Nicaragua doesn’t often make it on to people’s backpacking lists as it is oftened pushed to way side in favour of Costa Rica, the world’s eco-tourism capital. This is a blessing in disguise for those looking to venture there. Due to the comparatively low number of tourists that flock to Nicaragua, the prices there have remained deliciously cheap and what you would spend in a week in Costa Rica would probably last you about 3 weeks in Nicaragua! Ok, so it doesn’t have quite the same appeal because there aren’t as many rainforests and ziplines, but Nicaragua is rich with colonial towns, gorgeous coastlines and exciting islands that all deserve your love and attention. So for those of you who want a Central American adventure but don’t want the price tag that comes with Costa Rica, here is the best of Nicaragua summed up for your convenience.
Old colonial town number one and the most popular destination for those entering Nicaragua from Honduras, Leon is a stunning and vibrant city full of colour and entertainment. The main square boasts the largest cathedral in Central America and has a huge rooftop area that visitors can explore to scope out some pretty outstanding views of the city. Expect markets and street food as well as more upmarket cafés and bars. Check out El Desayunazo for a hearty breakfast or El Bodegon for some tasty Cuban food and frozen mojitos that will change your life. Nicaragua isn’t much of a culinary capital so don’t be surprised if you end up eating mainly Mexican or International food while you’re there. Leon is also the home to the world famous volcano boarding, so if you’re feeling daring why not throw yourself down the side of a volcano on a toboggan for fun?
Stay: Bigfoot Hostel, home of volcano boarding!
Colonial Town number 2. The vibe here is similar to Leon but there is enough difference between the two towns to make them both worth visiting. In addition to its beautiful architecture and central park, Granada acts as a great springboard for day trips to some of the surrounding areas. The labyrinthine markets of Massaya are crazy, heaving and amazing and they sell virtually everything you could ever imagine in existence. You can hop on a local chicken bus from Granada and be at the markets in an hour. Lago de Apoyo is also nearby and offers weary travellers the chance to do absolutely nothing next to a peaceful lake for a day or so. As for actual Granada itself, check out the main strip and streets leading off it for some tasty eateries and make sure you pay a trip to The Garden Cafe for fresh salads and sandwiches and Riley’s for a beer afterwards.
Stay: Oasis hostel because they have a pool and free unlimited banana pancakes for breakfast
3. Isla Ometepe
This is one of the coolest places in the whole of Central America, let alone Nicaragua. Isla Ometepe is a volcanic island consisting of two gigantic active volcanos. The main towns are Moyogalpa and Altagracia but if you venture into the more rural part of the island to Balgue, a tiny village located right on the water’s edge, you will have a much better experience. Hire a moped for the day and explore the island. Stop in at the larger towns or visit the Ojo de Agua and take a dip in the cool fresh water of the natural pool. Café Campestre and El Bamboo are a couple of top eateries in the area which serve fantastic food for virtually nothing. During the days hike up the waterfalls or volcanoes and in the evening watch the sun set from Punta Jesus Maria.
Stay: The Lazy Crab because it’s on the waterfront and has cool decor
4. Little Corn Island
So this island is pretty hard to get to but once you’re there you’ll realise how worth it it was. The island is virtually untouched (so don’t expect parties and wild nights) and is the perfect place to unwind and feel the sand between your toes. Swim, snorkel and wander during the days and settle down to a game of cards with your hostel room mates in the evening. Being on this island definitely transports you back a few decades to a time before backpacking exploded.
Stay: Grace’s Cool Spot because beach and hammocks
5. San Juan del Sur
This place is Nicaragua’s version of Ibiza, it’s where people go to get fucked up for a couple of days. Lined with beachside clubs and bars full of tourists quaffing cut-price booze, San Juan is the perfect antidote to the tranquility of Nicaragua’s islands. This town also hosts the notorious Sunday Funday, a full day of binge drinking and debauchery with a hefty price tag that includes a wicked cool vest for you to puke all over. Sunday Funday isn’t for everyone (me) but if you’re into that sort of thing then this is really the only event of its kind in the country so make the most of it. Otherwise chill on the local beach or take a day trip to one of the further but more beautiful beaches like Playa Marsella or Playa Maderas. If you’re lucky you might even get to watch nesting season for the local sea turtles!
Stay: The Surfing Donkey because it’s not in the Sunday Funday hostel crawl