Nicaragua is Central America’s largest country. You will find it north of Costa Rica and south of Honduras, with coasts on both sides, the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. Even though the country has suffered from a long history of political problems, it is rich in natural attractions that have been preserved. Check out my Nicaragua travel guide to find a lot of things to do, places to visit, and where to stay.
The largest freshwater lake in Central America is found here, with the only freshwater Bull Sharks in the world!
While some destinations in Central America are highly appreciated, such as Belize, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, other underrated places deserve more attention as an excellent travel destination, if not better, such as cheap travel to Nicaragua.
This underrated magical place can offer anything and everything you can think of, whether it’s natural to architectural attractions, the beaches, the culture, and most importantly, the outstanding nature. The active volcanoes in Nicaragua are behind its astonishingly diverse landscapes. These 19 volcanoes make this country pretty unique with its unmatched nature. But there are many other things to do, places to visit in Nicaragua. I have full blog post about Nicaragua’s facts, read it here.
Table of Contents
- Top Things to Do in Nicaragua
- Places to Visit in Nicaragua
Top Things to Do in Nicaragua
A Surfing Paradise
There is a reason why Nicaragua is known for its surfing spots. You will find retreats, surf camps, and resorts for surfing in Nicaragua easily. The availability of these places allows tourists who are interested in surfing to travel on a tight budget without any trouble. While surfers in most countries have to wait for the right surfing conditions, Nicaragua offers the perfect, consistent conditions for surfing all year long. Thanks to its deep water, ideal swell, and awesome weather, Nicaragua makes any surfer’s dream come true.
Related Read: San Juan del Sur: Colorful Beach Town
The History And The Diverse Culture
People in Nicaragua have fought dictatorships and went through a lot of wars, but they have earned their freedom. The tough times they went through in the past can easily be seen and felt through their beautiful culture that reflects their history. If you’re a history buff, you can visit museums and art galleries to soak in the culture.
But nothing is compared to wandering down the cobblestone streets and taking pictures of the beautiful architecture surrounding you. Granada, for example, is a perfect mixture of cobbled streets, bright colors, breathtaking churches, and awesome museums. Next comes León, which is the second most visited colonial city. What truly sets this city apart more than anything is how it’s packed with amazing art galleries.
Suitable For Everyone
Whether you want to chill by the beach or you are more of an adventurous person, you will find something that suits your taste in Nicaragua. This is definitely the right place for any kind of traveler, especially if you prefer active vacations. There are a lot of activities that you can do such as volcano boarding, zip-lining, trekking, surfing, doing yoga, going mountain biking, and many more. For people who wait for vacations, so they can relax all day from all the responsibilities they have to deal with in their normal lives, one fact about Nicaragua is that the country has a lot of yoga retreats for them to be able to relax and unwind.
Related Read: Totoco Lodge: Eco Lodge Adventure on Ometepe Island!
Explore Colonial Leon
Compared to Granada, Leon is less traveled, more liberal, and smaller. In Leon, you will find a family-friendly, easy-going atmosphere that is very popular with independent travelers and backpackers. Your first day can be spent just wandering around the city square, visiting Recoleccion Cathedral (there is a rooftop tour that you can sign up for), in addition to the sidewalk cafés, street markets, and baroque theater. Enjoy a mojito that is made with the incredible, local Flor de Cana rum either at Via Via or across the street at Bigfoot Hostel, then hang out and enjoy live music along with your drink.
Go Volcano Boarding Down The Cerro Negro
If don’t think that volcano boarding would be fun, then I’m not sure what to tell you. My boyfriend and I went on this adventure, along with two other Americans who were visiting Leon and our Va Pues Tours guide. Cerro Negrol is just 161 years old, which makes it a very young volcano and one of the more active ones as well. It has erupted a total of 23 times in its young life – with the last one taking place in 1999. Therefore, it is definitely overdue for big steam and hot lava explosion.
After a moderately difficult hour-long climb, you will make it to the top. You can board down the other side of the volcano on a stand-up board (which is very similar to a snowboard). Or you can do what I did and sit down like you would on a sled. You don’t go as fast as you may think, since the boards do get bogged down really easily due to the volcanic gravel. However, it is adrenaline-pumping, dirty, unusual, and great fun.
