Last Updated: 11/7/22 | November 7th, 2022
Nicaragua used to be a secret. It was the land of backpackers and intrepid travelers ignored by tourists and expats due to the country’s violent past.
But over the years, travelers seeking a fun, cheap, and adventurous destination came here as an alternative to “touristy” Costa Rica and Panama once they realized the country was much safer than it used to be and that Contras weren’t still roaming the jungles.
Known as the “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes,” Nicaragua is a popular destination spot for families, retirees, and backpackers, offering cheap beer, incredible hiking (there are 19 volcanoes here), plentiful surfing, and an affordable cost of living. After visiting years ago, I completely understood the appeal. Nicaragua is filled with amazing natural beauty and extremely warm people. I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. In fact, I even extended my visit!
To help you make the most of your visit, here’s my list of the best things to do in Nicaragua:
1. Admire Granada
Granada has some of the most well-preserved architecture in Nicaragua. It was the first big Spanish settlement in the country, and many of the buildings and churches in the Spanish colonial style are beautifully preserved (and painted in a myriad of colors). Besides wandering around gawking at the architecture, you can take a kayaking trip to the nearby islets, enjoy hiking trips to the Mombacho volcano, and visit the nearby markets in Masaya.
While you’re in town, be sure to eat at one of the kiosks in the town square serving vigorón, a delicious local pork and cabbage dish.
Where to Stay in Granada: De Boca en Boca – A laid-back hostel with a cool atmosphere. There’s a full kitchen, a bar on-site, and they offer free Wi-Fi and free breakfast too.
2. Surf in San Juan del Sur
A hit with surfers and backpackers, San Juan del Sur is the most popular beach destination in Nicaragua. All the beaches are beautiful and lapped by warm water. Here you’ll find great surfing, the second-largest statue of Jesus in the world (behind Christ the Redeemer in Brazil), and lots of cheap bars. Expect to pay around $30 USD for a two-hour group surf lesson. Other popular activities include taking an ATV tour and heading to Ometepe Island for a day trip.
Where to Stay in San Juan del Sur: Hola Ola Hostel – This lively social hostel is known for its fun parties and chill days by the on-site pool. The staff organize all kinds of events, like surf trips and lessons, and there’s a tasty breakfast available for just $2 USD.
3. Visit Ometepe Island
This extraordinary island is located on Lago de Nicaragua and is formed by two joined volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas. Hiking, kayaking, cycling, and healthy food are the island’s main draws. Just keep in mind that hiking the volcanoes is as hard as it appears: you’ll need to start really early or the midday heat will slow you down significantly (I learned this lesson the hard way). The hikes take 8-10 hours and guides are mandatory. Expect to pay around $20 USD for a group hike. Just make sure you have solid footwear, a hat, and sunscreen. It gets warm!
Where to Stay on Ometepe Island: Hostel Life is Good – The staff and owner of this hostel go above and beyond to ensure you have a great stay. There’s a bar and restaurant on site and they can help you book whatever tours and activities you need!
4. Visit “New” León
This city was Nicaragua’s capital until 1857. To this day it remains the country’s intellectual capital and is home to the National University. Remnants of the political war between the US-backed right-wing Somozas and the socialist Sandinistas (which lasted almost 30 years) can be seen in the graffiti and murals around the city. There are a lot of churches here (including a UNESCO World Heritage cathedral), many art museums, and a burgeoning food movement. Make sure you visit the Museum of the Revolution, a fascinating museum about the Sandinista movement.
The city makes a great base for nearby trips to volcanoes and was one of the highlights of my trip.
Where to Stay in León: Poco a Poco Hostel – A super chill but super social hostel where the staff go above and beyond to ensure you have a great time.
5. Visit “Old” León
The ruins of León Viejo date back to the 16th century and are a short trip from León. The site is one of Nicaragua’s two UNESCO World Heritage listings and is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. While this isn’t some lavish ruin site, it’s really the only place to see and learn about the country’s founding colonial past. You can get here in about an hour from the city.
6. Go Volcano Boarding
Cerro Negro, a young and active volcano, is where tourists (mostly backpackers) board down the gravelly slopes on one of the many organized tours to the mountain. You hike up to the top, which takes around an hour, sit on a piece of wood, and then fly down the side of the volcano. It’s the main reason lots of travelers visit León and, while not my cup of tea, is extremely popular. I couldn’t visit anywhere in the country without seeing someone wearing an “I went volcano boarding” t-shirt.
