Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, this Central American nation is gaining increasing popularity as a travel destination probably due to its dramatically beautiful scenery. It’s sometimes known as ‘Land of Lakes and Volcanoes’ and in the past few years, it’s also been hailed as the ‘new Costa Rica.’
The Nicas are lucky enough to boast a country with raw character and a good variety of things to do, from conquering volcanoes to soaking up the tranquility of its rivers and white sandy beaches. Though Nicaragua is the biggest country in Central America, the majority of its attractions are located on the west coast and are often just a few hours bus ride from each other (which handily makes travelling there relatively easy). If you do visit, I recommend you don’t leave without experiencing at least a few of these things.
Climb a volcano
Nicaragua is home to 10 active volcanoes with 4 of them having significant activity within the last 20 years. Hike from the nearby parking lot or scale over a vertical kilometre. Each volcano is a little bit different than the others providing would be hikers with a plethora of choices to suit every skill level. Take a trip to Telica to see active lava, scale Momotobo to walk on another planet (my favourite one day trip), see the 2km wide cone of Cosiguina (my favourite 3 day trip), or test your tenacity while scaling the pitch black slopes of San Cristobal, the countries tallest and hardest. While you’re up there, don’t forget to take in the view as many of these behemoths offer up a 360⁰. Many of the countries volcano tours can be arranged in the city of Leon (I recommend the non-profit Quetzaltrekkers) and some from Granada.
Enjoy the tranquility of Rio San Juan
Currently visited by far fewer foreigners than the west coast, this river snakes its way from lake Nicaragua all the way to the east coast. A trip on the slow passenger boats down the river to your destination is a great way to take in the villages and get a taste for the wildlife. Be sure to take a night tour if you really want to see the animals that make the river home.
You can find yourself wandering the town of Castillo, and old Spanish fort, or stop short at Grand River Lodge, my favourite spot. Part resort, part farm, and part garden, this lodge is run by a wonderful family who offer horseback riding as well as organic chocolate tours, all at very reasonable prices.
Visit beautiful beaches
Big and Little Corn Island, as well as a variety of smaller lesser-known islands are some of the few cited reasons to head to the east coast of Nicaragua. Bussing to the coast or boating down the Rio San Juan are certainly options to reach these islands, however, I’ve heard from many to just save your time (and money) and fly.
The islands are homes to some fantastic white beaches, snorkelling, and diving. The majority of transport on Little Corn is still done by bicycle and as such, is much more tranquil if that’s the kind of atmosphere you’re looking for.
Go volcano boarding
This is definitely one of the best things to do in Nicaragua! Not satisfied with simply hiking back down a volcano, then grab a board and go screaming down the side of Cerro Negro at speeds up to 90km/hr. This isn’t the place to try your hand at using a snowboard. Even an Olympic snowboarder wasn’t able to make it work, but rather grab one of the rickety toboggan like slabs of plywood and have a seat. You’ll be glad you did. Just remember, the hike on the “Black Hill” is a hot one as you’ll get warmed from both the radiating hill itself and the sun beating down on you, so bring lots of water and take it slow.
I recommend going with a company that goes down the hill twice, most people are faster and can control the board better after their first run. You could also do as the guides do and run/jump down the slope, it’s like defying gravity.
Wander through coffee farms
A few hours inland from the northern Pacific coast, the landscape rises up into the hills and mountains of Nicaragua. It’s here where you’ll find the town of Matagalpa and the land positively covered in coffee farms. Pay a visit to the free Museo de Café to learn about the history, struggles of the region, and how coffee is processed. For a treat afterwards, head to Café Selección Nicaragüense, one of the nicest little cafes I’ve encountered in Central America.
Tours can be arranged in Matagalpa or a 3 day tour can be arranged with Quetzaltrekkers which also includes a chocolate tour and sleeping in a cave behind a waterfall.
While there are dozens of beaches up and down the west coast, the most consistent and year-round waves can be found in the state of Rivas in the southwest. Rivas is also home to Nicaragua’s surf town mecca of San Juan Del Sur, though you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve left Nicaragua upon arrival in San Juan. Get a taxi up to the Christ of the Mercy statue overlooking this little party town for a view of its beautiful protected cove. If you find yourself in town on Sunday, don’t forget to hit up the infamous Sunday Funday pool and party crawl.
Explore the historic towns
Though Granada is most well-known for its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, Leon, a few hours north is no slouch either. In Granada you’d find that an influx of foreign money has done wonders for restoring the town’s center and main street making it vibrant and colourful. While Leon is seeing some restoration as tourism increases, the city is much more raw. Both have a variety of fantastic restaurants for any budget, though my favourite were always those that the locals loved as well.
Visit a cigar factory
After fleeing from the Cuban revolution in 1959, many of the refugees found homes in Estili, an excellent region for growing Tobacco. It’s now estimated that around 20,000 people (10 % of the population) work directly in the cigar industry in the city and a further 30,000 as part of the network of farms that supply the factories. Any hostel or hotel in Estili can set you up with a tour of a factory where you’ll be walked through the fermenting, drying, and hand-rolling processes, all the while with one of their fine cigars in hand.
While in Estili be sure to head a little further northwest to Somoto Canyon. It’s no grand canyon, in fact, it pretty small, but in the dry season it can be a lot of fun swimming and jumping into the deep pools. A number of operators in Leon (Quetzaltrekkers) and Estili will run tours up to the canyon and hook up with one of the local operators there or you can take the do it yourself approach and find one there yourself (there are signs in the bus station). The guides will take you for a walk and swim between the canyons high walls and let you know the places where it’s safe to jump, some as high as 10 meters!
Make your own chocolate
Though much of the chocolate in Nicaragua is grown for export there are still a variety of places when you can go and see the chocolate-making process. The beautiful historic town of Granada has a chocolate museum where you’ll participate first hand in making fine chocolates and truffles. If you’re just looking to watch the process and take some home for yourself, the town of Matagalpa is home to El Castillo del Cacao, an organic and very small chocolate factory.
Not satisfied with just seeing the end product? Hotel Grand River Lodge on the Rio San Juan will take you on a tour of their organic chocolate farm and let you taste the sweet flesh of the fruit before you head back to the rancho to make your very own chocolates from scratch.