Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America. Known as the “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes,” the country is home to expansive volcanic terrain and ethereal cloud forests as well as historic colonial cities and wonderfully rugged coastlines.
I love visiting Nicaragua. It’s one of the best countries in the region. My visit there exceeded my expectations. Granada, Leon, and San Juan del Sur tend to pull in the crowds, but if you leave the main southern cities and get a little off the tourist trail, you’ll discover even more diverse landscapes and friendly locals who are more than happy to show you around and share a beer.
Nicaragua is gaining momentum as the ‘next’ Costa Rica, but it still remains one of the most budget-friendly spots in Central America. Recent political unrest slowed tourism down but, as the unrest subsidies, people are coming back.
This travel guide to Nicaragua will show you how to visit on a budget, save money, and make the most of your trip!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Nicaragua
1. Hike Miraflores
2. Relax in San Juan del Sur
3. Admire colonial Granada
4. Visit Leon
5. Explore Ometepe Island
Other Things to See and Do in Nicaragua
1. Visit Little Corn Island
This miniature archipelago 70km off the Caribbean coast is one of the best places to relax in the country. You’ll be rewarded with other-worldly diving with hammerhead sharks and underwater caves, fresh seafood, and plenty of hammock downtime on one of the many deserted beaches (invest in a good hammock of you’re serious about your R&R). Don’t miss Otto’s Beach while you’re here — it’s one of the most amazing beaches in Central America.
2. Explore Rio San Juan
This historic waterway is a wonderful stopover for nature enthusiasts looking to indulge in kayaking, fishing, and wildlife watching. Despite the surge in eco-tourism in the region, accommodation options are still no-frill and very low-key, with Wi-Fi and phone coverage also being scarce. It’s the perfect place to disconnect. Full-day jungle tours cost around 2,100 NIO ($60 USD).
3. Hike a volcano
Nicaragua has 19 volcanos (9 of which are active). The two peaks on Ometepe––Concepcion and Maderas––are the two most popular day hikes in the country. Concepcíon, towering at 1,600m (5,249 feet) is a baking hot hike, so bring lots of sunblock and water. Maderas is easier but muddier, with a lake at the summit. Cerro Negro (near León) offers a comfortable sandy route from top to bottom. If you’re hunting for scenic Insta-worthy views, hike to Telica (also within easy reach from León) for a spectacular sunset.
4. Relax at Lake Apoyo
Laguna de Apoyo is a breathtaking body of water that sits upon the Apoyo volcano crater 4km from Granada. This 200-meter-deep oasis is the perfect spot for swimming, kayaking, fishing, sailing, or simply soaking up the view with a beer. Hostels offer day trips from Granada for 280 NIO ($8 USD), which include a return shuttle and include use of another hostel’s facilities, kayaks, and tubes on the lagoon.
5. Visit a coffee plantation
Coffee is Nicaragua’s primary export, and Jinotega, the misty and mountainous northern region, produces over 80% of the country’s output. Visit here to learn about the bean-to-brew process from local farmers. You can organize a coffee tour in any of the eco-lodges/hostels dotted around the region. I particularly liked Eco Albergue La Fundadora, which offered several excursions starting from 350 NIO ($10 USD) per person.
6. Relax at the Pearl Cays
The remote string of crescent-shaped playas that make up the Pearl Cays (pronounced “keys”) offer the best Caribbean beaches Nicaragua has to offer. Due to climate change, this stunning collection of white islands are steadily diminishing in the crystalline waters which encircle them. There are currently only 10 left, from the original 18, and the future of the remaining few are hanging in the balance. Accommodation on the island is super exclusive and therefore very pricey. However, day trips by shared speedboat can be easily arranged. Private boats start from around 7,000 NIO ($200 USD) and fit up to 10 people.
