Even though Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, years of political and civil unrest coupled with hugely destructive earthquakes have meant that it is one of the least visited countries in the region. However, after years of slumber, this country is now the “it” spot for travelers. Expats are even moving in and buying up property. This is a beautiful, wonderful country, and it’s better to get there now before it catches on and prices skyrocket! I spent a lot of time here traveling the country and was shocked how few tourists leave the main southern cities but get a little off the tourist trail and you’ll find warm, friendly people willing to show you around, have a beer, and open up their homes to you.
Accommodation – Hostels typically average around $17 USD per night for a double room with private bathroom. Dorm rooms average around $5-12 USD. The most popular kind of lodgings in Nicaragua are “hospedajes” – small family run hotels costing from $19-24 USD per night. Hammocks can also be rented in many places for $4.50 USD per night.
Food – By eating from street stalls, it’s possible to eat for less than $2 USD per meal. Most sit down, Nicaraguan restaurant are between between $3-5 USD per dish. You’ll get the staple dish: gallo pinto (rice and beans), a meat (usually chicken), and plantains. For western food such as burgers, salads, or pizza, prices are usually around $6.50-10 USD per dish. One of the best local dishes in the country is Vigoron (yuca, pork rinds, and cabbage). It’s delicious.
Transportation – Staying within the city, buses are efficient and extremely inexpensive at just $0.20 USD – but beware, they are fiercely crowded and pickpocketing is rife. Taxis usually cost around $0.75-1.75 USD per person for a short trip. Intercity bus ride costs vary depending if you get the expreso (no stops) or ordinario (constant stops to pick up people). Generally, bus rides never cost more than $2.75 USD between destinations, with expreso buses about 30% more expensive than ordinario buses.
Activities – Generally, activities are quite cheap in Nicaragua. Most day trips and activities (hiking, surfing, volcano boarding) cost between $10-28 USD. Museums are a $0.75-1.75 USD.
Money Saving Tips
Refill your water – Most hostels and hotels will refill your water bottle for $0.20 USD. Save money and the environment by avoiding too many plastic bottles.
Haggle – Don’t be embarrassed to haggle when buying things in the markets.
Eat at the fritanga – These buffet style restaurants offer amazing value for your money. A typical meal will include rice, meat, cheese and cabbage salad. An entire table of food can cost just $5 USD.
Avoid the western food – Western food costs over double the local food. (Plus, did you really come all this way to have some really bad burgers and pizza? I doubt it!)
Take the local “Chicken Bus” – Local buses (called Chicken Buses) are the cheapest way to get around the country. There are a lot of tourist buses that will take you around the country but if you’re looking to criss cross Nicaragua for just a few dollars, take these buses!
Top Things to See and Do in Nicaragua
Explore Managua – Managua is the capital and home to many beautiful buildings and museums. The recently renovated Plaza de la Republica is home to the Palacio Nacional, which is still a government building but also houses an art gallery and museum. Next to the Palacio is the Catedral Viejo, a dilapidated ruin of a once wonderful cathedral destroyed in the earthquake.
Go fishing – Both the Caribbean and the Pacific border the shores of Nicaragua and fishing here is pretty popular. Off the coast you’ll find a myriad of fish – some up to about 200 lbs. There are also chartered trips around the volcanic islands within the Lago.
Admire Colonial Granada – Granada has some of the best preserved colonial architecture in Nicaragua and due to the recent investment in tourism, it has become very popular among travelers. Take in the magnificent buildings in the Plaza de Independencia, hike a nearby volcano, and kayak the nearby islet. Be sure to eat at Kathy’s Waffles, Garden Cafe, and one of the Vigoran stalls in the park.
Explore the Masaya markets – The main attractions in the city of Masaya are two craft markets, the Mercado Municipal and the Mercado de Artesanias. Every Thursday night at the Mercado de Artesanias is the “Night of Revelry” featuring folkloric dancing, local food and music.
Relax in San Juan del Sur – A hit with surfers and backpackers, San Juan del Sur is the most popular beach town in Nicaragua. The beach itself is in a great setting and enclosed by prehistoric volcanic hills. It’s the biggest backpacker spot in the country and you’ll find a lot of cheap bars and hostels here as a well as a constant party if you want one. Stay at The Naked Tiger Hostel and tell Megan I say hi!
Learn to surf – Nicaragua may not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of surfing, but it’s a huge pasttime here due to the year round waves and warm water. There are plenty of surf schools that offer tuition and equipment hire around the towns of Rivas and San Juan del Sur. Expect to pay around $10 USD per day for board rental and $25 USD per hour for lessons.
Visit Ometepe Island – This extraordinary island is located on the Lago de Nicaragua and is formed by two joined volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Hiking the volcanoes, kayaking and cycling are the main activities here. It’s beautiful; the locals are friendly and the food and accommodation are cheap, so it’s a great place to unwind for a few days. The walks up the volcanoes are pretty strenuous and take up a whole dya.
Enjoy the history of León – This city was Nicaragua’s capital until 1857. To this day remains the country’s “intellectual” capital and it is home to the National University. Remnants of the political war between the Somozas and Sandinistas can be seen in the graffiti and murals around the city. There are a lot of cathedrals in this city (it’s famous for them) and once you have had enough of those, be sure to visit the Museum of the Revolution. It’s an interesting take on the Sandinista movement. You get your own guide too (who was probably a Sandinista too).
Go volcano boarding – What’s sand-boarding next to volcano-boarding? Cerro Negro, a young and active volcano, offers tourists a chance to board down its gravely slopes through an organized tour. You will have to hike up to the top, which takes around an hour, so be prepared for a climb and to get dirty!
Kayak around Las Isletas – Las Isletas is a chain of small islands on a lake near Granada. Kayaking tours give travelers a chance to experience some nature in a calm and relaxing setting. A two-hour trip generally costs $33 USD.
Attend the San Sebastian Festival – Every year near the end of January, people in Diriamba have a huge celebration in honour of San Sebastian, the city’s patron saint. Festivities officially run the 17th to the 27th, and include colorful parades, a huge feast, and plenty of traditional music.
Hang out at Lake Apoyo – Lake Apoyo is a 48-square mile lake that actually lies on the Apoyo volcano crater. It’s a beautiful setting with very clear water for swimming. Consider renting a kayak, or going on a hike. This is a nice place for a relaxing getaway for a couple of days.
Escape to the Corn Islands – On the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the Corn Islands are a gorgeous place for a vacation retreat. Most people come here to snorkel, scuba dive, to fish, and to relax. Small boats will take you between the different islands. It’s the best chill out spot in the whole country and are less crowded than San Juan del Sur (though still pretty popular!).