Nicaragua has ended up being a firm favourite of mine for backpacking but admittedly, it didn’t begin like that. Indeed when I first decided to travel to the Central American country that borders Honduras and Guetemala, I expected something a little different.
Despite the fact that half my friends hadn’t ever heard of Nicaragua, I’d found some really interesting volunteering jobs prior to booking my plane ticket. However, at the last minute, I decided that I wanted to see the country as a tourist instead. And I definitely didn’t come to regret my decision.
What I didn’t expect was for the country to be SO beautiful in terms of scenery and natural resources; volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls, mountains — Nicaragua has the lot. And it’s really cheap, too (general costs listed below).
I also didn’t expect the culture to be quite as conservative. After trips to Cuba and Colombia, I assumed things would be a little more…open like they are in other parts of the Caribbean and South America. In fact, the first day I touched down in the city of Leon, I remember that wandering around in shorts got me stared at a lot.
Despite this however, I’d return to the country in a heartbeat.
And once you adjust to the local charm, you’ll realise why this naturally stunning location is only now emerging as a backpacker haven after a the end of a bloody revolution which raged from 1978-1990.
Not only is Nicaragua recognised as one of the safest Latin American spots for travellers, but it’s also easy to travel around, find hostels, meet other travellers and plan activities to suit whatever mood or budget you’re in.
Here’s what to expect — and what to check out — when you travel to Nicaragua; a super-cheap, incredibly beautiful, country with Caribbean vibes on the coast and Latin life on the mainland.
Culture & Cost
If you travel to Nicaragua and speak Spanish, you’ll find that it’s generally pretty “clear” for someone who’s trying to learn. Nicaraguan’s take their time getting their words out and are generally pretty patient. Internal travel is also easy and generally safe (although watch yourself in the capital, Managua at night-time) and getting around via the local “chicken” buses is normal for backpackers. Failing that you can easily arrange private gringo mini buses from hostels to get around the country but I did the former and always felt safe. Plus, it was an experience.
Travel to Nicaragua is also incredibly wallet friendly, hence the increasing number of tourists. Here are some typical costs:
- Two-hour local bus from Managua to Rivas, 70 cordoba (£1.80)
- Cafe lunch of salad and omelette in Ometepe, 90 cordoba (£2.30)
- 1 night’s dorm accommodation in Granada, 200 cordoba (£5.20)
- Toña beer, 30 cordoba (0.80p)
- 1 night’s private accommodation at a B&B on the Corn Islands, 446 cordoba (£12)
When it comes to Nicaraguan culture, I generally found it to be friendly but pretty conservative. When it was 35 degrees in Leon for example, local girls were wandering around in *actual trousers* and so as tourists clad in shorts, me and my friends often attracted plenty of stares and whistles, which got old pretty quick. In fact, if you’re a woman planning travel to Nicaragua, get prepared for some of the worst cat-calling you will ever experience in Leon. Sorry.
I also spoke to a local NGO in Leon for an article I was writing and learnt that violence against women and femicide in rural areas, still occurs far too regularly. I went to a feminist rights protest in Leon and discovered that many Nica women are extremely displeased with their government’s protection of women and how the heavily patriarchal society can discriminate against working women and those who are unmarried. So although it’s very safe to travel around solo, female backpackers should be aware of some aspects to the culture.
Here’s what to check out when travelling around though…
GO FOR: volcano boarding, exploring
The city of León is famed for its volcano boarding – and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like.
For $20-25 you’ll be whisked up to the (dormant) Cerro Negro volcano by a local guide who will provide you with a seriously unsexy boiler suit and show you how to slide down the
But if that’s not your thing, wandering around the colonial city of León will create plenty of photo ops (the yellow Iglesia La Recolección church, for one). And you’ll find plenty of cute cafes, (French bakery, Paz De Luna being the best) and lots of Nica beer flowing freely from the main backpacker hostels, too.
I spent three weeks in León to learn Spanish with the well-run Metropolis Spanish School in the city centre and really enjoyed it.
For $230 a week I received four hours of tutoring with a skilled local teacher, all meals and board with a friendly Nicaraguan family and two local excursions and you can read more about my Nicaraguan home-stay experience here.
