Nicaragua is a vibrant country that is evolving into a hot spot for budget travelers. As prices in Costa Rica rise and regional safety concerns lessen, this diverse country is a must see for anyone traveling through Central America. You can find a little bit of everything here- big waves, beautiful cities and even a little Caribbean flare on the eastern coast.
Best Time To Go: November through May is the best time to go to avoid rainy season. Bare in mind that April and May tend to be extremely hot! Expect large crowds during Holy Week, when Nicaraguans vacation to the beaches.
Daily Spending: You can comfortably get by on $20 USD per day. I find myself spending as little as $15 per day. Click HERE for a more detailed budget guide.
What To Pack: Nicaragua is hot year round, so whip out your tank tops and shorts! The weather doesn’t differ too much between regions, but I always recommend packing a rain jacket and light weight cardigan or sweatshirt just in case. Like other equatorial countries, expect humidity and endless sweating… so consider bringing quick dry clothing and looser fitting tops. Definitely bring a pair of comfortable sneakers to hike in as well. You wouldn’t want to miss out on Volcano boarding or riding a dirt bike around Isla Ometepe! Lastly, I would recommend a headlamp. Electricity isn’t very reliable!!
Transportation: Your best and cheapest option for getting around Nicaragua is the bus system. Buses are great for getting around the city and are also the cheapest option for traveling across the country. They are incredibly crowded and hot, but it gets you interacting with the locals! Taxi’s can be cheap and more comfortable, but aren’t worth the dangers of robbery or kidnapping. If you plan on checking out the Caribbean side (eastern coast), you will need to take a bus to Ramas ($8.50), then hop on a river boat to get to the coast.
- Surfing in San Juan Del Sur– If you are a wave chaser seeking great surf, you MUST go to San Juan Del Sur. There are all sorts of beaches for every level of surfer. For about $10 you can rent a board for an entire day! The hostels are full of avid surfer bros and gals, so you will have no problem finding a few people to tag along with.
- Volcano Boarding in Leon– This is a unique experience that you won’t want to miss out on. For $30 there are a few tour companies based out of Leon that will take you up to Cerro Negro (an active volcano!), hand you a wooden toboggan and send you on your way flying down the side of the mountain. The hike up the volcano is pretty neat and offers spectacular views. This definitely isn’t for everyone though… You will most likely come crashing to a stop at the bottom of the mountain. So if you aren’t keen on minor whiplash, somersaulting and having a mouthful of volcanic sand you might want to skip this.
- Swimming in Oja de Agua– Isla Ompetepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua), offers a spa-like retreat just a short motorbike trip up into the hills. Oja de Agua is a beautiful mineral spring pool that will provide you with some much needed relaxation. It will cost you $3 to get in and once inside you are able to purchase fresh coconut water or even a Coco Loco!
- Snorkeling with the sharks– In the crystal blue waters of the Corn Islands you have all sorts of options for exploring the sea. If you aren’t scuba certified, I highly recommend joining a snorkel tour. For about $12 you will get picked up from your hostel and brought to a boat where you will be given your snorkel gear. On my tour, we stopped at four different spots; ranging from shallow coral covered beaches to deep shark infested water. (You will want to be a confidant swimmer for the deeper spots.) We saw a bunch of Nurse Sharks!
My favorite Places:
Isla de Ompetepe-
This charming island is just a short boat ride from Managua and offers numerous activities. Accommodation and food is bit spendy here, but it’s well worth a 2 day trip. My biggest recommendation is to rent a dirt bike ($15 all day) and explore the island. The roads are safe and the scenery is gorgeous. If you have all day, stop by Oja de Agua for a quick dip, then head to one of the volcanos for a afternoon hike!
