Years of shaky political situations have left Nicaragua off many travelers’ bucket lists, but as the country recovers from its long-lasting civil war, visitors from around the world are discovering a nation filled with resilient people, rich cultural history, and pristine natural beauty.
About halfway between Mexico and Colombia, Nicaragua has a storied, if less than savory, past. One of Spain’s many conquests in the region, it was paid visit in the sixteenth century by several European explorers, including Columbus and Cordoba. Like the rest of the Americas, the country and its indigenous population suffered greatly at the hands of the conquistadors, who were drawn to the country’s fertile western valley filled with volcanic lagoons and freshwater lakes.
In the nineteenth century, Nicaragua gained its independence as a republic, but this was short lived. The country has been subject to colonizing and meddling forces from Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The U.S. occupation was longer lived than that of their competitors, lasting formally from 1909 to 1933. The rest of the twentieth century was marked largely by violence and civil war, and the United States never stopped trying to pull strings.
The formidable dictatorship and dynasty of Anastasio Somoza Garcia lasted for decades, with economic support from the United States, intent on using Nicaragua’s natural resources for its own benefit with no consideration given to the country’s delicate ecosystem. In the 1970s, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a group with strong socialist and Marxist leanings, rebelled against the conservative government and incited a brutal civil war that would last nearly as long as the Somoza dynasty itself.
Despite these close ties, most Americans are only familiar with Nicaragua in terms of the Iran-Contra scandal, President Ronald Reagan’s administration’s illegal use of proceeds from Iranian arms sales to benefit an anti-Sandinista terrorist group based in Honduras. After years of economic sabotage and guerilla insurgency, the Sandinistas and the Contras finally reached a ceasefire and Nicaragua saw its first truly democratic elections in 1990.
Nicaragua’s economy has largely recovered from its not-too-distant period of political unrest, but hurricanes and earthquakes continue to plague the country.
Don’t consider a recovering economy reason to avoid a visit, though. If there’s one thing the skyrocketing star of Croatia has taught us, it’s the power of tourism to revive a nation.
When to Go
Nicaragua’s dry season lasts from November to May, and is the most popular time to visit. If you’re willing to sacrifice dry weather, take advantage of the thinner crowds and lower prices during green season between June and October.
Most flights will land at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in the capital city of Managua. If you’re flying from the United States, you’ll probably have to connect in Atlanta, Houston, Miami, or Fort Lauderdale. Nicaragua does not have its own national airline and Managua’s airport is quite small, so your choices of carrier will be somewhat limited, but American, United, and Delta Airlines all serve the country. Without more flight options, however, you’ll also have fewer budget-friendly options. If your wallet’s feeling a bit slim, when searching for flights, you should also consider arriving in the neighboring country of Costa Rica, which is a far more developed tourist destination, and renting a car or taking an overnight bus to get to Managua. The combined cost may wind up being cheaper than a direct flight, and you’ll get to experience more of the country by traveling the way the locals do.
No visa is required for visits under 90 days, but you will have to purchase a tourist card for $10. You should also keep in mind that your 90-day visa-free stay also applies to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. If you’re a long-term traveler heading south through Central America, keep a close watch on your trip duration. You may need to cross the border into Costa Rica for a few days to renew your visa, or purchase an extension.
U.S. dollars are often accepted as currency, but you should have small bills on hand, and it doesn’t hurt to have a mixture of Nicaraguan Cordoba and U.S. dollars before you enter the country.
If you’re visiting multiple spots in Nicaragua, you’ll find plenty of inexpensive bus services, particularly in the western part of the country, where most of its larger cities are located. Within cities, particularly Managua, you should be prepared to shell out for a taxi or brave the crowded and pickpocket-inhabited city bus system. Sharing taxis is not uncommon, so have extra cash to offer the driver if you’d like the backseat to yourself, and if you find a driver you like, get their phone number.
Things to Do in Managua
You’ll find plenty of sightseeing tours in Nicaragua’s capital, but if you choose to go the self-guided route, plan your day carefully around the city bus schedule (see above). Between the heat and the city’s sprawling design, Managua is not particularly pedestrian-friendly.
Admire the ruins of the Antigua Catedral de Managua. This art deco house of worship was designed in and shipped from Belgium, and has since seen everything from devastating earthquakes to disastrous revolution. In fact, the building is so damaged, visitors aren’t allowed inside. But that doesn’t keep tourists from happily snapping photos of its still-impressive façade.
Much of Managua, like its cathedral, is still in shambles from the contra-government conflicts that lasted until 1990, but discovering its hidden charms is part of the fun. The Teatro Nacional Ruben Dario is just one such diamond in the rough. Make time for a concert or a dance performance in traditional costume. There is also a well-received art collection onsite.
Where to Stay
If you’re not a fan of surprises when it comes to where you’re sleeping, you’ll be pleased to find plenty of Western chain hotels in Managua, from the Hilton to the Holiday Inn. For more unique accommodations, book a room at the aptly named Hotel La Pyramide.
Where to Eat
No matter where you eat in Nicaragua, avoid tap water by ordering drinks without ice. (You should also pick up bottled water for brushing your teeth at the end of the day.)