Explore The Architecture Of Granada
Granada, as Central America’s oldest city at its original site, is a colorful and fascinating city that is full of intriguing colonial-era treasures. Throughout the centuries, much of the city has been built and then rebuilt, as various colonists and marauders sacked the city. Granada definitely demands to be explored, ranging from 17th-century museums and churches to its hidden courtyards and boutique hotels that have been converted from historic buildings.
Some of the major town center highlights include the main square’s grand cathedral; the Iglesia de La Merced tower, from where you can snap iconic photos of Granada’s skyline; Antiquo Convento San Francisco, which has been converted into a museum housing an incredible pre-Columbian collection; and of course the colorful streets, with every block full of architectural surprises. The Fortaleza de la Polvora is a small medieval fort located right outside of central Granada. There is also a cemetery nearby, which is very interesting to explore and wander through, providing you will an almost limitless amount of photo opportunities. If you’re interested in this tour companies such as toursnicaragua.com can help organize it.
Eat a Nacatamal or Fritanga
Nica food goes beyond simply gallo pinto, a common dish of beans and rice that is very popular in a majority of Latin American countries and seems to be on every plate. Nacatamal is my favorite dish. This moist tamale is filled with veggies, chicken, pork, or other fillings and then cooked wrapped up in a banana leaf. Another delicious but cheap meal is “fritanga,” which is local food that a sidewalk vendor serves. All the food is on display, so you can choose whatever you want to eat. There is always gallo pinto available along with soft-sauteed and fried plantains, in addition to several fish or meat dishes. Usually, it comes wrapped up inside a banana leaf and then placed in a plastic bag. Typically a complete three to four dish meal will only cost you around $1.50.
Shop in the Nica Markets
The markets here, like in so many other Latin American countries, are the center of daily life here. In cities such as Granada and Leon, the very heart of them is the main squares, with very active handicrafts and food stalls. Spend a morning in Granada walking through Mercado Municipal, which is mainly a food market that is very colorful and lively, and a couple of vendors selling jewelry or crafts.
About an hour away in Masaya, there are two very worthwhile markets: there is a sprawling, older market which is mainly where locals ago, along with a newer tourist market that mainly sells high-quality artisan crafts. It can be easy to get lost amid the housewares, clothing, and food sections, but there is also a big artisan area in the older market full of handmade goods at a really good price. So if you want to go to the market, make sure that you stress to your taxi driver that you are wanting to go to Mercado Viejo and not the tourist market that most travelers go to.
Go Volcano Hiking At Night
Nicaragua has 25 volcanoes, with nine of them active (or ones that have erupted during the last 2,000 years at least). Granada and Masaya are two that are nearby. I recommend that you hike Masay, since it provides stunning views of the volcano as well as Mombacho, Granada, and Laguna de Apoyo, which is a serene crater lake.
The best way of seeing Masaya is at night. If you get there during the late afternoon (by 4 p.m. at the latest), there is a night tour that you can sign up for that is led by park guides. It gives you plenty of time for browsing the visitor center and hiking (or getting a ride) up to the top of Masaya crater, which has steam and sulfur pouring out of it. The night tour begins there at around 5:30 p.m. You can begin with hiking up the volcano’s crest, then put on a hardhat, and start making your way down the lava tubes, which is the home of hundreds of bats.
Rough It On La Isla Ometepe
You can go on a 90-minute bus ride from Granada, and then take a 90-minute ferry ride to visit the very low-key and rustic La Isla Ometepe, which is the center of Lake Nicaragua. The island is comprised of two volcanoes, Maderas and Concepcion, and everything revolves around them.
Only around half or less of the islands have paved roads; after you get to the far side of either of the volcanoes, it starts getting very bumpy, difficult, and slow. Transportation is very challenging. So be prepared to have to pay high hired car fees and also to get stuck in places where there are no rides. If you try relying on the unreliable and slow bus system you will end up waiting for hours. Or you can rent a motorcycle as we did for about $35 a day. You will be completely charmed by Ometepe, with all of the hiking opportunities, as well as kayaking on the Rio Istan, the Charco Verde reserve with all of its howler monkeys, and the coffee co-op plantations. A majority of accommodations are fincas – which are working farms – ranging from quite comfortable to very basic.