The most popular slope is on Cerro Negro, a 728-meter-high volcano that is still active (it hasn’t erupted since 1999). Prices start at $35 USD per person.&
7. Escape to the Corn Islands
Located off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the Corn Islands are a gorgeous place for a vacation retreat. Most people come to the islands to snorkel, scuba dive, fish, soak up the sun, and relax with a good book. You can see hammerhead sharks and there are lots of underwater caves to explore as well
There are two islands: Little Corn and Big Corn. Little Corn is the quieter, more backpacker-oriented island with cheaper guesthouses and fewer resorts. Big Corn is more developed with larger resorts and more restaurants, and it’s more expensive.
Round-trip flights from Managua to Big Corn Island cost around $300 USD. You can then catch a boat to Little Corn Island for around $10 USD each way.
8. Hike Miraflores
Located in Esteli in northern Nicaragua, Reserva Natural Miraflor was yet another highlight of my trip. This is a stunning cloud forest with rivers and waterfalls, offering the chances for day-hikes and multi-day treks (the multiday trips enable you to stay with local host families in small communities). The one-day trek that I did ran from 7am-4pm and cost around $20 USD which included two meals and a mandatory guide. An extra bonus that I loved is that all the money goes back into supporting the community and farmers.
Here’s a video of the area:
9. Visit the Stone Man
Alberto Gutiérrez has been carving animals and symbols into the stones outside Esteli for decades. He had a vision of angels who told him to carve, and in an effort to end his alcoholism, began carving every time he craved a drink. He’s not easy to get to, but he is incredibly welcoming. He doesn’t speak any English, so if you don’t speak Spanish, just nod and enjoy the carvings. He also won’t ask for any money, but donations are welcome. This is a really great “off-the-beaten-path destination.”
10. Skip Managua
I found there really wasn’t a lot to see or do here so I’d skip a visit. There are many more enjoyable places to spend your trip!
11. Hike the Volcanoes
There are 19 volcanoes in the country, 9 of which are active.. Hiking them is a popular activity and was the main reason why I headed to Nicaragua (I ended up hiking three). The two peaks on Ometepe (Concepcion and Maderas) are the most popular day hikes in the country. Concepción, towering at 1,600 meters (5,249 feet) is a baking hot hike, so bring lots of sunscreen and water. Maderas is easier but muddier, with a lake at the summit.
If you’re in León, Cerro Negro is well-known for “volcano surfing” and is an easy hike. Masaya Volcano, located just south of Managua, is the most active volcano in Nicaragua (you can actually see the lava bubbling).
If you want a challenge, try San Cristobal, Nicaragua’s highest volcano at 1,745 meters (5,725 feet). If you’re hunting for scenic Insta-worthy views, hike to Telica (also within easy reach from León) for a spectacular sunset (you can actually camp at the top too).
12. Binge on Gallo Pinto
I’ll be honest: I found Nicaraguan food pretty bland. Be prepared to eat a lot of gallo pinto (rice and beans), meat, and fried plantains. It’s not the most exciting food, but it was delicious (and super economical). It is a staple food for most people in Nicaragua. In fact, gallo pinto is such a quintessential part of Nicaraguan cuisine that even McDonald’s has a version!
13. Do a Homestay/Learn Spanish
Want to stay longer? Take part in a homestay. This is where you stay with a local family for a fee and immerse yourself in the language and daily life. There are a lot of opportunities to stay longer, volunteer, learn Spanish, and farm. If this interests you, hostels and tourist offices in any big city can help organize this for you. Esteli, Ometepe, and León are popular destinations for this.
14. Visit Apoyo Lagoon
Though lots of people visit Lake Nicaragua (the biggest and where Ometepe is), this lagoon near Managua is a nice spot to spend a day relaxing. This 200-meter-deep lake is the perfect spot for swimming, kayaking, fishing, and sailing. Hostels offer day trips from Granada for around $10 USD (it’s just 15 kilometers outside of Granada). You can also visit independently and stay overnight if you want a longer visit.
15. Chill Out
Nicaragua is a great country to just hang out in. Sit on a beach with a good book, relax in the jungle, stay on the farm, surf, or swing in a hammock. The pace of life here is slow and relaxed, so slow yourself down and enjoy some lazy, wonderful days.
Nicaragua is a nature lover’s dream: volcanoes, rainforests, mangrove forests, and beaches abound. Add in some adventurous activities, friendly locals, and cheap prices, and you’ll see why everyone raves about this country.
There is so much to see and do in the country that you’re going to have an action-packed trip no matter where you go or how long you stay there. It’s one of the best countries in the world and should not be missed! I can’t speak highly of it enough!
Book Your Trip to Nicaragua: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay in the country:
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on Nicaragua?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Nicaragua for even more tips on how to plan your visit!