The country isn’t renowned for its cuisine, but if you’d still like a traditional meal, stick to the staples: rice, beans, and plantains. You’ll find plenty of more cosmopolitan options in Managua. The Italian joint Portofino gets stellar reviews for its tasty dishes, good service, and incredible terrace atmosphere, while you can see the remnants of Nicaragua’s colonial days at Meson Real, which serves up Spanish seafood and tapas.
For a safer place to grab some grub, visit Puerto Salvador Allende on the shores of Lake Managua. Prices are a bit steeper, but the variety of restaurants to choose from is also wider, and the area is well patrolled.
Things to Do in Granada
Where Managua is rough around the edges, Granada has maintained its colonial polish. Catch a stunning view over the town’s elegant architecture from the Iglesia de la Merced. Entry to its bell tower is only $1.
Want a more active means to finding that perfect panorama? The nearby Mombacho Volcano holds the answer. Plan a day hike on your own, or join a tour operator for longer guided hike through this breathtaking nature reserve. You’ll find ample wildlife within the cloud forest and you can even get up close and personal on a zip line canopy tour. Most of the guides serving this area are English-speaking and highly knowledgeable.
For a sweet treat, tour the ChocoMuseo. Chocolate originated in Central America and was only introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, so it figures that the best bonbons can be found in the cacao bean’s homeland. Watch the chocolate making process from start to finish, enjoy a tasting, and purchase a few souvenirs to take home. You can also watch coffee’s journey from bean to cup. While your favorite morning drink was first brewed in Ethiopia, South and Central America are home to several major coffee plantations.
Where to Stay
Granada’s accommodations are largely just as charming as the rest of town. The Hotel Plaza Colon is both beautiful and centrally located with cozy rooms. The Hotel Colonial is perhaps even more picturesque with welcoming staff and oodles of ambience. Want even more lavish digs? The Hotel Dario’s stunning courtyard is more than you would ever expect from a mid-range hotel.
Where to Eat
Vegetarians won’t have any trouble finding a high quality meal in Granada. El Garaje receives consistently spectacular reviews for its delicious and healthy home-cooked plates. El Kapuyo also boasts a strong selection of vegetarian dishes. Carnivores can sink their teeth into mouthwatering fusion tapas at Bocadillos.
Things to Do in Léon
If you only have one week, you may want to stick to Managua and Granada, but travelers with more time to spend in the country would be remiss to skip Nicaragua’s northern towns.
The sunny yellow Iglesia de la Recoleccion has captured many a heart with its Mexican-style baroque architecture and lavish décor. Continue checking off your church bucket list by heading a few blocks south to the Basilica de la Asuncion. This expansive cathedral, originally built in 1610 and reconstructed several times since, is the largest in Central America, and is home to the tombs of famous Nicaraguan poets, including Ruben Dario, the namesake of Managua’s popular theater. Head up to the roof for views of the surrounding volcanic landscape.
Later, get up close and personal with those sleeping giants you admired from afar. The Cerro Negro Volcano is one of the most popular destinations in the region. The climb isn’t for the faint hearted, but you’ll be rewarded with incredible views and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of sandboarding down a volcano! Serious injuries are highly unlikely, but you should still have a first aid kit on hand and clean any scrapes thoroughly as infection is a high risk in Nicaragua.
For a unique cap to your trip, join a cooking class and learn how to make authentic corn tortillas on a wood stove. Add eggs, plantains, cheese, or gallo pinto to complete a traditional Nicaraguan breakfast.
Where to Stay
You’ll feel completely at home at Hotel Real, a reasonably priced and centrally located hotel surrounded by the best of Leon’s natural beauty. Neat freaks will have no complaints at the Hotel Azul – this popular basecamp’s cleanliness is often said to compensate for its smaller room size. Chain lovers will be happy to find a Best Western in town.
Where to Eat
With its close proximity to the sea, it’s no wonder Caribbean culture has made its mark on Nicaragua. Tuck into serious Caribbean and Cuban cuisine at El Bodegon. The menu is refreshingly simple and the intimate dining room is overflowing with atmosphere. You’ve already found that Spanish-style tapas bars are anything but scarce in the country, so keep the small plates rolling at Alioli. For a sweet, unexpectedly European, treat, stop by Pan & Paz, a classy French bakery filled with tasty pastries.
Packing List for One Week
- Toiletry bag
- Contacts, case, and saline solution (if needed)
- Glasses and case (if needed)
- Razor and shaving gel
- Toothbrush with case or cover
- Dental floss
- Hairbrush or comb
- Hair clip or ties (if needed)
- Nail clippers
- Feminine hygiene product (if needed)
- Makeup (if needed)
- First aid kit
- Prescription medication (if needed)
- 3-4 t-shirts
- 3-4 long sleeve shirts
- 3-4 pairs shorts
- 2-3 pairs pants
- 1 thin sweater or cardigan
- 7 sets of underwear
- 1 set of pajamas
- 1 swim suit
- 1 pair of hiking shoes
- 1 pair of other comfortable shoes
- 2 pairs of hiking socks
- 2 pairs of normal socks
- 1 hat
- Other Essentials
- Camera and case
- Extra batteries
- Water bottle
- Cordoba or U.S. dollars
- Printed reservation information
- Cell phone
- Cell phone charger
- Eye mask and ear plugs
- RFID blocker wallet
- Decoy wallet with expired credit cards
- Hand sanitizer