7. Visit the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve
Bosawas is the second-largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere and is home to jaguars, tapirs, spider monkeys, and harpy eagles. A huge chunk of the country’s bird population––600 out of 790 species––are located here, making it the prime spot for wildlife and bird watching. Multi-day trips, where you can truly immerse yourself in the wilderness, hike cloud forests, swim in waterfalls, and meet Mayangna and Miskito indigenous communities are highly recommended. Expect to pay around 5,200 NIO ($150 USD) for a multi-day tour.
8. Explore the Solentiname Archipelago
Isolated on the southwest tip of Lago de Nicaragua, the Solentiname Archipelago is a cluster of 36 islands revered for their pristine collections of primitive art, birdlife, and laid-back lifestyle. It’s best to base yourself in Mancarrón and organize day trips to other neighboring islands throughout your stay. It’s roughly a four-hour drive from Managua to San Carlos and then and then a 2-hour boat ride to the dock in Mancarrón. It will cost you 420 NIO ($12 USD). There are no ATMs to be found on the islands, so bring plenty of cash.
9. Shop at the Masaya Markets
Stock up on rum, coffee, hammocks, and ceramics at the Masaya Markets in Masaya National Park near Managua. Barter your way through the markets and soak up the colorful atmosphere. While there is a lot of tourist junk here, there are still plenty of artisanal handmade crafts as well. Barter hard and don’t be afraid to walk away. On Thursdays, a weekly ‘Night of Revelry’ features traditional dancing, local food, and music. The market is just thirty minutes from Managua.
10. Visit the stone carving hermit
Near Esteli in the north you’ll find Alberto the hermit. He’s been living in here for almost 40 years, carving stone figures and sculptures in the jungle. He’s eccentric and kind and incredibly knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the region. Stop by to see his carvings and learn about his life in the jungle. Here’s a video of my visit.
Nicaragua Travel Costs
Accommodation – Small 6-8 bed dorms generally cost around 208-346 NIO ($6-$10 USD) per night, with private rooms costing between 519-1,730 NIO ($15-50 USD). Free Wi-Fi, breakfast, and sometimes even a swimming pool are the norm.
For a two star hotel, you can expect to pay between 1,400-2,600 NIO ($30-$75 USD) for a double room including breakfast. You’ll have basic amenities such as Wi-Fi, A/C, a TV, and sometimes a swimming pool.
Airbnb is available on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast as well as in Grenada and Managua (there are no rentals on the Atlantic side). You can score a great beachfront property from 1,382-3,455 NIO ($40-100 USD) depending on group size and house style. Expect prices to double during high-season (December-April). For a private room, expect to pay at least 525 NIO ($15 USD) per night.
Food – Nicaraguans are more accustomed to dining out for lunch so travelers can expect to see less evening options available in non-touristy spots.
Beans, rice, and meat are the backbone of most meals. Grilled chicken, pork, and beef are common options (especially for street food). Gallo pinto (friend rice and beans) is the go-to breakfast and dinner meal, with an egg often being added for the breakfast option. A typical lunch, eaten in a comedor (local eatery serving tradition cuisine), or street stall costs between 69-173 NIO ($2-5 USD).
On the coast, seafood is the main staple so expect a lot of grilled fish. On the Caribbean side, the cuisine is heavily influenced by Caribbean culture.
A meal at a restaurant serving local cuisine costs around 345-520 NIO ($10-15 USD) for a 3-course meal with a drink.
You’ll find more international cuisine in the touristy towns and on the cost. Most international food costs around 520-700 NIO ($15-20 USD) for a meal. A large pizza costs around 245-280 NIO ($7-8 USD).
For fast food (think McDonald’s), expect to pay around 210 NIO ($6 USD) for a meal.
A domestic beer, coffee, soft drink, or bottle of water in a restaurant or bar will cost around $1-2 USD.
If you’re buying a week’s worth of groceries, expect to pay between 700-1,050 NIO ($20-30 USD) if you stick to local produce and staples like beans, rice, and meat.
