Nicaragua is a rising travel star in Central America with beaches, volcanoes (some very active), a growing number of luxury and boutique hotels, rum, cigars, and even a volcanic island. Bonus: prices are very affordable, even by Central American standards. We spent nearly six months exploring Nicaragua and drove 3,723 miles (5,991 km) from tip to tail,ultimately producing nearly 40 posts about travel in Nicaragua. Start your own Nicaragua trip planning with the travel advice and hand-picked destination highlights in our Nicaragua Travel Guide.
On Your Nicaragua Itinerary
You’ll fly into and out of Managua, but get out of Nicaragua’s dirty, chaotic capital quickly as you can and head to these top destinations instead.
The city of Leon is not particularly pretty. It’s not filled with things to do. And the food isn’t terrific. However, there’s something about crumbling, steamy León that we loved.
Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and home to Nicaragua’s best examples of grassroots ecotourism along with surprisingly good food, increasingly stylish and comfortable hotels, an airport, and not one but two volcanoes.
Granada is, by far, the most beautiful city in Nicaragua with the bulk of the country’s remaining colonial architecture and a sun-drenched, slow-paced vibe.
If you ask us, it’s no contest: Little Corn Island is much better that neighboring Big Corn Island which you have to pass through on your way to the easy going people, great good, and range of good hotels (from budget to splurge) on laid-back Little Corn.
Luxury Travel in Nicaragua
Luxury travel is slowly growing in Nicaragua with incredible (and incredible value) boutique hotels and some spendy resorts in Granada, San Juan del Sur, and in Lake Nicaragua.
New luxury hotels and resorts are opening in Nicaragua every year. The most luxurious place we stayed in Nicaragua was Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Lake Nicaragua near Granada. Get the details in our full review of Jicaro Island Ecolodge.
Adventure Travel in Nicaragua
Confession: we did not go sand boarding down the Cerro Negro Volcano, which is probably the most famous adventure travel activity in Nicaragua. But with 78 national parks and protected areas, and three UNESCO Biosphere Reserves there are other ways to get out into nature that don’t involve sand in your pants.
Masaya Volcano National Park was Nicaragua’s first national park and it exists around Masaya Volcano near Granada. Trails talk you right up to the edge of this very active volcano which Spanish conquistadors dubbed “The Gate to Hell”. Go on, get closer…
Apoyo Lagoon Nature Reserve, less than half an hour from Granada, is a beautiful lake that was formed when a crater flooded. Nearby Machombo Volcano Nature Reserve has hiking trails around the volcanic cone and the surrounding area.
A relatively new road makes getting to the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve area including river adventures, the towns of El Castillo and San Carlos, the El Castillo and a visit to the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.
San Juan del Sur is famous for its beaches, but if you want to get away from the crowds, head north to Mechapa and the beaches of the Northern Pacific Coast where we found small villages, good pizza, and low key beach hotels.
Eating & Drinking in Nicaragua
We would never tell you to travel to Nicaragua for the food. However, there are some standout signature dishes and don’t miss their Flor de Caña rum.
Vigaron is made with succulent pork cubes and chicharon (fried pork skin with some meat attached) served over cooked yucca slathered with a vinegary cabbage salad. Fritanga is another ubiquitous dish usually served by street vendors. It includes a grilled meat, gallo pinto (spiced beans and rice), and a small salad. The best fritanga we had was in the town of Masaya.
The hill towns in Nicaragua are blessed with cooler temperatures and some great coffee and you can enjoy both in Matagalpa.
Cultural Travel in Nicaragua
Nicaragua has two UNESCO World Heritage sites (we visited both) and it’s possible to get brief glimpses of other cultural and historical aspects of Nicaragua, but don’t expect to encounter a thriving cultural or traditional scene in the country.
Old León, about 20 miles (32 km) from modern Leon, was the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Nicaragua. Founded by the Spanish in 1524, it was abandoned by the early 1600s thanks to earthquakes. The atmospheric ruins of León Viejo remain.
The León Cathedral is the second UNESCO World Heritage site in Nicaragua and is a hallmark of central León with its mix of Neoclassical, Baroque, and Gothic architectural styles.
The remarkable thing about the Chaguitillo Petroglyphs is that they’re still in situ, just sitting in a creek bed. A few of the carved stones have been placed in a museum in town, but it’s more fun to walk along the creek spotting carved stones (and playing children and women doing laundry) as you go.
A more modern cultural touchstone in Nicaragua is a devotion to US baseball. More than 20 Nicaraguans have played in the major leagues in the US and the sport of baseball is extremely popular domestically. If you have the chance to see a baseball game in Nicaragua, do it.
Nicaragua grows a lot of tobacco and makes a lot of cigars, mostly around the town of Esteli. A few cigar factories offer guided tours, including the chance to tour hip and sophisticated Drew Estate Cigars.