GO FOR: Waterfalls, volcanos, hiking
Accessible from the mainland by ferry, Ometepe houses two volcanoes — and climbing these isn’t for the faint of heart. The largest, Volcano Concepción, will take up to 11 hours round trip, and Volcano Maderas, the smaller, eight hours.
Both cost upwards of $30 to hike with a mandatory guide, but if you’re lazy like me, get a few pictures with the volcano in the background and opt for the almost as impressive San Ramon waterfall trek instead, which is just under 4 miles walking in total.
Ometepe island is deceptively large and it’s a good idea to rent mopeds or motorbikes to explore the whole thing in its entirety. But if you fall off within the first five minutes like I did and get banned from driving one (so embarrassing), almost all hostels and hotels will rent you a bicycle, too.
A backpacker favourite, Ometepe has an abundance of “hippy hostels,” but with all that activity you’re going to want to relax somewhere tranquil and gorgeous, like Hotel Omaja, which is 20 minutes from the waterfall and luxury at a good price.
Even though I contracted food poisoning from some street food here (not fun), Granada was a favourite Nica location of mine. I stayed in the very backpacker-y De Boca En Boca, rated the best hostel in the city and loved it because it was cheap and included eggs for breakfast.
With its gorgeous colonial architecture, palm tree-lined streets and a thriving artsy and backpacker community, I found it easy to meet people and arrange really fun activities here.
A night tour of the live Masaya volcano (yep, another one) was epic, as the lava glowed visibly in the dark and I also explored the serene and scenic Lake Nicaragua by boat ($30 for both with English-speaking guides from a company called Allah Tours, in the centre of the city).
GO FOR: Beaches, partying
Travel to Nicaragua wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the crystalline waters and constant sunshine on the Corn Islands.
When you’re done with the mainland, return to Managua for your flights to the Caribbean side of the country, comprised of two islands, Big and Little Corn. Chilling out is practically mandatory and lobster is available everywhere.
Book your flights with La Costena (around $170 return) and be prepared to completely fall in love with this coconut tree-lined paradise where locals speak Spanish, English, Creole and a local Indian language among the Mestizo people.
Both islands are just now opening up to tourism, but the smaller one, known as Little Corn, is more popular with travellers due to its abundance of buzzing beach bars and barefoot-all-day vibe. (It reminded me of a less commercialised Thai island).
For gorgeous beachfront views and amazing food on Little Corn, stay at the stunning Las Palmeras Hotel, where you’re guaranteed delicious bar food, fun late-night convos with the two Canadian managers and a tranquil swim on their beautiful beach.
Most tourists also head to Desideri for delicious Western and local food in the day and later, kick the night’s partying off at Tranquilo, where the whole island starts drinking before branching off into one or two of the larger ‘clubs’ later.
However, if you like your beaches quiet, you’ve got more chance of having one to yourself on the larger of the two islands, Big Corn, which is inhabited mainly by locals who make their money from fishing lobster most of the year and where tourists often only crash for a night or two.
Diving and paddle boarding is the main tourist activity on Big Corn and can be arranged through the Dos Tiburones dive shop, where the expert instructors will take you out on the crystalline waters and show you a selection of tropical fish.
And for the best food on the larger island, check the traditional Caribbean dishes at Seaside Grill, Danet’s place, or G&G where you can get lobster or a “ron-don” dish (a Caribbean stew comprised of fish, plantain, shrimp and lobster) for less than £8.
What I wish I did…
- I never checked out the “Sunday Funday” beach party and pool crawl tour in San Juan del Sur. It has a notorious reputation among backpackers as the best party in the country for tourists, but I didn’t head there.
- I wish I visited the Surfing Turtle Lodge, just outside of Leon because during turtle season you can help them nest — and that apparently involves setting baby ones free INTO THE SEA moments after they are born!
- I also wish I hadn’t got stuck on the Corn Islands for so long (actual weeks) because during rainy season, it’s hard to get off! Saying that, there are worse places to pass the time…
When are you going to travel to Nicaragua? Need any tips or fancy sharing your experience? Comment below!
A version of this article appeared on Elite Daily