The dark horse of Central America, Nicaragua is the rough and ready younger sibling to Costa Rica’s backpacker-seasoned popularity, but is absolutely just as beautiful. It’s not a country on many people’s bucket lists, and for that reason benefits from the authenticity that many other tourist destinations have lost. There are so many fun things to do in Nicaragua and beautiful places to visit in Nicaragua, and plenty of reasons for you to visit. If you consider yourself an excited explorer looking for your next wild and welcoming adventure, you’re in the right place; I am about to explain why Nicaragua should be item number one on that all-important bucket list.
From north to south and east to west, the landscape, culture and general vibe of Nicaragua goes through immense changes, giving you loads of places to visit in Nicaragua and making it one of the most interesting countries in Central America to travel through. On the Pacific side, dramatic landscapes give the country its infamous title of “the land of lakes and volcanoes”, but travelling east to the Caribbean side, the terrain flattens out to a tropical desert of coastline and jungle. Where the densely populated, colonially influenced cities of the west have encouraged riots, revolutions, art and poetry that sprinkle Nicaragua’s history, the rural communities living on the Caribbean have a very different way of life, and dialects that often couldn’t be further from Latin American Spanish.
This much variety within the country naturally equals an abundance of places to see and things to do in Nicaragua as a tourist. From volcano boarding down Cerro Negro in the north, to hopping around the Corn Islands in the Caribbean east, to surfing Nicaragua’s best wave on the Pacific west, and maybe even a cheeky waterfall hike on the island of Ometepe down south, you could literally never get bored.
To make it even better, the local people are among the kindest I’ve ever met, and would lose an arm and a leg to help you out when you need it. Just be extra careful with your valuable possessions – pick-pocketing is rife in Nicaragua, and pretty much everyone loses a phone or wallet at some point if they’re not looking after it. Some Spanish skills are very helpful here, you’ll probably need the basics quite a few times!
The main airport in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city, is usually quite expensive to fly into, so if you’re not heading straight into the country by air, the other most popular way is to travel by land from Costa Rica. Many pre-bookable coaches make this journey, or you can make it yourself on local buses. Generally, Nicaragua is very cheap and accessible to travel around, and chicken buses or ‘colectivo’ minivans can take you to pretty much every destination you fancy.
So, after all those top tips you may find yourself standing in Nicaragua, hopefully having successfully kept hold of your phone (don’t make my mistake, please). Now what? Buckle in, because you’re about to be educated on the absolute best things to do in Nicaragua…
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The best things to do and see in Nicaragua...
1. Do a free walking tour in Leon
Starting from the top of the country, one of the first places to visit in Nicaragua you’re likely to encounter is Leon, a youthful and liberal hub of some of Central America’s greatest artists and revolutionaries. It’s raw and real in a way that I haven’t seen in many other cities, and carries a lot of reminders of Nicaragua’s violent and turbulent past that continues up to the present day.
One of the best things to do in Nicaragua and by far the best way to learn about this relentless cycle of peace and war, poverty and prosperity, domination and revolution, is by taking a free walking tour, starting every day next to the central square at a mural depicting Leon’s past. The guides are so knowledgeable and passionate about their city and history, and they take you around the famous cathedral, street art murals, the central market, memorial parks for Nicaragua’s most loved poets and revolutionaries, and even point out the best places to eat and drink during your stay in Leon.
The walking tour company has a Facebook page here, where you can find out more specific details for the daily tours. You can maybe even couple this up with a visit to the Museum of Revolution, where Communist members of Nicaragua’s last mass revolution take you on a more thorough tour of events – I would highly recommend it!
2. Take a chicken bus from Rivas station
Rivas is where everything happens; it’s a bustling, local centre of transport links in the south of Nicaragua. The chances are, if you’re bus-hopping around the Pacific side of the country, you will definitely pass through here at some point. And its chaos is incredibly underrated.
In my humble opinion, chicken buses are the supreme modes of transport in Nicaragua: They’re dirt cheap, frequent, very fast, and packed full to the brim with local culture. As a budget, solo, female traveller, the prospect of using chicken buses seemed a bit daunting to me at first, but as long as you keep your head screwed on straight and your valuables hidden from sight, it’s a completely unique experience that’s a must-do in Nicaragua.
If you have some time in between rushing to catch chicken buses connecting at Rivas, stop to people-watch at the loud, crazy, firework display that is the bus station. Bright colours, street sellers, shouting bus conductors and the classic re-conditioned American school buses fill your vision and leave you completely absorbed in Nicaragua’s mad yet beautiful culture.
3. Stay in El Zopilote permaculture farm on Ometepe
Tucked into the side of a volcano on the magical island of Ometepe, made up of twin volcanoes that have risen out of Lake Nicaragua, El Zopilote functions as a permaculture farm, hostel, and the best vegan/vegetarian restaurant in the area. It’s one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua, completely surrounded by jungle wilderness, making you feel like you’re discovering unknown tropical lands rather than staying in a hostel, and it has a lookout spot for incredible sunset views, a yoga deck, cacao ceremonies in secret clearings, and even a pizza night that often includes fire shows.
Zopilote is a hippie backpacker hotspot, which means you’ll meet some very cool people, but if you’re not one for eco-toilets, limited WiFi areas and bugs then maybe stick to more trodden ground! I spent pretty much all of my time here after falling off a scooter and badly injuring my leg, and I can safely say it was one of the best places in the world I could’ve imagined recovering in. Maybe just don’t fall off scooters when you visit.