Backpacking Nicaragua Suggested Budgets
Budget travelers who stick to shared dorms, take shared or self-guided excursions, bus travel, and stick to eating street food can get buy on a budget of 1,050-1,230 NIO ($30-35 USD) per day.
On a mid-range budget of 2,635-3,500 NIO ($75-100 USD) per day, you can stay in budget hotels or Airbnb’s, take some guided tours, visit some islands, eat out for all your meals, and drink as much as you want.
On a luxury budget of 8,100-10,500 NIO ($230-300 USD) per day, you can stay in a beach-front villa or four-star hotel, take domestic flights, eat out at fine-dining restaurants, hire private guides, do as many excursions as you want (such as guided hikes or kayak tours), and take taxis everywhere. At this budget, the sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. All prices are in USD.
Nicaragua Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Looking to save money while you’re traveling Nicaragua? Here are some of the best ways to save money during your trip:
- Take the chicken bus – Chicken buses (crowded local buses that make multiple stops) are the cheapest way to travel. You’ll save big time if you’re willing to trade A/C and cushioned seating to travel on a decommissioned school bus for a few hours. For example, the 2.5-hour trip from Granada to Rivas costs just $2 USD!
- Refill your water bottle – The tap water here is not safe to drink so make sure you have a reusable bottle with you. To stay safe, bring a water filter like LifeStraw or SteriPen to ensure your water is clean and free from bacteria. You’ll save money on buying bottled water and save the environment too!
- Use the right currency – Pay with US dollars in bigger cities and save your córdobas for purchases at small businesses in rural areas and villages since they won’t have change for larger USD bills.
- Bring cash – Cards are accepted in all major establishments and big cities. However, electricity can be fickle on the coast so it’s best to carry plenty of cash in case you’re caught out in a blackout.
- Learn some Spanish – Inflated tourist prices are common here. To avoid getting overcharged, learn some Spanish. Even just a few words and phrases can help you avoid being overcharged.
- Travel during the shoulder season – Prices are highest during the dry months (December-April). To avoid the crowds and save money, travel during the rainy season or shoulder season. You might get rained on, however, accommodation and activities will be cheaper.
- Choose less-traveled routes – Prices for activities and accommodation plummet when you leave the tourist triangle (Granada, Leon, and San Juan del Sur). Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America so don’t be afraid to think outside the box and venture off the beaten path.
- Share private taxis – If you’re traveling in a small group, a private taxi can often work out cheaper and more time-efficient than a bus or shuttle. Negotiate price beforehand and ask your hostel for the normal rates so you have a reference.
Where to Stay in Nicaragua
Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Nicaragua:
How to Get Around Nicaragua
Most of the large cities have public transportation with bus tickets costing under 525 NIO ($0.15 USD).
Bus – Chicken buses (ie convereted school buses) are the cheapest way to get around. They are slow and stop often but have dirt cheap prices (around 35 NIO/$1 USD per hour of travel).
If you’re looking for a more comfortable journey, book with a coach company or private mini-shuttle, the latter of which are air-conditioned with cushioned-seating and have storage room for your luggage. You’ll spend at least 25% more than the microbuses, but take fewer detours and have a more comfortable journey.
For private mini-shuttles, expect to pay between 865-1729 ($25-50) per trip, however, you can try and buddy up with other hostel guests to drive down the price since it’s a private booking.
Air – La Coseña, Nicaragua’s domestic carrier, is based out of Managua and serves most of the country. Even if you’re keeping spending to a minimum, you’ll have to take a flight if you want to visit the Corn Islands. Return tickets from Managua to the Corn Islands will cost between $80-180 USD. For the 2.5-hour flight from Managua to Bluefields, expect to pay at least 1,750 NIO ($50 USD).
Train – There are no trains in Nicaragua.
Car Rental – A 4WD is recommended if you’re planning to visit rural areas. As is bringing an international driving license and taking out full insurance. Prices start from around 1,400 NIO ($40 USD) per day.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is relatively easy here. More often than not, you’ll be picked up by truckers (who often get a kick out of interacting with tourists). Avoid hitchhiking at night and make sure the driver picking you up isn’t a taxi or expecting payment. Having a sign will help, as will knowing some basic Spanish. For more hitchhiking tips and advice, check out Hitchwiki.