Little Corn Island-
If you are able to stomach the LONG journey to the eastern coast of Nicaragua, odds are you going to the Corn Islands. Big Corn Island doesn’t have too much to offer, so I wouldn’t bother spending more than a day there. I would give little Corn Island at least 4 days. The Island has no roads, just a thin footpath that loops around the perimeter. Electricity is spotty and you might wake up to a crab crawling on you (I will save that story for another time..) but that is all part of the charm. There honestly isn’t a ton to do on the island other than water activities and checking out the beaches. But the people are super friendly and the vibe will leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed. The larger restaurants are pretty delicious, but costly. So I recommend eating mostly at the little restaurants in front of local homes, which will also offer the most authentic food! For a little adventure, you can rent SUP boards, snorkel gear and kayaks. Or if you have the time and money you can get scuba certified!
San Juan Del Sur-
This cozy beach town is a backpackers dream. Accommodation is incredibly reasonable at about $7 per night and you will meet tons of travelers. We stayed at Yajure Surf Hostel and highly recommend it! The staff super helpful and the location is ideal. Most people come here for the amazing surfing, but it’s also great for cheap shopping, delicious food and pretty beaches. On the weekends, the place becomes one big party, with pool hopping, t-shirts and lots of drinking- so bring your A-game!
- The Culture– Nicaragua is a breath of fresh air compared to the more westernized Costa Rica and Panama. You will get an in-depth look at the lives of the locals and a strong sense of their culture. Everyone is welcoming and willing to help you with whatever you need. My favorite thing was eating at the small cocinas (kitchens) in the markets alongside the locals!
- The Beaches- Holy guacamole this country offers some pretty spectacular beaches! the pacific coast is a little less tropical but the views are gorgeous and the waves are great; while the Caribbean coast is littered with beaches you can only dream of. Palm trees, turquoise waters, and golden sand.
- Lots of HAGGLING. Nicaragua offers some crazy cheap prices, but with that comes a whole lot of bargaining. I consistently felt like I was getting ripped off for things like bus rides or souvenirs. And let me tell you, these salesmen are relentless. 4 or 5 of them would surround you and try to convince you to go with them or to buy their product. When you are hot and sweaty this can be a little too much. Just breath and tell them to back off for a second while you think. As long as you stand your ground, you should be fine.
- It’s HOT. This might not be considered a downside for some people, but I’m from Seattle and there were days when I literally thought my skin was going to melt away from my bones. You will be hard pressed to find reliable A/C at a budget hostel, so trust me, you get comfortable sleeping in the nude real quick. Luckily there are oceans to swim in and activities to keep your mind off the beating sun!
My Tips & Tricks Specific to Nicaragua:
- It’s probably cheaper to fly to San Jose, Costa Rica first. From San Jose, you can take a bus to Nicaragua. It’s a long trip, so consider stopping overnight in Tamarindo or Liberia for a break. The border crossing will cost you about $15 and the bus ride about $18.
- Don’t shy away from the big cities. In many countries, the bigger cities are kinda miserable and industrialized, but I think it is worth it to check out Managua, Granada and Leon. All offer some great insight into local life and the markets are a must see/eat!
- Go to the bathroom BEFORE you get on a long bus ride. There aren’t any bathrooms on board and unless you are incredibly lucky they won’t stop for you. Jace had a pretty hilarious scenario and was lucky enough that the driver thought it was hilarious and stopped briefly for him.
- Buy your bus tickets in advance. If you are planning on taking a overnight bus, get there hours ahead of time, maybe even a day ahead of time to buy your ticket. We arrived about 3 hours before the bus left and Jace ended up having to sit on a crate for the entire ride because there weren’t enough seats.
- Don’t be afraid to bargain. Prices will be jacked up to roughly 3/4 more than they should be, so stand firm. It can actually be pretty fun! Just remember to be fair, you don’t want to rip them off either.
- Eat where the locals eat. This is pretty true anywhere you travel, but in Nicaragua especially. I felt that the street food and the market food was so much more tasty! I definitely recommend trying a cold fruit juice blended with ice!
- Learn some spanish. I found that very few people spoke much english. It is incredibly helpful to have some knowledge of spanish vocabulary and phrases.
My Ratings for Nicaragua:
Activities: 7 out of 10
Food: 8 out of 10
People: 8 out of 10
Cultural Experience: 9 out of 10