Top tip: Eat the vegan ravioli and buy fresh sourdough from Zopilote’s restaurant – all the food and medicinal products they sell are made on site with homegrown ingredients, and everything tastes amazing. Maybe even pick a sneaky starfruit from the trees for your breakfast.
4. Learn to surf in Popoyo
Never mind being one of the best things to do in Nicaragua, surfing in Popoyo is one of the best things to do in Central America. In the west of the country and a far reach away from civilisation, Popoyo has become an infamous surf town for having the best, most consistent waves in Nicaragua. You’ll have to either take a tourist shuttle directly there or plan on hitch-hiking some rides, but it’s worth the journey. Popoyo has, without a doubt, the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen on the Pacific side; long, sandy, free of rubbish, and with both the sunrise and sunset views every day.
For seasoned surfers, there’s a few really great spots that are walkable between each other in the area, or if you’re a beginner you can always rent a board at ‘Beginners’ Bay’ and get a surf lesson. Popoyo is quite a sleepy town when the surfers aren’t out in force, so is a perfect location to truly chill out, relax on the beach, try your hand at surfing, and have a beer in the evening.
A warning, though – restaurants in Popoyo are disproportionately expensive due to the amount of tourists, and there isn’t a big supermarket or ATM. If you’re planning on staying here, bring plenty of cash and ingredients to cook for yourself!
5. Go wild at Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is home to the most popular, touristy resorts in Nicaragua, as well as the biggest pool party crawl in Central America, Sunday Funday. Starting at Pachamama hostel, you’ll go on a whirlwind tour of bars that lasts all day and is nothing less than a massive party. And it’s amazing. Definitely one of the best things to do in Nicaragua if you like to party!
I wouldn’t really recommend staying in San Juan for longer than this, because it’s swarming with tourists and, as a result, much more expensive, and there are much prettier surfing beaches further north, like Popoyo. But if you’re a party person, it’s definitely worth a stop to experience Sunday Funday. You’ll meet a ton of other young travellers, and dance to some incredible music all day and night long.
6. Hike up to the San Ramon waterfall
The island of Ometepe is wonderful and full of adventure, but one of my favourite things to do in Nicaragua was definitely hiking up the side of the Maderas volcano to the waterfall of San Ramon, a 145 metre tall cascade over mossy rocks completely immersed in jungle. It’s not a particularly hard hike, taking 2-3 hours to make it up, but in the immense jungle heat, a shower under the waterfall is a huge reward at the end.
Some opt to hike one or both of the twin volcanoes on Ometepe instead, which are also incredible experiences, but San Ramon is so beautiful that it deserves its own day trip, and for only $3 as an entrance fee it’s a cheap one. Stop off at Playa Mangos on your way home, a beach overlooking the lake, to watch the sunset for extra Wow Factor.
7. Relax in paradise on Little Corn Island
While the Pacific side of Nicaragua is very cheap and easy to travel around, getting over to the Caribbean is a much bigger feat. You can either fly if you have the budget, or take night buses and ferries if you have a lot of time to spare. But the Corn Islands are one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua and worth the journey, particularly Little Corn, a tiny, tropical fishing island with crystal clear waters and classic Caribbean palm trees.
Big Corn is the busier island of the two, but if you want a unique adventure away from crowds of tourists, Little Corn’s secluded and quiet nature makes it one of the most beautiful places to stay. It truly takes on the ‘Go Slow’ Caribbean vibe, without cars on the streets and with super cheery locals greeting you, and it really is its own little paradise. Just make sure to stock up on food and alcohol before you go, because it’s not as easy to access cheaply on the island.
8. Sled down the active Cerro Negro volcano
Definitely one of the best things to do in Nicaragua and on almost every Central America bucket list, volcano boarding is a must. If you find yourself staying in Leon and looking for some adventure, head over to Volcano Day, a locally owned, very cool tour company, and book yourself onto their volcano boarding experience, which runs twice a day every day. They’ll whisk you into the back of a pick-up truck and drive you outside of the city to a cluster of young volcanoes, some of which are active, and you’ll then hike up to the top of Cerro Negro holding a bright yellow bobsled or board.
Once you’re at the top, there’s only one way back down. It’s a steep drop and completely exhilarating to slide down the volcanic rubble, obviously with incredible views of surrounding volcanoes all around. A truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, volcano boarding should be a no-brainer when visiting Nicaragua.
If you’re craving even more adventure, follow this up with an overnight hike to the top of another volcano in the area organised by Volcano Day, and watch the sunrise and sunset feeling on top of the world.
9. Rave in the jungle at Treehouse Hostel
Outside Granada and on the base of Volcan Mombacho, Treehouse is another jungle wilderness hostel with insane views and an even more insane weekly rave, called the Treehouse Party. It can be a bit of a nightmare for those staying in central Granada, but you can even book a hammock at Treehouse to sleep in for the night if you’re not already staying there.
The effort is, of course, worth it for the wild Friday night rave which is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua for party animals and can only be described as other-worldly. Pair this with a day trip to the Laguna Apoyo or a hike up Volcan Masaya to see its glowing lava at night, and you’ll feel like you’ve thoroughly conquered the land of lakes and volcanoes, with a few crazy parties and jungle adventures on the side.
What are the best things to do in Nicaragua?
Where are your favourite places to visit in Nicaragua? Anything you’d add to this Central America bucket list?
Love as always and happy adventuring…
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