Going to Nicaragua? Here are some tips

This is part 3 of 4 posts covering some travel tips for Central America.

Two years ago I did two months of travel through Central America with my boyfriend. I documented all the countries we went to in a book format to share with my friends, but it seemed logical to post it here too in case anyone chances upon it.

Bear in mind this is a budget travel plan; you could obviously go for hotels and flight transfers but this itinerary focuses on the other end of the spectrum.

Nicaragua was my favourite country. Here’s how we did it.

Managua

We visited the capital city but only because we had to fly in here. While Nicaragua is said to be the safest country in Central America, Managua is a bit slummy. We were just here for one night before catching a bus to Leon. Most buses leaving Managua go from the UCA (University of Central America). It’s a frantic bus station with no signs but if you say where you need to go someone will point you in the right direction.

Leon

The bus from Managua only takes two hours and costs 55 Cordoba. We stayed in Leon for 2 nights at Hostel Tango which wasn’t really a hostel as opposed to three private rooms out the back of a small cafe. The owners were incredibly sweet and friendly and cooked us breakfast each morning.

Leon is a very old town with the largest cathedral in Central America. You can pay 75 Cordoba to walk on the roof which gives you a great view of the surrounding volcanoes. There is a tiny door on the right hand side where you pay to go up. There’s also a really great juice and smoothie bar on the other side of the cathedral courtyard which sells huge sizes of nearly every fruit combination you could imagine for around 35 Cordoba.

A must do activity in Leon is volcano boarding on Cerra Negro. You hike up the volcano side for 45 minutes then gear up like meth cooks and zoom down the side which takes about 30 seconds. The tour we did was with Sonati and cost $35USD each. Alternatively you can do the exact same tour with Tierra Tours or Bigfoot Hostel.

Walking up Cerra Negro
Volcano boarding
Cerra Negro

Las Penitas

This is a beach about 30km from Leon. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour on a chicken bus to get here and it’ll set you back a whole 15 Cordobas. The journey is only 30km or so but the bus stops so frequently so it takes much longer than it should. If you want to taxi it will be about $25USD.

We stayed for 3 nights at a hotel called Barca de Oro in a room with AC. Unless you’re a surfer 2 nights would be more than enough time here but they had a ‘3 nights for the price of 2’ deal on so we figured we may as well.

Now, usually when someone says “the best [something] of my life” you can assume they’re speaking figuratively. However, I can say with full confidence that I literally had the best burger of my life at Las Penitas at a place called The Lazy Turtle. It’s a hostel and restaurant run by a totally washed up surfer dude called Ryan. It’s called the Canadian Burger and it’s unreal. I’d even go as far as saying it’s worth making the trip out to the beach just to eat one. The restaurant is shut on Sunday and Monday though, so if you do happen to make a burger pilgrimage don’t do it on either of those days.

Kayak hire is pretty cheap from Barca de Oro. It was $12USD for a half day on a double kayak. The estuary leads you up the river where you’ll see a ton of birds and some really huge, colourful crabs. If you’re lucky you’ll see a crocodile too. We didn’t.

Kayaking

Granada

Getting to Granada from Las Penitas was 3 back to back bus rides. Chicken bus to Leon, mini van to Managua UCA station and another chicken bus to Granada Central. You’re covering a few hundred km but the whole trip still only costs about 70 Cordoba all up. We stayed in Granada for 3 nights which was a good amount of time.

The hotel we booked was called Hotel Casa Barcelona and while it was very nice it was much too far out of town. If we’d known in advance we would have booked something more central. It was also the priciest accommodation at $30USD each per night. Looking back I’m not sure why we chose it.

As mentioned there is a huge Canadian ex-pat community in Granada. It seems that half the Canadians who live here have set up cafes and restaurants which means there are some awesome places to eat — they’re not Nicaraguan cuisine by any stretch of the imagination though.

The best place for lunch is Restaurante el Garage (closed weekends). The pulled pork sandwich, tandori wrap and the chicken burrito bowl are all excellent. Bocadillos is also a great tapas bar for a light dinner.

