Offering a wilder, more low-key, dark sand beach experience, the cute community here is well worth checking out, as are the waves if you’re into surfing at all.
There’s also some amazing seafood you can buy straight from the fisherman and devour in local restaurants – yum!
#14 Party at San Juan Del Sur
At the other end of the spectrum, and down in the south of the country, is San Juan Del Sur.
Very much on the traveller trail, this popular beach town has become synonymous with partying, so if you want to head somewhere for a good time in Nicaragua, this should be your stop.
Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the place (and no, it’s not because I’m old, as I actually first visited San Juan back in 2011 when I was definitely still into partying!) but I know many people love its cafes, bars and good surf vibes, which is why it’s on my list of the top things to do in Nicaragua.
San Juan Del Sur is also a handy stop if you’re continuing your journey, by land, into Costa Rica… or if you’re coming from there into Nicaragua.
Very near the border, San Juan, is probably the first town you’ll stop in after crossing the border and its tourist-friendly feels, make it a very easy spot to sink into life in this country.
#15 Learn How Chocolate is Made
And finally, last on this list of the must-have experiences in Nicaragua is learn how one of the country’s top exports is grown, processed and made.
And as we’ve covered coffee already, there’s only one guy left for this position in my book and that is the humble cocoa plant!
Yes a major producer of the world’s cocoa, I actually helped grow some when I was staying for months on Ometepe, learning how chocolate is made – from bean to bar – is an eye-opening experience and one of the best things to see in Nicaragua.
Matagalpa is a great city to do this, where many producers open their farms to tourists and offer world-class chocolate experiences!
How to Get to Nicaragua
You can easily travel overland from Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras to arrive into Nicaragua.
I’ve crossed all the land borders during my travels and found them easy and straightforward to navigate using local chicken buses (which are the best way to travel in Nicaragua by the way!)
If you’re arriving from further afield, then you’ll need to fly into Nicaragua’s international airport in the capital Managua.
This city is really not worth hanging around in to be honest (although I ended up spending way too long there trying to renew my visa) and can be a bit dangerous, so I’d recommend flying in and then heading out asap.
As always I use Skyscanner to find the best flight deals, including those from both Europe and the US to Nicaragua.
And to get around Nicaragua, I highly recommend Bookaway for planning and booking your bus tickets.
5 Packing Essentials for Nicaragua
#1 Good Camera – I would never even think of travelling to Nicaragua without a camera good enough to capture the amazing landscape and people of this country. Both my Sony A6000 and GoPro Hero 7 have been perfect for the job!
#2 Waterproof Jacket – With this country situated in the tropics, taking a waterproof jacket is essential if you’re going to be hiking or sightseeing and want to avoid those seasonal rainfalls. I highly recommend the North Face Venture 2 for the job.
#3 Hiking Boots – You can’t come to Nicaragua and not do some trekking, so make sure you come prepared with some good, supportive hiking boots… I’ve never worn mine so much in my life as I have in Latin America! These Keen Targhee II’s are the perfect solution.
#4 Day Pack – Also for the hiking and sightseeing, a good daypack to carry water, snacks, camera, hat, gloves and other clothing layers is key in Nicaragua! This one from Osprey is my pick.
#5 Sarong – And finally, I’d never travel anywhere – least of all the beach-perfect destinations in Central America – without a sarong. One of the most versatile travel items out there, check out this post I wrote about the 20 ways you can use a sarong when you travel.
To learn more about what to pack for a Nicaragua trip in general, check out my ultimate Central America packing list.
Travel Insurance for Nicaragua
World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while travelling and claim online from anywhere in the world.
If you’re a remote worker or digital nomad seeking travel health cover, then look no further than Safetywing’s great Nomad Insurance policies.
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So that’s my list of the best things to do in Nicaragua.
Have you been?
What were your favourites?