When to Go to Nicaragua
There are two distinct seasons in Nicaragua. The dry season, which falls between November-April, and the green (rainy) season which is from May-October.
To avoid the crowds and peak prices, visit during the rainy season. The rainier months also offer ideal surfing conditions and deserted beaches to enjoy the waves. Just keep in mind the Caribbean coast sees more rain than the Pacific.
There are some important festivals in Nicaragua that are worth seeing in person, including the yearly San Sebastian festival in Diriamba which runs between January 17th-27th. It’s an amazing way to celebrate a local fiesta, with colorful parades, traditional music, and street-side buffets filling up every corner.
Easter (Semana Santa) is when you’ll find most locals hitting the mountains or beaches with family and friends. Buses and hotels, particularly on the coast, fill up fast so be sure to book in advance if you’re visiting during this time. Note that cities are much quieter during this period and many local businesses will adapt their opening times/hours and events to celebrate the religious holiday.
How to Stay Safe in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America. Aside from inflating prices here and there, most visitors will find very little to complain about.
Petty crime and pick-pocketing are common in crowds, however, so keep your belongings close to you on public transport. Bus stations and markets are also common locations for petty theft.
If you rent a car, don’t leave any valuables in it and make sure to have suitable insurance just in case.
Scams are rare here, but they do happen. Be wary of random strangers asking for medicine or other financial assistance. Just politely decline and be on your way.
Many people come to Nicaragua to party as drugs and alcohol are both cheap and abundant. However, the fines and penalties for drug use are steep. Police often expect bribes that can cost of hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars. Police won’t hesitate to strip search you if they suspect narcotics so avoid using drugs here to stay safe.
Moreover, the drug trade contributes to deaths, instability, and unrest in the region. Don’t contribute to that.
Nicaragua is also struggling with political unrest. Protests and clashes in the major cities aren’t uncommon. Should a protest occur during your visit, avoid the area and return to your accommodation. While you’re unlikely to be hurt, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
As always, keep your wits about you at night time, particularly in the capital. Ask your hotel to call you a taxi in Managua (always negotiate the price before getting in the car), which can be an intimidating spot for travelers due to lack of road names, tourists, and landmarks.
Always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID, before you leave on your trip.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good 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.
Nicaragua Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Nicaragua. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Nicaragua, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Nicaragua Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Nicaragua Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
The Country Under My Skin, by Gioconda Belli
This passionate memoir by one of Nicaragua’s most revered writers follows her personal and political awakening, from a naive upper-class housewife to a revolutionary career in the Sandinistas. Her dramatic, and often dangerous, escapades are a potent and powerful antidote for those long, uncomfortable Chicken Bus journeys.
Selected Poems of Ruben Dario, by Ruben Dario
A bilingual anthology from Nicaragua’s most famous poet is a wonderful way to immerse yourself into the country’s creative history and heighten your appreciation for the Spanish language (even if you can’t understand it all). Dario kicked off the modernismo, the Spanish-American literary movement that dominated the end of the 19th century.
The Jaguar Smile , by Salman Rushdie
Before Rushdie made headlines for The Satanic Verses, he wrote his very first book. It’s about his travel experiences and reflections on Nicaragua, a country in political turmoil under the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. He offers an interesting perspective on an intense political period few foreigners had the chance to experience first hand. It’s eye-opening and provides insightful first-hand observations on a tumultuous era.
Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, by Stephen Kinzer
Regarded as the most influential and well-connected foreign correspondent in Central America, Stephen Kinzer’s notable encounters with the highest ranking members of the Somoza, Sandinistas, and Heads of State make for an incredible account of Nicaragua during the civil war period (1978–79).
Nicaragua Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Central America and continue planning your trip:
Photo credit: 2 – Blue Sonicboy