We did two tours in Granada with Tierra Tours which were both great. The first was up Mombacho volcano which has a cloud forest at the top ($30USD) and the second was a night tour of Masaya where you can look into the crater of an active volcano and explore the lava tubes where there are thousands of little bats flying around ($35USD). Along with the bats we saw a tarantula and a snake strangling a rat; it was quite an intrepid little excursion.

Near the center of town there is a hotel, known as Mombacho Beach Club, where you can pay $5USD to use their pool for the day. The pool tiles are in need of repair but it’s clean and such a good way to cool off. They also have spa treatments so I had a 60 minute full body massage for $15USD.

Nicaragua Chicken Bus

Laguna De Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo is the cleanest lake in Central America and was easily one of our favourite places we visited. There is a shuttle that runs daily for $6USD per person which can be arranged through most centrally located hostels. Alternatively it’ll cost $25USD for a private taxi.

We stayed at Hostel Paradiso which was perfect. Our private room cost $15USD each per night. The hostel is located right on the lake front and has free kayaks, a huge pontoon, rubber tubes and wind surfing lessons. They also have an onsite restaurant with reasonably priced food. We stayed here for 3 nights which, considering there’s nothing to do here but relax and read, was a good amount of time.

Ometepe

To get to Ometepe from Laguna de Apoyo we caught a taxi to the port for $20USD and then a ferry for $3USD. The taxi takes an hour and it’s about the same time on the ferry too.

Ometepe Island is made up of two huge volcanoes, Concepcion (1600m) and Maderas (1300m). It’s a very cool island to just come and chill out on, but the main reason we came was to climb to the summit of Concepcion — one of Nicaragua’s highest and most active volcanoes. I recently wrote a recap of this experience, so it would be worth reading that to get the full picture of what it’s like.

The day after climbing Concepcion we were pretty ruined. In fact, for the next 4 days we were walking around as if we were trying to hold bowling balls between our knees. A good recovery activity, and worthwhile to do anyway, is hiring scooters and cruising around the island. It costs $20USD to hire one for a full day. There’s about 60km of sealed road you can scooter on, the rest is loose gravel.

A place that’s really neat to visit is Oyo de Agua (Eye of the Water). It’s a man-made pool but the water runs through it from a natural spring. It’s $3USD per person to get in and pretty well sign posted from the main road.

The best place to get food at Moyogalpa is The Cornerhouse. It’s a little cafe on the corner of the main road and is open for breakfast and lunch. Their eggs bene are really good, plus the mango smoothie was one of the best we had on the whole trip.

We stayed at Hostel Ibesa which is a family run hostel with two locations in the town. Our host spoke no English and the rooms were probably the most basic we stayed in. However, it was $7USD each per night for a private room and free purified water so was a steal.

Top of the summit

San Juan del Sur

There are two main reasons people visit San Juan: surfing and Sunday Funday. Considering we didn’t do either, it was probably the one place in Nicaragua we could’ve missed. If we had our time over we might have rejigged our dates a little and flown over to the Corn Islands instead which are apparently beautiful. It was still a nice town to spend a couple of nights chilling out at though.

After ferrying back from Ometepe we caught a taxi here for $25USD. The drive is about 40 minutes. We stayed at Hostel Elizabeth which is well located and really cheap. Our private room was $15USD per night and it was the only place in the whole of Nicaragua which had a cool breeze at night and meant we didn’t need a fan. The hostel rooms are located above Elizabeth’s family home and restaurant. We thought it was a bit odd when we walked in for the first time and there were kids running around everywhere but by this stage we were used to pretty strange accommodation set ups.

There are lots of beaches you can do day trips to from San Juan either by boat or shuttle, but the beach at San Juan is good for swimming too if you want to stay put.

A nice walk is up to the Christ of Mercy Statue which overlooks the bay. At 25m high it’s the tallest statue of Jesus in Central America. It’s a steep climb up the hill but you get a great view. There’s usually a man charging $1USD to see it when you get to the top.

There’s a ton of good food in San Juan, Cha Cha Cha was our favourite restaurant because of their green chili pork burrito. Republica also does great tacos and Cafe Mediterraneo is where you should go for salads and paninis. Curry House does a good curry (the dahl is epic) although it’s a one man band so you can often wait a little while for your food. If you’re after some traditional Nicaraguan food head to Cafe Juanita.

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