Places to Visit in Nicaragua
Granada is one of Nicaragua’s most important cities. This is the oldest city in the country and its rich colonial heritage makes it one of the most popular destinations of Nicaragua. When traveling in this colonial city, you will feel like you are traveling back in time.
Things to do in Granada Nicaragua
1. Close to Granada there are 365 small islands formed by a volcano. You can go down to the pier and go on a boat tour around the islets. They are beautiful and some even have houses for sale on them! Make sure to stop off at Monkey Island and San Pablo’s Fortress.
2. A great way to get to know the city with the family is on a horse carriage tour. You won’t have our kids complain about walking it. In it, you get to see the city’s beautiful colonial structures and feel the relaxed lifestyle in Granada.
Where to Stay in Granada, Nicaragua?
1. If you are visiting Granada you have to check out Hotel La Bocona. It is a beautiful colonial mansion from 1860. The rooms here are huge! Plus it is on the center of the city. There is also a great pool for the kids.
This is Nicaragua’s second-largest city. Colonial architecture, an abundance of churches are just some of the similarities shared by Leon and Granada. Exploring the place will bring you back in time to their civil war. It is also home to the largest Cathedral in Central America.
Things to do in Leon Nicaragua
1. Cathedral Basilica de Ascension is the major landmark of the city. This church took over 100 years to build and turned out to be Central America’s largest church. The best part is that you can take a tour inside it and climb to the bell tower and enjoy amazing views from the rooftop of Leon’s skyline.
2. Going for a walk around the town is also a good thing to do. You get to see beautiful buildings and local restaurants. Spend some time at the central plaza, bargaining for a great deal on woodworks and local artisan crafts.
Where to Stay in Leon, Nicaragua?
1. While traveling in Leon I found what used to be a convent Hotel El Convento. It holds the feel of a convent with one of the most magnificent altars in the grand lobby and a gorgeous courtyard.
2. There is also a 4 star hotel called Hotel La Perla with beautiful courtyards. This is more of a business trip hotel, but the pool makes any kid excited to be there.
This is the largest freshwater island in the world and is located in the middle of the largest island in Lake Nicaragua. It is also home to two volcanoes: Concepcion and Maderas. It was named a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve in 2010.
Things to do on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
1. Ometepe has some cute tiny towns that you can explore on a horseback tour. There are plenty of hiking trails that run in all directions. So enjoy one hour or a five-hour tour.
2. You can also hike along the island and visit organic coffee plantations and hundred-year-old haciendas on the slopes of Maderas volcano.
Where to stay on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua?
1. There is a great eco-lodge on the island with extremely comfortable cabins. Everything in the cabins is made by the locals using materials from the island. This is Totoco Eco-lodge.
2. There is also Finca del Sol, an eco-friendly B&B that offers only 3 cabins. They also have an organic farm where they grow most of what’s cooked for the guests. And you can play with the goats.
Masaya, located near Granada, is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. Masaya Volcano National Park consists of two volcanoes and five craters. It is also Nicaragua’s first National Park since 1979.
If you want to see inside the active crater, there is a lookout point called Plaza de Oviedo.
There is also Cruz de Bobadilla from where you get to see amazing views of Momotombo, Momotombito and Mombacho Volcanoes, Lake Managua, and Lake Masaya.
This place is the ultimate vacation destination for a lot of reasons. However, the most beautiful thing that Nicaragua has is how it can offer something for every type of traveler out there. You can just go witness and take pictures of its beauty, to view the active volcanoes, or you can go to make use of the perfect weather conditions that every surfer dreams about. Regardless of the reason you might want to go, it’s guaranteed that you will fall in love with this country.
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2 thoughts on “Nicaragua Travel Guide For Casual Family Travelers (Updated 2022)”
well, I’m heading to Nicaragua in about 2 weeks and I’m visiting ALL the places you listed on this photo essay except for Leon (decided to hit Chinandega/Jiquilillo to visit the Cosigüina volcano/Lake crater instead). So excited about it! seems like I have a great itinerary 🙂
So great, if you need any help with other places go there or to get around, let me know. Have fun!